Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics
have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6
(Provided that I deem them suitably fabulous, your name and message will be considered eligible for publication unless you specify otherwise.)
Review Copies Welcome
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An anthology of comics written by Sean T. Collins
Art by Matt Wiegle, Matt Rota, and Josiah Leighton
Designed by Matt Wiegle
An indie fantasy anthology
Featuring a comic by Sean T. Collins & Matt Wiegle
The Sean Collins Media Empire
Destructor Comes to Croc Town
story: Sean T. Collins
art: Matt Wiegle
1995 (NSFW)script: Sean T. Collins
art: Raymond Suzuhara
Pornographyscript: Sean T. Collins
art: Matt Wiegle
It Brought Me Some Peace of Mindscript: Sean T. Collins
art: Matt Rota
edit: Brett Warnock
A Real Gentle Knifescript: Sean T. Collins
art: Josiah Leighton
lyrics: "Rippin Kittin" by Golden Boy & Miss Kittin
The Real Killers Are Still Out Therescript: Sean T. Collins
art: Matt Wiegle
Destructor in: Prison Breakstory: Sean T. Collins
art: Matt Wiegle
Cage Variations: Kitchen Sink
script: Sean T. Collins
art: Matt Rota
Cage Variations: 1998 High Street
script: Sean T. Collins
art: Matt Rota
Cage Variations: We Had No Idea
script: Sean T. Collins
art: Matt Rota
The Side Effects of the Cocaine
script: Sean T. Collins
art: Isaac Moylan
Cage Variations: No
script: Sean T. Collins
art: Matt Rota
The Amazing! Incredible! Uncanny Oral History of Marvel Comics
The Outbreak: An Autobiographical Horror Blog
Where the Monsters Go: A 31-Day Horrorblogging Marathon, October 2003
Blog of Blood: A Marathon Examination of Clive Barker's Books of Blood, October
The Blogslinger: Blogging Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, October-November 2007
The Things That Should Not Be: The Monumental Horror-Image and Its Relation to the Contemporary Horror Film (introduction)PDF
My 35 Favorite Horror Films of All Time (at the moment)
My David Bowie Sketchbook
The Manly Movie Mamajama
Horror and Certainty I
Horror and Certainty II
En Garde--I'll Let You Try My New Dumb Avant Garde Style, Part I
Evil for Thee, Not Me
The 7 Best Horror Movies of the Past 7 Years (give or take a few films)
Keep Horror NSFW, Part I
Meet the New Boss: The Politics of Killing, Part I
130 Things I Loved About The Sopranos
In Defense of "Torture Porn," Part I
At a Loss: Lost fandom and its discontents
I Got Dem Ol' Konfuzin' Event-Komik Blues Again, Mama
Losing My Edge (DFADDTF Comix Remix)
GusGus, the Universe, and Everything
"I'd Rather Die Than Give You Control" (or Adolf Hitler, Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth, and Trent Reznor walk into a blog)
The 11 Most Awful Songs from Geek Movie Soundtracks
The 11 Most Awesome Songs from Geek Movie Soundtracks
11 More Awesome Songs from Geek Movie Soundtracks
The 15 Greatest Science Fiction-Based Pop/Rock/Hip-Hop Songs
My Loch Ness Adventure
The Best Comics of 2003
The Best Albums of 2003
The Best Albums of 2004
The Best Comics of 2005
The Best Comics of 2006
The Best Comics, Films, Albums, Songs, and Television Programs of 2007
The Best Comics of 2008
The Best Comics of 2009
The Best Songs of 2009
80 Great Tracks from the 1990s
Interviews with Sean
Interviews by Sean
Avatar (Cameron, 2009)
Barton Fink (Coen, 1991)
Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005)
Battlestar Galactica: Razor (Alcala/Rose, 2007)
Battlestar Galactica: "Revelations" (Rymer, 2008)
Battlestar Galactica Season 4.5 (Moore et al, 2009)
Battlestar Galactica: The Plan (Olmos, 2009)
Beowulf (Zemeckis, 2007)
The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963)
The Blair Witch Project (Myrick & Sanchez, 1999)
The Bourne Identity (Liman, 2002)
The Bourne Supremacy (Greengrass, 2004)
The Bourne Ultimatum (Greengrass, 2007)
Casino Royale (Campbell, 2006)
Caprica: "Pilot" (Reiner, 2009)
Caprica S1 E1-6 (Moore et al, 2010)
Children of Men (Cuaron, 2006)
Cigarette Burns (Carpenter, 2005)
Clash of the Titans (Leterrier, 2010)
Cloverfield (Reeves, 2008), Part I
Crank: High Voltage (Neveldine/Taylor, 2009)
Daredevil (Johnson, 2003)
The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008)
Dawn of the Dead (Snyder, 2004)
Della'morte, Dell'amore [Cemetery Man] (Soavi, 1994)
The Diary of a Teenage Girl: The Play (Eckerling & Sunde, 2010)
District 9 (Blomkamp, 2009)
Doomsday (Marshall, 2008)
Dragon Wars [D-War] (Shim, 2007)
Eastern Promises (Cronenberg, 2007)
The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973)
The Expendables (Stallone, 2010)
Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, 1999)
Eyes Wide Shut revisited, Part I
Garden State (Braff, 2004)
Gossip Girl Seasons 1-2 (Savage, Schwartz et al, 2007-08)
Gossip Girl Season Three (Savage, Schwartz et al, 2009-2010)
Grindhouse [Planet Terror/Death Proof] (Rodriguez & Tarantino, 2007)
Heavenly Creatures (Jackson, 1994)
Hellboy (Del Toro, 2004)
Hellraiser (Barker, 1987)
A History of Violence (Cronenberg, 2005), Part I
The Host (Bong, 2006)
Hostel (Roth, 2005)
Hostel: Part II (Roth, 2007)
Hulk (Lee, 2003)
The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, 2009)
I Am Legend (Lawrence, 2007)
The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008)
Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino, 2009)
Inside (Maury & Bustillo, 2007)
Iron Man (Favreau, 2008)
Iron Man II (Favreau, 2010)
It (Wallace, 1990)
Jeepers Creepers (Salva, 2001)
King Kong (Jackson, 2005), Part I
Land of the Dead (Romero, 2005)
Let the Right One In (Alfredson, 2008)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Jackson, 2003)
Lost: the first five episodes (Abrams, Lindelof et al, 2004)
Lost Season Five (Lindelof, Cuse, Bender et al, 2009)
Lost Season Six (Lindelof, Cuse, Bender et al, 2010)
Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997)
The Lovely Bones (Jackson, 2009)
Match Point (Allen, 2006)
The Matrix Revolutions (Wachowski, 2003)
Metropolis (Lang, 1927)
The Mist (Darabont, 2007), Part I
Moon (Jones, 2009)
Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001)
My Bloody Valentine 3D (Lussier, 2009)
The Mystic Hands of Doctor Strange #1 (various, 2010)
Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968)
Pan's Labyrinth (Del Toro, 2006)
Paperhouse (Rose, 1988)
Paranormal Activity (Peli, 2009)
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (Verbinski, 2007) Part I
Poltergeist (Hooper/Spielberg, 1982)
Quantum of Solace (Forster, 2008)
Rambo (Stallone, 2008)
[REC] (Balaguero & Plaza, 2007)
The Ring (Verbinski, 2002)
The Road (Hillcoat, 2009)
The Ruins (Smith, 2008)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Wright, 2010)
Secretary (Shainberg, 2002)
A Serious Man (Coen, 2009)
The Shining (Kubrick, 1980)
Shoot 'Em Up (Davis, 2007)
Shutter Island (Scorses, 2010)
The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991)
The Sopranos (Chase et al, 1999-2007)
Speed Racer (Wachowski, 2008)
The Stand (Garris, 1994), Part I
The Terminator (Cameron, 1984)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1991)
Terminator Salvation (McG, 2009)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper, 1974)
There Will Be Blood (Anderson, 2007)
The Thing (Carpenter, 1983)
300 (Snyder, 2007)
"Thriller" (Jackson & Landis, 1984)
28 Days Later (Boyle, 2002)
28 Weeks Later (Fresnadillo, 2007)Part I
Twilight (Hardwicke, 2008)
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Slade, 2010)
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Weitz, 2009)
Up in the Air (J. Reitman, 2009)
War of the Worlds (Spielberg, 2005)
Watchmen (Snyder, 2009) Part I
The Wicker Man (Hardy, 1973)
The Wire (Simon et al, 2002-2008)
Zombi 2 [Zombie] (Fulci, 1980)
Zombieland (Fleischer, 2009)
Books of Blood (Barker, 1984-85)
A Clash of Kings (Martin, 1999)
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Howard, 2003)
The Dark Tower series (King, 1982-2004)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Rowling, 2003)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Rowling, 2005)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Rowling, 2007)
Hitler: A Biography (Kershaw, 2008)
It (King, 1986)
Mister B. Gone (Barker, 2007)
The Monster Show (Skal, 2001)
Portable Grindhouse (Boyreau, 2009)
The Ruins (Smith, 2006)
'Salem's Lot (King, 1975)
The Stand (King, 1990), Part I
The Terror (Simmons, 2007)
Abe Sapien: The Drowning (Mignola & Alexander, 2008)
Abstract Comics (various, 2009)
The ACME Novelty Library #18 (Ware, 2007)
The ACME Novelty Library #19 (Ware, 2008)
Across the Universe: The DC Universe Stories of Alan Moore (Moore et al, 2003)
Action Comics #870 (Johns & Frank, 2008)
The Adventures of Tintin: The Seven Crystal Balls (Herge, 1975)
Afrodisiac (Rugg & Maruca, 2010)
Against Pain (Rege Jr., 2008)
Agents of Atlas #10 (Parker, Hardman, Rivoche, 2009)
The Airy Tales (Volozova, 2008)
Al Burian Goes to Hell (Burian, 1993)
Alan's War (Guibert, 2008)
Alex Robinson's Lower Regions (Robinson, 2007)
Aline and the Others (Delisle, 2006)
All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder Vol. 1 (Miller & Lee, 2009)
All-Star Superman (Morrison & Quitely, 2008-2010)
American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar (Pekar et al, 2003)
An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories (Brunetti et al, 2006)
An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories Vol. 2 (Brunetti et al, 2008)
Aqua Leung Vol. 1 (Smith & Maybury, 2008)
Archaeology (McShane, 2009)
The Arrival (Tan, 2006)
Artichoke Tales (Kelso, 2010)
Asterios Polyp (Mazzucchelli, 2009)
The Aviary (Tanner, 2007)
The Awake Field (Rege Jr., 2006)
Axe Cop (Nicolle & Nicolle, 2009-2010)
Bacter-Area (Keith Jones, 2005)
Bald Knob (Hankiewicz, 2007)
Batman (Simmons, 2007)
Batman #664-669, 672-675 (Morrison et al, 2007-2008)
Batman #681 (Morrison & Daniel, 2008)
Batman and the Monster Men (Wagner, 2006)
Batman and Robin #1 (Morrison & Quitely, 2009)
Batman and Robin #9 (Morrison & Stewart, 2010)
Batman: Hush (Loeb & Lee, 2002-03)
Batman: Knightfall Part One: Broken Bat (Dixon, Moench, Aparo, Balent, Breyfogle, Nolan, 1993)
Batman R.I.P. (Morrison, Daniel, Garbett, 2010)
Batman: The Story of the Dark Knight (Cosentino, 2008)
Batman Year 100 (Pope, 2007)
Battlestack Galacti-crap (Chippendale, 2005)
The Beast Mother (Davis, 2006)
The Best American Comics 2006 (A.E. Moore, Pekar et al, 2006)
The Best of the Spirit (Eisner, 2005)
Between Four Walls/The Room (Mattotti, 2003)
Big Questions #10 (Nilsen, 2007)
Big Questions #11: Sweetness and Light (Nilsen, 2008)
Big Questions #12: A Young Crow's Guide to Hunting (Nilsen, 2009)
Big Questions #13: A House That Floats (Nilsen, 2009)
Big Questions #14: Title and Deed (Nilsen, 2010)
The Black Diamond Detective Agency (E. Campbell & Mitchell, 2007)
Black Ghost Apple Factory (Tinder, 2006)
Black Hole (Burns, 2005) Giant Magazine version
Black Hole (Burns, 2005) Savage Critics version, Part I
Blackest Night #0-2 (Johns & Reis, 2009)
Blankets (Thompson, 2003)
Blar (Weing, 2005)
Bone (Smith, 2005)
Bonus ? Comics (Huizenga, 2009)
The Book of Genesis Illustrated (Crumb, 2009)
Bottomless Bellybutton (Shaw, 2008)
Boy's Club (Furie, 2006)
Boy's Club 2 (Furie, 2008)
Boy's Club 3 (Furie, 2009)
B.P.R.D. Vol. 9: 1946 (Mignola, Dysart, Azaceta, 2008)
B.P.R.D.: War on Frogs #4 (Arcudi & Snejbjerg, 2009)
Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! (Spiegelman, 2008)
Brilliantly Ham-fisted (Neely, 2008)
Burma Chronicles (Delisle, 2008)
Capacity (Ellsworth, 2008)
Captain America (Brubaker, Epting, Perkins et al, 2004-2008)
Captain America #33-34 (Brubaker & Epting, 2007-08)
Captain America: Reborn #4 (Brubaker & Hitch, 2009)
Captain Britain & MI:13 #5 (Cornell & Oliffe, 2008)
Cartoon Dialectics Vol. 1 (Kaczynski, 2007)
Chance in Hell (G. Hernandez, 2007)
Chester 5000 XYV (Fink, 2008-2009)
Chrome Fetus Comics #7 (Rickheit, 2009)
City-Hunter Magazine #1 (C.F., 2009)
Clive Barker's Seduth (Barker, Monfette, Rodriguez, Zone, 2009)
Clive Barker's The Thief of Always (Oprisko & Hernandez, 2005)
Closed Caption Comics #8 (various, 2009)
Cockbone (Simmons, 2009)
Cold Heat #1 (BJ & Santoro, 2006)
Cold Heat #2 (BJ & Santoro, 2006)
Cold Heat #4 (BJ & Santoro, 2007)
Cold Heat #5/6 (BJ & Santoro, 2009)
Cold Heat #7/8 (BJ & Santoro, 2009)
Cold Heat Special #2: The Chunky Gnars (Cornwell, 2007)
Cold Heat Special #3 (Santoro & Shaw, 2008)
Cold Heat Special #5 (Santoro & Smith, 2008)
Cold Heat Special #6 (Cornwell, 2009)
Cold Heat Special #7 (DeForge, 2009)
Cold Heat Special #8 (Santoro & Milburn, 2008)
Cold Heat Special #9 (Santoro & Milburn, 2009)
Comics Are For Idiots!: Blecky Yuckerella Vol. 3 (Ryan, 2008)
The Complete Persepolis (Satrapi, 2007)
Core of Caligula (C.F., 2008)
Crossing the Empty Quarter and Other Stories (Swain, 2009)
Cry Yourself to Sleep (Tinder, 2006)
Curio Cabinet (Brodowski, 2010)
Cyclone Bill & the Tall Tales (Dougherty, 2006)
Daredevil #103-104 (Brubaker & Lark, 2007-08)
Daredevil #110 (Brubaker, Rucka, Lark, Gaudiano, 2008)
The Dark Knight Strikes Again (Miller & Varley, 2003)
Dark Reign: The List #7--Wolverine (Aaron & Ribic, 2009)
Daybreak Episode Three (Ralph, 2008)
DC Universe #0 (Morrison, Johns et al, 2008)
The Death of Superman (Jurgens et al, 1993)
Death Note Vol. 1 (Ohba & Obata, 2005)
Death Note Vol. 2 (Ohba & Obata, 2005)
Death Trap (Milburn, 2010)
Detective Comics #854-860 (Rucka & Williams III, 2009-2010)
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Gloeckner, 2002)
Dirtbags, Mallchicks & Motorbikes (Kiersh, 2009)
Don't Go Where I Can't Follow (Nilsen & Weaver, 2006)
Doom Force #1 (Morrison et al, 1992)
Doomwar #1 (Maberry & Eaton, 2010)
Dr. Seuss Goes to War (Seuss/Minear, 2001)
Dragon Head Vols. 1-5 (Mochizuki, 2005-2007)
A Drifting Life (Tatsumi, 2009)
Driven by Lemons (Cotter, 2009)
Eightball #23 (Clowes, 2004)
Ex Machina Vols. 1-9 (Vaughan, Harris et al, 2005-2010)
Exit Wounds (Modan, 2007)
The Exterminators Vol. 1: Bug Brothers (Oliver & Moore, 2006)
Fallen Angel (Robel, 2006)
Fandancer (Grogan, 2010)
Fatal Faux-Pas (Gaskin, 2008)
FCHS (Delsante & Freire, 2010)
Feeble Minded Funnies/My Best Pet (Milburn/Freibert, 2009)
Fight or Run: Shadow of the Chopper (Huizenga, 2008)
Final Crisis #1 (Morrison & Jones, 2008)
Final Crisis #1-7 (Morrison, Jones, Pacheco, Rudy, Mahnke et al, 2008-2009)
Fires (Mattotti, 1991)
First Time (Sibylline et al, 2009)
Flash: Rebirth #4 (Johns & Van Sciver, 2009)
Follow Me (Moynihan, 2009)
Footnotes in Gaza (Sacco, 2009)
Forbidden Worlds #114: "A Little Fat Nothing Named Herbie!" (O'Shea [Hughes] & Whitney, 1963)
Forlorn Funnies #5 (Hornschemeier, 2004)
Forming (Moynihan, 2009-2010)
Fox Bunny Funny (Hartzell, 2007)
Funny Misshapen Body (Brown, 2009)
Galactikrap 2 (Chippendale, 2007)
Ganges #2 (Huizenga, 2008)
Ganges #3 (Huizenga, 2009)
Gangsta Rap Posse #1 (Marra, 2009)
The Gigantic Robot (Gauld, 2009)
Giraffes in My Hair: A Rock 'n' Roll Life (Paley & Swain, 2009)
A God Somewhere (Arcudi & Snejbjerg, 2010)
Goddess Head (Shaw, 2006)
The Goddess of War, Vol. 1 (Weinstein, 2008)
GoGo Monster (Matsumoto, 2009)
The Goon Vols. 0-2 (Powell, 2003-2004)
Green Lantern #43-51 (Johns, Mahnke, Benes, 2009-2010)
Held Sinister (Stechschulte, 2009)
Hellboy Junior (Mignola, Wray et al, 2004)
Hellboy Vol. 8: Darkness Calls (Mignola & Fegredo, 2008)
Henry & Glenn Forever (Neely et al, 2010)
High Moon Vol. 1 (Gallaher & Ellis, 2009)
Ho! (Brunetti, 2009)
How We Sleep (Davis, 2006)
I Killed Adolf Hitler (Jason, 2007)
I Live Here (Kirshner, MacKinnon, Shoebridge, Simons et al, 2008)
I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! (Hanks, Karasik, 2007)
Image United #1 (Kirkman, Liefeld et al, 2009)
The Immortal Iron Fist #12 (Brubaker, Fraction, Aja, Kano, Pulido, 2008)
The Immortal Iron Fist #21 (Swierczynski & Green, 2008)
Immortal Weapons #1 (Aaron, Swierczynski et al, 2009)
In a Land of Magic (Simmons, 2009)
In the Flesh: Stories (Shadmi, 2009)
Incanto (Santoro, 2006)
Incredible Change-Bots (Brown, 2007)
The Incredible Hercules #114-115 (Pak, Van Lente, Pham, 2008)
Inkweed (Wright, 2008)
Invincible Vols. 1-9 (Kirkman, Walker, Ottley, 2003-2008)
Invincible Iron Man #1-4 (Fraction & Larroca, 2008)
Invincible Iron Man #8 (Fraction & Larroca, 2008)
Invincible Iron Man #19 (Fraction & Larroca, 2009)
It Was the War of the Trenches (Tardi, 2010)
It's Sexy When People Know Your Name (Hannawalt, 2007)
Jessica Farm Vol. 1 (Simmons, 2008)
Jin & Jam #1 (Jo, 2009)
JLA Classified: Ultramarine Corps (Morrison & McGuinness, 2002)
Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer (Katchor, 1996)
Jumbly Junkery #8-9 (Nichols, 2009-2010)
Just a Man #1 (Mitchell & White, 2009)
Justice League: The New Frontier Special (Cooke, Bone, Bullock, 2008)
Keeping Two (Crane, 2001-)
Kick-Ass #1-4 (Millar & Romita Jr., 2008)
Kid Eternity (Morrison & Fegredo, 1991)
Kill Your Boyfriend (Morrison & Bond, 1995)
King-Cat Comics and Stories #69 (Porcellino, 2008)
Kramers Ergot 4 (Harkham et al, 2003)
Kramers Ergot 5 (Harkham et al, 2004)
Kramers Ergot 6 (Harkham et al, 2006)
Kramers Ergot 7 (Harkham et al, 2008)
The Lagoon (Carre, 2008)
The Last Call Vol. 1 (Lolos, 2007)
The Last Lonely Saturday (Crane, 2000)
The Last Musketeer (Jason, 2008)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier (Moore & O'Neill, 2007)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 3: Century #1: 1910 (Moore & O'Neill, 2009)
Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga (Levitz, Giffen, Mahlstedt, Bruning, 1991)
Little Things (Brown, 2008)
Look Out!! Monsters #1 (Grogan, 2008)
Lose #1-2 (DeForge, 2009-2010)
Lost Kisses #9 & 10 (Mitchell, 2009)
Love and Rockets: New Stories #1 (Los Bros Hernandez, 2008)
Low Moon (Jason, 2009)
The Mage's Tower (Milburn, 2008)
Maggots (Chippendale, 2007)
The Man with the Getaway Face (Cooke, 2010)
Mattie & Dodi (Davis, 2006)
McSweeney's Quarterly Concern #13 (Ware et al, 2004)
Mercury (Larson, 2010)
Mesmo Delivery (Grampa, 2008)
Micrographica (French, 2007)
Mister Wonderful (Clowes, 2007-2008)
Mome Vol. 4: Spring/Summer 2006 (various, 2006)
Mome Vol. 9: Fall 2007 (various, 2007)
Mome Vol. 10: Winter/Spring 2008 (various, 2008)
Mome Vol. 11: Summer 2008 (various, 2008)
Mome Vol. 12: Fall 2008 (various, 2008)
Mome Vol. 13: Winter 2009 (various, 2008)
Mome Vol. 14: Spring 2009 (various, 2009)
Mome Vol. 15: Summer 2009 (various, 2009)
Mome Vol. 16: Fall 2009 (various, 2009)
Mome Vol. 17: Winter 2010 (various, 2009)
Mome Vol. 18: Spring 2010 (various, 2010)
Mome Vol. 19: Summer 2010 (various, 2010)
Monkey & Spoon (Lia, 2004)
Monster Men Bureiko Lullaby (Nemoto, 2008)
Monsters (Dahl, 2009)
Monsters & Condiments (Wiegle, 2009)
Monstrosity Mini (Diaz, 2010)
Mother, Come Home (Hornschemeier, 2003)
The Mourning Star Vols. 1 & 2 (Strzepek, 2006 & 2009)
Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 (Petersen, 2008)
Mr. Cellar's Attic (Freibert, 2010)
Multiforce (Brinkman, 2009)
Multiple Warheads #1 (Graham, 2007)
My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Heatley, 2008)
The Mystery of Woolverine Woo-Bait (Coleman, 2004)
Naoki Urasawa's Monster Vols. 1-3 (Urasawa, 2006)
Naoki Urasawa's Monster Vols. 4-5 (Urasawa, 2006)
Naoki Urasawa's Monster Vols. 6-18 (Urasawa, 2006-2008)
Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys Vols. 1-3 (Urasawa, 2009)
Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys Vols. 4 & 5 (Urasawa, 2009)
Neely Covers Comics to Give You the Creeps! (Neely, 2010)
Neighbourhood Sacrifice (Davidson, DeForge, Gill, 2009)
Never Ending Summer (Cole, 2004)
Never Learn Anything from History (Beaton, 2009)
Neverland (Kiersh, 2008)
New Avengers #44 (Bendis & Tan, 2008)
New Construction #2 (Huizenga, May, Zettwoch, 2008)
New Engineering (Yokoyama, 2007)
New Painting and Drawing (Jones, 2008)
New X-Men Vol. 6: Planet X (Morrison & Jimenez, 2004)
New X-Men Vol. 7: Here Comes Tomorrow (Morrison & Silvestri, 2004)
Nicolas (Girard, 2008)
Night Business #1 & 2 (Marra, 2008 & 2009)
Night Business #3 (Marra, 2010)
Nil: A Land Beyond Belief (Turner, 2007)
Ninja (Chippendale, 2006)
Nocturnal Conspiracies (David B., 2008)
not simple (Ono, 2010)
The Numbers of the Beasts (Cheng, 2010)
Ojingogo (Forsythe, 2008)
Olde Tales Vol. II (Milburn, 2007)
One Model Nation (Taylor, Leitch, Rugg, Porter, 2009)
Or Else #5 (Huizenga, 2008)
The Other Side #1-2 (Aaron & Stewart, 2005)
Owly Vol. 4: A Time to Be Brave (Runton, 2007)
Owly Vol. 5: Tiny Tales (Runton, 2008)
Paper Blog Update Supplemental Postcard Set Sticker Pack (Nilsen, 2009)
Paradise Kiss Vols. 1-5 (Yazawa, 2002-2004)
The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack (Gurewitch, 2009)
Peter's Muscle (DeForge, 2010)
Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days (Columbia, 2009)
Pixu I (Ba, Cloonan, Lolos, Moon, 2008)
Pizzeria Kamikaze (Keret & A. Hanuka, 2006)
Plague Hero (Adebimpe, 2009)
Planetary Book 3: Leaving the 20th Century (Ellis & Cassaday, 2005)
Planetes Vols. 1-3 (Yukimura, 2003-2004)
The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Eisner, 2005)
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Vols. 1-3 (Urasawa, Nagasaki, Tezuka, 2009)
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Vols. 1-8 (Urasawa, Nagasaki, Tezuka, 2009-2010)
Pocket Full of Rain and Other Stories (Jason, 2008)
pood #1 (various, 2010)
Powr Mastrs Vol. 1 (C.F., 2007)
Powr Mastrs Vol. 2 (C.F., 2008)
Prison Pit: Book 1 (Ryan, 2009)
Prison Pit: Book 2 (Ryan, 2010)
Real Stuff (Eichhorn et al, 2004)
Red Riding Hood Redux (Krug, 2009)
Refresh, Refresh (Novgorodoff, Ponsoldt, Pierce, 2009)
Remake (Abrams, 2009)
Reykjavik (Rehr, 2009)
Ronin (Miller, 1984)
Rumbling Chapter Two (Huizenga, 2009)
The San Francisco Panorama Comics Section (various, 2010)
Scott Pilgrim Full-Colour Odds & Ends 2008 (O'Malley, 2008)
Scott Pilgrim Vol. 4: Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together (O'Malley, 2007)
Scott Piglrim Vol. 5: Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe (O'Malley, 2009)
Scott Pilgrim Vol. 6: Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour (O'Malley, 2010)
Second Thoughts (Asker, 2009)
Service Industry (Bak, 2007)
Set to Sea (Weing, 2010)
Seven Soldiers of Victory Vols. 1-4 (Morrison et al, 2004)
Shenzhen (Delisle, 2008)
S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 (Hickman & Weaver, 2010)
Shitbeams on the Loose #2 (various, 2010)
Show Off (Burrier, 2009)
Siege (Bendis & Coipel, 2010)
Siberia (Maslov, 2008)
Skim (Tamaki & Tamaki, 2008)
Skyscrapers of the Midwest (Cotter, 2008)
Skyscrapers of the Midwest #4 (Cotter, 2007)
Sleeper Car (Ellsworth, 2009)
Sloe Black (DeForge)
Slow Storm (Novgorodoff, 2008)
Snake 'n' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret (Kupperman, 2000)
Snake Oil #5: Wolf (Forsman, 2009)
Snow Time (Krug, 2010)
Solanin (Asano, 2008)
Soldier X #1-8 (Macan & Kordey, 2002-2003)
Speak of the Devil (G. Hernandez, 2008)
Spider-Man: Fever #1 (McCarthy, 2010)
Split Lip Vol. 1 (Costello et al, 2009)
Squadron Supreme (Gruenwald et al, 1986)
The Squirrel Machine (Rickheit, 2009)
Stay Away from Other People (Hannawalt, 2008)
Storeyville (Santoro, 2007)
Strangeways: Murder Moon (Maxwell, Garagna, Gervasio, Jok, 2008)
Studio Visit (McShane, 2010)
Stuffed! (Eichler & Bertozzi, 2009)
Sulk Vol. 1: Bighead & Friends (J. Brown, 2009)
Sulk Vol. 2: Deadly Awesome (J. Brown, 2009)
Sulk Vol. 3: The Kind of Strength That Comes from Madness (Brown, 2009)
Superman #677-680 (Robinson & Guedes, 2008)
Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941 (Sadowski et al, 2009)
Sweet Tooth #1 (Lemire, 2009)
Tales Designed to Thrizzle #4 (Kupperman, 2008)
Tales Designed to Thrizzle #5 (Kupperman, 2009)
Tales Designed to Thrizzle #6 (Kupperman, 2010)
Tales of Woodsman Pete (Carre, 2006)
Tekkon Kinkreet: Black and White (Matsumoto, 2007)
Teratoid Heights (Brinkman, 2003) ADDTF version
Teratoid Heights (Brinkman, 2003) TCJ version
They Moved My Bowl (Barsotti, 2007)
Thor: Ages of Thunder (Fraction, Zircher, Evans, 2008)
Three Shadows (Pedrosa, 2008)
Tokyo Tribes Vols. 1 & 2 (Inoue, 2005)
Top 10: The Forty-Niners (Moore & Ha, 2005)
Travel (Yokoyama, 2008)
Trigger #1 (Bertino, 2010)
The Troll King (Karlsson, 2010)
Two Eyes of the Beautiful (Smith, 2010)
Ultimate Comics Avengers #1 (Millar & Pacheco, 2009)
Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1 (Bendis & LaFuente, 2009)
Ultimate Spider-Man #131 (Bendis & Immonen, 2009)
The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite (Way & Ba, 2008)
Uptight #3 (Crane, 2009)
Wally Gropius (Hensley, 2010)
Watchmen (Moore & Gibbons, 1987) Part I
Water Baby (R. Campbell, 2008)
Weathercraft (Woodring, 2010)
Werewolves of Montpellier (Jason, 2010)
Wednesday Comics #1 (various, 2009)
West Coast Blues (Tardi & Manchette, 2009)
Wet Moon, Book 1: Feeble Wanderings (Campbell, 2004)
Wet Moon, Book 2: Unseen Feet (Campbell, 2006)
Weird Schmeird #2 (Smith, 2010)
What Had Happened Was... (Collardey, 2009)
Where Demented Wented (Hayes, 2008)
Where's Waldo? The Fantastic Journey (Handford, 2007)
Whiskey Jack & Kid Coyote Meet the King of Stink (Cheng, 2009)
Wiegle for Tarzan (Wiegle, 2010)
Wilson (Clowes, 2010)
The Winter Men (Lewis & Leon, 2010)
The Witness (Hob, 2008)
Wormdye (Espey, 2008)
Worms #4 (Mitchell & Traub, 2009)
Worn Tuff Elbow (Marc Bell, 2004)
The Would-Be Bridegrooms (Cheng, 2007)
XO #5 (Mitchell & Gardner, 2009)
You Are There (Forest & Tardi, 2009)
You'll Never Know Book One: A Good and Decent Man (Tyler, 2009)
Young Lions (Larmee, 2010)
Your Disease Spread Quick (Neely, 2008)
The Trouble with The Comics Journal's News Watch, Part I
KEEP COMICS EVIL
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October 2003 Archives
I've given a lot of thought to why I like horror.
I mean, it is the kind of thing to which you probably should give a lot of thought. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I've spent (to use the apt cliche) countless hours watching movies in which hundreds of hapless individuals are needlessly subjected to varieties of frightening and violent unpleasantness as appalling and terrifying as they are oddly creativ by an assortment of monsters and lunatics ranging from potty-mouthed demons to giant cannibalistic retarded hillbillies. My wife, whose constitution, thank God, is more delicate than my own, has asked me on numerous occasions how I can stand to watch films that are little more or less than parades of inhuman and undeserved brutality that more often than not end badly for everyone involved. "I just do" is not always the response I give, but it's probably the most accurate.
But again, why? I'm still not 100 percent sure. I guess the usual vicarious-thrill/cathartic-release arguments about roller-coaster-rides and monster-identification hold as true for me as they do for anyone, but there's more to it than that, I think. I've noticed that the underlying themes of the horror fiction I enjoy are also present in a lot of my favorite non-horror fiction. (What do you think's really going on in Eyes Wide Shut, for instance? Or Nineteen Eighty-Four, for that matter?)
I finally put my finger on it in therapy a few weeks ago. Somehow I got to thinking about all the movies and books I'm really passionate about, and I realized that the overwhelming majority of them have down endings. And not just "oh, too bad things didn't quite work out for them" endings, but "her friends and brother have been beaten with sledgehammers and carved up with chainsaws and she was just tortured for hours and now she's escaped but she's been driven batshit insane" endings. In many of these works, and in the horror ones particularly, there's no shelter, no safety, no hope. And that's when I realized that what these films and books offer is certainty. Yes, it's an awful certainty, the certainty that nothing will ever be right again, but to stare that darkness in the face is preferable to the great not-knowing, isn't it? And if we're left with nightmares, that seems but a small price to pay for the lesson learned.
Now the days are getting darker quicker, and it's time to learn the lesson again.
All this is a roundabout way to introduce Where the Monsters Go, a 31-day horrorfest here at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat. In honor of the evil little holiday that ends the month of October, I plan on blogging something about horror (horror films, mainly, but other stuff too) every day. I've got two big projects planned: The first is to make available for download several of the papers I wrote on horror films during my undergraduate years as a Film Studies student at Yale University; the second is to end the month with The Thirteen Days of Halloween, a 13-day (who'd'a thunk it?) marathon of horror-movie reviewing, in which I'll watch and post thoughts on one of my favorite horror films every day for nearly two weeks, culminating on Halloween itself with The Scariest Movie I Ever Seen. In the tradition of the great low-budget horror films of yore, I'm pretty much flying by the seat of my pants here; come by every day, because you and I both will never know what I'll, ahem, dig up.
A quick word about "Where the Monsters Go," the title of my little Horror Month: It's a quote from Clive Barker, specifically from his novella Cabal and the film, Nightbreed, derived therefrom. The to-the-point description of the fictional underground village of Midian, where a wide assortment of creatures and freaks live undisturbed by the horrors of the real world, it seems like an equally apt description of this blog for the next 31 days or so. Also, insofar as Nightbreed was the very first "real" horror film I ever watched (I'm not counting the old Universal flicks, or Godzilla movies, or The Lost Boys), it's a phrase that initiated me into this dark world much as it did the character of Boone in the film. Moreover, the movie helped begin my long love affair with Barker's work. Indeed, since his films and books (particularly Hellraiser and the six-volume Books of Blood, and even more particularly the short story "In the Hills, the Cities") have had an appropriately transformative impact on me for nearly a decade, I gratefully dedicate this project to him. And to the monsters.
I'm not going to comment all that much on the Joe Wilson's CIA Spook Wife scandal, because it seems self-evident to me that 1) It's pretty awful, and the heads of the people responsible should roll as far as the laws of physics will allow, and 2) It's being overblown for political purposes by the Bush Bash Brigade. Believe it or not, both 1 & 2 can be the case.
At any rate, Jim Henley offers the most plausible explanation I've yet seen for what the hell the administration staffer who leaked the info was likely up to. (If you ask me, the White House should be taking a lot less, er, esoteric action against the habitually incompetent George Tenet. If that guy manages to hold onto his job after both 9/11 and the no-WMDs-after-all "scandal," the Red Sox should hire him to manage them in the post season--he's un-curseable.)
It just occurred to me that there are probably horrorbloggers in the same way that there are comicsbloggers. This is a very exciting thought to me. I'll see what I can find, but feel free to email me with recommendations.
Anyhoo, David Fiore has an early take on my proposed Horror Month, including a Hawthorne-on-Melville quote that, pretentious as this must make me sound, describes me almost perfectly: “He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief." Yes.
Blogger Franklin Harris's weekly Pulp Culture column is chock full of horror-film reviews, many concerning films I haven't seen. Check it out to fill the gaps in my repertoire. (Franklin also comes up with Quote of the Day #2, this time from Quentin Tarantino: "There's no disgrace in trying to kill people in the coolest way possible." Yes.)
Jason Adams is a friend of mine who I've just discovered is both a blogger and a very, very good one. He has two WtMG-inspired horror posts up on his blog, one on horror's role in his (how can I put this without sounding twee?) awakening as a big gay homo (okay, I think I pulled it off), the other on how the gore of yore, which many people remember as much worse than it was, is nothing compared to the visceral grossness of even the slickest mainstream horror films of today. Thought-provoking stuff. Jason, will you be posting your own senior thesis on horror?
In a post on old novelty monster-rock, Bill Sherman produces Quote of the Day #3, and this one's an original: "Horror and horniness: they go together like peanut butter and chocolate." I don't necessarily disagree (neither does Jason), but I've had very little experience in closing the deal thanks to horror flicks. I think this is due at least in part to the fact that The Missus has never been a big horror fan, but it's also got something to do with how incredibly bleak and disturbing all my favorite horror films are. Even aside from the fact that the old-fashioned creature-features are largely a thing of the past, I'm certainly not into the slasher movies where the killer is vanquished by the Final Girl in the end, and those are the modern-era horror movies most replete with both nubile young bodies, threatened adolescents, and cathartic penetrative physicality, and are in that sense creature-features' modern-day analog. (Actually, I think my relative lack of interest in this kind of film also relates to my disagreement with Steve King that "all horror is Republican," insofar as the status quo is restored in the end; not in MY favorite horror stuff it isn't! But maybe he just means that the threat to the status quo being seen as "horrifying" is enough to make the genre an essentially conservative one. I suppose that's so--which is what makes Barker so interesting, seeing as how his monsters completely upend the status quo in a most grotesque fashion, and yet are seen as both sympathetic and attractive. I'd compare him favorably to writers like Anne Rice, who are clearly on the side of their monsters but pussy out when it comes to making them legitimately unpleasant. Ahem. Digression, folks. Ain't it grand?)
This post by the uncanny Antipopper (You've got the Seanblog in a whirl, AP--I'm not sure if you're a boy or a girl), on octopus camouflage and the videotaped alien in Shyamalan's Signs, is touching on exactly the same things as my thesis. Check it out. (Meanwhile, Antipopper and I can incorporate one another's politics into our own personal conceptions of "horror.")
Finally, and this is only scary in the sense that the poor man couldn't stay away from the damn computer for even a week, Alan David Doane is blogging again. The horror! The horror!
Back in the fall of 1999 I was feeling inspired by an unexpectedly good summer for horror movies. Back then Scream was still pretty much the be-all and end-all of contemporary horror. I saw that movie in a drive-in and was thoroughly entertained, but I could have told you even then that basing a couple dozen horror movies on its reference-heavy self-reflexivity was a great big dead end for the genre. By the summer of '99, enough I Still Know the Urban Legend of How You Screamed About Your Disturbing Behavior flicks had filtered down the pike that I was pretty much ready to give the genre up for dead. Then all of a sudden The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense and Eyes Wide Shut came along--three horror movies (yes, three; EWS is a horror movie that uses sex instead of violence, and yeah, I'll probably have to elaborate on that sometime this month) that were both good and frightening enough to enter the canon and had nothing to do with either the current crop of slasher flicks or its progenitors. What, exactly, were these movies doing?
I was disappointed to discover that film studies (of which I was a student at the time) had little to offer me by way of an explanation. Indeed, almost all of the films and images I'd found truly horrifying in my years as a horror buff were glossed over by the film studies establishment in favor of psychoanalytic analyses of gender and audience-identification issues--worthwhile avenues of exploration, but by no means should they be the only ones available.
I decided to write a very practical Senior Essay--a thesis exploring what I thought was the definitive image of horror in most all of the films I'd actually found effective as horror. I called it "the monumental horror-image"--like a monument, it stands in testament to the overturning of the natural order to which horror forces us to bear witness.
I thought it'd be a great way to get Where the Monsters Go: Horror Month at ADDTF going to make The Things That Should Not Be: The Monumental Horror-Image and Its Relation to the Contemporary Horror Film available for download. Click here to download the 42-page essay as a PDF. (If PDFs pose a problem for you, you can click here to read the first two sections of the thesis in HTML.) I promise you that there's not a lot of jargon in there, so even if it's been a while since you've been in a goofy liberal arts program (hey, it's been a little while for me, now, too), you should still be able to follow what the hell I'm talking about. This was the best-received piece of writing I've ever done (up until that Batman piece, of course)--it won an award for Best Senior Essay in the Film Studies Program at school, and no less a personage than Clive Barker called it "so fucking smart." Also, isn't it just kinda funny that I got to do a senior thesis that included close readings of movies like The Wicker Man, The Shining and The Exorcist?
So yeah, here it is. It spells out pretty clearly where I'm coming from in my approach to horror, and though it's sort of cobbled together due to its very practical concern of answering the question I wanted answered, I think its Frankensteinian construction is somehow appropriate. I hope you dig it.
And if nothing else, the volume of Diet Coke I drank during its production--now that's truly horrifying.
Maybe I'm becoming one of those dipsticks who only think The Onion is funny when it corresponds roughly to their politics, but this seems about right to me. (Particularly in light of the second item here.)
Suspense, or tension, I guess, is the word commonly used to describe that inertial period in horror focused not on something happening, but on the potential that something is going to happen. However, tension, or suspense or what have you, is tied to the notion that what you are being caused by the filmmaker to expect to happen may or may not do so--that's the stuff of thrillers, not horror. No, there's something far more... delicious about knowing, without being verbally told, that what you dread happening is about to happen, inexorably, inevitably. It's this prolonged frisson of certainty that helps make good horror so satisfyingly horrifying.
I think this is why a film like The Shining actually gets scarier upon repeated viewing. The first time you see Danny turn the corner on his Big Wheels, there's that scary Big Reveal of the little girls--terrifying, no doubt, for all the reasons detailed here. But in each subsequent viewing, you know what's coming; since there's more to the horror-image in question than mere jump-out-atcha shock tactics, this foreknowledge (foreboding?) actually enhances the horror, instead of detracting from it.
That same factor is at work, I believe, in M. Night Shyamalan's Signs. I watched it last weekend and was struck once again by how masterfully Shyamalan creates an almost instantaneous foreknowledge of horror, making those tense build-ups (when Merrill watches the newscast from Rio, for example, or when Graham's flashlight goes out in the cornfield) unbearable, almost sensually so. Again, it's not just the fear of being startled by something jumping out at you--that's certainly part of it, but in addition to that primal (infantile) fear of the short sharp shock there's the awful certainty that something bad--something wrong--is going to show up. Indeed, Shyamalan himself capitalizes on the horror-increasing potential of certainty--in the newscast scene he actually has the videotaped footage of the alien's appearance digetically rewound and re-shown. The man clearly understands the horrifying power of repeat viewing!
To ramble a bit, I think that similar forces are at play in those forms of popular music that capitalize on near-mathematically induced emotional-crescendo-through-repetition: electronic dance music (the keyboard-hating youngster in me always wants to refer to it with the catch-all term "techno," but that refers to a specific subset, so no can do), funk, and prog- or math-rock.
When I first got into funk (thanks to a four-stage assault on my ass by Fred Wesley & the Horny Horns' "A Blow for Me, a Toot to You," the JBs' "Doin' It to Death," (and especially) Herbie Hancock & the Headhunters' "Watermelon Man" and a live recording of Bootsy's Rubber Band's "Very Yes"), I was struck by how the repetition and predictability of the grooves, far from negating their impact as would be the case with predictable Top 40 pap-pop, actually enhanced or indeed embodied the songs' appeal. Those moments of THE BOMB--when a groove that has been slowly building to the horn-laden cathartic explosion you knew was coming fiiiiinally gets there--are made so powerful, so funky, by their very inevitability.
I quickly realized that this same principle applied to my favorite electronic acts: Orbital (during the suite on the eponymous record known as the Brown Album) and especially Underworld (during, well, pretty much everything, but "Born Slippy.NUXX," "Cowgirl," "Pearls Girl" and "Moaner" deserve special attention--as does their improvisatory and triumphant live album Everything Everything, a recording based in no small part on playing off listener recognition that their favorite part of their favorite song is slowly being woven into the sonic tapestry...closer...closer...yeah!).
Moving over to the math-rock set, they tend to put the "awful" back into the "certainty" equation. Witness the ever-mounting one-note menace of King Crimson's "Starless," the timid-yet-insistent plucking atop the bass juggernaut in Tool's cover of Peach's "You Lied," or the crescendoing synthesized chorus of the damned in Nine Inch Nails' wordless "Just Like You Imagined."
Call it the Collins Certainty Principle if you will. Used by funk & electronic dance acts, it yields an almost erotic dose of musical bliss. Used by dark prog bands and horror films, it yields an equally sensual payload of purest terror. Either way, prolonged frisson from certainty.
I've had a request to make my thesis available in HTML. I don't really have the time or the patience to convert the whole shmear, but here's the beginning of it. It lays out my proposal for what is the "definitive" horror image type (though it doesn't really explain it; you'll have to download the PDF to get all that info). It's a helpful guide to where I'm coming from in my approach to horror and will help make the rest of my horror posts make sense (well, some).
I should warn you that there are spoilers involved (mainly for the end of The Wicker Man--if you haven't seen that wonderful movie, then when you start seeing me describe it, run away!).
The Things That Should Not Be: The Monumental Horror-Image and Its Relation to the Contemporary Horror Film
The Senior Essay
Film Studies 491a
B. Peucker, Advisor
by Sean Thomas Collins
New Haven, Connecticut
13 December 1999
It is too incredible, too monstrous; such things can never be in this quiet world.... Why, man, if such a case were possible, our earth would be a nightmare.
—Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan
Drain you of your sanity,
Face the thing that should not be.
—Metallica, "The Thing That Should Not Be"
The summer of 1999 saw a revival of interest in the horror film that, much like the genre’s monsters and murderers themselves, defied all logical expectations. Horror fans had all but given up serious genre efforts for dead, killed by the post-Scream wave of glibly self-reflexive slasher films (perhaps epitomized by Gus Van Sant’s entirely redundant remake of Psycho). The mainstreaming of gore for non-horror purposes by films such as Pulp Fiction and Saving Private Ryan seemed to render horror’s more sanguine outings a moot point. Years had passed since The Silence of the Lambs, the genre’s last truly original exponent (and even this had been more detective story than "weird tale").
The emergence of not one but three pantheon-worthy horror films–Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut–in the space of three months is surprising for more reasons than those listed above, however. Filmed on a legendarily low budget with a cast of unknowns, Blair Witch frightened millions of viewers without the use of violence, gore, or even the appearance of the titular character. The ghosts of The Sixth Sense were horrifying despite their inability to inflict physical harm beyond relatively insignificant scratches. And Eyes Wide Shut might not even be considered a horror film until one reflects on its frightening account of a man whose life is spiraling inexorably into chaos.
The success of these three films points to a gap in existing horror scholarship and theory. Much horror criticism focuses on violence and gore as the defining characteristic of the horror film, leaving little room in its theoretical framework for non-slasher films. Though such criticism puts a welcome spotlight on issues of spectator identification and response, its preoccupation with slice-and-dice renders difficult an expansion of such theories of spectatorship into other realms of horror. Other theories focus on the monster as "other," pointing to the frightening and revolting "stars" of the movies and their relation to gender and social concerns. Again, such theories can illuminate some important allegorical and subtextual aspects of certain horror films, but do little in terms of addressing the primary goal of the horror film, i.e. to horrify. In short, the defining characteristic of the contemporary horror film has yet to be pinpointed.
It is unsurprising, therefore, to discover that certain types of imagery recurrent in many of contemporary horror cinema’s most powerful films have gone either unnoticed or undiscussed by theoreticians. Specifically, two types of related imagery occur in virtually every effective horror film. The first is the sudden–yet curiously static–appearance of a being in a place where no one ought to be, in defiance of what character and audience know to be "possible"; the second is the sight of a monumental, monolithic, or literally statuesque object, serving as a testament to the presence of evil, madness, sickness, or irrationality. Taken together, these two distinct yet related image types–call them the monumental horror-image, in that their subjects are horrifying more for what they represent than what they actually do–comprise some of contemporary horror cinema’s most definitively frightening moments.
The purpose of this essay, then, is to explore the monumental horror-image and its relation to the genre in which it appears. It will examine existing theories of horror that seem pertinent, pointing out the relative strengths and weaknesses of these theories in explaining and defining the monumental horror-image. It will also propose a new, connective synthesis of various aspects of these theories, in an attempt to determine what gives such images their undeniable power to horrify, and to justify the author’s view that they are the definitive, characteristic images of contemporary horror. Finally, through close readings of examples from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, it will show just how effective the monumental horror-image can be in creating and sustaining an overwhelming and thematically-inspired sense of horror.
2 Basic Characteristics of the Two Types of Monumental Horror-Image
To begin, let us propose an effective definition for the monumental horror-image itself. Again, the first type of monumental horror-image is the sudden appearance or discovery of a being in a place where no one ought to be. This appearance is in brazen defiance of that which the human characters in the film assume to be "real" or "possible." An exemplary image of this type is that of the two ghostly sisters, commonly referred to as "the twins," in Kubrick’s The Shining. Virtually all aspects of their initial appearance to the psychically gifted child Danny in the rec room of the Overlook Hotel are characteristic of this type of image in general.
While retrieving a bunch of darts from a dartboard, Danny quickly turns and stares off-screen. As the background music hums ominously, we cut to a long shot of what he sees: two pale, identically dressed little girls, standing just inside the doorway of the rec room. They stand isolated in the center and toward the back of the film frame. The shot is totally immobile–neither they nor the camera move. This gives them an inanimate, deathlike quality, reinforced by their ghastly pallor. Defying prevailing horror tradition, they are not lurking in shadows–the entire room is brightly, even harshly lit. Aside from their preternatural paleness and initial immobility, there is nothing out of the ordinary about them or their surroundings–they are simply little girls in a rec room. However, we know from a story told earlier in the film by the Overlook’s manager that they are probably the ghosts of two little girls murdered with an axe by their father, one of the Overlook’s previous winter caretakers. In addition, they have appeared to Danny before, in a vision he had had before moving to the Overlook, in which an elevator unleashed a torrent of blood. Despite the fact that the girls do not attack or threaten Danny, the above two factors imbue their appearance (which in itself is quite static and uninteresting) with dread and foreboding.
Other examples of this first type of monumental horror image include the woman in the bathtub, the dogman and his lover in the bedroom, and the bloody bald man in the hallway, also in The Shining; the man in the trenchcoat who follows Dr. Bill in Eyes Wide Shut; Father Damien’s mother in Regan’s bed in The Exorcist; the battered woman in the kitchen in The Sixth Sense; Mike in the corner of the cellar in Blair Witch; BOB in Laura’s bedroom and Mrs. Tremond and her grandson in the Double R’s parking lot in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me; the Woman in the Radiator in Lynch’s Eraserhead; and the Mystery Man in Lynch’s Lost Highway. Though aspects of these individual instances may vary (for example, the Mystery Man is certainly not ordinary-looking), they all share most or all of the characteristics found in the appearance of the twins: isolated placement in the rear center of a long shot; statuesque lack of movement of both subject and camera; bright or harsh lighting; quotidian surroundings and appearance; accompaniment by low-key, ominous music; supernatural (or at least uncertain) origin; association with strange or sinister forces outlined earlier in the film; importantly, the presence of a horrified onlooker within the fiction of the film itself; and lack of a direct physical threat toward that onlooker.
The second type of monumental horror-image is more explicitly "monumental": a monolithic, monumental, or even literally statuesque object which serves as a direct testament to the immediate presence of evil, madness, or monstrousness. The definitive example of this type of image occurs during the climax of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. Again, most aspects of Sgt. Howie’s encounter with the titular idol can be seen as characteristic of this image type.
After being led on a wild goose chase by the pagan residents of Summerisle, Sgt. Neil Howie discovers that he has walked into a trap: he is to be sacrificed in a gigantic wicker effigy. As he is forced to the top of a hill by the villagers in ominous silence, he sees the enormous Wicker Man, isolated the distance and placed directly in the center of the frame. The camera slowly tracks in on it, accentuating its enormous size. It is decidedly primitive in nature, having been used in rituals pre-dating Christianity by centuries. No explanation of what the Wicker Man represents is necessary–Sgt. Howie screams in terror immediately upon seeing it. As he is slowly led toward the idol, illuminated by the bright light of the setting sun, the only sounds that can be heard are his own screams for mercy and the slow beat of a ritual drum.
Additional instances of this second type of monumental horror-image include the corpse sculpture, the "bone room", and virtually every item of "furniture" in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; the statue of Pazuzu and the crucifixion-like pose of the levitating Regan in The Exorcist; the elevator that gushes blood in The Shining; the stick-figure shrine in Blair Witch; the enchained Frank/Larry in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser; Leviathan in Tony Randel’s Hellbound: Hellraiser II; and the jungle gym covered with crows in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Though these examples differ from one another more than those of the first, less explicitly monumental type, they still share many of the characteristics displayed by the final scene in The Wicker Man; placement in the distant center of a long shot; slow camera movement; camera position that accentuates the enormity of the objects involved; bright or harsh lighting; relative silence; association with primitive, pagan, or pre-Christian cosmology; a clear representation of evil or madness that "goes without saying." As with the type of monumental horror-image exemplified by the twins, a horrified onlooker is present. Though the onlooker in this case is subject to the threat of physical harm, this harm does not stand to be inflicted by the subject of the image itself (obviously, most of the "monuments" in question are inanimate objects and not in the damage-inflicting business); rather, those responsible for the "monument" are the threatening parties.
It is important to reiterate that , though the latter subset of the monumental horror-image can indeed be literally "monumental," the appellation does not refer to its size, manmade quality, or anything necessarily literal at all. The point is, like real monuments, the subjects of such images are more important for that which they represent or stand for than for their own abilities or actions. In the case of our primary examples, the twins are a "monument" to the fact that Overlook Hotel is haunted; the Wicker Man is a "monument" to the fact that Summerisle is a place of dark paganism. Neither the twins nor the Wicker Man possess physical power: as Danny says through his imaginary friend when he encounters the twins in a hallway later on, "It’s just like pictures in a book, Danny. It isn’t real"; Sgt. Howie’s pleas for mercy are directed at the villagers and at God, not at the Wicker Man.
The power in these images, then, is uniquely difficult to account for. How can one be horrified of something that, more often than not, presents no immediate physical threat to the characters who encounter it? And why (if we are to believe the viewers of many of the above examples) are such images even more horrifying than their more directly threatening counterparts? To answer these questions, we will now turn to several existing theories of horror to see what light, if any, they may shed on this singularly problematic aspect of the contemporary horror film.
I heard my first big-media Kay-Report recap yesterday, on WCBS 880AM New York, while driving home from the train station. I nearly couldn't believe my ears that CBS News was leading not with the "no actual WMDs" angle but with the "lots and lots of WMD programs and intent to develop actual WMDs as soon as possible" angle. Holy crap, I thought, but the news media is actually going to report the non-BUSHLIED! parts of this story!
Then came the cold, harsh light of this morning, and you get this sort of thing. It beats the living shit out of the fact that they didn't turn up a Batcave full of loaded anthrax bombs, then peppers that pesky part about how Saddam had every intention of getting back to the WMD business the second the French & Russians got those sanctions lifted with enough "some"s and "signs that"s and attempts to cast the whole thing in a "hey, this isn't the final report, folks, we can still pull something out of our sleeves" they're-still-lying negativism to choke a horse. And we're not even talking about their usual
stealth-mode front-page anti-Bush editorial "news analysis."
Do yourself a favor: Read the actual report. Or read Andrew Sullivan's analysis thereof.
If you're interested, here's my breakdown of this whole situation:
1) Saddam Hussein had every intention of continuing to develop WMDs, and had devoted countless man-hours and billions of dollars into creating a program specifically, and explicitly, designed for optimum concealability. He lied about these programs to the UN despite the fact that the post-Gulf War I ceasefire was conditional upon his honesty and compliance. These programs are documented in-depth in this report.
2) The same countries and parties that opposed the war in favor of sanctions tended almost to a man to have once been in favor of removing the sanctions altogether on understandable humanitarian grounds. If the sanctions had been lifted, the WMD program would have restarted in earnest and produced WMD materials within months.
3) Once war became an option due to the insistence of the Blair and Bush administrations, one-time opponents of sanctions then became sanction advocates, essentially promoting an ineffectual regime of economic punishments that enriched Saddam and his Baathist affiliates while keeping the citizens of Iraq in poverty and under the rule of a murderous tyrant and his would-be successor sons.
4) Saddam Hussein was an aggressive mass murderer with a proven track record of starting wars with his neighbors despite guaranteed massive reprisals and almost no demonstrable benefit to his regime or his country, had used WMDs in one of those wars, and had torched oil wells and opened pipelines into the sea in the other despite the "deterrent" threat of nuclear retalliation by the U.S. were he to do so. He was in essence "undeterrable."
5) By ALL accounts Saddam Hussein was believed to have WMDs and WMD programs, to have lied to and thwarted inspectors, and to have violated the conditions of the ceasefire (though this was often couched in the far less consequential vocabulary of "violating UN resolutions"). Democracts, Republicans, the US, the UK, France, and on and on and on agreed on these points.
6) The Bush Administration never claimed the threat from Iraq was "imminent," and never based their case for war on such a claim. They argued that the threat should be eliminated BEFORE it became imminent.
My own personal "argument for war" was never terribly contingent on WMDs, because I can't stand fascism and enjoy seeing fascists be deposed and destroyed just on principle. But to me, this report seals the WMD-argument deal as well. The negative spin placed on the report seems to stem from journalists and commentators who are doctrinairily opposed either to the war or, perhaps more to the point, to the Bush Administration itself.
The Lost Boys was the first rated-R movie I ever saw. As such I guess it was the first real horror movie I ever saw, too, but as it wasn't particularly scary even when I first saw it--thrilling and exciting, yeah, and totally awesome in a more-violent-Ghostbusters sorta way, but not scary--I don't tend to count it. Anyway, if you recall, two of the main characters were Edgar and Allen Frog, a couple of crazy pseudo-survivalist teenage brothers who helped run their parents comic shop. (Okay, that part was scary, but only because it's so accurate a reflection on how most small comic shops are run.) Our hero Corey Haim's response when the brothers Frog try to get him to read an old funnybook about vampires? "I don't read horror comics." Neither, really, do I--because I've yet to find one that's particularly horrifying.
This is not to say that there aren't plenty of disturbing comics. Renee French, Hans Rickheit, Dave Cooper, some of Dan Clowes's work, Jim Woodring, the occasional sequence in Mike Mignola's Hellboy and Grant Morrison's The Invisibles--all can be either revolting or haunting, and in some cases both, but none of them have gotten my heart racing or kept me up at night like the best horror films or straight literature have. What's come closest to that level? There are some things in the Clive Barker comic compilations that Checker has been releasing that are very good (such as Klaus Janson's adaptation of the masterful short story "In the Hills, the Cities"), but much of the power of those works is from the prose stories they're based on. Charles Burns's Black Hole is very, very good, and I've got a feeling it's building toward something genuinely frightening, but it's still incomplete and therefore tough to evaluate. The only comic-book image I can think of that was tough to endure looking at for long in the same way that, say, the twins from The Shining or the chalk-white demon face in The Exorcist are, is of all things a splash page from the Man-Thing/Lizard issue of Brian Michael Bendis's Spider-Man spinoff series Ultimate Marvel Team-Up. Artist John Totleben created an image of the Man-Thing and the Lizard that lined up perfectly with my monumental horror-image theories. But that's really all I can think of--not a good sign considering how many freaking comics I've read and how likely I am to seek out the nasty stuff.
So consider this a bleg for recommendations. Got any horror comics that are actually, you know, scary? You can send me your thoughts here. I've heard good things about the manga series Uzumaki--anything else? Here's your chance to help a horror fan in need....
A propos of yesterday's WtMG item, I started a thread on the Comics Journal message board devoted to the topic. Some interesting suggestions are filtering in. Have a look. It's certainly cool to have Renee French, creator of the hauntingly bizarre collection Marbles in My Underpants, weighing in. Some of the stories in that book--"Corny's Fetish," "Fistophobia," "Mitch & the Mole," "The Ream Family," "Hi, my name is Cyndie"--are as disturbing as comix come. No monsters, no maniacs, but it's horror, you bet.
The scariest song I've ever heard is by Harry Chapin.
Yes, that Harry Chapin--the one who did "Cat's in the Cradle" and "Taxi" and "Circle" and so forth. (And no comments from the peanut gallery about "Cat's in the Cradle" being scary enough, okay?) Harry Chapin was always a very, very big deal in my family. A fellow Long Islander, he was one of those musicians that both my rock-centric Dad and easy-listening show-tune-weaned Mom could agree upon. Moreover, he was always playing live shows at local Long Island venues, where my folks saw his surprisingly theatrical singer-songwriter stylings up close and personal many times. (They still sing the praises of his bass player's stage presence.) In fact, they had tickets to the benefit concert in Eisenhower Park on route to which he died, at age 38, in a car accident on the LIE. Rare was the Sunday afternoon when Harry Chapin songs wouldn't be playing on our stereo.
What motivated my mischievous Dad to play the song "Sniper," from Chapin's second album Sniper and Other Love Songs, on one such Sunday afternoon is a mystery to me. I guess he figured I'd get a kick out of how crazy it was. Indeed I did. But it's more than crazy--it's inventive, insightful, piercing, and, to me at least, unforgettable.
For starters, it really is about a sniper. It's a vaguely fictionalized account of Charles Whitman's August 1966 University of Texas clocktower rampage--an unusual topic for the man behind "Sunday Morning Sunshine." But the earnestness with which Chapin imbued his folksy love songs serves this macabre subject well. Chapin is no more able to hide beind irony or ambiguity here than he is in his more romantic work, forcing the audience to come directly to terms with the horror of the sniper attack, and the tortured character of the sniper himself.
Over the course of the song's 9 minutes and 55 seconds, Chapin and his dextrous backup band wind, segue, and careen from tempo to tempo, key to key, style to style. Here they're conveying the quiet of the early morning campus, while the protagonist walks toward the clocktower. Here they're mimicking the buzzing teletype and breaking-news noise of the special reports updating viewers and listeners on the shootings. Here they're deploying simple, sparse staccato to simulate the slaying of yet another too-curious bystander. Here they're using cello and chorus to depict the mournful, vengeful mother fixation of the title character. Here they're building toward the climactic showdown between sniper and police, replete with gas-dropping helicopters and "final fusillade"s. And here they're crescendoing to a "Day in the Life"-style nihilist's triumph. A band trained for simplicity, their discipline serves them extraordinarily well, tempering excess and making every musical metaphor convincing.
Chapin's vocals multitask in a similar fashion. After an introductory chant of the phrase "She said 'not now'" (words whose significance will be made clear later on), Chapin begins singing as a third-person omniscient narrator, quietly setting the scene while peppering it with ominous foreshadowings: "It is an early Monday morning. The sun is becoming bright on the land," he sings, firmly in his previously established singer-songwriter sunshine mode, before adding, "No one is watching as he comes a-walking; two bulky suitcases hang from his hand." Later, the narrator begins taking on some of the sniper's angry, mocking swagger: "So much to do," he deadpans, "and so little time."
When the music takes on its mock-(and mocking-)newscast tone, Chapin switches to a nasal vocal style redolent of bad radio reception or megaphone announcements, posing as several acquaintances interviewed about their now-infamous friend who respond with helpless we-didn't-know platitudes like, "Always sorta sat there--he never seemed to change." At other moments he adopts a matter-of-fact, tough guys doin' a tough job delivery--"They set up an assault team. They asked for volunteers"--before raising his voice to mimick the rising panic of the city and its people--"in appropriately sober tones," he says in anything but an appropriately sober tone, "they asked, 'who can it be?'"
But Chapin's greatest achievement with "Sniper" is getting inside the labrynthine maze of self-pity, self-hatred, and self-aggrandizement that is its title character's mind. Chapin frames the entire killing spree as a "conversation" the sniper has decided to have with "the city where no one can know him," a conversation he initiated the only way he felt he could. "You won't pay attention," the sniper says, "but I'll ask anyhow." The question? "Am I?" The people of the city answer the sniper by dying at his hands. "The first words he spoke took the town by surprise: One got Mrs. Gibbons above her right eye," Chapin informs us, stopping to fill in the gruesomely poetic details: "Reality poured from her face, staining the floor." But even this sudden success in getting a response from the people he felt had ignored him is not enough to assuage the sniper's misery, the source of which, of course, is rejection by Mother. At this point I feel I'm familiar enough with people in therapy, myself included, to know that this isn't nearly as reductive a hypothesis for mental illness's route cause as it's made out to be. Chapin understood this, and in a lyrical triplet takes the sniper from abject infantile adoration to resentful murderous hatred, a journey one can assume the real-life sniper took himself, seeing as he killed his mother (and his wife) the night before the tower shootings.
It all builds up, needless to say, to the final moments, when police manage to reach the top of the tower and put an end to the sniper's conversation with the world. But for the sniper himself, the point is moot: In killing him, the world has given him the answer he sought. "I was," he thinks to himself in triumph as the bullets rip through him, "I am, and now, I will be." As though just now waking up to this transcendent fact--the fact of his immortalization through the damage he has done, and through the legend he has become--the sniper repeats the last three words once more: "I will be." The music soars and resounds and, like blood or gunsmoke, slowly flows away.
I thought about this song a lot around this time last year. The circumstances were different, of course: These new murders were mobile hit-and-runs rather than a massive attack. And they ended up being more different than we'd thought: A pair of killers, with Islamic terrorism mixed in as a motivation, rather than (or at least in addition to) the deranged loner with Oedipal rage. But put aside some of the specifics, and the tales told are nearly identical: of men so incapable of communicating their anger that they come to see murder as their only acceptable means of expression, of media that feed parasitically on death and those who produce it.
That listening to a song afforded me insight into and understanding of a human struggle makes it art. That that struggle involved an unblinking, unrepentant killer makes it horror.
How the major news media is getting away with claiming the Kay Report said "we got nothing" (that's an actual quote, by the way, from NBC White House correspondent Campbell Brown on The Chris Matthews Show this Sunday) is just beyond me. But maybe that's because I always thought the job of the news media was to tell, you know, the truth. Anyway, I reiterate that you should read the actual report and draw your own conclusions. I'll bet they're different than Campbell Brown's.
On a related topic (though he'll insist they aren't), Jim Henley makes some good points about how the Bush administration is super-un-conservative in the big-government sense of the word, but then says that "the national greatness types, and the Administration whose foreign and 'defense' policy they drive, are the salient threat to liberty in America today." And here I thought the salient threat to liberty in America today was, y'know, terrorism. It certainly was for these people.
I'm happy to see that Where the Monsters Go is helping to make the blogosphere a slightly scarier place to be this October.
Novelist and gameswriter Bruce Baugh writes to say that WtMG has inspired him to begin doing some horrorblogging of his own. The results thus far have been impressive indeed. His first post on the subject touches on Electronic Voice Phenomena, William S. Burrough's ability to draw a fearsome order out of seeming chaos, and the certainty (there's that word again!) offered by the relentlessly apocalyptic visions of H.P. Lovecraft. His second focuses more on certainty, but also explores the notion that it's the simplicity of a horror fiction's diegetic universe that makes it horrifying (as it does not afford its protagonists the myriad non-horrific options that our own more complex, real cosmology offers), and takes a peak at schadenfreude as well. Intelligent stuff, and just the kind of thing I enjoy thinking about regarding horror. (And you thought it was all chainsaws and demonic possession. Ha!)
Meanwhile, Jason Adams grants my request and begins to explain his own undergrad senior thesis on horror films, an attempt to pin down the "fundamentals" of contemporary horror. It's the first time I've ever heard of someone trying to tie together horror films of such disparate intent and execution (and quality, IMHO) as the Elm Street and Friday the 13th series and The Silence of the Lambs--and so far, so convincing. I'd love to hear more. But no, you don't have to rent The Wicker Man, because I'll lend you my copy. All for one and one for gore.
I was pleased to read Big Sunny D got a lot out of my classification of Barton Fink as a horror film. I'd like to warn anyone who hasn't seen this movie that it's one you absolutely owe yourself to see completely unspoiled, so I won't go into this too much yet. But suffice it to say that it's not just the occasionally obvious horror touches (appropriate, since the film takes place at almost exactly the same time that the last great Universal horror film, The Wolf Man, was released) that make this film horror. Actually, Sunny's comments have helped me make a big decision about the 13 Days of Halloween with which I plan on closing out the month. I'd been debating whether or not to include less straightforward "horror" movies in my little review marathon, just to try to make room for really Halloween-y stuff. But I think everyone will get more out of this if I go a little farther afield. Stay tuned....
Dirk Deppey nominates a scary comic book, but misreads my initial bleg: I wasn't limiting the call to just stuff that scared you when you were a kid. Actually, that's kinda the point--it's tough to find any adult who finds comics scary in the same way as movies or books. Kid stuff maybe, but grownup stuff? Still searching.
Speaking of horror comics, in a rundown of some comics he's looking forward to, Alan David Doane touts the work of Steve Niles. Unfortunately, this is one time I've got to split with my metaphorical horror mentor, Clive Barker, who provided a laudatory introduction for Niles's breakthrough vampire story 30 Days of Night. I found 30 Days to be boring and predictable, with perfunctory characterizations, major plot holes, serious pacing problems, and an irritating climax. Moreover, to echo a criticism I heard I don't remember where, the art by Ben Templesmith makes everything look "scary," even the stuff that isn't supposed to be. Try to imagine what The Exorcist would have been like if Regan had always looked like this and you'll get the general idea. (And please don't cite The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as a counter-example. Caligari works because the expressionistic mise-en-scene reflects both the mental state of the characters (indeed, that of the narrator!) and the sociopolitical climate the screenwriters (at least) were trying to reflect. 30 Days looks that way because it's "cool.") Not my cup of tea. But hey, he's pretty much singlehandedly put horror comics back in the spotlight. Now if only one would come along that actually deserves the spotlight.
Also speaking of horror comics, Shawn Fumo has a brief little link-laden post on girls' horror manga. I think it says a lot that Japan has a whole subset of horror-genre comics for young women, while America can barely crank out a dozen serious horror titles for young men.
Franklin Harris blesses my little undertaking (heh heh) and plugs the alt.horror usenet group. I'll be signing up soon, if only to plug the blog, so I'm steeling myself for getting terrorized by the good Mr. Harris.
Finally, Eve Tushnet blegs for a halfway decent haunted-ship movie. Good luck, man. I guess 2001, Alien and Jaws are close but no cigar, huh?
Not a fan of axe murderers, elder gods, and severe genital mutilation? Fear not! ADDTF hasn't forgotten plain ol' comic books!
Big Sunny D weighs in on New X-Men 147, an issue so good it almost made up for having the previous one spoiled for me (by the recently deposed dictator of Comicbookgalaxeria, Dr. Doane). I'm surprised, however, that Sunny didn't comment on just how radical the changes wrought by #146's "Big Reveal" have already become in the space of just one issue. Those of us who expected a "picking up where we left off"-style transition from the last panel of 146 to the first of 147 were in for an extremely rude awakening. To which I say "hell yeah."
Franklin Harris squeezes Jess Lemon, the Pulse's pseudonymonous reviewer and outrage-monger, over her soft-target panning of JLA/Avengers. I personally think writer Kurt Busiek took the lazy way out of putting this story together (and agree with the general consensus that the faces of the characters on the George Perez-drawn cover were all kinds of screwed up), but that's really neither here nor there. Franklin is trying to draw the necessary distinction between the inherently outlandish formal and stylistic tropes of the superhero genre and the unforgivably bad execution of those tropes by a sadly vast majority of superhero comics creators. Lemon, he argues, is either too ignorant of the subject or too intent on getting a laugh at the expense of accuracy or insight to bother to separate the two, and therefore s/he blurs them in her demolition of JLA/A. In other words, using Starro the Conqueror isn't any more or less silly than, say, having a guy wage a decades-long oceans-wide vendetta against a white sperm whale, and then actually having the guy find the whale and get killed by it. I guess you could argue that my "Hush" review was along the lines of what Franklin is arguing for: Believe me, few people appreciate the superhero genre more than I do, which is precisely why few people get more upset at shitty superhero comics than I do. There's definitely stuff to complain about in JLA/A, but psychic-parasitic starfish and hand-fired laser beams probably aren't among them--not for serious critics who don't feel the need to earn street cred by taking potshots at genre conventions, at any rate.
On a related note, I wouldn't be surprised to start seeing the blogosphere reach a tipping point when it comes to "Jess Lemon" in the near future. At their best, "her" reviews savage everything that needs savaging in mainstream comics and point out to an audience long past noticing that the spandex-clad emperor is actually butt nekkid. At their worst, however, they can be easy-peasy hatchet jobs that say little about the work in question or larger problems with the genre, industry, or medium, opting instead for verbal slapstick. In addition, I think there's a growing consensus that writing these kinds of reviews under a pseudonym is a weak-kneed cop-out, particularly when (as is becoming clearer by the week) there's not one but several writers lurking behind the Jess Lemon moniker. Hell, even messageboard posters with names like Logan_X are basically the same person every time you see their name used. This, of course, is to say nothing about the legion of reviewers, critics, bloggers and journalists who use their real name and say a lot nastier stuff than J.L., without even doing so simply for nastiness' sake. Having one of the big mainstream news websites run bylined reviews of the sort "Jess Lemon" does would be a real kick in the ass of web-based comics criticism generally, and serve as an announcement to the publishers that the fanboy-based free ride on the Internet is pretty much over. Keeping up the Jess Lemon facade will look less and less like a fun parlor game and more and more like a great big responsibility dodge as time goes by.
Anyway, back to JLA/A: John Jalaka has a review round-up of this unexpectedly divisive book.
Forager mentions he's got a review of Y: The Last Man in this month's Comics Journal. The review, which is very good, points out that as entertaining as the book may seem, there's just no there there. I think this problem is exacerbated, as is the case with many Vertigo & DC books, by the muddy green-browns and green-yellows of the coloring. Vertigo's emphasis has never been art, and that's fine, I guess, but I think more effort should be made to at least make it attractive and presentable, if not awe-inspiring. (Actually, the Journal review reprints some of artist Pia Guerra's work on the book, and it's amazing how comparatively lovely it looks in clear-line black and white.)
Speaking of colors (I love transitions!), Bill Sherman mentions Those Darn DC Earth Tones in his comics roundup of last week. He also echoes my take on Garth Ennis's Thor: Vikings #3 and rebuts my take on Ennis's Punisher: Born #4, both found here. (Bill, I think any wiggle room in that opening monologue is almost certainly unintentional....)
By the way, last week was another strong one for supercomics. Alias (despite its contrived would-be meta conversation, which is more than made up for by the genuinely disturbing conclusion), Astro City (best issue so far in this current miniseries), Savage Dragon (an homage to the old-school blood-and-boobs Dragon), Ultimate Spider-Man (interesting to see a certain character faring much better here than he does in the same author's Daredevil), Ultimate Six (Jeph Loeb, take note: now that's how you do a shocking surprise villain entry), Powers (man, Bendis is full of gruesome surprises this week, isn't he?), New X-Men (see above), and Supreme Power (so what if it's territory we've covered before? As long as it's well-told and well draw, which this is, I'll buy it. Gary Frank's art is juicy and convincing, and the panel in which Hyperion rockets past the eardrum-holding troops in Iraq is like a modern-day Action Comics #1 cover). Not too shabby, O Mainstream.
But between Kavalier & Clay and David Fiore's novel-to-be, I'm starting to wonder if prose descriptions of imaginary superheroes are better than comics depictions of "actual" superheroes themselves....
Kennyb, the Gandalf of the metaphorical campaign against Sauron that is AllTooFlat.com, has added some fun new functionalities here at ADDTF. Look to your left and you'll find a search function (it's pretty simple/simplistic, so remember to search using the bare-bones minimum word you need to find what you're looking for) and an email submission form.
ADDTF: We are not lovers, we are not Romantics--we are here to serve you.
I don't have much, right now. But godDAMN I'm enjoying my little brood of horrorbloggers. I'll comment about these horrorcentric posts at length in due time, but for now:
Bill Sherman on five films that scared him.
Bill Sherman on Uzumaki.
Eve Tushnet on Rene Magritte.
Bruce Baugh on horror as language.
Bruce Baugh on different species of horror.
John Jakala (ahem) on Uzumaki, but unlike Bill's take this includes an offer to buy it for you if you enter a little contest. Here's what my entry will be:
THE OVERLOOK HAIKU
Of the soft-then-loud Big Wheels:
"Come and play with us"
(PS: Special thanks to Jason Adams for lending me copies of the film version of Battle Royale and a film I'd not heard of called Paperhouse. Intriguing....)
Lots and lots and lots of good stuff, once again. I'm starting to feel overwhelmed.
If yr interested, here's what '90s superstar Marc Silverstri's art for the final issues of Grant Morrison's New X-Men will look like. I actually like this stuff a little better than I like Jim Lee's, though once again I'll say that a good story (and Morrison's is one of the best) can make decent art look great.
NeilAlien continues to hold his minions in suspense as regards Dr. Strange's recent high-profile apperances in Amazing Spider-Man, Thor: Vikings, and David Fiore's weblog. To paraphrase Godspell, When wilt thou save the fanboys, Neil?
Courtesy of the 'Alien, here's a swell bit of "knock it off, knuckleheads" from Bookslut's Karin Kross, directed toward mainstream-media comics reviewers who feel the need to slag the medium in order to justify their praise of one of its products.
Along related lines, Jim Henley skewers Big John Byrne's jaw-droppingly dumb assertion that mature-readers comics like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns "should never have happened," for the sake of the kids who apparently wander into these books in droves looking for the happy-go-lucky supercharacters they knew from SuperFriends or whatever. Personally, I think no response more detailed than "Jesus, what a tool" need be offered, but good for Jim. Actually, Jim just sticks to a relatively minor technicality in Byrne's argument, pointing out that virtually no one on Earth even knows that Watchmen was based on goofy old superhero characters from a defunct company, let alone bought and read the book because of that knowledge. But the really egregious thing about Byrne's line of reasoning (despite its self-serving attempt to explain why poor ol' John's books don't sell--it's all the fault of those miserable child-corrupting assholes Miller and Moore! Actually, he's probably on to something there, though not in the way he intends) is the Werthamesque notion that comics--even something as near-universally maligned as the superhero-genre subset of comics--ought not depict certain things. So much great art has been made from taking something seen as "inherently for children" and making it for grown-ups over the centuries that Byrne's argument is virtually stillborn. Look at the updates of "Hansel & Gretel" that are Night of the Hunter and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the development of the sock-hop genre of rock and roll into Bob Dylan and the Beatles--I mean, need I even go on? I find the notion that some art forms or genres are inherently childish, immature, incapable of or improper for delivering stories of mature and real power to be the most offensive, elitist canard currently swimming its way through the murky waters of popcult criticism and theory; the fact that this notion is apparently shared by some of comics' retrograde nostalgia-mongers is equal parts disturbing and unsurprising.
Jim also exhorts us to prepare for a Captain America "sermon". I'm ready.
Eve Tushnet attempts to sell the conventions of superhero comics as potential strengths, not inherent weaknesses, and does so by way of Hamlet. I, for one, am buying--as is, of all people, Marvel president Bill Jemas. In his storytelling guidelines for Epic submissions (as summarized in Marville #7), Jemas instructed would-be supercomics creators to keep in mind that the conventions and tropes of superherodom, particularly the superpowers themselves, should...well, I'll quote Eve, since it's basically exactly what Jemas was saying:
The thing comics-about-comics forget is that superhero conventions arise for a reason. They speak to something--sometimes a good thing, sometimes a rotten thing--in human nature. They resonate. That resonance--what it reveals, what it obscures, what it gets wrong about the world and what it gets right--is what your story should be about.
As Jemas put it, stories about a mild-mannered but somewhat obsessive scientist being transformed during fits of rage into a giant green monster--good. Stories about that giant green monster being transmogrified into a smaller, gray, sarcastic, streetwise mob enforcer--not so good.
Waiting patiently for J.W. Hastings's take on Squadron Supreme, Mark Gruenwald's magnum opus and a very early stab at "revisionist superheroes." I actually enjoyed the book quite a bit more than I thought I would: despite its burden of unnatural and cheesy 70s/80s comicspeak dialogue and narration, and the fact that Gruenwald's ideas seem to have outstripped his ability to execute them, I thought the book was a very effective (and, much to my delight, affecting) examination of superheroes taking the use of their powers to the logical extreme. The resonance in today's political climate is perhaps even stronger than it was when Gru wrote the thing. I'd also like to take this opportunity to reiterate that I'm enjoying J. Michael Straczynski's update of the Squadron Supreme saga (which was itself a knock-off of the Justice League), Supreme Power. Lots of folks have been pointing out that this sort of thing has been done a million times already--here's Steven Grant responding to the general phenomenon and John Jakala taking down an upcoming Chuck Austen manifestation of the trend--but I'm just not convinced that every revisionist-superhero book needs to be some Bold Step Forward In The History Of Mainstream Superhero Comics, as were Miracleman, Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again (that revisionist book's impact won't be felt for another couple of years, I think), the various Warren Ellis superteams, and (to, I think, a lesser extent) Marvels, Kingdom Come, and the Mark Millar spinoffs and takeoffs from the Ellis-verse. Straczynski's book has been well-paced and well-written so far, with less anger and more sadness and loneliness than the usual revisionist fare. And Gary Frank's art has just been a joy for me to look at--like a more obsessively energetic Steve Dillon. I'll keep buying the thing as long as it continues to entertain, regardless of whether or not it reinvents the revisionist wheel.
Jason Kimble has the latest in a series of posts about "decompression" in mainstream comics storytelling (i.e. every story takes six issues now), focusing on how the schizophrenic nature of contemporary comics publishing means that artistic and financial considerations are not just in conflict, but one in which each side's victory is often a Pyrrhic one. This is very, very true: I've often wondered how much patience Marvel, say, will have with their Epic and Tsunami titles, created in theory for the bookstore audience (with, I think, eventual production as bookstore-friendly manga-format books in mind) but reliant on the Direct Market audience for up to a year before making their first appearance in a bookstore.
David Fiore has posted his completed thesis proposal, on the contemporization of Puritan themes by the Marvel comics of the 1960s and '70s. Entertaining and educational, as I wish all theses were.
Alan David Doane is right: Bryan Miller is good (even when he's wrong, which happens from time to time).
Miller's site-mate Matt Martin offers a critique of Marvel's recent Captain America output (Jim Henley, pay attention!) from a conservative perspective. Compare and contrast his reading of the John Ney Reiber Cap-versus-terrorists storyline with that of X-Axis's Paul O'Brien. That two critics coming from completely opposite sides of the political spectrum could look at this story and both come away thinking it represented the absolute godawful worst of the other side shows just what a muddled, pathetic, pointless waste of time the damn thing was. (I happen to think it might also speak to the, how can I put this politely, lack of nuance in Martin and O'Brien's respective political positions, but mainly, yeah, that story sucked.)
Finally, the threatened jettisoning of dead weight from my pull list has begun. This week I found myself abandoning 1602, 100 Bullets, and Kingpin. Not that any of them were terrible, mind you--I just realized that none of them were the kind of comics I can't wait to read. That seems like a fair enough criterion to apply, don't you think?
There, just wanted to say the word, make sure you'd be sticking around. You are? Great! Because we'll be talking a bit about the Original Cigar Aficionado today, I'm afraid. Turns out that in addition to his contribution, if not the invention, of the field of psychoanalysis, Freud also contributed one of the seminal (groan) works in the field of horror criticism, too--his essay "The 'Uncanny.'" Freud's project was not unlike my own: He was attempting to pinpoint what people found weird (in the old-school, bizarre-cum-creepy sense) and frightening, and why.
Unsurprisingly he traced the power of horrific images back to repressed memories, of both the individual-infantile and somethin close to the collective-sociohistorical varieties. I summarize his approach in the ol' thesis, but what we're talking about today is his analysis of the doppleganger, or double. Freud theorized that the frightening power of such entities stems from its ability to force us to recall such forgotten mental processes like "primary narcissim" (if I recall correctly, this meant that as infants we projected our own personalities onto pretty much everything we encountered--we were our world, and our world was us) and the ego's formation of a conscience (a process once reassuring, but now, made literal, one we find terrifying).
Freudian "doubling" is a powerful and recurrent theme in horror art. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Caligari and the sleepwalking Cesare, Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, the Wolf Man and his human alter ego: these are the obvious cases. But one could go even further to say that the entire concept of "monster" is one of doubling--creating a separate, threatening, yet somehow appealing personification of the primal and unsociable drives that the hero or heroine of the story (and by extension the viewer) unconsciously deny.
Speaking of unconscious, my own understanding of this concept is pretty shallow, and indeed I had next to no knowledge of it during the bulk of my studies back in college. It was only when I put together my thesis that I encountered The Double as explicity articulated, and attempted to re-articulate it myself. But in looking back on the horror-related papers I wrote during college in preparation for Where the Monsters Go, I was surprised to see doubling recur, in one form or another, in several otherwise unrelated essays. I figured, Why not make a day of it?
So here are three essays (downloadable as PDFs) that deal with doubles.
The first concerns the pervasive theme of duality and doubles in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, focusing specifically on images and scenes involving mirrors and reflections. One of the fun things about Kubrick is that with him more than almost any other filmmaker one can be confident that any given thing going on in one of his films is not happening by accident. This makes even the closest reading of his work a worthwhile, undistorted peek into his intentions and obsessions. The amount of mirroring going on in The Shining is almost incredible--it's practically like the "all work and no play" manuscript in its repetitious intensity. I think fans of the film would enjoy this little paper of mine on the topic.
The second deals with the 1913 German horror film The Student of Prague and its 1926 remake. The storyline of both concerns a rambunctious but impoverished student named Baldwin who makes a Faustian bargain that leads to the creation of an evil doppleganger; the essay discusses this and other motifs in the films, and depicts (in light of the historical theses of expressonist-film theoretician Siegfried Kracauer) how the two films serve as "doubles" of one another as well. I think it ends up as an interesting examination of the preoccupations of these films, two of the earliest in the cycle of German expressionist/horror films (and by extension some of the earliest in the larger German-influenced American horror-film cycle of the 1930s and '40s).
The third concerns Clive Barker's Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II, which were the first two films in the Hellraiser series, the ones with which Barker himself was most involved, and the only ones worth watching. Here I'm focusing on a more oblique form of doubling: the duality of body and mind as depicted in these viscerally horrific movies. Using Steven Shaviro's essay on David Cronenberg, "Bodies of Fear," as a starting point, I try to pinpoint what Barker is trying to say about the horrors and delights of physical experience. It's a very different thing than what his friend and fellow horror visionary Cronenberg is getting at.
I do hope you enjoy the essays. Though they suffer from the twin faults of undergraduate film studies prose--occasional jargonese and pervasive breathy prose (how many times can I use the words "powerfully" and "masterpiece"?)--I think they're strong, and sometimes revelatory, despite this. Take a minute--or two--and see what you think.
Just when I think the grotesque bulwark of medieval intolerance and stupidity known as the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church couldn't get any more offensive, along comes some nitwit in a funny hat who goes around telling people that condoms don't stop AIDS transmission.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised; this is the kind of horseshit I was spoonfed for four years in high school, where they all but said that condoms cause AIDS. They also spoke reverently of William Donohue, the loudmouthed theocratic thug who runs an organization of likeminded individuals called the Catholic League, which works round-the-clock to take my books and my movies and my music away from me because apparently the Baby Jesus gets really worried about such things--this is also the guy who was screaming at the top of his lungs defending this latest batch of flat-earth malarkey from the Vatican on the Today show this morning.
Of course, back in high school, I may have been so stunned by hearing sentences like "The Inquisition had some good points--the Jews were always given a chance to recant" (an actual quote from sophomore year History of Salvation II class) that the condom bit didn't really register.
Antipopper has some interesting things to say about David Bowie's art-funk masterpiece Station to Station. I think Anti vastly overrates contemporary R&B, which, with the exception of Timbaland/Missy, the occasional interesting song Dr. Dre manages to crap out (one a year, usually; cf. "In Da Club" and "Lay Low"), and the Neptunes's one good idea which they've now somehow parlayed into an empire, is the most joyless, artless, mercenary music I can think of since mid-80s power balladry. On the other hand, the bits about the scratchy aridity of disco guitar and the black-or-whiteness of Bowie & Prince are quite smart. (BTW, "Stay," from this very album, is the forgotten Bowie masterpiece, and probably my favorite Bowie song of all time. Sexy, propulsive, funky, heavy, futuristic, human, rockandroll.
Also, this is a rare find: I disagree with both the letter and the spirit of virutally everything this Forager post about Tolkien says!
The horrorblog bounty is nigh inexhaustible these days.
Johnny Bacardi has completed his list of his favorite (he emphasizes that they're not "the best") horror films. It's interesting to me that he seems to like almost all of them for the fun factor, not the fright factor. I've never really dug on horror movies for that reason--at least not as a teen or grownup; when I was a kid I loved good ol' fashioned Universal Pictures creature features, and holy jeez was I a Godzilla fan. But now, I want to be scared shitless, so any list of my favorite horror films will at least have pretensions towards being a list of "the best" ones (insofar as the scariest ones are the best).
Franklin Harris offers some do's and dont's for cable-TV Halloween movie-watching. His list seems like a good one to me.
Franklin also talks about his favorite horror director, Italian horror pioneer Mario Bava.
Eve Tushnet does her own rambly horror round-up, summarizing four separate approaches to/explanations of horror, including my own favorite.
Meanwhile, Eve's post on Magritte really got me to thinking about what I love in Magritte's work, and yes, it's undoubtedly the horror characteristics. (I think the same applies to the only other artist (non-comics, that is) of whose work I bought a book, Salvador Dali.) Magritte is a master of the monumental horror image--the bulk of his work is dedicated to showing things that ought not be shown, presenting them in the dead center of a static frame, lighting them so that there can be no room for doubt as to what you are witnessing, letting the existence of the image itself, and not any threat the image engenders, create the frisson of horror within the viewer. Look at The Pleasure Principle, Discovery, Man with Newspaper, The Tomb of the Wrestlers, The Castle in the Pyrenees, Poison, the entire series of portraits in which people are replaced by coffins--this is the pointless, debased riot of nonsense that is "reality," he's saying. Look. Feast your eyes.
(As you'll notice if you track down the paintings listed above, Magritte's titles are also chillingly brilliant, casting a pall over the viewer's perception of what they about to see as surely as a title like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre would. They're almost as good as the paintings themselves.)
Finally, David Fiore has opened up a whole nother blog in order to expand on his already expansive theories about popular art. The thing is formatted in such a way that it's nearly impossible for me to read it with my web browser, but you're welcome to check it out--here's a post on the villain in The Turn of the Screw.
When I began my month-long horrorfest, the illustrious Eve Tushnet, no stranger to the macabre herself, asked me what I thought of The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, by author David J. Skal. Turns out that the book was one of those tomes that I'd bought at some point but had never actually gotten around to reading. Spurred on by Eve's question, I've spent the last few days plowing through the thing on the train. (Thank God for the commute, eh?)
It was... okay.
Actually, parts of it were quite good. Skal assigns himself a suitably monstrous task: to chronicle the development of horror a cultural phenomenon, focusing primarily on the 20th century, and America, and film. In some sections he does a fairly bang-up job. His analysis of 1931 (an almost apocalyptically productive year for the horror film, introducing as it did the definitive film versions of Dracula & Frankenstein, an Academy Award-winning version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and the notorious parade of deformity and excess known as Freaks) is both exhaustive and authoritative. Skal also convincingly summarizes the hidden real-world fears that manifest themselves in horror film's different "cycles": the unresolved trauma of World War I, the looming spectre of World War II, Vietnam, the sexual revolution and its attendant reproductive-science advancements and setbacks, AIDS; in one particularly masterful chapter Skal nails one 1950s horror/sci-fi trope after another, citing dozens of films inspired by the Bomb Scare, the Red Scare, the Juvenile Delinquency Scare, and the stress of the TV-induced Information Age. Skal also makes the occasional choice that's both unorthodox and wise, such as his examination of the video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller"--one I've long held to be a criminally undiscussed cornerstone of contemporary horror filmmaking (particularly due to its all but unrivalled impact on popular culture).
Moreover, Skal displays the righteous rage of the horror fan--I know it well--in going after some of the more obnoxious nemeses of the genre, including the old Hays Office Production Code, the Catholic Legion of Decency, feminist watchdog groups, self-appointed culture-guardian film critics, and (most viciously) the MPAA (an organization that deserves to be cast as the "winner" in a film adaptation of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" if ever there was one) and Dr. Frederic Wertham (whose one-man war on comic books as the source of juvenile delinquency was so successful in spite of his near-total lack of non-fabricated corroborating evidence that the industry is still reeling from its effects some 50 years later). As Eve pointed out in her own review of the book, Skal's no fan of Ronald Reagan's; I found his bias a lot less pervasive or distracting than Eve did, though, possibly because I'm more sympathetic to the anti-Regan point of view (for the record: driving a stake through the heart of International Communism? Good! Using poor people to sharpen the stake? Bad!), possibly because the horror filmmakers of the Vietnam era through the 1980s generally did lean left (at least insofar as their antipathy toward segregation, the war, the crimes of the Nixon administration, and rampant consumerism was concerned) but mainly because Skal offsets this liberalish politics by displaying skepticism, even occasional antipathy, toward a variety of common right-wing targets, including psychiatry, the Pill, women in the workforce, sexual liberation, body piercing, the fashion industry, and so forth.
But the real problem with Skal is not his sociopolitical analysis--it's his horror-historical one. Skal subtitled his book A Cultural History of Horror; unfortunately he uses the amorphousness of that second word to justify an arbitrary placement of emphasis on certain aspects of horror art while unreasonably ignoring others, all in an ill-conceived and quixotic quest to Say Something About Life, accuracy be damned. Skal's previous efforts in the horror-crit field include books on the long road Dracula took on its path from book to movie and a biography of Tod Browning, Dracula's (and Freaks's) director; it's unsurprising and disappointing, then, that a full third of The Monster Show is devoted to detailing these pet subjects in the guise of using Tod Browning's life as a metaphor, that of America-as-freak-show. Skal inflates the importance of these films and filmmakers (particularly that of the influential but still obscure Freaks) at the direct expense of other important facets of early film horror (Frankenstein is by no means uncovered, but it's goofy to give it no more space than Freaks; James Whale, director of Frankenstein and its Bride, is given scant mention compared to the far less technically competent, and not really even all that more interesting, Tod Browning). Skal also puts a bizarrely strong emphasis on the gruesome work of photographer Diane Arbus: Well and good, but I can think of several equally or more viable candidates for giving the low art of horror the gloss of high-art legitimacy--Dali, Magritte, Bacon (Skal does at least try with him), Warhol, Mapplethorpe, Reed, Bowie, Fellini, Scorsese, Lynch...the selection of Arbus seems due almost completely to the fact that she's known to have seen Freaks in a movie theater.
Skal also misreads the third horror archetype (in addition to Frankenstein's Monster and Dracula; he also cites Freaks, but c'mon, already) as Jekyll & Hyde; J&H were the obvious inspiration for the Hollywood werewolf concept, but the Stevenson story was merely the John the Baptist for the Jesus Christ of Lon Cheney Jr's Wolf Man (linked inextricably with the Bela Lugosi Dracula and the Boris Karloff Frankenstein by generation after generation of American kids, who really never have a definitive Jekyll/Hyde image in mind). In a misguided attempt to pinpoint the moment at which Dracula and Frankenstein (the monster) became linked in the public consciousness, he spends a chapter detailing the misadventures of one Horace Liveright, an American bohemian and would-be multimedia impresario who finagled the screen rights to Dracula and attempted to do the same with Frankenstein. But Liveright failed in the latter attempt; why Skal focuses on him instead of any number of the members of the British theatrical troupe that formed the backbone of the story (producing and performing, as they did, simultaneous stage adaptations of the two horror classics) is a complete mystery. Additionally, Skal gives short shrift to the zombie and serial-killer/mass-murderer archetypes, too, discussing them (when he does so at all) as subsets of the Vampire/Dracula image, whereas in horror films and literature of today they're clearly their own entities, drawing on their own sets of themes and fears.
It's not until Skal reaches the 1960s, though, that the book really loses the plot. He abandons his almost strictly chronlogical approach for one that bounces erratically back and forth between the 60s, 70s, and 80s, nominally in an attempt to point out more of the underlying tropes which he had previously pinpointed quite well. This time, however, all he really manages is a cogent summary of the birth-trauma cycle that began with Rosemary's Baby, included much of David Cronenberg's work, and reached its apotheosis with Alien and Eraserhead. Even there he's sloppy, not even bothering to mention The Omen and perfunctorily shoehorning the complex issues of The Exorcist into a two-or-three-graf subsection. The slasher cycle is hardly mentioned, excised in favor of exploring the real-life subculture that's as fixated on Dracula as Skal seems to be and launching into a condescending analysis of the work of Stephen King and Bret Easton Ellis. The seismic, seminal King Kong, Psycho, and The Exorcist are inarguably three of the most important horror films of the 20th Century, yet a gossipy chronicle of the life and times of Maila Nurmi, better known as the schlocky-sexy 1950s TV personality Vampira, takes up twice the space in the book of those three films combined. As if that weren't unforgivable enough, films like Night of the Living Dead, the Hammer horror pictures, Kubrick's The Shining, and (the vastly overrated but still important) A Nightmare on Elm Street (as well as its sequels) are barely mentioned, while an almost comically wide range of key films from Metropolis to M to the Creature from the Black Lagoon to Peeping Tom to The Birds to the Italian gialli directors to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to Jaws to Halloween to the Friday the 13th series to Aliens aren't even discussed at all! And this is to say nothing of movies that, while not horror per se, helped pave the way for the increased viscerality and intensity of modern horror: You'll find bupkis about Tittitcut Follies, Bonnie & Clyde, The Wild Bunch, A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Pulp Fiction, Saving Private Ryan, etc.; Un Chien Andalou and Fellini Satyricon get one-line throwaway mentions. Even contemporary horror's real-life analogues--the modern-day media superstars known as serial killers--go undiscussed; Gacy and Dahmer are mentioned in passing, Manson, Whitman, Speck, Ramirez, Fish, and the Stranglers Hillside and Boston not at all. The JFK assassination is also glossed over, nearly unforgivable given that the Zapruder film could well be seen as the most popular splatter flick of all time. As for the horror-genre influence on the work of the 1970s young bucks like Lucas and Scorsese, fugghedaboudit; the closest you'll come is a recounting of Coppola's over-ambitious Dracula remake and an anecdote from Steven Spielberg about how he used to love reading Famous Monsters of Filmland.
(Actually, Skal's socio-politics do get problematic, even bizarre. For the most part it's limited to the excessive but harmless Freudian phallocentrism that Eve detected--for the love of David, man, the poses of the Aurora model-kit monsters did not secretly evoke masturbation--but occasionally, as in his out-of-left-field assault on gender-change operations as Frankensteinian affronts to womanhood or his paranoid rant about the Human Immunodeficiency Virus not really being the cause of AIDS (is he taking med school classes with Thabo Mbeki?), the author veers into bona fide crackpot territory. It's as distracting as it is disturbing.)
Am I glad I read the book? Oh, sure. I can't get enough of this kind of stuff, and as I said there's plenty of little diamonds in that great big rough. But the gaping holes in Skal's canon are too wide to be ignored even by the most charitable horror fan. I said before that Skal gave himself too much leeway with the second word of his subtitle; I think that ultimately what killed this beast was the first word. This truly was a cultural history of horror--David J. Skal's. The cultural history of horror has yet to be written.
The irrepressible Jason Adams lent me a couple of horror movies to do his part for the horrorthon this month, bless 'im. (I reciprocated by lending him The Books of Blood and The Wicker Man.) I watched the first of these today: Battle Royale, the supercontroversial dystopian-Japanese kids-killing-kids flick that also exists as a novel and a well-regarded manga. And for the second time this week, I was... underwhelmed.
The plot is pretty simple. In a future, militarized Japan, the government has responded to economic catastrophe by passing the Battle Royale Act. A class of 7th (or 9th--the film's not very clear) graders is selected at random to take part in three days of mortal combat, wherein they're isolated in a remote location and forced to kill each other with weapons given to them by the B.R. program. The kids have three days to slaughter each other until only one remains, or all the survivors will be killed by unremovable remote-detonated explosive necklaces. The film (and the manga, and presumably the book) is a study of how the different kids react to the pressure to kill their friends in order to survive themselves. It's basically a high-concept Lord of the Flies.
I've been reading the manga version of the story, and it's been entertaining thus far. The main characters are interesting and likeable, the shock moments work well, and the violence is spectacularly over the top. But a lot of what worked due to the methodical, make-every-moment-count nature of Japanese comic storytelling is rushed in the film, keeping the viewer less invested in pulling for the heroic characters and unable to see the more bloodthirsty ones as anything but one-dimensional killing machines. Indeed, the filmmakers seem to have taken for granted the fact that viewers would be familiar with either the novel or manga versions of the story: It could be that the dialogue and expository captions were just inadequately translated, but it seemed that no one ever bothered to explain why a pretty massive amount of plot points were happening. For example, the sinister emcee-type character from the manga (the same type of part that Richard Dawson played in The Running Man) is transformed here into a former teacher of the class in question, who had been stabbed (why? we never find out) by one of the goofier kids (why? it seems totally out of character), then quits teaching only to wreak vengeance on the class by forcing them into the game (why? is he now a government official? the soldiers involved in the B.R. program seem to answer directly to him, but he's still pointedly presented as a lonely, pathetic, working-class schlub). Moreover, we never find out what the purpose of the game itself is--there are some intimations about this being a response to truancy, but a) that's kind of a harsh punishment for cutting gym class, no? and b) wouldn't this make kids LESS likely to stay in school, knowing their class could be next into the meat grinder? Indeed, a lot of summaries of the various Battle Royale incarnations say the kids kill each other on a television show, but no mention of a TV show is made in the movie version, and no cameras or viewers are present in any version, including the movie and the manga. And let's not even talk about the nonsensical ending, which has two plot holes (at least) big enough to drive a Toyota through and culminates in a completely unnecessary three-part reprise of dream sequences and flashbacks we've already seen.
The film doesn't even have a satisfyingly dark tone to compensate for the faulty plot mechanics. I was expecting a Texas Chain Saw-style parable of a country that's eating its youth, but instead I got a slick, Hollywood-style action thriller--you know, the kind where virtually everyone survives just long enough after getting shot to say something profoundly ironic or ironically profound, and where there's big swelling orchestral music at all the exciting or touching parts. I guess we're supposed to be disturbed because it's kids killing each other, and not grown-up movie stars, but everything else is so similar to a Michael Bay movie that I barely noticed the age of the killers after a while. And even the gore, which in the manga is just splendidly extravagant, is nothing compared to the average action movie, and certainly pales in comparison to, say, the final half-hour of Dawn of the Dead. As horrific as the story is, I never found myself horrified.
The only thing that came close was the (unintentionally?) engimatic Mr. Kitana, the ex-teacher who was calling the shots in the slaughter of his former students. I got the sense that the filmmakers were trying to say something about the adult world's simultaneous disgust, distrust, and envy of teenagers (as filtered in particular through the strange schoolgirl obsession featured in so much Japanese pop entertainment), or even more specifically the occasional journey of teachers from wide-eyed idealism to sadistic misanthropy. But either through lackadaisacal structuring or simply a lack of ideas, none of these possibilities emerges clearly, or even in a murkily compelling fashion. Whatever the reason, I ended up feeling that Battle Royale, the movie, was a gauntlet I'd rather not have run.
(Still and all, the manga is good, and if I can get over having the ending and all the twists spoiled for me by the movie, I'll continue to read it. Meanwhile, Jason lent me another movie, Paperhouse, which he discusses here. B.R. aside, his taste is usually impeccable, and it's been seconded for me by Bruce Baugh. The thrill of discovery and all that... Speaking of which, I've got my own relatively obscure horror movies to proselytize for. They're on the way, I promise.)
How much do I like horror? I'll put it this way: I actually enjoy my nightmares.
I can't even begin to tell you how many of my bad dreams have been variations on the following theme: Some group of individuals or entities is trying to kill me. I must escape, but in order to truly survive I must hunt down and kill my pursuers, lest I be pursued by them forever. In other words, I can't just run away--it is, quite literally, a kill-or-be-killed scenario.
Off the top of my head, I can think of examples of this type of nightmare in which I've been chased through unfamiliar streets by skinheads for having witnessed their murder of an Indian man; snuck a gun into a big Mafia sit-down in order to execute the boss of my family at point-blank range before he can give the order to have me killed; defended my brother and sister from the Aliens-type aliens who were attacking our house; infiltrated a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan only to realize that if I am discovered I must kill any number of jihadis in order to escape; fought to escape the poisonous clutches of 28 Days Later-style zombies intent on killing me before I could bash their heads in; and on and on. I'm reasonably sure other versions have involved burglars, rednecks, Leatherface, Mola Ram's Thugee deathcult, and the Ringwraiths, though those memories are a bit foggy.
I know what you're thinking: "Sean, that's awesome! You dream in the action-thriller genre!" Wait, you weren't thinking that? You were thinking, "If I had that type of dream over and over I'd be mainlining No-Doz?" Oh, my friends, you're missing out. Not because these dreams aren't scary--they are, o sweet jeebus are they ever. I wake up drenched in sweat, heart pounding, totally convinced that I've been fighting for my life--and fighting to kill--for hours at a time. But when I finally do come to my senses and realize it was all a dream, good Lord, it's an unbelievable rush. It's like being on the world's absolute best roller coaster--but thinking you're actually in a runaway semi on the Jersey Turnpike at the time. You get all the adrenaline, all the fear, all the rage, all the horror of a real-life life-threatening situation, complelty convinced all the time that it is in fact real-life, but realize--only after it's over--that you were never in any danger at all. If I could bottle that sensation, I'd be mulling over my renovation plans for Bill Gates's mansion by now.
I've never been all that wild about the theory that horror is a way for people to get a vicariously thrilling glimpse into nightmare territory--I mean, I'm sure it is, but that's never been a big motivating factor for me. But when I think about those nightmares I always have, that sense of complete helplessness in the face of a situation that offers me no choice but to kill or die, one where I must remain close to the object of horror but not so close as to be touched and consumed by it, I see a great many parallels to horror after all. Think of the canoe-trippers in Deliverance, convinced that they have to hunt down the unseen men pursuing them lest they all be killed. Think of the mall-dwellers in Dawn of the Dead, braving the zombie-infested parking lot to get those 18-wheelers they need to guard the doors. Think of Wendy and Danny running through the corridors of the Overlook, trying to find one another yet avoid mad Jack. Think of Agent Clarice Starling journeying into the basement in the final reel of The Silence of the Lambs.
I can't help but feel that part of my disappointment with the film version of Battle Royale stems from the fact that it devised a situation that replicated the conditions of my nightmares almost to the letter, but for all that failed to get the sweat flowing, the heart pounding, the pulse racing. I get that from my dreams--it seems the least I can expect from my horror movies.
Where'd you get the idea that I don't like Captain America's costume? Dude, that's all Dirk. I think it's pretty cool-looking, actually. John Cassaday proved even the old-school chain-mail version could look imposing and tough; meanwhile Brian Hitch has done a convincing revamp along the lines of what moviemakers have already done with the Daredevil costume.
In short, Cap's costume is no obstacle to getting a decent movie out of him. I mean, hell, Superman has the dorkiest, worst-designed, least-sense-making costume in all of comics, and those movies set the superflick gold standard.
In what I'm sure will come as a total shock to you all, I am the proud owner of a Lord of the Rings wall calendar (a gift from The Missus). I've owned various and sundry of these in the past, usually showcasing the art of one of the many Tolkien-inspired painters out there. I always looked forward to the month of October, because that was always the month with the baddest-ass picture of Smaug or the Balrog or Glaurung or the Ringwraiths or the Sauron-Wolf or what have you. Though I doubt that Halloween was a holiday Professor Tolkien much approved of, it sure did me right on all those wall calendars of yore.
But this time around the monster in question is an orc, shown in close-up, from the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring. And man, is it ever scary. Scary to the point that every once in a while it kinda sneaks up on you and you take a look and go "yaaah!" Scary to the point that when my mother-in-law was visiting and staying in room where it's hanging we turned the page back to September (Galadriel and Frodo) so she wouldn't wake up in the middle of the night and freak out. Scary enough that our cat sometimes stares at it and hisses. (Well, no, she doesn't, but if she started doing that I wouldn't be surprised.)
Back when they announced that Peter Jackson would be making a live-action movie trilogy out of LotR, I had actually decided about two days prior to the announcement that translating the books to the screen would be my life's work. Had they picked any other filmmaker, I probably would have been pissed. But I knew Jackson's work well, and he was more than okay by me. I knew he was inventive enough to do the material justice but restrained enough not to make it A Peter Jackson Film before it was a J.R.R. Tolkien one. I knew he had a knack for balancing effects and human drama, as he did in his tremendously entertaining, moving, and disturbing film Heavenly Creatures. And I knew (this was key) he could be scary.
A goodly chunk of the appeal of The Lord of the Rings is the scary stuff. I think this may stem from the way in which Tolkien, whose powers of description are nearly unrivalled when it comes to landscapes, architecture, civilizations, and so forth, stays deliberately shadowy when describing his monsters. This can occasionally cause some trouble amongst his readers--the debate over whether or not the Balrog actually has wings has raged for decades and is not likely to cease any time soon--but in the main Tolkiens flights of dark poetry in talking about his bestiary and rogues gallery allows the reader to fill in the frightening blanks. The chilling decrepitude of the barrow-wight, the relentless mindless evil of the Nazgul, the terrifyingly undefined leviathan known as the Watcher in the Water, the warcrime brutality of the orc catapults launching severed human heads over the walls of Minas Tirith--that's some horror right there. (Stephen King has talked on numerous occasions about the impact the Shelob passage had on his formation as a horror writer, and for my money Tolkien's description of her--"all living things were her food; and her vomit darkness"--is maybe the finest passage in all his books.)
Ralph Bakshi's much-maligned animated adaptation of the first half of LotR is better than I think a lot of people give it credit for, though even quick comparison to Jackson's adaptation is not kind to the earlier version. But one thing Bakshi managed very well is portraying the dread and horror laced throughout the books. The weird, ominous music and post-psychedelic lighting actually apes the nightmare-like quality of Tolkien's horror prose quite well, and in some cases (as in the attack at Weathertop) Bakshi actually out-horrors his live-action successor. But Jackson is no slouch; indeed, he's a horror master. His Uruk-Hai alone deserve a place in the great monster pantheon (and are a far superior film translation of the titular character in Clive Barker's "Rawhead Rex" than the goofy-looking thing in the film that was made of that story). The ghosts lingering in the Dead Marshes were unexpectedly terrifying; the huge winged Fell Beasts the Nazgul ride upon are perfectly wrong, right down to that biting-on-tinfoil roar they emit; the Watcher in the Water is maybe the best Cthuloid creature ever committed to film; and on and on and on. Even Christopher Lee equals the madmen he's played in the past with that utterly insane cry of "To waaaaaar!" in The Two Towers. In addition to making wondrous, beautiful, thrilling, exhiliarating, moving films out of LotR, Jackson's made horror films out of them too--as well he should.
(As for Jackson's interpretation of Shelob, of which we've only seen a fleeting glimpse in the Return of the King trailer, the director is said to have issued a prime directive to his creature shop regarding his specifications for the beast: "She's got to scare me." Now that's my kind of standard.)
Amanda offers a thought-provoking post on the nature, and perhaps the futility, of art criticism. She's focusing primarily on music, with a nod towards visual arts and dance--the three most ineffable art forms, I'd wager. And obviously her point is a good one, as evidenced by the differences of opinion between all the intelligent, well-rounded art/lit-crit thinkers in the blogroll over there: What makes art "good" is as hard to find as Flannery O'Connor's proverbial good man. But in the end I can't accept that criticism is totally futile (not that I think that this is what Amanda is saying, necessarily, but a more strenuous version of her argument is often lobbed at critics by artists and creators claiming "you'll never understand," so it's worth offering some kind of defense). I know in my heart that there is a difference--a real, qualitative difference--between this song and that, this comic and that, this film and that, this painting and that, this book and that, etc. I know that, taste and background and education and experience aside, there are cases in which one can say that this art is better than that art. Why? Passion, craft, innovation, originality, creatifity, ingenuity, skill, impact, iconoclasm, iconicity, enjoyability, intelligence, entertainment value, God knows what else; it varies, from case to case and even from time to time. I think it's foolish, and probably inimical to art itself, to claim to have all the answers when it comes to Art; here's the latest installment of an interminable object lesson on this point, courtesy of a self-deluded individual who's Got It All Figured Out. But ultimately, we try, we struggle, to figure out as much of it as we can, and occasionally we offer our interpretations, our opinions, our critiques, like little unrequited love-letters to the Art that sustains us, infuriates us, gives our lives meaning. That's how I see it. That's how I've got to see it.
Apologies to Jim Henley for stealing his idea, but...
War is bad. However, war is not always the baddest. Sometimes it's not even close.
Just because you support war doesn't mean you can or should fight in it. I advocate a radical reevaluation of the Rolling Stones's writing and playing habits, but I will not and should not be taking over vocal duties from Mick Jagger anytime soon. (Seriously, Jim, chickenhawk arguments? Even if you're just kidding, that's beneath you.)
Oppose the war? Fine. Cheering for people who, because they oppose the war, want to punish the Iraqis for no good reason? Not fine.
While it's true that Al Qaeda can never transform America into an Islamist fascist theocracy, they and their friends, forerunners and supporters have in fact done this in an extraordinarily huge area of the world, and will continue to murder random Americans and others for as long as said theocracies exist, for this is the nature of said theocracies. So terrorism is the foremost threat to liberty in the world; and while I think the PATRIOT and VICTORY Acts are pretty dumb (much less dumb than things done by every other wartime administration in the nation's history, yes, but still dumb), it takes a very, very narrow reading of both "America" and "liberty" to decide that Ashcroft and Rumsfeld are a bigger threat to either than terrorism is.
In general: Espousing doctrinaire isolationist/pacifist libertarian views to attack a war designed to end an expansionist, belligerent, fascist regime? I've got to admit that I just don't get it. Or maybe I do, but because it stems from not giving a tinker's damn about the rest of the world, I don't want to.
Moving on, Iraq is not in chaos. Iraq is not spiraling towards chaos. Iraq is occasionally chaotic, but so is Mepham High School in Bellmore, Long Island. If you are being told that things are getting worse and worse in Iraq, you are being lied to.
If you are being told that President Bush ever said the threat from Iraq was "imminent," you are being lied to.
If you are being told that David Kay and the weapons inspectors found "nothing," you are being lied to.
I'm really, really, really tired of seeing news reports from the likes of NBC's David Gregory, who in a transparently anti-Bush chat with Chris Matthews last week talked about how the Bush Administration's drive to publicize the successful reconstruction going on in Iraq is "belied" by the urgency with which they were doing it, that the bad poll numbers (not so bad anymore, it would seem) stem not from lousy one-sided reporting but are the logical consequence of the number of K.I.A every day (as if that's the only story in the whole goddamn country), that the weapons inspectors (here it is again) found nothing.
The truth is out there.
Since The 13 Days of Halloween, my planned denouement of this whole Where the Monsters Go horrorfest, are fast approaching, I tried to compile a list of the thirteen films I'll be reviewing at the end of the month while on the train today.
It quickly became apparent that the odds of me whittling down my favorite horror films to a mere 13 were slim to none--a top 25 is a little closer to the mark. Once we get to around the top, oh, seven or so, the rank is pretty clear, but below that tier there's just a mass of movies that I simply love and would love to talk about. And there's other movies that I haven't seen yet but want to, and want to discuss the results of said proposed screenings. What to do?
Well, there's only one thing for a self-respecting former film-studies major horror junkie to do: Start immersion therapy now, and let God sort it all out come the 31st. Let's call it The 13 Days of Halloween: The Director's Cut.
Update: I did it! 13 Days, 13 top horror films: so be it. Stay tuned.
So anyway, Paperhouse. This was the filmic equivalent of a blind date for me: My pal Jason Adams lent me a copy with his personal recommendation attached. Directed by Bernard Rose, this 1988 feature has all the hallmarks of 1980s British genre cinema that I know and love: men in grey suits, pretty-plain women with broad white faces, ethereal synths and strings for the soundtrack, an overall feel of elegant decrepitude. (Think Hellraiser, think the film version of 1984...)
It's a lovely, scary little film, centered on a sick young girl whose dreamlife seems connected to the absent-minded-cum-compulsive sketches she draws in her notebook. Her immersion in this world and her friendship with the young boy she finds there soon come to threaten her health, and perhaps her sanity, in the real world. Like the work of a proto-Shyamalan, Paperhouse is constructed by director Rose at a deliberate pace, with long takes, thoughtful editing, and marvelously immersive sound. The performances are quiet and convincing, particularly those of the two children (Charlotte Burke and Elliot Spiers) and the girl's harried all-but-single mother (Glenne Headly, an actress I could stand to see more of). The scary stuff is not really the point of the film, but when it comes it's off-kilter, disturbing, and intense--thanks in no small part to the film's art direction, which achieves a weird synthesis between Rene Magritte and Edward Hopper.
As Jason says, the Freudian imagery can become a little much at times--lighthouses, blind fathers, parapalegics, dark tunnels, warm baths, the sea, using a soft-serve ice cream machine but then disappointedly sighing "no cones"--and since I'm sure there's a debate to be had as to whether Freud unveiled this symbolic undercurrent to humanity or simply hyped and/or outright invented it, it's tough to say how primal all this is. But it's eerie--uncanny, if you will--and coupled with the surprisingly touching turns the story takes, it gives the film a haunting, poetic feel that I can tell will stick with me.
I see from looking at the IMDB that comparisons to The Ring have been made, and rightly so; this film lacks that one's vicious heart, though, and in this case is the better for it. Paperhouse is a hard film to find, but look around.
James Lileks, of all people, gets into the spooky spirit with a great post about, among other things, Stephen King. I too find myself flipping through It around this time of year (in the beginning of the summer, it's Night Shift and Skeleton Crew; at the end of summer, it's The Stand; in the fall, it's It). I go straight for the good parts, ask myself if they'll be as good as I remember them, read them, and say to myself Yep, as good as I remember them. Which is to say it has all the simultaneous detail and power of a locomotive engine moving at full speed when it's about three feet from your face.
Jason Adams went on a horror-DVD shopping spree, and also talks a bit about reading the copies of the Books of Blood that I lent him. Volume I really is just plain incredible, one story after another.
Finally, good enough, Jim, good enough!
The Missus was insistent: I've got to stick with the "13" part of The 13 Days of Halloween. So after a lot of thought, I've managed to narrow down the mass of movies to a top thirteen. I'll still be reviewing a bunch of films in the run-up to the 19th, when the 13 Days start in earnest; I'll also be peppering the days with runners-up and also-rans. But there will be a countdown, stretching from the 19th to the 31st and culminating in The Scariest Movie I Ever Seen.
Congratulations to Dirk "The CNN of the Comics Internet (pre-Fox News)" Deppey for a full year of blogging.
Congratulations to Alan David Doane for his second return to blogging in as many weeks, and congratulations to NeilAlien for redesigning ADD's site and giving it a logo that, considering a lot of people's apparent feelings toward Alan, is eminently appropriate.
Congratulations to Mark Millar for thinking of another great way to piss people off, and congratulations to Peter Gross for coming up with two of the best covers I've seen all year.
Congratulations to John Jakala for smacking down another example of mainstream comics condescension, and congratulations to John Jakala again for clarifying that it's not Chuck Austen's revisionist superhero tale that bothers him, it's the fact that Austen's press release reads like it's the only revisionist superhero comic ever.
And congratulations to David Fiore for coming up with The Comicsphere Sentence of the Week: "Tomorrow, I'll start my close-reading of Power of the Atom #1."
Only in the comicsphere, kids. Only in the comicsphere.
(Okay, so he's not on yayo. Still, how many chances do you get to make a germane reference to a song from the Scarface soundtrack during a political discussion?)
So Rush Limbaugh is a pill popper. I could make a lot of "well, that explains it, then" jokes right now, but I won't. Instead, I'll stick to excoriating this man's bottomless hypocrisy. Here is an individual who's harped time and again on the wisdom of even the most draconian anti-drug laws. Not just druglords and dealers but users and addicts, not just crack and heroin but weed and ecstasy (and illegal prescription pill usage)--in Rush's world, everyone on drugs or involved with drugs should get the book thrown at them, because Drugs Are Evil. Yet for years this paragon of virtue, who's made it his business to convince the American public that the government should be getting involved in other people's business to the point where non-violent drug offenders can be rounded up and thrown in jail for more than a decade, has been illegally abusing drugs. Shame on him for his sanctimonius imposture. Shame on him for his staunch advocacy of a grotesque and Sisyphean policy that wastes money, ruins lives, and is--in its violations of human and civil rights, its overheated rhetoric and outright lies about the "danger" it's supposed to be combating, and its ability to make the government look purveyors of ulterior-motivated hyperbolic deceit in an age of real threats and real dangers--not just stupid but immoral.
But finally, shame on people who gleefully wish upon Rush the same grim institutional fate that awaited the victims of the heartless and moronic drug policy he himself advocated. Like all addicts, like all users, Rush belongs in rehab, not prison. I can only hope that he comes to realize this himself.
Big news in the comics world.
Marvel President Bill Jemas is out. Not out out--he still works for Marvel--but he doesn't seem to be in charge of anything anymore, at least insofar as any of us on the outside will notice. A lot's been said about the pros and cons of this development, and I think it's worth noting that virtually everyone worth listening to (Deppey Johnston Hastings Alien Naso et al O'Brien) is both grateful for many aspects of Jemas's tenure and worried about what will happen now that it's over. So am I. Jemas had his drawbacks--constantly baiting the retailers (even if he was in the right 85% of the time), constantly baiting the fanboys (even if he was in the right 95% of the time), coming up with a storytelling formula that (though superior to a lot of storytelling methods used in supercomics) simply should not have been applied in a needlessly Procrustean manor to virtually every comic line-wide--but he presided over one of the most dramatic reversals of fortune for a mainstream comics company since Stan, Jack, and Steve birthed Marvel Comics As We Know It back in the early 60s.
Marvel now produces a whole bunch of books that are both financially successful and extremely enjoyable, and a handful of books that are as good as superhero comics get. Their stock has increased in value something like 1000%, and the company is the pace-setter for the industry. The fanboy and fanboy-retailer influence is at a delightfully low ebb, and Marvel (thanks mainly to the movies, but at least in part to the fact that the comics aren't a total goddamn joke anymore) is a cultural player. It's difficult to pin down how much of this is attributable to Jemas as opposed to editor-in-chief Joe Quesada, key editors like Axel Alonso, or key creators like Grant Morrison and Brian Michael Bendis (though it seems safe to say that it was respected editors like Quesada and Alonso or top-notch creators like Morrison and Bendis, and not a former Fleer Trading Cards executive, that attracted talent to the company). But President Jemas oversaw all that, and in at least the case of the Ultimate line of revamped big-gun superheroes, had a direct hand in some of the best ideas the company's had in years and years. Most indications are that, with Joe Quesada still in place and friend-of-Q Dan Buckley stepping in to Jemas's old slot, little will change except that the most grating aspects of the Jemas era will be gone. (Some folks worry that a "don't rock the boat" mentality will arise out of fear of ruining potential movie franchises, but for a variety of reasons--the fact that a little comic seen by a hundred thousand people ain't gonna affect a multi-hundred-million-dollar movie one way or the other not least among them--I just don't see that happening.) So in closing, happy trails, Bill Jemas. You played a big role, whatever it actually happened to be, in getting me back into comics. Thank you.
Meanwhile, Fantagraphics has formally announced the details of its upcoming Complete Peanuts series... and I'm worried. Not by the content itself, obviously, which is just wonderful and will be a perennial Christmas-gift sure-thing (the early years that don't quite look like what people think of when they think of Peanuts might be a problem, but hopefully not much of one). No, I'm worried about the design, by acclaimed comix creator Seth. To get straight to the point, it looks like it was created to deliberately alienate the average person who enjoys Charlie Brown, Snoopy et al. Despite what Seth--and Fantagraphics owners Gary Groth and Kim Thompson--must think, I guaranTEE you that when Joe Peanuts Fan thinks of the strip, "austere," "quiet," and "melancholy" aren't what leaps to mind, as they apparently did for the designer, who uses those words to describe the work he did. No, what most folks think of is that joyous Vince Guaraldi Trio piano music, with Snoopy dancing merrily with his nose in the air, and a bright-yellow-shirted Charlie Brown getting that football tugged away from him by a bright-blue-dressed Lucy. And when they pick up volume one of The Complete Peanuts, they'll be looking at colors and design suitable for a repackaging of Maus. It's the kind of decision that only people immersed in the insular world of alt-comix hero worship--one just as limited and limiting as its more gaudy spandex-clad equivalent--could make. Let me put it this way: If you were a little kid, or a grown-up interested in feeling like a little kid, would this appeal to you in any way?
This is not good.
I've been a big booster of the band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club ever since they were personally recommended to me by the Dandy Warhols. (Hey, when a man named Courtney Taylor-Taylor tells you something, you listen.) And I love, love, love their first record, B.R.M.C.. It's swirly, it's dark, it's loud, it's ambitious, it's progressive, it's classic, it's generally a big fat rejoinder to the critics who inexplicably tagged the band as a Jesus & Mary Chain knockoff. (I guess they look a little like J&MC used to, but I really have never been able to figure out the prevalence of this meme.) So I was pretty damn psyched to pick up their second record, Take Them On, On Your Own. Sounds angry! Sounds brash!
Okay, that was harsh. To be fair, about half of TTOOYO is a good record, and without the existence of the band's first album, the whole thing might be considered pretty good. But alas, they already recorded songs like "Whatever Happened To My Rock and Roll?" on the first record, so filling half of this one with uninspired retreads of that song's thunderous school-of-rock marching-band-isms and endless feedbacky coda is just an exercise in water-treading. And in song after song--"Stop" (which at least has an interesting six-word chorus), "Six-Barrel Shotgun" (might as well be a "Whatever Happened...?" remix), "We're All In Love," "Generation" (this one riffs on the first album's "White Palms" instead--ooh, innovative), "Suddenly" (in 3/4 time, but otherwise same deal)--that's exactly what they do.
This is not to say that the Club tries nothing new. On "In Like the Rose," the band tries to do the Dandy Warhol's drone-y groove thing, but unfortunately all they manage to do is plod; "Ha Ha High Babe" fares much better in its similar vein. "Shade of Blue" seems like more of the same until a simple, sunny guitar line jangles in from out of nowhere mid-song, lifting the whole thing up out of the doldrums. "And I'm Aching" is acoustic, which is pretty, but makes the limitations of lead vocalist Robert Turner's vocals all the clearer (and they were pretty clear to begin with, on this album). But the record closes with a one-two punch that rivals some of the combos on its predecessor: "Rise or Fall," a New Wave-y banger that, you want to yell infomercial-style, really works!, and "Heart + Soul," which sounds like nothing so much as Pink Floyd covering the MC5, which believe me is a good thing to sound like indeed.
So yeah, there's half a good album on there. It's only disappointing when you consider their first album--the searing regret of "Love Burns," the sneering rage of "Red Eyes and Tears," the swirling psychedelia of "Awake," the rumbling angst of "White Palms," the rockin' "Jean Genie"-isms of "Spread Your Love," the swelling religiosity of "Alive." At least 50% of what you have on Take Them On is merely competent, a sort of balls-to-the-wall-by-the-numbers routine. I guess we are on our own, after all.
My worrisome thoughts on the upcoming Peanuts books from Fantagraphics have inspired some responses: Eve agrees that the design is almost confrontationally Artsy, while Franklin and David say it's okay by them. Well, yeah, guys, that's what I'm saying: You're the Peanuts hardcore--of course you're gonna love a nice tasteful thoughtful melancholic cover that will look nice on your bookshelf. Hey, I'm not even arguing that it won't look nice on your bookshelf or anything like that. I just think that most people want a Peanuts collection that looks like it's going to be funny, not one that's some sort of "Taps"-in-design-form for our lost childhoods and the late Sparky Schulz, which is what Seth came up with. And yeah, David, the angst is right there, but so is the funniness, and that's ultimately why people come back to Charlie Brown et al.
Amy counters my response to her thoughts on the utility of criticism. I certainly think she's right that the ultimate arbiter of quality in art is Time, over which standards both develop and are agreed upon and applied, a canon emerges, and so forth. All I'm saying is that the criticism that each of us does in the here and now are little drops in that ocean, or to make us sound more productive and vital, bricks in the edifice. That's how I feel, anyway--not that I'm the Judge of Goodness for the world, but just for me, and that these are my thoughts about this or that, and I think they're good thoughts, and you can do with them what you will.
Random thoughts from around the ersatz horrorsphere:
Johnny Bacardi has a big ol' post today that, among other things, talks about the inaugural film in Hammer's vampire franchise, Horror of Dracula. (Johnny, the reason the crossed candlesticks worked is because it's the belief, in this case Van Helsing's, that makes a cross or crucifix an effective vampire retardant, and not the purpose for which the cross-like object/s was manufactured. Cf. the popsicle-stick cross in Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot.) Later in that same post, Johnny responds to an earlier post of mine and justifies his criteria for "good horror movies"--he just doesn't get scared by movies, so he's looking for the overall entertainment value rather than the fright factor. Hey, to each his own. But me, I gotta have the scary stuff.
Eve Tushnet offers thoughts on a little horror-flick marathon she underwent over the weekend. I agree with her take on Daredevil (okay, not a horror movie, but, uh, "devil"'s in the title)--I think that, for all its goofy flaws, this movie still deserves more credit. I can see not getting scared by The Sixth Sense--spooky, yes; frightening over the long term, no, but then I don't think that's the point--but I must admit I'll never understand people who aren't scared by The Shining. And it's very interesting to hear Eve's thoughts on The Wicker Man, particularly if you compare to them to that big ol' hippie Bill Sherman's. Personally, I think the brilliance of this film is how it toys almost mercilessly with audience expectation, particularly the expectation of the kind of anti-establishment art-school audiences most likely to see it at this point--and that's what tripped Bill up a bit. But I think that if you don't get your worldview challenged by this film, as Eve says she didn't, well, you're probably a little too comfortable in your worldview. (Hey, I'm just saying that one little sentence in lieu of a whole debate about Catholicism and same-sex marriage. I'm being a diplomat here!)
Finally, Shawn Fumo reviews Dan Clowes's if-that's-not-horror-I-don't-know-what-is graphic novel Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, and proceeds from there into the assertion that David Lynch's Mulholland Drive was, in fact, a horror film. I haven't seen MD, but I don't see why it wouldn't be--nearly everything else by Lynch certainly is, whether people notice it or not. His whole oeuvre is about nameless, purposeless evil overwhelming and corrupting the innocent. That's horror. That, and all the evil murdering Men from Another Place.
Today's film is a favorite of mine, all the more so for its being a completely unexpected find. It's called Cemetery Man--also known as Della'morte Dell'amore--and it's got zombie nuns, serial killers, Hitchcockian doppelgangers, direct swipes from Rene Magritte, existentialist angst, surrealist plot construction, inventive and entertaining gore, and beautiful naked people. In other words, how could it not be one of my favorites?
Directed by Dario Argento protege Michele Soavi, this Italian-made 1994 film (it was shot in English, but the Italian-standard post-sync sound still gives it an odd dubbed look) stars, get this, Rupert Everett. Yes, that Rupert Everett--My Best Friend's Wedding, Madonna's ersatz girlfriend for a while. What is he doing in a low-budget Italian zombie movie? God only knows, but he's doing it really well. Everett stars as Francesco Della'morte, the aptly surnamed (it means "of death") caretaker of Buffalora Cemetery. Ground down to a little nub of cynicism and washboard abs by years of working with nothing but corpses and a mute manservant named Gnaghi, Della'morte spends his days burying the dead and his nights re-killing them, as some unnamed epidemic has taken hold in his cemetery, re-animating the dead by the seventh day after their death. From the very first scene, it's clear that Della'morte sees this bizarre and gruesome task as just another part of his workaday existence--to report it would mean losing his job, to say nothing of the mountains of paperwork involved.
Things change for our gruff, sexy, perpetually five-o'clock-shadowed anti-hero when a beautiful young widow, played by the almost comically lovely Anna Falchi, passes through the graveyard to bury her late husband, a much older man. Turns out the widow has something of a thing for death, which Della'morte plays to his advantage, and then, unfortunately for everyone, to his disadvantage. How? Well, let's just say having sex with someone atop her husband's grave in a cemetery where the dead routinely come back to life is maybe a bad idea. I won't say anymore--this film is so unique, and so filmic, that I don't want to spoil it for you. But suffice it to say that this movie starts as one thing, becomes three or four other things, and ends up as something entirely unexpected and deeply, deeply haunting.
Not something you expect from an Italian zombie flick, huh?
I myself was lucky enough to pick it up sight-unseen at the recommendation of the clerk at the local cult-movie video store back at Yale (before the University moved a Blockbuster in down the street and put the place out of business). I took it home, stuck it in the common-room VCR, and sat enthralled with half my roommates as this movie, utterly unlike anything I'd ever seen before, played out. "Wow," said my pre-med housemate upon its conclusion, "what a movie--that had something for everybody!" And indeed it does. The film's sense of humor shines through even in its bleakest and grossest moments, and is as deadpan as it wanna be: Says a doctor at one point to Della'morte, who for reasons I'll avoid getting into is seeking a fairly radical bit of sex therapy, "Please don't make me cut it off. Today, I'm... just not up for it." There's broad but vicious satire of contemporary mores, both political ("Vote For A Man Who Has Lost All Other Happiness" is proposed as an hysterically exploitative campaign slogan by the town's mayor, whose daughter has just been decapitated in a motorcycle accident) and sexual ("Mind your business," yells a love-struck young woman when Della'morte interrupts her post-mortem reunion with her dead boyfriend, "I can be eaten by whomever I please."). The performances are note-perfect all around, and Everett and Falchi imbue their roles with a kind of nihilistic glamour, like a grand guignol Belmondo and Seberg. Moreover, the two leads are genuinely glorious specimens of humanity; you see quite a bit of them, and they give their sex scenes a genuine paraphiliac chemistry. Indeed, the whole movie is like paraphilia in film form--instead of channelling sexual energy into fetishes, the movie channels horror into comedy, comedy into erotica, erotica into romance, romance into slapstick, slapstick into tragedy, tragedy into gore, gore into high art, high art into pulp, pulp into philosophy. It bridges the gap between film grad students, comic-book geeks and horny teenagers by referencing cult favorites both silly (The Three Stooges) , sinister (the whole zombie-flick pantheon), and sublime (Magritte). And the ending--nope, not another word out of me, just that it's metaphor writ large, and it's genuinely fascinating to see.
Oh, and did I mention the zombie Boy Scouts? Damn, this is a good movie.
Two movies today.
I suppose that what separates the movies I'm watching and reviewing right now from the movies I'll be watching and reviewing once the official 13 Days of Halloween begin on Sunday is that these ones tend to lack that monumental horror-image that frightens me so. But there's more than one way to skin a
teenager cat, and there's more than one way to visually demonstrate that something is going very, very wrong. The image may not be monumental in the ways I use the term, but it can be spectacular, and spectacularly horrifying too.
Such is the case with John Carpenter's The Thing, the 1982 reimagining of the 1951 sci-fi alien-invader flick of the same name (both are adaptations of the John Campbell short story "Who Goes There?"). Director Carpenter had previously pumped new, ahem, blood into horror with his phenomenally successful and influential ur-slasher flick Halloween. But that movie, for my money, has had much of its power stripped away by its imitators. Whereas slasher-movie copycats and general pop-culture rifferty tend to reveal the superiority of forerunners like Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, in Halloween's case they reveal the original's weaknesses, which are many. That film did precious little for me when i finally saw it. But Carpenter runs into no such difficulty with this, his second most-oft-imitated film, which is also his most frightening and visionary.
The plot is pure situational simplicity. The gruff, all-male crew of a remote American research station in Antarctica peek outside their windows to see a pair of frantic Norwegians in a helicopter, shooting at a fleeing sled dog. Within minutes, the two Norwegians are dead, the dog has been taken in, and the Americans are left wondering what the hell happened in the Norwegian research base the trio fled from, a full hour away by helicopter. Kurt Russell plays R.J. McCready, the bearded, heavy-drinking helicopter pilot who discovers that the Norwegian scientists had freed something from the ancient ice--and that that shape-shifting, alien something now walks among his crew.
Like several great horror films (Deliverance, The Exorcist, Texas Chain Saw), this film benefits greatly from its long, slow, tense opening segment. The frigidity and isolation of the snowed-in base is established in detail, as is the gruesome insanity of whatever-it-is-that-happened to the Norwegian, and as are the combustible personalities of the American crew. Carpenter assembled one of the most watchable casts of manly men since Kazan's 12 Angry Men--it's a veritable smorgasbord of terrific character actors, including Richard Dysart as the cool-headed base doctor, Wilford Brimely as the volatile brains of the operation, Donald Moffat as the gun-toting military man, and Richard Masur as the sensitive type who looks after the rescued dog. Between them and the other types here assembled--the pot-smoking conspiracy theorist, the rollerskating funkateer, the bespectacled Richard Dreyfus lookalike, the wigged-out radioman, the suspicious rival for McCready's ersatz leadership post--there's enough pent-up, violent machismo bouncing around that anyone thrown in amongst the group would be prone to paranoia, even if mysterious Things weren't a factor.
But they are--oh boy, are they ever. Make-up effects artist Rob Bottin has rightfully entered the pantheon for his work here, some of the most exuberantly imaginative and grotesque horror effects in the history of film. Taking cures from sources like Salvador Dali ("The Great Masturbator"), Francis Bacon ("Study for Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion"), David Cronenberg (pick a film, any film), and of course the creature-features of yore, Bottin creates images so bizarre, so utterly unique in their own logic of absorption, disintegration, and transformation, that they simply must be seen to be believed. The very first time we see them in action--it's one of those cases where the filmmakers make sure you see something coming, but not that--the effect is so overwhelming in its out-of-nowhere explosion of viscerality that we the audience end up being as shocked as the characters. From that moment the film has us, and makes the characters' every ounce of fear, mistrust, and terror our own.
But these spectacular rendings and transformations wouldn't work if Carpenter didn't bother to ground them in some sense of the real. So laced throughout the film are small, relatable moments of pain and discomfort--surgical stitching, extreme cold, cut fingers, heart troubles, putting down sick dogs, and so forth. Because of this, the gargantuan, explosive moments--pain and discomfort writ large--are more powerful, since they've been seen in scale.
A similar bait-and-switch is visible in a more recent, often overlooked genre effort--2001's Jeepers Creepers. Directed by Victor Salva (a man who, unfortunately, has firsthand experience with monsterdom--he's a convicted sex offender; this does affect a lot of people's decision as to whether or not to see the film), this was another one of those sight-unseen recommendations I've been fortunate enough to receive, this time from Clive Barker himself. "Just a little movie made for nothing that does something genuinely scary and weird," he says, and he's right.
The movie stars Gina Phillips and Justin Long as a bickering brother and sister whose long roadtrip home from college through countryside backroads--well, I imagine you can guess that things don't go well from there, and you know what? That's all I'm saying, because I think this film is best seen with the same amount of foreknowledge I myself had when I first saw it: none.
Starting with believable dialogue and likeably annoying performances from the two leads, Jeepers veers headlong into a succession of heart-pounding sequences, each different in tone and execution from the last until, after one sudden, bizarre moment (a moment that loses some viewers while sucking others, like me, right in), you're in a very different, very strange, and very frightening place. In between there are references to Duel, Texas Chain Saw, Nightbreed, and many others--none of which, however, feel at all derivative, peppered as they are with moments that are startling and original (the design of a truck, a slow-motion free-fall, an unexpected turn for the weird, the repeated and total violation of presumed saftey zones). Lead actor Long is required to do little else but look wide-eyed and slack-jawed, but Phillips, who looks like a younger, lovelier version of Laura San Giacomo, gives a performance of surprising nuance, seguing from sisterly irritation to fish-out-of-water fear to unexpectedly fierce protective love. It culminates with an ending that I didn't see coming at all--no mean feat for a horror film.
Yeah, there are a lot of approaches to horror. These two movies find their own. And they happen to be horrifying as hell.
Today's quote of the day is from Newsarama's Matt Brady: "[A]s far as the Diamond Top 300 [the list of the best-selling comics in the Direct Market] goes, diversity roughly means superheroes with capes versus superheroes without capes."
Meanwhile, Dirk Deppey extrapolates on Brady's simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic reading of the Direct Market tea leaves.
Is Franklin right? Did Blogosphere Kill The Pseudonym Star? John Jakala thinks it was a good idea to stop before the Lemon went sour for good. (Actually, Lemon's final (?) column is a decent one, praising Watchmen (the analysis is rather perfunctory, but that's because everyone's read the damn book already anyway) and rightfully taking the mainstream comics industry to task for not being able to equal it over two decades' worth of attempts.)
Speaking of people Mr. Harris thinks are better off hangin' up the spurs, former Marvel President Bill Jemas gets a once-over from Franklin. Like most people (see links here), Franklin thinks Jemas made (or helped make) a lot of changes for the good, but was threatening a lot of the work he'd done with his recent, less productive decisions and decrees. I had actually worried more than once that Jemas's drawbacks--the trash-talking, the armchair-editing, the occasional tasteless shock tactics--would actually tempt the Marvel higher-ups to undo everything new that happened under Jemas's watch--you know, the whole "hiring good creators to tell good stories and take risks in doing so" thing. But unfortunately for the fanboys, it looks like this move has headed that possibility off at the pass.
More comments on The Jemas Ouster come from Steven Grant (who argues that it don't really make much difference: Marvel is Marvel is Marvel. I think he's greatly underestimating how good the good Marvel books are, and is applying a standard to what constitutes a good franchise superhero book that's never been applicable even when the books were/are at their freshest and best, but still, some decent points are made), Alan David Doane (who mainly agrees with Steven and otherwise claims apathy), and Chris Allen (who, in something of a public service, recalls Jemas's proposal for the Ultimate Daredevil/Elektra ongoing series which never materialized; thank Christ, because the miniseries that was produced sucked all the mystery and tragedy out of the characters in favor of playing like a Lifetime Movie of the Week). I'll just say it again: I'm not sure who was responsible for what, but in the course of Bill Jemas's presidency I went from not reading maybe three new comics in four or five years to wanting to write them for a living, and his "New Marvel" was a direct contributor to this. So thanks again, Mr. Jemas.
Another debate making the rounds is over the Peanuts cover announced by Fantagraphics. Johnny Bacardi is the latest person to defend it (sorta), but it's worth noting that so far everyone who has done so has conceded my point that the cover is not going to appeal to the casual buyer. Guys, I agree that it looks nice, but so what? A cover with a picture of Monica Vitti on it would look nice, too, but how would that help sell the book to fans of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown? I don't care what the price point is or that the collection's from the "off-model" years--that's your market, and you should do your damndest to make the book as buyable as you can.
(And David, I agree with you that the strip is about frustration, but a) It's the funniness that sells it, and b) I'm not sure that everyone does realize that. I don't think it would be egregiously lowest-common-denominator-exploiting of Fanta to realize that fact and design the book accordingly.)
Finally, thanks, Jason!
Please, please go to this page and read the second comment. It's by some guy named Nato, and it's a freaking masterpiece. And I like Mark Millar.
Since a lot of folks apparently feel that I've earned the position of Creative Excoriator General, I'll say that if I had to name a successor, this'd be the guy.
Yesterday was a proud one for the U.S. Senate, as they voted to kick Iraq in the teeth for no reason other than to make life difficult for President Bush. How glad we must all be that these brave souls are ready to saddle a devastated Third World country with crippling debt, in order to take a firm stand against war, or lies, or leaks, or more Americans were shot in Baghdad today, or where are the weapons, or something. How will forcing a destitute country to pay for the damage we inflicted upon it make a difference in any of the above things? Uh... THIS WAR WAS A FRAUD!
Disgraceful. May this incredibly shortsighted and spiteful punitive measure--essentially a big-budget remake of the Versailles Treaty--die a quick and well-deserved death.
It's not a "rivalry" if one team always wins.
Oh my gosh! David Fiore points out that I neglected to mention one of the best scenes in John Carpenter's The Thing: the visit paid by Mac (Kurt Russell) to imprisoned scientist Blair (Wilford Brimley). Blair was the first of the besieged research crew to discover the ramifications of their "visitor"--that if the Thing reached civilization, life as we know it would be wiped out. He snaps, destroying all the group's modes of travel and communication, but is overwhelmed and locked in a shack by himself, where he's kept doped up and isolated. Mac goes to check on him, opens up the little view-panel on the door--and sees Blair sitting there, calmly, more or less ignoring the noose he's hung from the ceiling. Brrr, that's chilling, man. And the dialogue: "I don't wanna stay out here, Mac..." My God, what a great, macabre scene. (Unlike David, I don't think Blair's been Thinged at this point--if he had been, he'd have taken down that noose, right?)
A propos my recent post on his and Eve Tushnet's view of The Wicker Man, Bill Sherman clarifies that freak, not hippie, is his preferred nomenclature. So noted!
Personal to Johnny Bacardi: That's what I meant.
Courtesy of Eve Tushnet, a really terrific list of the 100 Scariest Movie Scenes of All Time over at Retrocrush. Selected with care, described with admiration, and picked out of more than just horror films, it's a damn fun list to flip through. See how many you recognize from the thumbnails alone.
Question the design strategy behind The Complete Peanuts on a blog, and you get this.
Question the design strategy behind The Complete Peanuts on a message board, and you get this.
Respectful disagreements, thoughtful support, both with well-reasoned arguments on design, aesthetics, and the content of the strip itself to back it up, plus admissions that 'hey, this is just where I'm coming from,' all done in a spirit that everyone involved is intelligent and honest and basically decent and pretty knowledgeable about and invested in the success of Peanuts in particular and comics in general, versus groundless accusations of fanboyism and ad hominem attacks on blogs, Barnes & Nobles shoppers, people who watch television, and anyone who dares criticize anything that Smart People Like ever, plus a general atmosphere of shouting-down, intellectual one-upsmanship, and playing-to-"win."
Nothing further, your honor.
No movie yesterday, but I double-dipped the day before, so you're okay with that, right?
Today's film just missed inclusion in The 13 Days of Halloween. Actually, it was part of the list as late as this morning, but a little more thought on my part led me to conclude that structurally, it's not quite horror--it doesn't have that beginning-to-end crescendo of suspense, it doesn't have that allegorical/fable/fairty tale feel that most horror has at its heart. Quite possibly, this is because, in its joy and its terror, its humor and its cruelty, its beauty and its gut-wrenching ugliness, it's true.
The film is Heavenly Creatures, directed by Peter Jackson and starring Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet (in her film debut). Based on a true story, it centers on Pauline and Juliette, two teenage girls in 1950s New Zeland. Pauline is a sullen introvert, Juliette a boisterous, self-confident transfer student from England and sundry other countries to which she's been either shipped or dragged by her free-thinking university-faculty parents. Together they construct an intense friendship, and a mutual fantasy world of medieval romances and Mario Lanza songs. They fall in love. And they go mad.
I'm surprised at this point to find myself at something of a loss for words. It's been a while since I've seen this movie, and in watching it today with Amanda I was actually stunned to discover just how intense an experience it is. The first three-quarters of the movie are just about as delightful a cinematic experience as you're likely to come across. Lynskey and Winslet are quite simply revelatory in their roles as girlfriends completely besotted with one another's talents, intelligence, beauty, and joie de vivre, all of which seem to them compunded exponentially when they're together. It's the kind of friendship, so I've been told, that lots of girls have, one just as intense as first love with a boy, or even full-grown love with a man. Jackson, who at this point has so proven himself to be a cinematic visionary that no additional evidence is even necessary, demonstrates here much of the virtuosity he displays in his Lord of the Rings films. Then as now, his knack for harnessing gorgeous, inventive visuals to convey human drama and emotion is second to none. The whirling, constantly on-the-move camerawork that follows Juliette & Pauline's joyous bike ride and Lanza-scored romp through the woods in their skivvies captures the giddy heady rush of happiness the girls are immersed in. Things get more elegant when, after bad news comes down from Juliette's parents, the girls find "the key to the Fourth World," and the countryside around them morphs into a secret garden of unicorns and giant butterflies. Then there are the shocking and hilarious moments when the human representatives of those twin bugbears of troubled adolescence, the Church and psychiatry, are dispatched by the clay-sculpted prince of the girls' fantasy world. And of course there are our journeys into that world, Borovnia, a precursor to the kingdoms and creatures of Middle Earth, this time stemming not from the painstaking recreation of an Oxford don's detailed notes, but the fevered, ecstatic scrawl of two girls falling in love with each other and out of touch with the real world. It all happens so convincingly, so entertainingly, so beautifully that, as Amanda put it to me tonight, you almost feel guilty of conspiracy when it all goes to hell.
The final quarter of the film comprises some of the most heartwrenching, nerve-wracking moments of cinema I've ever come across. One moment you're in the tragicomic world of teenagers in love, one you're intimately familiar with even if not under these specific circumstances; the next thing you know, it is announced to you that you are on a collision course with sheer, pointless insanity. You spend those minutes with your heart and stomach lurching around your ribcage like drunken dance partners. You alternate between sympathy and revulsion, a feeling of disbelief and a feeling (one you know is the right one to have, you've known it since the opening sequence) of inevitability. And when it happens, it's not just bad--it's awful. The sounds alone are pure horror. And it helps no one, and there's no point to it, none at all, and it happens anyway, and your ship pulls away, and you're left standing on the shore, crying (I've seen this how many times and I still cried?), and alone.
No monsters, no chainsaws. Just the horror of the inevitable, the horror of a decision that cannot be undone. The horror of the human.
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 1
13. The Birds, dir. Alfred Hitchcock
The one constant in Alfred Hitchcock's universe is arbitrary horror. Innocent people find themselves wrongfully accused, pursued by sinister forces, embroiled suddenly in obsession or murder, slain at the hands of a madman in whose path only chance put them. In 1963, Hitchcock chose to make the obvious subtext of his films the subject of one. He made a movie in which all of humanity finds itself wrongfully accused, attacked, hunted, tortured at the hands of irrational, implacable evil. That movie was The Birds.
Some filmmakers, after dancing around certain themes for years, finally make a movie that says so much, so completely, about their worldview, that they serve as summations of that filmmaker's entire ouevre. They may still make movies afterwards, but they've said what they have to say. I can think of three such cases off the top of my head: Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse Now, Woody Allen with Crimes & Misdemeanors, and The Master with this film, a purer distillation of his belief that the world was an unpredictably and viciously horrific place even than Psycho.
It's a film of extraordinary cruelty. It's no coincidence that the actress who played its protagonist, Tippi Hedren, was more abused and injured in the course of its filming than any other of Hitch's blonde ingenues--taking a face full of shattered glass during the filming of the phone booth sequence; getting cut on the eyelids and actually having a nervous breakdown during the attic attack, one that shut down filming for several days (only the second time such a thing happened in Hitchcock's entire career). Hitchcock appeared to be channeling some of the same maliciousness present in the film he was making.
It's also no coincidence that we see children receiving the bulk of the abuse within the film. A birthday party and a schoolhouse are both attacked by the inexplicably maddened birds, and Hitchock's camera lingers on the kids as they run, cry, fall to the ground helpless against the attacks. Even the most "innocent" among us are guilty in this irrational cosmology.
We viewers do not escape the indictment handed down by the Master either. Twice characters stare directly into the camera, offering a frantic, terrified j'accuse. "Who are you? What are you? Why have you come here?" says the panicking mother in the diner after the gas station attack--says the mother, directly to us. "I think you're the cause of all this. I think you're evil! Evil!" Melanie, the character she's "really" talking to, slaps her, and we're grateful, but later even Melanie turns on us, staring at us with horrified eyes and slapping us away, mistaking (mistaking?) us for her attackers. Elsewhere, eyeglasses are shattered, eyes themselves pecked out. We see, and we are punished for the crime of seeing.
But depite the visual violence, despite even the magesterial images of horror Hitchcock deploys one after another--Dan Fawcett's fate, the jungle gym, the still-like shots of Melanie's slackjawed trace of the fire's progress, the bird's eye view of the burning gas station, the claustrophobic phone booth, the stunning appearance of horses thundering through the attack, the sunlit panorama of the bird-conquered world--it's sound that makes this film so horrific. The result of a unique collaboration between longtime Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrman and German electronic musicians Remi Gassman and Oskar Sala, the electronically-generated bird cries woven throughout the film play the same role here that Rob Bottin's visual effects played in The Thing--they provide an almost ecstatic elucidation of the occulted meaning of the films. I wrote at length about sound in The Birds in a close-reading essay for a class in college, which you can download as a PDF here. Hitchcock, like Kubrick, is a filmmaker who does nothing by accident, so it's amazing how rewarding close reading can be. From the opening credits to Jessica Tandy's famous "silent scream" to the climactic attacks to the final image, Hitchcock used sound to show us that something has gone very, very wrong. That's the sound of horror.
Forty years after it was made, The Birds can still make even a jaded gorehound like me sit there, mouth agape, saying "My God." Hitchcock was the master, and this was his masterpiece.
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 2
12. The Wicker Man, dir. Robin Hardy
The Wicker Man is a film that oozed into my consciousness, interestingly, through its appearance in another cult-classic English fright film, Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave. Ewan MacGregor's character is seen sitting on the sofa watching some movie in which some guy is screaming "Oh Christ!" at the top of his lungs. It's an eerie image, one that casts a long shadow over the rest of the film. (I think it may be the most effective use of an image from the 1970s rural-horror cycle in a 1990s horror film--sounds like a limited reference pool, but you'd be surprised--except perhaps the glimpse of the finale of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in American Psycho.) The Wicker Man is also referenced throughout British music--the Doves covered a song from its soundtrack, and Plaid, a drill'n'bass group signed to Trent Reznor's Nothing Records, has a song called "Think What You're Doing" that's actually named after a quote from TWM's protagonist, Sgt. Neil Howie. It's a film that's infiltrated underground culture to a surprising degree. Doubtlessly, this is because it offers a startlingly cogent critique of both the prevailing conservative culture--and of the romanticized rebellion against it. It frightens us because we're not sure what side it's on, but we're reasonably sure it's not on our own.
The Wicker Man's power lies in a deft philosophical sleight-of-hand it works upon the audience. The film stars Edward Woodward as an aggressively straight-laced Christian police sergeant, Neil Howie, from the West Highlands in Scotland. He receives an anonymous tip that a girl has disappeared in the remote Hebridean island of Summerisle, and travels by seaplane to investigate. He discovers, to his mounting disgust and indignation, that the residents of the island have rejected Christianity en masse, having adopted a nature-worship pagan religion that reveres "the old gods." It seems they credit their heathen ways with the island's incongruous capacity to support the growth of delicious, plentiful apples, which have become their sole cash crop. But Sgt. Howie soon discovers that the crop has failed, and wonders if the disappearance of the girl might be tied into the Summerislians's attempts to placate their angry gods.
But forget about all that scary-sounding stuff. The bulk of this film centers on the prudish Sgt. Howie's righteous indignation at the islanders' practices, which in the main consist of an extremely enthusiastic embrace of human sexuality. Bawdy songs are sung about the landlord's daughter, who sings right along--as does the landlord himself. Couples rut in the fields, several at a time. Little boys dance around the maypole singing exceptionally frank songs about the cycle of life, while little girls are instructed about phallic symbols and how the penis is worshipped as a symbol of the generative power of nature. Virgin teenage girls cavort naked over a fire, hoping it will impregnate them. And virgin teenage boys are offered to that landlord's daughter (played to earthily sensual perfection by Britt Ekland and her rear-view body double) to be deflowered as a sort of sexual human sacrifice. Howie, a virgin himself, is as horrified as he is tempted. (It's not just sex that riles him, though; he's similarly aghast at the island's "sacreligious" burial rites, and most importantly, at the complete lack of Christian education.) Throughout, the filmmakers take great care not to show Sgt. Howie as an obnoxious, self-righteous prick: Oh, he's righteous, alright, but there's no sign that he's anything but a true believer, one who has found great comfort and strength in his beliefs. It's not that he's a would-be Torquemada, or that he's a hypocrite, that turns the audience off his religion: It's that the Summerislians' is just so much more fun, more earthy, more humane, more human.
Or so it seems.
To go into the specifics of how our sympathies turn would be to spoil the deftness with which Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Schaeffer pull this all off. I'll just say that they slowly layer the bawdy gaeity of the islanders until before you know it, it's become not jolly but unsettling. Their trickery and mockery of Howie becomes not playful but sinister. And it's soon made horrifyingly apparent that this new-old religion of sun and sky and sea is just as interwoven with delusion, with dogma, and with death as its monotheistic, cross-bearing supplanter. It's all brought home in a line delivered with the simultaneous existential terror and supreme confidence of the fanatic by Christopher Lee, playing Lord Summerisle, when he's asked what will happen if the crops fail despite the islanders' rituals: "They. Will. Not. Fail!" They will not fail, because they cannot fail, it is inconceivable, they have willed it not to be so so it must not, cannot be so. It's failure would be horror to them. And their success is horror to Sgt. Howie--and, eventually, to us.
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 3
11. Night of the Living Dead, dir. George Romero
The hero is cool under pressure. He is able to assess the situation and take action. He is a motivator, a communicator, a leader. He is caring, intelligent, handsome, strong, and brave.
He is also wrong.
Night of the Living Dead is a great horror film for a variety of reasons. The tremendously atmospheric black-and-white photography is one of them: All expressionist shadows one minute and verite-style documentaryisms the next, it imbues the title characters with a simultaneously obscure and vivid nightmare quality that their counterparts in the film's sequels (even in the excellent Dawn of the Dead for all its satirical brilliance and undeniable terror) sorely lacked due to their depiction in living color. The eerie opening scene is another: a long drive through an empty road into a cemetery, where our erstwhile protagonist mocks his dead father and utters one of the most memorable unwitting prophecies in horror-film history. And the gruesomely simple premise is still another: With minimal explanation the dead have come back to life, and they've come to eat you. The film itself lurches forward with a similar basic-instinct urgency, throttling us after mere minutes and never letting go until that unforgettable ending.
But perhaps the most important reason for this horror film's greatness is also the one you're least likely to notice at first, or even after a second viewing. The film is such a white-knuckle onslaught of suspsense and disgust that we may focus on the zombies and the conflict they engender. But that's a focus almost as single-minded as that of the zombies themselves. What's really frightening here is that in the end, all our logic, all our admiration, all our sympathy is revealed to have been directed at the wrong person. The right person, of course, did not look or act right--angry, loud, belligerent, defensive, vindictive, self-righteous, cowardly, even craven, he was essentially right in spite of himself. But right he was, and that upends our worldview as much as any zombie.
Appearances are not trustworthy. That's a very radical message, one that the film embraces in a positive fashion in its unmistakable anti-racist undertones: Racism, after all, is the belief that appearances can always be trusted, because we're absolutely certain of the truth of those appearances. But the movie also promulgates that message in the most disturbing ways imaginable. It goes to great lengths to convey the fact that the zombies look just like us ("They are us," as Dr. Logan puts it in the film's second sequel, Day of the Dead). And it goes to even greater lengths to prove that we are our own worst enemies, that even the best of us can be completely wrong about everything, and the worst of us tragically right.
In Adam Simon's superlative documentary on the independently-made American horror films of the late 1960s and the 1970s, The American Nightmare, one of the speakers says that Night of the Living Dead conveys more about the turbulent end of the century's seventh decade than any other film, even (or especially) the ones that explicitly addressed that turmoil. I wasn't there, but watching this tale of normal people run amok, where black is white and night is day (at least thanks to the continuity errors in those television broadcasts) and hero and villain and monster are thoroughly juxtaposed, my fear is that he's right--and that he continues to be right even now.
Bill Sherman has kind words for the first couple of entries in The 13 Days of Halloween (yes, I will continue to put that phrase in bold; no, I don't think it's over the top at all, but thank you for asking). Mixed among them is Bill's assertion that The Birds, which I peg as the Master's masterpiece, falls short of the Holy Hitchcock Trinity (Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho--also known as Hitch's "O" period) because of the lack of great performances. I really meant to comment on this in my post on the film, but it just didn't fit structurally: I like the fact that the characters are annoying, and played annoyingly. You've got a heroine who gallavants around Europe spending Daddy's money, then blows an entire weekend in order to show up some hot guy who made her look stupid--she's the early-'60s equivalent of Paris Hilton. You've got a hero who combines smugness and arrogance with being an incurable mama's boy. You've got mama herself, who's only slightly less cloying than Mrs. Bates. (Okay, so Suzanne Pleshette's character isn't so bad, but she has the unfair advantage of a voice that could melt butter.) And all these characters spend the bulk of their screen time having mannered, formal, phony conversations and quarrels with one another. As I said in my essay on the use of sound in the film, the dialogue becomes so irritating that you end up being grateful for the intrusion of the birds, who are all but less noisy by comparison.
And that's when Hitch has got you. He's enmeshed you in a conflict between people who are difficult to like--you know, sort of like real people--and birds who, by the end of the film, are impossible not to loathe. How dull a film this would be if it starred the usual assortment of the troubled-but-good, the brave-under-pressure--the cliched stock in trade of the people-under-siege film. Give me Tippi, Rod, and Jessica anyday, man. They're... unpleasant, and that's why I care.
(PS: I actually like Rod Taylor a lot. I think he's sort of a precursor to Mel Gibson, who I also enjoy--particularly in Signs, a film not coincidentally modeled after Hitchock generally and The Birds particularly. And you'll have a hard time getting me to complain about having to watch Tippi Hedren in a movie, too.)
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 4
10. Barton Fink, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
“I’m having some trouble getting started.”
So says our hero, and so says me. I always find that the beginning of a piece is the hardest part to write. Once you’ve got your beginning, all your decisions are pretty much made for you--that introductory section contains their seeds. And that’s the pressure of writing the beginning in the first place: You know that this is the most important part, that this will dictate where you can go and what you can do when you get there.
Shall we test this theory? Please let’s do: The beginning of Barton Fink consists of a close-up of wallpaper, then the prolonged and precipitous descent of a stage weight.
Staring and sinking--yes, that’s pretty much how it goes from there on in.
Barton Fink is a very, very frightening film. Yet for all that it’s rarely classified as horror. Perhaps this is because writers, when reflecting on the movie, find it difficult to get past the fact that it mirrors nightmares almost too personal to their profession to achieve the universality necessary for great horror. It is, after all, a movie about writer’s block. But to paraphrase Francis Ford Coppola, this film is not about writer’s block--this film is writer’s block. It’s as if the Coen Brothers managed to crack open their title character’s brain and infect the entire world of the film with its ossified contents. Like writer’s block itself, the movie is slow, sticky, with random intrusions of the disturbing and absurd. Everything drips--the temperamental wallpaper in the Hotel Earle, the infected ear of Barton’s next-room neighbor Charlie, Barton’s hands during his bathroom meeting with his idol Bill Mayhew, Charlie’s mouth as he reacts to an unpleasant discovery in Barton’s room. The camera, too, seems tacky and tensile, tracking in and out lugubriously like a strand of old chewing gum pulled from someone’s mouth. Barton stares at his wallpaper, his ceiling, his bathroom floor, his typewriter, the pages he's writing on--stares and stares, and the camera just worms right into whatever he's looking at. Sounds--a bell, a mosquito, the hotel room doors, the noises of neighbors--cling to the ear like clothes to the body on a humid day. Even the music oozes, with eerie strings playing endless notes as piano chords trickle down around them.
Everyone Barton meets seems similarly stuck in behavioral quicksand. No one, except perhaps perpetually dyspeptic producer Ben Geisler and well-meaning agent Garland Jeffries, seems at all able to respond appropriately, or at all, to anyone else. The benefactors behind Barton’s play prattle on as though (much to the writer’s irritation) it were just a particularly moving excuse to dress up and get drunk. The staff of the Hotel Earle are disproportionately solicitous, albeit each in different fashions: Chet (who rises up out of the bowels of the hotel like Hell’s bellhop) is almost relentlessly helpful, while Pete, the ancient-seeming elevator operator, formally declares the “next stop” even when Barton’s the only person on the elevator. Studio head Jack Lipnick has his mind made up about absolutely everything, and it’s all Barton can do to get a word in edgewise; his assistant Lou is beaten down enough to make Barton look like an athlete out of Triumph of the Will. (And trust me, I’m not the only person who makes Nazi references in the context of this film. Indeed, while it might be a stretch to say that this film is about the Holocaust, it would also be a stretch to say that this film isn’t about the Holocaust.) The two detectives who call on Barton toward the end of the film (a German and an Italian--no reason, I’m just saying) treat him like the worst degenerate they’ve ever come across (in the process becoming the two most unsympathetic characters in filmdom this side of the Emperor from Return of the Jedi), as if they know no other way to behave. Legendary, Faulkneresque writer Bill Mayhew is immersed in pretension and drink, traps as formidable as any tar pit. Only traveling insurance salesman Charlie Meadows and Mayhew’s “personal secretary” Audrey interact with Barton on a real, human level--the level of “the common man,” as Barton might have it--and, well, for this they are rewarded, in a way.
But the most horrifying thing about this film, for me at least, is found inside Barton Fink himself. And it’s not his writer’s block, nor the attendant breakdown this produces in him. It’s his terrible certainty that his work is brilliant, meaningful, big--”not big as in large, although it’s that too,” but important, even beautiful. Ah, the cruelty of the Coen Brothers, who from the very first scene show us that Barton has his back turned to the common man he purports to represent. The malice of them, to show that this guy who grew up on Fulton Street is incapable of writing about anything other than guys who grew up on Fulton Street. The bitter, sadistic genius of them, to let Barton believe to the end that his finally-finished film script is the best thing he’s ever written, even though we the audience know he’s merely cannibalized the work he’s already done. There’s nothing more frightening than the idea that everything we think we know about ourselves--the strengths we tell ourselves we have, simply so we can get by from day to day--is wrong. The idea that others are judging us, and finding us wanting. By the film's horrifying end, we learn that this is indeed what’s happening to Barton, throughout the film, without his knowledge. And the horror is that it could be happening to us, too. We stare at ourselves, and we sink.
The conventional wisdom about Marvel's Tsunami line of comics, wisdom promulgated by Marvel itself, was that it was designed to capitalize on the success of manga in capturing a large American audience. Mainly this consisted of bringing in manga-style artists from the Americas to handle the penciling chores, but to an extent it also involved the types of characters the books centered on (mainly teenagers of both sexes or women) and the pacing of the stories (in mainstream-comics parlance they're "decompressed," in that they tell a lot of story over the course of several issues instead of packing each individual issue with a lot of plot, let alone with a self-contained story). This kind of storytelling is also known as "pacing for the trade," referring to the trade-paperback format in which longer runs of single-issue comics are collected. Pacing for the trade made a lot of sense for the manga-inflected Tsunami books, considering that the legions of manga buyers out there don't know single issues from Adam, instead buying their comics in the far more user-friendly, cost-effective, attractive, and generally look-like-an-actual-book-ish squarebound paperback format, and doing so at regular bookstores where single-issue comics are hard to come by. Indeed, it was sometimes assumed (by me, at least) that when Marvel produced Tsunami trades, they'd be in manga-sized dimensions, rather in the larger size that's standard for American comics collections. It would only stand to reason, after all.
What to make, then, of Marvel's decision not to collect any of their Tsunami titles into trade paperbacks at all? It's tempting to berate the House of Ideas for not having a clue, but it seems safe to say that Marvel editorial, particularly fluent Japanese speaker and Tsunami steward C.B. Cebulski, are fully aware of how comics should be packaged and produced for maximum appeal to the manga market. Instead, I suggest we see this as a cautionary tale for mainstream American comics companies trying to break away from the stranglehold of the comics-only Direct Market and their pamphlet-junkie fanboy audience. We're at a weird stage in the history of the business where for a variety of reasons (from aesthetic to literary to financial) single-issue comics don't make sense anymore, but where for a similar variety of reasons it's next to impossible for companies to react accordingly. Financially, Marvel, DC et al are beholden to the Direct Market, the bread of which is buttered by single-issue superhero comics. Any attempt to deviate from this norm is greeted with deafening silence. Nevermind Marvel's attempts to manga-fy itself--even real manga, the most popular type of comcis in America, has made barely a dent in the D.M., which as a group is so conservative and retrograde it makes the College of Cardinals look like a bunch of coke-fiend anarchosyndicalist orgy enthusiasts. This means that the big companies simply can't afford to take the risk of ignoring weak single-issue sales in order to gamble on a potential bonanza in trade-paperback format. This goes double if the comic in question is even slightly different from the superhero standard, and triple if those trade paperback sales are theorized to be strongest in the regular-bookstore market, one that those companies are having a notoriously hard time cracking.
Simply put, when it became clear that the Tsunami books aren't selling as single issues in the Direct Market, Marvel realized it couldn't afford to put them into TPB form--but it's only in TPB form and outside the Direct Market that comics designed like the Tsunami ones could sell.
A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox.
UPDATE: Looks like Marvel's cutting that Gordian knot after all! Turns out they're skipping the traditional trade paperback format and going straight for the manga-sized editions. (Link courtesy of Franklin Harris.) Ballsy, and exactly what should be done. Here's hoping it works.
Does the Medium Contest have a winner yet? If so, is the winner a haiku?
How good does Joy Division sound when played very loud?
Joy Division sounds really super good when played very loud.
Or, "Close Reading for Fun and Profit."
Alfred Hitchcock was a member of a very exclusive club, that of directors who did nothing by accident. (The only other members I can think of--limiting the pool to the English-speaking world since I just don't know enuff about them other folks--are Stanley Kubrick and perhaps the Coen Brothers, but mainly Kubrick.) This means that even the most insanely close reading of a given aspect of one of his films will produce richly rewarding insights into the meaning of the film.
I made two forays into close-reading of Hitch during my bright college years, and here they are:
The first, which I've linked to before, is an analysis of the use of sound in The Birds, ranging from the electronic bird-noise "score" to run-of-the-mill sound effects to dialogue and lack thereof. After rereading it myself, all I could think was, "Man, that guy could make a goddamn movie."
The second is just an outline for an oral presentation I gave, but I think it still makes for an interesting talking-points memo. It's an examination of design in Vertigo, centering on the central tropes of spirals/circles and towers/verticals. The amount of thought that went into this stuff was just staggering. Look and see.
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 5
9. Eyes Wide Shut, dir. Stanley Kubrick
When I wrote my senior essay on horror films, I was responding in part to what I saw as myopia on the part of the horror criticism and theory establishment. It seemed to me that scholars and critics focused almost exclusively on the role of violence in the genre, leaving other sources of horror largely unexplored. And even violence received a fairly one-dimensional treatment, discussed primarily in terms of displaced sexuality.
One of the films that inspired me to try something different was Eyes Wide Shut. It's ironic, then, that this movie is in a sense the traditional horror theoretician's dream film: It takes that displaced sexual anxiety and mania and puts it back where it came from. It's a horror movie with sex instead of violence.
The last film that Stanley Kubrick would ever make, EWS stars then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as Dr. Bill & Alice Harford, a wealthy and attractive couple who live with their young daughter on Central Park West. Drunken flirtations with other people at the Christmas soiree of a friend of Bill's precipitate a pot-fueled fight between the two of them the following night. During the argument Alice informs Bill, whose cocksure arrogance regarding Alice's presumed-inpenetrable fidelity has infuriated her, that she once came this close to throwing away their life together to pursue sex with a handsome stranger. Though she ended up not even so much as talking to the man, the revelation of her desire so stuns and angers Bill that, after being called away from the fight by business, he begins a nighttime odyssey of sexual pursuits. His encounters get progressively more bizarre and, as he soon finds out, exponentially more dangerous.
EWS did not do as well as expected, either with audiences or critics. In part this is due to its billing as an erotic thriller--the thinking person's Basic Instinct. But folks hoping for detectives, icepicks, and hot lesbian action were no doubt disappointed by the film's glacial, peripatetic pacing. Expecting a roller-coaster, they instead found themselves in a fable, a grim fairy tale involving the frightening adventures of an attractive, naive young hero as he journeys through the dark forest of his own sexual urges. All of those urges manifest themselves as monsters, ready to devour "the good doctor": infidelity, cancer, drug abuse, prostitution, pederasty, venereal disease, cult-like ritual dominance and submission. Sex is the pale horse upon which a panoply of menacing riders ride, promising Bill pleasure but offering only ruin. I can't help but be reminded of (are you sitting down?) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, another film that dispenses with logic in order to depict a series of macabre visions each more nightmarish than the next.
"Heat"? "Sparks"? There are few to come by here (perhaps only when Dr. Bill meets Sally the roommate, but that's brought to as screeching a halt as possible). Indeed, Kubrick seemed to be visually mocking the very concepts with the gauzy yellows, arctic blues, and sickly pinks that illuminate so much of the film. (The pinks in particular--try to count just the decrepit Christmas trees with those odd pink lights bleeding out of them and you'll see how prominent a role they play. Then there's the gang of toughs (from Yale!) who gaybash Dr. Harford (a pun on Harvard? maybe I need to get out more) while saying he must be playing for "the pink team." And I don't think I need to go into the other connotation of "pink.") And people looking for them missed the point entirely. So did those who complained "That's not Manhattan!" (my God, how did Kubrick not realize he was shooting on a meticulously crafted replica? Stop the press! Alert Warner Bros.!) or even more amusingly, "That's not how the rich and powerful have orgies" (I was always tempted to intone "he added knowingly" when I saw a critic kvetching about that). The point was to show a man led off the path of what he knows to be right, only to learn the lesson that what's not right is, in fact, wrong. (And for this condemnation of sexual infidelity, the film was labeled reactionary in some quarters. I found that more sad than amusing.)
It's worth noting that the source material for the film was a 1926 book called Traumnovelle--Dream Story--by writer Arthur Schnitzler. Viewers who can't get around the episodic surreality of Dr. Bill's wanderings might be well advised to view everything between the argument and the final conversation as a kind of detailed dream, one that veers slowly from would-be wet dream to full-blown nightmare. Note the dreamlike structure, with its jarring leaps from one place and time to another (this was common source of complaint against the film, but it only served to underscore the dreaminess of the narrative). Note the somnambulistic quality of Dr. Bill's wanderings. Note his dreamlike superhuman powers: the ability to get anything he wants by saying the magic words "I'm a doctor," flashing his magical 5000-megawatt smile, presenting the magical talisman known as his medical board card, and reaching into his magical bottomless wallet; the power to be irresistably attractive to anything on two legs--models, prostitutes, little girls, hotel clerks, roommates, anyone. Note that the recitation of Alice's dream is the film's central scene. Note the references to dreaming and wakefulness in the last scene. Note the title.
It's also worth pointing out that Schnitzler was a contemporary and fellow-traveler of Freud's, as images of the Freudian uncanny pop up everywhere. There's the automaton-like women in the mansion. There's the red-robed masked man with black holes for eyes. And there are doubles galore: Nuala and her friend, the two Japanese customers of Mr. Milich's (themselves doubling genders with their transvestitism), the alliterative names of the two men who lead Bill and Alice into trouble (Nick Nightingale and Sandor Szavost respectively), the masks and the faces beneath them, the two notes of the ominous Ligeti music. Even the daughter of Dr. Bill's dead patient and her husband serve as a sort of tragicomic, less attractive doubling of Dr. Bill and Alice themselves (note the placement of both the bereaved daughter and Alice in front of blue rooms, their similar hair color and style, etc.).
The final bit of doubling is another source of great vexation for the film's detractors: the repetitive dialogue. Time and time again, Bill will repeat a line just spoken to him by another character. "Maybe had Kubrick lived he might have spotted this in editing," they say--oh yeah, I'm sure he had no idea that was going on. What was he trying to achieve with this effect? Repetition is doubling, and it's also an instance of the Freudian uncanny unto itself, calling to mind non-human processes of cognition and communication (cf. the dialogue of the "twins" in The Shining). It also yields a certain narcotic, mind-altering rhythm after a time, connoting inward-facing obsessiveness and detachment from reality (cf. the "I will destroy him!" scene in Barton Fink). But there's a simpler reason, too: Bill needs things repeated to them because he simply does not understand anymore. His customary method of looking at the world has been rendered nonsensical, irrelevant, not even by deeds but by mere words. So he struggles to find a new way to frame things. He needs to repeat the new words to help make them real, to clarify them, to open his eyes to the new reality he's trying to explore. And when he does have them opened, what he sees is horrifying. That's the dream, and then that's the nightmare.
The big day is drawing nearer, and horror thoughts abound in the blogosphere. A lot of them are in response to stuff I've written, which is, in the words of Charlie Meadows, "a pip."
Bill Sherman reviews Pet Shop of Horrors, a horror manga targeted at girls. Good for it, but let's hope it manages to be frightening as well as female-centric. I've found that people who go into their project with the noble goal of making it feminist (or at least femme-friendly) end up doing so, but pay little attention as to whether or not the thing is actually, y'know, scary. The teen-girl werewolf movie Ginger Snaps falls into that disappointing category.
And as I mentioned earlier, Bill also chimed in on my reviews of The Wicker Man and The Birds.
Big Sunny D, meanwhile, responds to me and Shawn Fumo's thoughts on David Lynch. Sunny focuses on Lynch's penchant for dream logic and voyeuristic camerawork.
Eve Tushnet recommends an unlikely horror comic--Love & Rockets. This is not the first time I've heard folks praise L&R's occasional forays into the dark side.
Eve also has a lengthy post responding to several of the films I've been talking about. She challenges the sexiness of the pagan religion in The Wicker Man, the scariness of the dead people in The Sixth Sense, and the lack of sympathetic characters in the film version of The Shining. It's interesting to see how Eve and I are sort of running on parallel tracks when it comes to what we appreciate in horror--we move in the same direction but never reach the same destinations. I think the appeal of the pagan religion in TWM is maximized if you've been raised in a religion that denies the worth of human sexuality, which is what I got in my years of Catholicism. (Eve's experience as a Catholic convert is vastly different than mine as a born-and-raised Catholic who went to a Catholic high school. I only realized how different when I started reading Homage to Catalonia and mentally cheered when Orwell described how all the churches had been destroyed. CLARIFICATION: I was not terribly proud of this feeling.) Regarding the ghosts in The Sixth Sense, no, they're certainly not as scary as the ones in The Shining, but then they're not evil and the Shining ones are. (There is at least one great nightmare image in TSS: the woman in the kitchen.) But mainly The Sixth Sense is a sad movie first and a scary movie second. As for The Shining, Eve, have you seen the TV-miniseries version of The Shining, scripted by King himself? Sympathetic characters shoved so far up the viewer's ass you can taste the vanilla. Ugh. (Props to the dead-woman-in-the-bathtub scene, though, which is almost as scary as Kubrick's version--the only really scary part of the whole minseries, actually.)
Jason Adams has been quite the busy little horrorblogger, thoughtfully writing about Books of Blood, Donnie Darko, and the remake of Texas Chain Saw--the latter two of which, along with Kill Bill, I still have yet to see. Sigh.
Shawn Fumo comments on my review of Heavenly Creatures, saying he loves the film but isn't quite sure it's horror, classifying instead with the brutal-but-not-scary work of Lars Von Trier. I've only seen Dancer in the Dark, but my sense is that Von Trier simply piles abuse on his protagonists for no good reason other than the ability of critics to mistake melodramatic misogyny for Saying Something About Life. I know that's weird coming from someone who lists The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as one of his favorite films, but I'm weird like that.
According to John Jakala, in comics, zombies are the new
electroclash trucker hats flash mobs Howard Dean candidacy Friendster Britney-Madonna kiss Wesley Clark candidacy oh, I give up.
Johnny Bacardi apparently began to respond to some of my 13 Days of Halloween entries, but scrapped it. Thanks for the kind words, but c'mon--bring it on back, Johnny!
Finally, I'm appreciative of Slate's apologia for the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but maybe next time the writer in question could take five minutes to actually watch the film before writing the article, thus learning that half the information he was planning on putting into the article was taken from the film's sequel. Sheesh.
Real-world events prevented me from getting to a computer to blog yesterday, but I did watch the 6th movie on the 13 Days of Halloween list, which means I'll be doing double-duty today. Sit tight.
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 6
8. Hellraiser, dir. Clive Barker
Like Eyes Wide Shut, Hellraiser is a movie about the horrors of desire. Unlike Eyes Wide Shut, it is also a movie about the desire for horror.
Clive Barker, who adapted and directed the film from his novella The Hellbound Heart, made these dovetailing preoccupations explicit throughout the script. The titular hellraiser, an amoral, hedonistic wanderer known as Frank Cotton, talks of his search for "Heaven or Hell--I didn't care which." The creatures he finds at the end of that search, the Cenobites, offered him not some new level of orgiastic gratification, but endless, excruciating torture. In Frank's words, they gave him "an experience beyond limits--pleasure and pain, indivisible." The erudite leader of the Cenobites, the memorably mutilated demon known to his fans as Pinhead, describes himself and his order as "Explorers in the further regions of experience; demons to some, angels to others." If for some you are still not convinced of Barker's intentions, remember that the truth comes out in jest: Barker has often jokingly described this parade of murder, monstrousness, and dimemberment as "the story of what a woman will do for a good lay."
That woman is Julia Cotton, played to icy black-widow perfection by Clare Higgins. Married to a kind but ineffectual doof named Larry, Julia moves with her husband into the house he grew up in, abandoned since the death of his mother. There they find evidence of Larry's ne'er-do-well brother Frank, who appears to have disappeared abruptly, (they assume) one step ahead of the law. In reality, the house is the site where Frank solved the puzzle of The Box, the means by which particularly devoted and tireless hedonists may summon the Cenobites. It was in the house that Hell claimed Frank's life; and when a chance spilling of blood enables Frank to re-enter our world, it's in this house that more blood must be spilled to help him escape the clutches of his tormentors forever. His assistant in this endeavor is Julia, who the night before her wedding had a torrid bout of lovemaking with Frank and essentially promised to do anything he wanted if he'd stay with her. He, of course, split, but now that he's back, she intends to keep that promise. And that means killing.
For a first-time director, Barker's proficiency with imagery is startling. Julia's transformation into a cold-blooded killing machine is depicted masterfully, using harsh, sterile lighting both in the bar where she picks up her first victim and in the flourescent-lit bathroom where she washes off his blood. The scenes are especially effective through their juxtaposition with the damp viscerality of the room in which Frank, now little more than a skeleton with muscle, fat and tissue dripping off of it, devours the victims Julia slays for him. This visual interweaving of the artificial and the grotesquely natural is present on such basic levels as the Cenobite's costumes: The crisp black leather of their cassocks and the metallic wires, blades, and pins that are their trademarks are literally woven into their seeping wounds. On every level Barker forces us to try to reconcile our warring drives--our lust for pleasure and our voyeuristic enjoyment of pain, the trappings of modernity we use to ignore our bodies and the inescapability of those bodies, our desire for happiness and our willingness to make others suffer to insure that happiness. He's the anti-Zoroastrian, acknowledging the black and the white but forcing them not to fight but to embrace. (He seems to pun on this, even, in a scene in which Larry's daughter Kirsty, who has discovered the nature of the relationship between her stepmother Julia and her living-dead uncle Frank, is hospitalized; as the Box is solved and the Cenobites appear, the tiles of the hospital-room wall are shown in reverse-negative--black is white, white is black.)
As Barker's career progressed, he'd take this juxtaposition to its logical end-point and make the monsters the heroes of his work, as he did in his film Nightbreed. However, he does so not by offsetting or undercutting the monstrousness of those monsters, but by celebrating it. Yes, they're horrific, and that's what makes them great, and worth loving. And no, we humans who encounter them seldom escape with sanity or self intact, and in some way, isn't it worth it? In Hellraiser, Frank and Julia are destroyed for their connivance, treachery, and hubris--these are negative qualities in Barker's world as they are in any other. But Larry is destroyed too, seemingly for the crime of being boring. It goes deeper than that, though--he's punished for his refusal to see, for his inability to connect with things greater, deeper, lower, higher than himself. His daughter Kirsty, however, is able to encounter the Cenobites and live to tell the tale. She sees, and instead of going mad or giving up, she accepts the reality of them and in fact bargains with them, making their rules her own. And so she survives, intact, but not unchanged.
And if that's not an apt description of a horror devotee, then what is?
(POSTSCRIPT: For a PDF of a paper I wrote on mind/body duality in Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II, click here.)
Okay, here's the deal. I think it's awesome if you go out and rent one of the movies I've been talking about based on what I've said--hell, I encourage you to do so, they're all awesome, rent 'em all and go crazy. But I worry that you'll end up disappointed and feel like I oversold them. It's important to note that these are my favorite movies of all time. Okay, favorite horror movies only, but I'd be lying if I said they weren't a disproportionately large chunk of my favorite movies period. So keep in mind that I'm pretty freaking enthusiastic about all of them because I looooooove them and want to have a million of their
On a related note, what is up with DVDs having menu sequences that reveal key plot points and climaxes of the films they contain? That is lame with a capital LAME. I understand that DVD purchases were once largely the domain of film buffs who likely had already seen the films they were buying, but now the things are available for rental, and are generally the format of choice for gifts and so on. As someone who doesn't even read newspaper reviews or back-cover synopses for movies he hasn't yet seen, you cannot imagine my fury at imagining someone having a movie spoiled by the DVD of that movie itself. So, word to the wise, particularly the wise who plan on renting Jeepers Creepers or Barton Fink--try to have someone else cue the movie up for you, or just mute it and close your eyes and just start hitting play frantically on your remote and then wait a few seconds until you're reasonably sure the movie has started. And Hollywood--please, knock this off. This is the modern-day equivalent of that trend a few years ago where all the movie trailers were ungodly loud and gave away the endings of the films they were advertisements for. STOP IT.
Anyway, here are a couple more essays I dusted off and turned into PDFs for your perusal, both of them about the last two movies I reviewed. Here's one about mind/body duality in Hellraiser and its sequel, the just-as-good Hellbound--it touches quite a bit on Cronenberg, too. And here's one about the complicated narrative patterns of Lost Highway. This one betrays its origin as a very specific applied-jargon assignment in a film studies class, but I actually think the jargon I was made to use (syuzhet and fabula, meaning the plot as directly shown in the film and the larger, more cohesive narrative we construct in our heads from all the information gleaned from the syuzhet) helps to unravel this film quite a bit. Grab a beer or something and have fun finding out what those student loans of mine are still paying for.
Also, Jason Adams defends Ginger Snaps. Sorry, my friend, but not only did I not find this movie scary, but I didn't find it moving or even involving, either. I thought the performances of the two lead girls were genuinely annoying, and in the case of the non-wolf sister, pretty much movie-killing. (I kept hoping she'd be replaced with a Dollhouse-era Heather Matarazzo halfway through the movie. No luck.) And believe me, I really wanted to like this film. Good, teen-girl-centric horror is impossible to come by, and the feminist magazines I read (Bust and Bitch) lauded this flick to the heavens. Unfortunately they were too preoccupied by the fact that the movie was "empowering" (and by the way, was it? the lycanthropy does not exactly work out well for everyone. I guess their point was that the movie depicts culturally-dictated female-teen virgin-whore sexuality as a death trap, and kudos for that; but these are the same folks who get angry about movies like The Craft for punishing girls for using supernatural powers indiscriminately (uh, hello guys, that's not sexist, that's just sane, not to mention par for the genre course--ever hear of "with great power comes great responsibility"?), so how they could miss the implicit message behind Ginger's fate is completely beyond me. Digression over) to notice that it wasn't particularly well done. Also, why aren't werewolves furry anymore? They always look like mutant hairless rat fetuses now. Wolves are furry, people. Werewolves should be furry. Am I wrong? Are we not civilized people here?
Finally, Johnny Bacardi breaks his self-imposed silence and takes on my whole 13 Days of Halloween list, film by film. I'm doing pretty well by him so far--he agrees with my assessments of 3 out of 7, and offers conciliatory gestures on a couple more, so if this were being calculated like batting averages I'd be doing Hall-of-Fame numbers right now. I'm certainly not surprised to see my praise of movies like Eyes Wide Shut and Barton Fink throwing Johnny for a loop--like Lost Highway (see below) they're divisive films by already divisive directors. I think in the case of all three, plus The Wicker Man (another one Johnny wasn't quite down with), my love of the long take plays a role. Folks, nothing gets my film-lover Donkey Kong going like a luscious long take, the quieter the better, lots of slow movement and facial expressions and such. Mmmmm, Andre Bazin-y goodness. Unbreakable is practically porn for me. Ahem. Anyway, what I like about Johnny's counter-list is that even where I disagree with him, I see the point he's making. It forces me to reengage with the movie itself, to see if my conclusions hold water, or if they need refining or even abandoning. And my appreciation of the films, and of film, gets that much richer. See how that works? Hooray for blogs!
(As for his claim that The Shining is Kubrick's career worst, let's just say we'll be having words in a few days...)
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 8
6. The Silence of the Lambs, dir. Jonathan Demme
For years I wrote this movie off. "It's not really 'horror,'" I argued, "it's just a thriller." Thrillers are about cat-and-mouse games and things jumping out at you and (in my opinion, mere) suspense, not the genuine dread and hopelessness and irreversible transgressiveness and awful certainty of true horror. Horror was the stuff of nightmares; thrillers were detective work. Bo-ring. I saw the movie once back in high school and quickly forgot about it.
Then the nascent Film Society at Yale got hold of a print and had a screening. I thought it might be fun to give it another viewing, knowing what I'd by then learned of filmmaking. Also, it was a good excuse to get high and sit in the dark in a theatre and watch an ostensibly scary movie with one of my roommates. So that's what we did. And this time I realized that something was going on here. Seen in the proper aspect ration on a big screen in the dark, the intelligence of Tak Fujimoto's cinematography became far more apparent than it ever did on a little TV screen in my basement. Sucked into the world of the film in the way that only stoned college kids can be, I quickly noticed that the conversations between Jodie Foster's Agent Starling and Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter, Lecter's face was always framed much tighter, allowing him to nearly fill the screen and dwarfing Starling by comparison. Some more thought had gone into this, I realized, than just working out the business of whodunit.
The final step in this film's path to rehabilitation in my eyes took place about a year and a half ago. This is back when The Missus and I were engaged and still living separately. She has to get up hours earlier than me for work, so after saying goodnight to her the night was still young for me. Usually what I'd do is rent a movie, grab some fast food (I tended not to eat dinner till after 11), go home, and eat and watch. One night I decided to give The Silence of the Lambs one more go. (Actually, it was a bit of a hassle--I had to go back to Blockbuster when I discovered the DVD I'd rented was fullscreen. "Didn't you check before you rented it?" the clerk asked. "Why on Earth would I assume a DVD is fullscreen? What the hell is the point of a DVD that isn't widescreen? If a DVD is fullscreen it should be in great big block letters like a Surgeon General's warning!" I got to exchange it for a widescreen version for free.) So, biting into my Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, I cued up the movie.
I ended up doing this every night for about a month.
(Granted, people seem split on what aspect of this is more horrifying--the fact that I watched The Silence of the Lamb every night for weeks, the fact that I ate McDonald's or Taco Bell with similar regularity, or the fact that I did both these things at the same time. But I digress.)
Even to this day, I literally cannot believe how good this movie is. That's not meant to be hyperbole, you know--it's just an accurate description of how I feel about this film. Watching it today, I found myself near tears twice, not even by anything particularly heart-wrenching or tear-jerking, but just by how well the film portrays a world that is thoroughly sad, sad down to the air and the water and the soil. If there's a more effective depiction of the horror of living on film than this one, I've yet to see it.
My guess is that a plot recap is not necessary, so I'll just say that this movie is about how miserable it is to be a woman in a man's world. No, honestly, listen: Watch the way Demme and his cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto (who also worked on Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense and Signs) frame the close-ups of the men who come in contact with Clarice: Agent Crawford, Dr. Chilton, Barney the guard, her fellow agents during combat training, the cops at the funeral parlor, the SWAT team lieutenant, and especially Hannibal Lecter himself--they all stare directly into the camera, making the viewer as aware of the power of their gazes as is Clarice herself. Eyes are weapons in this world; witness the night-vision goggles that give Buffalo Bill both a practical advantage and a psychological feeling of super-poweredness, goggles that are employed in one of the most terrifying audience-identification sequences since Halloween, or even Psycho. The threatening nature of the looks Clarice receives are brought home when compared to the gazes she does not find threatening: of all the looking-directly-into-the-camera/at-Clarice closeups we see, only her friend Ardelia (a woman) is stared directly back at by Clarice herself. They're on the same level, and we as the viewers are permitted to join them as, in their carved-out safe haven (Clarice is even wearing pajamas), they unravel the clue that cracks the case. There's also the two goofy entymologists Clarice comes to for help--like many of the other men in the film, they clearly desire her, one even going so far as to admit he's hitting on her, but this time Clarice takes it in stride. The explanation is visible: one wears coke-bottle glasses, and the other has a lazy eye. Their threat is thereby neutered. After all, as Dr. Lecter points out in his explanation of Buffalo Bill's pathology, he kills because he covets, and "we covet what we see." Seeing is not believing--it is destroying.
If I'm making this all sound like some hamfisted attempt to adapt Laura Mulvey's theories on the male gaze whole-cloth, I'm doing something wrong. The points being made here are specific ones, tied into the plot, and not just reflexive pseudofeminist wonkery. Clarice Starling is a woman in a governmental agency dominated almost entirely by men. The very first time we see her, she's climbing uphill; and before long we discover that she's running an obstacle course. Her boss slights her in order to curry favor with local authorities; a psychiatrist hits on her, then dismisses her reason for being sent in to see Lecter as simply "to turn him on." Meanwhile, Buffalo Bill, though on the surface a transsexual, is (as Lecter assures us) nothing of the sort; rather, he began killing women because he apparently couldn't have the one he wanted. His behavior is littered with signs of pathological misogyny and homophobia. Those who criticized the movie as homophobic itself apparently missed the fact that his lisping limp-wristed routine is a mockery of gays, that as a serial killer of women he can reliably be presumed to be a heterosexuality, that there are even pictures on his wall of him cavorting with strippers. Lecter spots these manifestations of misogyny and works them for all they're worth, repeatedly suggesting that the men in Starling's life have sexual designs on her, and ruthlessly mocking the maternal actions (and power suit) of Senator Martin, the mother of Buffalo Bill's latest kidnap victim. The thorough contempt for women is made plainest by Bill himself, when he mocks the screams of his victim, pulling at his shirt to simulate breasts. To me, this is as grotesque as the famous scene in which Bill tucks his penis between his legs to ape the body of a woman. In both cases, what's being condemned by the filmmakers is not inappropriately feminine behavior, but raw hatred of women--which is nothing more or less than a socially acceptable form of hatred itself.
If I seem to be ignoring the most commonly discussed aspects of this film--the thrills and the performances--I apologize, because in both cases it's as good as everyone says. The garage sequence, the escape sequence, and of course the big switcheroo and visit to Bill's basement at the end of the film are as riveting and pulse-pounding as thrillers can get. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins simply disappear into their roles. Foster gives a performance of excruciating melancholy. Hopkins delivers each line so well one can hardly imagine them being spoken any other way--if his subsequent scenery devouring in movie after movie were to put him on the path to thespian Hell, this role insures he won't go any lower than Purgatory, methinks. And please don't forget the criminally overlooked Ted Levine, whose pathetic mania is both skin-crawling and, in a weird way, heartbreaking.
I think that the greatness of this movie is often lost in the minds of the public--lost amidst the thrills and chills, or the countless "Greatest Villains of All Time" hype about Hannibal Lecter and the concomitant overemphasis of the fava beans bit and the gag at the movie's end. But this is a real horror movie, about real horror. It's scary and haunting and so, so sad, all ruined towns and wasted lives and regret. That's what I realized when I watched it over and over again--I think it makes us scream so that we don't end up crying.
Believe it or not, there are still people who care about things like "cred" and "selling out" and general "my favorite band's better than yours" stupidity of the type you thought you left behind, along with gym class and algebra, in high school. Amanda subjects one of them to a righteous beatdown. More power to her.
In a related post, this one inspired by stupid arguments made about comics as well as music, Big Sunny D dishes out wrath akin to Amanda's. Great minds, etc.
I couldn't agree more with both of them. It's taken me forever to get to the point where I'm not worried about being a poseur, or feel the need to accuse other people of being one, or make sweeping judgements about entire genres of music or comics or their fans. Now that i'm there, I feel so much better and, um, wiser, as a person and a fan and an artist and a critic and everything. It's just... stupid not to engage a given piece of art on its own terms, on its own merits. It's stupid to make your mind up about How Art Works and spend the rest of your miserable life jamming everything into your framework and chopping to pieces whatever doesn't fit. This is not to deny the value of categorization--it's just to recognize that the categories spring from the qualities inherent in the individual works, not the other way around. Categories are descriptors, not set-in-stone definers. Basically I've boiled all this down to a little maxim:
Life's too short to hate emo.
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 7
7. Lost Highway, dir. David Lynch
I'm finding it difficult to come up with something interesting to say about this movie, arguably the most critically divisive film in the already divisive ouevre of David Lynch. The first time I saw it I spent its duration riveted, then felt that give way to borderline outrage after the credits rolled: What the hell just happened? Was it the work of a genius, or just lousy storytelling? And can we please get that scary fucking man with no eyebrows out of my head before I have to go to sleep?
I probably don't have to draw you a map from there. I'm a horror guy, and this movie scared the bejesus out of me. Anything that frightening deserved another viewing. So (with a great deal of encouragement from The Missus), I gave it a second chance.
And a third. And a fourth. And God knows how many others throughout my entire college career. Lost Highway was not so much a film for me and my friends as it was a five-hour experience: two hours to watch, three hours to think and talk it over. We advanced all sorts of theories to explain the bizarre leaps in narrative logic, the nature of the various doppelgangers and doubles, and the origin of the Mystery Man (Robert Blake in his second-most disturbing performance ever). We marvelled at the gorgeous cinematography, which particularly in the first segment of the film gives everything an elegantly morbid, textural feel, like immersing the palm of your hand in a vat of black nailpolish; and at the brilliant use of sound, which coaxes as much menace and emotion from the sound of breathing as it does from a soundtrack that's at turns ambient and roaring (one assembled by nine inch nails mastermind Trent Reznor). We compared the film to other Lynch efforts, the most germane being the surrealist mood piece Eraserhead and the supernatural horror of Twin Peaks and its theatrical prequel Fire Walk with Me. We'd stay up until the wee hours going over every line of dialogue, every move of the camera and change of lighting. And then we'd go to bed, and we'd only be a little scared that we'd turn around to see a stranger's face. "It looked like you, but it wasn't."
Honestly, pretty much every other movie I've tackled during this month's marathon, I feel like I could make a good case for--that if you saw it and didn't like it, I might be able to bring things to mind that'd make you reconsider. This one, I'm not so sure. Experience suggests that even among fans of difficult cinema in general and/or Lynch in particular, this is a movie you either love or hate. (Though it's tempting, I won't say "you either get it or you don't"--some people have definitely told me that they got it, alright, but it was still stupid.) For me, there's just so much to love. The gallows humor, for instance--this is not something that usually appeals to me, but from Mr. Eddy's lesson in highway safety to "Dent Head," it's there and it works. As I said earlier, the film is extraordinarily well made, and that alone makes it worth studying. Patricia Arquette is just stunning throughout the film, and gives the whole proceeding heat. (By the way, the steamy eroticism is not the only thing this movie has in common with another favorite horror flick of mine, Della'morte Dell'amore--I like to describe that movie as Lost Highway with zombies.)
And the horror is played flawlessly. Lynch, who proved himself the equal of Hitchcock at constructing tension on film in scenes like the closet sequence in Blue Velvet does it again here. He wrenches amazing tension and dread out of the accoutrements of modern living--phone calls and videotapes especially. In several deeply frightening scenes, no violence is involved, no monster or maniac pursues anyone--characters simply hear someone's voice on the line, or watch something on their VCR. What they see and hear is self-evidently wrong, wrong enough to terrify character and audience alike. It culminates in a scene near the end, when the Mystery Man produces a video camera and tapes the our hero, who attempts to escape. As he struggels with the ignition of his car, we cut to the videocamera-eye-view, seeing the car draw closer and closer as we the Mystery Man approach faster and faster. We're a part of this horror film now, even if we can't make sense of it. Funny, but that's pretty much how I felt ever since I first watched it.
(POSTSCRIPT: For a PDF version of paper I wrote on Lost Highway's complicated narrative patterns, click here.)
Amanda needs help interpreting her recurring dreams. If you think you can be of assistance, give it a try.
I think a great Toby Keith song title would be "You're Pissin' Off Jesus."
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 9
5. The Ring, dir. Gore Verbinski
For once, I don't have to recount my first time watching a movie. I already did so a few months back, on this very blog. The movie was The Ring, and I was scared as hell.
The most recently made film on my list, it's very much a product of the genre's history. The Shining, Hellraiser, Jacob's Ladder, The Blair Witch Project, Shivers, Videodrome, Candyman, Psycho, Rear Window, The Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, Twin Peaks, Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Scream, Poltergeist, and The Sixth Sense are all referenced (as are creepy moments in Fight Club, Blow Up and The Conversation, for that matter). Astoundingly, though, the film manages not to be at all derivative or lazy. It's simply too relentless for that.
This is a film that deploys the Monumental Horror Image with almost unbearable regularity; to paraphrase a famous review of Stephen King's It, The Ring is to the Monumental Horror Image what the Sears Roebuck catalog is to things to buy. A chair, a ladder, a television set, a tree, a well, a mirror, a girl, the ring itself--they all stand there in the center of the screen, mute indictments of normality, sanity, reality itself. They should not be, and yet there they are, over and over and over again, each time imbued with more menace than the last.
This is also a film that embraces the horror of the small detail, the little things that just don't seem right: defaced pictures, distorted photographs, a fly on the TV screen, unexpected phone calls, static on the television. (It seems safe to say that this film will have caused more people to have nervous breakdowns when the cable goes out than any movie since Poltergeist.) Just as the monumental horror images shatter our composure, these "minimal" horror images undermine it. No scene is "safe," because the filmmakers establish that horror can be found anywhere, in anything. (Especially, thanks to one of the all-time great shock moments in film history, in closets.)
It's interesting to note that they do so from the very beginning of the film. I've found that many of the best horror films begin with a long, slow build-up of tension, with some hints of the horror to come but very little actual action in that direction. Here, however, we're only five or six lines of dialogue into the movie before the central horrific conceit is introduced. Sure enough, the opening sequence doesn't end without claiming a victim.
The filmmakers are also smart enough to tie the discovery of horror directly into the plot, which is essentially a search for information. The protagonists are a reporter and a videographer, and the instruments they use to capture and convey information are lushly fetishized throughout the film: lines of type, pens, paper, videocassettes, televisions, editing decks, telephones, cell phones, answering machines, files, microfilm, frames of videotape, photographs, cameras, hands and fingers (with which we write and type and press play and record), and, of course, eyes. With televisions, telephones and a videotape as its central vehicles of horror, this is a prime example of Information Age anxiety in art.
But the most disturbing facet of this intensely disturbing film is, as is often the case with great horror, one of cruelty. When you think about it, it's actually kind of obvious that all horror is about cruelty: "Look at what we're doing to your precious status quo. Look at what we're doing to everything you believe. We're destroying it. We're destroying you." But this is a different status quo than that of the small towns and suburbs that are so often the locus of horror. I'm not referring to the traditional business wherein the kids who smoke pot and fuck get chopped to pieces by the masked killer--no, not at all. This isn't rebellion that's being punished by the motiveless agent of horror--it's a whole new status quo that's being destroyed, one of leveling, of comfort, an "I'm OK, You're OK" world. Our hero, Rachel, is a foul-mouthed absentee parent who has her son Aidan call her by her first name. The kid's father, who Rachel insists must "grow up," talks to Aidan as though they're on the same level: "I just don't think I'd be a good father," he explains to the little boy the same way he'd explain it to Rachel, or to one of his buddies. Moreover, Rachel views the terrifying supernatural occurrences that befall her as a mystery she can solve, preferrably with comforting life-lessons about love and acceptance. She believes that heartless psychiatric workers and a domineering, abusive patriarch are to blame for it all, and that the murderous "sickness" that has infected her world can be soothed away through understanding. The filmmakers aid us in buying into this, slowly transforming the movie into a relatively traditional beat-the-clock mystery.
In the end, though, we understand nothing.
I won't go into it any more than that--I don't want to spoil this film, which should be viewed as unspoiled as possible--except to say that depictions of evil and malice as purposeless and uncompromising as this one are rare, perhaps mercifully so. Mockeries of goodness, of the soporific means of understanding the presence of badness in our world that we feed ourselves, are rarely this vicious, this unrelenting, this frightening. We're scared, alright. And we're more scared still, because we've been shown that the presence of that which scares us will never, ever end.
First Kill Bill, now Rite of Spring: is it me, or is ol' James Lileks's aversion to unpleasant art getting a little tedious? He honestly seems to see such things as a threat to Civilization As We Know It. I'm not the smartest student of human history, but it seems to me that people who freak out about such things always end up looking like priggish schmucks as the mighty river of time flows by. I know that as a horror fan I've got something a vested interest in defending art that reveals horrible truths (put truths in scare quotes if it makes you feel better); and it's not like I myself don't draw the line someplace about amoral art (I personally think action comedies are loathsome--Grosse Pointe Blank is one of the most reprehensible films ever made, f'rinstance); but seriously, chill out, James. Maybe everything isn't all happiness and light here in The Modern Age. There's value in depicting unpleasant behavior and ideas in art, one that does not equate to endorsing those behaviors and ideas. I know there's a war for Western Civ on, and I'm as In For The Big Win as the next guy, but is this idea really that difficult to accept?
Meanwhile, thanks to Big Sunny D and Eve Tushnet for the kind words on The 13 Days of Halloween. Relapsed Catholic is enjoyin' it too, except for all them SAT words I keep throwing in. I know that the reviews have been a little flowery, and that was not planned at the outset, I assure you--it just kinda came out that way. My guess is that I love these films so much I can't help but wax rhapsodic about them. Glad to hear that, for the most part, people are enjoying them anyway.
On the horror comics front, Big Sunny D praises Mike Mignola's Hellboy, one of the most beautiful books out there. There's an ineffable creepiness to this title, despite the rock'em sock'em action and the deadpan sense of humor, that's what keeps me coming back. I tend to think of it as a more action-packed version of Jim Woodring's Frank, a comparison that probably makes sense only to myself. Also, Eve Tushnet is the latest person to fall in love with the horror manga title Uzumaki. I guess I'm going to have to pick this book up, huh.
Jason Adams keeps on defending Ginger Snaps, and comes to the realization that straight horror filmmakers find female sexual organs frightening for some reason. Where would David Cronenberg be without the vagina dentata, for example?
Finally, how awesome is RetroCrush's 100 Scariest Movie Scenes countdown?
Thanks to all this horror stuff I've been a bit behind on the comics beat, I know. Why don't let's play catch-up?
First of all, I'd like to call everyone's attention to the current Dave Gibbons/Lee Weeks Captain America run, which is just as entertaining as hell. While the stolid, cramped continuity-wonking of 1602 gets tons and tons of attention, this little unheralded storyline sticks the various Marvel Universe heroes in an alternate-timeline donnybrook about a billion times more entertainingly and convincingly. Plus, they fight Nazis. Plus, it's called "Cap Lives." It's good, is what I'm saying.
The Pulse brings us a characteristically grumpy-sounding interview with Erik Larsen, creator of the improbably long-running superhero series Savage Dragon. I think there's been something of a slump in quality in this series recently, but generally this is one of the most entertaining, unpredictable superbooks out there. Paradoxically, it's also one of the most reverent AND most iconoclastic regarding the conventions of superherodom. I think it's fantastic that Image has planned to get trades of the entire series in print, because it's really best read from the beginning, preferably in during a Lost Weekend of junk food and booze.
Dirk Deppey has been sparring with some retailers lately regarding his theories about manga, graphic novels, and the bookstore market, and seems to have done pretty well for himself for the tussling. He and Graeme McMillan (permalink pending) have also been trying to wrap their heads around Marvel's apparent decision to make collections of some of their manga-ish Tsunami series available only to bookstores--Dirk blames peevish vindictiveness against the Direct Market, Graeme credits a Machiavellian plot to drive up Marvel's bookstore-market share. I wouldn't be surprised if it was a little of both, and in both cases I'm having a hard time getting upset. This kind of move isn't likely to sink Marvel, the DM, or even the books themselves--what it amounts to is a relatively inconsequential but totally unmistakable kick in the nuts of the DM, an entity that needs its nuts kicked hella bad. Meanwhile, Shawn Fumo reports that the bookstore-only collections might not materialize at all. Frankly I'd trust Publisher's Weekly before some dude on a messboard, but u-decide.
Speaking of message boards, J.W. Hastings seconds my emotion regarding the comparative utility of messboards and blogs, and is even tougher than I am on the silliness that goes down at the Comics Journal's board.
But in the interest of even-handedness, if you're looking for the best superhero comics to read, you could do worse than to follow the suggestions on this TCJ.com thread on the subject. The discussion is staying almost unbelievably civil so far.
Back on the J.W. Hastings front, the blogger commonly known as Forager pits Frank Miller against Alan Moore in a superheroes-for-grownups grudge match. Looks like Moore will win, in J.W.'s eyes, but for me it's all Miller. Miller's work is one thing I will probably never be able to write intelligently about, because I love his stuff so much that it's pretty much inarticulatable for me.
D. Emerson Eddy offers a mixed verdict on the debut issue of the Azzarello/Risso Batman story. I'm of two minds on this myself: Risso draws Batman as well as anyone who isn't named Frank Miller, and Azzarello is smart enough to show him beating the snot out of a criminal for his opening scene, thus eschewing the fall-back position for Batman writers of just making the caped crusader suffer all the time. (I'm tired of watching Batman being hunted. He's Batman, not the fucking Fugitive.) On the other hand, the noirish narration just doesn't fit with the operatic character himself, and even taken as noirish narration the constant Clever Turns Of Phrase wear incredibly thin after a while. I noticed this tendency of Azzarello's in 100 Bullets recently, which is why i stopped buying its monthly installments--everyone talks like they stayed up all night writing down clever things to say. Witness this exchange from the Batbook:
BATMAN: And you are...?
PRETTY LADY: Margo.
PRETTY LADY: Farr. And to the wall for my man.
BATMAN: You seem to be backed up against it.
PRETTY LADY: If it looks like what I'm up against is a wall, you're the one that's backed up.
Verbally, the gymnastics these two go through to have that conversation are just as dextrous as the ones they apparently endure to get into their respective outfits. They're also just as realistic, but not nearly as much fun to watch. Sigh.
Alan David Doane has an experience similar to the one I had months ago at his local Borders. His seems to bode well for American comics--not as well as for manga, but still.
Two bits of snark to wrap things up:
1) Has anyone else noticed that Citizen Soldier from Micah "Fightin' the Man, Bitchin' about Everything" Wright's StormWatch: Team Achilles is just Nuke from Miller & Mazuchelli's Daredevil: Born Again with the flag on his face painted upside-down instead of rightside-up?
2) The Warren Ellis Self-Parody Watch continues....
I don't know whether Guy Cimbalo of LowCulture.com likes the new Strokes record or not, but boy howdy has he humiliated everyone else who's written about it. He's assembled a hugely entertaining list of the rock-journo cliches employed by reviewers of the album. Vicious! (That Lou Reed reference is just to get you in the mood.)
You call this an R.E.M. best-of? Even if you agree with their dubious decision to make this a Warner Bros/1990s-only compilation, this isn't even all the best of that period. In the above link, D. Emerson Eddy runs down some of the songs that are missing. And the notion that anyone should buy an R.E.M. retrospective that includes nothing--nothing--from Document or anything before it is just as goofy as hell. It's not like the casual fan will care about the need to make this a 1988-2003-only comp: They'll just wonder where "It's the End of the World as We Know It" and "Fall On Me" and "The One I Love" and "Radio Free Europe" went, and try to figure out how they got half a greatest-hits set. U2 and David Bowie have both managed to produce greatest-hits sets recently that are both comprehensive and entertaining--to say nothing of Elvis and the Beatles. What's going on here, anyway?
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 10
4. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, dir. Tobe Hooper
Back in college I lived with the same six other guys for three years. All of us had different interests, almost all of us had different majors (I think there were two history guys, but one of those was also a musician, and the rest of us were involved in film studies, architecture, art, economics, and pre-med stuff), but one thing we all had in common is that any time I brought home a movie, everyone was up for watching it. It pretty much didn’t matter what it was, whether it was rented for pleasure or for an assignment, whether it was something they’d been meaning to see or something they’d never heard of--next to playing Mario Kart, watching movies and then bullshitting about them was our favorite pastime. (Beer, pot, and sex were up there too, I think.) It was always fascinating to hear the different reactions and interpretations that would come from this disparate group of people.
Except in the case of this film. With this film, everyone reacted exactly the same: like they’d just been involved in a car wreck.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the most thoroughly disturbing movie on this list--hands down, I would say. After seeing it for the first time I could not for the life of me understand how it had come to be lumped into the same slasher category with the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th sequels, to say nothing of the Slumber Party Massacres and Prom Nights and what have you. Yes, there are slashers involved in both, but then again there are car accidents involved in both Crash and The Cannonball Run. This movie is simply in a class by itself. If there is a more intense, more brutal movie about murder out there, I’m not sure I want to see it.
This is another one of those dark fairy-tale movies, the kind with a house of horrors and a dark forest, the kind where plot is first simply pragmatic and second disposed of entirely. It concerns a group of five young people--two couples and the parapalegic brother of one of the girls--who take a trip to the grave site of the siblings’ grandfather, which they’ve heard on the news has fallen victim to a sudden outbreak of grave desecration. While out there, they decide to take a trip to the old family house, now abandoned. Upon exploring another house nearby, they encounter another family--one of deranged cannibalistic killers. The primary engine of murder for this clan is a huge idiot killing machine named Leatherface, so called for the masks he wears, which are fashioned from human skin. It seems unnecessary to detail the plot any further.
Superficially, the movie has much in common with its neverending horde of imitators: a blade-wielding killer in a mask, a group of silly and attractive teenagers who are slaughtered one by one, a “final girl” who outlives her friends. But similarities end there. Take the masked killer--this isn’t some mute cipher gussied up in weakly supernatural trappings to make him some sort of dark-side Superman with a machete, like Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers; this is a lunatic with roots. He seems to be mentally retarded, and given what we see of his environment he may well be the product of inbreeding. He gibbers like a baby, squeals like a pig, reacts with grotesue obesiance when scolded and capers like a dervish when thwarted. He even sports different skin masks for different occasions--a motherly one when cooking, a made-up glamour-face when entertaining a guest--in a horrific parody of normal human etiquette. Gunnar Hansen, the actor who plays him, didn’t just conjure some bogeyman out of the ether to guide his performance--he studied mental patients and the severely retarded. There’s a there there in Leatherface--and that the there is this disgusting abcess of humanity is what makes him so frightening a figure.
Then there are the kids who get killed. First of all, they’re vaguely hippie-ish; what with the fact that they get torn to pieces in an all-American state like Texas, the Vietnam metaphor is inescapable, and in this case actually appropriate. (The spectre of Vietnam loomed large over the horror films of the late 60s and early 70s, and was, I think, much more interestingly explored there than in many films explicitly about the subject. I suppose this goes without saying, but I for one feel I learned a lot more about the era from Night of the Living Dead than I did from Forrest Gump.) Moreover, they’re not dead-obvious targets--there’s no pot-smoking, no sex, no drinking going on. Hell, they went to go make sure their grandpa’s grave was okay, and then went on to revisit the place they spent many happy childhood hours. You can’t get more innocuous than that; you can’t find less of a reason to be killed than that either.
And yes, 4 out of the 5 kids are attractive, the girls in particular--but even what appear to be T&A shots end up being little more than set-ups for later horrors. Take, for example, the memorable low-angle tracking shot that follows Pam as she walks toward Leatherface’s house: At first we think this is just an excuse to gaze longingly at the seeming miles of skin on display outside the almost nonexistent confines of her skimpy clothing, but we learn within minutes that this was really intended to impress upon us the fact that her shirt has no back. (How we learn this I’ll just leave to the movie, but it may be the most shocking scene in a film that’s full of them.) And Sally, our “final girl,” is undoubtedly beautiful, but those secondary sex characteristics filmmakers seem so enamored so often of are of no avail to her: Her long, lovely blonde hair catches in the brambles and branches of the woods she flees through; her wretched, unmistakably and pathetically sexual pleas for mercy to Leatherface’s family--”I’ll do anything you want”--fall on deaf ears. Sexuality isn’t being punished here, because sexuality is a non-issue. These kids are nothing but meat.
It’s that angle that makes this film so difficult to watch. You’re watching a group of kids be dehumanized by sub-humans. If that makes it sound unpleasant, then I’m failing, because it’s so far beyond that. Watching it today--and I’ve watched this movie a lot--I was still stunned by how barbarically savage and disgusting it is. As many critics have noted, what disturbs us isn’t gore, since there’s very little actual gore on display. Rather, it’s the unremitting cruelty of it, a cruelty devoid of style, slickness, and attractiveness. The movie looks and feels like a snuff film, or perhaps an animal-rights activist’s hidden-camera footage of a slaughterhouse, seen on a copy of a copy of a copy. It begins with grainy, underexposed flashes of a dead body, segues into a long, lingering shot on a monument made of corpses to a soundtrack of news-report atrocities. Then you’re treated to the constant spiteful whining of the lonely, unlikeable crippled brother; the addle-brained self-abuse of the greasy-haired, facially disfigured hitchhiker; and from there, total madness that does not let up until the final frame. In there somewhere--you’ll want to forget exactly where--is the debut of the sledge, Pam’s discovery of the bone room and subsequent placement for later disposal, Sally’s discovery of Grandpa and Grandma, the cook’s sadistic and cackling use of his broomstick, Grandpa’s snack, and of course the dinner sequence, possibly the most excruciatingly awful scene I’ve ever seen. It's just awfulness from beginning to end. That it ends with laughter and dancing is the cruelest part of all.
If you insist, I’ll come up with a film to compare this one to: John Boorman’s Deliverance. They’re both fables of a sick frontier, one that was never the heroic homestead of free men it was made out to be. Everything’s twisted inward and collapsed on itself: the cars are rusted and stand where they stopped, the children are inbred and idiot, the adults are depraved and pointlessly murderous, modernity passed through only to destroy the small remaining possiblity of normal life, graves are upended and emptied, and nature is mute and hostile. Back in school I wrote a paper comparing the two films, and even though I had the idea to begin with I was amazed how similar they really are. You can download the essay here. Next to my senior essay, it’s the academic writing I’m most proud of--it's concrete close-reading where this little post is kind of vague in an attempt to capture the ineffable, blah blah blah. You’re welcome to view these two brilliant horror films as a double feature, if you think you stand a chance of stomaching them. It’s difficult even for me.
There have been many gratuitously cruel movies, of course--slick little productions where the girls get blood on their tits and the men behind the camera gaze greedily at the bottom line. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a necessarily cruel movie, which is a very different animal indeed. I think there’s a value in seeing the worst, the absolute worst, and that’s what Hooper shows us--as clearly and as unrelentingly as if his life depended on it. There’s no exit, no escape hatch, no levity or joy or beauty in this world at all. It’s a total vision; indeed, a totalitarian vision. Watching this film is like being inoculated against some nightmare virus. It really is like a car crash; the closing credits may be an airbag, but you'll never forget what you've been through.
Looooong posts ahead. Please don't let that stop you from scrolling down to see what else is around!
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 11
3. The Exorcist, dir. William Friedkin
the third scariest film I've ever seen
These are the first words we hear. So we're in foreign territory, then, and territory presided over by a very great God, one who demands--and receives--worshipful obedience. To dust off an almost forgotten cliche: 'In light of recent events,' it might be tempting to believe that we are to understand the events that follow as a product of this devotion to the potentially murderous mysteries of faith. It is equally tempting to fume about Orientalism and misrepresentation of the Other. Interesting ideas indeed, but here I'm going to opt to ignore the forest and focus on one of the trees: This movie begins in Iraq, an appropriate instance of synchronicity given that The Exorcist, the film widely considered to be the greatest horror film of all time, is actually a war movie.
Of course I'm not referring to a war between countries, or even between civilizations, although there are certainly hints of the latter in the rapid-fire juxtaposition of Islam, paganism, Christianity, and modern atheism that begin the film. I am referring to that most unfashionable war, that of good versus evil. But it even trumps the unfashionable rhetoric of today, which when it uses those four letter words does so as codes for democracy and totalitarianism. This is not a philosophical war, or even a religious one. It's a spiritual one--literally, a war between spirits. The field of battle is humankind, the weapons are lethal in the highest degree, and the horror of the conflict, in which neither side answers to man and law, is total.
I can't think of another horror film that's as... majestic as The Exorcist. The horrific images it employs are not just frightening, they're mind-blowingly so, and deliberately at that. This is a film intended to scare the living daylights right out of you for hours after you leave the theatre or turn the TV off. It's the cinematic equivalent of shock and awe, and its makers are virtuosos to rival any four-star general. And it's all harnessed (quite explicitly, in the oft-stated words of its director) to force the audience to confront the idea not just that we are not alone in our world, but that this world is not ours at all.
The demon is first shown as a tiny statue, with the noise of insects buzzing incongruously as it is discovered. Friedkin is already establishing that this thing is royalty--it is the Lord of the Flies. We see it stop a clock. We seem to hear its influence in the cacaphony of the town--the clanging of hammers on anvils, the thunderous stampeding of carriage hoofs as a wild-eyed woman (not the last one we'll see, oh no) is pulled past, mouth agape as if in some silent scream. We see the potential of the little statue realized in a massive monument--monkeylike head, insect wings, snakelike phallus, blank eyes. The noise swells and buzzes and screeches and growls and screams. That kind of intensity is unmistakeable: War has been declared.
The battleground is a body, that of Regan McNeil, a young girl from Washington, D.C. (and that is surely no coincidence). Here, actually, is where many critics stall: This must be a film about male anxiety over female sexuality! Well, yes, it is that--if Regan's curiosity about her mother's love life didn't tip you off, and the displaced menstrual imagery of urination and surgical blood spurts didn't either, and dozens of male doctors penetrating her with all manner of needles and tubes still left you guessing, surely "Fuck me!" and "Let Jesus fuck you!" and "Lick me!" and "Your mother sucks cocks in Hell, Karras!" weren't insufficiently obvious. But it isn't any more about just that than, say, Apocalypse Now is just a critique of U.S. foreign policy in Indochina. Human sexuality--human female sexuality--the onset of human female sexuality--these are just weapons in the war, accessible by either side. What better way to erode the resistance of the humans who comprise both the battlefield and the frontline troops than to force them to focus on areas they see as private and personal, if not shameful and animal?
As in many wars, at first the wrong kinds of troops are deployed. We're supposed to be comforted by the clinical whites of modern medicine, even when they're stained red. But it becomes rapidly apparent that as much guesswork and dead-ending and thinly veiled savagery is present here as in the work of the "witch doctors" such disciplines believe themselves to have supplanted. The boundaries are blurred further by the sideline professions of the witch doctors themselves. Our very first glimpses of Father Lancaster Merrin show him to be an archaeologist, apparently of some reknown; he simply seems to have brought along, in addition to intellectual curiosity about the old gods, fear of them as well. But our protagonist witch-doctor, Father Damien Karras, does not have the regal, professorial carriage of Father Merrin. What he has is a massively sympathetic face with eyes that seem to pour forth emotion like faucets, a degree in psychology as valid as that held by any of the condescending experts, and the frightening knowledge that his faith is failing him. This modern witch doctor, who has been the latter half of his split personality, is about to see his belief in the former shaken to its foundations as well.
The primary method of assault is visual. (It tends to be, in the great horror films: As Mr. Morgan puts it in The Ring, "My God, the things she'd show you"; or as the Hitchhiker puts in in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, "You like this face?") The demon (the filmmakers) show them (us) an escalating onslaught of horrors. Regan's face is wounded and made monstrous. The lights flicker in and out. Regan's head twists around like an owl's, and her tongue extends like a snake's. She levitates the bed, then she levitates herself. She flashes the face of a demon (the first apperance of which, in Father Karras's dream (we're talking about the original version of the film here; I think its earlier appearance in the special edition loses much of its power, though to be sure I'd need to ask someone who saw it for the first time that way) is in my opinion the second scariest image ever put on film). The demon statue appears behind her. And most horrifyingly--for it almost succeeds--she transforms into Father Karras's mother. As voiced by actor Jason Miller in one of the all-time great performances, the anguished cry Karras responds with--"You're not my mother!"--is like some pathetic inversion of the final words of many a dying soldier.
The assault is aural, too. The demon's voice emanates incongrously from the little girl's body, as does at one point or another the voice of a homeless man and a dead English film director and a dead mother of a priest. The demon's language is obviously an assault on the ears. The otherworldy growls, screams, buzzing and screeching crescendo repeatedly. And we musn't forget the extradiegetic music, any more than we'd forget the terrific splendor of Father Merrin's spotlit arrival at the McNeil household while Regan's demon eyes stare expectantly outward. Harsh, dissonant strings, tinkling bells, ambient tones--evil has a power of beauty just as does good.
And good's power is cruel just as is evil's. Good relies on strength, and on the projection of that strength. The priests shout and yell. They wrestle and restrain. They strike. They dress in uniforms, like soldiers. They wield weapons of God. They chant like the repeat of artillery: "The power of Christ compels you," over and over again, sending chills up and down the spine, over and over again until that power's compulsion is at last affected. It's a magesterial moment: At last, good is bringing out weapons big enough and hard enough to fight those that evil has used throughout.
War is death, and there is death here, brutal, human death--heart attacks and defenestration are sufficient to feed the fires of this battle. And it's the sacrifice of soldiers, make no mistake about it. They submit themselves for sacrifice not because they don't fear death--clearly they do, evidenced by the fervor with which Father Karras tells Regan's mother Chris that Regan will not die--but because they do fear it, and because that fear gives them basis for comparison against the superior fear of the evil such sacrifices are meant to combat. Good (at first I accidentally typed God, but I suppose it wasn't much of an accident) demands such sacrifices without compunction. After all, this is war.
My point is that, in a sense, this movie lacks that awful certainty I tend to look for in horror. There is evil, which his a horrifying notion, but there is also good, which is... leavening, if not comforting. But still I say only "in a sense," because even though evil has an opponent, we are still caught in the crossfire. At any moment we may be asked to believe the unbelievable in order to fight the unspeakable. It may cost us our faith. It may cost us our sanity. It may cost us our lives. How we rank those losses is the film's central question. And the realiztion that there are forces whose intrusion could cause that ranking to change, forever, is the horror at the movie's heart.
Postscript: It should come as no surprise to you that in a war waged in and by a horror film, the monumental horror image is what I view to be the most lethal weapon in the arsenal. In my senior essay I did a close reading of The Exorcist, detailing the use of the monumental horror images throughout the film and the profound, "cosmic" fear they engender. Below you can find reprinted the relevant portion; to read the whole essay, click here and find out how.
The inspiration of cosmic fear—specifically the type stemming from Catholic dogma—was an explicit thematic concern of William Peter Blatty, who adapted The Exorcist’s screenplay from his own novel of the same name. He carefully constructed his story so that the demon Pazuzu, who possess young Regan MacNeil, would be more terrifying for its mental effects on those around Regan than its physical effects on Regan itself. In the novel, Father Lancaster Merrin, the missionary and archaeologist who is summoned to exorcise Regan, insists that “the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us...the observers...every person in this house.” Merrin discusses this further in a conversation with the conflicted Father Damien Karras, found in another scene that was cut from the film’s final cut but was present in both novel and screenplay:
Fr. Karras: Why this girl? It makes no sense.
Fr. Merrin: I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves
as...animal and ugly. To reject the notion that God could love us.
Director William Friedkin stressed the importance of the idea that the film’s true horror stemmed from what the demon represented in his introduction to a recent special edition video release: “...it’s a story that can perhaps make you question your own value system, even your own sanity, because it strongly and realistically tries to make the case for spiritual forces in the universe, both good and evil....[t]his had to be a realistic film about inexplicable events.”
With their unequalled, specifically representative power, monumental horror-images were the logical choice to convey these themes in the film. Unlike The Shining, however, The Exorcist focuses on the second, more literally “monumental” type of horror-image. From the beginning, Pazuzu is associated with monuments and statues. During a dig in Iraq, Fr. Merrin accidentally unearths the head of a small Pazuzu statue after removing the St. Joseph’s medal that had been placed mysteriously nearby. At that moment we first hear the unearthly buzzing sound we come to associate with the demon; the discovery of this mini-monument appears to have “unleashed” him once again.
Later that day, a shaken and disturbed Merrin travels to the site of an ancient, ruined fortress. Though he earlier told a fellow scholar that he was leaving because “there is something [he] must do,” he seems shocked to discover exactly what this “something” turns out to be. As Merrin stands in the ruins, a shadow covers his face. He looks up to see an enormous statue of Pazuzu looming in the center of the frame, blotting out the harsh glow of the midday sun. As droning, atonal music is heard on the soundtrack, Merrin climbs a rocky hill; the camera rapidly swings around his head to reveal the statue, now fully visible, atop a hill opposite Merrin’s. A series of quick cuts follow: a startled Merrin turns to see an Arab atop a similar hill, watching the proceedings (rifle-toting Arab security guards had threatened Merrin at the gates to the ruins moments before); he turns again and sees two wild dogs, fighting and growling in the desert. Finally, he turns back to the statue. The camera zooms in slowly on Merrin’s face, then on the statue’s face. Finally, as the dogs’ angry growls become distorted, merging with the droning music, the buzzing sound we heard earlier, and what appears to be a woman screaming, we cut to a final shot of Merrin and the statue, standing on opposite ends of the screen, facing off in an archetypal image of good versus evil. This in turn dissolves to a shot of the setting sun above the barren desert landscape, which itself dissolves to a placid aerial view of autumnal Georgetown. The bizarre sounds gradually fade out.
By first showing us Pazuzu not in his “real,” demonic form, but in a representational, monumental form, Friedkin offers us a hint as to the true threat that the demon represents. Pazuzu is a holdover from an outmoded, ancient belief system, an embodiment of an evil for which the modern, complacent, atheistic America into which it has been introduced (in this very sequence) cannot account. Fr. Merrin seems to understand this threat simply by gazing upon its graven image in the ruins.
Pazuzu itself appears to understand the power of the monumental horror-image to concretize evil in a supremely disturbing fashion; in fact, the next true monumental horror-image we see—a desecration of a statue of the Virgin Mary—is its doing. A series of leisurely cranes, pans, and tracks follow a bespectacled priest as he enters Georgetown University’s chapel to place flowers by the statues of the Holy Family. As he crosses the altar after placing the first batch in front of St. Joseph, he stops short, and the camera swoops in on his face as he looks up. We cut to a still shot of the Virgin, centered and illuminated by the light from the chapel’s windows. Crude red and black breasts and an enormous, conical penis have been affixed to the statue, whose hands have also been painted blood red. The priest reacts with a horrified whisper of “Oh God.”
This horror-image, once again literally “monumental,” comes a solid half hour into the film. We have yet to see anything explicitly supernatural or violent; nevertheless, the fact that something profoundly wrong is happening has been undeniably confirmed by this indisputable, literally concrete depiction of evil. The defiance of contemporary Judeo-Christian conceptual schemes implicit in the ancient Pazuzu statue is made explicit in this direct violation of a Christian icon. Furthermore, it is worthy of note that by this point in the film, Regan has been shown to be an amateur sculptor. As the gaudy coloring and childish workmanship of this desecration indicate, Regan was the vessel in which the demon committed its crime; her talents neatly lend themselves to its mission to boldly proclaim the presence of irrational, diabolical forces in the world. Pazuzu, it would seem, picks its victims well.
The use of the monumental horror-image reaches a feverish peak in the film’s climactic exorcism sequence. In this sequence, Pazuzu’s possession of Regan (which often displays inanimate, “statuesque” characteristics: catatonia, somnambulism, immobility, and of course the infamous “head-spinning” special effect, made possible by the use of an actual mannequin) becomes explicitly monumental in nature. After a series of seismic tremors that nearly destroy her bedroom and a vicious verbal assault against Fr. Karras in which she blames him for his mother’s death, Regan bursts her bonds, her eyes going white. She slowly levitates off her bed, arms outstretched in a blasphemous, satanic parody of Christ’s crucifixion. After further earthquake-like shocks to the room, we cut to a shot from above, in which the Regan-thing, bathed in cold blue-white light, is placed dead-center. This “vulgar display of power” stuns both Merrin and Karras; they respond to it by repeatedly invoking a rival power, that of Christ. After she finally sinks back down onto the bed, she assaults Karras as he attempts to re-fasten her restraints. Another tremor sends Karras and Merrin crashing against the wall, where they look up to see the supposedly bound Regan, arms outstretched, silhouetted against a strange blue light. The clear graphic similarity of this shot to the introductory shot of Pazuzu’s monument is made unmistakable by the inexplicable appearance of that very statue behind Regan’s bed, accompanied by the same buzzing, droning, and screaming heard during the original sequence.
Regan’s levitation and the subsequent appearance of Pazuzu are the one-two punch apotheosis of the horror of The Exorcist. Their near-total violation of moral, spiritual, and physical norms can only be described as obscene. Displaying nearly all the characteristics of the archetypal monumental horror-image, they clearly demonstrate the unforgettable power of such images to make “real” the unreal, the abnormal, the things that should not be. Their accompaniment by cataclysmic physical trauma to the bedroom reinforces the fashion in which such images rend the fabric of reality that Karras and Merrin have viewed as normal all their lives. Their exhaustion at the end of this scene stems not from any great physical ordeal, but from the tremendous toll these monumental horror-images are taking on “[their] value system, even [their] own sanity.” Such are the effects of horror at its best (or worst?)—the horror of cosmic fear.
Call me radiation from Venus, because the whole scariest-movie-ever thing is spreading like zombification in the Dead movies.
Alan David Doane submits 28 Days Later for your consideration, though he qualifies it by saying the fright comes in large part from shock tactics as opposed to true lasting horror. I've wondered about this myself, and am looking forward to checking the film out again to see how it holds up (though God knows which ending I'll prefer--they've got like 12 of them now).
Eve Tushnet nominates Carnival of Souls. This one I haven't seen, and from the sound of it that's my loss.
David Fiore's candidates are Martin Scorses's After Hours and David Salle's Search and Destroy, two movies I also haven't seen. Part of the fun of this whole thing has been adding to my list of films to see.
Jason Adams becomes one of the first people I've ever heard of who prefers the original, Japanese version of The Ring (Ringu) to its American remake. He makes some solid points, though, as always, including something I hadn't thought of about the surprise climax (yes, there's spoilers of the hardcore kind in there).
Bill Sherman has created a lovely post on the very ugly EC horror-comics of yore. A pleasure to read and to look at.
RetroCrush's 100 Scariest Movie Scenes countdown is finished, and I've got to say, they did a tremendous job. They included almost all the truly great moments, and ranked them respectably as well, though of course I have some big disagreements as anyone would. (Relapsed Catholic points out, rightly, that the best scenes from The Silence of the Lambs--the ones everybody really talked about, as I can remember even though I was young and didn't see it back then--are missing.) So far, I think this is the best Halloween-related anything of the year.
Finally, though this isn't strictly horror-related, both Eve and David have taken me to task for thinking Grosse Pointe Blank is immoral. But that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Yes yes, John Cusack's character stops killing people and settles down at the end, but is he ever punished in any way for the awful way he led his life? Other than the inconvenience of having Minnie Driver be mildly irritated with him for a few hours, that is? I think his change of heart at the end of the film is as perfunctory as could be. Moreover, are we ever supposed to find him awful, even when he is still killing? I submit that no, we're not--we're supposed to think "Oh hey, this is Lloyd Dobbler from Say Anything--isn't he charming? Isn't he cute? And listen to his taste in music--it's almost as cool as Lloyd's was! So what if he's killing people all the time for money--Nobody's perfect! Actually, on second thought, that makes him even cooler--he's adorable AND a bad-ass!" Bleccch. This movie left a really bad taste in my mouth. (I also don't handle Lethal Weapon/Bad Boys/Jerry Bruckheimer shoot-em-ups very well--I don't think violence is particularly funny if it's never really shown to have consequences too. This is not to say that I don't like action movies--I do. Just wait until I start talking about Kill Bill.)
Maybe the most horrific aspect of my movie-review marathon is that I only allowed myself to put 13 of them into the big countdown proper. That means that a whole lot of my favorites (I've got a lot of favorite horror films, you see) missed the cut. One such movie is 28 Days Later, but fortunately I blogged about it back when I actually saw it in theatres. (I love that I've been blogging long enough to say things like that.) Here's what I said back then, only very mildly edited for coherence. Blood-vomiting goodness awaits you!
Okay, folks, here's the deal. It'd be too damn tough to talk about what needs to be talked about when discussing this film while avoiding certain give-away'd plot points, so I'm not going to bother. If you've already seen the movie, or you don't care about having stuff spoiled for you, knock yourself out, okay? Okay. (I will say that I don't QUITE fully give away any of the big surprises, except one of them, and that's at the veeeerrry end of the review. But still, caveat lector. Or in other words, SPOILER ALERT!!! (And to those who were here when I had the whole post hidden except if you highlighted it, it was just too damn irritating for me myself to read. Sorry.))
I'm a big fan of director Danny Boyle's first two films, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. The former is a supertaut thriller, the kind of thing Hitchock might do if he had the sensibilities of a 90s filmmaker. With little more to work with than three characters and their own paranoia, Boyle built a sense of mounting madness and violence that demonstrated he'd have a deft hand if he were to try his hand at horror proper. Trainspotting showed more of the same, with its nightmarish moments (the heroin-withdrawl scene, particularly) giving lie to the "salute" to the junkie techno lifestyle that a lot of hipsters I went to college with seemed to think the movie offered. Though I skipped seeing A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach, following rules I have about the proper response to movies involving Cameron Diaz or Leo DiCaprio, I was certainly excited to find out that Boyle was going to be doing a post-apocalyptic zombie movie, because folks, I don't know if you know this about me, but if there's one thing I love it's a post-apocalyptic zombie movie.
Like most good recent horror films, 28 Days Later is as memorable for its allusions to past genre masterpieces as it is for what it achieves on its own. There's a scene in an abandoned supermarket that's straight out of George Romero's anti-consumerist zombie fable Dawn of the Dead, there's a military-dinner-amid-the-savages scene straight out of Apocalypse Now Redux, a hand-to-hand combat murder straight out of Midnight Express; moreover the overall feel of the film, from its grainy appearance (courtesy of digital video, as opposed to, say, the 16mm on which genre classics like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were shot, or the beat-up rented videocasette copies we grew up watching them on) to the characters' haircuts to the fact that it's set in Great Britain (a country that for all intents and purposes is perpetually reliving 1977), is a throwback to the bleak horror films of three decades ago.
But then there's the innovations. If 28 Days Later's only claim to fame was the fact that it had zombies that moved fast, it would still go down in zombie-flick history as a true pioneer. MAN, those fast-moving zombies! Technically, though, they aren't zombies at all, but zombified living humans who've been infected with a nebulously defined chimpanzee disease that turns them into mindless red-irised killing machines so fixated on slaughter that they don't even bother to stop and eat their victims. (That's right, it's a zombie movie with no real cannibalism--innovation number 2!) Boyle films the lightning-fast zombies at odd angles and with choppy editing that only enhances their mercurial menace. The result is the kind of fast pace that modern audiences require, meaning that 28 Days Later isn't just a valuable addition to the horror canon, but perhaps a vital one.
And there's the stunning use of soundtrack. It just wouldn't be a British Post-Apocalypse without Brian Eno, and his "An Ending (Ascent)," used with devastating emotional effect at the end of Stephen Soderbergh's Traffic, is employed with equal aplomb here. There's also a memorably haunting "Ave Maria," a bit of rambly Britpop in the shopping-cart scene, and tons and tons of Godspeed You Black Emperor*, which in terms of eeriness is a good thing indeed.
None of this would matter, of course, if you didn't care about the characters, but the foursome that comprise the film's band of protagonists (tough survivor Selena, ectomorphic bike messenger Jim (What is it with all these malnourished British actors, anyway? Damn, Danny, hire a freaking craft services department already!), good-humored cab driver Frank and quiet, thoughtful teenager Hannah) are almost instantly (and non-manipulatively) likeable. I found myself favorably comparing the bunch to the four characters at the center of Ang Lee's Hulk film, who despite about two hours of in-depth psychological investigation and backstory muster hardly a whiff of empathy from the audience. (Would you have cared for a second if the Hulk had wiped out the entire remainder of the cast?)
Basically, I enjoyed the heck out of this movie. This is not to say, however, that many aspects of it, particularly in the film's final third, weren't actually kind of easy to predict, provided you had an extensive enough background in the Post-Apocalyptic Arts. Some lessons, if I may be so bold:
1) In terms of faint military radio broadcasts audible on your hand-wound AM receiver, repeated use in the broadcast of the word "salvation" is roughly equivalent to saying "we have gone Colonel Kurtz and are setting up rape camps and impaling heads on sticks as we speak."
2) In the world of post-apocalyptic fiction, anyone who knew how to use a gun before the apocalypse is going to be a bad guy after the apocalypse. The bad-guy quotient increases geometrically if said individual learned to use guns while in some form of uniformed service. (Exceptions to the bad-guy gun rule are made for quiet, steely loners from rural areas who learned to shoot by picking rusty cans off a tree stump.) Please see Kathy Bates's last stand in the TV minseries version of The Stand for more information.
3) Strangelove's Law: Any time you're in a group of people in which females are greatly outnumbered by males, things are going to get unpleasant. Likelihood of unpleasantness increases proportinately to the amount of males in said group to whom the Bad-Guy Gun rule is applicable.
4) Bad things will always happen in churches in the post-apocalypse, because zombies, much like filmmakers, can't resist symbolism.
5) Strider's Axiom: When attempting to hide from relentless undead killing machines, do not light fires.
6) If you are one half of an attractive mixed-sex pair making your way through the post-apocalyptic world, you will fall in love and fuck. Ridiculing the notion that, as one half of an attractive mixed-sex pair making your way through the post-apocalyptic world, you will fall in love and fuck, does not prevent this from occurring.
7) A virus with a window of "10-20 seconds" between exposure and mindless raving zombiehood greatly reduces the likelihood of said virus spreading off the island of Great Britain and to "Paris and New York." If a zombie got on a plane, that plane'd be a debris slick inside of two minutes, and it also seems safe to assume that a boat full of zombies would be fairly easy to see coming. Really the only way the virus could spread would be through the Chunnel, and do you honestly think that France would be welcoming fleeing Britons with open arms? Please. Chirac would be manning the barricades himself to keep them out if he had to, swinging a baguette and waving a TotalFinaElf flag.
7) This isn't a Post-Apocalyptic Arts lesson so much as it's a Film Stuides Lesson: Anyone who refers to any movie of any genre as "a genre-busting vision" is an asshole who doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. If a movie of a particular genre is good, it hasn't "busted" the genre or "transcended" the genre or any other dopey pseudoeducated cliche--it IS the genre, insofar as it's the best the genre has to offer. So please, horror film snobs, sick that in your pipe made out of a severed human head and smoke it.
(I'm a little defensive about horror films, in case you hadn't noticed.)
That said, our foursome's protracted run-in with the military hits the usual notes of "it's not the zombies who are the worst thing imaginable, it's selfish greedy establishment types." Not a bad lesson, even if it's one taught (with a great deal of last-minute expectation-reversing panache) by Night of the Living Dead and countless other horror films. Still, they do it well here, throwing in a Deliverance-esque transformation from mild-mannered "this can't be happening" type to stone-cold killer to boot. Also, when was the last time you saw a zombie movie in which the main characters' survival hinged on one of them breaking into someplace, as opposed to keeping the zombie out? (Innovation #3!) And it's also worth noting that, particularly during the final chase through the military's compound, it appears that the zombies have no heightened sense of hearing, smell, or miscellaneous ability to "sense" living humans nearby--they've got to find them the old-fashioned human way, i.e. with the five senses the good Lord gave 'em. Innovation #4!
Back to the military aspect: Much of the success of this final section of the film owes to the strength of actor Christopher Eccleston's performance. It's one of the strongest in the film (along with the almost painfully sympathetic Frank, played by Brendan Gleeson). Eccleston, who portrays the ranking officer in the military unit that takes our heroes in, was the pivotal character in Boyle's Shallow Grave. His performance in that film was rivetingly Gollum-esque, a chillingly grotesque demonstration of the outcome of keeping secrets. Here, though, he's a model of reserve and polish. Far from "going native," Eccleston's Major acts as officers are supposed to act--sacrificing everything, even, perhaps, his own morality, for what he honestly believes to be the good of his men. It's knowing that the Major, at heart, just might not be such a bad person that makes him so effective as a villain.
It should also be added that what might seem like yet another throwback to the liberal 1970s horror cycle--making the military the ultimate bad guys--has much of its P.C. aura deflated by the fact that the plague was unleashed by a bunch of do-gooding animal rights activists, who free a test chimp despite being told by one of the project's scientists, repeatedly and in no uncertain terms, that the monkey is infected with a lethal disease. In all fairness to the PETA goon squad, though, I think I too might be a bit skeptical if told that a chimp was infected with "rage."
Actually, calling the chimp's disease "rage," as opposed to inventing some wonky faux-scientific explanation, made the film that much more effective for me. Citing emotion instead of bacteria as the source of apocalypse heightens our awareness that a moral law has been breached, not just some E.U. testing ban. And the film's opening section, in which a chimp is forced, a la Axl Rose in the video for "Welcome to the Jungle," to watch countless looped clips of horrific mob violence the world over added a chilling tone to the proceedings that folks of all political leanings could appreciate.
And speaking of politics, though it's kind of sad that that's what this is reduced to at this point, there's a scen towards the beginning of the film in which Jim finds a kiosk covered with xeroxed "missing" posters made by families trying desperately to find lost loved ones in a country increasingly ravaged by the zombie infection. It spoke more directly to the chaos of confusion, pain, and loss in New York City after 9/11 than just about any work of art I've seen since the attacks occurred.
There are a few little plot flaws I'll note briefly:
1) I understand that the army guys waited as long as they did to make their presence known to our foursome in order to establish that said foursome was harmless, and in so doing inadvertantly ensured that said foursome was reduced to a threesome. But given what we later learn of their motives, why not cut said foursome down to the appropriate twosome and be done with it?
2) C'mon--surely SOME radio and TV signals are still floating around Great Britain post-apocalypse, especially given what we come to learn about the worldwide situation by film's end?
3) If the British government and/or military were faced with the kind of the decision the rest of the world apparently made about the UK, wouldn't nuclear blackmail start looking like a good idea?
Aaaaallllll that being said, I'm concerned that my relatively flippant tone indicates that I thought this movie was "a roller-coaster ride" or "a popcorn-guzzling theme park attraction" or something else that people say about 2 Fast 2 Furious. It isn't. It's dark, dark, dark--it's one of those movies that grabs the audience around the neck and forces them to watch unpleasant, horrible things happen to good, decent people. It's a nastiness that the dopier aspects of the action-packed climax, or even the happy ending (for which I was unspeakably grateful, especially after the filmmakers naughtily teased us with several possible bad-ending red herrings, including one that was once again awfully close to Night of the Living Dead), can offset. It's the kind of nastiness that makes for great horror.
Oh yeah, that's right--it's a zombie movie with a genuinely happy ending. Innovation Number Five!
"So much to do and so little time."--Harry Chapin, "Sniper"
Mark Millar is going to be doing a Spider-Man book with the Dodsons. It's going to be tough to shake that Trouble stigma, but I do like the sound of where he's planning on going with this. I also like that Marvel is doing Marvel Knights (read: slightly more sophisticated, slightly less continuity-wonky, usually better) versions of its big characters (The Fantastic Four will also be wandering into MK territory, and of course The Incredible Hulk and New X-Men are basically MK-style books already.
John Jakala offers an admirably comprehensive defense of Watchmen, Alan Moore's seminal revisionist-superhero saga. I've noticed lately that this seems to be the book winning Most Likely To Be Kicked Around By People Trying To Prove They're Not Suckers For Everything Comics Fans Have Labelled "A Classic," which is ridiculous, because this book really is that good. Eve Tushnet agrees, by the way, and eloquently.
Bryan Miller points out how annoying the Greg Horn-painted Emma Frost banner-ads are on comics site Comic Book Resources. As I and many others have said, they're even more annoying in their original form as covers on the Emma Frost series. The book itself is a good one, a relatively sensitive tale of a young girl trying to make it in an asshole-male's world, and the covers look like ads for Flashdancers. It's so wrong for the demographic the book is intended for--manga-buying teenage girls--that it can only be the result of a decision made by comics professionals.
Franklin Harris goes Deliverance on Jeph Loeb's Superman/Batman. Poor Jeph is rapidly becoming the comicsphere's own personal Ned Beatty. Well, at least there's Graeme McMillan, who in a shocking lapse of judgement appears to say that Loeb is on the same level as Grant Morrison because, like, a ton of stuff happens in their books. (Your blog is fun, so we'll let that one slide for now, Graeme.)
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 12
2. The Shining, dir. Stanley Kubrick
the second scariest movie I've ever seen
Look at this.
Go ahead. I'll wait.
And hey, while you're at it, look at this, and this.
I'll admit it: Even in broad daylight, sitting in my goofy romper-room of an office, with people talking and music playing and all manner of distractingly normal goings-on going on, those pictures beat me. I actually cannot look at them for long without quickly scrolling past, or giggling nervously, or simply looking away. And now, as I type this in our darkened apartment, I'm afraid to look over my shoulder at the doorway to our bedroom. I am a grown man, and three little images, two of which aren't even of anything inherently frightening, all of which I've seen a million times before, have scared me to the point of irrationality.
This is how Stanely Kubrick's horror masterpiece--and I swear to you those are not words I use lightly--The Shining operates. This film is not content to spook you from behind shadows or gross you out with kayro-syruped viscera. This film wants to scare the living shit out of you, over and over again, and not really for any particular reason. This film is a bully. This is arrogant horror.
"Arrogant"--I struggled for a long time to find a word to describe the mentality of the horror in this movie (yes, we're ascribing mentality to an intangible quality--why not? this is a movie about an evil hotel, right?). The critical blurb on the cover says "epic," but I don't think that's quite right. This is certainly horror on a grand scale, but I think that word was chosen simply because this wasn't a skeevy little movie made on the cheap like most horror tended to be throughout film history, whether we're talking about the Universal classics or the creature-features of the 50s or the new wave of Romero, Hooper, Carpenter, Craven et al. Also, I think "epic" connotes some sort of struggle between mighty opponents--the type of thing we see in The Exorcist. The Shining's Dick Halloran is many things, but Father Lancaster Merrin he isn't.
I stumbled across "arrogant," finally, when looking at the performance of Jack Nicholson as the deteriorating patriarch of the Torrance family with the same first name. I don't often focus on this aspect of the movie, transfixed as I am by the imagery seen above. But it's this aspect that many fans of the film's source novel, its author not least among them, blamed for what they considered a failed movie. They believe the film doesn't work because we never feel sympathy or empathy for Jack Torrance--it's clear from the moment he opens his mouth that he's about five minutes away from Richard Speck territory. Nicholson, who studied the larger-than-life performance techniques of Grand Guignol actors to prepare for the role, does not exactly attempt to capture the inner torment of a man losing a struggle with his own demons. He plays it like a schtick, grunting and gesticulating, staring and grinning, and most importantly, mocking and sneering. His is an evil that drips with condescension and contempt for everything good. It's present as early as when he sarcastically echoes his wife Wendy's assertion that writing is just a matter of getting back into the habit, but it explodes into the forefront during the long pas de deux from the typewriter to the stairs. Jack transparently feigns concern for their son Danny's health and patronizingly asks Wendy her opinion on what should be done. He mimics her high-pitched weepy voice. In the midst of threatening to bash her brains in, he comically reprimands her for not allowing him to complete his sentences. He sticks his tongue out and makes a goofy voice like a taunting child as he tells her to hand over her baseball bat. When he's finally put out of comission for the time being, he fakes contriteness and injury so badly that there's no chance of his wife believing him, so badly that the only possible purpose is to display the extent to which he believes Wendy is a total fucking moron. He's not just crazy, and he's not just evil--he's an asshole.
This is what is terrifying about The Shining. Not just Nicholson's performance, but those horrendous visions--textbook monumental horror-images one and all--it all mocks our desire for solid ground to stand on. We want a main character with a tragic arc, but we get a smirking prick on a straight shot into lunacy; we want one who fights to stay human, but we get one whose essential inhumanity appears to have been there all along waiting for its chance to escape. We want an evil we can define, in a form we can recognize, with a cause we can identify and a cure we can affect; but we get random, almost arbitrary snippets of nightmare, ranging from a river of blood and a reanimated corpse to a couple of kids and goddamn spectral "furry," interlaced with a dry drunk who falls off the wagon thanks to the help of a phantom bartender, all of which ostensibly will continue to plague visitors to the hotel site "forever and ever and ever," and all of which is "explained" in a throwaway line about Indian burial grounds that paradoxically highlights just how arbitrary the entire "explanation" is to begin with. (Actually, there's a fascinating interpretation of the film which argues that the whole thing is a metaphor for the Euro-American genocide against the American Indians--you can read all about it here. Watch the movie with this in mind and you'll see it's all there. Was this intentional and serious, or intentional and a gag, or just the equivalent of playing Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz? I think the film feels we don't deserve to know for sure.) Perhaps this is best encapsulated by the arbitrary changes to facts established earlier in the film when they're brought up later on: Wendy tells Danny's doctor that Jack dislocated Danny's shoulder five months ago, but a month later, when Jack is pouring his heart out to Lloyd the bartender, it's become two years; the hotel manager tells Jack that the former caretaker who ran amok was named Charles Grady, but when Jack speaks with Grady later on, the man calls himself Delbert. Given Kubrick's well-deserved reputation for perfectionism, I think we can safely assume this wasn't the result of the script girl having the day off--it seems to be just another way for the film to demonstrate that it's making its own rules, and the rules will always be to the detriment of normality and sanity.
This movie may be Grand Guignol imbued with the Theater of the Absurd, but it's lower-case-"a" absurd, too. It has a wickedly black sense of humor that, for once, heightens the horror, not deflates it. I still laugh when the music builds to a crescendo only to have the chords crash frighteningly upon the appearance of the word "TUESDAY"--scariest Tuesday ever!; the cut to Danny's horrified doctor as Wendy tells the story of Danny's injury is just priceless; you've got to think that even Wendy and Danny noticed the, ahem, appropriateness of the Road Runner cartoon they watch; and what can we say about Dick Halloran's interior decorating? That last bit is, I think, particularly telling: Kubrick takes one of Stephen King's great everyman heroes (I actually am quite fond of them) and turns him into both a dirty old man and a blaxploitation parody. It's very funny, and very mean. It's a kick in the teeth of the notion that anything in this movie will be capable of heroism, capable of creating sense, capable of defeating evil. This evil knows our hopes and, to paraphrase Lou Reed, pisses on them. It's the proverbial boot stamping on the human face. It's a dead man with a bleeding head saying "Great party, isn't it?" It's wrong.
I truly had to debate with myself as to where to rank this film in my countdown. For years, this was the scariest movie I'd ever seen, no question; The Exorcist came close, but the horrible purposeleness of this movie, as well as the unparalleled terror of those images, kept The Shining in a class by itself--the class of movies that can still keep me up at night, afraid. Eventually, I saw a movie that beat it. I saw that movie under just the right circumstances, though, and I don't know if it's worth arguing whether it really is "scarier" than this one. All I know is that any time I think of those two little girls, I believe that pound for pound, scene for scene, horror--arrogant, arbitrary, absurd, cruel, evil horror--comes no more horrifying than this.
Except, perhaps, for...
(to be concluded)
Postscript: I did a lot of writing about The Shining back in my film studies days. Kubrick films hold up under close reading better than those of any other director, in my opinion, so it should come as no surprise that I actually manged to pull off two separate close readings, separated by three years. The first was a study of the film's employment of duality, and especially mirrors and mirroring--you can download it here, and I truly do think you'll be surprised to see just how much thought went into every shot in the film, as evidenced by just this one trope.
The second took place in the context of my senior essay on the monumental horror-image, this time focusing on the countless appearances of such images in the film. You can access the whole senior essay by clicking here, but once again I'm reprinting the relevant part in an effort to offset all the waxing poetic I did up above with some hardcore textual analysis. Again, it's simply astounding how rational was the planning of this, a film about the complete failure of rationality. Enjoy.
Analyses of The Shining often focus on its psychological horror, in particular the madness of Jack Torrance, its central character. This detracts from the painstaking manner in which Kubrick sets up monumental horror-images (particularly those of the first type) so as to overpower characters and audience alike with the horror of the “unreal.” In a way, the confines of the Overlook Hotel come to define a new world, one where old conceptual frameworks of time, space, and human behavior are mercilessly hacked to pieces. Jack’s insanity is simply his method of adapting to this systematic violation of his old world—a violation for which the indelible monumental horror-image stands.
The first encounter we have with such an image is fleeting, yet unforgettable—an almost subliminal flash of the twins seen during Danny’s vision/episode before he and his family move to the Overlook for the winter. They pop out at us unexpectedly in the midst of a slow-motion shot of a torrent (Torrance?) of blood gushing forth from the hotel’s elevator doors, accompanied by ominously low, droning music, and mirrored by a subsequent flash cut to Danny screaming. However briefly they appear, the twins are presented as a concretization of the fluid, a personification of the forces of violence, fear, and death present in the rest of the vision. Further, since we have already heard the story of how the twins were slain by their father, one of the Overlook’s winter caretakers, we know that seeing them at all is a violation of physical reality.
This “violation of reality” is reinforced when the twins next appear, in the rec room scene described at length above. Though there is nothing particularly special about the way the twins are presented or shot, they are clearly out of place in this quotidian setting. A careful look at the shot structure of the film reveals why they make us feel so uneasy: throughout the movie, the camera has been in constant motion. We begin with a breathtaking fly-over shot of Jack’s car as it snakes through the mountains toward the Overlook; we are constantly following characters with Kubrick’s trademark tracking shots, made even more fluid by the recent invention of the Steadicam; even simple close-ups are usually made mobile with slow, barely perceptible tracks or zooms into the characters’ faces. But in monumental horror-images of the first type, such as that of the twins, the camera comes to a jarring halt. Kubrick has accustomed us to movement, subtly training us to be uneasy when this movement ceases. In the rec room scene, the jarring nature of this contrast is highlighted by an uncharacteristically rapid zoom-in on Danny just as he turns to see the twins in the doorway. Their presence, standing there like twin tombstones, is a violation not only of the physical laws of the film, but in this movie’s case, a violation of the physical laws of film.
The usefulness of the movement/stasis contrast in making the spectator uneasy is even clearer in the twins’ final appearance. We follow Danny on his Big Wheels as he glides through the corridors of the hotel, until he turns a corner and comes to a screeching halt, finding himself face to face with the twins once more. As mentioned earlier, this scene highlights the Freudian “uncanny” aspects of the girls, one such aspect being the compulsive repetition in their speech. But the phrase they repeat—“forever and ever and ever”—calls to mind the concept of overwhelming infinitude central to both the sublime and to cosmic fear. Danny reacts by covering his eyes to block out the horror of what he is seeing, then using Tony to tell himself that, “like pictures in a book,” the twins can’t hurt him. But his uncertain tone of voice belies this claim. The twins have hurt him, but through his mind’s eye, which no hands can cover. They have shattered Danny’s feeling of safety, both physical (they were slain by their father—might he fall victim to a similar fate?) and metaphysical (they are dead, and yet they are standing at the end of the hall and beckoning to him—what other cracks in the fabric of reality might threaten to swallow him up?).
By the time the film reaches its climax, dangers of both types have reached enormous proportions. Jack turns violent, chasing his wife and son with an axe. His total transgression of behavioral norms is mirrored by the hotel, which in turn unleashes its most numerous and large-scale violations of reality—many of them, naturally, in the form of monumental horror-images. Indeed, as a terrified Wendy, having become separated from Danny, runs through the hotel to find him, she is practically bombarded with such images. After climbing a flight of stairs, she looks into a bedroom down the hall, where a man dressed as a dog kneels and performs fellatio on a man in a tuxedo. They sit up and stare at her, unblinking. Minutes later, after discovering the body of the Overlook’s chef Dick Halloran (who has been slain by Jack), she turns to find another tuxedo-clad man at the end of the hallway. His bald head covered with blood, he raises his glass and says merrily, “Great party, isn’t it?” Like the dogman and his friend, he is isolated in the distant center of the frame (his central position is accentuated by the presence of a chandelier hanging directly above him, just as the dogman and his lover’s position was highlighted by their framing in a doorway), where he stands like a monument to the malevolent party being held in the hotel.
It is important to note that as these sequences unfold, we are also tracking Jack as he chases Danny out into the snow-covered hedge maze on the hotel grounds. We know that Wendy is no longer in physical danger, as the axe-wielding madman that is her husband is no longer inside the hotel with her. This does not detract from the horror of her situation, however. The presence of these spectral “guests,” unthreatening as they may seem, proves incontestably that much more is wrong with the Overlook Hotel than its caretaker. By the time Wendy sees the final, truly monumental image of the elevator (which she approaches as if she knows what is going to happen) gushing blood, it is clear that the Overlook itself is a “monument,” a physical embodiment of undying evil capable of warping both time and minds. In this sense, Jack’s demise is fitting: frozen and immobile, he becomes a monument himself, a physical embodiment of the cosmic horror of the Overlook Hotel.
Close the door, put out the light
You know they won't be home tonight
The snow falls hard and don't you know
The winds of Thor are blowing cold
They're wearing steel that's bright and true
They carry news that must get through
They choose the path where no-one goes
They hold no quarter,
They ask no quarter.
Walking side by side with death
The devil mocks their every step
The snow drives back that the foot that's slow
The dogs of doom are howling more
They carry news that must get through
To build a dream for me and you
They choose the path where no-one goes
They hold no quarter, they ask no quarter.
--Led Zeppelin, "No Quarter"
perfect little dream the kind that hurts the most
forgot how it feels well almost
no one to blame always the same
open my eyes wake up in flames
it took you to make me realize
it took you to make me realize
it took you to make me realize
it took you to make me see the light
smashed up my my sanity
smashed up integrity
smashed up what i believed in
smashed up what's left of me
smashed up my everything
smashed up all that was true
gonna smash myself to pieces
i don't know what else to do
covered in hope and vaseline
still cannot fix this broken machine
watching the hole it used to be mine
just watching it burn in my steady systematic decline
of the trust i will betray
give it to me i throw it away
after everything i've done i hate myself for what i've become
i gave up
throw it away
--nine inch nails, "gave up"
Setting sun can't shine, now you're gone
Inside sleeping, my heart beating
You know that you tried to hide it
Couldn't you have said what you meant?
Time heals, time congeals around us
Endless hours of wasted moments
Understanding's not demanding
Your eyes tell what you feel inside
Setting sun can't shine, now you're gone
Inside sleeping, my heart beating
You know that you tried to hide it
Shouldn't you have said what you meant?
--Tool, "You Lied" (originally by Peach)
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 13
1. The Blair Witch Project dir. Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez
the scariest movie I've ever seen
Well, here we are: Blair Witch. Let me say right off the bat that I don't expect to change anyone's mind here. This is a movie for which the phrase "you either love it or hate it" was invented. I remember seeing it on opening night in a theatre: Half the audience booed and yelled at the screen as the closing credits rolled, while the other half looked as though they'd just been eyewitnesses to a plane crash. With most films you can argue that people just didn't "get it," but it's different with this movie: It gets you. Or it doesn't. A lot depends on where you first see it, how you'd heard about it, the kind of mood you were in, and (I think) the kind of mood you allowed yourself to be in. So yeah, this movie gets you, or it doesn't.
Good God, did it ever get me.
Opening night, August 1999, was not the first time I saw Blair Witch. That was actually back in June of that same summer. At the time I was working for Troma Studios, progenitors of the Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, and various other rubber-masked individuals you see at the San Diego Comic-Con or on E! Entertainment Television. The Troma Team had just gotten back from their yearly expedition to the Cannes Film Festival, which took place just before I began interning at the company. Along with the usual tales of living 20 people to a room and having your picture snapped by hundreds of paparazzi while dressed as a man-eating condom, my coworkers had brought back a videotape. It was given to them by the makers of The Blair Witch Project, who, it turns out, were enormous Troma fans. (I guess Troma is an inspiration for anyone who wants to make a movie for less than no money, although clearly the Blair Witch people emphasized Troma's can-do spirit and not so much their fondness for exploding heads.) They gave them a copy of their movie, which was just beginning to garner some attention during its screenings at the festival, as a gift. Needless to say the Troma folks were quite excited: Horror-film true-believers to a man (and woman), they were up for anything, as long as it was frightening. Before long copies were making the rounds of the whole staff, and I remember being quite excited when I finally got mine. There was no hype, no stories in Newsweek or Time proclaiming this the scariest film in history and touting its micro-budget blockbuster status, no appearances on late-night and early-morning talk shows to publicize it, no endless parodies consisting of people talking into videocameras. All I knew when I took my copy home was that it was a mockumentary, and that it was scary.
That weekend I dutifully summoned my buddy Dave G. (the cartoonist currently known as Davey Oil), the guy who forces me to call myself the second biggest horror fan I know. By the time Dave and I got around to putting the thing into the VCR, it was late--I think around 11 o'clock or so. The house was quiet, and it was dark outside. We sat back and began to watch.
I'm not sure at what point it began to dawn on me that I had never, literally never, been so scared in my entire life. I think it might have been when the three student filmmakers woke up to find someone had constructed little rock monuments around their tent that Dave and I began saying "oh, shit" compulsively. I remember that around the third nightfall or so, when the tent was shaken, that my heart was pounding so hard it was actually uncomfortable and my stomach had that feeling it gets when you narrowly avoid a car accident. People, we were completely terrified. There wasn't a single level on which this film didn't work for us--the realistically pointless vulgarity of the kids' speech, the endless grays and browns of the video-taped forest, the way in which the lights from the camera illuminated just this much of the night, leaving so much of it ripe for possession by something... other. Even the fact that the Troma copies were the rough-sound edit enhanced the experience: though we couldn't hear what the characters could when noises awoke them during the night, we wanted to, and we sat on the edge of our seats and strained our ears and damned if our minds didn't provide a soundtrack that more than adequately scared the wits out of us.
And then--and then--the final scene. This time the yelling in the distance we could hear, and I still wish, when I hear it again, that I couldn't. The panicky running of Mike & Heather, that house looming up out of nowhere--my God, I was shaking, shaking hard. And then they went inside--no, please don't! I still vividly remember thinking to myself, almost in an abstract fashion, that if an old woman's smiling face were to appear in one of those (many, goddamn it) windows I would literally collapse in fear. Then up to the top floor, then yelling that "I hear him downstairs!", then running into that basement, turning a corner-- Heather following, screaming over and over again, past the handprints and scrawled gibberish on the walls, down the stairs, around the corner-- oh my God, what is he doing? WHAT IS HE DOING IN THE CORNER?
Dave and I sat for a moment, staring at the credits as they rolled by. Then slowly, we turned to each other. Our eyes widened. "Holy shit," we said, almost in unison, "what a scary fucking movie." There is almost no way in which I could exaggerate how horrified we were by that film that night. Despite the fact that at this point I had to urinate so badly it was painful, I think it took us 45 minutes to actually work up enough nerve to get out of our chairs and move to another part of the house to go to the bathroom. Since the bathroom was one of those deals where the fan comes on automatically with the light, thus making it difficult to hear what's going on the other side of the door if it's closed, I forced Dave to walk with me to the bathroom, stand outside, and continuously talk to me as loudly as possible while I peed, just so I could be sure that he was still there and hadn't disappeared. At some point we realized it was late and I had to drive him back to his house on the other side of town. This was a genuinely harrowing ordeal. We were scared of the distance from my door to the car. During the car ride, we were scared of the back of the car itself, which was way too dark for us to be able to handle it. We were scared of the way the headlights illuminated the night--way, way too much like those camera lights for comfort. When we finally got to Dave's house, it took us another 15 minutes to build up the courage to actually allow Dave to exit the car, walk the 20 feet or whatever to the back door, and go inside. Then I had to drive back to the house alone, making the back of the car even more frightening and making every dark street I passed by a goddamn nightmare. Then I had to navigate the space between the car and the house myself, then walk through the entire dark, empty, silent ground floor--past the freaking television where the freaking movie was just playing, for the love of God!--by myself, walk up those creaky stairs (stairs!) by myself, and turn the light on in my room without having a heart attack from thinking that something would be in there waiting for me. I say it again: this was the most scared I've ever been in my life.
A few weeks later, I brought the movie with me on a trip with some friends to a cabin in the woods upstate. At this point I was still terrified by the movie, but enjoyed the experience enough to subject others to it. And they were outraged by how scared they got. One girl called it "emotional porn" and was furious at the filmmakers for having made something so completely harrowing (and she's no anti-horror puritan--she was just scared half to death).
And then a few weeks after that was the premiere in theatres. This was a very different experience--better in some ways (watching a crowd of strangers have the bloody bejesus scared out of them was fun; some of the more grating lines of dialogue, ones that didn't ring true, were cut; and of course the sounds from around the tent were now fully audible), worse in others (the disappointed/pissed off moviegoers who booed; the fact that the movie really does work better as an unlabeled nth-generation bootleg than as a big-screen projection).
The main difference, though, involved the ending. This is a spoiler, so far as it goes: The final image consists of Mike standing in a corner. In the version I originally saw, no explanation was ever given for what the hell was going on here. None. So either he's dead, and something has propped him up, or he's alive, and---uuhhhhhh GOD I don't even want to think about it. However, in the theatrical version, a man-on-the-street interview was added to the collection of such snippets at the film's beginning, in which a local claims that the serial killer once inspired/possessed by the Witch would take kids into the basement two at a time, and make one face the corner while he killed the other. So we switch from a nameless horror that I'm still trying to scrape out of my brain to a "hey lookout she's over there!!!" kinda moment. It's a lousy tradeoff, as even the actress Heather Donahue seemed to notice--though she didn't specify what she was talking about, she feistily pointed out on Leno that week that she and the other two actors had shot everything in the film themselves "except one thing." She wasn't happy about that one thing, let me tell you. Neither was I, but so what? I'd done without it, to my everlasting horror and delight.
Are there movies that are, as a whole, scarier than this one? Yes, I'd probably have to say so. The Shining, and probably The Exorcist, and maybe even Texas Chain Saw and The Ring are packed wall-to-wall with terrifying images and relentless ante-upping horror. Blair Witch has sticks and stones. But it relies on the strength of its stars--three humans, and their collective fear. If you see it in the right way, at the right time, with the right people, that fear overtakes you. And you're there in the basement, standing in the corner.
And through the life force and there goes her friend
On her Nishiki it’s out of time
And through the portal they can make amends
Hey would you say whatever we’re blanket friends
Can’t stop what’s coming
Can’t stop what is on its way
And through the walls they made their mudpies
I’ve got your mind I said
She said I’ve your voice
I said you don’t need my voice girl
You have your own
But you never thought it was enough of
So they went years and years
Like sisters blanket girls
Always there through that and this
There’s nothing we cannot ever fix I said
Can’t stop what’s coming
Can’t stop what is on its way
Bells and footfalls and soldiers and dolls
Brothers and lovers she and I were
Now she seems to be sand under his shoes
There’s nothing I can do
Can’t stop what’s coming
Can’t stop what is on its way
And now I speak to you
Are you in there
You have her face and her eyes
But you are not her
And we go at each other like blank ettes
Who can’t find their thread and their bare
Can’t stop loving
Can’t stop what is on its way
And I see it coming
And it’s on its way
--Tori Amos, "Bells for Her"
I walked by the sea, and there came to me,
as a star-beam on the wet sand,
a white shell like a sea-bell;
trembling it lay in my wet hand.
In my fingers shaken I heard waken
a ding within, by a harbour bar
a buoy swinging, a call ringing
over endless seas, faint now and far.
Then I saw a boat silently float
on the night-tide, empty and grey.
'It is later than late! Why do we wait?'
I leapt in and cried: 'Bear me away!'
It bore me away, wetted with spray,
wrapped in a mist, wound in a sleep,
to a forgotten strand in a strange land.
In the twilight beyond the deep
I heard a sea-bell swing in the swell,
dinging, dinging, and the breakers roar
on the hidden teeth of a perilous reef;
and at last I came to a long shore.
White it glimmered, and the sea simmered
with star-mirrors in a silver net;
cliffs of stone pale as ruel-bone
in the moon-foam were gleaming wet.
Glittering sand slid through my hand,
dust of pearl and jewel-grist,
trumpets of opal, roses of coral,
flutes of green and amethyst.
But under cliff-eaves there were glooming caves,
weed-curtained, dark and grey;
a cold air stirred in my hair,
and the light waned, as I hurried away.
Down from a hill ran a green rill;
its water I drank to my heart's ease.
Up its fountain-stair to a country fair
of ever-eve I came, far from the seas,
climbing into meadows of fluttering shadows:
flowers lay there like fallen stars,
and on a blue pool, glassy and cool,
like floating moons the nenuphars.
Alders were sleeping, and willows weeping
by a slow river of rippling weeds;
gladdon-swords guarded the fords,
and green spears, and arrow-reeds.
There was echo of song all the evening long
down in the valley; many a thing
running to and fro: hares white as snow,
voles out of holes; moths on the wing
with lantern-eyes; in quiet surprise
brocks were staring out of dark doors.
I heard dancing there, music in the air,
feet going quick on the green floors.
But whenever I came it was ever the same:
the feet fled, and all was still;
never a greeting, only the fleeting
pipes, voices, horns on the hill.
Of river-leaves and the rush-sheaves
I made me a mantle of jewel-green,
a tall wand to hold, and a flag of gold;
my eyes shone like the star-sheen.
With flowers crowned I stood on a mound,
and shrill as a call at cock-crow
proudly I cried: 'Why do you hide?
Why do none speak, wherever I go?
Here now I stand, king of this land,
with gladdon-sword and reed-mace.
Answer my call! Come forth all!
Speak to me words! Show me a face!'
Black came a cloud as a night-shroud.
Like a dark mole groping I went,
to the ground falling, on my hands crawling
with eyes blind and my back bent.
I crept to a wood: silent it stood
in its dead leaves, bare were its boughs.
There must I sit, wandering in wit,
while owls snored in their hollow house.
For a year and a day there must I stay:
beetles were tapping in the rotten trees,
spiders were weaving, in the mould heaving
puffballs loomed about my knees.
At last there came light in my long night,
and I saw my hair hanging grey.
'Bent though I be, I must find the sea!
I have lost myself, and I know not the way,
but let me be gone!' Then I stumbled on;
like a hunting bat shadow was over me;
in my ears dinned a withering wind,
and with ragged briars I tried to cover me.
My hands were torn and my knees worn,
and years were heavy upon my back,
when the rain in my face took a salt taste,
and I smelled the smell of sea-wrack.
Birds came sailing, mewing, wailing;
I heard voices in cold caves,
seals barking, and rocks snarling,
and in spout-holes the gulping of waves.
Winter came fast; into a mist I passed,
to land's end my years I bore;
snow was in the air, ice in my hair,
darkness was lying on the last shore.
There still afloat waited the boat,
in the tide lifting, its prow tossing.
Weary I lay, as it bore me away,
the waves climbing, the seas crossing,
passing old hulls clustered with gulls
and great ships laden with light,
coming to haven, dark as a raven,
silent as snow, deep in the night.
Houses were shuttered, wind round them muttered,
roads were empty. I sat by a door,
and where drizzling rain poured down a drain
I cast away all that I bore:
in my clutching hand some grains of sand,
and a sea-shell silent and dead.
Never will my ear that bell hear,
never my feet that shore tread
Never again, as in sad lane,
in blind alley and in long street
ragged I walk. To myself I talk;
for still they speak not, men that I meet.
--J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Sea-Bell, or Frodo's Dreme"
HAPPY HALLOWEEN, EVERYBODY!
Go out and try to do something scary and eat something sweet. This holiday rules.
If you're in the mood for some good scary reads to go with your tricking and treating and such, go visit Blogcritics' Halloween Madness feature. They're featuring tons of Halloween- and horror-related posts done by most everyone who ever posts at the site. (Practically all the reviews I've done this month are up there as well.) Glut your soul!
Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.