Saturday, November 5, 2011

Halloween: The Shape of the Unheimlich

Whenever asked to name my favorite horror film I always arrive at one of two movies, both by the legendary John Carpenter: Halloween and The Thing (I’ll write about The Thing soon enough).  I find both to be strong contenders content wise and excellent examples of the qualities I am arguing for.  To wit, that a good film, regardless of its genre or labels, should not only deliver on the expectations of its audience, but also subvert those desires and produce something unasked for, but equally satisfying.
            Halloween is so beloved not because it’s another slasher with a body count, but instead because it is a thriller that delves into the uncanny.  Haddonfield isn’t just a town in Illinois; it’s also your hometown.  Laurie Strodes lives on your block.  Almost two-thirds of the story is dedicated to a day-in-the-life portrait of these young women, making the switch in the final portion all the more stark. 
            Not all of them are necessarily likable, but you have by this point spent enough time with them to know them as more than the card-board cutouts you might find in the lesser titles of the genre.  They feel like people that will be missed by someone and that makes their passing more real. Michael Myers is the caprice that fate sometimes deals out and these young women cannot escape him.  Carpenter has stated that all of his early films dealt with the notion of fate and how intractable and immutable it is.  Michael Myers is presented as an unstoppable force.  His motives are his own and nothing can deter him.  The terror and dread that you feel in watching this movie directly stems from the fact that Michael Myers’ motivations and thinking are unknowable and un-understandable.        
Not only is he incomprehensible internally, being unable to visually decipher him is also built into the film.  Just consider the approach taken to filming Myers.  He is almost always obscured and his actions take place almost exclusively in shadow: Peeking around a hedge, hemmed in by car windows, between a series of fluttering sheets and always surrounded by darkness.  Or, examine it more meta-textually—in the credits for this and all films, he isn’t listed as Michael Myers, he is The Shape.   

In each instance, it is clear that he is present, but impossible to determine his complete shape.

* * * *

            There are two ways that you can read this text and both versions are totally dependent on which edit you’re viewing.  Firstly, you can read it as part of a series, whereupon it is revealed that Myer’s is homing in on his long lost sister in order to fulfill some sort of familial bloodlust—the reasoning for which becomes increasingly more muddled and strained as the installments move on.  Or, secondly, as a stand-alone movie (as it indeed was during its initial release), John Carpenter’s singular take on the burgeoning slasher genre and not part one of an eight-part (or seven if you’re splitting hairs) franchise.  In this latter scenario Laurie is a beautiful, charming young-lady who has the misfortune of drawing the attention of one deranged individual.
I have seen both cuts of this film and feel that the original, theatrical edit is the superior.  The reason for this should be clear to any fan of the original: Halloween is an exercise in restraint.  The other cut, and sequels, give too much information, overstate the motives.
I completely see the reasoning behind the additional footage.  From a technical standpoint, when it was re-cut to be aired for television some of the more graphic moments had to be dropped, which necessitated filming new material to fill that space.  By this point the sequel had already been created and established the new continuity that the rest of the franchise would build on.
            But, the additional scenes in the extended cut fundamentally change the reading of the story.  The clearest instance of this is the bloodied word scrawled on his wall back at the asylum: SISTER.  With that one added detail, we can all breathe a collective sigh.  The movie becomes safer to watch.  It always had to be Laurie; this is her birthright.  Even had it been us who walked in front of the Myer’s house first that Halloween morning, he still would have chosen her.  We no longer have to worry tonight when we turn the lights off. 
Loomis senses the evil in Myers, knows of the preternatural patience, but Myers in this reading is still a man.  Not the avatar for the Spirit of Samhain or virtually immortal as he becomes in later installments.  He is human; he drives a car (There’s even that very upsetting sequence where he slowly follows Tommy as he heads home from school—it’s shot over the shoulder and feels so much like Kidnapper POV that I’m glad they only use it once.).  He eats, even if the only thing he could get was a stray dog. 
            To me that version is scarier.  I don’t anticipate running into too many druidic demi-gods in my lifetime, but the other reading—that sort of evil lives in many hearts—the other reading is the stuff headlines are made of.
            Of course to refer to him as a man gives the mistaken impression that he has conformed to what society would expect of that term.  He may be adult sized, but in many ways he stopped growing up the night he murdered his sister.  It’s evidenced by the Halloween style pranks he plays during the movie—stealing his sister’s headstone so that he can use it to scare Laurie, dressing up as a ghost before killing Linda or the macabre, but darkly funny, ways he hides the bodies for Laurie to find (they’re literally popping out at her).  But I think the most unsettling thing he does in this vein occurs right after he kills Linda’s boyfriend.  Myers pins the teenage boy to the wall like an entomologist and then stares at him as his life slips away.  He tilts his head from one side slowly to the other, almost as if he is confused by what is happening, like he didn’t know if he played that hard with his new toy it would break.

* * * *

To examine something, to shine a light upon it, the item in question must cast a shadow.  I feel this is the true value of the horror film.  It allows us to discard the saccharine sentimentalities and the plaintive dialogue of mainstream films and terrify us.  By exposing our fears, it points out the things we hold most dear.  By acting as a silhouette the darkness inherent in the horror film is capable of giving us the clearest outline of our souls.
            Halloween is terrifying not because some guy in a washed-out William Shatner mask is stalking about with a 15 inch blade, but because he is there at all.  Michael Myers is in our yards, in our garages, our bedrooms.  His blank face is waiting to be filled in by someone—perhaps that person you passed on the way to the car, the person in line beside you in the supermarket—and his motives, like his face, are never clear but still fatal.  He is the Boogey Man.  He can be anywhere for the simple fact that he can be anyone.  Laurie Strodes dropped a key off for her father and it aroused the attention of the wrong person.  Halloween reminds us that no matter how our work day might have gone, the errands we ran, the chores we performed, throughout the small and large of daily life there is always, always, underneath it all an ache that never stops buzzing: I want to feel safe.  Bringing that to light underscores just how quickly a situation can go from being labeled “secure” to being “dangerous”.
            Let’s take one of the film’s final moments as an example.  This scene fills me with dread like no other part: Laurie has narrowly escaped the first encounter with The Shape.  She smashes her way out of the neighbor’s house and limps her way back to the street.  The entire time she is screaming at the top of her lungs for help.  No one answers.  One house goes so far as to turn the lights on and peek through the window, but nothing else.  She is left to fend for herself as The Shape pursues.  This is a familiar street and she knows the people that live here.  None of that matters now that he is here.
What bothers me most about this scene is how starkly alone Laurie is revealed to be.  She might as well be on the moon—her neighbors simply refuse to help.  And what is truly horrifying is how this scene was inspired by a real event.  In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in front of her apartment and anywhere from a dozen to 40 neighbors heard the attacks and her cries for help, but no one came to help her.  It makes my blood turn cold when I think about it.    
            Beyond the realm of fiction, the events in this movie have some anchor to the real world.  Freddy is a spirit, Jason a ghoul, Pinhead a demon (or angel to some), but Myers is a flesh and blood maniac. 
            And while you can argue that most of the killers in slasher movies were also flesh and blood maniacs, you have the extra removal from real life by the locale.  Halloween isn’t set at the first Valentine’s Dance in ten years in a remote mining town, or on Prom Night, or at a summer camp, or on a speeding party train—situations that you might find yourself in, but certainly far from ordinary backdrops.  Halloween, as I’ve said before, happens in our yards and our own homes.
And if there is one place in your day to day life that you should feel safe, it is your home.  That is the heart of the uncanny in this film—that the most familiar setting in your life should be un­-made, that your home should become an un-home.  How would you ever be able to sit down in your living room and watch a movie comfortably again knowing that he was there?  How would you be able to sleep in your bed?  It wouldn’t matter how many houses Laurie moved into from that point on, that thin veil, that illusion, that is our only security has already been cut.  When you get down to it our home is no more a fortress than any other place, but to challenge that, to make the center of our lives the springboard for such a threat is a subtle and truly insidious thing to do. 

Consider this final subversion: As a child the closet was always the place to be feared because it was from there that the monsters tried to escape.  It was dangerous because it was dark and unknown.  During Laurie’s final confrontation with The Shape, she hides in the closet.  Here the monster wants to break in.  And she is in the most danger in this scene when she is exposed by the light.  If the closet can be seen as a spiritual Pandora’s Box—everything evil we can imagine is contained within—what does it mean that The Shape wants to break in?  Or the role-reversal of light and shadow? 
It’s as if this creature wants to destroy Laurie (and by proxy us) on both levels, physically and mentally.  By leaving no corner secure, The Shape ensures that after this night we all understand that no one is ever truly safe.

Coming eventually...

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Because He IS Batman, You Moron!!!

Sometimes I write semi-scholarly short essays in which I try to find the intersection between academia and real human experience and sometimes I make these.

My first Meme.  Be gentle.

Monday, September 12, 2011

How My Heart Behaves: Some Thoughts on Robocop

The question of our humanity—how to find it, safe guard it, lose it, redeem it—I think, is the ultimate purpose of storytelling.  At the root of it we consume stories, yes, to be entertained by the proceedings, but also to be nourished spiritually.  Whether that be through a reinforcement of morals and ideals, a cathartic release, a vicarious experience of watching the fantastic, unlikely or uncanny, the method of delivery for that nourishment depend both on the story in question and your predilections at that moment.  But that desire to be enriched, it is always there.  Art and storytelling allow us to examine themes and aspects of ourselves that might otherwise go unexplored.
I’ve put a lot of thought into this and I’m (almost) always serious when I talk about movies.  Hence, when I say without hyperbole that Robocop is the greatest science-fiction movie I’ve ever seen—I mean it.  More so than any other science-fiction film it begs that question: What does it fundamentally mean to be human?  And more so than any other film of its kind, when I watch it I feel better.  Stronger.  Faster.  Harder.  Most people hear the word Robocop and then the phrase “greatest sci-fi film of all time” and immediately tune out.  “Robocop?  That’s just a mindless action movie!”  But if you hear me out I’m hoping you will at least see my point of view, even if you are not completely convinced by the argument.
First and foremost, let’s be clear about qualifying it as an action movie rather than a science-fiction movie.  There are really only three-ish action scenes it that are noteworthy and I feel by other “action” movie standards it’s really not consistent.  Yes, there is violence in it.  And, yes, the violence, when it appears, is quite extreme (especially, if you’re watching the director’s cut—which I always recommend for this film).  But while the violence in it is intense, it really isn’t protracted and it is certainly not frivolous.  It’s punctuation to a scene, but not really the point of the movie.  You have primarily: 1. The scene where Robocop busts (destroys) a drug lab and arrests Boddicker.  2. The ending, where Boddicker’s gang blows up half an abandoned iron foundry trying to kill Robocop and 3. The scene where ED-209 shoots Robocop a lot and he stumbles down the hallway to escape, only to find himself in the parking lot at the mercy of the police who also shoot him a lot since they have orders to “shoot to destroy” (getting shot at a lot and limping your way to an escape doesn’t exactly strike me as “epic action”, but I’m including the last one because there certainly are a lot of bullets spent).  Aside from that, Robocop punches a bad guy or two, fires a few other shots, but it’s all so quick that the action is over within a few seconds.
This isn’t an action flick with elements of sci-fi.  If so, I think by my highlights section above you could consider it one of the laziest action films ever produced.  If anything, this is a science-fiction film that incorporates violence in order to further the story.  Not the other way around.
Now, I’ve said this numerous times before and I think it’s worth mentioning again here considering the topic, but I think violence for the sake of violence is lazy, flaccid storytelling.  It adds nothing to a plot.  Robocop does have moments of ultra-violence, but it is always to serve a purpose.  Filming mindless violence does nothing but expose the sadistic nature of the film-maker and the audience who willingly buys into such a production.   Or, to sort of appropriate another literary idea: If Ensign Chekov shows up unexpectedly with a phaser drawn and doesn’t shoot it before the episode is over, I’m going to wonder why he was in that scene at all.    In good storytelling, if it doesn’t serve a purpose, then you should cut it.  It doesn't matter if it is dialogue, settings or gunfights & explosions, if it fails to propel the narrative forward, then it is dead weight.


While the film is directly about the reestablishment of one man’s lost identity, I think in a broader sense you could make the argument that it is also about the assertion of our collective identity and worth.  Time and time again, Omni Consumer Products (OCP) manipulates local events for their gain 
and considers people’s lives a commodity.  When the young executive is turned into hamburger meat at the ED-209 unveiling, it’s “a glitch”.  The Old Man is pissed because they might lose up to 50 million dollars in interest payments.  And Bob Morton leaves that meeting without a second glance for his friend that was killed that he was talking to just moments before.
The privatization of the police is a calculated move on the corporation’s part so that they can mismanage it enough to force a police strike, creating a platform for their new security products.  Never mind the city that is tearing itself apart with crime or the officers who fell in the line of duty from this negligence (which OCP later capitalizes on as a pool of “volunteers” for their Robocop project).  It’s chaos, carefully cultivated and orchestrated, so that when they tell the populace they have the solution and it’s called DELTA CITY everyone will jump at it.
At times, I too feel like a mere statistic.  An employee number; a figure to be quoted in an article about my lost, jobless generation; a license and registration; but not always a person.  You can call it cliché, but the real bad guy here is Big Business, with too much power and no supervision.  I think the social comment is, "Watch out before they turn us all into machines". 

The promise of a better future is a grim irony here.  With enough violent crime, OCP can get the support it needs to finish its project.

And here is Robocop.  Our dilemma of fighting the system gets played out by his actions.
Dick Jones calls him a thing.  He’s a product.  The clandestine Directive 4, Dick Jones reveals, was added by him.  It’s a program inserted into Robocop’s mind that prevents him from acting against an officer of the corporation.  After being told time and time again that he is property and replaceable, even programmable to do things against his own wishes, what happens during this confrontation between the two?  I think it’s one of the film’s most important moments.  Robocop is shot and part of his visor is broken off.  Remember your classical art studies—what do the eyes represent?   They are windows to the soul.  And here you have Robocop at his weakest moment since being turned on, literally knocked to his knees, and he is revealed to be—still in the end—a man.

Robocop is surrounded by gunfire.  His hand raised behind him is a display of vulnerability.  It is a plea for compassion.  Leave a machine running long enough and it will eventually wear itself down.  They do not possess a self-preservation instinct.  Even the more sophisticated robots that are programmed with an awareness of themselves and their environment cannot ask for mercy when faced with death—only the living do.


Every good movie, in my opinion, has a heart to it.  There is a central moment that anchors all of the proceedings, and from that place all of the ideas unfurl.  With Rushmore, as I’ve said before, it’s the moment where Ms. Cross takes off Max’s glasses and sees him for the man he might be.  In Return of the Jedi, in fact for the whole original trilogy, it is the moment where Vader looks upon his son moments from dying at the hands of the Emperor, the good and the evil aspects of his life, and he chooses to save the former.  With Robocop it is the scene where he returns home.
In his remembrances he is always leaving home, but when he reclaims his memories after becoming Robocop he finally has the chance to return.  The house, naturally, is empty.  The detritus of his old life lay scattered about, too painful for his wife to keep—their potted plants withering away, A World Class Husband mug, some recent Polaroids (burned in a hurry because they didn’t want to keep them), a sink full of flowers.  Each room he enters awakens a new memory and this process is a revelation to us watching.  Throughout the movie we have seen brief glimpses of Murphy’s family life, but his homecoming scene is the most complete and sustained recollection of the life he once had.  Because of this story construction, the scope of what has befallen him dawns on him and us simultaneously.  His wife was madly in love with him.  His son seemed bright, young and happy.  They were a perfectly adjusted, suburban, happy family.  Now we understand what he had and what he had taken away.  Beyond the loss of his own life, we see some of the effect it had on his wife and son.  That house was a pain they couldn’t escape fast enough.  
Robocop’s body language is very consistent throughout the movie, but in this one moment it changes.  It almost seems like Murphy is trying to break free of the armor, of the Robocop persona, of the situation.  That brief instance before he smashes the monitor, he looks like he cannot contain himself.  It’s an all too human reaction when faced with outrage.
With an awful clarity, his desire for justice comes into focus.  It wasn’t just his body Boddicker and his gang destroyed, it was his whole family too.  Which, in a way brings me front and center to the primary reason why I find myself so fascinated with this movie: It seems to say that no amount of science, magic or alchemy can ever occlude the human spirit, our dedication to those we love, or our basic need to be revenged.    His corporeal self was annihilated.  His life was painfully taken from him.  And when he was resurrected his memory was erased and his personality stolen and reprogrammed from the bottom up.  He was no longer Murphy, he was a just a shell, branded by OCP and told how to act.  But piece by piece that construct sloughs itself off as his original self resurfaces.  By the film’s end he is no longer the man he began as, but is certainly no longer the cyborg the company thought they had constructed.  That human spark that is in all of us could not be smothered; it smoldered and eventually caught aflame again.  That to me is a truly remarkable idea, both inspiring and comforting.  We are more than flesh and synapses.  Even if it is not necessarily true, I want to believe it.
I want to believe that even in death something of us will remain.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Rushmore--For the Win!

            This film is at its core about people growing up.  Whether it’s Max easing out of childhood, Miss Cross coming to terms with her late husband, or Mr. Blume acknowledging his failing relationships, it’s messy and awkward and uncomfortable and the resulting conflagrations are hilarious to watch.  Hilarious and painfully awkward.  I don’t think you realize how much the term “hand-job” gets casually thrown around unless you’ve watched this in your High School Advanced English class with your teacher sitting next to you.  This is part of the movie’s charm, though.  My adolescence, much like yours I’m sure, was replete with situations that I wished I could just fast forward through, but if you did do that you wouldn’t catch the whole story. 
            Back in high school, I was extremely enamored of a girl.  And, being the sort of genius that I am, when we were hanging out I decided to show her my two favorite movies at the time: Rushmore and High Fidelity.  We eventually watched both and after finishing Rushmore, she turned to me and said, “I can see why you like these movies so much—you’re just like both of these characters.”  That always stuck with me.  And now, 13 years later, High Fidelity is still one my most cherished films, although no longer reigning on my Top 5 (ironic, no?), and Rushmore still remains my all-time favorite movie.  I fell in love with it from the first viewing, and in truth it did have a lot to do with how I identified with Max Fischer.  I just never realized until the moment she said it how much I wear my heart on my sleeve—that other people are capable of really seeing you.
            It wasn’t until my most recent rewatching of the movie a few weeks ago that I realized how many expressions I commonly use comes from this film.  I use Max’s opening line, “I’m sorry, did somebody say my name,” to make a comedic entrance into a room, literally, whenever applicable.  When being grilled by someone, I almost always shoot back with, “What are you, a lawyer?!”  I just have to own up to the fact that for better or worse this movie is an unconscious part of my life. 
            Rushmore in my opinion is still Wes Anderson at his top form.  When The Royal Tenenbaums came out, I remember trying to describe it to some friends after watching a screening and I said, “It was more Rushmore than Rushmore.”  All of Anderson’s movies have gotten progressively more and more idiosyncratic and surreal—not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it’s still there.  Recently, while talking this over my friend Rene made the observation that all of his post-Rushmore movies deal with ensembles rather than just a few individuals.  I think it’s that confluence of Anderson quirkiness and large casts that can make some of his other movies seem slightly less focused than this one. 
            The driving force in this movie is clearly Jason Schwartzman’s debut performance as the main character, Max Fischer.  Let’s take a moment to consider Max at face value: 5’6, 15, 112 pounds, oval face…  He gets punched twice through the course of the movie and butted once with a rifle and he treats each incident as a victory or moment of triumph.  When he gets laid out by Magnus Buchan with one punch, Max reaches up to his friend and says, “We got him, Dirk.  We got him.”  When fighting for the heart of the woman he loves, although the methodology is extremely ill-advised, he floods his rival’s hotel room with bees and even cuts his car’s brakes.  For being a mousy, unintimidating looking theater kid, Max stands up for himself even when the situation is helpless.  I know I’m always impressed by the gutsiness.
            When you read reviews or descriptions of this movie, people invariably use the word “precocious” to describe Max, but I think a more apt term is quixotic.  And much like that character, Max’s lofty dreams inspire those around him to attempt the impossible and defy reason.  He manages a skeet club and backgammon club at Rushmore.  Not to mention a calligraphy group, junior pilots club, astronomy, etc.  His interests seem to be everything except the ordinary things kids his age “should” be interested in.  I would say it is directly because of this bizarre collection of endeavors that he always has a retinue on hand.  He’s a little crazy and he dreams big, but most people won’t admit that they want to be a little crazy and dream big as well.  It just takes a spark to start that reaction.
How else can you explain a demolition company signing out dynamite to a 10 year old?  Or a construction crew taking orders from a 15 year old as they dismantle a baseball diamond?  What begins, though, as a mad list of extracurriculars in the beginning becomes something more focused and deftly used by the end.  I don’t think Max is that same kid who earlier on says, dead-pan, “My top schools where I want to apply to are Oxford and the Sorbonne. But my safety's Harvard.”  When he’s performing “Heaven and Hell” at the end, it’s with a driven purpose: the dedication he makes before the curtain rises, the seating he chooses, the casting…it’s all about bringing his circle of friends back together. 
            Wes Anderson really knows how to stage a scene, because this movie is a really wonderful collection of triumphant and quietly beautiful moments.  Max, bloody-nosed, while receiving a standing ovation, turning defiantly to look at the boy who punched him; Max giving his former principal the bird while burning leaves on the school lawn; him, disguised, sneaking into the service elevator of a hotel to torment Mr. Blume; laying a small, potted flower at his mother’s grave; and of course the final moment. 
            I’ve never seen a more sublime ending to a film.  The ending to this movie is so good I sometimes just put it on and watch the last 15 minutes.  The bridges that we once thought burnt have been rebuilt.  In the end no one is a bad guy; everyone gets their chance to be redeemed.  And it happens so organically that you almost forget how it was ever any other way.  Buchan, who had made tormenting Max a minor hobby now looks to his defense when Max gets rifle-butted.  At one point Max tried to fell a tree on Mr. Blume, he hated him so much.  But now, Max has written a play about the same war Mr. Blume found himself lost in as a youth and Max has given him the happy ending he must have wanted but could never have in real life.  War can give way to love, but perhaps only if we wish it, demand it.  And now, on stage, and in their own lives the fighting has stopped.   

I suppose that’s one of the most wonderful things about this movie.  It tells us it’s okay to dream big, but try to do it with a purpose.  The Max we meet in the first half of the film tries to do everything and succeeds in virtually nothing; he a charismatic, but ultimately, feckless leader.  By the end, he is a maestro of sorts.  He pulls on people’s strings and they can’t help but follow.
The penultimate moment is possibly my favorite instance caught on film.  Max and Ms. Cross are going to dance and she takes off his glasses.  She sees him briefly for the man that he might someday be—perhaps with an unexpected bit of Edward Applebee thrown in—and she has a sharp intake of breath.  If you’ve been as drawn into the movie as much I am, at this point you do too.  What if he was a few years older…what if she was a few years younger?  I think they both see it.  But this is perhaps what growing up and loving someone is really about.  Because it is true, sometimes if you really care for someone the only thing you can do is let that person go.  He’ll never be old enough for her and she’ll never be young enough for him.  But, they can still have that friendship.  And they’re both ready now to admit that.
When I think of the phrase “movie magic”, I often look here to these final seconds before the curtain drops, with the whole cast on screen dancing, brought back together, sparklers blazing in the background.  I feel transported; changed; better.  It is so beautifully done that I think I might get it framed someday.  It’s starts off standard speed and then drops into slow motion, so that each simple gesture becomes a lasting statement.  That last shot tries to stretch itself out as long as possible, because all of life’s truly transcendent moments feel that way.   Would that all of life’s dramatic arcs reach their conclusions so succinctly.  We could have music and fireworks and dancing nightly. 

And just to show you how much my friends and I like this movie, here's us from college:

And the trailer.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Gear Problems

Note: Find something better to edit with than Paint.  

The Captain's Summit

Sometimes I write semi-intellectual discourses on fringe movies and sometimes I draw these.

Also, for the record: I am a Picard man.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sex and Candy: Some thoughts on Hellraiser and Candyman

                At one point in the early 80s Stephen King said, “I have seen the future of horror…and his name is Clive Barker,” and there has scarcely been a movie or book released since then with his name attached where the promoters haven’t milked that line.  But just because the blurb at this point has become a bromide doesn’t negate the truthiness of the sentiment.  Clive Barker is one of the few singular voices in horror and I hate the fact that every project of his seems to be an uphill battle.
                There are few, if any, writer/film-makers who can craft stories as sensual and terrifying as he can.  Clive Barker is certainly not the first or last film-maker to suggest the correlation between pleasure and pain, but his adroitness with the theme is what makes him stand apart.  Of the many travesties that have befallen the genre the past decade (foremost: awful remakes [i.e. not to say that all remakes are awful—see Rob Zombie’s Halloween, or Carpenter’s The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), etc…]), the runner-up on my list is the explosion of torture porn story telling. 
                If I could destroy any franchise of the past ten years it would undoubtedly be Hostel (pretty much anything involving Eli Roth if we’re granting large wishes).   Violence for the sake of violence is not visionary, no matter how many times you and your friends might insist in interviews sir.  And eroticizing it is always a danger and must be tempered with theme and style.  Cue Hellraiser and Candyman.
                Of the list I compiled, only a few individuals managed to sneak in two films: Carpenter, Romero, Cronenberg and Barker.  I think it says something when a person can bottle lightning not just once, but twice.  And Barker has certainly contributed more to the genre, both written and filmed, than just these works, but I have to say if these two pieces alone were my legacy I’d still feel pretty pleased.
                Hellraiser is a tour de force.  I couldn’t give half a shit what you say about the cheesy animated effects in the last reel (and for the record, you snobs, Clive and his buddy got blitzed and did all of the animation in one weekend because that was the only way they could bring it in under budget, so that makes him an auteur or whatever), the storytelling is relentless.  It’s one of the most twisted love stories ever put on celluloid.  It’s a deconstruction of the nuclear family.  It’s a bastardization of “father knows best”.   
                It postulates the very dangerous idea, “Hell is of your own making.”  Another bromide, true, but when it’s not being used as a garnish to an otherwise simple article or plain conversation it is a fascinating concept.  Pinhead states rather plain-Jane:

                                We are angels to some.  Demons to others.

To me this is the core of what is so terrifying about the cenobites.  They can grant your desires (e.g. in the third installment there is a character who has never been able to dream until she turns herself, body and soul, over to them), but their methods are matched by your own predilections and avarice.  To wit, their darkness is matched only by the same found in our own hearts…and how many of us can truly come to reckoning with the demons we carry? 
               So, essentially, only the ones at peace with themselves, contented and understanding, could hope to face the Cenobites and not be ripped apart.  In this sense we are our own unmaking.  This is true both when dealing with jinn like demons and everyday life.
   The duality of the Cenobites seems to me also to correlate with the film’s take on sexuality.  It is an act of passion, true, but also of intense violence.  Pleasure and pain.  One of the most memorable sequences in the film is the montage of men Julia seduces.  Every sexual encounter begins with giddy promise and they all end with blood on the floor.  Furthermore, the initial encounter between Julia and Frank, the seed from which their love blooms, is itself fraught with violence.  And once that door has been opened, it appears demure Julia cannot or does not want it shut.
                Candyman, on the other hand, while extremely sexual as well, shifts the focus.  Violence seems to happen because of the sex, but the relationship the two share is that of causality and not symbiosis.  Candyman impregnates his secret beloved, is found out, and is horrifically destroyed.  Trevor’s betrayal of Helen ultimately leads to his own undoing.  Ted Raimi, in one of the best cameos EVER, playing the bad boy biker boyfriend, is left to pick up the pieces after his girl meets the legend.  These are all gruesome and excellently executed, but this story does not want to retread familiar ground.
                Candyman is essentially a tale about the power of mythmaking.  Our universal need to give objects names is a dangerous tendency.  What isn’t always realized though is once you name something, while you feel you own it, it just as much owns you.  A political idea, religious concept, etc, once quantified and labeled by you becomes inescapable.  Soon you see its influence and signature whichever way you turn when just a day before you saw nothing.  That is who/what Candyman is: He is the formless thought now shaped, taken hold in your mind. 
                He exists and has power only because so many people agree that he exists and has power.  He is neither animal, vegetable nor mineral—should all of humanity sputter out, he would go with them.  He is an idea.  Consider the great propaganda campaigns throughout history, cults, Oscar voting and you will see just how powerful and dangerous such an abstraction can be.  Or as he puts it himself, “Why do you want to live? If you would learn just a little from me, you would not beg to live. I am rumor. It is a blessed condition, believe me. To be whispered about at street corners. To live in other people's dreams, but not to have to be. Do you understand?”
                The film also flirts with some other dangerous implications: That everlasting life can be attained only in death, with martyrdom and the importance a flock’s faith is to the cause.  While I would never compare Candyman to another prominent figure from history, he has certainly read the universal playbook and is running with it.
                But part of why this film has such strong legs to stand on is that it has these very literary themes layered in with more real world ones.  Some would argue, and with just cause, that the real horror of this film is the class disparity it shows.  Keep in mind this movie was shot on real locations and using the people who lived there as extras.  One of the productions vans had shots fired at it while filming.  The design flaw with the medicine mirrors was discovered while researching the location and was indeed used in several real life murders.  This is not exactly dressed up.
                Helen criticizes her friend after she inventories her purse and says to her, “What’s with the arsenal?  It’s only eight blocks.”  Her friend replies that it is indeed a different world.  Two buildings with the same design and layout, separated by a few blocks and a freeway, and they are unrecognizable anymore as twins.  In a very real sense we all live in a different America.  Is it that shocking that the people of this community revere and despise a character that is so merciless.  He passes over those who stay true but strikes down the unfaithful and the interloper. 
                If anything it is the academic approach to the horror story that I respect so much.  It’s almost a film in defense of itself and the genre.  It’s one of the few movies to insist that these stories are real in the hearts of people and they warrant serious study and reflection and it’s safe to say they had a large part in shaping the trajectory of my thought on film.  Horror films may want to tear us apart, but hopefully in doing so we closely examine the pieces.

The Final Cut: How Documentaries can be the Most Terrifying Genre Ever

                The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Audition are two of my favorite horror films of all time, but they are also two of the most difficult movies for me to watch.  They are too uncompromising, too unrelenting, too raw for me to be able to stomach multiple viewings.  As of writing this, it must be at least a year and half or longer since I’ve viewed either film.   I’ve often said this to people when I show them Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time, but part of what is so upsetting about this film is how genuine it feels.  Like a snuff film discovered in the attic of your house from some long unknown owner, this movie is creepy because of its…authenticity.   It has an almost documentary quality, especially with the prologue.
                This is partly to do with its shoe string budget.  Lacking the sort of funds you might find on another film, Tobe Hooper and his crew were forced to think smaller and tighter.  To save costs, rather than fabricate blood and gore, whenever possible they used actual blood donated from a local slaughterhouse and collected real road kill for set dressing.  Even the chainsaw was real, held carefully just a few inches from the actor on certain shots.  It is unsurprising then why it has such a sense of veracity. 
    Less camera movement and fewer cuts not only save money but also make the document you’re watching seem eerily unstaged.  To this day the dinner scene with grandpa always leaves me with my jaw hanging open because of how brutal it is.  You keep wanting them to cut away, if only for a moment, but they never do.
                Audition works on a similar wave length.  It’s a film masquerading as if it is from a different genre.  Sometimes, when I know the people I’m showing it to have the stomach for it, I won’t even mention it’s a horror film.  It starts off like a promising foreign language rom-com.  The hardworking, widower father who has sacrificed everything to make his son’s life as stable as possible is suddenly reminded by his growing child that it’s okay to fall in love again—come on, put Tom Hanks in this with Haley Joel Osmond circa 2000 and you’ve got a winner.
                The beginning reads like a behind the scenes invite to a small TV station, complete with meetings and a casting call.  It’s almost impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when things start to go awry, but by the film’s end your sense of dread will feel like a literal weight on your chest.  And one of the reasons why this film seems so awful (and I mean this is the full of awe, so terrible it’s hard to conceive sort of sense) is that he really isn’t a terrible guy.  She misread a few key signs, but he really just wanted to find a decent girl and settle down.  That’s far from the worst thing a man could want and certainly no reason to charge a guy an arm and a leg.
                But this seems to me to be the core reason why these two films work so well in their own particular way.  These characters were living their own normal lives, caught up in their own personal adventures, when fate caught up to them.  Texas Chainsaw could very well be a teenage road trip movie the way it starts and I’ve already mentioned how Audition looks and feels like a romantic comedy through almost its entire first half.  It’s the sudden reversal on our expectations and the lo-fi quality of the films that give it their punch.  Most horror films don’t behave like these ones do.  They simply don’t look like this.  The sparse soundtrack, immobile cameras, low budgets, real looking locations all give it the sense that these events are happening and you are watching it through a window.  Which begs the question: If this could happen to them, does that mean it could happen to us as well?
                This conceit is why I find the final moments of Texas Chainsaw so powerful.  Leatherface’s temper tantrum has been emblazoned in the film zeitgeist, and while that closing shot is truly striking it is not the reason why I feel so strongly about the conclusion.   It’s actually that brief moment when the picture stops and right before the credits roll.  The cacophony of his chainsaw and her screaming are so incessant they replace all other sound in your mind.  Maybe everything you thought before this moment was a fantasy; no other sounds have ever existed besides these two.  And when it gets to the absolute breaking point, where you can’t stand a moment more of its grinding, it cuts to black.   Leatherface is such a force of nature, implacable and unable to be reasoned with, the final moments of the film feel like the doomed final moments of some prey entrapped by a hunter.  It all appears too real.  I feel, but hope to never know for certain, that this is what it must be like at the end.  Sound.  Fury.  And then only silence.

Why Zombies? Some Brief Thoughts on Night and Dawn

        Why the zombie film at all?  The sub-genre does have some obvious appeal.  There is violence, gore, often a little sex and nudity, plus some snappy dialogue.  It has all of the elements that make a film visceral, but intrinsically none of the things that make a film great. 
 Here’s why.  Zombies are a cipher.  In of themselves they are not particularly dangerous.  They can be as multitudinous, tenacious, bright, strong or weak as the situation requires.  They are a motivating factor to the story being told, but they are not the single element in the equation.  The zombie flicks that are most engaging to watch treat the world they are creating as an open sandbox.  There are zombies and some people who aren’t zombies…aaaaand action. 
 “Genre” storytelling has always gotten the shortest end of the stick (my entire college career corroborates this), but if a filmmaker can push beyond those assumed limitations you will discover some surprising works.  You arrive at such varied movies as Homecoming (in which the recently dead soldiers from Iraq return to vote and remove the elected officials who sent them there in the first place); 28 Days Later, although not a zombie movie by definition, it certainly is one in spirit (and if you’re watching carefully, a truly great coming-of age story); and Shaun of the Dead, a comedy/spoof/romance…with zombies. 
And then there’s Night and Dawn.
As a youth, Night of the Living Dead taught me one of the great tenets of horror films: the monster is never the real monster.  We are.  Watch 28 Days Later, or The Road Warrior, or The Road or read The Stand and tell me that if things fall apart you wouldn’t be staring down the person next to you for a good while before closing your eyes for the night.
The other big groundbreaker, unlike literally any horror movie before and few after, is that Night openly defied racial mores by casting a strong, black man as the lead.  Maybe it was my overall upbringing or the progress our culture has made during the intervening years (or maybe just the seed of thought this movie planted), but it always seemed odd to me that there haven’t more characters like Ben.  Far too often when an African-American is featured in a horror film he’s always a gang member or excessively antagonistic.  They’re usually more a part of the problem and less a part of the solution.  Duane Jones, who portrayed Ben, was a college professor and theater director.  He was smart, well-spoken and charming.  The character in the original script was almost the exact opposite, but Romero, et al, realized their mistake after Duane read and changed the character into the trail blazer we have today.  While not their original intention, Night of the Living Dead to me has always been a story about racial tension.  And I think it shows that when it comes down to the wire, your strength of character has more to do with your likelihood of survival than your race.
Dawn of the Dead, my all-time favorite zombie film, shifts its focus and is a story of consumerism and excess.  Tyler Durden put it quite eloquently two decades later:

The things you own end up owning you.

The dead in Dawn were already zombies well before the apocalypse began.  And our heroes must take care to avoid becoming ones themselves—both spiritually and physically.
There are only a handful of moments in horror films that I find to be truly indelible.  One of them happens in this movie.  It takes place after the mall has been secured.  Fran is alone in a boutique.  She has on a beautiful dress and she spends some time putting on makeup, fixing her hair, looking as glamorous as possible.  After the process is complete she admires herself in the vanity mirror.  She blows a kiss and plays with her derringer—looking very much like a modern day Bonnie Parker—and then it happens.  Something inside of her breaks.  Her eyes say it all; she is haunted.  It echoes her question from a few scenes earlier, “What have we done to ourselves?”
She’s all dressed up and has absolutely no where to go.  Everything they could desire is locked up in that mall with them and it is all worthless now.  Their lives are empty.  Their horde owns them.
This is why I love these films.  When dealing with zombies, the most precious commodity of all is the will, the spirit.  You can outrun zombies.  You can out think them and out fight them.  But if you lose your compass, the grace that makes us all human and hopefully decent people, then you can’t hope to outlive them.  You are already dead.