Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why I like Resident Evil 2

Why I like Resident Evil 2

1) I'm fairly certain that Resident Evil started the zombie renaissance. When I got into the horror genre in my tweens, the most recent major zombie story was the Return of the Living Dead franchise, which was several years old at the time. The genre was leaving the franchise slasher era of the 80s and entering the ironic slasher franchise era of the early 90s, with a handful of supernatural horror tales interspersed between. Nobody was doing anything with zombies at the time. While 28 Days Later probably brought the zombies into the mainstream audience, the Resident Evil franchise brought the subgenre back to horror fans my age. 

2) I started playing the series at the second game and I'll never forget the very first game screen:

It's an old trick that gets me every time: if you tell me I'm about to see SOMETHING HORRIBLE, I'm going to work myself into a tizzy worrying about whatever it could possibly be.

3) Both Resident Evil 2 and Metal Gear Solid were the first games that crossed the line between games and movies for me. Both used a lot of cut scenes to great effect. I remember the intro movie to RE2 very well. Having not played the original game, I came in to the story as the two lead characters did, alarmed as I found myself trapped in a city under siege.

4) I don't remember who I played as first. I usually play female characters if given the choice, but Leon Kennedy was a cop and had a gun. Either way, I remember the first nerve-wracking slog through Raccoon City's ruined streets. The characters are hard to control, the zombies are all over the place, and you were constantly under assault. Much has been made of the tank controls that early RE games used, but they definitely added to the vulnerability. I was used to playing agile characters, but now I was stuck in a clumsy shell. It amplified the horror, making my video game avatar an extension of myself.

5) The interesting thing about the Resident Evil games is that they took place in a Universal Horror reinterpretation of our world. The characters and the technology were all modern, but the spaces that the characters resided in had a Gothic architecture and sense of decay. Puzzles all involved clockwork architecture, the police department and mansion all concealed areas that looked like Dark Ages castles, and the crazy villains were operatically, House of Usher-crazy. Underneath all the modern trappings, the mad experiments that birthed the T-Virus came from Frankenstein's Castle.

6) Because I started the series at Resident Evil 2, I bypassed the worst of the bad voice acting that characterized Resident Evil 1. No master of unlocking cracks for me. Because of that, I took the series deadly serious. I wanted to know everything about the world, about the T-Virus, about the horrible Tyrant that relentlessly stalked you through the police station.

7) The game pulled me into the world so effectively. I found all the little clues in the police station, I read all the reports, I heard about the doomed efforts to keep the monsters out. It created a thoroughly engaging fictitious world. The longer I played, the more I accepted the quirks of the control scheme. I developed a particular strategy for moving through corridors and fighting different monsters, which I had to constantly reevaluate in the face of new threats.

8) The game has a palpable sense of loneliness. You spend so much time fighting alone for your life that it became a relief every time I ran into another human being, especially Claire/Leon.

Conclusion: Horror gaming has a different rhythm than most other media, in that it doesn't follow the same peaks-and-valleys structure that more passive media often follows. The games are relentless exercises in horror, and I loved slipping deeper into the madness of the Raccoon City's zombie infestation.    

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why I like the ending lightsaber battle in Empire Strikes Back

Why I like the ending lightsaber battle in Empire Strikes Back

1) We're going outside the typical horror genre on this one, but bear with me. 

2) In the book Cut! Horror Writers on Horror Film, splatterpunk writers Skipp and Spector advance the theory that horror is the engine that powers every movie you've ever loved. All conflict is based on the fear that something bad is going to happen. While I feel like their theory rounds up too many narrative strains into horror, it did make me consider scary scenes in all those movies beloved by the culture.

3) The classic slasher scene is one of slow, deadly stalking. The camera follows the victim as they creep through the dark, their pursuer close at hand with their knife drawn. It's as animalistic as horror gets; we're all afraid of the crazy person with the sharp object. As time has gone on, the victim has become more frail and the victim has become more hulking and brutish. 

4) The first stalking scene I ever saw as a kid was Darth Vader stalking Luke Skywalker through the underbelly of Cloud City. It took me years before I could ever watch the movie again. 

5) It's hard to be scared of Darth Vader these days. I spent last week at Disney World, where I saw a stage show where Darth Vader got beaten up by a six year old. His masked features were on tee-shirts and in cartoon drawings wearing Mickey Mouse ears. Oversaturation kills all the great monsters, but in all the merchandising crap we forget how fucking scary he is. 

6) Luke Skywalker is completely unprepared for the fight. He ignored Yoda's instructions and rushed to his friend's aid, falling into Vader's trap. He meets his opponent in a room that looks like Freddy Krueger's hellish boiler room. Vader is a massive dark silhouette silently waiting for his opponent, his respirator overpowering the soundtrack. They fight and it's clear that Skywalker is overpowered. He flees, Vader in pursuit. 

7) Everyone remembers the big reveal before Luke takes the plunge off the antenna, but the scenes that stick with me are Luke's slow creep through the silent hallways. It's one of the few quiet scenes in the Star Wars films. We feel Luke's fear, and the ominous sounds of Darth Vader's breathing takes a new edge. It reminds me of Jason's distinctive ch-ch-ch-ha-ha-ha sound. The first time Vader attacks, he sweeps violently down at Luke from an alcove. It's a horror movie jump scare.

Conclusion: Every kid has that story of the ostensibly-for-children movie that scared the crap out of them. Disney movies are often the culprit, but mine was Empire Strikes Back. Darth Vader was genuinely terrifying in the movie, and the script makes it very clear just how far Luke Skywalker is out of his depth. He's pushed to the limit of his endurance, which makes the revelation of his lineage all that more horrific. It's a brilliant horror scene in a non-horror film.     

Monday, October 20, 2014

Why I like Elvira

Why I like Elvira

1) At this point in my life, I'm over watching bad movies. I spent a lot of my college years on various couches watching badly acted, badly made, incompetently produced dreck looking for laughs. While "bad" is highly subjective (I'd still argue that a lot of the Friday the 13th movies are good, if you judge them on their own merits), "bad" often means "boring." It's frustrating to watch a movie sabotaged by incompetence or laziness. The only way a bad movie can be salvaged is by having genuinely funny comedians provide running commentaries to it. 

2) Most people think of MST3K/Rifftrax when they think of goofing on bad films. I never found the MST3K guys funny. They have a sorta Midwestern mild politeness that blunts most of their humor and makes their comedy about as edgy as a church-camp comedy skit. When you're working with oddball sci-fi/horror stuff, you gotta work a little blue. Your material has to be saucy. You have to be playful and edgy. You gotta be Elvira.   

3) I'm a child of the 80s and Elvira means Halloween to me. She was the Santa of the season. You know Halloween had come around when her beer ads popped up on TV and her cut-outs appeared in grocery stores. She's the harbinger of the Halloween season. And she's fun.

4) Elvira is like a more vivacious version of the Addams Family and the Munsters rolled into one. As I pointed out in my Munsters article, Elvira has a hard time believing the world isn't as weird as she is. Like the Addams Family, she's so joyfully, unselfconsciously ghoulish.     

5) Terry Pratchett once wrote that his earthy old witch Nanny Ogg was the kind of saucy old woman that England still produces: full of interesting life experiences, fond of beer and a raunchy joke, loud, brassy, and fun. Elvira fits that description, with an added dollop of vampiric glee.

6) Now, hrm, here's where I am going to get in trouble. Look, I'm a feminist. I recognize male privilege, I like Anita Sarkeesian, I do my best to live decently and ignore the toxic messages in our culture, so I try not to be one of those guys that constantly harps on people's appearance but OH MY LORD Elvira is stunning. She's got a burlesque vibe, vamps for the camera. she's sexy and campy at the same time. I'm pretty sure she was one of my first crushes.

Conclusion: I'm watching the 13 Nights of Elvira on Hulu as I watch this and I love it! She's lost none of the charm over the years, and the internet's lack of parental standards allow her to make the best off-color jokes. She's funny, charming, and one of the best things about Halloween.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Why I like Interview with the Vampire

Why I like Interview with the Vampire

1) Romantic vampires annoy traditional horror fans. Aside from taking cheap shots at Twilight, purists like their monsters pure. I was listening to the Scream Queenz Dracula podcast and they nailed the classical definition of a vampire: their sexuality is predatory. They're seducing you in order to eat you alive. There's nothing underneath the charm. That  kind of vampire is fine, but I really like Interview with the Vampire, the book/movie that is often accused of being the forerunner of the sad-puppy vampire.

2) IwtV is the first major work that features the vampire as the protagonist, and it creates a compelling one. I get that a lot of people find Louis Hamlet-like waffling frustrating, but I like the fact that he fundamentally doesn't want to be a murderer.  The big different between Anne Rice's vampires and Stephanie Meyers' vampires is that Louis has to take human life to survive. Most people don't want to die, but the question is how willing they are to kill innocent people in order to preserve their own life, especially when their instincts compel them to do so.

3) As I mentioned in the Addams Family post, there are two things that always appeal to Goths: antiquity and romanticism. IwtV is a very romantic movie. Lestat loves Louis, Louis cares for Claudia, Claudia loves Louis, Armand loves Armand. They all pull apart and crash into each other, goading their paramours to be what they want them to be, and occasionally trying to kill each other. It's all a bunch of grand passions mixed with homicide, set against a backdrop of European cities at night.

4) Speaking of, let's talk about Lestat for a second. When I saw the movie as a kid, I thought that Lestat was the villain. He killed people without remorse. He was Gentleman Death, dressed for a night out. "It's your coffin, my dear." I was a good-hearted kid, I didn't want my heroes to hurt anybody. As I got older, I began to share Lestat's frustration with Louis. Louis' problem isn't that he doesn't want to hurt people, it's that he refuses to accept what he is. It's why that "still whining, Louis" line still gets a laugh every time. Plus being Lestat just looks like more fun.

5) The big tragedy of the film is Claudia. She's turned as part of a misguided act of mercy, then forced to mature into an adult while keeping a child's body. Despite loving Louis, he will always view her as a child. And, of course, her attempt to free the pair from Lestat's clutches has horrific consequences.

6) The idea of immortality has a lot of appeal. For one thing, you can live long enough to see future cars. You also get to live a life unfettered by death. I'd love to imagine what experiences would be open to me, what sights I could see. I think I'd give up the sun for that.

Conclusion: Vampires endure because they walk the line between monster and wish fulfillment. There's a lot of perks to their condition, but it comes with some intense personal costs. Interview with the Vampire was the first time I was ever able to vicariously step into a vampire's lace cuffs. It's romantic treatment of vampirism and angst saturation did encourage a trend I don't necessarily love, but I really like this story. It takes the romanticism of vampires without sanding down the fangs.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Why I like Ed Wood

Why I like Ed Wood

1) It's real easy to tease Tim Burton these days. His reliance on specific cinematic signatures have been the subject of parody by funnier people than I. His work feels like one of the bands I've listened to thousands of times during my adolescence, where it's lost the sparkle after all those repeat viewings. Taking all those old movies for granted dismisses the fact that Tim Burton's best work is fucking awesome!

2) Out of all his work, I come back to Ed Wood most of all. As much as I love Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, they seem more like stylistic exercises and fairy tales. They establish his style. Ed Wood is a more adult story. 

3) I like Johnny Depp's portrayal of the character. Ed Wood reminds me of every good natured 1950s gee-whiz sitcom child. He doesn't get down or discouraged about his dreams. Every problem has a solution, every calamity can be worked around. His singleminded go-get'um attitude occasionally veers toward the selfish, and Martin Landau's Bela Lugosi is possibly worse off for having met him, but he's the kind of guy who gets things done. 

4) Sometimes enthusiasm makes up for a lack of talent. In the scenes where Ed Wood is actually filming, we quickly realize he has no idea what the fuck he is doing. He shoots in one-takes, he hires people with no real grasp of English, and he truly believes he can fool people into believing that a dentist with a cape over his mouth could pass for Bela Lugosi. The amateurishness would be contemptible, but it's paired with a genuine love of the medium. Ed Wood loves movies. He's the most enthusiastic amateur out there, and his rollicking seat-of-your-pants style makes his story compelling. Bad movies these days often fail due to a lack of inspiration. They feel made by committee, they play it safe, and they market-test all the flavor out of their stories. I have a copy of Plan 9 From Outer Space and I can't really bring myself to watch it again. But it's unique, goddamnit

5) One of the most admirable things about Ed Wood's personality is how accepting he is. He takes misfits under his wing, he works with religious fundamentalists for funding, he buddies up to a hammy old actor, and he manages to get them all to share his vision. Even better, he accepts himself. The man has an interest in gender-nonconforming behavior, which he reveals with very little shame. That leads to one painful rejection, but he eventually finds the right girl to share his life with. I like movies about people with winning personalities. They create the most interesting social networks. 

Conclusion: It's tough doing anything creative. You have to press back against tidal waves of inertia and apathy. There are a zillion stories of tormented creative types, but there are very few that capture the sheer iconoclastic joy of being a weirdo, celebrating your weirdness, and making something memorable with your friends. Ed Wood is one of my go-to feel good movies.        

Friday, October 17, 2014

Why I like How To Write Horror Fiction

Why I like How To Write Horror Fiction

1) In marathoning through 31 days of blog posts, it's amazed me how often I've gone back to my childhood. I live in a near-24/7 horror bubble, but I don't think too much past assuming that it's where my natural aesthetics lie. This little experiment in strip-mining my interests has helped me to find my origin story.  No other book has shaped me more than How To Write Horror Fiction.

2) I was by all accounts a pretty easy kid. I didn't cause a lot of trouble, never really acted out, and was easy for my parents to get a handle on. They taught me how to read at a young age, which I'll always be grateful for. The library quickly became my favorite place, and they used to drop me off there if they needed me out their way for awhile. I'd spend hours wander the stacks, following my interests. One day, I happened to come across HtWHF

3) Written by the legendary William F. Nolan, HtWHF is a nuts-and-bones explanation of how a horror story works: how to build tension, how to create monsters, how a plot is supposed to naturally flow, and how to use violence to maximum effect. I've read a lot of books on writing over the years and a lot of them read like New Age self-improvement books. HtWHF taught the nuts and bolts of story construction. It made storytelling seem like something I could do

4) Nolan comes from a different era of storytelling. There were more markets back in the day because more people read short fiction. The stories guys like Nolan and Ray Bradbury wrote defined horror fiction. While the sensibilities have changed significantly, the core lessons remain valuable.

5) I've been holding off on rereading HtWHF until after I finished my MFA in writing horror fiction. I wanted to see if what I learned or if anything I tried to do felt different from what Nolan laid down in the text. The reputation that MFAs homogenize their students has some truth, especially one geared towards commercial fiction, but I learned a lot in the program. Two books and a couple dozen short stories later, I've approached HtWHF with new appreciation. The lessons remain useful, and it's a good refresher course on the basics. 
Conclusion: Writing is such a crapshoot. It's hard to succeed, it's often not taken seriously, and you have to find your rewards within the process itself, but it has proven to be one of the best things in my life. It's been a way to synthesize my love of reading, my love of stories, and my observations on life into an art form. It's made me happy, if "happiness" means something more complex than simple self-indulgent euphoria. Sometimes that happiness can come with the weight of obligation, but the sense of purpose it gives in exchange is worth it. Nolan's book had a massive impact on my development. He made me want to be a writer.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why I like the Addams Family

Why I like The Addams Family

1) This is gonna start with another "look how big a wimp Joe was" stories. My dad took me to see The Addams Family film when I was a kid. I covered my eyes during the walk through the cemetery, though my imagination vividly conjured up the horrible images of all the dead Addamses. When they got to the scene where Pugsley and Wednesday violently recreate Shakespeare, I was crying and had to be taken home.

2) Years later, as a sullen Goth teenager, I went back to the Addams. I started with Addams Family Values, worked up the courage to watch the first film, then bought a collection of Charles Addams comics. I was still worshipping the ground Tim Burton walked on, and I wanted more stories set in strange dark fairytales. 

3) If there are two things Goth kids respond to, it's romance and antiquity. The Addams family have both in spades. Their house is a crumbling old Victorian abode, much like the one I grew up near in San Francisco (I refuse to believe that the Addams actually live in New York City, no matter what the musical tries to say), full of old antiques for the family to lounge on.

4) As to the romance, Gomez and Morticia are positively gross in love with each other. Because they live in their own tiny crazy world, they never deal with the mundane crap that most cohabitating couples deal with. They fawn and swoon over each other, waltz constantly, and babble sweet nothing in French. It's all so cute. Every once in awhile, I see a run on my social media feeds about how people are looking for romance like Gomez and Morticia share. 

5) The Addams Family are just plain odd. Unlike the Munsters, who seem completely unaware of their strangeness, the Addams see their strangeness as normal and don't see how the rest of the world doesn't go along the exact same way. The charm of the Addams, beyond their cute morbidity, is that they are so completely comfortable in being themselves. Because of that, I've never seen a more loving family portrayed in any medium (once you get past the occasional lighthearted murder attempts.)

6) I have a strange relationship with morbidity these days. When I was a kid, I used to read anything I could on death and dying, in the certainty that my own life would last forever. The older I get and the more I've encountered death as a reality, the more I find most people who profess to be morbid as either wearing it as an affectation or as having not suffered any real loss in their lives. But the fact is that death is interesting. Funerary rites are interesting. Lurid murders are interesting. The Addams Family is a way to find humor in the dark side of life. 

7) The farther I get from the Musical, the less I like it. No Addams family member should have the goal of wanting to be more normal. 

Conclusion: I like to check in with the Addams Family from time to time in order to remind myself that I'm still a little bit weird. The older I get, the more cluttered my life becomes with compromises and concessions to the oppressive crush of the day-to-day world. I like my family quite a bit, but it would sometimes be nice to have a family like the Munsters or the Addams. It's a place where my dark side could fit in.