Saturday, October 25, 2014

Why I like Berberian Sound Studio

Why I like Berberian Sound Studio

1) I saw Berberian Sound Studio in the worst possible circumstances: I watched the entire thing on my iPhone over several sessions walking on an elliptical machine at my local gym. Cardio is both necessary and incredibly boring, and I had gotten sick of listening to podcasts while I worked out. I saw some less-than-stellar movies, but Berberian Sound Studio captured my imagination. I got into Only Lovers Left Alive at around the same time, and I've been a fierce advocate for both films since. It seems like there have been a lot of smart, classy horror films over the last few years and I was really excited to share them with people. 

2) Like Only Lovers, Berberian is total sound porn. Instead of music, Berberian focuses on the sound engineering and foley work used to make an effective horror film. I've never seen a film that made such brilliant use of sound effect work.

3) Confession time: I've never much cared for the "golden age" of 1970s Italian horror cinema. I think most of the appeal comes from a strange mix of nostalgia for an era that was before my time, a misreading of incompetent film making that gets confused for camp, and a gorehound's delight in a few key scenes of truly nasty gore effects. I'm watching Lucio Fulci's Zombie 2 on the second monitor as I type this and no one ever remembers anything substantial about the film. They just remember the eye gouging and the shark fight. I do like The Beyond and the Argento film Phenomena but Italian horror doesn't really work for me. But it does make a fantastic backdrop for Gilderoy's mental breakdown. 

4) I am embarrassed to admit it, but I see far too much of myself in Gilderoy. I'm small and easily bowled over, and I'm often shocked when people act selfishly. His timid personality puts him at a huge disadvantage when he's brought to Italy to work on some perverse giallo film. My own experience in Italy taught me that the people can often be, um, unnecessarily assertive. A sheltered person like Gilderoy would easily be bowled over. Gilderoy's immediate supervisor is rude to him without reason, the receptionist is dismissive, and everyone either blows him off or talks down to him. The only one who treats Gilderoy decently is the film's director, and he's a manipulative narcissist with grandiose ideas about the misogynist trash he's creating.

5) The film takes places in a strange film noir world. The hallways disappear down impossible distances, the rooms never seem to be properly lit, and the recording rooms are all like tiny coffins. The entire movie world feels like an echo chamber, which is perfect for the best aspect of Berberian Sound Studios: the masterful use of sound.

6) I've never seen a movie so lush with aural detail. You never actually see the movie Gilderoy is helping to make, but the horrific special effects conjure up a pretty clear image of how nasty the movie must be. Sound is used to brilliant effect in the film. Every cut lettuce, every dropped melon feels like a violation of the human body. I've heard a thousand screams captured on horror cinema, but I've never heard anything as gut-wrenching as the screams of frustration captured in the recording booth.

7) The movie follows Gilderoy's descent into madness, as his life begins to thread into the movie. Perhaps the occult nature of the film casts a spell on him, perhaps he starts going insane, perhaps he was insane to begin with, a man who appeared out of the film itself. The ambiguity made the ending frustrating for a lot of people, but I found it intriguing. I can't wait to go back and revisit the film. Hopefully next time on a better screen. 

Conclusion: I've never seen a horror film that so effectively used the mechanics of cinema to deliver tension. Watching Gilderoy degenerate to the chaos around him becomes almost operatic. The line between film and "reality" gets razor-thin over the course of the movie. It's a rare treat, and one of my favorite recent horror films.                 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Why I like Shadows in the Asylum: The Case Files of Dr. Charles Marsh

Why I like D.A. Stern's Shadows in the Asylum: The Case Files of Dr. Charles Marsh

1) A little autobiographical note: my first post-college internship was for the San Francisco District Attorney's office's criminal investigation division. The bulk of the job involved preparing discovery documentation for defense attorneys, which meant I spent my days looking through fascinating information processed through extremely tedious forms. One murderer in particular, a mentally-ill drifter who butchered a teenage girl, had a lifetime of paperwork stretching back to institutionalized forms from the late 1950s. Taken together, the entire case file presented the sordid, sad details of a man's mental degeneration and the institutional failure to treat him properly.

2) Horror fiction is full of people finding discarded documentation. Beleaguered heroes are constantly finding old case files, mysterious tomes, and newspaper clippings pasted on serial killer's walls. These little clues provide tantalizing glimpses into the origin of whatever evil the characters are facing. D.A. Stern's Shadows in the Asylum is an epistolary novel where all those little clippings tell the story of a doctor, a mental patient, and the supernatural horror stalking them both.

3) The novel never breaks from it's central premise. The entire book is told in therapy session reports, newspaper clippings, surveillance footage, and album liner notes. While it seems like the haphazard nature of the collection would prevent close identification with the characters, but the doctor's notes show the the man's struggles, doubt, and acceptance.

4) Because of the way the story is told, the events feel very real. Fiction has a lot of fundamental artificiality that comes from trying to create a prose style. As the novel effectively mimics different forms of formal documentation rather than telling a single narration, it really does feel like a found artifact of some terrible event.

5) The book also does mental health facilities better than anything I've ever seen. Horror is full of Arkham Asylum-style madhouses, full of cackling madmen beating their heads against padded walls. The psychiatric care facility in the book seems to function correctly. It's a higher-end institution, with good counselors, regular treatment, and a strong drug regimen. It seems plausible, which makes the supernatural elements seem plausible.

6) The horror at the core of the story unfolds slowly. For most of the book, the tales of shadows creeping the hospital hallways seem like ordinary delusions. The doctor finds a potential cause, resolves it, and the book appears to be on the way to a happy ending. Once the real evil makes itself known, the book takes on a new level of fear. The book is ultimately a Lovecraftian horror story, where the monster is something alien and unknowable, causing havoc with it's presence in the asylum. It's one of the scariest creatures I've ever encountered in horror fiction.

Conclusion: I'm really sad that Shadows in the Asylum didn't get a bigger following. It's a really unique and scary book, one of the best haunted-house stories I've ever read. It creates one of the most convincing fictional worlds I've ever seen, and rewards people for falling deeper into the story. I own several copies of the book so I can come back and revisit it over time. It has my highest recommendation.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Why I like Ju-on: The Grudge

Why I like Ju-on: The Grudge

1) Before we begin, a brief autobiographical digression. I was raised in a family that practiced Japanese Buddhism in San Francisco. My family hosted Japanese exchange students, my brother spent a lot of time in Japan, and I'm generally inclined to be favorable to all things Japanese horror. 

2) Ju-on is my favorite horror movie of all time. I've seen it dozens of times and I'm still scared by it. When I used to have closing duty at GameStop, I'd put Ju-on on the monitor to keep me company. I have watched as many Takashi Shimizu movies as I can get my hands on. I love the movie beyond all rational sense and perspective. I don't discuss it often because I really don't want to hear any dissenting opinion that might change my perspective. 

3) One of the scariest things about the film is that Kayako Saeki's rage cannot be stopped. As a person acclimated to the western idea of haunting, where a tormented spirit can be put to rest, there's no escape from Kayako's vengeance. What happened to her was so awful that no amount of appeasement will work. Her rage is a virus that infects and corrupts everything that it touches. 

4) Because a straightforward story about an unstoppable doom would be an exercise in futility, Ju-on is broken up into a nonlinear narrative about the first family to fall victim to the curse, the hospice worker that takes care of the invalid grandmother, and the police investigator that falls to the grisly aftermath. It effectively turns the film into a series of interconnected vignettes, short stories tied together by a monster. The overarching story involving the poor hospice worker takes the final doom of the curse to a new and frightening place. 

5) The movie has a lot of scenes of people hiding in beds, being haunted in their sleep, or just having Kayako's spirit watching them as they lie huddled in fear. My childhood often involved burrowing under covers and doing my best to control my bladder. I recognize the fear of the dark and the safety/vulnerability of hiding in bed. Ju-on exploits this masterfully. 

6) We're never quite clear on what exactly happened to the Saeki family. We see all of their spirits in one form or another. The boy/cat seems to act as a harbingers. He doesn't act like a typical ghost child, standing and staring at people with a bloody head wound. Instead, his spirit has been fused with the cat. The hissing sound the boy makes renders him as even less than human. It reminds me of traditional obakemono demons, animal spirits that torment the unwary. 

7) The final scene between Kayako and Rika, where Rika lays paralyzed with fear and Kayako's freshly-murdered body crawls down the stairs after her is one of the most terrifying things I've ever seen in my life. The classic theory about horror is that it's often only scary when you can't see the monster, but the deliberate pacing, the horrible croaking sounds, and Kayako's vicious sense of purpose combine to make the scene one of the scariest things I've ever seen committed to film. It's a nightmare incarnate, and that's why it works so well with me. 

Conclusion: I'm more into creepy-horror than startle-horror. Most American horror films these days seem to be about creative a very specific rhythm of tension-shock-shock-break. I like movies that create a nightmarish atmosphere. Ju-on is utterly relentless, gloomy, and oddly beautiful. I have watched it dozens of times and I still find something new to discover in it's puzzle-box narrative and strange mysteries. It's my favorite horror film of all time.

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.