Monday, November 24, 2008

Let The Right One In

Thanks to my man Igor, who made the above Swedish cinema primer possible. It's not like I can run the trailer twice now, is it?

I tend to associate with women much smarter than me, and therefore I've seen a lot of foreign films. I think I was as prepared as anyone to check out Let The Right One In, the nifty vampire film currently making the art-house circuit. Let The Right One In is gonna be a hard sell for the average fan raised on the American style of horror cinema. For one, it's the close-uppiest movie you will ever see. Director Tomas Alfredson seems to believe that the best place for a camera is four inches from a character's face. It's also edited in a rough, jarring way that bats the viewer's focus so hard it makes the teeth rattle.

It's also really, really, friggin' good. It's a story about an isolated, angry young tweener who befriends a vampire and it absolutely works.

I was planning on my next post being about Twilight and the neutering of the vampire archetype, but Let The Right One In renewed my faith in this type of story. Ever since Buffy The Vampire Slayer (or, arguably, the Anne Rice vampire novels) vampires have become the bad boy archetype, basically human but with unusual diets and skin deficiencies who have a dark, conflicted, sexy edge but who can be redeemed with the love of a good, strong, pure girl. Eli, the conflicted vampire of LTROI, is cut from the same cloth as the classic vampire stories. She's a creature with barely controlled appetites, someone whose emotions and sensitivities may be human but whose impulses make her a constant threat.

She finds her perfect match in Oskar, the troubled and lonely boy she befriends. When we first meet Oskar, he is taking out imaginary revenge against the bullies who torment him at school, slashing at the air with a knife and practicing the things he'd say. He's well read and quiet, keeps a scrapbook of gruesome murders, and has a surprising knowledge in forensic pathology. When he's actually confronted by the school bullies he becomes timid and powerless, and this in turn makes his fantasy life darker and more violent. I've long held to my haunted house theory, namely that the best horror movies involve characters who are haunted even before they ever set foot into the realm of the supernatural, and Oskar makes a much better fit for the vampire tale than any goody-two-shoes flyover land blonde.

The story is focused almost purely as a tale between Eli and Oskar. Adults barely feature in the movie, and the parents and teachers who populate Oskar's world are mostly kept off-screen or filmed from behind like characters in a Charlie Brown special. There is a small cadre of locals who slowly become aware of what Eli is up to, but they're mostly used as victims, comedic relief, or targets of ridiculous CGI cat attacks.

My favorite part of the movie, the bit that I think other movies could learn from, is the slow way that Oskar and Eli become friends. In Hollywood movies, teen and tween characters toss out witty and insightful bon-mots, sprinkled with quickly outdated pop culture references. The characters in LTROI talk like kids. They're guarded and shy, insecure and awkward. They slowly up to each other, slowly offer their friendship, and it's tremendously realistic. These felt so natural and so perfectly captured that I dread the upcoming remake, which will no doubt make the kids older, prettier, and full of snappier dialogue and rock song. LTROI is a quiet sort of movie, and Hollywood doesn't do that well, not without being self-congratulating.

The horror in the movie is very well done and effective. The story's emphasis isn't really on the body count, but when the violence hits it's shocking and brutal. Eli is not a romantic seducer type, and she rips out people's throats with animalistic abandon. The gore is limited but effective, particularly the grisly scene where Eli demonstrates what happens when she enters a home uninvited. That scene stands out as one of my favorites in recent memory, along with the ghastly final sequence in the poolside, as Oskar's vampire buddy comes to his aid in the most shocking way, proving that it's probably not a good idea to make friends with monsters.

One of the big questions that I took away from the movie is about how honest the emotional connection is between Eli and Oskar. Eli, as portrayed in the movie, is clearly not bereft of humanity. When she is forced to find her own victims, she weeps after she kills people. She shows tremendous amounts of restraint around Oskar, and the connections they make are tender and very human. She is, however, very callow and heartless to Hakan, the older man who lives with her and kills people to feed her. We never learn the exact nature of Hakan and Eli's relationship, but I wonder if Hakan was once in Oskar's shoes. Did Eli strike up a friendship with someone her own age and then abandon him as he gets older. The story ends with the two of them leaving town, implying that Oskar has taken Hakan's place. Will Eli one day treat the older Oskar with the same contempt?

There are few horror flicks that I can think of where the setting is a perfect fit for the story. Blackeberg, the Stockholm suburb where the story takes place, is oppressively cold. The characters trudge through blank, lifeless landscapes, faces constantly bundled, struggling to move under the bindings of their heavy clothes. It conveys a sense of stillness that fits very well with vampire mythology. Frankly, Sweden is probably the best place to hide if you are a vampire. Everyone is already pale and gloomy.

Anyway, this movie isn't for everyone. I don't think anyone would accuse LTROI of being a particularly kinetic film, and I know that the cinematography turned some of my friends off, as did the particularly twisted nature of the kid's relationship. But it's still one of the best vampire movies I've ever seen. Check it out.

Repo! The Genetic Opera

It's very difficult to actually dislike a movie with this much energy and originality.

I've really been looking forward to this movie, ever since its big marketing push during the San Diego Comic Convention this past summer. Clips from the trailer, downloadable songs, and the awesome posters were available to fans. I thought it looked visually cool and daring and gruesome and I wanted very badly to see it.

This past weekend I got a gang of my friends together and we went to our Local Indie Cinema. We sat down, got our beers and our pizzas and our popcorn and we saw it through. We listened through the songs, cringed through the eviscerations, and were amused by the wild sights that Repo! laid before us. Yet the strangest thing happened when the lights went on. We all liked it....sorta. We mumbled and grumbled, struggled to put our finger on it, but I think we simply wanted to like it more.

Repo! The Genetic Opera is kind of a stretch on my single-topic blog rules. The horror is mostly of the visceral variety as the Repo Men stalk the streets, gruesomely vivisecting any organ transplant patients who can't keep up with their medical payments. The rest of the story is a gonzo rock opera set in a dystopian future, where a small family of psychopaths and degenerates live a decadent lifestyle as the people below them scrape by in poverty, completely dependent on the sinister GeneCo for their health and entertainment. There's something wonderfully grand guignol in the way this story is told, as we watch flesh split and entrails torn out of screaming victims by cackling madmen while crazy industrial songs are sung.

Despite the cheerfully ludicrous setting, the story itself is as outlandish as most musicals. There are lost loves, tragic heroes, monstrous villains, secrets, liars, tragic victims, all-knowing narrators, and all that jazz. All of this is, of course, wrapped up in a heavy gothic/industrial aesthetic.

I used to be much heavier into the goth scene when I was younger, before I realized that the personality affectations and kabuki-style look was more trouble than it was worth. Still, I have a strong affinity for the subculture and it's participants and I get a little Pavlovian response to anything marketed to the community. If ever a movie was tailor-made to the goth crowd, this is it. It takes place in one of those grim, ground-down futures where the sun never seems to turn up. The ever-awesome Ogre from Skinny Puppy plays a supporting character. Everything is so dark and grand and over-the-top and majestic. The heroine is a wan, sickly girl, trapped in a tower and forever melancholy in that theatrical way only goth kids can be, because everything is so unfair to her, goddamnit!

Here's the deal: for a musical, the songs in Repo! The Genetic Opera aren't particularly memorable. They're well shot and well sung, especially by Anthony Stewart Head, who absolutely rules as the Repo Man, but aside from one or two standouts everything kind of blends into each other. The singers and performers assembled for this movie are top-notch and they're able to elevate the material, but you tend to get swept up in the energy and the visuals more than the actual music.

The second issue I had with the movie is that it's one of those films that was hampered by it's budget. The movie mostly takes place on a handful of small sets, which makes the story suffer from a feeling of claustrophobia that seems at odds with the dark grandeur of the performances and the music.

I suppose I should say something about Paris Hilton's performance in the movie, where she portrays one of the three spoiled children who stand to inherit GeneCo after their father passes. She apparently irritates a lot of people, particularly my friend Kwame, who shouted some rather harsh criticisms at her while she blocked traffic during her appearance at the SDCC. I'm sure she's going to pull some people into theaters based on sheer WTF factor alone, but she's barely in the movie. She sings a couple songs in that breathy Marilyn Monroe faux-sexy way that mostly grates on the nerves, and her surgery-addicted character's face falls off during her closing number. All together, Repo! was a highly amusing vehicle for her talents. Bravo!

I totally think Repo! is absolutely worth seeing, if for no other reason than I want to see more of this sort of thing produced. It's a little too precious and self-aware to be a cult movie, but I think it'll find a loyal audience. It's one you have to see in theaters, when you can be completely overwhelmed by the razzle-dazzle onscreen. In a smaller, more intimate setting, the flaws of the movie would become more apparent. Still, go check it out, especially if your formative years were more Bauhaus than Backstreet Boys.

Alliteration, suckas!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dark Harvest

It is such a pleasure to read Norman Partridge's work.

I was first introduced to Partridge by people who knew of my affection for Joe R. Lansdale's work. I was looking for idols, people to emulate, and I really connected to the energy and enthusiasm of his stories and the joy that was evident in the craft. I read some of the anthologies that he contributed to, picked up the issues of Cemetery Dance that showcased his work, and quickly breezed through his novels.

Some years later, I found myself in a small liberal arts college in Northern California. I was walking through the quad when I overheard a couple of students chatting nearby. The name Norman Partridge came up. I asked if they were fans and they regarded me blankly. Turns out Partridge held employment at the university.

I sprinted over to his department, where I found him chatting with a coworker. I stammered out an introduction, told him I was a huge fan of his work, and proceeded to act like a fanboy. While I attended the university I must have bugged him a thousand times, hitting him up for autographs of my well-thumbed paperbacks. He was always gracious and kind. One time he stopped by at the video store I part-timed at. We chatted for a bit, I gave him a copy of Pumpkinhead, and he presented me with a fresh, autographed copy of his hardcover short story collection The Man With The Barbed-Wire Fists.

Somewhere in the back of my head, I think I always knew that I wanted to turn my hand toward this writing thing, and I tended to gravitate toward writers who made it look fun. I've yet to come across a Partridge story that I didn't fly through with a big, stupid grin on my face. It's been a long time since I revisited his work, and I heard that his novel Dark Harvest had won serious accolades so I picked it up.

Dark Harvest is another one of those haiku stories, one where the form is fairly familiar but the artistry lies in the execution. It's essentially a "sacrifice of the harvest" tale, one where the security of a rural farming community is kept up by quasi-pagan human sacrifice. The form, most famously used in King's "Children of the Corn" and Jackson's "The Lottery", tends to be a hard one for me to connect to. I'm a city boy and seasons pretty much look the same to me, plus or minus variations on temperature, but I really got into the tale.

The story takes place in the early sixties, where the teenagers of an isolated corn belt town are locked up for five days and then turned loose to attack the October Boy, a pumpkin-headed sacrificial avatar the town butchers at the behest of the mysterious Harvester's Guild. The winner of the contest gets a large cash prize and is allowed to leave the town. Thrown into the mix are mobs of insane teenagers, a young protagonist itching to leave his dead-end life, and a sadistic brute of a cop who acts as the town executioner. Eventually the secrets of the town are revealed, including the ghastly truth behind the contest, and disaster comes to the town.

One of my favorite elements of Dark Harvest is the narrative voice. The story is told in a breezy, conversational style that is characteristic of Partridge's work, but as the tale unfolds we see that the narrator has specific, terrible connections with the dreadful ritual the town participates in. As the story progresses, the secrets that are uncovered hit the reader dramatically. Not unlike Clive Barker's recent Mister B. Gone, we become directly involved with the story.

There is a lot to like about Dark Harvest. Partridge captures the itchy, impatient rage of adolescent males, the trapped, ominous doom of small town secrets left to rot, and the anxious complacency of life in the early sixties. My complaints with the story were fairly minor, mostly that a secondary female lead was almost irrelevant to the story and that a wonderful character moment was missed for the mournful man who waited for the October Boy in the church with the riot gun, but these little gaffes are overshadowed by the energy of the narrative and the strength of the writing.

I think when I was younger I enjoyed his work on a more superficial level. Partridge's work is high energy and wacky, full of bikini killers and burned out boxers and split-personality Nation of Islam hitmen, but rereading his work I am struck by the poetry woven into his writing. The October Boy's lonely quest to reach the old church is told with real emotional weight that lesser writers would have dismissed in favor of the raw visceral action of the tale. Partridge doesn't have the same elegant sensuality that I love in Clive Barker's work, but Dark Harvest draws it's sense of poetry and imagery from the sensibilities of the isolated, small-town Midwestern setting. There's a real working-class lyricism in Partridge's work, and the strong, masculine tales that he spins have a real grace under their barbed-wire fists.

Partridge is one of my favorite writers. If you haven't read any of his work, do yourself a huge favor and read Dark Harvest.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Gingerdead Man

If there is something you need to understand about me, it's this: I paid money to watch this movie.

The Gingerdead Man is one of Charles Band's Full Moon Features productions. If you haven't seen any of his direct to video flicks, I highly recommend that you check them out, as Band seems to be highly sensitive to the fact that anything scary is automatically more terrifying in puppet form.

This movie is pretty much unreviewable. It's special effects consist of a some lights and a sock puppet with Gary Busey's face. Actors stand three abreast, facing the camera, reciting their lines in clipped, terse delivery. It's got the heroin addict from Deadwood in it. And Gary Busey is the Gingerdead Man.

I love Gary Busey, the walking poster child for motorcycle helmet laws. I was a big fan of I'm With Busey, mostly because I was genuinely unsure of how real it was. Was it an act? Was he really that far gone? Here's a taste of the magic:

Anyway, he plays the best goddamn twelve inch serial killing Gingerbread Man that has ever been committed to film, brought to life by haunted dough infused with wrestler blood and baked in the fires of perdition. Evil never tasted so good.

It strikes me as kind of hypocritical that I reacted so negatively to Return To Sleepaway Camp and I kinda enjoyed Gingerdead Man. Both movies are no-budget goofball ideas with a cult following and a wry sense of irony. Gingerdead Man is, if anything, even more ineptly executed. Maybe I was in the right mood this time, but I think it had more to do with the fact that there was some missed potential in RTSC that Gingerdead Man cheerfully avoids. It's the movie equivalent of the kid you knew in high school, the one who had potential but chose to hide out behind the cafeteria getting high rather than apply himself.

When I was a kid I got a lifetime membership in the Full Moon Fan Club. It came with a little membership card, a quarterly catalogue, a tee-shirt, and a free tour of the Full Moon Studios that I never took. I liked the mystique of the company, the cheerfully goofy nature of the movies, and I like the way that Charles Band is sort of the Stan Lee of direct to video schlock flicks. At the end of all his old VHS movies there would be a little video of Band thanking you for watching his movies and telling you what projects were currently being developed. You didn't feel like you were just watching one silly movie, but that you were part of a little community. Check out his blog here.

This is the sail on your boat of life.

ia ia cthulhu fhtagn


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Friday the 13th Trailer

Friday the 13th is tremendously important to me.

I am fully aware that the movies weren't actually GOOD. But they were central to my imaginative development, in the same way that comic books and Star Wars. They were the playground my dark side took root.

I think Slasher monsters have this superhero appeal to kids. They're not removed from the action like the Jigsaw killer is. They're doing the dirty work. They're strong and tough and capable. And they scared the CRAP out of people. They're essentially cyphers, so you can pretty much ascribe any kind of motivation you wanted to them.

There were elements to the broadly-sketched mythology of Jason that I clicked into, specifically that Jason was ugly and he was tormented by the other kids. Having been a city kid who went to summer camp, I couldn't think think of a scarier place to be stalked. And the fucking hockey mask, that goddamn, bone white hockey mask. Before I was brave enough to see the movie myself, I asked other kids what Jason's face looked like. One kid told me he had no skin on his face. I stayed up all night on that one.

I think the movies had a strange two-sided appeal for me. On one hand, when I wanted to be a monster, I was Jason. I got to live the vicarious thrill of hacking up pretty people that I didn't feel that I could be. On the other hand, I was one of those kids and there was this impossible, terrifying monster after me. How would I run away? How would I fight? Would I be brave, or would I cower and completely lose my cool?

Plus, god help me, they were titillating. By today's standards, the sex and violence of Friday The 13th is tame by comparison, but when I was a kid it was the only place to see boobies and violence, both things my mom would have disapproved of.

I get that there's a lot of hostility in the Internet horror community to the idea of remakes, as if the fucking original series is some saintly work of underground art that needs to be preserved and kept in the underground horror ghetto and kept away from mainstream appeal. I am in complete disagreement. It's a new age. Make him scary again.

Watching this filled me with a fine dark glee. Will you join me?

There's a legend around here. A killer buried, but not dead. A curse on Crystal Lake. A death curse.

Jason Voorhees curse.

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Monsters Vs. Aliens Trailer


I think this looks really cute. Kaiju big battle time.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Return To Sleepaway Camp

This movie begins with a bunch of kids in a cabin lighting their farts on fire and ends with a guy laying skinned on the ground and a cackling madwoman howling into the camera.

I love horror movies.

Okay, I get that Sleepaway Camp is a strange cult classic among our tribe, well known for its infamous twist ending and flamboyantly campy style. Next to Norman Bates, Angela is the most famous tranny serial killer in cinema history. The later movies gleefully embraced and magnified the goofy campiness of the original, and they became the ultimate movie to watch when you were in a certain kinda mood with a certain kinda friend.

But movies like these, and like Return To Sleepaway Camp completely flummox me as a reviewer, because they're not actually "good" in the conventional sense of the term. Yet here I am, forced to articulate the fact that there's something twisted and enjoyable in these kinds of films. Watching a Z movie that embraces it's z-movieness is kinda like watching one of those summer camp sketch comedy shows, where you're laughing at the execution as much as the jokes.

Long and the short, you gotta judge these movies by a different criteria.

RTSC is made by the original director, and the movie directly follows the first movie. SC2 and 3 were created by a different guy, and aren't technically 'canon'. The story takes place in a camp staffed by unprofessional, negligent councilors and seemly completely free from scheduled activities. Teenagers (all of whom appear to be slightly too old to be in camp in the first place) seem to spend all their time hanging out and getting killed. Slasher movies are essentially campfire ghost story distilled into cinematic form, so the camp setting is a natural locale for gory mayhem. Some bastards get bumped off in inventive ways, there's a "twist" ending, and blah blah blah. You already know the plot. You've seen this movie, in different form, a dozen times over. These movies are like haiku anyway. The basic structure doesn't change, but the art is found in what the creators do within the limitations.

I think one of the big problems of the movie is that it is too aware of the cult following surrounding the original and it plays up to that audience. RTSC knows that people are coming for the campy, grisly joy of the previous features, so it doesn't bother with building tension. Instead, the movie puts far too much of the focus on setting up a red herring around the killer's identity, painting a big red bullseye around the the damaged Alan (Michael Gibney.)

Man, these last two posts all seem to focus around fat guys playing awkward, damaged characters. While Michael Gibney doesn't have the same dramatic pull as Bostin Christopher, the character he creates in Alan is fascinating and realistic. I've known guys like Alan before. He's angry and damaged, clueless to the intricacies of basic human interaction, and completely at the mercy of the other campers. A lot of slasher movies are thinly-disguised revenge fantasies, and Angela's motivation always centered around cruel and immoral kids getting their just desserts. I think a fantastic coming-of-age movie could have been made around Alan growing up and moving away from the loneliness and fury that binds him, but he's painted to be the most likely candidate to be the murderer, which of course means that he's innocent.

There is no actual HORROR in this movie. We rarely get any sense of tension, none of the victims are particularly sympathetic and the whole situation is so over-the-top and farcical that it becomes impossible to actually get engaged enough to be scared. The make-up effect work is pretty good, especially the murder lifted from 1984, but the only scares you'll get out of this come if you're particularly squeamish.

In the end, I don't think I can recommend this movie to people who aren't already twisted enough to have enjoyed the first few. There is fun to be had here, but it's also trying to be a little too precious for their own good.

Also, how far you have fallen, Big Pussy. How far you have fallen.

Anyway, check out Final Girl's review here.

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