Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Nightmare on Elm Street

I've been hacking away at this blog for about a year now and I haven't said much about Freddy Krueger, the dream slasher from the Nightmare on Elm Street series. If I were being honest with you, it's because I never connected to him as much as I did to Jason.

A passion for horror seems to be the flower that grows from the loamy soil of early adolescence, particularly troubled ones where a person feels powerless. I know I developed a certain degree of sympathy for Jason because of what was going on in my own life. I felt like an ugly outsider who couldn't connect to people and I used to imagine that Jason felt the same way, only he had the power to lash out against that. It made logical sense to my crazy 14-year-old head; no girl is ever going to sleep with me, no group is ever going to accept me, so they might as well fear me.

In commenting about an essay I wrote on the ordinariness of my street name, my writing instructor observed that I treat it like a cipher I can inhabit. To a large extent, that's true about the character of Jason. He's a cipher. You can make of him whatever you want, because he doesn't do much but lumber around and kill. Freddy is an actual character, with his own quirks and foibles, and doesn't have the same kind of role-playing possibilities. It's not to say I didn't love his movies, but when I started getting into the genre I was looking for heroes as much as stories.

Time has given me new respect for the series.

I think that everyone goes through period of bad taste, a point theoretically contained in their formative years where they enjoy the vulgar and the obvious. Watching The Hangover yesterday (or, indeed, most of the dreck that passes for "comedies") I'm inclined to believe most of us never bother to outgrow that stage. I know I was deep in that particular worldview when I started getting into horror and I favored the wilder, more ostentatious later entries in the series than the modest, restrained film that started it all.

Perhaps I'm giving the movie too much credit. Perhaps it was simply a new idea and they hadn't completely felt their ways around the borders of Freddy Krueger. But the fact remains that NoES feels almost completely different from the rest of the series, even beyond the budgetary constrictions. Freddy (or "Fred", as the movie calls him) isn't center-stage in the movie, which instead finds its scares through a really uncomfortable sense of surreality. As the movie goes on, we start losing track of when Nancy is asleep or awake, the bizarre effects Freddy causes start leaking into the real world, and the movie begins to take the shape of a non-linear, too-clever-by-half, foreign film.

I'm not going to pretend this is a perfect movie. The disco-club soundtrack is completely ridiculous, Nancy's dead mother sinking into the disco-ball bed while waving is laughable, and the notion of Nancy tricking out her house strikes me as part Vietcong, part Home Alone. Most of these quibbles are specific to the era, and are kinda petty given the pleasure I received from the work. Still, gotta pretend I'm not COMPLETELY fawning over it.

There is a remake coming up, and the new Freddy has been cast. It's done by the guys who did the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th remakes. I liked their previous work, but I worry that they're going to miss the potential with this franchise.

A big part of the reason Freddy appeals to people is that the movies are so much more visual and imaginative. Killing someone in the delirium of a dream is such a wonderful, wonderful concept, but most of the actual dream sequences are very literal and structured and shallow. The video game fan gets killed in a video game while working out his previously-alluded father issues, the gamer nerd gets killed pretending to be a wizard, etc.

If I could get the budget and the clout to hire my dream team, it would be either Michel Gondry or Neil Gaiman. Both men have created beautiful, surreal stories set in the dream world, and a chance for either of them to play in that particular sandbox would give me the biggest geekgasm ever. When all is said and done, Jason is completely formulaic. With Freddy there's potential to create something amazing.

As a side note, it's sometimes challenging to write this blog because I often find myself poking delicately at the bruises of my psyche. For me (and I'm sure for a lot of other fans) horror becomes inexorably tied to the strange sides of our souls.

I once met graphic novelist and personal hero Adrian Tomine and he told me that one of the hesitations he had in being honest with his work was a powerful desire to be liked. Sometimes I think about the way my audience will view me when I talk about idolizing monsters. It doesn't mean I am a particularly unpleasant or sinister person. I'm quite affable in public, truth be told. But my passions don't necessarily come from a place many people will understand or be comfortable with. I think that some of you understand where I'm coming from, though.

Shutter Island Trailer

Okay, I eat a lot of crap from people for stretching the definition of what a horror movie is, but take a look at this new trailer from Martin Scorsese flick Shutter Island and TELL me this doesn't look like a horror movie. Exteriors from The Ring, interiors from Silent Hill.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Wrong Turn 2: Dead End

Direct-to-DVD horror flicks can be really, really bad. Anyone who wandered down the aisles of a Blockbuster has cast a wary eye on row after row of slasher movies, urban horror movies with zees instead of esses. Every now and again you can find a gem, either something that had had a limited release like Midnight Meat Train or the rare DtV flick made with talent.

Wrong Turn 2 definitely falls into the latter category.

I have a lot of fond memories of the first movie, perhaps more than is actually due. First, I have a lot of fondness for Eliza Dushku, regardless of whatever crap she finds herself in. And I enjoyed the unpretentious take on the backwoods cannibal horror story. Apparently I'm not alone in this assessment, either.

Wrong Turn 2 is also pretty cool. It's not as slick or as creepy, but it makes up for it with a fannish enthusiasm and nutty amounts of gore.

This time, our hapless cannibal bait are the cast and crew of a nebulously defined reality TV show. They're your basic slasher fodder, drawn with a broad brush, but they're attractive and likable. A cute twist is that girl set up as the final survivor is dispatched pretty early on and the damaged goods (and incredibly sexy) goth girl survives to the end. Even the token asshole gets a touch of humanity toward the end.

Even the cannibals, left mostly in the dark in the previous film, get new depth. As the victims make their way through the gauntlet of atrocity, they see their assailants really do act like a family. The father passes hunting skills to the son, the women lovingly tend to their men, and they have even created a perversely domesticated home life. It's all rather touching, if you're willing to ignore the rampant murder and incest. Particular shout-outs go to the father figure, who hits the right balance between affectionate patriarch and cannibal sicko.

The one misstep I had with the movie was the Henry Rollins character. Don't get me wrong, I like the guy and he did a good job. But his character, the ex-Marine survival host, was more capable and dangerous than the cannibal clan. Sure, he gets his before the end, but it always struck me as a weird inclusion for a horror movie. Horror depends on vulnerability, and if you have a character who can Handle His/Her Shit, you take away a core component of the point. It's like that one episode of Buffy where that kid makes a wish to be awesome. Sure, watching a badass is fun, but that's why we have monsters.

In typical Creature fashion, I am completely overthinking my reaction to the movie. I really liked this flick, but it shares a lot of similarities with Hatchet, a film I wasn't exactly glowing over. Watching the special features you can see the fan enthusiasm positively dripping off director Joe Lynch, and he delivers the predictable stuff you'd expect from a fanboy. It's not particularly scary either. The first film was a effective little woods-at-night tale, but this one takes place entirely in broad daylight, trading tension for amazingly rendered gore effects. So what made this a different experience for me?

The nearest answer I can come up with is that Wrong Turn 2 takes its story whole-cloth from horror history but doesn't constantly wink at the viewer like Hatchet. It's a good flick. Check it out.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

My Real Drag Me To Hell Review

For me, it all came down to Christine Brown.

Yes, I was excited that Sam Raimi was coming back to horror. Like every other horror fan, I grew up on the Evil Dead movies; fell in love with their kinetic energy and lunatic enthusiasm. Unlike some cats out there, I don't NEED more ED movies made. It's been a bit too long and we all know what happens when beloved franchises are returned to after a ten-plus year hiatus.

Besides, it wouldn't quite be the type of horror I like. Ash became something of a cartoon toward the end of his run. There's nothing wrong with that, but it became pretty clear he could handle whatever the Deadites threw at him. He was a capital-H Hero. Poor, sweet Christine Brown has a much harder time with the supernatural.

Lately I've been kicking around the question of what makes a good final girl and thus far the best answer I can come up with is vulnerability. I think we're all a bit messed up, but most stable people don't spend all their time picking at their emotional scabs. We do our jobs, hang out with acquaintances, and fret over stuff and in general turn a stoic face to the world. When a filmmaker allows us to peer at the cracks of a person and an actor can show the little wounds in a character's soul without being melodramatic or maudlin, that resonates with me. And I really cared about Christine Brown.

The poor girl has clearly taken some lumps in life. We discover that she's had to work against her rural upbringing, that she struggles to conform to her new life, she feels insecure around her WASPy partner's family, and she's had trouble with an alcoholic mother. Any of these topics could have been a terrible made-for-TV movie, but they're only glimpsed at or alluded to, filling out her character naturally.

The other thing I liked about the character was her simple decency. Even when she's at the point of desperation, even when she can pass the curse onto a weak, petty asshole, she refuses to pass her damnation onto another. It's a rare and noble heroism, and it brought to mind comparisons to The Ring's Rachel Keller, who chooses to pass the cursed tape onto a new set of victims. The story is so intensely, intimately focused on the character and Alison Lohman pulls it off. According to my research, Ellen Page originally held the role, but jumped ship for various reasons. I can't quite see her pulling off the character the same way. This is easily one of my favorite performances in a horror film.

As to the scary stuff, it's excited and energetic, an insane carnival ride of jump scares and demonic mayhem. There's a kind of childish lunatic joy in the film making, and it's absolutely infectious. Most movies I've seen, especially the big 'splosion flicks, have a certain mechanical quality to them. The direction seldom stands out, the ‘power chords’ are obvious, and the cinematic quality is, politely, unobtrusive. Here, much like Evil Dead, the camera assaults the characters, bangs off of walls, and generally acts like one of the lunatic Warner Brothers from the old Animaniacs cartoon. It's a lot of fun and it keeps what is essentially a grim story from sliding too deep into darkness.

Also, tangent city here, I think the poster is absolutely lovely. There's a sort of eroticized passion to it that really resonates with me. I'd be proud to own this one.

SPOILER HERE I appreciated the fact that the movie ended on a dark note. The twist ending wasn't particularly twisty, either. Maybe I'm just being a bit OCD, but I would have been SURE the button was in the envelope when I left the car. Still, after caring so deeply for the characters and hoping they'll all pull through, it was brutal to watch Christine dragged into Hell. The final scene stayed with me for several nights afterward.

Anyway, there’s something I wanted to address before I completely shower Drag Me to Hell in flowers and sweet-smelling oils, which is the characterization of Gypsies and Gypsy culture. This one is gonna get personal, so bear with me.

The cursing, prediction-spouting old Gypsy is an old trope of horror fiction. They still show up from time to time, particularly in the underrated Stephen King flick Thinner (oh god, Kari Wuhrer flashing the audience…) When I was a teenager, I read the World of Darkness: Gypsies role-playing supplement. Their fantastical gypsies were romantic nomads and rogues, compelled to travel the world and disdainful of the trapped and banal gaje that I was gonna grow up to be.

As a stupid kid who thought he was more special than everyone else, I absolutely ate that shit up. I read books, listened to music, wore costumes on Halloween, the whole shebang. When I got old enough, I even got a Gypsy caravan tattooed on my back.

Then I travelled through Europe.

The romantic, silk-scarved caravan images I had as a kid quickly got pissed away once I got on the streets of Eastern Europe. Suddenly there are dozens of rail-thin kids scampering around after me, reaching their hands out, and speaking a language completely alien to the environment. Romani prejudice is shockingly open and unapologetic. I saw people spit on, push around, and curse at children and old women. I even saw a couple of Transylvanian cops take an old lady into custody. They weren’t gentle.

I’m not exactly proud of the tattoo anymore. It’s a stereotype, a story, and somewhat grotesque when compared to the lives of actual Romani people. You can probably imagine why I had some discomfort with the movie, even if the Gypsy funeral Christine attends looks like a Gogol Bordello video.

Anyway, that’s just me. Beyond that, it’s good stuff. Go see it.