Wednesday, October 15, 2014

24-hours of Netflix Streaming Horror--A Curated List of 16 Weird, Spooky Wonders


The all-night horror marathon --a long-standing tradition wherever Halloween traditions are solidly entombed in the crypt of cinematic history. The idea behind it is simple: the longer you stay up, the more films you watch, the deeper into late night / early morning you go, the creepier it gets as more people fall asleep and the night gradually becomes yours and yours alone and consensual reality fades and you move inside the screen, and your date follows a creepy bunny out of the theater down the sleep arson rabbit hole, no wait, that's you, a half-dreamer / half-watcher and the movie and your unconscious merge and characters in the film look right at you, talk to you, freak you out. You turn around and when you look again you just see an empty couch onscreen, and you're holding a candelabra and walking down a dark hall. And there's no one awake to hear you scream, because you put the volume down low to not wake them.


At college they had one of these festivals every year and after the first few hours they stopped taking tickets at the door and half the crowd went home, weary and irritable. By dawn it was only the hardcore, and the people working the projector. Then I'd sneak in, armed with flask and dilated pupils. There was nothing quite as satisfying as creeping across a deserted campus at the first crack of dawn, coming into the darkened theater to find THE TINGLER had just begun... If you have Netflix though, you can skip having to out your boots on to slog across campus. All you have to do is clear your que and line them up: each film is hand-selected for each particular time of evening, night and morning and afternoon, and to follow one another organically, like a good mix tape. Because if you have a sizable DVD collection as I do, then you know it can become paralyzing to choose the next film, fumbling through your bookshelves, scrolling endlessly through your instant libraries.

It's also annoying when you stumble on a cool list of weird movies online, read about one you never heard of and want to see, but can't find it. So you put it in your Netflix que and by the time it comes you forgot why you wanted to see it! Well, with this list you can forget about the options, the Acidemic Horror festival has you covered--we've done everything but link to them because Netflix won't link titles direct to accounts, 'cuz they're pussies.

And special Note: there's NO torture porn or sexual assault or slapstick, or animal abuse,  just the spine-tingling spookiness (and occasional lesbian cannibalism) that carries the tingling electric current along the soul's angsty wires.

5:00 PM - ABSENTIA (2010)
Dir. Mike Flanagan
Start with this one and don't worry about it--the film takes it's time getting started but it lures you in via the lived-in natural rapport between Katie Parker and Courtney Bell as two sisters, one of whom is pregnant in the process of declaring her husband dead after seven long years in the titular legal limbo; the younger one (Parker), recently off drugs, here to help with the pregnancy, jogs every morning and goes through a mysterious tunnel that recalls Billy Goats Gruff... at first, but might be home to an interdimensional giant super-intelligent insectoid portal. Turns out, well, I shan't spoil it, but the movie gets the lack of visible monster right, so the terror comes from the anxiety of not knowing entirely what we're dealing with; highlights including Bell seeing her dead husband everywhere but being conditioned by her therapist to just ignore him --great stuff that reminded me of my own tortured delirium tremens. I saw it alone on Saturday as it just happened to be on Showtime while I was writing the first part of this post, and just listening to the great rapport between the sisters from the TV behind me lured me in. I was alone and it was getting dark faster than I was prepared for, and the film ingeniously dug deep into my ancient fears, the way only BLAIR WITCH and Val Lewton have done before. And Parker is so good, warm, intelligent, and gutsy that you just might fall in love.

6:30 PM - HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009)
Dir. Ti West 
Ingeniously retro and practically in real time across one overcast grey late afternoon into the late evening, it's Ti West's best film so far, and maybe one day he'll make something as good (if he remembers the value of tick-tock momentum), The cast is mixed but Jocelin Donahue as cash-strapped college student Samantha is beautiful, believable, and courageous in her doomed grab for a dollar, and Greta Gerwig sports some great feathered hair and a cozy college sports shirt and in her late afternoon fast food joint scene with Samantha has the ache of an upstate New York fall winter in the bones; and you want to be able to curl up with her in a fire-lit dorm room and take a nap spooning with her on that crappy dorm twin bed, and you feel the sense of desolation creeping up like tendrils of cold around her broke buddy Samantha for needing to take this babysitter job so badly. I went to school in Syracuse, so I relate. The evenings there are so oppressively gray, they don't need Satan lingering in the edges to be mega ominous.  The men are kind of anachronistically miscast--one's too quiet and wussy, the other too Williamsburg hipster for the 1970s-- but Mary Woronov and Dee Wallace in minor roles, smash through that mess. The perfect film to watch in the early evening.

8:05 PM - BLACK SABBATH (1963)
Dir. Mario Bava
The only one of Bava's films, and maybe also the only trilogy, I find truly scary - the good, shivery spine tingle kind, especially the Wurdulak segment, which taps into a very primal anxiety, the way family ties can become nooses without you ever noticing. Even strongly suspecting their father (Boris Karloff) has been turned vampire, the family do his bidding, too conditioned by the Catholic social structure to rebel; and the mama can't resist running out in the cold to comfort her pale dead bambino, even stabbing her husband when he tries to restrain her. Did I spoil it? No man, I didn't. PS: The American version presented here is different from the Italian most fans know by heart from the DVD, in a different order, dubbed into English, missing a lesbian undercurrent, but providing instead Karloff's real voice (not in the Italian version) and "Sdenka" (Susy Anderson) is still sexy, as is Rosie (Michèle Mercier--above), gorgeously lit as she prowls the red telephone sequence.

9:30 PM: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)
Dir. John Carpenter
It's the HD version and it sure looks good. There's no supernatural element, but just seeing the cop get out of his house and drive off to his first job as captain, moseying through the deserted eerie battle zone of East L.A as the big red sun sets and Carpenter's music thuds ominously along on that click track is enough to qualify. Not to mention a gang member hsoots a kid through the eye for asking an ice cream man for sprinkles. There was some real concern in the late 70s that gang violence was going to destroy America, so groove on the scariness of that and how we never hear any of the gang members say a single word. Even here, before HALLOWEEN, Carpenter knew that once a monster talks, smiles, or even laughs, he's lost half his menace. Laurie Zimmer is a great Hawksian heroine, and Austin Stoker is a great level-headed cop; Darwin Joston is convict Napolean Wilson; Carpenter would revisit the concept and reverse the gender/races in in GHOSTS OF MARS, which would make a great choice, too. 

11 PM: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
Dir. George Romero
I got the whole idea for this post while spending the weekend in Harrisburg, PA (a stone's throw from where it was filmed) and turning to it 'free on demand' as a last resort after everyone else was asleep, and even wrongly formatted and badly digitized, it blew my mind. From the start it's been the kind of movie that can reach a viewer right through any televisual limitation, surviving in potency even through a million second generation public domain VHS dupes. Aside from a rather wearying stretch of road with a bald uptight dad going on about how "the cellar is the safest place" there's nary a dull moment and even if you just saw it for the 100th time; see it again, with us, at eleven. Forever.

12:30 AM: LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973)
Dir. John Hough
Dark, thick atmosphere, decadent art design; red bathed Bava-esque level of warm, dusky, painterly light; the translucently pale skin of two beautifully alive in the firelight reflection of the rose red wallpaper women; the throbbing echo-industrial drone breathing, the score like one long auditory hallucination, sexy as hell and brilliant, creepy, untamed, assertive--and ideal for the midnight hour of any festival (see more here). Or if, like me, you just saw it a month ago... go for (also in HD)

DAY OF THE DEAD (1984)
Dir. George Romero
1985 was a year of great zombie contention, according to a hazily remembered source, between Romero and co-NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD screenwriter John A. Russo. The result was two different zombie movies coming out at the same time back when there were NO other zombie movies, outside of Italy, of course, certainly none that would make it a first run cineplex instead of a decaying drive-in. My punk crew and I saw both in one weekend; we loved THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, which really jibed with our then life style (the whole thing with zombies going "Braaainnsss!" begins with RETURN). But we found DAY to be way too much of a downer. Half the film is spent in irritable bickering between gonzo scientists trying to isolate what makes zombies tick and a bunch of crazed military guys getting understandably tired of being bossed around by a bunch of civilian ectomorphs down in a cramped mine shaft. The yelling and Gary Howard Klar's evil giggling get annoying, but the idea of Bub (Sherman Howard) the first sympathetic zombie, being trained by one of the lead scientist (Richard Liberty), like a combination mentally-challenged son, is tellingly Romero, who's always gone more for the social critique underlying the zombie menace, than the comedic self-awareness of most of his imitators. And perhaps the split from Russo hurts them both - the military and the scientists needing each other after all. Meanwhile, a cool Jamaican chopper pilot (Terry Alexander) and and an amiable Irish drunk (Jarlath Conroy) have the right idea: set up some inflatable palm trees around a camper at the edge of the mine shaft and grow ganja. Humanity is saved.

2 AM - THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970)
Dir. Roy Ward Baker
Not only does it open on one of the worst matte painting castle exteriors in history, it also stands as a great British horror crossroad, straddling the decades with unrepentant 70s sapphic nudity right alongside all the typical 60s Hammer vampire Gothic trappings: florid dialogue, gorgeous Brit actresses, Peter Cushing, all that. Especially if you have a good HD TV, it's worth its precious 2 AM time slot because the colors are sublime. Once you see Peter Cushing's blazing red tunic in the post-credits dance scene, and you're like DAMN. That ballroom looks 3-D, and then in comes Ingrid Pitt as Marcela Karnstein, with two gorgeous fertile looking virgins and their easily misled fathers, just waiting to get knocked over like bloodless ten pins.

3:30 AM - THE AWAKENING (2007)
So now it's late, and all that's left is a yen to see and hear British women--so effortlessly smart, confident, sexual, and relaxed compared with American actresses-- as they engage in candle lit supernatural hallway walking and weird noise investigating. Rebecca Hall, as a professional ghost-debunker lured to her existential Waterloo fits the bill; and as the movie around her aims in the direction of THE OTHERS, THE INNOCENTS, DEVIL'S BACKBONE, and THE WOMAN IN BLACK, she aims for the stalwart company of Olivia Williams, Rhona Mitra, Kate Beckinsale, and Kierra Knightley. Bullseye on both counts. She's terrific and never wastes a line. The setting and photography are evocative as greenish blue hues can make them; Dominic West is the burly school superintendent; there's a kid with a distracting haircut and a good, creepy use of a dollhouse. You'll guess the twists a mile off, but that doesn't mean you don't like guessing. Just means you're good at it. 

5:00 AM - PONTYPOOL (2008)
Dir. Bruce McDonald
As the sun comes up with the October briskness, it might not be as cold where you are as up in Pontypool, Canada, in the dead of winter when it's still completely dark as you drive to your early morning job. but you can glean the early dawn vibe, the special feeling when you and maybe none or two of your mates and only a few early risers and very very late-to-bedders are up and about in your time zone. Spread you auric tentacles out and bask in the collapse of concrete consensual reality, the bizarre and magical mix of bleary crankiness and magical openness, like a whole alternate dimension that's neither asleep dream nor conscious waking. What really makes PONTYPOOL work so well, beyond the unique zombie-language gimmick, is the comfortable sense of being in a warm radio booth on a frozen Ontario small town early early morning, as disgruntled talk radio host Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) begins to think the locals are all fucking with him as the calls coming in become more and more panicked, incoherent, and violent; his producer (Lisa Houle) shows the wear and tear humoring this charismatic witty but bitter dude has wrought on her, as well as the confusion that even after all that she still kind of has a thing for him, something he's way too self-lacerating to do much about. It's so organic it all unfolds in more or less real time for long stretches without the viewer (me at least) noticing any lapse; as the influx of news and shaky narration causes a breakdown in our perception of reality, leaving us to imagine most of the carnage in a kind of WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast in reverse. In other words, while not being specifically scary, and always kind of funny, even romantic, there's a sense that something meta is always at stake, something that might leak out and effect even your seeing it, like you could call in to Mazzy's show while watching him in the movie and maybe he'd answer, and you'd both realize you'd probably fallen asleep.(more)

6:30 AM - HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)
Dir. William Castle
William Castle prided himself on being the dime store spooky matinee knockoff Hitchcock, and its his palpable love of the dime store horror tropes that save him, and make his films endure, like hazy childhood memories of parking lot haunted carnival rides. His films are like how horror movies are remembered by children who love horror movies, and this his masterwork, as subtle as a skeleton on a string zooming over the heads of the popcorn tossing kiddies (a process called "Emergo") and six times of terrific. Like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD it has a punchy energy that endures past any amount of public domain dupe streaking. Netflix's copy is adequate (you don't really want it to look too good--though the Blu-ray in Vincent Price Vol. 2 is terrific) and, take it from me, six in the morning is the best time to see it, ideally with ten year-old kid who just woke up and is sitting on the floor because your sleeping bag is taking up the whole couch. Dude, that kid was me! Meanwhile, Elijah Cook Jr. gets drunk and babbles the grisly exposition; Vincent Price plays deadly games with his scheming wife (Carol Ohmart); the elderly caretakers of the house walk around the hall on wheels, frozen in papier mache poses of carny ride menace; pistols in little coffins are handed out as party favors; there's two severed heads, and an animated noose. (see my first ever site, Dr. Twilite's Neighborhood, which includes this as part of its 50s Canon)

 8 AM - MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1971)
Dir. Gordon Hessler
The Grand Guignol meta effect is in full effect here, as it was in PENNY DREADFUL after it  and MAD LOVE before it--they're performing dastardly reimagining of Poe's classic story, wherein the ape is the hero and Herbert Lom gets acid thrown on his face (again?) but the audience of semi-bemused royals presume it's part of the show, even though it's the closest thing to a performance they've given yet. If the ape looks familiar, it should, it got it's start smashing bones for Kubrick in 1968, spooked Joan Crawford as TROG in 1970, and now here it is, much the worse for wear but still the only sympathetic face in the film. Considered by most to be Gordon Hessler's finest hour, which doesn't say a lot unless you like terrible fake sideburns, ratty period costumes, a script that's just a few dull stretches of THE AVENGERS taped together, and boozy British actors pretending they remember their lines and marks. Well, there's some of that here, but the Demoiselles are stunning and dressed in dusky reds and black lace chokers (making their acid scarring all the more painful); the actors include Jason Robards, the period mise en scene is at least at Hammer level and there's galore post-modern leakage which is why it's after PONTYPOOL. And if you fall asleep, well dream your way right in, into the cage, that is, with Erich, the gorilla! (and then see the 1932 Florey version, which is sublimely weird).

9:30 AM - BLACK SUNDAY (1965)
Dir. Mario Bava
I could do without the schmaltzy concert piano score or the misogynist torture of the opener, but the rest is great, and it's perfect Halloween fare. Lots of long pans and dollies across acres of ancient castle griffins and Barbara Steele standing or lying with eerie alien stillness and holes in her face. Even the 'good' Steele is spooky looking, like a reverse Rondo Hatton! This was Bava's big American calling card, and it's a perfect breakfast movie once the ugly taste of Catholic metal spikes is out of your mouth. The print used here is just so so, but it might inspire you to get the Blu-ray, to better savor the tactile, brilliant cinematography and dreamy dark fairy tale poeticism for which Bava is without peer. Just ask Tim Lucas!

11:00 AM -HELLRAISER  (1987)
Dir. Clive Barker
This was just an innocent list but it's become about the actresses of Great Britain, more cigarette resonant and unabashedly sexual than most American girls depicted in films. this chick Julia (Clare Higgins) has the balls to ask for a brandy from her husband when she's sick, rather than refusing one with a dainty little 'eh' of a sneeze like a Yank bird, and it's pretty great the way she plays with a sadistic smile after her first kill, traumatized but hardly succumbing to the American tendency to play the glum martyr --though even now she says she's afraid of thunder, and worthless husband Larry is like, "I'll protect you!" not realizing she's already done and seen things that would turn him ashen like a Poe sailor. To bring his brother (her lover) back from the Cenobiteverse Julia gamely lures a string of grotty 70s-looking British business men on their three martini lunch hour up to the attic, where she bashes their heads in with a hammer so her love can slowly absorb their blood and put some meat on his bones, as it were. Her stepdaughter meanwhile (Ashley Laurence) is getting wise, and endangered by angler fish-esque demons and shit. She's cool too but with her beyond morality pursuit of pleasure, unapologetic wit and intelligence, and adult way of handling her body,  Julia's exhibit A in what's lacking in so many similar American ladies who tend to be youth-worshipping baby doll types until it's too late to dodge the Baby Jane mirror headlights (click this searing yet lovingly indulgent list that tracks them from Lolita to cougar). Think Julia gives a fuck her man's got no lips or skin? She'll shag him anyway just as he wouldn't care if she was in the thick of her period. Fookin' A. Oh yeah, the Cenobites themselves, they're kind of fucked up, not my bag, but respect the analogy towards the masochism of the horror marathon viewer! If you've seen it lately, HELLRAISER 2 is pretty good too, even #3 is watchable, but it's a steep slope, human!

12:30 PM: LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1985)
Dir. Ken Russell
Keep the British lady thing going with this gem from Ken Russell, the colors on the Netflix look gorgeous (the DVD seemed washed out, though it has a wry unmissable Russell commentary track that's one of the greats). And Amanda Donohoe is a tour de force, never camping or vamping but nailing, in every possible permutation that verb can be permuted, the most intoxicating upper crust broad since Stanwyck as the Lady Eve. Her snake goddess is what Auntie Mame always aspired to be but could never shake her ostentatious Americana baggahge. Familiar Scottish face Peter Capaldi is a summering archeologist who unearths a dragon skull; Hugh Grant, in his film debut, is the local lord-inherit who inherits too the burden of a giant white worm neighbor; the two local blonde sisters at the inn (Catherine Oxenberg and Sammi Davis) are fetching, smart, and crafty, and even the hallucination scene has a disturbing potency-- "she had a bad trip" - notes Grant, after one of the sisters accidentally touches some of hallucinatory snake venom. No one ever says no to a drink anywhere in the film, thank god. Between this and his Chopin opposite Judy Davis in IMPROMPTU, and Capaldi after this and LOCAL HERO. There's also the hottest older woman-on-paralyzed younger boy seduction in film history (until Creedence Leonore Gielgud's in TROLL 2). So forgive the occasional silliness, such as the absurd fangs and charmed dancing of Paul Brooke. And be charmed yourself.

2 PM - INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1977)
Dir. Phillip Kaufman
Let's face it, you're never going to make it this far in this bizarro festival -- the 'you' who began doesn't even exist anymore; a slough of cells, a weariness, probably passing out, falling asleep, and when you wake up, you're not you -- you're groggy, maybe irritable. The you back in the cool raro moments at the crack of dawn with HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL are long gone. It's cool. I get it. Move on if you must, but make sure it's still you and there's not a shell of a being that was once or will be you under your pool table or cooling in your sauna, or in your garden, or in the crawlspace, or under your bed. And then put this on the 'stream and join the flow of ditrates and bata. And then read Poe's William Wilson. And weep...


And let's just say the HD print on Netflix looks damned good, which is important as the photography is of that great 70s urban texture dilapidated period, filled with great moments of alienation, San Francisco as a crucible for the dehumanization of 20th century society, the urban disconnect from your closest neighbors, and it's gorgeously photographed by Michael Chapman, who brings the same urban alienated beautiful grime-glisten and disturbingly wayward roving he brought to TAXI DRIVER. Cast includes: Leonard Nimoy as a pop psychologist; Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland as health inspectors on the run; Jeff Goldblum and a pre-ALIENS / post-BIRDS Veronica Cartwright as their mud bath managing friends; and even Kevin McCarthy and Robert Duvall in moments of cameo stuntcasting. See it with someone you love and then wonder, just what do you know about that someone, and when you come out of the bathroom are they still the same someone? Is that even you coming out of the bathroom, Wilson? William, it's me... William...  

4:00 PM - YOU'RE NEXT (2013)
Dir. Adam Wingard
Let's end on a cheerful, non-supernatural note... Scrappy Sharni Vinson is a great final-ish girl, full of wily Australian gumption in this tale of a besieged family reunion in the woods; it works because it recalls not just classics of the 70s and 80s, but classics of the 30s, i.e. the old dark house full of secret panels, greedy relatives gathered for the will, lightning storms, scary masks, strong female leads, no one who they seem, ironic karma, sudden twisting violence, moody Carpenter-esque synth soundtrack, and a refreshing lack of any moral compass. (MORE)

If you've recently seen any of the above, do substitute SCREAM, SCREAM 2, BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, RE-ANIMATOR, JOHN DIES AT THE END, EVIL DEAD 2 (though it's got some slapstick, fair warning) and/or CABIN IN THE WOODS. And for god's sake, stay alert, lock your doors, keep watching the knobs and clutching the butcher knife, large wrench, hammer, baseball bat, or fire poker, turn on a white noise machine or Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast to block the spooky noises of trees against the window, because they're not trees....

Friday, October 10, 2014

October Capsules: OCULUS, SHIVERS, DETENTION, HOWLING, MIMIC 2: HARDSHELL


OCULUS (2013)
***1/2
A brother and sister reunite at the house where, as kids, they watched their dad and mom lose their minds inside the influential sphere of a haunted mirror. She's got it all wired for sound with cameras set up and timers to keep them from drifting out of reality, because the mirror has a habit of making the people hallucinate. The brother, though, having been in an institution since the traumatic event in their childhood, explains away the supernatural tragedy of their childhoods as stress-born cover memories and his sister says "they really did a number on you in there, didn't they?" And it's awesome to hear rote psychiatric skepticism blasted open in such a direct manner. With great camerawork that services the story and slow ride suspense instead of just shock-schlock showing off, this is one spooky, cool film.



With its ingenious fusion of flashbacks, mental aberration, haunting, possession, and madness, OCULUS slowly builds towards a real peak of madness, showing the way the collapse of the real can occur anytime a family is closed off from the world. You don't need a big empty hotel in Colorado, you just need to be alone with a mirror, and objectivity dissolves as the flashback childhood events and the modern remembering blend into each other until the children the brother and sister were in the past even begin to notice their future selves watching them, just another set of ghosts.

Lucky for us also, OCULUS isn't content to just do the subtle hallucination-or-was-it schtick, delivering some pure monster moments: as the mirror drives their mom towards trying to choke them to death, her face contorted with madness, and the weird vampire woman appears to molest their psycho father, the thrill ride gonzo aspect is thrilling, and the combination remains utterly creepy right up to the end, making it the best horror film since THE CONJURING (2013).


In that film, Vera Farmiga as real life demonologist psychic Lorraine Warren was a great model of courage in the face of ensuing darkness, and here we have that same courage in two first-class performances: Karen Gilan as the older, and Annalise Baso as younger Kaylie. Bayo's cute little redhead alien face and orange hair are perfectly lit and she could teach a master class on channeling terror into adrenalin-spiked courage: "We're going to have to be very, very brave," she tells her young brother, realizing their all alone, their parents are insane and neighbors just keep bringing them back home, and so on into the nightmare. Heartbreaking, exciting, and genuinely spooky all at once, OCULUS gave me a literal spine tingle.

SHIVERS (1975)
dir. David Cronenberg
***1/2
This weird first Cronenberg film hasn't been available on DVD for awhile, but it's now showing on both Netflix and Amazon streaming and it mustn't be missed. The story concerns a parasite that can devour and replace faulty kidneys developing a mind of its own and causing relentless sexual drive in order to propagate, or in other words, Night of the Rabid Orgiasts. Spiked with livid, funny gross outs as a squrimy red kidney thing hops from mouth to-locked-in-willing-or-unwilling mouths, the film's a 'careful what you wish for' example of a swinging Montreal high rise swinging rather too successfully. The paltry budget and glaring lights actually work to the film's advantage; the performances are deceptively brilliant, and the scenes of orgies breaking out in the halls and stairwells reminded me of my freshman dorm in Syracuse in 1985!


There's only a few familiar faces in the cast, but all are great: Barbara Steele is great as a vampiric lesbian swinger, and Lynn Lowry is the hot-to-trot nurse and take the time to admire the deep sultry breathing of Susan Petrie. Add a nice car crash, lots of sick vignettes as each apartment holds its own bizarre snapshot of Canadian nontraditional living, and the result is one of those rough-hewn gems of the 1970s. A real trendsetter, it made a lot of bread and cinema would never be the same. As Cronenberg on Cronenberg author Chris Rodley put it
"One experiences a tremulous sensation that suggests one might have reached the end of the unconscious. There it seems to be, thrown up on the screen in all its perverse and truly repulsive splendour, unmasked and unashamed." (40)
DETENTION (2011)
 dir. Jospeh Kahn
***
Sharp wit and slashing rejoinders are not dead in the everything-but-the-sink post-modern high school deconstruction comedy for the 'twitter generation,' a high school horror comedy of the CLUELESS meets SCREAM 2 variety, a SCARY MOVIE for high school graduates, or a REPO MAN for Generation Y. It's a lot of stuff, in sum, zipping by in layers too fast (presuming many repeat viewings--perhaps presuming too much) but the presence of diminutive HUNGER GAMES hunk Josh Hutcherson should lure enough girl fans in to at least give it a few hits and Shanley Caswell is solid as the 'second biggest loser at Grizzly High' with whom he has a shared connection, though he's going out with the hot chick Ione (Spencer Locke), agering big dumb jock Billy (Parker Bagley) who wants to fight Hutcherson but keeps erupting into THE FLY like symptoms, the result of touching a meteorite as a child and spending most of his elementary school life with his hand in a television.


I can see Godard and Antonioni loving this movie, especially the scene where the kids watch a bootleg copy of CINDERHELLA 4 while in detention to see how to survive their situation, and a whole screen-within-screen infinite chronosynclastic infindibulum meltdown occurs. Stunt casting includes Dane Cook as a dickhead principal and.... that's about it, but there's a time-traveling bear school mascot and enough cheerleaders to make this a bizarro parallel to the other Netflix high school horror comedy, Lucky McKee's ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE, and enough bizarro world alien invasion transdimensional portal activation to make this the callow tweaker cousin to JOHN DIES AT THE END. Show it to that ADD friend of yours when all else fails. Directed and written by music video director Joseph Kahn whose previous feature was 2004's TORQUE which I also liked a lot for its gonzo over-the-top deadpan but in-on-its-own-joke dumbo comic momentum.

MIMIC 2: HARDSHELL (2001)
dir.  Jean de Segonzac
***
You don't often get to see awesome direct-to-video sequels of anything, but here's one badass high school etymology teacher, navigating treacherous urban streets and fending off insect suitors. Alix Koromzay, using sewing scissors as mandible talons to rend the exoskeletons of her imperfect dates, brings a lot of depth, ginger sexual oomph, and maternal tenacity as said teacher. She and the director clearly decided to treat this like A-list material and, like true artists. Bzzzzzz! No less a luminary than Kim Newman recommended this as one of the best of the direct-to-video horror sequels ever. And with no one looking, Koromzay and Segonzac wiggled past the usual patriarchal groupthink to depict a super strong woman still so sexy she has a whole coterie of devoted, smitten inner city students with whom to hole up in the high school while giant insect mimics hunt them and a cabal of governmental agents seal off the building with plastic. So what if there's a smudge of direct-to-video sequel cheapness? It's the ideal third or fourth entry of any all-night horror binge, one where your defenses are down and your pheromones at peak between-shower pungency.

THE HOWLING (1981)
Director: Joe Dante
***1/2
For my money this is the best werewolf movie since WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1934), the one with Henry Hull and Warner Oland fighting over a Tibetan flower, not the one with David Naughton arguing with a decomposing Griffin Dunne in a Piccadilly cinema (not that there's anything wrong with that). Maybe I just don't care much about werewolves that get hung up on the letter of the law like Landis' AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, which came out the same year as HOWLING and there was much to-do about which make-up artist did the better transformation. Rick Baker is a genius, but Landis makes the changes agonizing, the moon inescapable, the beast itself a real wolf puppet on all fours, running amok and dying too suddenly. Joe Dante on the other hand knows it's a goddamn metaphor, a myth, don't get hung up on the 'real' parameters of a supernatural being. HOWLING is way beyond such hang ups, following instead in the shoes of director Joe Dante's patron saint, Roger Corman, and tapping instead into the lupine side of 1970s sexual swinger and EST-ish energy (ala Cronenberg's works of the same period like RABID, THE BROOD, SHIVERS and SCANNERS) and adding De Palma meta-refraction and audio mimesis procedural delirium, Carpenter ominousness, and a plethora of in-joke cameos including Dick Miller, Roger Corman, John Sayles, Kenneth Tobey, and Forry Ackerman.


The story grabs you from the start, like walking into a halfway through De Palma movie of the same approx. period, at the Deuce, maybe, your seat crawling with vermind but what do you care? Pre-E.T. Dee Wallace is great as a TV reporter, bravely heading off to interview a serial killer at a downtown SF adult book store. Some bad shit goes down, she has nightmares. Her therapist (Patrick Macnee) sends her to 'the Colony,' a Northern California Pacific beachfront encounter group that like to make bonfires and eat lots of meat. Elizabeth Brooks (above) makes an impression as a wild child of the forest named Marsha Quist; she has a great fairy tale-like scene coming onto Dee's mustachioed husband (Dennis Dugan) after he's separated from his hunting party. You may find yourself questioning your loyalty to the non-lycanthropic human race when she cooks his shot rabbit and infects him with a love bite on the lip. Can you do less? Later he and Marsha get it on by the bonfire, the powers of desire and orgasm shifting and churning their inner wolf power while Dee Wallace nightmares it up in their cabin. Like Cronenberg's SHIVERS and RABID, it's more than just sticking sex scenes into a horror movie, it's using desire and sex as the horror, entwining them in deep Jungian-Freudian style. And these werewolves aren't running on all fours or just a guy with some fur, they're freaking big, vicious, unstoppable killers, and they can shift back to human if cornered to avoid being shot. They're more like "skin-walkers" than than the traditional type, and so far more interesting, and even scarier despite the big Red Riding Hood style ears.


And for all that, despite LONDON being meant as a jet black comedy and having a far a smoother snout grow, HOWLING is a lot funnier and scarier, with more intelligent characters and less tedious dismissal of fears, denial of signs, and no sudden unsatisfying ending, first person camera tube stalk, naked balloon swipe, or Peter Grant-style dream sequence, and--despite igniting my lifelong crush on Jenny Agutter--HOWLING is sexier. As the unofficial matriarch sage of the wolf clan, Elizabeth Brooks is reminiscent of GIA-era Angelina Jolie) proving that in the late 70s/early 80s, horror film, (unprotected) monster sex with a carnivorous wolf lady could still be guilt-free and even E.T's future mom could have a carnal immediacy that enhanced rather than detracted from her courageous intellect, non-bitchy authority, and (unfortunately poodle-like) nose for news. 

Friday, October 03, 2014

Dystopian Parables for the Masses: DIVERGENT, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER


Jump, baby, Jump! Jump into the Uncanny Valley, wherein chicks and hunks in black and silver body suits are slicked over with CGI-bearing golden-brownish glow air brush make-up as they fight the onrush of mechanical dystopia of enforced digital sameness until the snake eats itself, the valley fills, and the need for actors disappears altogether. And then, when mom starts singing "Clash City Rockers" because it turns up on a car commercial, then, and only then, I'll know it's too late even for me.

I'm old enough, even too old, to accept this brutal truth but the kids today don't have any other option, their cliques are too stratified. "Clash City Rockers" is 'their parent's music' and hence off limits. But punk rock was a big tent in the 1980s; we didn't have to decide if we were Goth or Emo or Strait Edge or hardcore or Edward or Jacob or Erudite or Dauntless or closeted or 'out' or bisexual, we were all just punks or (more likely) poseurs, smoking ourselves dizzy at City Gardens waiting for The Ramones or Iggy Pop to start. But today you need to pick your clique and must abide by its rules or risk a fate worse than death--exile, the agony of another Saturday night spent alone in your room reading comic books, manga, until you snap and start making yourself up like you're a Japanese drawing.


In both the recently released to DVD 2014 films, DIVERGENT and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, there's a dude who has to fight fascist brainwashing, who's ordered to kill the one he loves, and the one he loves doesn't give up on him, even risking their lives because, damn it, you don't give up on your old army buddy or a cute guy who respects your virgin boundaries. Each brainwashed buddy is programmed to kill all those who pose a threat to a deranged Kate Winslet or brilliantly-against-type Robert Redford. But love is stronger than brainwashing, able to survive even lame 'sensitive' male Subaru voiceovers, deeper than behavioral programming can ever reach --but it's not until much acting as a lone member of the military has to question conformity and in the process becomes an enemy of those following orders like she or he was following them mere moments before, only after we've already seen just how formidable those order-followers are. Taken together these two films paint a nice portrait of where we are today as an eternally teenage wasteland nation, and how it's our own addictive craving for home security that puts us in danger, how it's our obsession with health that makes us sick, our longing for security blankets that puts us in the danger we need security blankets to avoid.

Neville Chamberlain wanted security, too, so he let Hitler sweet-talk him out of Czechoslovakia, supposedly because Britain was still sick of the first war, but really because Hitler wouldn't let him smoke in the Reichstag (according to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS). If he just sparked up anyway, man, right there, he would found the chutzpah to stand up for himself. Then I saw a picture the other day of a bunch of members of the 101st Airborne at a dance with some dames in the mid-40s, and every single one of them has a cigarette. They're the ones kicked Hitler's ass. Do you think ISIS would even exist if Obama was allowed to smoke in the Oval Office, instead of winding up a Bluto-battered Popeye stripped of his contraband spinach, what is what he is, let's face it? It's our collective all-consuming horror of illness, death, and decay that extinguishes the flame (and smooth filtered taste) of our own shortened life span and conversely poisons the Earth with overpopulation and leaving the floor for any group of nut jobs who don't mind getting killed toute de suite by our noncommittal drones.

yeah, all that glowing stuff is going to have to be removed
But if grooving with a nine figure-budgeted movie spinning in your hardware can make you feel that you're part of a vox populi juggernaut revolution, even if only for two hours and ten minutes, facing danger unafraid, just by watching, dissolving into the breathless pace and riveting action... then just remember that while you were so motionless on the couch, six more species died in the rain forest.... and you could have prevented it, for just fifty cents a day, that's less than the price of a cup of coffee. Would you like to know more?

Keep your logos round and burning
Conversely, here's a little-advertised truth about addiction I've learned the 'hard' way: drug and alcohol withdrawal is brutally painful, terrifying, even soul-crushing, BUT it can bring sexual pleasure as exponentially intense as the pain, exhilaration as intense as the terror, and enduring the intensity of withdrawal from the media's cozy hypnosis brings true liberation-- but first you must truly suffer, convulsing, screaming, vomiting and rolling around on the cool tiles. Stretching your limits is just another word for the rack.

And no one suffers on the rack like a teenager, whose growth is involuntary, fought against, a werewolf transformation that takes agonizing years instead of a few dissolves or Rick Baker mechanics. The one part missing from the TWILIGHT movies: the book talked of the great flaming agony stretching on for timeless weeks that Bela endures in her transition from dying anorexic pregnant teen to hip, naturally-toned rich mom vampire. When you don't endure the trauma, the basic training breakdown, the post-marathon soreness, or the primordial terror of the final few bardos of death or deep meditation, then your transformation, your evolution, is not permanent. This is why there are so few 'real' men in this country, because unless they've been in a war or lost a limb or otherwise faced great hardship for long enough, and it's this need for trauma, coupled to the fear of it (inseparable from the fear of dying) that makes a good dystopian parable for the masses.


And one final proverb: it is the duty of any nonconformist or outcast in a conformist society to subvert that society, and that subversion usually creates big suffering-i.e. Jesus on the cross, Mandela in the jail, and Gandhi on the hunger strike; but if you want to avoid that pain, you can stay addicted to to the virtual pleasure of the simulacrum and just write a Young Adult dystopia novel or superhero comic or screenplay wherein your protagonist subverts an even more conformist future or alternate reality--and if it sells, conformity expands to envelop it, then shrinks back as it digests, and is spit out a decade later in a lame car insurance commercial. Truly it is written in expensive theory books forced on liberal arts undergrads the nation over: a reigning social power can find no surer way of survival than incorporating critiques of itself, ushering in an era wherein compliance as the 'reality' behind the gloss becomes the simulacrum. In HUNGER GAMES, Donald Sutherland's nervous uneducated military dictator thinks suppressing the symbols of rebellion will suppress the rebellion itself, but a media savvy ruler doesn't outlaw a symbol; he mass markets them; he flashes the Girl Scout / Revolution gang sign at press conferences. Anything--even Sid Vicious snarling "My Way" becomes trite and douche chilled once it's co-opted into a car commercial. No revolution can win against a government that burns itself in effigy every night on the evening news. What are you going to do to protest, put out the fire?


In order to be free from our addiction to the dystopias Hollywood regularly conjures and defeats, we must learn to love the pain deprivation brings, the kind one must suffer to achieve. No super expensive wine ever tasted half so sweet as a swig of warm canteen water to a dehydrated ocean castaway--is this not the the core truth of meditation, or stereograms or the rapturous freedom of the starving, tortured artist -- hallucinating sausages and flagons in his swirling oils? And nothing's more disillusioning than realizing your bleak outlook and spiritual crisis that cost you years of suffering and depression was solved with a single SSRI and by the same extension, that anyone with the right technology, drugs, or patience could turn you into their automaton with the flick of an artificially-implanted cerebellum switch.

Thus the brainwashed super-conductive Winter Soldier (above) doesn't flinch or protest when his keepers want to give him an electric shock memory wipe. He just leans back into the chair and opens to receive his rubber mouth guard like an angry boxer. The captain meanwhile is thrown into a dilemma when he doesn't quite know who to trust within the NSA-Homeland Security-ish conspiracy web knows as S.H.I.E.L.D, and I simply cannot give more away, but it's this 'question authority' theme that gives the film its emotional resonance; communist academes can say what they want, in Captain America's heyday (he was frozen in 1945, if you don't know, so he could miss becoming Reb Brown -left) we had a real enemy to fight, and the fear we might actually lose was a real fear that brought Americans together and cured the Depression in a heartbeat.


And in DIVERGENT the brainwash comes via a remotely activated chip air-injected into each 'Dauntless' member's neck as part of an alleged locator program, a process woven so seamlessly into all the other initiatory processes that no one can hardly complain--any more than a private in the army can complain if they're forced to do push-ups. The big fear for our plucky DIVERGENT heroine, Tris (Shairlene Woodley)--isn't being brainwashed, it's that her friends will find out she's not one of the approved types of persona which act as fascist-brand masonic brotherhoods that all young citizens of this society must fit into, because not doing so means being 'divergent' - i.e. cliqueless, and alone, daring to say no to peer pressure --and chip (brainwash) resistant. The type of person who, for example, never feels part of 'mob mentality' (1). In the big picking ceremony she goes for the daredevil mesomorph soldier brigade (i.e. the jocks or the Wermacht) the 'Dauntless' group, but she's way too independent and peaceful; yet she's too athletic and dopey to be an Erudite (the fretful nerds, or the SS); too Erudite to be Abnegation (the homeless shelter volunteers / Hitler Youth), etc. But this is a dystopia where your friends jump off a bridge and if you don't follow them you're banished from society; or have to succumb to paranoia to not be suspect; (if you're Erudite), or let yourself get exploited and scapegoated if you're Abnegation (i.e. Bunuel's VIRIDIANA), and so on. I appreciate the Platonic ideal at work here,  (see also STAR TREK) but while that makes for a government that can get the things done, it's really just going to devolve into a fascist dictatorship sooner or later. So why not start now? Hit 'em while their pants are down!



Sure it's a little trite, but I liked DIVERGENT mainly because of all the twisty high school clique-as-metaphor-for-fascism stuff involved, the way initiation rites are incorporated into the lure of the popular kids clique, institutionalized but just enough that both the personal and political seamlessly interweave, like joining the Riffs, the SEALS, the Heathers, getting your ears pierced, your first tattoo, your yearbook signed, and drinking your first beer and smoking your first cigarette all on the same day. Feeling like you finally belong somewhere --which is an intoxicating high especially if you've never felt it before--only to find out you're suddenly being shipped off to Vietnam, like Treat Williams at the end of HAIR.


The thing DIVERGENT doesn't get is that having a weak central girl throws off the curve- Kristen Stewart was Antigone strong; Jennifer Lawrence genuinely mythic in HUNGER GAMES; the kid in ENDER'S GAME spookily self-confident, but this chick Tris is perhaps--to her detriment--the most 'normal' teenager-like of the bunch; she's a terrible liar and though courageous lacks the inner fascist to succeed as a Dauntless. She doesn't have a war face, she's not Artemis-esque or Antigone-determined or a prodigy, and her puffy face dilates and registers every emotion, which is not good if you're gay, I mean "divergent" in a world hostile to difference. If you show your true face they will get you, the same ones who urge you to be yourself are the ones who will attack you if your self turns out different than theirs. The core of every teenage fear lies in this idea, that the joy found in belonging to a cool group will soon give way to the terror of being abandoned by them for revealing who you really are, or that the parent or god that watches over you is just a trickster demon awaiting the right time to remove its saintly mask to expose that which our whole life was a shield against seeing--his hideous giant demon face coming forward to consume you like one of Kafka's devouring industrial vaters--all the while encouraging us to take off our masks, to be ourselves, almost mockingly... 

Come on, Charlie Brown... kick the football. 


In WINTER and DIVERGENT the moment of exposing the demon face behind the mask is when what was once just rumor and conspiracy theory starts to lock shut (SEMI-SPOILERS AHEAD), too late to resist it, no time to plan a defense, when what you didn't see coming comes not on the horizon ahead but behind, next to, within, and in all directions, making its move only when its sure all resistance has been pre-demonized as terrorism and disarmed, isolated, and surrounded. Then the NSA takes off its mask and the Sixth Reich Paperclip draconian totalitarian future-present is right there, and has been, in disguise all this time, and the Homeland Security emblem turns out to be a scrambled up swastika, and it's too late to do anything about it because we've signed all our freedoms away in the name of order, because we got all scared when the news waved some Muslims at us. God help us, we activated SKYNET. Get General Ripper was right! They've infiltrated our precious bodily fluids.

Masks on / masks off 
Now, I don't really believe in a massive global conspiracy per se, the world is far too chaotic, and because in Hollywood, as we all know, industry guys can do all the coke they want, but it's the Middle American teenager with a week's expendable income in his pocket on his or her first date who runs the industry, and always has--maybe he or she just read Plato in class or learned about World War Two and this proximity to horror and lure of fascism, the life inside the brutal crucible of high school, of cyber bullies and peer pressure and the rush of the first law break or sense of belonging all makes them unusually susceptible to fantasy and escape with a more dystopian life-or-death finality totally lacking in the John Hughes (and Arnold Schwarzenegger) 80s. And if you win the teenager's heart, they'll come back for the sequels, they'll buy the DVD, and in 20 years they'll buy it again in a deluxe commemorative edition, and it can run in perpetuity across a spectrum of cable channels.

The unconscious programming aspect, through, which helps Hollywood's dystopia machine hooks 'em, is the dark underbelly, the conditioning, the inference via the subject matter, the cathartic triumph of the individual over the collective-gone-astray, that our society doesn't need fixing, because if we lived in one of these dystopias then Hollywood wouldn't be allowed to spin these yarns on the dangers of conformity, these huge financial investment that requires tens of millions of ticket-buyers just to break even. The film itself is the proof we don't need to rebel -- the film gets us, me, you, personally, grants us the cathartic release of all our charged up anger at being so powerless to stop the giant mechanical maw that chews our world beyond repair just to feed, clothe, and shelter us all for one more lousy meal for one more lousy day.




And of course, there are the girls, the ladies, locked into the golden gloss that makes all them all now look like they're CGI avatars slick with softener, every frame of their face Maximed to abstraction, all the better inject them into the video game vein. But hey, the good news: boys have picked up some slack to become the human objects, which is like, so like, finally, you know? It's the baby steps, man. Before women can be free of objectification they must first choose a replacement, and there's but one traditional gender left. There is a season, turn turn, but don't say I didn't warn you about that Uncanny Valley crossing, ladies. This is John Connor coming to you from inside Crystal Peak: let the revolution commence broadcasting on UHF, on the Emergency Broadcast System, on the HAM radio, anywhere it can be safe from the digital detection. Analog only. Talk in pictures not in words, and be careful where you tread / that's the wire- / ... click

NOTES:
1. I'm the same way - I've been there at the start of three riots in my life -- and each time I walked away right before the violence began, automatically, horrified by the way all my friends seemed to transform into bloodthirsty animals. I guess that makes me... Divergent!