Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Best Books Of 2012

Inevitable Plug: Son Of Danse Macabre, Bryce Wilson: That’s right folks I wrote a book this year and I’m still not tired of talking about it. Well I might be tired of talking about it, but I’m not tired of asking you to buy it.

Son Of Danse Macabre, is my personal history of the horror genre in the last thirty years (with some trips further back in time for foundation laying).  I’ve been told by people I trust that it is readable. It’s 2.99 on the nook and kindle and every time some one gives it a shot, my Grinch heart grows three sizes that day.

Best Of Last Year: The Whore Of Akron, Scott Raab: Somehow I missed reading The Whore Of Akron until this year. Had I read it in time it would have been my favorite book of last year. Even if you don’t give two shits about American Basketball, The Whore Of Akron is an electrifying portrait of personal passion, despair, and what it means to be from somewhere. I felt every page in my gut. Thank you Scott Raab. Though the diaspora continues, one day we will have our victory. One day Cleveland Sports will be restored.


Worst: Back To The Blood, Tom Wolfe: Tom Wolfe is dead. I have been waiting twelve years for the resurrection. I shant waste my time waiting any longer.

Most Disapointing: Kings Of Cool, Don Winslow: Coming from anybody else The Kings Of Cool would be perfectly acceptable, perhaps even good. But it’s not coming from anybody else, it’s coming from Don Winslow.

On one level I can’t really blame the guy, after all Universal was nice enough to buy a 50 million dollar marketing campaign for him, he’d be a fool not to take advantage of it. And Kings Of Cool has its moments, including a tormented monologue from one of the character's parents that almost makes it worth it. But no bright moment of passion, or turn of phrase can disguise the fact that Winslow’s heart just isn’t in it.  That from the first page to the last Kings Of Cool is a book that has no damn reason to exist.

It’s the first Don Winslow book to feel anything other than essential. And that just hurts.

Who Gives A Damn If It's YA: The Fault In Our Stars: Yes The Fault In Our Stars may be written for Young Adults but its more acerbic, truthful, beautifully written and real, than most of what passes for contempary adult literature these days. One of those invaluable books where you suddenly find that you're not thinking of the characters as characters at all.

So why is is ghettoized if I truly don't give a damn whether it's "adult literature" or not? Because I shamefully forgot about it while making my outline and I don't feel like kicking any of the below books off the list. The shame is my own though not the books. Make time for it. You'll be glad, you did.

10 & 9 Some Remarks,  Neal Stephenson, Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson: I have commented before that it scare the shit out of me that both Neal Stephenson and William Gibson consider the modern day a suitable place to set their fiction. Now it seems they no longer even consider the fiction part necessary.

Both Some Remarks and Distrust That Particular Flavor bear the finger prints of their respective creators, two of our most dependable outliers. With Some Remarks a bit woollier containing everthing from a most unexpected defense of Zack Snyder’s 300, to a brief history of Fiber Optics (as well as a history of the various battles between the two authors, plasma swords are involved.)  While Gibson is more precise and distant, trapping all his details in amber.

Both are  invaluable looks at the world from the pleasure of their cracked prism.

8. The Croning, Laird Barron: The jump from the short story to the novel is a tricky transition for any author, but particularly the horror author who is charged with transplanting his work from his genre’s natural habitat to much more inhospitable soil.

Fortunately with his first novel Laird Barron proves himself one of the authors capable of making the jump. Delivering a book with the same sense of shuddering decay that his best short work offers. Barron does, “cheat” a little bit, layering his book with short stories in the best Neil Gaiman puzzle box fashion. But as The Croning builds to its final awful whole, one cannot help but reflect that whatevee the format Barron is awful damn good.

7. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn: “I’d hate to take a bite of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

It is one thing to have a book be extraordinarily popular and critically acclaimed. It is another thing to have a book be extra ordinarily popular and acclaimed and also be really, really good.  Come on Gillian Flynn what are you trying to do? Break my spirit?

And make no mistake Gone Girl is really, really good. The prose is of a “Why do I bother” quality, combined with a twisted gift for plotting, and an acerbic misanthropic world view. Patricia Highsmith would spit with envy.

6. Sacre Blue, Chris Moore: Those expecting the usual Christopher Moore maniac farce might walk away from Sacre Blue a bit disappointed. Sure, there are the usual pleasures of Moore at full bear. The word play, the bad behavior, donkeys, decapitations (sorry accident, couldn’t be helped) the unusually kind heart and of course the sex. But it is an unusually somber Moore who shows up and delivers an unexpectedly weighty and moving consideration of the burdens and prices of producing art. (Imagining Moore peaking over my shoulder I can’t help but picture him saying,  “Yes and the dick jokes, don’t forget those. There are some good ones in there.”)

There are some good ones in there, but there’s also a true sense of melancholy. The price the muse demands can at times be even worse than syphilis (though she has a fondness for that one)  and Moore writes of it with sympathy, and a conviction that it is worth it. It’s also a book where you can read about Toulouse LauTrec battling an immortal cave man. So you know, good times.

5. Redshirts, John Scalzi: Like Sacre Blue Scalzi presents what only looks like a weightless farce. The idea is irresitable, a crew of expendable one shot characters realize the nature of their plight. But for all the genre callbacks and Cabin In The Woods style, post modern shenanigans, what really gives Redshirts its depth is the frank examination of what we give to the things we create and what they give back. There is an awful lot in its much maligned three part ending about the nature of storytelling. Many complained about the sudden swerve, but it changes Redshirts from something clever, but necessarily shallow, to a truly substantial work of fiction.

4. The Twelve, Justin Cronin: I have figured out that I should just stop trying to figure out what Justin Cronin is trying to do.

The Passage left me stumbling and grasping every hundred pages or so, and The Twelve follows neatly in its footsteps, ignoring the clear narrative set up of the closing pages of The Passage in favor of a story that finds its central characters stuck in inertia while the world ends around them.

But the pleasures of Cronin’s world and story are, well not secondary, but rather a support system for what Cronin is able to convey with them. Elsewhere I have ventured that if it is the purpose of literary fiction to break the icy seas within ourselves, then perhaps it is genre fictions job to simply make us a little braver. With his story of courage in the face of loss and oblivion, I believe Cronin has accomplished just that. Writing an unforgettable cast of characters who are defined by the fact that when given a second chance, a chance to be better than they are, they more often rise to the occasion than not. In the books key segement a character responds to an unanswerable question with the words, “I could have held his hand.”  The moment he gets the opportunity to do just that is the most moving I’ve come across in fiction in quite awhile.

And that is the reason that for all its dark imagery, and operatic bleakness Cronin’s devasted world is one of profound optimism. The Zero may seek to end all things, but he won’t do it without a fight.

3. Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon: What can be said of Chabon’s novel. It possesses the kind of messy exuberance that Wolfe once had, before he, you know, died. But there is a warmth here that Wolfe never had, even at his most admiring. Like the area it documents Telegraph Avenue has the sprawling messiness of life, in the way that Chabon’s slightly neat hermetic work never really had.  It suits him

2. Live By Night, Dennis Lehane: Or as I like to think of it, Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangster. While Live By Night's predecessor, The Given Day somewhat buckled under the weight of its admirable literary aspirations,  Live By Night is a lean work of glorious pure pulp the type that Lehane hasn’t delivered since Sacred. Rough, propulsive, and with Lehane’s trade mark economical weighty prose Live By Night was a kick to my particular set of literary pleasure receptors, with a directness that almost seems unfair to the other books on the list. 

1. This Book Is Full Of Spiders, David Wong: There is no more dangerous activity than trying to catch lightning in a bottle a second time. And make no mistake, John Dies At The End was lightning in a bottle. Everything from its piecemeal creation, to its novella structure, conspired to make it something completely unexpected. On this level This Book Is Full Of Spiders faced a near impossible task. By its very definition the reader had expectations for it.

So all credit to Jason Pargin (ie David Wong) who managed to find the improbable juke. Delivering a novel deeper, richer, scarier, funnier and on every level better than John. The growth that Pargin shows between the two books is staggering. It’s not every book that can scare the shit out of you, make you laugh, consider how deeply fucked we as a species might be and leave the reader with a resilient kernel of optimism all the same; all in the space of five pages. In short This Book Is Full Of Spiders delivers everything I ask from literature and it does it again and again and again.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Never Again

The woman was looking at her smartphone as I rang her up. This always annoys me.

“There was a shooting.” She said.

That’s not something that has an easy response. I think a non committal grunt was the best I could manage.

“At a school. Children.” She continued. Then she took her bag and left. I called the next person in line.

It’s not pretty, but it’s the truth that my first response on hearing the news wasn’t shock, wasn’t sorrow, just a numb base level revulsion, a feeling that can best be summed up by the thought, “This again?”

It wasn’t until I was sitting home alone that the full weight of the horror hit me. Yes, this. Again.

Here’s an anecdote, I’ve actually been working on a book which features at its center a choreographed shooting in a public place, and when I started outlining the book at the beginning of the year I was worried about this plot point because I was afraid it wouldn’t be believable.

Normally I rip through my first drafts pretty quickly. But this one has taken me a while. Not because of any difficulties with the story. Indeed I see this plot clearer than I have perhaps seen any other. But every few months it happens again and afterwards its weeks before I can stand to touch the fucking thing. First Aurora, then the tragedy at the Sikh temple, a smattering of lesser shootings throughout the year, and now this, the final (God willing) ugly culmination of this nightmare of a year.

I can hope that this last indelible tragedy might finally break the stranglehold the right has had on any talk of gun control. But I don’t hold my breath. What I save my real hope for is that the horror is at least felt. Because if we get to the point where we are so deadened that, “This again?” is our instinctive response we are truly and utterly lost once and for all.

So what do we do when we are left with horror. Well I for one went here. I try not to let my left hand know what my right hand is doing when it comes to charity. But today I don’t mind sharing. If like me you’re getting so overwhelmed by the presence of evil in the world that you are sliding towards out and out bafflement, then do some good. Do a positive concrete act. Do what you can to ease a little suffering.

It may be corny, but as long as we have that impulse we still have a fighting chance. 

EDIT: If you're looking for something else concrete to do, might I suggest going here.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


(Obligatory reminder that you can pick up Son Of Danse Macabre, my book on the last thirty years of horror on your Kindle or your Nook)

(Disclosure: A screener was provided for this review)

The buzz that V/H/S carried out of Sundance was almost uniformly positive. Nearly as uniform were the negative reviews that greeted the film during its theatrical release. This kind of whiplash of hype and anti hype is common, and in my experience one is hardly ever more reliable than the other. But as a result by the time I slipped V/H/S into my Blu Ray player I literally had no preconceptions on the film. Masterpiece or mess. Lady or the tiger.

As usual the truth is something in between. I happen to have a soft spot for anthology horror films. There is something about even the weakest of them that retains the warm feeling of being told a scary story. Though quality in V/H/S varies from segment to segment for my money the ones that hit do so well enough to make up for the weaker parts. And even the weakest sections are not without a couple of striking images and well executed beats.

V/H/S opens on a group of lowlifes who record their rampages of vandalism and sexual assault like a felonious version of CKY. Recruited to perform a burgularly, in order to search for a very specific V/H/S tape, the crew breaks into a creepy house where they find rows and rows of tapes each seeming to show something inexplicable and horrible.

Things get off to an appropriately E.C.ish start with "Amateur Night" which in which a group of horny frat guys out hunting for women learn the meaning of the term, “Sexual Predator”. While a bit broad, it also features a dark sense of humor and some makeup effects that are genuinely disquieting. "Second Honeymoon" is Ti West’s entry in game. The backlash against West is in full swing now, but I still stubbornly like him. Though I’d say "Second Honeymoon" is the weakest thing he’s done this side of Cabin Fever 2, that still puts him above most modern horror filmmakers simply because he bothers to establish the normal rhythms of life before he brings the discord of horror to them. Because of his patience horror in West’s films feels like a violation. And the only thing that keeps" Second Honeymoon" a notch below The Innkeepers and House Of The Devil is an unnecessary twist ending.

"Tuesday The 17th" by Glenn McQuaid, is an interesting experiment, and the decision to render its killer as a mass of distortion is brilliant, unfortunately there ultimately doesn’t seem to be enough payoff to the story. Horror may not need an explanation, but it does need a punchline. "The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger" is probably the weakest segment of the film, I’m convinced that there are few things as bracingly uncinematic as Skype conversations, and the fact that it basically reverses "The Second Honeymoon" twist, that didn’t work all that well in the first place is problematic.

Things end with a bang though, with "10/31/98", a good ole fashioned haunted house movie that may not end up being truly frightening, but is an awful lot of fun.

All in all V/H/S is uneven, as any film that has six different directors is bound to be. But the moments that work outnumber those that don’t by a good 3 to one margin. It may not be a masterpiece, but I say bring on S-VHS.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


I was all geared up to write about The Dark Knight Rises (short version very good, downright underrated even, but more the sequel to Batman Begins than The Dark Knight. Tom Hardy was a blast) when it came out last July, but then the terrible events in Aurora happened and I just couldn't quite bring myself to. And now that everyone has already weighed in, and delivered backlash, counter backlash and counter counter backlash, it feels a bit beside the point (well OK those who think that they're getting a straight up "the masses can't be trusted" message from the film just aren't paying attention).

So here instead is an article I did for inReads, where I write about five of my favorite Batman comics, as well as a few attempts at the character that downright screwed the pooch.

 If one wants to hear more of my Bat Musings, there's always the Actioncast I recorded immediately after seeing the film. As well as the one in which we cover the series in its entirity. But since you've already got the Actioncast bookmark you've heard those already. Right? Right.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On The Value Of Being Opaque (The Master, Holy Motors, and Cloud Atlas)

Just because my writing for the blog has been plummeting ever closer to the level of “shameful” for the last couple of months (To the four remaining folks whose Son Of Danse Macabre Reviews I have to write, I thank you for your patience, rest assured they are on the way) doesn’t mean that I haven’t been watching the films.

Indeed three seemingly unrelated films, The Master, Holy Motors, and Cloud Atlas. have been banging around inside my head since I saw them months ago, sparking against each other in all sorts of odd ways. And I think, the reactions and receptions from critics and the public to all three to all three, tells us a lot about where film is at the moment. Particularly in regard to the value of opacity.

Lets start with The Master. I’m not confident in my ability to even begin to unpack all the things that the film does right (though if you're interested in that I recommend reading Bill Ryan’s account, perhaps the sanest thing I’ve read on the film). What I want to point out is the baffled reactions of everyone from Roger Ebert on down, about the films lack of a "Deeper Meaning".

This is somewhat understandable, given that There Will Be Blood for all its tactile pleasures might as well have been entitled, Deeper Meaning: The Movie. But I simply think that with The Master it's just plain the wrong question to ask, this is a movie that is entirely, almost aggressively, surface. What is The Master About? It’s about putting you in the headspace of Freddie Quell, a personality in full fledged meltdown. It's as unpleasant a place to be be as any I’ve seen in a film. Anderson mercilessly puts you in this guys shoes, for an unsparing 144 min, and by the experience is nothing less than grueling. By the time you’ve finished you should be dangerously close to knowing what its like to be in the mind of someone who is taking mental and physical dysfunction about as far as he possibly can. Larger thematic concerns aren’t just secondary, they’re beside the point entirely. Everything you need to understand the film is right there on the surface.

Holy Motors on the other hand is a film that is utterly opaque. It is perhaps the first film that should have liner notes passed out with its tickets (Lets just say that one would do well to research director Leos Carax’s life before venturing in). Holy Motors tells the story of Mr. Oscar, a man who with the aid of a mysterious and mostly unseen organization stages pieces of, well lets just call it performance art, around a city. I've heard the film interpreted as everything as a meditation on the acting process, to a political essay. These are all very cute and reductive.

As for myself After a bit of research and a second viewing I think I have a better hold on what the movie is, "about" now, but I will not pretend that during my first viewing I had even the faintest notion of what was happening on a basic narrative level. (That being said, I’m pretty sure that Roger Ebert nailed the particulars of Mr. Oscar's peculiar occupation with his interpretation. Particularly given the film’s relationship to Tokyo! His explanation seems obvious to the point of bitter, face palming, frustration).

Does that make me a fraud? A poseur? Little more than Homer Simpson chuckling at the dancing Horse on Twin Peaks? Afraid to dislike the movie that all the cool kids are raving about? The thought has crossed my mind, but ultimately I don’t think so.

Even at my most baffled, my main emotion during Holy Motors was one of exhilaration. The sensation of seeing something new under the sun is the rarest a film fan can have and Holy Motors delivers it with every frame. It’s a film of contradictions, an elegy, if not a eulogy for cinema that opens up new possibilities for the form. As intensely intertextual as any film I have ever seen, that feels completely original. One of the great stylistic triumphs I’ve seen that manages to set itself in a recognizable world. It’s all as giddy, strange and inexplicable as well an orchestra full of accordions. And even if I had no idea what it all “means” the pure sensation of the thing is reward enough.

Which brings us to Cloud Atlas, a film that for all it’s supposed narrative opaqueness (bah!) is not merely more open about “What. It. All. Means.” than Holy Motors, but is so eager for you to know what it all means that it has several instructive montages on the subject, over which a voice over explains to the viewer What. It. All. Means. As the images reveal the truth (singular) of the lesson over the ages.

Of course I don’t think that Cloud Atlas’s thematic openness should count against it anymore than Holy Motors abtuseness about its message should count against it. Openess about theme is only a detriment if its clumsy and Cloud Atlas, despite what its harsher critics say, isn’t clumsy just earnest. Which is an entirely different thing.

Indeed perhaps the most rewarding thing about Wachowski’s career as a whole as it comes close to capping its second decade, is that for filmmakers who made their name for the post modern way they mashed up their influences, they have unexpectedly morphed into two of the most earnest filmmakers working today. There is a deep romanticism  underpinning The Matrix sequels (films I’ve long defended and am happy to begin to see finally get reevaluated) equal to the open, dorm room enthusiasm with which the Wachowski’s tackle the various philosophies that duel throughout the film. I may not defend Speed Racer as vigorously, nor do I love it half so much as its more fervent apologists, but I do have to admire it as a hot mess of a thing. And much of that is a result of how deeply felt and insistent its pro family message is.

In the end, the film I would liken Cloud Atlas to would be Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, a film that gets an A for effort, but will most reward the forgiving viewer willing to overlook some significant flaws. But like Watchmen, the fact that it is on screen in a recognizable format at all sort of trumps whatever issues one may have with it.

Cloud Atlas has much of the same sincerity to it, it's about as ironic as a Golden Retriever puppy. It’s a film about Lots Of Big Stuff, karma, power, freedom, love, our ability to choose and The Wachowski’s and Tywker don’t want you to miss a single moment of it. While Cloud Atlas has its problems, (it simplifies and subverts Mitchell’s text, the decision to drop the book’s structure is a mistake, and though the actors playing multiple roles throughout the area works aestetichally it confuses things on a narrative level, as they can either be separate souls experiencing their own karmic tragetories, or they can be the reincarnation of the same soul throughout the eras, but they cannot very well be both) this eagerness to share its enthusiasms is not one of them.

This Autumn and Winter have been one of the strongest in my time as a Moviegoer. What can I say? Thanks to films like these if Cinema is a corpse as Holy Motors suggests, it is an extremely lively one. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Warning! Politics!

I don't usually get political on Things That Don't Suck, but there is one thing I must make clear.

If you lived through Bush V. Gore, and you're still giving those tired lines like "There's no real difference between the two parties," or  "Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy." You have express written permission to kiss my ass.

Thank you for your time.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Days Of Horror: A Tale Of Two Sisters

(This review request comes courtesy of Neil Fulwood of Agitation Of The Mind, who collaborated with me on Son Of Danse Macabre, providing an excellent essay on post 9/11 horror that now serves as an appendix in the book. You too can lock me in a house with my own darkest secrets by purchasing Son Of Danse Macabre on your Nook or Kindle, and sending the evidence to my email)

“Do you know what’s really scary? You want to forget something. Totally wipe it out of your mind. But you never can. It can’t go away, you see. And it follows you around like a ghost.”

Out of all the horror archetypes the ghost story is unquestionably the saddest. And it’s always struck me as curious at how unexploited this trait usually is. In literature and film the ghost is usually taken as an aggressive, frightening creature, a mobile mirror of our own mortality. By its very nature the ghost is a pathetic remnant, a literal shade of its former self.

Kim Ji-Woon’s, A Tale Of Two Sisters is among the saddest ghost stories ever filmed. If that is indeed what it is. With a few key exceptions the ghost at the center of the film (and just who is the ghost at the center of the film?) is not seen as an aggressive force as a mournful one. The stain of an event that cannot be erased, the result of an act of negligence that is almost unimaginably cruel.

A Tale Of Two Sisters opens with the titular pair coming to their family’s new home after one of the sisters has had a prolonged stay in an asylum. Things are odd at their new country home, their Father is remote and withdrawn, their step mother, if not wicked is at least overly ingratiating and while the estate itself at first seems down right idyllicly pastoral there is a presence in the house that both girls sense. You probably have at least some idea where this is going.

And indeed the biggest flaw of A Tale Of Two Sisters is how it holds together as a narrative. At its most convoluted A Tale Of Two Sisters resembles the serial killer movie that Donald Kaufman pitched in Adaptation. The tortuous plotting only some what ameliorated by the fact that Kim leaves certain things, if not ambiguous, than at least open to interpretation. (Though one interesting thing is that the one interpretation that is perhaps the most natural, that it is all in the protagonist’s mind, is also the only one that Ji-Woon explicitly rules out. In the films most famous scene, the most uncomfortable dinner party this side  of The Exterminating Angel, Ji-Woon brings in the only two characters in the film who are outside of the family seemingly for no other reason than to specifically invalidate this interpretation. It’s clear that there is at least some sort of supernatural presence in the film, to me the real question is how many.)

Where Ji-Woon truly excels is in the layer of dread he brings to the film, the heightened emotional intensity, and the aggression of its imagery. While the film is obviously Korean, it was made at the end cycle of The J-Horror boom, and seems to be at the very least commenting on the imagery found therein, faces of principles and spirits alike hidden by dank curtains of hair, unsettling artifacts, scenes punctuated by pregnant knowing silences. It’s all familiar but given an aggressive spin, as when the standard lank haired Japanese spirit approaches one of the sisters in her bed, a fairly typical set up though rarely this well done, then straddles and begins to menstruate over her. This before a hand bursts from a place that hands don’t usually burst from. It’s the type of scene that makes you go, “Oh yeah I’m watching a Korean new wave movie,” and A Tale Of Two Sisters has more than a few.

Though Chan Wook Park has established himself as the leading voice of the Korean New Wave, Kim Ji-Woon is probably my favorite. I still consider his Bittersweet Life to be one of the most underrated films of the movement, a hard as nails utterly gorgeous action film, and the greatness of his The Good, The Bad And The Weird, and I Saw The Devil hardly need to be rehashed here (though I will admit I have no idea what to make of his upcoming Arnold Schwarzennegger Verus Truckulese American Debut).

To me the exciting  about the film isn’t their unity but their diversity. Aside from a preternatural visual skill what links them is their willingness to juke formula, to take familiar forms and turn them on their head. Making them lively and dangerous. A Tale Of Two Sisters takes the ghost story, one as old as any (it has roots in a centuries old Korean folk tale) and twists it into something that feels poisonous and dangerous.  It is a film that feels haunted.  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Days Of Horror: Door Into Silence

(I know I've been a bad boy. But a series of last minute edits as well as the various freelance jobs of the season have kept me from my duties here. Rest assured though, the review requests will start again soon [And you can still hop on that train by buying a copy of Son Of Danse Macabre on your Kindle or Nook and sending me a picture] But first it's time to participate in Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies 3rd Annual Horror Blogothan in which I go off the beaten path for my selection and find out that sometimes there's a reason a path has not been beaten there.)

On paper it’s tempting to look kindly at Door Into Silence. After all it’s the last film of a genuine horror master. One that turns away from his trademark baroque Grand Guignol  in favor of a hushed, death haunted film. One that eschews the lurid gore effects that made his name and whose later films were dominated by their attempts to top (needless to say those who come to Door Into Silence looking for a New York Ripper level of sleaze will be sorely disappointed) in favor of a film filled with tense existential dread and the presence of the director’s own oncoming mortality.

That’s how it looks on paper anyway.

In practice Door Into Silence is repetitive, clumsy and predictable. Any interest that the film has is supplied by the audience through comparison to Fulci’s other films and its place in his career. Taken on its own the text itself provides nothing of interest. Just the umpteenth retread of Carnival Of Souls.

Door Into Silence opens with a car wreck and then cuts directly to a man (John Savage) standing alone in a cemetery, before we the wily viewer can wonder “Hmm… what’s this all about?” The man is accosted by a strange woman who claims to know him, and then has his commute home interrupted by a funeral procession. A little further on the trip he’s menaced by a strange hearse that keeps appearing in odd places and driving aggressively. You can probably guess where this is all going.

Door Into Silence does have a few things going for it, for one thing it returns Fulci to the American South, and for novelty’s sake actually looks as though it was shot there, rather than the “A week of exteriors than back to Europe!” look that haunts most of Fulci’s features, but then maybe I’m just being naïve. Regardless Fulci knew how to shoot the area, making the persistent greenery and waterways look down right oppressive.

Which is a good thing as the film often feels as though its shooting the main character’s road trip in real time. At 87 minutes the movie is overlong. Door Into Silence is a punishing repetitive movie, every ten minutes or so the protagonist is either menaced by the hearse, engages in an elliptical conversation with the mysterious woman, or meets some unfriendly locals. There’s no way around it, the film is sloppy, in a way that even the meanest of Fulci’s work usually wasn’t, at the very least it’s the only film of his that I know of that employs the constant use of overcranking, and editing so choppy that its downright amateurish. The post production on the film is so bad I assumed that Fulci had died some time during the making of the film, and was unable to supervise as they tried to get a coherent whole out of a truncated production. But nope, he expired five years after the completion of the film. Which was a depressing thing to find out, let me tell you.

 The film looks shoddy too, supposedly shot for TV (I couldn’t confirm this, but it would explain the film’s aspect ratio and absence of trademark gore among other things) the film looks flat and drab a far cry from Fulci’s usual lurid Paperback Novel cover compositions.

In short Door Into Silence is just about as disappointing as a film can be. Not so much a final bow as it is an awkward cough and an embarrassed shuffle off stage, Fulci deserved better.

Monday, October 15, 2012

31 Days Of Horror: The Vampyr

(Remember kids you too can put me in a coffin and parade me through the city streets, if that's you know your thing, if you buy a copy of Son Of Danse Macabre for you Nook or Kindle)

There is perhaps no word in horror criticism as overused as nightmarish, which tends to be a lazy way of saying either, “Something weird is shown happening,” or the narrative cause and effect is slightly more opaque than “Der’s a bomb ind da builting! GED OUD!”

Films that actually that attempt to capture the lurching, yet lucid dislocative feel of a nightmare are rare, the ones that actually achieve this tone are rarer still and of these arguably none have captured the feel of being trapped in the dark corners of ones own mind than The Vampyr.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates this better than what a particularly tough film it is to get a grasp on.  I always remember it as a silent film, which it is of course not (the film has both a score and limited dialogue). It’s a film that I’ve seen discussed as one of the last works of European expressionism, but that’s not really correct either, aside from a few gothic flourishes The Vampyr is a film that very much takes place in the real world. Indeed this is the very thing that gives its most intense imagery such extraordinary power. It is much more closely linked to surrealism than expressionism, as what it portrays is a very ordinary world invaded by the uncanny, as opposed to a world seen through the twisted perspective of the uncanny. But even this description falls short in describing the austere feel of the film. The Vampyr, like all of Dreyer’s films is simply unquantifiable. And trying to describe what school it belongs to or the curious effect that watching it has, is in a lot of ways just as fruitful as- well trying to explain to a disinterested friend about the really weird dream you had last night.  

As is describing the plot. And once again we have the odd shifting perspectives around the film. I’ve heard the film’s story described in fairly straight forward terms, and can’t help but wonder if I am alone in finding the movie truly and deeply weird on a narrative level. The Vampyr follows a young man, who comes to an ominous European village and eventually makes his way to first a haunted castle, and then a country manor, where the daughter of the homeowner is under the attack of a Vampire(yr). This might sound fairly straight forward, but that doesn’t convey the oddness of how everything fits together. The Vampyr is a film where cause and effect have a distant chilly relationship, and are not necessarily on speaking terms with one another. Things just sort of happen in Dreyer’s film, with the protagonist buffeted along to observe scene after scene that just don’t really fit together. There is no Lynch like tipping of the hand, every scene is played more or less on the level. It’s just that they seem to follow their own inscrutable tidal pull rather than traditional story structure.

When for example the protagonist is first warned of the threat, it is by an old man who breaks into his inn room, stares at him for awhile says “She Must Not Die.” Gives no further explination, leaves a brown paper wrapped package upon which he casually inscribes “To be opened in the event of my death.” And then leaves. If the main character finds this at all odd he keeps it to himself.

And this is an expository scene.

This leads to one of the two most famous scenes in the film where he wanders to an abandon castle (once again note that this is pretty much a matter of impulse rather than logical narrative progression) and finds it filled with dancing shadows that have become untethered from their owners. The sequence would almost be whimsical (a word you won’t hear much in Dreyer) if it weren’t so unsettling, and of course no explination is offered.

The rest of the vampire does offer some of the traditional features of the vampire tale. The helpless victim preyed upon (in daylight, in the middle of the road and with the vampire itself portrayed as a wizened old woman, her face deformed by age [something of a motif in the film]. All signs of Dreyer once again bucking traditional imagery), the disinterment and staking of the creature, the tracking and killing of its familiar (the village doctor who looks for all the world like the secret love child of Mark Twain and Nietzsche). Yet it all feels, well not perfunctory but distant. One of the oddest features of the film is that the hero never seems to be in any danger from the vampire. Even the film’s most famous sequence in which he “dies” and then witnesses his own burial from the inside of a coffin with a glass window, is ultimately revealed to be a dream, or at most a vision sent to him as a kind of passive aggressive revenge.

To say that Dreyer was uninterested in the vampire would be unfair, both to Dreyer and to the vampire. But it would be fair to say that perhaps he saw them more as a symptom than an end to themselves. They are only one aspect of the uncanny, which The Vampyr arguably portrays better than any other film. After all, no director was better than Dreyer at portraying people struggling for contact with the divine and here he has its dark opposite, equally inexplicable and unknowable. It’s a force that twists the world of shape and warps the story. Powerful enough that it literally rents shadows from the bodies that cast them. Perhaps that’s what makes The Vampyr such a hard film to get a hold of and describe, it’s like watching a film with a gravity well embedded in its center.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

31 Days Of Horror: Day 10: Hell's Labyrinth

(Remember by purchasing Son Of Danse Macabre on your Nook or Kindle you too can send me to a hell Labyrinth to be stalked by beasts. Trust me I would much rather do that than watch Hell’s Labyrinth again.)

Holy Shit. Or perhaps the phrase should be modified to Wholly Shit.

Every once in awhile you see a film that reminds you what a terrible movie actually is. I’m not just talking about a film that falls short of its goals, lacks imagination, is stiffly acted, written or directed. I’m not talking about something clichéd or that has been market tested until every lingering shred of what once may have been human creativity has been consigned to the choir invisible. I’m not talking about the bland or the forgettable. The pat or perfunctory. The already done, the forgettable the lamentable or the vanity project. After all folks those are pretty darn thick on the ground.

I’m talking about those occasional gems that sink so far below the goal of mere competence. That are so achingly inadequate on every single level that response ceases to be merely something as common as distaste and approaches a sort of awe. Like a waterfall in the midst of the forest, it reminds you of the essence of things.

This is all my roundabout way of saying HOOLLEEEE SHEEEETTT is Carnivore, or if you were unlucky enough to be duped by Redbox, Hell’s Labyrinth  (which is odd given that this second title makes WAY more sense, and the generic Carnivore sounds like the generic counterpart used to bring in the rubes) is a bad movie. But not in any ordinary way, it transcends the limits of badness. This is what bad wants to be when it grows up.

Hell’s Carnivore begins with longtime friend of the Things That Don’t Suck and Actioncast mate Joe Drilling being menaced and then stomped upon by a PSone graphic, like Mario crushing a Koopa. Do not mourn for poor Joe, for he gets to leave the film early, and verily I had to stay unto the end. Give me the monster any day. After the monster has turned Joe and his party into mulch (without ever looking for one second as though he is in the same frame with them, fancy that) we cut to a woman in the woods somewhere, her car has broken down and a little old man stops to help her. But Dun Dun Duuuuhhh is intentions are not good, and after a short chase through the woods in which the footage is sped up Benny Hill Style, because I guess they thought no one would notice(?) The woman wakes up inside The SNES port of Doom.

I’m fucking serious.

It is literally impossible to exaggerate how bad this movie looks, it’s like a Screen Saver from Windows 95. Making the average Asylum production look like the work of James Cameron. It’s just another example of how the digital revolution has been as much a curse as a blessing to low budget filmmakers. Were Carnivore Labyrinth shot in an earlier time it may have merely looked shoddy. But the fully on green screen style of it makes it look like someone gouged out the eyes of the entire rendering staff and they were just doing things on instinct. As a result everyone is running through and fighting animatics. Once again, this is not an exaggeration. Where their no darkened hallways they could shoot in?

Soon the hero of the film shows up wielding a broad sword and speaking like a psychopath who was raised in isolation the lesser films of Kurt Russell and Nic Cage the only contact he was allowed with the outside world.  Together they seek to uncover the dark secrets of the labyrinth and themselves, and for a nice change of pace. It’s stupid. Really stupid.  The story is stupid, the writing is stupid, the acting is awful, and the effects as we have established is eye searingly bad. Truly this film has it all.  From the opening scene the part where two characters have a knife fight with CGI KNIVES (Could they not find fucking knives?), that float mysteriously above their hands Hell Labyrinth Of The Carnivore is truly a wonder to behold. As a fellow once said, Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

31 Days Of Horror: Day 9: Grave Encounters

(Remember folks you too can lock me away in a rotting mental asylum to get lobotomized if only you buy Son Of Danse Macabre on your Nook or Kindle and email me a picture)

Allow me to be clear, I am just as tired of the found footage genre as the next guy. No wait, strike that- I’m willing to bet that I am much more tired of the found footage genre than the next guy. I’m tired of the way that each film uses the exact same three or four scares. I’m tired of the way that it allows for the same BS copout ending to be trotted out in every case. I’m tired of the way that it lack of aesthetics and grammar can sap even the skill of a director like George Romero. I’m tired of its cheapness, I’m tired of its lack of imagination. I’m tired of its lazy staging and even lazier writing. I am tired of it.

So let me say that it means a great deal that Grave Encounters, if not exactly restoring my faith in the subgenre, at least proved to me that imagination and style can be applied to the genre by anyone with half a will to. As much as am loathe to praise the work of a couple of filmmakers who would self affix the name "The Vicious Brothers" (what's the matter fellas was “The Scary Dudes” takens?), Grave Encounters is actually a pretty decent little scare film that threw in some genuine left turns. Say what you will about it, but its problems are not the problems of the genre as a whole. Far from lazy it is staged with precision and a genuine talent for composition and far from shoving its scares and effects in the background, blurred and out of focus, Grave Encounters downright assaults the viewer with them.

Grave Encounters starts off as a promo reel for one of those ghost hunter shows where people walk around staring into night vision cameras, holding evp meters looking scared. It’s actually the first time that Grave Encounters gives an inkling of how creative its going to be. It replicates and mocks the grammar of such shows quite efficiently, complete with gratuitous time lapse shots, the pasty faced town historian that they’ve trotted out to point out the skeletons in the closet, the classic pan in zoom out down a spooky hallway trick, and the cast arrayed in ridiculous group poses before whatever crumbling edifice they’re tackling this week.

Far from a crew of true believers, the hosts and crew of Grave Encounters are a team of cynical professionals, and half the fun of the early run of Grave Encounters is watching them drop their tremulous sincere on camera poses at the drop of a hat in order to bribe passerbys for stories, laugh at the bullshit they’re slinging or set up scares. Of course as you might have guessed, given that it’s a horror film and what not, the building they’re preparing to shoot in, a hulking former insane asylum, is actually haunted and they’re actually very screwed.

The Vicious Brothers (sigh) are very smart about the pacing of their film, starting off small with the type of events that actually do feature on these shows, before building gradually into the poltergeist like attacks normally found in the found footage genre and then, quite unexpectedly (and gratifyingly) dropping all pretense and going for an all out assault.

The Vicious Brothers, (sigggghhhh) also obviously know their genre and command a wide array of films to crib from. Not just the inevitable callbacks to Session 9 and The Blair Witch Project (and yes that’s pretty much the Mississippi of found footage horror but there is no mistaking certain set-ups) but everything from Coffin Joe to House Of 1000 Corpses gets referenced. Trust me the last thing I expected to see when cueing up the movie was an extended homage/ripoff of House Of Freaking Leaves (the official title).

The problem with Grave Encounters is that it ultimately falls prey to 100 foot bug syndrome, the idea that when the door is thrown open and the monster revealed, the audience screams because it sees a hundred foot bug but is ultimately relieved that it is not a thousand foot bug that has been revealed.  When Grave Encounters is allowed to play things low key through inference it manages to create a genuine atmosphere of dread (And though I ribbed it the callback to House Of Leaves, when the asylum morphs into a labyrinth of unending dark hallways that stretch for impossible distance is actually done very well making for arguably the best part of the film). When it is forced to show its cards it reveals many fine one hundred foot bugs, but ultimately no one thousand foot bugs.

Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely commend The Vic- you know what fuck it, for having the guts to show its stuff. Say what you will about it but Grave Encounters ultimately serves up the steak with its sizzle. The staging is creative, the cast is committed and brings a genuine level of desperation to the whole thing. Its just that ultimately its scares are on the level of an above average screamer or Haunted House. It's a good B horror movie, as opposed to a great horror film. As it just so happens that’s exactly what a lot of people are looking for this time of year, and to them I give Grave Encounters my genuine enthusiastic endorsement. It’s clever, it’s well shot, it’ll make you jump... And it won’t leave a bruise.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

31 Days Of Horror: Day 8: Dead End

(You too can send me down a road of infinite horror and despair if you are so good as to purchase my book Son Of Danse Macabre on your Kindle Or Nook and send me photo)

Dead End starts off as unpromisingly as any horror film I’ve ever seen.

The opening fifteen minutes of the film feel oddly tone deaf, all the characters unpleasant to one degree or another. The dialogue strange and stilted filled with Marylin Manson jokes that were to be dated even ten years ago when the film was made and a surprisingly large percentage of the dialogue given over to lame, though particularly ugly, gay jokes made by the requisite asshole teen. The writing on the characters is lazy shorthand and their actions unmotivated. It all just a bit off, (perhaps it can be blamed on a French director handling an English speaking cast). When people complain about characters making stupid decisions in horror films this is what they’re talking about, within the first ten minutes of the film the family in Dead End have left the interstate in exchange for an ominous country road, picked up a strange woman carrying an oddly motionless baby (that no one bothers to check or even take a passing glance at), abandoned their grown daughter by the side of said dark country road, stopped at a lightless shack with hatchets on the walls and wandered off into the dark woods to masturbate (really).

Maybe that’s why the film was able to creep up on me so effectively. Because just as I was through dismissing Dead End the damndest thing happened, the movie began to work. On the surface nothing much changes, the characters are still written stiffly, and behave unbelievably. But their disturbingly offkilter actions, the monotonous, repetitive imagery, along with a few moments of genuine unpredictability and good old fashioned scares creates an atmosphere of real dread. Blame low expectations, blame the insomnia I’ve been dealing with for the past week, but I have to admit that Dead End really started to unnerve me as it went on.

Dead End follows the Harrington family on their way to Christmas dinner. The father (played by Ray Wise) decides to take a shortcut, onto a dark deserted country road. It soon becomes evident that something is very wrong. The road continues on a repetitive course, traveling though an apparently never ending stretch of woods. They stop and pick up a hitchhiker who soon vanishes, after apparently killing and mutilating the grown daughter’s boyfriend. Desperate for help the group continues driving trying to reach the town of Millcot which despite the signs never seems to get any closer.

One by one the characters are picked off, spirited away by an ominous black car, only to be found later in various gruesome states of disrepair. The radio and their cellphones are filled with bursts of white noise and the crying of infants, the forest filled with odd shapes that one of them claims to be dead friends. As their numbers dwindle and they begin to crack under the pressure things, long buried secrets are unveiled and the situation grows steadily worse.

You’ve probably got a pretty good idea where this is going (and if you don’t consider that Dead End was made in 2003 when the term Shyamalanesque could still be construed as a compliment) , as they say you get three guesses and the first two don’t count about the nature of the Harrington’s plight.

Which brings me back to what’s so strange about the film, its not as I've said, as if any of these flaws go away. Ray Wise, and Lin Shaye are both talented character actors but even they stumble around some of the awkward dialogue they are forced to say.  The film remains predictable,  familiar and clumsily written, but it works anyway. At just under eighty minutes the film still manages to feel like an act of endurance (in a good way). The sheer isolation of its characters, the maddening monotony of the dark woods through which they travel, the utter hopelessness of their situation, the inherent awful tension of having a family member go mad, the cumulative effect of it is all disconcertingly eerie.

For all of director Jean Baptiste Andrea’s clumsiness with actors he manages he does know how to stage a sequence. The moment where the first body is discovered is very well handled, suggesting much and showing just the right amount of graphic detail to give you a full unpleasant picture of what has happened. Andrea knows how to stage a scene, time a jump scare, or unveil an unsettling detail just right for maximum impact.

Of course on his way out the door his worst instincts reassert themselves, unnecessarily shoving in as much explanation as possible on its way out the door, including unnecessarily giving a rib nudging “Eh see what I did there?” wink, ruining one of the few subtle details that the movie managed to slip in by accident.

Look I’ll level here, I have absolutely no idea whether I can honestly recommend Dead End. I’m baffled. There are large stretches of it that are unambiguously flat out bad. Yet I have to be honest that the film worked on me, and made me as genuinely uncomfortable as any horror film in memory. Whether the film would work on me again with the very specific set of circumstances that have been the last couple of weeks (not to bore anyone with details but woooboy) I cannot say. It’s a conundrum. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

31 Days Of Horror: Day 7: Lord Of Illusions

(Another day another request, still plenty of time to get yours in, photographic evidence of Son Of Danse Macabre on your Kindle or Nook earns you the right to see me buried up to my nose in Desert Hardpan)

It is uncanny how completely watching The Lord Of Illusions replicates the experience of reading a Clive Barker book. For all the good and bad that implies. After all Barker's style has always been highly baroque, sexualized and filled with intense imagery. Sensual, intense and occasionally very silly.  Very, very, silly.

Like William Peter Blatty Barker has put in equal time as a director as well as an author, which have led to one bonafide, beloved classic of the genre, one cultishly adored studio mangled martyr of a film and... the other one. 

Lord Of Illusions opens with four former members of a cult storming their old compound in order to save a little girl that the leader of said cult plans to sacrifice. This being a Barker story the cult leader Nix, played by character actor Daniel Von Bargen (yes the one who recently survived shooting himself in the head; no I cannot think of anything to write about that wouldn’t come off as incredibly unsavory) can actually do magic. This also being a Barker story, his cult consists mostly of androgynous maniacs and a blue assed, large testicled Baboon, who is showcased prominently for little reason beyond, well wouldn’t you showcase a blue assed large testicled Baboon? (Alternate lines could have included a variation on the 800 pound gorilla, “Where ever it wants to gag).

Years later the four rebel members start dying off in gruesome ways that may or may not be related to their betrayal and murder of their former dark master (you are safe betting may). Drawn into this is private eye Harry D’ Amour (goofy names also something of a Barker specialty) when he witnesses one of the members murdered and drawn in further when a second death of one of the members, now a famous magician, also dies under his watch. Onstage. In rather spectacular fashion.

The blending of noir and horror has created some potent cocktails over the years. From the deep carnivorous shadows of Val Lewton, to the gold standard of the sub genre, the darkly fascinating and still disturbing Angel Heart. Barker is playing with some rarified company here and Illusions doesn’t quite measure up. Scott Bakula, who plays D’ Amour isn’t exactly what you would refer to as magnetic, the nineties CGI is eye scaldingly dated. The film was apparently cut down from a much longer cut (and at two hours it isn’t exactly what you would call a model of narrative efficiency) and it shows, subplots are dropped without warning, characters wander in an out (and Bakula never really feels like the main character) the whole thing just feels a bit shapeless.

And yet when the film clicks it really does clicks. The reason Barker so frequently looks silly is because he refuses to check himself. His imagination is unfettered and undomesticated and the imagery he dredges up from it often truly disturbing. Lord Of Illusions is flawed no doubt, but its also ambitious and evocative and it has moments including a montage set to the old Blues song While The Blood Runs Warm In Your Veins that are as genuinely chilling as anything I’ve seen in a horror film.

At the end of the day, if you want to see a really great mixture of Private Eye film and Horror… rent Angel Heart. But if you’ve seen Angel Heart half a dozen times and want something else, you could do worse.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

31 Days Of Horror: Day 6: Q The Winged Serpent

Another day another request, remember you too can sacrifice me to your God of choosing, by purchasing Son Of Danse Macabre on your Kindle or Nook and then sending me the evidence at

Grunge auteur Larry Cohen dedicated his career to making the most insane films he could conceive on the lowest budget possible. Imagine John Waters if he was obsessed with gangsters, monsters and people exploding into white goo, rather than Transvestites and psychopaths. (Though come to think of it people exploding into white goo is an interest that they may very well share)

Q The Winged Serpent might be the apex of Cohen’s insane brand of exploitation cinema (And I only say “might” because the man also has The Stuff to his name).  In  Q a giant Pterodactyl like creature who might also be an Aztec God (We’ll get to that part later) terrorizes and devours half of early eighties New York. Showcasing his divine nature by snacking on nude sunbathers and biting the heads off of the annoying. Hot on the trail of the giant flying lizard are New York cops Keith Carradine and Richard Roundtree, but it’s small time hood Michael Moriarty who holds the key to taking it down, having stumbled upon its lair.

That’s right; Bill, Shaft, and er- Michael Moriarty team up to battle a giant flying lizard. Tell me thats not a good time at the movies.

The interesting thing about the film is that being shot so low to the ground it’s almost like there’s a secondary film going on in the background. Cohen and crew shot guerrilla style, without permission or permits, and the New York they capture in the background of the film, going about its giant flying lizard less day to day life is just as vivid and tactile as anything in the filmography of Ferrara or early Scorsese. Catching a street level view of New York at all social strata. From the gutters of Harlem to the patchwork busted up attic at the top of the Chrysler building.

As said the film was made somewhere beyond on the cheap, and as a result Q isn’t exactly going to blow anyone’s mind with its striking realism (though I believe anyone with even a little affection for the art of stop motion is going to have some kind of a soft spot for it that big ole ungainly creature), and long passages go by that are notably Giant Killer Pterodactyl thing free. Cohen fills the time with a subplot involving a cult dedicated to the giant killer Pterodactyl thing, complete with flaying, hearts being ripped out, and various musings on the theological implications of a giant monster creature. The whole subplot can best be described as unhinged. Which in all fairness is a pretty decent description of the film as a whole. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

31 Days Of Horror: Day 4: Room 237

(Taking a small break from the fan programmed 31(?) Days Of Horror, so I can track down a few of the more esoteric challenges that you guys have set for me. In the meantime here's a write up of one of the best films I saw at this years Fantastic Fest, Remember if you want to program an entry just email me a picture of Son Of Danse Macabre on your Kindle or Nook)

Room 237 is not your average documentary about a film. It takes as its focus Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining, not its making, not even so much its meaning, but the effect that the film has had on its audience. The film focuses on ten people who have turned the movie into a kind of giant Rorsarch blot. In which they see whatever the hell they want to see. No. Seriously.

According to these folks what The Shining is really about is the battles with the American Indians over control of the country (okay…) the holocaust (well that’s a bit out there…) and finally how the film really stands as Stanley Kubrick’s confession that he faked the moon landing (Well then). The message that the film really conveys isn’t so much that any of these theories are right, as that Stanley Kubrick has made a powerful disturbing film and it has driven some people around the bend, if quietly and benignly so.

The best part about this is that no matter how outrageously crazy the claim they find evidence to back it up. The thing that makes these people all so convinced that they’re right is of course that nothing got into a Kubrick film by accident. The man was obsessively meticulous about the design and construction of his film, and The Shining where he built all the sets to spec and shot for over a year, represents the outer limits of his control. So if anyone was able to encode say a confession that they were the gunman on the grassy knoll in their horror film it would be Kubrick.

This is the exact same reason that the film’s other line of argument is so compelling. Though the film’s theories of theme are somewhat less than convincing (and really in all fairness Room 237 never pretends that they are, they just let the theorists speak for themselves, not favoring any one theory over the other, just objectively presenting them) its thoughts on The Shining’s style are really quite fascinating. The Shining underlines the fact that Kubrick had grown somewhat obsessed (as he was want to do,) with advertising and it’s techniques. Pointing to the stylistic differences The Shining has with his previous film Barry Lyndon, Room 237 points to the idea that Kubrick constructed The Shining as a subliminally upsetting horror film. One where the ordinary scares are really a distraction from the more insidiously upsetting ways that the film is put together. Through quirks of set Design Kubrick creates windows where no windows should physically be able to exist, through continuity errors he creates an environment that’s ever shifting and morphing, with unconventional edits, an accumulation of odd details he creates a film that is aimed directly at your subconscious.

Once again how much of this is intentional (I’d be willing to bet a fair bit) and how much is accident remains an open question when Room 237 ends. After all even a film as hermetically sealed as Kubrick’s can’t avoid all human error. But even if only a fraction of what Room 237 shows is on purpose it still presents a film that is genuinely one of a kind. It forces one to reevaluate The Shining as an out and out booby trap.  Not bad for a film that I always somewhat dismissed as a shoddy adaptation. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

31 Days Of Horror: Videodrome

We have our first Son Of Danse Macabre purchaser's essay up today. With a look at Videodrome,  In the meantime remember that any reader can request their own review by sending me a picture of Son Of Danse Macabre on their Kindle or Nook

“There’s A Specter Haunting The World!”


“What Does The Disease Want?”

-The Fly-

“It has something you don’t Max.”

“Oh and what’s that?”

“It has a philosophy.”


There is always something haunting the world in David Cronenberg films. Odd for a man who is a staunch materialist, to have so much of the focus of his work focus on the effect of ineffable bodyless presences. Whether they be the poisonous emotional vapor in The Brood, the inescapable weight of the past in A Dangerous Method, Eastern Promises, and A History Of Violence, the evolution with malignant intelligence (philosophy?) in The Fly and Scanners, the mysteries of sex in They Came From Within and Crash. Even the creative impulse itself is suspect as the haunted Burroughes compelled, bullied and commanded by his hideous typewriter to write in The Naked Lunch shows. 

In Videodrome of course you have the airwaves themselves, humming unseen torrents of information around our head. Most of it fairly innocuous, or so we think but when the mask is peeled back.

Videodrome focuses on Max Wren, who let us not beat around the bush, is a pretty poor excuse for a human being. Making his living selling “Softcore sex and hardcore violence.” He’s always on the lookout for the next sensation. As Wren James Woods is fantastic, arguably his best performance, a figure of nearly gleeful amorality and an oily malignant charm. He's matched by Debbie Harry in one of her best performances, as a figure who originally is set up as a foil for Wren, but ultimately has more goblins in her headspace than even he can deal with. 

Wren gets more than he bargains for when he winds up stumbling upon Videodrome, a pirate signal that displays nothing but a single static shot of naked people being tortured by others in blue bodysuits, all done within a large clay room (and just how odd and alien does that set look?) “When do they leave the room?” he asks, they don’t, they never do. There’s no story, no context, just the repetition of sadistic imagery.

Of course Videodrome itself became famous for showing some pretty twisted imagery. It arguably contains the most aggressive assaultive imagery in Cronenberg’s career which is, you know saying something. But for all the TV’s exploding into intestines, handguns and chest vagina, is really a blind, like Videodrome itself Croneberg’s film contains within it its own malignant signal. A much less tangible and more sinister threat.

Because lets face it, nowadays anyone can access footage that would make what’s broadcast on Videodrome look PG with a simple Google search. The ease of access, quantity and sheer variety of sick shit that anyone literally anyone can get their hands on if they so choose would blow poor old Max Wren’s mind (well more than it already ends up blown anyway). Videodrome is one of those rare movies that time has caught up to without dating a whit. All one has to do to see that is compare it to Existenz, which though made much later than Videodrome looks far less prescient, and would seem to have little to nothing to do with our current mediascape. If as Videodrome suggests that the media, not the medium, is the message, then the message that our present sends us is that the average person has an appetite for some pretty twisted shit.

Seen that way Videodrome (and by exstension our own media) becomes the giant implacable id for the entire country, an invisible presence behind the background. Never articulated but always there. A specter haunting the world indeed.

Of course this being Cronenberg, nothing is clear cut.

(Spoilers of a particularly spoilery nature)

After the nearly assaultively abstract first half the events of Videodrome are revealed to have a lucid (well lucidish) explanation.  Videodrome itself is nothing but one big honey trap, a giant lure designed by the CIA to attract as many deviants as it can and give them the particularly nasty form of cancer (or new flesh) that Videodrome delivers. If this explanation seems disappointingly pat coming from Cronenberg, and when compared to the first half of the film the way it is delivered is anything but. Wood's hallucinations grow evermore violent and abstract, helped not at all by the various programmings and deprogrammings he goes through, vacillated by the giant vagina that may or may not have grown on his chest.

And here's where things get tricky, though Cronenberg's view on Max Wren and the broadcasts of Videodrome itself may be unsettlingly detached, he clearly has nothing but contempt for the moral majority types who are attempting to engineer what amounts to a genocide. A type of social engineering based eugenics.

Obviously this is something that Cronenberg abhors, but perhaps not for the reasons one would assume. After all the impulse behind it, and the ascension to the New Flesh that Cronenberg has made the subject of his career is very similar. An attempt to transcend a certain sort of human fallibility. Arguably that's precisely what Wren does here (though at the very least it would be almost impossible to say he does it on his own terms), though like Seth Brundle and Johnny Smith before him, he self immolates in the process. The line between self destruction and enlightenment is exceedingly thin in Cronenberg's cinematic landscape.

As I said before in a lot of ways it's Max Wren's world and we're just living in it. Cronenberg has in his own strange way become one of the most prescient filmmakers of his generation. And that my friends, is fucking scary.