Friday, December 20, 2013

7TH DAY: A Blood-Soaked Character Study

7th Day (2012)
Director: Jason M. Koch
Seen via: Digital Screener
Rating: 6 / 10

"Hi, I'm Allen, and this is what I do," we're told via voiceover as a man breaks into a woman's house and stabs her in the neck. When a film opens like this, my first thought is: this character better be fascinating. Because if I'm going to watch a unabashed psychopath kill and dismember people for a entire feature-length film, I want to leave feeling like I've gained some insight into the nature of the beast. Thankfully, 7th Day is more than your average gore showcase, and leads us deep into the caves of this killer's mind as he wrangles with his tortured psyche.

After being introduced to Allen (Mark S. Sanders), we follow him over the course of a week in his life as he works his demeaning job as a dishwasher for a bar and grill, suffers insults from his boss and co-workers, and longs to connect with the young waitress Denise (Daisy Gibb). On his own time he hangs out with his abrasive neighbor Bill (Michael Brecher), obsessively builds cubes out of various household materials, and fills notebooks with intricate grids of numbers. Oh, and there's the murder. Allen's primary hobby is murdering people.

The inner workings of Allen's mind are slowly revealed through his voice-over narration, which is framed as a interview between him and a ghostly specter who looks as if his skin has begun to melt. Allen's articulate and matter-of-fact narration is wildly divergent from his real-world actions. Well-rehearsed conversations with Denise leave his mouth as rambling monologues accompanied by blank-eyed stares. "I can control myself," he assures us as he takes long swigs of whiskey while in the driver's seat of his car. His calm rationalization of his crimes stand in stark opposition to his unhinged behavior.

Speaking of unhinged, this is a movie drenched in filth, from the trash-littered living room where Allen watches TV to the grimy bathroom in which he dismembers his victims. Even as he's dissecting his victims, Allen has no illusions about their beauty, and states up front that all humans are ugly inside. Not a far stretch when you realize the people he interacts with are pretty awful on the outside as well. The vileness is enhanced by the superb practical effects, which will no doubt leave gorehounds satisfied. It sometimes seems a little gratuitous, but nobody promised that the mind of a serial killer would be pretty.

This is also a film populated almost exclusively by scum. Allen is a hard character to like. The glimpses we get into his tortured psyche almost allow for some sympathy, but it's always negated by his actions. Everyone Allen interacts with is nasty to him in some way or another, a fact that makes sense when you realize the entire film is filtered through his mind. Allen and his neighbor Bill exemplify the worst kinds of misogyny and homophobia, and their drunken rants grow a little tiresome.

What justifies all the difficult material I've just mentioned is Allen's continual self-examination and his crisis of faith. Denise is the one constant in Allen's life that makes him reconsider his actions. A few shreds of Allen's conscience hold on against all odds and threaten to tear his mind in half. Above all the gore and filth, 7th Day is a story about self-realization.

A revelation of sorts does come at the end, although maybe not one you'd expect. It's chilling, and rather clever. Fans of films such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Tony, and Angst should check out 7th Day. The bleakness is sometimes overpowering, and writing about it now is causing the bad taste it left in my mouth to resurface a little bit. But if you're in search of a solid feel-bad film and are willing to indulge a repulsive main character, this may be one for you.

7th Day is currently available on DVD. Thanks to writer Mark Leake for a screener copy of the film. Read more about 7th Day and Dire Wit Films at

Sunday, November 10, 2013

YOU'RE NEXT Restores My Faith in Home Invasion

You're Next (2011)
Director: Adam Wingard
Rating: 8 / 10
Seen via: Raleigh, NC Dollar Theater

No sooner have I finished bemoaning the limited possibilities of home invasion films than along comes You're Next to change my mind. Here's a film that gets it - a film that understands that we don't want to empathize with weepy rich people and allows us to be shocked and sort of thrilled at watching the mannered upper class having their boundaries violated. And just to be fair, it occasionally forces us to acknowledge that we're getting our kicks from some genuinely horrible stuff before we go back to the fun.

You know how this sort of thing starts. Young lovers Crispian (played by the ubiquitous A.J. Bowen) and Erin (Sharni Vinson) journey to the lavish country home of Crispian's family for a reunion of sorts. It's quickly revealed that the rest of the family are a bunch of twits, each one with his or her own grating personality flaws, from arrogant brother Drake (Joe Swanberg) to creepy brother Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and his brooding girlfriend Zee (Wendy Glenn). Why are they such jerks? Don't worry, there's a good reason. Mom and Dad are drab and despondent, as all their wealth is powerless to solve the problem of Mom's depression. We know from the film's prologue that there are murderous criminals in the neighborhood. Can this stately house and this crumbling family survive the assault?

What's most surprising about You're Next is how the characters act against conventional expectations once the invasion begins. There's relatively little at stake initially since we're not terribly predisposed to like these people, but everyone transforms under pressure as they're forced to confront their attackers. Some become more loathsome, some sympathetic, and some downright evil by the end. A hero eventually emerges, but it's not necessarily one you might expect. While the scenario and the setup are familiar tropes, the varied way in which everyone responds goes far beyond the run/scream/hide/plead tactics typically employed by most home-invasion victims.

Adding to the film's effectiveness is its superb craft. I was initially skeptical about this film, having had mixed feelings about Adam Wingard's contributions to the V/H/S anthologies. Here he shows a surprising amount of skill behind the camera and a subtlety I hadn't seen in his previous work. Wingard constantly keeps us guessing as to what lurks in the negative space in his shots. Jump-scares are made more effective by creeping tracking shots that fizzle out and reveal nothing. These tense moments are interrupted with adrenaline bursts of action, the key moments of which are frequently dragged out in slow-motion to draw out the suspense and give you a clear view of the chaos. One of the best sequences involves a character searching a dark basement for one of the assailants with nothing but a camera flash for illumination. Little things like this count for a lot, especially when many films these days are content to furiously shake the camera around in an attempt to be scary. Layered underneath it all is a great soundtrack that throbs and pulses with vintage-style synths.

What struck me most about You're Next was how much fun it is. It's a film that isn't afraid to go off the rails occasionally. Sometimes it throws us a little bit more violence than we're expecting, other times it playfully holds back. There's a gleeful absurdity to the film as this family gradually self-destructs, which culminates in a reckless display of unconventional kitchen appliance use. It was in that moment that I remembered how nice it is to be surprised by a film like this, and how nice it is to have a director who's willing to pay attention to the details. Check it out.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Life of Fear: The Sideshow Attraction

I was familiar with the State Fair scene. I knew the drill. Even though I'd only recently moved to North Carolina, I'd been to similar events when I lived in Minnesota, although they admittedly took place on a smaller scale. I knew what to expect though: farm animals, grotesquely large vegetables, and fried food whose calorie content was more horrifying than any movie I'd seen in years. After milling about for a couple of hours, my friends and I were getting slowly and steadily drenched by a light mist, so we decided to leave for the night by crossing through the midway.

We were nearly at the exit when I heard something above the din of the crowd. It sounded like a sideshow barker's pitch shouted through a megaphone, vaguely archaic, boasting of wondrous sights to behold within a nearby tent. I stopped and located the source to find that this was a single-attraction stand, featuring what was purportedly the world's smallest woman: Tiny Tina.

I'd never seen any sort of sideshow attraction like this outside of the movies. It was too good to be true. I'm a sucker for tourist traps, roadside attractions, and other schlocky carnival fare. When I saw that two of us could get in for a dollar, I was sold. It took some persuading, but I convinced a friend to go in with me to help me verify for the rest of the group what we'd see inside. I paid our admittance and we walked into the small tent.

I'm not sure exactly what I expected, but before entering all manner of charlatanry had run through my mind. An oversized doll? Some decades-old mechanical figure who'd dance and sing through a speaker in its mouth? A statue? The one thing I hadn't counted on was that it'd be an actual person.

Tina sat on a stool just behind the front wall, fenced in with a worn velvet rope. She was a small black woman, a little over two feet in height, wearing a worn lace dress that billowed around her diminutive frame. She sat reading a paperback novel, occasionally looking up at the people who'd paid to gape at her. Her sunken eyes were those of someone who has been tired or depressed for a long time.

I was speechless. This was simultaneously too real and too unbelievable for me to comprehend. I couldn't bear more than a glimpse - it made me sick to think that she was put on display like an animal in a zoo, a caged curiosity who existed for the sole purpose of my entertainment. Even worse were the reactions of the fellow fairgoers in the tent. They pointed, laughed, took cell phone photos. They hung around in the tent like they had all the time in the world, milking that buck for all it was worth.

My friend grabbed my arm and asked if we could leave. I nodded, still speechless with surprise and shame. We exited the tent and our friends asked how it was. We briefly related the scene to them and they shrugged it off. As we left the fair, I tried to excise the scene from my mind so that I could enjoy the rest of the evening. I was successful for a while, but the memories resurfaced throughout the following week.

The thought that I'd paid money to look at another human being made me feel horrible. However much I told myself that Tina was there of her own volition and that she had every right to capitalize on the circumstances of her birth, the expression on her face said that she was not doing this due to any active choice. Her demeanor wasn't that of a person who was happy with the state of their life. It was a look that spoke of regret and disdain for the endless crowds shuffling by day after day. I went into the tent looking for something surprising and a story to tell. It gave me exactly what I paid for. What I hadn't foreseen was the additional cost: that little flake of my soul that I hadn't realized was gone until after I left the tent.

Thanks for sticking with me through all these digressions over the past month. As I sifted through my memories there were many other experiences I considered writing about. For one reason or another, many didn't make the cut. Some were too grounded in reality, some still too fresh. The posts that I did end up writing were all about pretty formative experiences - so think of this as my own personal greatest hits collection of terror. Maybe I'll dig up others in the future. Let me know what you think. For now, click here for other posts in the series that you may have missed. As an added bonus, here's another post from a few months ago which fits nicely with this theme.

Regularly scheduled programming will resume shortly. Thanks, as always, for reading.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Life of Fear: The Exorcist

The Halloween of my freshman year of high school didn't seem like it was going to be anything special. A handful of friends and I had gathered to watch horror movies at my friend's house - let's call him Kyle to protect his anonymity. It was a massive old homestead in rural Minnesota, buried deep within a grove of skeletal trees that from afar looked like an old lumber pile dropped in the the middle of a featureless span of farm fields. The house was thirty minutes away from any town whose population had more than three digits, but it was clear that this had to be where we met. Kyle's dad had a movie collection unlike anything we'd ever seen, big enough to put all the local video stores to shame.

Next to the living room sat what looked to have at one point been a dining room. It had long been repurposed to hold countless carefully labeled and numbered VHS tapes which were stacked in towering piles around the walls of the room. Kyle's Dad would rent movies and copy them onto extended play videos that would allow for three or four films to be condensed onto one tape. Tapes were continually being copied on a couple of secondary VCRs in this room, the start and end times scrawled in a notebook before being transcribed into a computerized spreadsheet. We joked one time that if anyone left an anonymous tip with the FBI, agents would burn the house down upon witnessing the scale of the piracy. Kyle's dad responded by pulling out a handgun from the back of his pants and saying "I'd like to see them try."

It was still early in the night as we sat laughing over the credits of some awful B-movie that I've since forgotten. We didn't know what movie would be next, but Kyle's dad wandered in and was more than happy to offer a suggestion. "Want to see something really scary?" he said (a reference I wouldn't get for years). He disappeared into his video library and returned holding one of the rare tapes that he'd actually purchased. Surely this had to be good if he'd shelled out more than the price of a rental on it. "Try this one out," he said as he tossed us his copy of The Exorcist.

Demonic possession and exorcisms were nothing new to me. I'd been raised Catholic and had spent countless Saturday mornings sitting in religious education classes taught by nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, the same order as Mother Teresa. These grandmotherly nuns wouldn't let us leave class without hugs, always spoke in soft, kind voices, and would occasionally regale us with tales of horrors from the pits of hell. We were told how Satan could enter the bodies of anyone he chose and how priests could then drive him out with nothing but the power of their faith. We were told stories of how the devil would assault priests in the night, assailing them for hours with bodily anguish and awful hallucinations. Their only weapons against the devil were tightly grapsed rosaries and endless strings of Hail Marys. Reading the synopsis on the back of The Exorcist, I thought I knew what I was in for.

As we got deeper into the film it slowly dawned on me that there were things the nuns had left out of their stories. Things more horrible than my mind could imagine at the time. I could deal with spinning heads, pea-soup vomit, and Linda Blair's transformation from cute kid to sallow-eyed monster. What I wasn't prepared for was the blasphemy. As fathers Merrin and Karras prepare to conduct their exorcism of Regan, Father Merrin points out that above all else the demon will seek to undermine their efforts with lies. For all the physical transformation on display, its primary method of attack is psychological.

It was an attack that caught me off guard. The unrelenting stream of profanity spewing from Regan's mouth was an assault on all the doctrine and traditions I'd been raised with. "Your mother sucks cocks in hell, Karras, you faithless slime," is a line that's haunted me ever since. Not so much for the vulgarity, but for the seed that it planted in my head - the possibility that the demon wasn't lying and that this horrible fate awaited the ones I loved. When the camera pans slowly into the room where Regan sits on the bed, masturbating with a bloody crucifix, it was a shock to every bit of Catholicism that had lodged itself in my brain. I'd never conceived of anything that was this blatant an affront to God.

Even worse was the film's refusal to grant us a happy ending. We sat there silent as the credits rolled, none of us sure exactly what to say. We tried to sleep shortly afterward, sprawled on the living room couches, restlessly pondering questions of faith. I found out later that week in school that one friend was so shaken up by the film that he'd confronted his parents about it. He was raised in a branch of Pentecostal Christianity far stricter in practice than my own Catholicism, and had never encountered any stories of possession like that of The Exorcist. He was upset up the whole week afterward, forced for the first time to truly confront what it meant for God to allow evil to persist in the world - particularly evil of this magnitude, that preyed not on the wicked but on innocence.

Which, I think, is exactly what the film intended.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Life of Fear: UFOs and Alien Abduction

The early 90's was a great time to be interested in UFOs, alien abductions, and the paranormal. I can't say what was responsible for the boom of TV shows and movies centered around this theme, but it was a subject that simultaneously attracted and repelled me. I'd frequently allow myself to be scared away after digging too deeply into first-hand accounts of abduction, only to come crawling back for more, searching for answers. I used to have frequent dreams in which alien crafts would land in my backyard, or in which I'd be visited by blank-eyed greys. Below are a few of examples of media that was probably responsible for this.


Before YouTube made streamable video commonplace, (or even before the internet, really) shows like Sightings were all I had for those inticing scraps of poorly shot home-video footage purportedly capturing glimpses of the supernatural. Saturday afternoons at 5:00 were sacred for me, and I'd run to the TV to get my weekly dose of speculation  - one new episode, one rerun - about things that lay beyond the mundane. The most attractive aspect of this show was its sense of possibility. It was flooded with questions that were never fully resolved and interviews packed with anecdotal evidence that stoked my imagination.

Unsolved Mysteries

This show was another staple for fans of the paranormal, granted extra legitimacy (or so it appeared to my young mind) by virtue of its evening time slot that followed the nightly news broadcasts. The show gained extra points for including interviews with witnesses whenever possible, giving it the same feeling as an episode of 60 Minutes or the like. While I wasn't as faithful a viewer of this show, I still have vivid memories of a segment on the Cash-Landrum encounters that haunted me for months.

The X-Files

I remember when the premiere of the X-Files was announced. It seemed too good to be true. Here was everything I wanted in a TV show - aliens, UFOs, government conspiracies, and every instance of the paranormal you could imagine. Even better, it focused on a pair of FBI agents who were actively looking for answers. Fictional or not, Mulder and Scully were my weekly companions into the unknown, belief tempered by skepticism, relentlessly uncovering events that the wider world refused to acknowledge.

Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?

In my opinion this ranks among the best found-footage films just for how convincing it appeared to be upon its release. The practical effects on display are unparalleled, and the mystery surrounding the source of the footage only added to the hype.

The cover of Communion by Whitley Streiber

I've never read this book, and the cover may have something to do with that. This portrait of a grey alien seems almost friendly in a way, with its Mona Lisa-esque smirk. But those eyes. Those impenetrable black pools destroyed me from afar, making me afraid to even approach this book, let alone crack it open.

When I try to pin down exactly why these shows were so appealing to me, I come to several conclusions. The air of mystery surrounding the paranormal was immensely attractive. This was an entire field of study with countless open questions. The experts were seemingly baffled. The answers couldn't be found in books. To my scientifically hungry (but untrained) mind, this was a veritable buffet of problems waiting to be solved. All I had to do was watch the skies and hope for some firsthand evidence to appear.

Compounding the mystery was the not-so-subtle sexual dimension to alien abduction. These were tales of men and women waking up naked before a crowd of horrible beings who would proceed to probe, prod, and examine them. I watched these shows and read these stories in my early adolescence, a time when the mechanics of sex were still vague and slightly terrifying. Is it any wonder that there was some resonance, especially when the abduction narrative may have origins in the subconscious sexual fears and desires of the abductees?

While my skepticism regarding visitors from the skies has only increased with time, I'm still fascinated by what the phenomena says about our need to believe that somewhere out there life has evolved along a track parallel to ours. An undercurrent of hope runs through UFO mythology. Despite the fear of abduction, manipulation, and experimentation, there's always the possibility that we're being used for a greater purpose. Faced with something as frightening as alien abduction, I'm not surprised that some abductees interpret their experiences as part of a grand plan in which accelerated evolution and genetic modification will allow them to join our extraterrestrial brethren among the stars. What can I say? They, like I, want to believe.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Life of Fear: Dreams of Scale

I've mentioned once before that in my real-life job is in the field of astrophysics. At its core, my task is to take some of the most massive objects in the galaxy and render them in symbols, code, and glyphs until they become comprehensible. Reducing unfathomably large objects such as supergiant stars to abstractions that can be easily held within the mind is something I do daily, but I'm frequently aware that it dulls some of the wonder I used to feel when thinking about the scale of the cosmos.

A simulacrum of the universe.
The human mind is limited to the realization of small collections of objects. We can only accurately judge sets of four or less before dividing larger sets into smaller groups. We are able to maintain close relationships with about 150 people at most. When trying to comprehend large numbers, I often think of the film Paper Clips, in which a class of middle school students attempt to gather a single paperclip for each life lost in the holocaust in order to better comprehend its true scale. What started as a cute idea for a project balloons into a devastating realization of the magnitude of the tragedy. The macroscopic world operates on a scale that's beyond our ability to fathom - the universe as a whole is orders of magnitude more complex. At the same time there are multitudes of infinities within each of us. Cells, molecules, atoms, and quarks equally vast in number as the stars in the sky. At the risk of sounding too Lovecraftian, I think there may be something to the idea that insanity would accompany a true understanding of the size and emptiness of the gaps between stars, or atoms.

These are streams of galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars.
Ever since I was a child, I've had intermittent nightmares in which my perception of scale was altered. The dreams typically accompany illness or fever, but I've had them a few times when perfectly healthy - most recently about a year ago. The dreams are identical each time. I find myself formless, floating in a large void. I'm without a body, but retain my normal human sense of vision. There's nothing to see though, just darkness in every direction. After floating for some time I sense an object approaching me. I can't see it, but I know it's there because of how terrifyingly massive it is. In real life I'd be torn to shreds by its tidal forces long before reaching the surface, but in the dream I'm drawn ever closer, until it dwarfs me.

Eventually I find myself alone again, approached by another object, but one that quickly shrinks in size. As before, it's formless, almost invisible, and as I get closer the object continues to shrink. I loom over it as it becomes pointlike, then somehow smaller. I have nothing more than a sense that it's becoming tinier and tinier with time, but where a normal object would vanish, I'm acutely aware of this one. I seem impossibly huge until the object it finally vanishes and the cycle repeats.

It's hard to put such an abstract experience into words, but the experience evokes panic to the point where I usually wake sweating. I've searched online for an explanation, or some similar accounts, and the best I've been able to find is this, which tentatively links the phenomenon to a neurological dysfunction called macro/microsomatognosia (or Alice in Wonderland syndrome). However I try to rationalize the experience when awake, it's just as terrifying each time I encounter it. While I can explain it away as the side effects of sleep paralysis or nighttime hallucinations, there's always the lingering feeling that I haven't experienced a distorted sense of scale at all, but a moment when the veil is lifted and I'm able to perceive the universe as it truly is.

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Life of Fear: The Bélmez Faces

In 1971, in Bélmez, Spain, a housewife named Maria Cámara noticed an image of a human face on the cement floor of her kitchen. The face gazed out impassively and resisted any attempt to wash it away. It appeared to be scoured deep into the surface of the floor. Maria's husband and son were only able to remove the image by destroying and relaying the concrete of the floor.

Shortly afterward the face reappeared, this time frowning as if angry at the attempt to remove it. Understandably disturbed, the Cámara family reached out to friends in the community and word of the phenomenon quickly spread. Additional faces began to appear in the stone walls of the house. Any attempt to remove them was also unsuccessful. Some claimed that over time they would evolve, their position and expressions gradually shifting as they moved through the stone.

Within a year the house became a tourist attraction and was dubbed La Casa de las Caras (The House of the Faces). The Bélmez faces eventually drew a large amount of scientific scrutiny. Analyses of the composition of the images revealed them to be forgeries created by chemical etching. Despite this fact, some parapsychologists maintain (as parapsychologists are wont to do) that the images are thoughtographic projections - manifestations of the Cámara family's subconscious minds projected into the stone.

I read about the Bélmez faces in an anthology of the paranormal (whose name is long forgotten to me) when I was about ten years old. Amidst all the malicious hauntings and creatures featured in the book, the faces were by far the most enigmatic due to their sheer benevolence. They were baffling to me - what could these strange beings want with the Cámara family?

After reading this story, I was haunted by the photographs shown in the book. Their crude smirks and scowls floated in the back of my mind as I tried to sleep that night. I'd seen similar faces in our house - most frequently buried amidst the patterns in the grain of the wood doors. What if these faces turned malicious? What if they started changing? My thoughts spiraled into panic and I ended up downstairs in the living room with my father. It was only then, in the well-lit room with the lull of a TV sitcom laugh track in the background, that I was able to fall back to sleep.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Life of Fear: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

I could probably just say that Mel Stuart's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory scared the crap out of me as a kid and leave it at that, because I know I'm not alone.

Class parties in elementary school were supposed to be a cause for rejoicing - days few and far between when we wouldn't be burdened with worksheets or sitting quietly at our desks. The teacher would retreat back to her corner of the room and mull over stacks of papers while we were left to revel in cupcakes that were more frosting than cake and Dixie cups brimming with lurid punch. To help us cope with the inevitable sugar crash, the day would end with the class sitting in the dark and watching a movie. I'm not sure what occasion inspired our second grade teacher to choose Willy Wonka, but it occurs to me now that she (lacking the ability to turn us all into apples) might have picked this film out deliberately to try and inflict some emotional scars on the class.

There are three scares in this film that stand out vividly in my memory to this day:

1. Augustus Gloop falling into the chocolate river. Near-drowning aside, the thing that's most horrifying about this scene is the boy's reappearance in the transparent tube that sucks chocolate off to be processed elsewhere in the factory. The claustrophobia of the situation was awful, made even worse by the fact that the boy was so close to his distressed parents but unable to be helped by them in any way. The fact that he's sucked away to the incinerator only makes it worse, as does Wonka's nonchalance in the face of ostensible child death. This was the first scene in the movie when I realized I might be watching a madman.

2. The tunnel scene. You know the one. If watching one kid get whisked to his doom wasn't enough, there's this warped bit of psychedelia to follow it up. A lot of people get hung up on the rear-projected images of bugs crawling across faces and what appears to be an actual chicken being decapitated. To be honest, I don't have strong memories of those. What I do remember is Wonka's blank-faced stare at his passengers' fright, and his atonal song that builds slowly into a scream, then a shriek. "Are the fires of hell a'growing? Is the grisly reaper mowing?" My adult self loves that the screenwriters thought all of this was suitable for a childrens' film, but I don't think I need to elaborate too much on what it did to me the first time around.

3. Violet Beauregard's inflation. In retrospect, this scare wasn't that frightening on its own, but it was just enough to put me over the edge. Even scarier than the fact that Wonka freely admits the girl would retain her azure skin tone after undergoing some horribly vague "deflation" process was the fact that a pattern seemed to be emerging. Two children had been dispatched, and three still remained.

I saw the direction this was going and I didn't like it. At this point in the movie I was done. I tried desperately to concoct a scheme where I'd be sent home, allowed to switch classrooms, or even wait out the rest of the movie elsewhere. The best I could come up with was to ask my teacher if she had any papers to grade or sort, which was really just a plea for something to occupy my time. To her credit, she came up with a task on the spot and let me work on it across the hall in the library. (Maybe she wasn't so mean after all.)

Eventually the principal wandered past, and seeing me sitting there alone at a table with tears streaked across my face, asked what I'd done to earn this punishment. How could I make her understand that I wasn't the one who had misbehaved? In the movie that I had just watched, the adults were the insane ones. Worse, they could be actively malicious, and to ruinous consequence when placed in positions of power. Before me stood the most powerful figure in the school, and she thought I was in the wrong. Did I want her on my bad side? What had I done?

"Nothing," I said, and went back to my work.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Life of Fear: Stories

Sometimes I think about all the horrifying things I've seen in movies and wonder how they'd add up if I ran the numbers. Just how many deaths have I watched for entertainment? How many dismemberments, disembowelments, and eye-gougings have paraded across a screen for me to laugh, scream, or shudder at? Still, for all the grotesqueries I've witnessed, I usually find that it's the things that aren't shown in a film that hit the hardest. This might be why I respond more viscerally to horror that I read as opposed to horror I watch. A good imagination can be your worst enemy, and the best horror fiction uses just the right amount of ambiguity to leverage your thoughts against you.

More recent examples will follow, of course, but right now I want to devote some time to the three books of my youth that left the deepest mental scars. Of the three, one can't even be considered horror at all. Louis Sachar's Sideways Stories from Wayside School is about an elementary school whose blueprints were botched prior to its construction. The result is a building erected on its side, like a skyscraper, rather than horizontally. The altered design is enough to send the entire school into disarray, and all sorts of crazy things happen within the school to place the students' education and general well-being in peril.

The first story introduces us to Mrs. Gorf, the meanest teacher in the school. Mrs. Gorf turns her students into apples when they misbehave, or even when they don't - she's really just concerned with keeping the kids quiet so that she doesn't have to teach. So one by one, over the course of one fateful week, each kid commits some minor infraction and ends up on her desk as a shiny red delicious.

The amount of fear this story inspired in me seems ridiculous now. Maybe the reason it hit home was that Mrs. Gorf bore a uncanny resemblance to my own 2nd grade teacher, who I'm sure would have turned me into an apple had she possessed the power. For a story to take that fear of an adult who didn't particularly like you and turn it into a tale where they became outright malicious had more than a little resonance at the time. I put this book right back on the shelf after reading that story and let my eyes slide past it every time went to get something new to read. I avoided this book for months, but eventually my curiosity grew too strong. I skipped the Mrs. Gorf story and read the rest of the book to find out with some relief that the following chapters weren't nearly as grim.

Book number two was Choose Your Own Adventure #6: The Green Slime. This is the first book that told me a story whose characters met an unhappy ending (and actually died if I remember correctly). The fact that it was my choices that led to their demise made it that much worse. I haven't seen a copy of this book since I returned it to the library back in the eighties, so I can't say much more than I remember there being far too many wrong choices to make, even for this series.

Another perennial favorite, one that caused more nightmares than probably any other book in my life, was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its two sequels. Anyone who's read these books knows immediately why they're memorable - and it's not for Alvin Schwartz's collections of retold folk tales, urban legends, and poems, although those are good. It's the illustrations by Stephen Gammell. The stories aren't actually all that scary, nor were they when I was a kid. Some are appropriately gruesome, but they're balanced by other stories that end with sufficient humor or irony to soften the blows.

But the pictures. Oh god, the pictures. These images are etched forever in my memory, particularly the following:


Despite how horrifying they are, I was fascinated by these illustrations. These are some of the most iconic pieces of art ever to appear in children's books, and they've been the source of no small amount of controversy since their release. I'm dismayed beyond words that HarperCollins elected to remove the art from the most recent edition of the books. Gammell's work has been replaced with offensively generic art that's laughable when you look at it alongside the original paintings. (See this and this for more information on Gammell and the controversy.)

Sure, I understand, parents want to protect their babies from everything scary in the world. It's true that all of these books inspired legitimate fear in me as a kid. But I got over it. I learned to self-police when I was reading and eventually grew braver. The curiosity that these books inspired eventually led me to re-read them (in two out of three cases), and they quickly became some of my favorites. The lesson they taught me wasn't that books are scary and bad and to be avoided at all costs, but that the written word can be powerful enough to evoke emotion as strong as that which you'd experience in the real world. It's the reason I still love to read, and for that I thank each one of these authors, however warped they may be.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A Life of Fear: Monsters

Lots of kids are afraid of monsters underneath their beds. I had monsters in the ceiling.

When I was about five years old, my parents had ceiling fans installed in the bedrooms of our house. I was fascinated with the thought that the installation would require a hole to be drilled into the ceiling just above the foot of my bed. Something previously permanent, in what should have been the safest place in the house, was being breached. It seemed inevitable that something... some thing would take advantage of this newly opened portal.

I have vivid memories of lying in the dark watching the newly installed fan spin. Logic would seem to dictate that since the fan plugged the hole, I was safe. Nope. Its gyrations created a vortex that drew supernatural creatures from the ether and sucked them into my room, like bugs caught in the water of a draining tub. Closing my eyes didn't help. I could feel them brushing against my face in the fan's breeze.

Eventually I started to see the shapes that these monsters had adopted. They flew from the ceiling, circling the the room: lurid, cartoonish figures that bled from the pop culture, television, and comic books my mind had soaked up. Frankenstein's monster, Freddy Krueger, Dracula, Satan, even some superheroes - it only occurs to me now that of all the possible monsters that could have terrified me, the ones that were the most frightening came in human forms. Maybe it was that those seemed more realistic, as if I realized that something the most likely to do me actual harm would come in the form of another person.

I'm not sure whether I fell prey to a particularly vivid nightmare or some form of sleep paralysis that night, but the specters were banished with a scream, dispelled by the light from the hall shining into my room as my parents rushed in. I never saw the monsters again, a fact that I attributed to the litany of prayers I recited each night afterward as I fell asleep. I'd make bargains with God, enumerating the names of the monsters from whom I required protection - scariest first, least threatening at the end. I'd keep my face buried in the pillow, half in trust that there was nothing hovering above me, half out of fear that my gaze would wander back to the ceiling and I'd discover with sickening dread that I was wrong.

A Life of Fear

Happy October, everyone. I'm going to try something a little different here to try and get into the mood of the season.

Underneath my own personal fascination with horror movies lies a deep obsession with the nature of fear. Even though it's a rare film these days that actually scares me or even unsettles me, my initial attraction to the genre was one born of genuine fear. I have the suspicion the same is true for a lot of horror fans, even if a sustained love of horror seems to often bloom into more of an interest in the grotesque, the subversive, the transgressive, and a more general appreciation of the medium of film. Regardless of all the layers of meaning contained within the label "horror fan," for me it all started with things that scared me out of my skull.

It wouldn't have turned out quite like this if was I born with the ability to look away. I was the kid who always lifted up rocks to see what squirmed in the mud. At the doctor I've always watched the needle poke into my arm. My chances of surviving as a character in a horror film would be next to nothing - I'd be the one opening the door to the basement. I'd head out into the woods to investigate the strange sounds and lights. I'd be the one reading the cursed book or digging up the sordid history of the abandoned cabin. So where many people hide their eyes when something horrific shows up on the TV or movie screen, I find my own become locked open, fixed to the screen even when I don't want to see what comes next. In horror stories, knowledge tends to come with dire consequences. Unfortunately in most situations, I can't stand not knowing the truth.

So throughout this month I'm going to turn the microscope around to myself and examine the things that have terrified me in the past. I'll also take a look at what still has the ability to do so today. I'm not going to limit myself solely to films, but since this is typically a film blog, and film is what got me into horror, there'll be a lot of movie-related talk.

I'd also like to hear from you all. Tell me the things that kept you awake when you were a kid. Tell me about the dark things that run circles in your brain. I'll recount my experiences more or less chronologically. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Come Forth From Your Blessed Abyss

The Lords of Salem (2012)
Director: Rob Zombie
Rating: 8 / 10
Seen via: Anchor Bay DVD

Love him or hate him, there's no denying that Rob Zombie has a knack for making films that divide the horror community. I'll admit that I've been paying limited attention to his career since the enjoyable mess of House of 1000 Corpses - many of his later films have been sitting in the dank corners of my to-watch list for years. But with Zombie in full creative control and under no pressure from studios looking to hawk franchise entries at lowest common denominator audiences, it seemed like the stars had finally aligned for him. I'm glad I took a chance on The Lords of Salem, because it's one of the most interesting horror films I've seen so far this year.

Heidi Hawthorne (played by Zombie's wife Sheri Moon) is a late-night rock station DJ in Salem who is trying to move on with her life after a bout with drug addiction. Things seems to be looking up for her until she receives a mysterious record in the mail from an underground band called "The Lords," who are promoting an upcoming performance. Despite consisting of nothing but a loop of oddly discordant strings, the song surges in local popularity. It also provokes a strange awakening in many of the women who hear it on the radio. Meanwhile, in her apartment building Heidi is haunted by sinister apparitions that manifest down the hall in the vacant apartment 5. Is she losing her mind, or has she fallen unwittingly into the plans of some sinister force? Furthermore, who are the Lords and what role do they play in the strange events occurring in Salem?

Zombie draws on a wide variety of influences to create a dense visual atmosphere in this film, but he's smart enough to avoid too many overt references. Languid pacing and a willingness to indulge in horrifying imagery often give it the feel of an old Italian horror film. The lurid parade of sacrilegious imagery evokes memories of some of Jodorowsky's dreamlike sequences, but with a more sinister bent. In lesser hands the outlandish parts of the film could have been a spectacular failure, but it all fits together here. The film is also populated with a cast of cult heroes, including Dee Wallace, Ken Foree, and Patricia Quinn.

Sheri Moon Zombie turns in a subdued performance that I'd never have guessed she was capable of after her role as the maniacal Baby in House of 1000 Corpses. The two characters couldn't be more dissimilar, particularly because Heidi feels like a human being rather than a giant caricature. While Zombie can't resist some occasionally lecherous camerawork (perhaps to offset the more geriatric female nudity in the film's prologue), Heidi is typically portrayed doing ordinary things: walking her dog, eating breakfast, going to work... all of which contrast wonderfully with the horrifying dreamscapes she's eventually pulled into.

With all the avant-garde ambition of this film, it's not too surprising that the weakest element is the plot thread that closely mirrors something you'd find in a more traditional horror film. Bruce Davison plays the horribly dull Francis Matthias, a local author who's just published a book about the Salem witch trials. After hearing the Lords' song during a guest appearance on Heidi's show, he becomes curious as to its connection with the trials. His mundane quest to uncover the identity of the Lords is an intrusion into the film's surreal atmosphere that doesn't blend well at all. Typically, scenes with Davison are as boring as his character. Thankfully (minor spoilers ahead) the resolution of his plot line is outstanding, and is a nod toward the obnoxious way his character's archetype typically causes the downfall of whatever evil forces haunt the film. Speaking of that scene, it's also where the talents of Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace, and Patricia Quinn get to shine as the trio of sisters with a sinister link to the Lords. They're all outstanding, and watching them play with Davison like a spider caught in their web is one of the film's highlights. (End spoilers.)

In a sense, The Lords of Salem is not so much a horror film as a satanic passion play. Rife with nods to paganism such as the maiden/mother/crone triad and ubiquitous lunar imagery, its underlying story focuses on Heidi's liberation from the male-dominated Christian world and her birth into a primal figure of maternal power. From the pulsing red light bleeding out of the doorway of apartment 5 (the number itself indicating Heidi is forsaking the domain of gods to live more fully in her own humanity) to the cavernous hallways through which she frequently wanders, this film is overflowing with yonic imagery. Where a lesser film would have demonized the pagan and satanic elements, there's no easy out at the end of The Lords of Salem. This is a revenge tale spanning centuries, in which those oppressed by Salem's Puritan past cast off their bonds and give birth to their own messiah.

I went into The Lords of Salem hoping for nothing more than something visually engaging and vaguely shocking. I was surprised at how much further Zombie took this film. I'm also impressed at his ability to pay homage to such a wide collection of horror classics while still keeping his creative vision intact. The Lords of Salem reexamines many of the tenets of older horror, particularly the unwritten assumption that Monsters Must Die for the Judeo-Christian tradition to live on. There are elements within this film that risk alienating Zombie's typical audience, not to mention many that effectively destroy its appeal to mainstream viewers. I'm thankful he was willing to take those chances.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Love Thy Neighbor? Yeah, Right.

In Their Skin (2012)
Director: Jeremy Power Regimbal
Rating: 5 / 10
Seen via: MPI Home Video DVD

The home invasion sub-genre is one that I approach with trepidation, simply because with such a restrictive setting and a typically narrow premise, it's hard to do much that hasn't been done many times before. When a film opens with shots that seem to be lifted from Funny Games but without any sense of self-awareness, I'm wary. When it introduces troublesome class dynamics in the first act I'm even warier. In Their Skin (formerly titled Replicas) has both hurdles to overcome. Can it pull off this improbable task?

Mark and Mary Hughs (Joshua Close, Selma Blair) need to get away. The death of their daughter has left them both wracked with grief, so to prevent their marriage from dissolving and to reconnect with their young son they head out to the family vacation home. Surely time alone in a lavishly decorated house that looks to be taken from the pages of an interior design magazine will lift their spirits. The biggest challenge for the first twenty minutes of this movie is mustering up any empathy for the Hughs family. Selma Blair walks around like she's been drugged, while Josh Close's constantly bewildered expression (and his awful beard) don't do much to endear him to us either. Thank god it isn't long before the neighbors arrive and break up their moping.

Mark is awoken very early one morning by the Sakowski family - Bobby (James D'Arcy) , Jane (Rachel Miner), and their son Jared (Alex Ferris) have thoughtfully brought over some chopped wood for the Hughs' fireplace. Something is clearly off about this family though, and it's not just their odd schedule or their inability to carry on an ordinary conversation. They freely admit to lacking a car, and being isolated much of the year while the vacationers are out of town. They're just so happy to have some new friends nearby! They invite themselves over for dinner that night and the simpering Mark agrees, mostly in hopes that it'll offer him an escape from his grief-stricken wife.

Ding dong - we're here to spice up the movie!
The extent of the Sakowskis' craziness only becomes clear in the dinner scene, by far the most entertaining sequence of the film. The limits of the Hughs family's politeness are tested with a series of increasingly uncomfortable faux pas that gradually escalate. In what has up to this point been a study of dour people in a slick and sterile environment, James D'Arcy injects a liveliness and menace that reignites the film. It's really a pity that these are the bad guys, because the heroes have done nothing up to this point to earn our sympathy except act sullen. I get it, their daughter died. But do they have to be so unpleasant about it? It's unfortunate that the film unfolds so predictably from here. The film makes no secret that this family versus family conflict is going to turn violent, and when it does, there's never really any doubt as to the final outcome.

Framing the lower-class and poorly mannered Sakowskis as the enemy also introduces an uncomfortable dynamic (one that's only strengthened when we learn of their underlying motives). However entertaining the Sakowskis are, the film consistently asks us to root for the well-off good guys as their pretty family suffers through the attack. It's not an inherently flawed way to approach things, but it requires a degree of tact to pull off that this film doesn't possess. In the end the Hughs family is actually strengthened by the demise of the Sakowskis, which speaks to the film's tone-deafness. Even this year's similarly formulaic home-invasion flick The Purge made sure to balance its scales. If a Platinum Dunes/Blumhouse production can bring some self-awareness to the table, that's the minimum bar other films should have to clear. In Their Skin doesn't make it even by this generous metric.

This is essentially how they look before their house is broken into.
While there are some entertaining scenes, mostly courtesy of James D'Arcy, I wish a little more care had been put into developing the actual protagonists of the film. Watching the two families clash could have been far more entertaining if the film wasn't so one-sided. Instead we get a film that flirts with upsetting the status quo of a privileged upper-middle class family only to ultimately cement it firmly in place.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Reclaim Your Body, Reclaim Your Life

American Mary (2012)
Directors: Jen and Sylvia Soska
Rating: 7 / 10
Seen via: Xlrator DVD

American Mary is the second film by Jen and Sylvia Soska, a duo comprised of twin sisters who previously wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the faux-grindhouse feature Dead Hooker in a Trunk (still unseen by me). Both American Mary and their previous film have attracted a lot of attention online, and it's encouraging to see a couple of independent features getting the recognition and publicity these two films have. But is there substance behind the hype? I'm happy to be able to say yes in this case.

Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) is a medical school student whose passion for surgery runs deep. So deep that she even practices stitching up store-bought frozen turkeys at night after class. But Mary's struggling with earning enough money to pay her bills and still find the time to study, and it's beginning to take a toll on her grades. As a last resort, she heads down to the local strip club to apply for a job as a dancer. The interview seems to be going well, but it's interrupted when a friend of the owner is brought in bleeding from some criminal dealings gone wrong. Mary's suturing skills come in handy, and she's willing to help for some quick cash. Stitching up criminals isn't exactly what she has in mind for her future though, so she tries to forget the job as quickly as possible.

...and also sort of fears for her life for a while.
Word travels though, and pretty soon she's receiving inquiries from some customers looking for someone to perform unorthodox surgical procedures on them. Beatress (Tristan Risk) is a woman who through plastic surgery has taken on the likeness of Betty Boop as much as her physical form will allow. Her friend Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg) has a similar desire to alter her body, only she wishes to become a life-sized Barbie doll. (Use your imagination to figure out what that entails.) Despite some hesitancy, Mary really needs the cash, and reluctantly agrees to perform the procedures. Can she continue working toward a career as a surgeon while leading a double life as a practitioner in the world of body modification, or will things go horribly wrong when the two worlds collide?

I was totally on board for the first forty minutes of this film. Mary is a believable, interesting character presented with a series of unique moral quandaries. It's refreshing to see a film that blows the Bechdel test out of the water by focusing on a cast of female characters who are actively seeking empowerment. Whether they're attaining nonconformist idealizations of physical beauty or mastering a skill in a traditionally male-dominated field, the women of American Mary are all well-drawn characters. I'm also a sucker for stories centered around medicine and surgery, so extending these themes to their more extreme underground manifestations had me sold.

My biggest issue with the film is a plot point that occurs about halfway through. I can't talk about it without major spoilers, so be warned.

Spoilers after the dream sequence...

It's a shame that the film feels the need to allow its second half to be driven by a rape/revenge plot. Mary's rape at the hands of her supervisor is a quick way to bring the tension between her and the misogynist boys-club of the med school to a head. It's also a way for her to become fully immersed in her extracurricular surgery. I get why it was included, but it feels almost like a cop-out for a story that seemed to be building to something more complex.

After her rape, Mary transforms from a fully fleshed-out character to a seemingly infallible (and slightly bloodthirsty) master of all forms of cosmetic surgery. Had she reached this point more gradually I would have been more inclined to buy it. The fact that it happens nearly instantly puts a strain on the film's believability. Also, did her self-actualization have to come at the expense of being raped? After this point the plot becomes somewhat muddled - morphing into a combination of revenge story, police procedural, and the continuing saga of Mary's underground surgical practice. It doesn't feel as tight or interesting as the first half, likely because we know how the general trajectory of the story will unfold from here.

End spoilers

American Mary is worth checking out despite its uneven second half. I'm interested to see what the Soska sisters do in the future (even if I'm somewhat wary of the fact that they've joined WWE entertainment to direct the sequel to the seemingly lackluster See No Evil). They've shown themselves to be capable of delivering some fresh ideas with American Mary. Hopefully they'll continue to do so in the future, and also make sure to perform a little bit of cosmetic surgery on their scripts.

Their fake German accents could also use some work.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

An Uncharacteristic Ray of Sunshine

Thanks to Dusty of The Playground of Doom for choosing me as one of the recipients of his Sunshine Award / meme / blog chain letter thing. Since my blog output has been rather sparse lately I figured I'd take the bait on this one. Also, it'll give you the rare opportunity to glimpse behind the curtain and gaze upon my horrible visage learn more about the guy behind this site. If you're curious, keep reading, it's all flowers, cats, and favorites from here on.

Here are the rules:

1. Include the award’s logo in a post or on your blog.
2. Link to the person who nominated you.
3. Answer 10 questions about yourself (use these or come up with your own).
4. Nominate 10 bloggers to pass the award on to.  (This is as much about sharing as it is about receiving.)
5. Link your nominees to the post and comment on their blogs, letting them know they have been nominated.

1. Favorite actor/actress (who's not a household name yet)

Is Edith Massey a household name? At the risk of missing the point of this question, I'm going with it.

For some recent up-and-comers, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland were surprisingly excellent as the two kids in Mud.

2. Favorite Animal

In the whole animal kingdom? Penguins. Favorite animal I'll actually come into contact with in real life? Cats, without a doubt. Particularly Alice here:

3. Favorite Non-Alcoholic Drink

My mind used to be powered by things like food and sleep. I've replaced both with coffee.

4. Favorite music

I listen to a lot of ambient electronic music, and would pick Boards of Canada as a consistent favorite over the past ten years.

The haunting analog synths and worn-down samples give their music an air of nostalgia that's tempered with dark undertones. They've gotten some attention in the horror world recently for their song Gyroscope, which was used in Sinister. Their most recent album, Tomorrow's Harvest, draws on influences like Fabio Frizzi and John Carpenter and has a distinctly post-apocalyptic feel.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention The Pixies.

5. Favorite TV show

I don't watch a whole lot of TV, but occasionally allow myself to get hooked on a show. Most recently it's been Breaking Bad. Also, I'm consistently entertained by American Horror Story and was sort of surprised how it went from a trashy mess in Season 1 to actually kind of good in Season 2.

6. Favorite sport

Baseball and I have a very torrid history. It was the first sport I played, and consequentially the sport that taught me desire for athletic talent rarely begets such talent. Also, this happened on my thirteenth birthday, crushing my faith in all things fair and just in the world. For a long time I didn't have the desire to spend time with the teacher of such hard truths. These days, I've sort of come back around to the idea of baseball, but watch maybe one game max per year, and only if I'm there in person.

7. Movie most people love that I dislike

Oh, god. I try not to devote too much thought to movies I dislike. Ideally they just slip out of my head and I never think about them again. But maybe since it just got a sequel, I'll say: Kick-Ass? Tonally inconsistent, filled to the brim with narcissism, utterly despicable characters, all sorts of manufactured controversy... I could go on for a while. The overwhelmingly positive fanboy response to this one baffles me.

8. Favorite short film

Brakhage's The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes. In addition to being a great study of mortality, it's also one of the most beautifully transgressive depictions of the human body I've seen.

9. My Passion

It's hard for me to narrow this down. Can I just say Figuring Things Out? I don't talk much about real life on this blog, but IRL I'm pursuing an advanced degree in physics. I like to know how things work, preferably on their most fundamental level. It's also the reason why I write, both here and to a lesser extent when I write fiction.

10. Favorite soundtrack from 2013

Without a doubt, Only God Forgives.

Now, to pass this thing on. Dusty's blog Playground of Doom is a favorite of mine, but I'm not allowed to link back to him. Still, I get a lot of enjoyment out of reading his musings on cinema, life, and how each affects the other. So go check him out even though he's not an official nominee. I've avoided posting notifications on the comment walls of all these fine people, but I think many are (or have been) visitors here. Participation is, of course, totally voluntary. In no particular order:

Sean and Kristine of Girl Meets Freak have a great dynamic in their discussions, which focus on horror classics that span a wide range of subgenres. By far one of my favorite blogs. It's equally entertaining and edifying, and one of the only blogs able to make me laugh out loud.

A great mix of reviews, occasionally with unique theme months, Emily at The Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense has a knack for finding great Instant Watch treasures that I might have forgotten for all time or otherwise overlooked.

Ryan Clark is an all-around great guy who has recommended a lot of solid films to me. His blog Thrill Me! (which he runs with co-author Leah Cifello) is a consistently good read.

I don't often listen to podcasts, but The Whorer is one that I make a point to seek out when I have the time. In their words, it's: "a punk-femme-queer approach to horror films. Like your other horror podcast, but with a butt plug in it." If that's not enough to sell you, I don't know what is.

Kevin Kolson of Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies has the admirable ability to work through directors' entire bodies of work, good and bad, and is also the author of one of the best Italian Horror primers I've read.

It's hard to find reviewers I trust when it comes to new films, but Ryne Barber's The Moon is a Dead World stands out as one of my go-to sources.

Barry P. of Cinematic Catharsis runs an eclectic blog that's equally thorough in its examination of trash as it is with the classics.

Too Much Horror Fiction is where I go when I'm looking for something new to read or just want to gaze at beautiful old book covers.

Librarian of the Dead is a fun blog that spans horror films, books, and bits of horror popping up in everyday life. There have even been occasional reviews of cemeteries - tell me that isn't cool.

Nicki at Hey! Look Behind You! does a great job at keeping me up to date with new releases, solid Instant Watch picks, and a smattering of reviews.

Thanks again, Dusty. Regular programming will resume shortly.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Suburbia is Burning in OVER THE EDGE

Over the Edge (1979)
Director: Jonathan Kaplan
Rating: 9 / 10

Who would have thought the suburban idyll of a planned community could be so... apocalyptic? The spacious countryside might appear tranquil to the outsider with its orderly rows of houses, each with a big lawn, all far from the city and all its troubles. Well, in theory, anyway. There's a fire burning below the surface of New Grenada, and it's fueled by violence, drugs, and teenage hormones.

Over the Edge is a unique film in that it features delinquent kids who aren't urban, neglected, abused, or otherwise mistreated. These are the children of predominantly white upper-middle class suburban families in the 1970s. The kids have everything at their disposal except a sense of purpose. Lost amidst the grids of identical homes, is it any wonder they begin resort to theft and vandalism to keep themselves occupied? Their only true refuge is the bunker-like youth center desperately holding out against the uptight local police officers who believe it's enabling the kids' bad behavior.

I initially had a tough time believing that a gang of middle schoolers could get in to this much trouble, but the movie was inspired by actual events in Foster City, California, so it contains at least some measure of truth. More convincing than a "based on a true story" title card are the film's young leads. The kids are so genuine that nearly all of my skepticism evaporated within the first act of the film.

Added realism is introduced by the fact this film plays for keeps. When Carl, the too-smart-for-his-own-good main character, is jumped by a couple of other kids, the bruises he suffers linger on his face for the rest of the film. It's a subtle way to let us know that actions have very real consequences in this story. As the violence escalates, it's that much more powerful because we know it's having a profound effect on the characters.

All of this is captured beautifully by director of photography Andrew Davis. The spacious, barren landscapes that the kids wander reflect the interior emptiness that they're trying desperately to fill. The characters are frequently seen as shadows wandering against towering clouds, trapped between crushing layers of earth and sky. Juxtaposing these foreboding vistas with the familiar interiors and backyards of suburbia makes them that much more ominous.

The few things I wish were a little different in Over the Edge are minor. I felt Harry Northup's portrayal as the overzealous cop Doberman was a little too one-note, particularly in how relentlessly he targeted the kids. Although to be fair, in such a boring community what else did he have to do? More importantly, I found myself wishing the film went a little further at the end. It flirts with a truly devastating conclusion, but reins things in and returns to reality. It's not the ending I would have chosen, but it's a good one. However long the final conflagration rages, it dies off quickly, as tantrums do. Youthful rebellion is by nature a transient thing.

Over the Edge is simply fantastic. It's a must-see for fans of films about delinquency, rebellion, and growing up in a suburban wasteland.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Abduction, Obsession

2. Embrace the Future

I was lucky enough to catch a revival screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind a couple weeks ago. This film was a staple of my viewing as a young wannabe UFOlogist because it contained every element of the abduction/sighting stories that I loved. Also, in true Spielbergian fashion, it closes with a happy ending.

The last time I'd seen this film I was a kid, and I'd forgotten that it's a relic from the era where PG films could be slightly terrifying. Two big scenes stand out as great examples of this. First, the scene in which Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is out at work during a power outage and has an alien craft hover above him in his truck. It's his first direct encounter with the aliens, and we experience it as if we're sitting in the cabin alongside him. Bright light flood the windows, gravity vanishes and reappears, electronics malfunction, and then... nothing. It's a baffling rise to a climax that never occurs, and leaves us and Roy wondering just what the hell we've experienced (and why). In the other scene, Jill Guiler (Melinda Dillon) wakes in the middle of the night and tries in vain to protect her son from being abducted. The film switches into pure horror-movie mode as light and fog pour in through every opening in the house, and appliances, toys, and electronics go temporarily haywire. The invisible assailants pursue her from room to room, and despite her every effort her son eventually leaves of his own volition, making the abduction that much more bizarre.

Honestly, I'd crawl out the dog door for a trip into space if I lived in rural Indiana.
It's fitting that two of the most memorable scenes catalyze the characters' obsession with seeking out explanations for the phenomena they witness. Their search for answers (and the audience's desire to see it fulfilled) is the backbone of this film, and our questions as viewers mirror those of Roy and Jill exactly. Still, putting the aliens to the side for a minute, the underlying narrative is really focused on how the two seek answers in the face of trauma. Jill's trauma is explicit within the film: she's lost her child. (Curiously enough, we never find out why her kid gets abducted. Cause she's a single mom? Is the supernatural just a stand-in for her evil ex? What does this say about the film's ending?) Roy's affliction is less clearly drawn, but strongly parallels the onset of mental illness.

Watching the film as an adult, the scene that was the hardest for me to watch was when Roy loses his shit at the dinner table and starts sculpting his mashed potatoes into what he'll eventually realize is the Devil's Tower in Utah. As his wife and kids struggle to hold back tears, he snaps out of it for a moment and realizes what he's doing. It's the last time he'll really experience this mental clarity, and he tries desperately to explain to his family what he's feeling, with no success.

"Well I guess you've noticed something a little strange with Dad..."
Following this scene is the dark seed at the heart of this movie, one that seems to be too often overshadowed by its otherwise happy conclusion. After the emotional display over dinner, Roy's insanity is fully unleashed as he manically destroys the house by shoveling dirt and uprooted shrubs into the windows. His mashed-potato pile wasn't sufficient and he needs to see his sculpture writ large in earth. His terrified wife drags the kids to the car and leaves for her sister's house. The abandonment doesn't even seem to cross his mind as he seeks out the Devil's Tower and eventually chooses to become a passenger on the alien craft. It's the one wrong that isn't righted by the end of the film.

Spielberg has mentioned that if he were to make the film now he'd have changed the ending so that Roy stayed with his family rather than taking off in the alien craft. I can't imagine a bigger mistake. From the instant Roy encounters the UFOs, he's obsessed. He isn't sure what he's experienced, but it's something powerful enough to cause him to leave his family without regret. It's easy to overlook this as the John Williams score swells and the craft ascends into the sky over the final credits, but it ends up being one of the most interesting twists in the film.

...other than the grey alien smiling at Francois Truffaut.
Jill's ending sort of baffles me though. Her loss is completely waved away when the mothership delivers her son back into her arms. It's a consolatory ending that completely conflicts with Roy's story. I like that Roy welcomes his future with open arms (and not a loaded gun), as it's an indication that severing ties with his past life is going to be messy and difficult. He ascends into space leaving a wrecked family behind. Jill's problems are solved by the same entities that caused them, seemingly without reason.

3.  At the Mercy of a Vicious Cosmos

Another take on obsession within the abduction story is the dark mirror image of Close Encounters that is Fire in the Sky. Released in 1993 at the height of what seemed to be a surge in UFO popularity, this film dramatizes events that occurred in 1975 outside Snowflake, Arizona. On the night of November fifth, a young logger named Travis Walton was riding home from work with a truckload of friends when the group saw strange lights in the woods. Travis left the truck, appeared to be lifted into the air by a flying craft, and went missing for five days before reappearing naked in the woods.

Until a recent rewatch, I'd forgotten that Travis remains absent for nearly all of this film. The majority of the screentime is devoted to the police investigation into his disappearance and the interrogation of his friends. It doesn't make for a terribly engaging film, especially when you're lured into it hoping for UFOs. Thankfully, the wait pays off in the end after Travis returns and experiences a horrifying flashback to his abduction. It's one of the most terrifying sequences that I've ever seen in an alien abduction flick, with a slimy organic feel to the craft interior that's more unsettling than the typical well-lit and surgically pristine environments that we're usually shown. It also makes Travis's disorientation literal, as gravity seems to combat his every move about the ship, shifting and varying in strength to throw him violently around the corridors.

Still, the flashback feels like a bone thrown to the audience for sitting through the first two acts. However fascinating, it shifts the focus away from what the early portion of the film is attempting to say. Those left behind after Travis is abducted are subjected to a media frenzy that consumes their lives. The story blows up into a shit storm as reporters, families, and law enforcement clamor for answers that none of the witnesses have. When Travis finally returns, he's assaulted by crowds of people who want to hear his experiences directly from the source. It's hard to say that dealing with the fallout of the abduction would be more difficult than being wrapped in some sort of skin-membrane and operated upon by scowling greys, but it's enough to push him back within his own mind and into the safety of catatonia.

It's a shame that there's not as much focus on the fallout of the abduction or Travis's story after his return. But I don't think that's the point. Here the obsession with answers is primarily external rather than originating within Travis himself. Despite the fact that he returns, there's no sense of wonder, no enlightenment, and no suggestion than he was anything but used while he was up in space. While he's still trying to process what happened, the media, the police, his family, and his friends are clawing him to pieces, hoping to find answers inside somewhere. Rather than a public light show and a display of goodwill, all these aliens leave the abductee with is a serious case of PTSD and an immeasurable feeling of violation, both of which are exacerbated by the world he's thrown back into. There's no comfort to be found at the end of Fire in the Sky, just more questions. In this film the only thing worse that being taken into space is be being brought back to Earth.