Saturday, February 07, 2009

Vault of Horror's Cyber-Elite Returns With the Top 20 Foreign Horror Movies of All-Time!

B-Sol at the great genre blog Vault of Horror has just gone live with another "Cyber-Elite" post.

This time, the dedicated cabal of horror film lovers has selected the top twenty foreign horror movies of all time.

And yes, It's another tally certain to spur controversy and debate (good things, in my book...). Especially because Italy's output is so lightly represented overall.

And, well, if I've learned anything in the last few years...don't mess with Italian horror movie fans. They'll never forgive you. Hell hath no fury like an Italian horror movie fan scorned.


A quick scan of the Cyber-Elite list reveals that six of my personal top ten foreign horrors made the group list, which is a pretty good number, I reckon.

Alas, two of my high-ranking choices, Don't Look Now (1973) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) didn't make the final cut. D'oh!

You can check out the entire list here. Below I include a snippet of the top five. I had three of these on my top ten (but I'll leave you to guess which ones. But yes, one of my top two choices was indeed Italian...):


1. Let the Right One In (2003) – Sweden
2. Suspiria (1977) – Italy
3. Cemetery Man (1994) – Italy
4. Nosferatu (1922) – Germany
5. Diaboliques (1955) – France

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: 28 Weeks Later (2007)

The terrific 2002 zombie stomp 28 Days Later didn't require a sequel. It was brilliant, involving and entirely tormenting all on its own.

But after finally screening the nerve-racking 28 Weeks Later, I'm delighted Danny Boyle (as executive producer this time...) went ahead and made this sequel.

Because the follow-up film from Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is a surprisingly worthy continuation of the story. More than that, the harrowing sequel fulfills the highest aesthetic criteria of any film project: it reflects (to an often-alarming degree...) the turbulent times in which we live. So this is a horror movie sequel that is both scary and relevant.

And it isn't a remake or re-imagination, either.

After a bloody, fast-moving prologue set during the apex of the rage virus in England (the period covered in the original Boyle film), the movie jumps forward the titular 28 weeks to a span when the plague is quelled, and British citizens are slowly being repatriated to to an abandoned London. Specifically, American soldiers have moved into the eerily quiescent metropolis and been tasked with the impossible: reconstruction of an entire country. They also safeguard "The Green Zone" (or District 1), where 15,000 healthy civilians await the final clean up of the surrounding areas so they can resume their interrupted lives. Outside the green zone are rats, wild dogs, and contaminated food and water...

Quite plainly, the sub-text of 28 Weeks Later is nation-building in Iraq, and the difficult nature of the American post-war occupation. The dormant "rage virus" in the film is the equivalent of the "Insurgency" in reality. And like that insurgency, the plague is believed (by the Americans) to have suffered its "last throes." To the contrary, however, it returns more powerfully than ever. This fact throws all of London and the American forces into absolute chaos, necessitating a "surge" of firepower which consists of indiscriminate fire bombing, poison gas, and even a deliberate massacre of civilians. In the end, there are too few American forces to contain the disaster, and it expands -- in a horrifying epilogue -- to France.

The careful viewer may also detect a few resonances of the post-Katrina disaster in 28 Weeks Later, as innocent civilians become trapped in various buildings while outside disaster spreads. Despite this particular connection, the film nonetheless draws it's strongest energy from its examination of American military might...and the limits of that power.

One of the film's central characters, an American soldier named Doyle (Jeremy Renner), stops seeing the civilians as "targets" and starts viewing them as people. After being ordered to kill civilians, he breaks rank and goes to the aid of a handful of civilians. Far from being a "bad apple" (how the Bush people termed the torturers at Abu Ghraib), Doyle is most definitely a "good apple." He doesn't lose sight of his humanity, he doesn't blindly follow bad orders, and he is an entirely positive depiction of an American soldier. I found this to be an enormous relief, frankly. Doyle's young, loud and goofy, but he's a hero too: ready and able to do the right thing when the situation warrants it; even if it means laying down his life.

I also admired the under-the-surface notion presented in 28 Weeks Later that "humanity" -- if given the opportunity to spread -- can ultimately prove as "contagious" as the deadly rage virus. A likable American doctor (Rose Byrne) commits to saving two children in the film - Tammy (Imogene Poots) and Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) - and her steadfast commitment rubs off on Doyle; who then passes it on to a Special Forces Helicopter Pilot (Harold Perrineau).

28 Weeks Later is packed wall-to-wall with inventive conceits like that; ones that successfully distinguish it from its modern zombie brethren. The movie raises the specter, for instance, of a Rage Virus Typhoid Mary - a carrier - and that's an original wrinkle aqmidst the zombie apocalypse.

Also, one of the main characters here, Don (Robert Carlyle), is quickly proven a despicable coward in the film's bravura opening passage and then presented as our lead for the next half-hour or so. Don abandons his beloved wife during a zombie attack on a farm house, flees the area by boat, and then makes his way to the Green Zone...where he greets his children, the aforementioned Andy and Tammy. All during these scenes, the viewer wonders: if Don is willing to abandon his own wife when the going gets tough, how is he going to protect his kids when the inevitable zombie attack comes?

Ultimately, however, the use to which Don (and Carlyle himself...) is put in the larger narrative proves far less innovative than that neat set-up suggests. We never get the chance to see what Don would do the second time he is faced with choosing between possible death and rescuing his family.

Instead, Don simply becomes an improbably long-lived rage zombie who survives one attack after another and pops up (conveniently...) for a final scare. I suppose that an intrepid film historian might consider Don a kind of homage to Bub in Day of the Dead (1985) or the lead zombie in Land of the Dead (2005), but giving the zombies a distinct leader doesn't work particularly well here. The overriding force in 28 Weeks Later is the rising tide of chaos: the ways in which one disaster leads to another and another. With zombies running around in great numbers, that idea is powerful enough without an identifiable "leader." The message may simply be that Don -- whether a person or a zombie -- is a "survivor." However, the ease with which this single, unarmed zombie outlasts fire bombing, gassing and rifle snipers simply raises too many questions of believability.

One of the reasons 28 Weeks Later succeeds so ably for the most part is that it logically and impressively expands the scenario of 28 Days Later, tending toward the spectacular. There are some amazing special effects in the film, particularly the fire bombing of London. And one scene -- involving a helicopter's massacre of attacking zombies in a field -- is an amazing horror set-piece the likes of which you've imagined (thanks to a propeller decapitation scene in Dawn of the Dead [1979]) but never considered possible on this scale.

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo also proves capable with the more intimate "creep" sequences. A descent into a pitch-black subway makes excellent use of "night vision," for instance. And Tammy and Andy's trip (on a moped) through abandoned, ruined London successfully evokes many historical "abandoned city" movies, from The World, The Flesh and The Devil (1959) to Omega Man (1971).

I detected Fresnadillo chasing his tail in only one important sequence. When Don (now a zombie...) breaks into a containment area where civilians are crowded in the dark, the film lingers on make-up that isn't that good, relies on slow-motion photography that reveals too much, and suffers from too many incoherent quick cuts. The scene is a melange of confusion, a virtual disaster (perhaps form echoing content?) but I imagine it was not meant to be so visually unappealing. Fortunately, this weak scene is followed by a virtuoso, nail-biting rooftop sniper sequence involving Doyle, and 28 Weeks Later quickly goes back on track.

I doubt that a second follow-up to Boyle's original -- 28 Months Later? -- is a necessity. However, if a third film in this Brit zombie saga is crafted with the overall skill, intelligence and imagination of this scary sequel, then Romero's zombie cycle may truly have some stiff competition in the franchise department.

Friday, February 06, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

"Gentleman! You can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"

-President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) attempts to defuse an international brawl inside the Pentagon in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964).

This classic film from the auteur of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Shining (1980) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) remains a bit of a paradox. It's a comedy concerning deeply unfunny matters, particularly nuclear war...and the end of the human race.

However, the film didn't start out as an absurd comedy. In fact, the movie's screenplay is based on a serious, carefully-researched Cold War literary thriller from author Peter George.

However, as history records, when Kubrick started investigating how easy it would be to trigger an accidental global nuclear war, the director registered and collated the "absurdities" involved in the doomsday scenario. Those absurdities became the bedrock of a new script...and a blistering satire was born.

In its new format Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy of human errors, serving specifically as a scathing critique of something utterly irrational: an entire (profitable...) industry and hierarchy devoted to the destruction of our very species. Kubrick's targets in Dr. Strangelove are politicians, soldiers, the press, intellectuals...even the scientific community itself. All of these folks dutifully play their assigned (incompetent) roles in the film's Global Annihilation, just cogs in a vast machine devoted to the End of Life on Earth as We Know It.

As you may recall, Dr. Strangelove involves a plot by psychotic U.S. General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), stationed at Burpleson Air Force Base. Ripper transmits false orders -- "Wing Attack Plan R" -- to a fleet of B52s comprising America's "Airborne Alert Force," instructing them to drop their nuclear payloads across the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, Ripper is also the only man with the correct recall code, an inconvenient fact which necessitates some high-level one-on-one telephone diplomacy between daft American President Muffley (Peter Sellers) and drunken Soviet Premier Kisov (pronounced Kiss Off).

Meanwhile, aboard one airborne B52, Major "King" Kong (Slim Pickens) breaks through the Russian defense net and prepares to drop two nuclear bombs on Russian targets, blissfully unaware the world is not really at war. When the bomb bay doors jam, the patriotic Kong activates them manually...and exuberantly rides a warhead down to its terrestrial target. Yee Haw!

But there's another level to this global crisis. Even one nuclear detonation on CCCP soil will trigger the Soviet Union's new "doomsday machine," a defensive device that will eradicate all human and animal life on Earth.

Still, all is not lost. President Muffley's scientific advisor, the wheel-chair bound German, Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers again), offers a contingency plan if tomorrow is indeed doomsday. It involves retrofitted mine-shafts, an American eugenics program, and a ratio of ten women to every man...

While generals, politicians and scientists debate that particular (ludicrous) future and their roles in it, this world -- our world -- comes to an end in a series of fiery (but oddly beautiful...) nuclear mushrooms. Bombs explode in a gorgeous montage, to the tune "We'll Meet Again"...

In case you can't tell from that synopsis, Dr. Strangelove is a cold, bleak movie with a black, merciless, unforgiving heart.

As a form, satire is often cold and dispassionate, so this approach is to be expected to some degree. But Kubrick's film work almost ubiquitously features an icy, cerebral disposition all its own, a fact which makes Dr. Strangelove doubly chilling.

With an unflinching eye and total lack of compassion, Kubrick walks the audience through nuclear apocalypse and is so blunt, so matter-of-fact, so unforgiving in his depiction of the fools causing this disaster that we have no choice but to laugh. The bigger the disaster...the more we laugh. This occurs, in part, because we register the utter absurdity of the situation; and it dawns on us (slowly at first) that we have no one to blame...but ourselves. This is the world we made.

So Nuclear Armageddon is nigh, and stiff-upper lipped British exchange officer Mandrake (Sellers once more...) doesn't have enough small change to call the President on a pay phone and provide the recall code that could avert disaster.

So General Turgidson (George S. Scott) chews gum incessantly during a Pentagon Briefing and suggests that if nuclear war can't be averted then Hell, we should try to win it!

So a B52 pilot is seen studying something (off-screen with extreme scrutiny in the cockpit of his war plane...but a reverse angle reveals not the complex workings of technology, but a Playboy Centerfold.

So an idiot foot soldier, "Bat" Guano (Keenan Wynn) distrusts the heroic Mandrake because he is British (and possibly a "prevert"). So Gauno worries at a time of international crisis about shooting a vending machine because he's afraid to answer to "The Coca-Cola Company."

So the President himself is an Egghead Intellectual. He can't even bring himself to inform the Russian Premier what's occurred ("He went and did something silly, Dmitri...").

So His generals are warmongers and lunatics (paging General Boykin!), the Russians get all their inside information from The New York Times, and Dr. Strangelove is an unrepentant Nazi who twice mistakenly calls President Muffley "Mein Fuhrer."

Everyone involved in this debacle, it seems, is a dolt. These men aren't exactly profiles in courage (and, perhaps by design, there's only one woman who appears in the film, landing blame squarely on the less-fair sex...).

What one can detect so clearly here in Dr. Strangelove is a deranged patriarchy of destruction and blood lust marching blithely along, literally on "auto pilot," ready to spur worldwide destruction...even if no nation (and no official government...) consciously seeks such destruction. With sharp eye, and sharper dialogue, Kubrick exposes a seemingly-basic quality of men: his compulsive flirtation with self-destruction. That flirtation is even more dangerous in the Cold War Age of computers, ICBMs, and other modern "conveniences." The machines don't cause the end of the world; they just make the end of the world that much easier for men to accidentally start.

Kubrick gets terrific performances out of his cast here, particularly the multi-talented Peter Sellers, but equally memorable is his ironic use of music. "We'll Meet Again" is a paean to man's cycle of war and death, which never seems to end. "Try a Little Tenderness" transforms a mid-air warplane refueling procedure into something akin to robot sexual intercourse, and "Johnny Comes Marching Home" is continuously played to mock the blind patriotism of "our boys" on their fool's errand.

If the sound design of Dr. Strangelove is undeniably brilliant, Kubrick's mastery of images is even more so. The now-famous composition of Slim Pickens riding a nuclear warhead like a bucking bronco at a rodeo is fully part of the American pop culture lexicon at this point. However, it actually says something important about our country too. It reveals how the American "cowboy" mentality has become dangerously coupled with frightening, destructive technology. Swaggering machismo and technological terror are a bad combination, as we've seen in the years since Dr. Strangelove...and Kubrick understood that fact at a relatively early date.

Kubrick's War Room (created by frequent James Bond production designer Ken Adam) is another memorable image: the ultimate smoke-filled room; the ultimate boy's club. There are technological toys and blinking lights aplenty (like General Turgidson's beloved "Big Board") but nothing really gets accomplished here. The War Room is nothing but an elaborate sandbox, where the boy with the loudest voice holds sway.

I also admire the language of Dr. Strangelove. The U.S. Army has a motto in the film: "Peace is Our Profession." Yes, it's absolutely Orwellian, and again, we've had some experience with that in recent years. And if the events of the movie are any indication of that slogan's veracity, then the Army is utterly incompetent.

I also love how the B52's "auto destruct" well, auto-destructs, and how the nuclear warheads are obsessively labeled with such legends as "handle with care" and "this side down." Again, there's a method to the madness: Kubrick is showing us how we have turned the most horrifying weapons of mass destruction into things that we (mistakenly) believe are safe.

Oh yes, handle that nuclear warhead with care! But a nuclear bomb is not a carton of cigarettes: it can do significantly more damage than the label indicates. And, as Kubrick seems to remind us here, some people in politics and the military have forgotten that fact. We have taken for granted the power of the weapons we have created, and done little to assure that they don't come back and bite us on the ass.

Dr. Strangelove is a film that likely couldn't even be produced in today's conservative climate because -- among other things -- it plainly mocks some aspects of the military mentality. And if America is unanimously about anything these days, it's mindlessly "supporting the troops." No matter what their particular endeavor. No matter what their orders.

But God Bless the late Kubrick for pointing out, rightly, that the military is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, only as good as the orders it executes. Importantly, Dr. Strangelove depicts both an obstructionist ignoramus, his "boots on the ground," Bat Guano and a bat-shit crazy General, Jack D. Ripper, who launches a nuclear war because he tends to feel inferior about...something personal; something in the bedroom. The personal deficits of these men have consequences for the world.

Again, the point is made concisely (and in amusing fashion): a soldier must not just blindly follow orders; but follow the right orders. The old excuse "I was just following orders" doesn't quite cut the mustard when the scenario involves global nuclear apocalypse.

Kubrick's targets are many here, but I believe he reserves his most egregious contempt for the macho military man. Dr. Strangelove's opening shot is of a phallus-shaped warplane nose as it refuels in mid-air. That love song ("Try a Little Tenderness") plays over the refueling process and you realize that perhaps this is indeed what "love" is in the Cold War Epoch. Men who can't love, who only love killing, have created machines that love because they can't. They have recreated the "act" of love, subconsciously, in the design and activities of their glorified war machines.

You can see how this conceit plays out again in relation to Jack D. Ripper, the man who precipitates the global nuclear war. More than anything, he fears "loss of essence," and that the Russians are out to steal "precious" American "bodily fluids." He informs Mandrake that he does not avoid women, but that he "denies" them his "essence" (meaning semen). Again, the idea seems to be that certain macho men compensate for certain sexual failings...with killing, with bloodshed, with war.

Gaze just below the surface and you can see how sex and sexual dysfunction are the subtext of Dr. Strangelove, not merely in the graphic "refueling" shot, but in the very names of the dramatis personae. President "Muffley" is a pussy, literally and metaphorically. "Kisov" is Kiss Off. Major Kong rides a bomb to impact...another substitution, perhaps, for the sexual act. General Turgidson even speaks of sex in terms of military terminology, telling his mistress to start a "countdown" until Old Bucky Turgidson "blasts off."

Given this surfeit of sexual imagery and allusion, the final images of Dr. Strangelove perhaps represent a collective orgasm of sorts; the explosive release of all the anger, hostility and hatred these swaggering cowboys have held inside for so long; a nuclear ejaculation that takes down the whole world. If these men can't love -- if they can't create -- they will destroy. All of us.

And "We'll Meet Again" is an explicit warning from Stanley Kubrick. Once we replenish our "essence," we'll likely be ready to go again.

Countdown to blast off, honey, we're all gonna ride that missile...

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Eaten Alive At A Chainsaw Massacre Excerpt

"...the soundtrack is dominated by the sounds of dirt crunching, a discordant whine (part of the music track) and then of periodic camera flashes "clicking" away. On screen, quick cuts of a rotting, decayed corpse are seen in close-up, surrounded by utter darkness. After a short span of these disgusting close-up "flashes," the first fully-lit, recognizable composition of the film is revealed: that of a body displayed atop a cemetery monument. A ghoulish work of art.

The camera originates the shot with a close-up of the corpse's goopy-looking face (replete with a full set of teeth, which gives the impression of a smile), and then pulls back to reveal that his dead body has been "posed," as if indeed a masterpiece of art. Behind and above the corpse hangs a marmalade sky, with the sung hanging low. In one sense, this sequence depicts the particulars of a grave robbing (from the shovel shifting the dirt above the corpse's plot, to the perpetrator proudly snapping photos of his handiwork), but in another, this opening gambit is evidence of Hooper's new world disorder.

The first real composition of Chain Saw is of the dead propped up, perched outside of a grave and positioned under the light of he sun, instead of below the earth in the dark and gloom of the grave. The image of the posed corpse simultaneously suggest that madness reigns in this universe, and that the architect of madness has an unconventional eye for beauty art.

For as certainly as the Hitchhiker and Leatherface are sick in their hobbies, they have an undeniable knack with arts and crafts..."

- from my analysis of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, page 55. Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper (McFarland; 2002), now in softcover.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Now Available In Softcover: Eaten Alive At A Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper


"...Muir does an excellent job of chronicling his [Tobe Hooper's] career. The history and overview section tells us how the films were made, supplying us with behind-the-scenes stories....I don't know how many of you are going to rush out and rent the director's films...but the author does a great job talking about each movie, finding parallels in a few of his films to, of all things, Alice in Wonderland...I'm all for studies about different directors, and Tobe Hooper...is an inspired choice. That it [the book] is so appreciative and smart is a bonus."-CLASSIC IMAGES, January 2003, page 38.

"...John Kenneth Muir asserts that plenty of trademarks are present in Hooper's films, even if spotting them requires more than a cursory glance. Muir's talent for identifying patterns among the minutiae (visual, thematic or otherwise) serves him well in this exhaustive critique....Muir also documents Hooper's penchant for subtle satire and his long-standing affinity for storylines featuring multiple antagonists working in tandem....Accordingly, Muir paints us a picture of an important horror icon..."-John W. Bowen, RUE MORGUE: NINTH CIRCLE BOOKS, January/February 2003, page 57.

"The book kicks off with a well-written and curt introduction...The 'commentary' sections are what Muir is all about.....My two favourite allegories though are his comparison of TCM to Alice in Wonderland and Poltergeist as an attack on president Ronald Reagan's lassez-faire domestic policies. Engrossing stuff...If you are a fan of Hooper, a film analyst or want to re-examine his work then this book is essential. It drips with a care and attention that would put some authors of similar material to shame. Muir's passion for the genre and his appreciation for Hooper, are infectious. 4 (out of 5) Chainsaws." WITHIN THE WOODS, September, 2004.

"Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre is a zany and entertaining examination of a director often overlooked in his field...Muir deftly places Hooper among the inarguable masters of the horror film such as John Carpenter, Wes Craven and George Romero. Recommended for all large film collections and also to be added to libraries with Muir's previous books on directors John Carpenter...and Wes Craven."- Mimi Davis, THE SHY LIBRARIAN, Summer 2003, page 39.

"His reporting on the first two CHAINSAW films makes for compelling reading on behind-the-scenes terrors; he also delves deeply into the Hooper-or-Spielberg controversy surrounding POLTERGEIST....Horror fans will want to read this, regardless of their stance on the director." - HITCH MAGAZINE # 33, Spring 2003.

Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper is available (in hardcover or softback) at Amazon.com.

Sci Fi Wisdom of the Week


"Well why not a space flower? Why do we always expect metal ships?"

-Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright) ponders an alien presence on Earth, from the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Theme Song of the Week 45: Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-1990)



Tuesday, February 03, 2009

What I'm Reading Now: Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive: 100+ Years of Censored, Banned and Controversial Films

"Since their inception, motion pictures and their content have been at the center of countless legal, political, social , moral and religious battles between the people who make them (filmmakers, studios), those they are made for (the audience), and the institutions (local and state censorship boards, the Roman Catholic Church, etc.), who believe it is their God-given right to determine what movies can and cannot say and show."

- author Stephen Tropiano, from the preface (page viii) of Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive: 100+ Years of Censored, Banned, and Controversial Films (Limelight Editions, 2009)

Monday, February 02, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Lakeview Terrace (2008)

Lakeview Terrace (2008) is the anti-Crash.

Where that Oscar-winning movie offered what was ultimately a cinematic kumbaya concerning the future of race relations in America, this thriller offers a harder-edged, bleaker appraisal.

And I can't say I'm especially surprised by that perspective, given LaBute's impressive history as a director. He's a relentless agitator and a deliberate provocateur, a talent who consistently demands that his audience countenance the face in the mirror.

LaBute's In The Company of Men (1995), for instance, remains a scathing indictment of the male-dominated business-world in the immediate post-Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas Age. It's a blistering look at men behaving badly, and it must rank as one of the best independent films of the Clinton Era.

The director's Your Friends And Neighbors (1997) stands out as an even more pointed examination of American sexual mores, male and female, and it is one of my personal all-time favorite films...especially when I'm feeling cynical about human nature.

Jason Patric's virtuoso scene in a sauna -- describing his "best sexual encounter ever" -- is truly one of the most memorable, horrifying and riveting monologues delivered in American film - period - during the 1990s. My jaw drops at the mere thought of it, as the memory awakens. And also at the fact that a smart, educated woman in the film, played by Amy Brenneman, abandons her mostly decent -- if perpetually unexciting husband (Aaron Eckhart) -- for the shallow thrill of intercourse with Patric's sociopath. Like most of LaBute's work, Your Friends and Neighbors is brutally, irrevocably honest.

Some might even call it merciless.

Of course, LaBute is also the talent responsible for the dreadful remake of The Wicker Man (2006), a misguided attempt to slather sexual politics onto a beloved genre property that already focused on something intriguing: competing religious sensibilities and belief systems. The remake was a misstep. And with Nicolas Cage outrageously hamming it up in the lead role ("Step Away From The Bike!"), a colossal one at that.

Fortunately LaBute finds redemption in Lakeview Terrace, a disturbing drama that wades into deeper psychological territory than the film's commercials suggested. Those trailers made the movie look like Fatal Attraction or Unlawful Entry, with Samuel L. Jackson in the Glenn Close or Ray Liotta role. Those ads ultimately do the movie no justice, however, because LaBute is much more interested in the characters and their perspectives than in crafting a crowd-pleasing, jump-scare machine. The film is tense and thrilling to be certain, but not in the expected way of a mindless blockbuster.

And -- as is often the case in his oeuvre -- LaBute's focused on some moral issues here that most movie makers simply won't touch. Or rather they won't do so in anything approaching an intellectually rigorous fashion. But give LaBute credit: he doesn't shy away from the uncomfortable. Even when we might -- occasionally -- wish he would. This movie is not for the meek, or for those just looking for an "easy" roller coaster ride.

Specifically, LaBute's Lakeview Terrace dramatizes the story of a world-weary black cop, Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson). He's a twenty-year veteran of L.A.'s mean streets and a widower to boot, one who lives in an upscale gated community in Los Angeles. Abel's wife died following a car accident a few years ago, and now he lives his life in the metaphorical pose of a pugilist...in a continuous, coiled rage.

Because Abel finds the vicissitudes of life so chaotic, he has attempted to impose order upon them. He is fastidious, over-controlling, obsessive and imperious. Raising two adolescent children alone, Abel imposes draconian rules upon them so he can "protect them" from a world that he views as destructive, racist and unsafe. Security lights blanket Abel's home; his lawn is immaculately trimmed...in perfect order. Abel is also a committed Republican. One who doesn't like "freeloaders."

Then one day, a Prius-driving white Democrat named Chris (Patrick Wilson) moves in next door to Abel. He's married to a beautiful young black woman, Lisa (Kerry Washington), a fact that immediately disturbs Abel. Every day -- while coming home from his job -- Chris listens to rap music in his hybrid and rebelliously(!) smokes "organic" cigarettes. But when Abel pulls Chris over one night, the black cop informs the white man that even if he listens to rap all night, he's never going to be black. Chris, who suffers from white liberal guilt, -- not to mention a serious inferiority complex -- tolerates Abel's nasty jibes. For far too long.

Just as Abel's career and circumstance have conditioned him to anger and confrontation; Chris's situation and upbringing have conditioned him...to be meek. A product of political-correctness, Chris permits society to dictate what kind of car he should drive, whether he should smoke cigarettes, and how he should relate to black men, even. Chris is so cowed by white liberal guilt, in fact, that he permits Abel to bully and bully him. Abel isn't the first to do so, either. "I am constantly taking shit from black guys about our relationship," he tells Lisa angrily.

Chris's agenda? "Can't we all just get along?" he pleads to Abel, meekly. Naturally, Abel shoots down that request, and accuses Chris of racism for bringing up Rodney King.

Because Abel - for all his admirable qualities as a policeman and a single parent - is a racist. He judges Chris not by the content of his character, but by the color of his skin. So Abel makes it his mission in life to make Chris miserable. Oh, and Abel has reserved some anger for Lisa too. After all, she's something of a race traitor in his eyes. The mere sight of Lisa with a white man stirs up resentment in Abel. Primarily because Abel has some questions about the fact that his wife was in the car with a white man when her accident occurred...

So basically, Lakeview Terrace serves as a head-on collision between a bully who fully understands how to use race to his advantage; and a coward who is afraid of his anger; afraid that if he expresses it, society will judge him a racist.

On a much deeper level, LaBute's film concerns the myriad ways that we all seem to misplace our feelings of anger. Abel blames Chris and Lisa for his life's woes...instead of examining his own behavior. And oppositely, Chris swallows his anger, even when it is entirely appropriate...and justified. As for Lisa, she's a rich little Daddy's girl, and when she doesn't get her way, she channels her anger into a cruel manipulation of Chris.

LaBute opens Lakeview Terrace with flash cut, long-shot views of the upper-class gated community, as if he's showing us the setting for an Old-West showdown, or setting the battlefield in a horror movie. And throughout the film, the director (working from a terrific script by David Loughery) determinedly contrasts the character fireworks with encroaching wildfires.

Those wildfires grow more severe - and closer - as Chris and Abel lock horns. When the film's denouement finally arrives, so do those fires: burning up everything; just like Abel's blazing rage. Lakeview Terrace also makes numerous references to the "heat" being ratcheted up in relationship to these oppositional neighbors. Chris and Lisa's air conditioning breaks down (or did Abel take it out?), for instance. Tempers flare, the heat rises, and someone attempts murder...

Lakeview Terrace is endlessly fascinating and again, provocative, in the ways that every character relationship appears dominated by issues of anger and control. Lisa's father (Ron Glass) doesn't seem to have much use for Chris; a fact Chris attributes (rightly or wrongly, we're not sure...) to skin color. And Lisa and Chris constantly battle for the superior position in their marital relationship. So much so that Lisa -- who wants children -- goes off her birth control pills without informing Chris. And then there's Abel's daughter, chafing under his restrictions and ready to break out...inappropriately...if understandably. Race is more than the underlying subtext of the film, it's the explosive spark that seems to heighten every dynamic: the feelings of inferiority on Chris's part; Abel's rage; Lisa's sense of entitlement, and so on. And yet nobody here is a two-dimensional character or a mouthpiece for a simple agenda. Abel does terrible, terrible things and yet we are drawn to him. He's strong He tries to be a good cop and a good father. It's just that his barometer is off. He doesn't realize how "over the line" he is.

As the film ends, the slow-to-take-action Chris finally makes a stand. He finally fights back in a most dynamic way, and you get the sense that he is summoning all of his will to get past years of bland white-bread, political-correct indoctrination to do it.

This may not be precisely the "brave new world" Chris envisioned or hoped for before encountering the Biblically-named Abel, but then sometimes the hatreds of the past have to die out -- or be aggressively stamped out -- before we can all get together and sing our wonderful kumbayas.

They said those wildfires were "under control," but Chris learns in Lakeview Terrace that they weren't. That as a participant in his own life, he must put them out...or be consumed himself.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Bill T. Clark Materializes at QI

Another House Between interview to report today! Tony Mercer -- the intrepid (and long-suffering...) -- Bill T. Clark himself, is profiled at the fan page, Quantum Imprimaturs.

Tony pours every fiber of his (very intense...) person hood into every performance on The House Between, a fact I always appreciate and admire. And since this is the first interview he's done on the subject of the program, the conversation makes for an illuminating read. You'll get a good sense of Tony's intellectual nature here, as well as his sense of humor.

Here's a snippet:

What was it like acting with JKM in “Reunited?”

Terrible! That bum gives himself all the best lines! It was great performing with John. I had no idea what to expect from him as an actor, but he was great. He put the energy and emotion right out there, and we had a strong working rapport. Of course the cast joked about feeling vindicated while watching him struggle with his own 99 page monologues.

Is it just me or did the episodes in the second season seem to involve Bill more? Why do you think that happened?

If you examine the show as a whole, from Arrived to Resolved, I think you’ll find that the intricacy and consistency of its structure suggests a concrete plan. It seems that all of the details must have been completely mapped out from the very beginning. It even seems that way to me. But it isn’t quite true, you see. Certain things evolved as we went along.

I honestly don’t know which elements were set in stone from the beginning. I’m going to tell you the one thing I do know for certain, something that John may or may not have mentioned publically before. Bill wasn’t supposed to be around after the first episode or two. Bill was created to be the Janet Leigh of The House Between. He’d be established as a lead, in this case a typical hero type, and then killed off suddenly and shockingly, leaving Astrid to take the “hero” spot. This was supposed to happen in the first episode, or maybe the second. That is how the part was pitched to me.

But he didn’t die at the end of the first episode, nor the second. He is stabbed at the end of the third (and I think that’s more or less how it was meant to go down, with Arlo stabbing Bill) but he still doesn’t die. The shooting script for Departed has Bill (and only Bill) getting snatched by Outdwellers in the mist at the end. We never shot that. I think the idea that “Bill always dies” may have evolved from all of this, but I’m not sure. Ultimately, instead of becoming the fallen hero that Astrid must replace, he became the frustrated would-be hero that Astrid saves from danger, again and again. Consider how many times Astrid rescues Bill from something. Poor Bill is a washout as a hero (most of the time), but he continues to try, even when he probably shouldn’t. That may be the essence of the character...