Friday, February 27, 2009

The House Between 3.3: "Scared"

The House Between 3.3,"Scared" is terrorizing viewers right now.

The episode is playing at Veoh and at Google. As usual, I recommend a full download at Veoh so that the compressed sound doesn't warble. A download from Veoh preserves the picture and sound in the best fashion, in my opinion.

Again, watch this one in the dark if you can...

Watch The House Between 3.3: "Scared" View More Free Videos Online at

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Director's Notes: Scared

The third episode of The House Between's third season is entitled "Scared." It's our annual horror show (think "Visited" in the first season; "Estranged" in the second), and it's this season's long-awaited Arlo-centric story.

Or more descriptively, "Scared" is a story that delves a bit more deeply into Arlo's mysterious background than we've seen before. This particular tale originated with a line Joe Maddrey wrote for "Caged" in Season Two. In that story, Theresa asked Arlo what visions the house was showing him, and Arlo revealed that 'he'd always had nightmares."

It was almost a throwaway detail (albeit a brilliant one...), a juicy nugget that wasn't developed, explored or elaborated upon at all...and which made it the perfect starting point for "Scared" in season three.

In terms of genre inspirations, I deliberately fashioned "Scared" as an homage to an episode of John Newland's paranormal anthology One Step Beyond (1959-1961) that I've always loved, and which scared the heck out of me as a kid. Actually, it scares the heck out of me now...

I don't want to reveal the name of that particular OSB episode just yet. To do so would immediately give away the exact nature of the villainous threat in "Scared," and it's more fun today to let it play out in the course of the episode. But for intrepid web surfers, I can inform you that this particular OSB episode starred a young (and gorgeous...) Yvette Mimieux. Look it up if you want.

In more general terms, "Scared" is also my ode of love and devotion to the 1980s-style rubber-reality horror sub-genre. You know the kind of movie I mean, right? In which there is a powerful supernatural villain who can bend reality to his demonic will. My favorite film of this cycle is Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), but I could rattle off titles including Shocker (1989), Lair of the White Worm (1988), Hellraiser (1987) and Bad Dreams (1988) to name just a few.

Considering such inspirations, I don't think it was a coincidence that I decided to marry an Arlo/Theresa story with a rubber-reality horror movie, since these are our two youngest characters on The House Between. Most of the time in rubber reality horrors, it's up to struggling adolescents to defeat evil before they get the chance to grow up and live happily "ever after." And indeed, Arlo and Theresa opened an "adult" relationship door together in "Addicted" that leads directly to the events of "Scared."

Honestly, I don't remember many intriguing specifics about shooting "Scared" except that I opened the day by gathering the cast and crew together for a pep talk and stated (with gung-ho enthusiasm...) that this was our one and only opportunity to make a no-budget ($700.00) eighties horror flick.

So that was the attitude we went in with and I remember everybody got into the spirit of the script. Tony Mercer, for example, told me he was picturing Peter Cushing for Bill's "Van Helsing"-style speeches. Poor Lee Hansen had to deliver one of his most reprehensible Travis lines ever -- but he did it with appropriate conviction -- and Craig Eckrich in "Scared" completes Brick's transformation to all-out action hero.

As usual, I have enormous praise for Jim Blanton, who rose to the occasion to imbue Arlo with new and vulnerable colors. Jim also brilliantly recited a spooky "campfire" that is the bread-and-butter of rubber reality horrors. Here, that monologue is truly one of the episode's most unsettling scenes because of Jim's acting. Jim got his monologue down perfect on the first take and as a consequence drew thunderous applause from the cast. Then he sheepishly asked. "Do I have to do it again?" I don't think we did...

I must also single out Alicia (Theresa) for high praise, because she had the difficult task of maintaining Theresa's trademark detachment and seeming authentically terrified during the scarier moments. She's never been better, and you can see real "horror" in her affecting, expressive eyes.

Kim Breeding was amazing too, especially in one bizarre sequence that we filmed after midnight. As usual, we were running behind, hadn't rehearsed, and were flying through an important sequence. Without a word of description from me, without even a discussion of how it would go down, or what we would do, Kim jumped into her role and performed a difficult song right on cue. I kid you not when I say it was pitch-perfect and absolutely beautiful. Again, Kim had no prep, no direction, no rehearsal...she just nailed it. And so we moved on...

And then there's "Scared's" guest star, our make-up artist and stunt coordinator, Rob Floyd. Here he plays a nasty character named Vinnie Coto, one who terrorizes the other House Between characters.

Let's just say that in his full costume and make-up, Rob was...quite the presence on set. He not only terrorized characters during his actual scenes...but his fellow actors between scenes. One distinct memory I do have of shooting "Scared" is a lot of nervous laughter...from all corners. Rob was a little too good, perhaps, at playing on a key fear that I know many people suffer from. Again, for the intrepid, look up coulrophobia.

If I recall, shooting "Scared" actually made for one of the smoothest days of the week. Which doesn't mean we didn't stay up late. Alicia, Jim, Bobby, Rick and I were still plugging away before green screens well after 2:00 am. I have vague memories of Bobby standing on top of a rickety ladder, dropping balloons in front of a green screen, wobbling dangerously...

It was in the editing stage that "Scared" became a nightmare...for me, anyway. I would term it a budget buster if we had a budget. More like a time buster, because of the number and complexity of the special effects shots. We've got your opticals; we've got your green screens; we've got your cloning; we've got your garbage mattes; and on an on it goes. Conservatively, I'd estimate there are well over a hundred special effects shots in this single 45 minute episode. For a one man, part-time studio like myself, the final cut posed a daunting challenge unlike any other episode of The House Between.

No budget, no time, no assistant editor...*sigh.*

Fortunately, I did have one magician watching my back during post-production. He made certain that all my post-production efforts came together. That person is musician Mateo Latosa, who has composed for "Scared" perhaps his best work for the series (so far, anyway...). Mateo's work here -- which includes titles such as "Darkness Theory," "Carpenter in Juno," (a nod to John Carpenter...) "Hold Your Breath," "Darting By," and "Vinnie Coto" -- is absolutely extraordinary.

I told Mateo on the phone some weeks back that if web programming ever got nominated for best music awards, I would submit "Scared" as an example of his finest work.

Another factoid about "Scared:" Mateo also told me that he decided early on to score "Scared" like John Carpenter's The Thing, which in retrospect was a brilliant strategy, I believe, and which adds what producer Joe Maddrey calls a sense of "dread" to the proceedings. Not only is The Thing another 1980s horror film (fitting into my theme on "Scared...") but it concerns a bunch of diverse people trapped in a less-than-welcoming location with a villain that seems to boast different forms. Very appropriate.

So that's the story of "Scared." It premieres tomorrow, and I hope you'll watch. It is best viewed with the lights down. In the dark...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.

-Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt),
Fight Club (1999)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

TV REVIEW: Dollhouse: "The Target"

Last week, I counseled patience in regards to Dollhouse, the new Joss Whedon/Eliza Dushku genre series airing on Fox Fridays. It was clear the series had not realized its great a long shot.

This week, I'm delighted to report that patience is a virtue...and virtue is its own reward. For Dollhouse's second episode, "The Target" is approximately a million times more engaging and intriguing than last week's diffident, meandering pilot.

"The Target" commences with a full-head of steam, depicting a flashback that delves into the Dollhouse's mysterious history. In particular, we witness (in washed-out, over-exposed tones....) a catastrophic "composite event" that occurred three months ago. This violent incident saw an Active named "Alpha" -- suddenly in possession of his memory after casting off his state of "tabula rosa" -- go postal and murder several armed guards and at least two fellow Actives. "Alpha" was eventually put down, after cutting up Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker)...or so we've been told.

Oddly, the knife-wielding psychopath spared Echo...

Meanwhile, in the present, Echo (Dushku), has been imprinted with the personality of a rough-and-tumble outdoorsy woman, one who can go toe-to-toe with a rugged client, played by Waiting For Guffman's Matt Keeslar. This muscular, thick-necked client wants a mate who can white-water raft, climb mountains, and match him in every way imaginable (including in the bedroom).

Or so it seem
s. After hot sleeping-bag sex with Echo, the macho client quickly demonstrates he's
a psychopath, one who hunts down Echo in the isolated woods to prove if she is "worthy of living."

Not your normal afterglow, to put it mildly...

So yep, it's The Most Dangerous Game, Dollhouse-style...pitting a post-Wrong Turn Dushku against Keeslar, womano-e-mano.

That description makes "The Target" sound utterly ridiculous, yet in true Whedonesque fashion, the episode brims with surprises, unexpected twists and narrative u-turns. I didn't see any of these shocks coming (especially the connection between the flashback and the present scenario...), and the result is an energetic, imaginative and hyper forty-five minutes. With strong action, good pacing and a tantalizing glimpse of the past, "The Target" satisfies in a way that the pilot just...didn't.

Specifically, one can see how the mythology of the series is building here, with Echo beginning to remember bits of her previous life and personalities, and even holding on to a piece of this particular imprint (particularly one gesture demonstrated by Keeslar's character.) We are also introduced -- in very enigmatic, spare terms -- to the season's possible villain. Alpha. No doubt, we'll see more of this shadowy figure. And somehow, his history involves Echo (real name: Caroline!).

Another aspect of the episode I enjoyed involves some cryptic series terminology. The Dollhouse's security chief, Laurence Dominic, warns Echo that if she doesn't behave, she'll be "put in the attic." I'm sure we'll find out what that warning means soon, but it promises to be creepy/macabre. I also liked the flashback involving the "bonding" between handler Lennix and Echo...a scene that adds a newr layer to that particular relationship.

Of all the characters in Dollhouse, the only one I positively can't stomach is Topher, the young tech-genius who does all the imprinting. He's a little too glib for my taste (and heck, I like glib!). He's a snarky wisecracker and really, really he emerged from a bad episode of Angel.

Otherwise, we learn in "The Target" that Alpha's mystery "leads back to Echo." Given that tantalizing description, I eagerly await episode three.

Monday, February 23, 2009

New Film and TV Titles from McFarland

Buffy and Angel Conquer the Internet
Buffy the Vampire Slayer transcended its cult-comic roots to achieve television success, spawning the spinoff series Angel and an academic movement along the way.

This scholarly treatment takes a multidisciplinary approach to Buffy’s fandom, which has expressed itself through fiction, videos, music, art, and other media. Ten essays analyze the sociology and anthropology of the fan community and how it uses the Internet to share its passion.

Musical Groups in the Movies, 1929-1970
Hundreds of musical groups have appeared in at least one film from 1929 through 1970. This is a reference book devoted to these groups. Most entries include a brief description of the musical group, a list of the main singers or performers and, when available, a list of the songs performed in each film. One appendix lists popular British groups appearing in at least a single film; another lists groups that, while neither singers nor instrumentalists, made significant contributions to music in film (e.g., dance duos, acrobats, skaters, synchronized swimmers…). Filmographies are included for each entry.

The Cinematic Jane Austen
Jane Austen’s novels are loved because they possess a comedic power that is often conveyed through the singular voice of the narrators. Film adaptations, however, have often been unsatisfactory because they lack or awkwardly render features, particularly the voice of the narrators.This work argues for a fresh approach that begins with a reading of the novels that emphasizes their auditory and visual dimensions. Building on their examination of Austen’s inherently cinematic features, the authors then develop productive new readings of the films.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Orphanage (2007)

"It's in the subconscious that the living co-exist with the dead."

- A paranormal expert explains the concept of a ghostly "herald" to a grieving Laura (Belen Rueda) in The Orphanage.

No matter how many times I watch Juan Antonio Bayona's haunting The Orphanage (2007), I discard my notebook and pen by the movie's mid-point and simply have to watch, unfettered by professional considerations.

This movie casts a spell like few films I've seen. Comparisons to Robert Wise's The Haunting, Hooper's Poltergeist and Polanski's Rosemary's Baby are merited, and entirely appropriate,

Simply put, this Spanish terror outing is one of the most elegant, involving, disturbing, and utterly heart-breaking horror films of recent vintage. And -- for those very reasons -- one of the absolute best. At least by my estimate.

Of course, we all respond differently to films, but I can tell you without embarrassment or fear that this movie affects me on some deep, unexamined, emotional level. It's one of those films that you "feel" as you experience it, which makes a clinical, objective analysis problematic.

Perhaps it is because I'm the parent of a young child, and the parent-child relationship -- ups and downs -- informs the film's narrative sweep and resolution. Not in a cheap, easy, "get away from her you bitch" Hollywood style, but in an authentic, primal, hugely affecting way.

Perhaps it is because The Orphanage captures something important and nagging -- but almost intangible -- of evanescent childhood. The innocence, impermanence, loneliness...and terror.

Or maybe it is because the movie senses the fragility of mortality - especially a child's mortality (from a parent's perspective). The makers of The Orphanage seem to understand how one tiny second of parental selfishness, one instant with attention directed elsewhere, can lead to absolute, irrevocable disaster in the life of a child. Or of a parent.
The Orphanage depicts the story of Laura (Belen Rueda), a 37-year old woman who spent her childhood years in the Good Shepherd Orphanage with five friends, at least until she was adopted and given a new home elsewhere. Now, as an adult, Laura and her husband, a milquetoast doctor named Carlos, have moved back to the abandoned Orphanage with their adopted son, Simon (Roger Pricep). Simon is HIV positive, and as an only child he is lonely and least until he is befriended by five...perhaps six, imaginary playmates. One of them, Tomas, is...deformed.

On a day when Laura is hosting a gathering for special needs children, Simon learns of his nature as an adopted child; and that he is danger of dying young. Angry, he feels betrayed; that his parents have lied to him. Laura argues with him, and eventually slaps him across the face.

That's the last time she sees her boy.
Without a trace, without a clue, Simon vanishes. Six months agonizing months pass. Then nine. An increasingly desperate Laura comes to believe with all heart that Simon's ghostly imaginary friends have taken the boy somewhere, and that they will release him if only she plays a game with them. Laura recruits a psychic named Aurora (Geraldine Chapman) for a "summoning" in her house, but there is no sign of Simon. Later, Aurora asks Laura "how far" she is willing to go to see her son again. What exactly she means by that interrogative does not become clear until the film's coda.

Alone in the orphanage (her husband having all but abandoned her...), Laura goes about staging the facility as it looked when she was a child, when Simon's friends were not ghosts, but living, breathing children. She does this in hopes that the six ghosts will relent and help her locate her son. A scavenger/treasure hunt leads Laura to a secret chamber in the basement, and a final, heart-rending reckoning about what actually happened to Simon.

It is possible to interpret The Orphanage in a few ways. For instance, you could gaze at the film as a committed rationalist might and conclude, not inappropriately, that there are no supernatural bells and whistles involved at all. Laura's feelings of guilt are entirely responsible for the ghosts that often "appear." Remember, "it is in the subconscious that the living co-exist with the dead."

Accordingly, virtually everything that occurs in The Orphanage is readily explainable in terms of our consensus, natural reality. From the plaintive banging noises Laura hears inside the walls to Simon's discovery of his illness because of a hidden medical file (in a kitchen drawer), there is not necessarily anything to suggest ghosts or spooks.

Even a critical scene involving an "imaginary friend" at a beach-side cave is filmed ambiguously enough that the open-minded, analytical viewer might conclude no spirit was ever actually there (the footprints in the sand could belong to Simon himself...).

Thus Laura's state of mind is always in question. At a bereavement group, for instance, she reports that Simon's imaginary friends are haunting the house...and every mourning parent in that support group has a similar story to offer; of seeing dead loved ones. Are they all seeing ghosts? No...

...It's the subconscious mind's way of coping with the unacceptable, with the unthinkable. Or so we may believe.

On the other hand, as The Orphanage trenchantly points out, "seeing is not's the other way around."

Believing is...seeing. So it is entirely possible (and indeed much more to fun...) to take the spectral occurrences at face value; to believe that the Good Shepherd Orphanage is haunted by the spirits of the children who died there under tragic circumstances (a drowning, and a poisoning, respectively...). That Simon -- because of his illness -- boasts a special sensitivity to the nearby ghosts. to him. They...want to play with him.

One rewarding aspect of The Orphanage is its dedication to, well, intelligence. It doesn't spoon-feed you the solutions. It doesn't resort to cheap answers, or even cheap scares for that matter. Both "solutions" -- the imaginative horror one, and the rather depressing reality -- dwell side-by-side, or perhaps intertwined. As viewers we must select for ourselves what we believe. What is the limitation -- or breadth -- of our belief system?

In whatever way you ultimately choose to view The Orphanage, it is a splendidly realized film in terms of visuals...and shivers. A sequence involving the sing-song recitation of a childhood rhyme ("one, two, three...knock on the wall...") starts quietly and then escalates -- through repetition and a sense of anticipation -- into nothing less than full-throated terror. No special effects are deployed in the scene, merely the clever, effective use of a simple, repeated camera move: an unsteady pan across what by rights should be an empty room...but isn't.

Another chilling set-piece involves night-vision photography, static-y electronic monitors and our creepy old medium, Aurora, traversing the dark house in an attempt to locate "the ghosts." Again, simple but effective film technique is deployed to elevate suspense. During a psychic regression, there's a slow, methodical countdown from ten to one. With each additional number recitation, we get another slow zoom into the face of a concerned, freaked bystander. Then, as Aurora patrols the premises, the sounds of spirits are captured by technology, in the form of sine-waves, in close-up. They practically scream at you - jarring peaks and valleys of terror. The approach is spare, minimal...and absolutely riveting.

Bayona's camera itself seems perpetually unsettled, prowling uneasily about corridors and landscapes. The presence of the unseen is suggested...yet just out of reach. Like Simon himself...

I should also add that The Orphanage alludes frequently to Peter Pan, that childhood paean to "never growing up." Only here, Never-Land is clearly Death. The children never grow up...because they die. Watch for an early discussion of the character of Wendy, and the fact that she never returned to Never Land with Peter, but grew old instead; and that Laura considers herself similarly "too old" for Never Land.

In the course of the film, the ghostly children, and Simon himself teach Laura how to play again; how to understand the particular "powers" (and imagination) we associate most closely with the young, the innocent. When the Wendy/Peter Pan allusion pops up again in the stirring climax, it's an emotional apex...and you will realize just how carefully, how thoughtfully crafted this movie remains. Credit not just Bayona, but writer Sergio G. Sanchez. Together they've gifted horror fans a legitimate classic.

You may catch the deliberate resonances of Poltergeist (the missing child) or Henry James' Turn of the Screw (particularly Clayton's 1961 adaptation, The Innocents) in The Orphanage. Yet this movie boasts a poignant core, a sense of the human heart that, in some fashion, pushes it beyond any simple assembly of its notable influences, at least in terms of emotional impact. When all is finally revealed in the "little house" of Tomas -- when Laura must face the truth about what really happened to her son -- I guarantee will weep.

I know I did.