Saturday, April 18, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Splinter (2008)

It's an age-old debate in the horror genre: analysis or action?

What's more imperative in the tense, grueling crucible for survival: assessing a nightmare scenario fully? Or moving fast and getting the hell out of Dodge before things escalate?

That's the driving character conflict that underlines director Toby Wilkins' low-budget but high-impact horror movie, Splinter (2008). This impressive and intense film lands a young, likable couple, Polly (Jill Wagner) and Seth (Paulo) in extreme danger from a murderous, ancient and very hungry parasite in the ancient (400 year old...) woods of Oklahoma.

In the thick of night, the duo seeks refuge at an isolated gas station along with a violent criminal, Dennis Farrell (Shea Whigham) and his drugged-out girlfriend, Lacy (Rachel Kerbs). As the parasite multiplies (or rather...grows...) and lays siege to the filling station, Polly and Seth countenance the terror they face in very different, even contradictory ways.

Polly is impulsive and quick to act; quick to grab a baseball bat or even plot to burn the gas station down (to draw the attention of a fire crew). By contrast, Seth almost immediately adopts a dispassionate attitude of "data gathering" and seeks to learn as much about the enigmatic enemy as possible before indulging in rash, irreversible action. Much of the film meditates on the way each character''s distinctive approach succeeds; how each approach fails...with bloody consequences in some cases. I don't think it's any coincidence that Seth's analytical approach to resolving the crisis involves freezing (or dropping his body temperature), and that Polly's early gambit (with Farrell) is fire-starting. Each path reflects the character's true nature. Seth metaphorically runs cold; Polly runs hot.

The best horror movies gaze at this very human dilemma: how do we arrive at our most important decisions and what are their consequences? Consider, for example, Romero's Night of the Living Dead, in which Ben and Cooper argued (fruitlessly and endlessly...) over the best sanctuary location, the basement or the first floor of an under-siege farmhouse. Splinter actually merits comparison to that classic because it dwells meaningfully and unceasingly in the details of a similar claustrophobic debate. Science or violence? Hot or cold? Run or stay? Roll the get once chance.

I hasten to add, these are not irrelevant issues in the national context today. We're stuck in Iraq because few in the Bush Administration apparently expended the time or energy to consider and weigh the likely consequences of a rash, unnecessary war. And today, just twelve weeks into a "cool" new administration, some people are thirsting for more aggressive, immediate action and less recitation of context and analyses; they think talk is cheap and care about quick results.

What appears absent in our hyper-polarized national conversation -- but what Splinter implicitly offers -- is an ameliorating sense of balance, particularly in the introduction of a character who can bridge the gulf between action and analysis, and travel back and forth between at the right moment. In the film, this quality arrives in the unlikeliest and most unexpected of sources: the Carpenter-esque anti-hero and heir to Assault on Precinct 13's Napoleon Wilson: Dennis Farrell. Why, Farrell even gets his own catchphrase ("fuck it,") much like famous Carpenter anti-establishment mavericks Wilson, Plissken, Nada and Desolation Williams.

But Farrell's most significant quality is his capacity to roll with the punches and not stay irrationally anchored to one particular viewpoint. He is introduced as menace, harbors a few secrets (including the not-entirely-unexpected secret of his innate nobility...) but ultimately saves the day. He succeeds where Seth and Polly -- to some extent - -have failed, though there's no comfort in it for him. At one point, Farrell is even infected by the monster: he's hot and cold, victim and victimizer, criminal and hero.

At first, I wasn't certain I was really going to regard Splinter very highly. The preamble -- which involves a redneck in a lawn chair getting attacked by a contaminated rodent menace -- relies on the all-to-easy easy vernacular of quick flash cuts and shaky slow-mo photography that you've seen in approximately million low-budget horror films of late. The visual design of the film is mostly uninspired too: it's all herky-jerky shaky cam; much like your average episode of (new) Battlestar Galactica. But I won't mince words: this film deserves your patience and attention. It builds to a fever pitch, develops characters you come to care about, and is unrelenting in the varied (successful) attempts to scare you.

Beyond the clever construction of the script (by Wilkins, Ian Shorr and Kai Barry) -- which highlights the hot versus cold/action versus analysis dynamic -- Wilkins hooked me with his gruesome, inventive monster (one that boasts a creepy, rigor-mortis-type gait but isn't a traditional zombie...) and his disciplined sense of pace and ever-escalating horror. One thoroughly impressive set-piece involving Seth's attempt to wrangle a police radio through a small glass window -- utilizing a wire hanger -- builds and builds until you want to crawl out of your seat with a combination of mounting frustration and terror. Another scene, featuring box cutters and a cinder block is so harrowing -- but approached with such seriousness -- that you can't look away (no matter how much you might want to.)

And this brings up another aspect of Splinter that I admired. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Wilkins doesn't go in for snark or easy laughs. He hasn't directed the movie to show-off his knowledge of movie history or show us how smart he is about film technique and post-modernism. Instead, he carefully crafts a solid terror trap, one in which all angles of the story have been considered, and narrative consistency is highlighted. In short, the director treats the material with respect and seriousness, and his sincere, non-jokey approach makes you care all the more about these imperiled characters. I could contrast this film with Feast for instance: similar plot, similar location, but all style and no substance. Just easy laughs and campy horror. Not so here.

And although at first I wanted to scribble on my notepad that Wilkins boasts an apparent pathological aversion to long-shots and establishing shots, I can detect now how his visual m.o. (medium shots and close-ups) deliberately crafts a kind of "tunnel-vision" sense of immediacy with the characters. The rigorous tight framing aids the audience in identifying with the leads (all very good actors) at the same time that that it affords us the possibility of numerous foreground and background shocks and jolts. That's exactly the kind of equation you want in a siege picture of this type. The last hour of the film is almost entirely set in a gas station interior (essentially one room...) but you never feel bogged down. Trapped, yes, but not bogged down. At just about 85 minutes, the movie is mean and lean. There's not a wasted breath or moment.

You know, I talk a lot here on the blog about how important it is for cinematic form to echo cinematic content. Splinter accomplishes that feat, but it also does more: it viscerally recreates Seth and Polly's war inside you, the viewer. While watching, you may find your intellect constantly at war with your pounding heart. You will feel downright schizophrenic as you shout at the screen for the characters to wait, or hurry; to hide or get moving. Thus Splinter lives up its advertising: It'll get under your skin.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Millennium and Muir at the Grassy Knoll

The first part of an extensive three-part audio interview on the subject of Chris Carter's brilliant series, Millennium (1996-1999), has now been posted by radio host Vyzogoth over at "The Grassy Knoll."

In this initial interview, I discuss with Vyzogoth some of the symbols, themes and specific contexts underlining Millennium's stellar first season. In Part 2 (available on April 27), we go on to discuss the specifics of Season Two.

Here's the
link to the site. Check it out!


Red alert: The Playmates toys from J.J. Abrams' upcoming Star Trek (2009) are beaming down to store shelves now. I was in Target with Joel yesterday trying to explain to him that there were no toys available for Thundercats (his new favorite characters...). He was disappointed, but quickly spotted the "starship Enterprise" (from the Galaxy Collection...) at his eye level.

I successfully resisted l my urge to spend a lot of money and settled for the Enterprise and the Original Spock action figure. I then channeled some self-discipline and exercised extreme will-power. Yep, I left the communicator, new phaser, the transporter room diorama and other figures (Chekov, Sulu, Pike!) hanging there...untouched. But wow, these toys are gorgeous.

Better not go back to Target anytime soon. At least not till I get my next royalty statement...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Mask Makes The Monster

So I guess you’ve heard the news by now. In Rob Zombie's Halloween 2, Michael Myers will be wearing his trademark Shatner mask in only roughly 25% of the film. And John Carpenter’s Halloween theme – which has endured since 1978 – will not be utilized at all.

These creative decisions are Zombie’s to make, of course, and I suppose he’s got his own vision of Halloween that he is assiduously pursuing here. But his selections cause me some alarm. They make me ask an important and relevant question: when does so much get altered, so much get changed, so much get removed, that a familiar franchise just isn’t familiar anymore?

Michael’s mask – that white, expressionless, emotionless mask – transforms the long-lived character of Michael Myers into something more than a mere mortal. When wearing the mask, he is “The Shape,” or "The Boogeyman." Sans mask, those identities no longer carry significance, psychic weight or importance. And again, those ideas have been important to the franchise’s history: they push Michael across an important line; from being merely another bad "man" to being something more archetypal, something more iconic and more universally recognizable and menacing. Evil with an "E."

I had a movie poster of “The Shape” in my college dorm back in 1988, and I’ll never forget what my R.A. said about it. He had seen the Halloween films but wasn’t a horror movie fan, per se. But he noted this: “That white mask seems to reflect every fear back at you, doesn’t it?” Pretty deep for an R.A.. And pretty insightful too.

But he was right: we invest something of ourselves, of our subconscious in that ivory mask, in that cinematic mirror, and ultimately that’s what great art is all about. How we interpret it.

The very thing that separates Michael from the slasher pack is this sense of ambiguity about his humanity. The white mask ghoulishly represents how easy (and in some senses, cowardly…) it is to hide behind a cloak of anonymity . The white mask also symbolizes Michael’s blank stare, one cast on his victims with hidden indifference and contempt. The white mask furthermore allows Michael to cloak his true motives and give his enemies a bit of the "Trick or Treat." Remember how he cast sad puppy dog eyes at Laurie in the finale of H20, a trick to lure her, in no doubt? Now imagine that scene played out if you’d seen his entire face, not just the eyes. Would the moment have been as effective?

From a practical point of view, the famous white mask of Michael Myers is also efficacious for night time shooting: it is often the only object we see lurking in – or lunging from – those night time compositions that Roger Ebert famously (and accurately) termed impenetrable. Some truly great moments in lighting and mise-en-scene have occurred in the Halloween films as that white, blank face slowly emerges from shadows, or is illuminated hot red (Halloween 2), etc.

Over the decades, scholars, psychologists and critics have suggested many theories about Michael Myers and his unique nature. That he is supernatural; that he is Evil on Two Legs. That he is a sociopath. That he is Laurie’s repressed id. Or even just that he is but a misguided, maladapted adult child…playing a brutal trick-or-treat game without any sense of conscience, remorse or proportion.

Remove the mask from Michael and all that speculation is gone with the wind. A Michael without the mask no longer represents or symbolizes anything larger than himself. He is not the Shape of Fear. He is not the embodiment of terror. He is not id, ego or superego. He is no more and no less than what he appears: a drooling mad-dog killer with hygiene issues.

If Michael doesn’t wear his mask, horror fans, general audiences and franchise followers lose something vital: our sense of imagination and engagement with "The Shape" as an archetype; as a character that is more than the sum of his violent parts and acts. If Michael doesn’t wear his famous mask, we don’t have to guess, speculate or imagine what diabolical psychological and human secrets he boasts. He is just like one of us, except big and strong and mean.

The details of Michael's story won’t really make much sense anymore, either. If he is no longer The Shape, how does Michael survive being burned? Bullets? Beatings? A thick skin I guess…

And again, this is sad to me: something mythic is rendered mundane. Something highbrow has been made lowbrow. Something extraordinary has been rendered…average, "normal."

If Rob Zombie – an alleged fan of the Carpenter original -- can’t see this, fact can’t understand this complaint, can’t artistically make this distinction -- then he doesn’t understand an iota about the Halloween mythos. I don’t say that to be personal, to be mean or even negative, but because I believe it to be true. I’m not saying Zombie can’t tell a good story about a non-mask-wearing serial killer…only that it won’t deserve the title Halloween if that’s the path he chooses.

I also have to wonder about the reasons not to use the famous music, but I confess, I am in nostalgic, not aesthetic territory when I wage this debate. The John Carpenter theme, not unlike the James Bond theme, the Star Trek fanfare, or John Williams’ Star Wars music – is an instantly recognizable trademark of the franchise. The music reminds the viewer that the franchise has a long history, and more so that the emotional connection you forged with the franchise in the past remains.

By taking out the Halloween theme, Rob Zombie seems to be intimating that there’s no room in his interpretation of the mythos for the old guard. For me. I mean, how unimaginative do you have to be, that you can’t find a place to utilize the Carpenter theme song even once? It could be deployed ironically, nostalgically, or bombastically. As a brief fanfare over a title card; or in full-throated mode, fast over the end credits.

How would James Bond fans feel about a film that didn’t feature the 007 theme? Wouldn’t they feel a little ripped off? Like something had gone awry? Like someone behind-the-scenes was, maybe, on an ego trip? The James Bond theme…you don’t want to hear that old thing again do you? This is MY interpretation of James Bond and there’s no room for John Barry, Monty Norman or any “old” interpretation. Fuck those guys, this is the REAL James Bond.

For better or for worse, Rob Zombie has become temporary steward of the Halloween franchise. The films pre-date his presence and they will likely outlast his presence (unless he plans to make them for the rest of his life.) Bluntly put, one responsibility of a franchise director is to hold sacred for the next installment those things that the fans and viewers cherish. To leave those iconic situations, ideas and themes intact for the next guy; for the next film; and for the next generation of viewers.

By taking Michael out of the mask, by not using the long-lived John Carpenter theme, I fear that Zombie is abdicating his moral responsibilities as a franchise director. When he is done with Halloween, what will be left and will it be recognizable? As someone who’s been watching these movies since 1978, I care about the answer to that question.

I realize that some people will likely say this is just "a fanboy overachiever" making a mountain out of a molehill. After all, movies in today’s culture are disposable, and when Zombie is done with Halloween, maybe there will be another re-boot that puts to rights the things he’s done wrong.

But one of the reasons that I enjoy film series like Halloween (and Star Trek, and Star Wars, and James Bond…) is that I appreciate continuity. And make no mistake, continuity is something important: the viewer gets something valuable from it. Again, in some cases, we can begin to truly engage a work of art only when we gaze at the larger picture; at the larger narrative told across a multi-film tapestry. So we want to know that the Kirk of Star Trek IV remembers the events of Star Trek III, for instance. Or, in the case of James Bond, that his core characteristics -- sex, sadism and snobbery -- remain the same even as times and social mores change.

With Michael Myers, the same is true. He’s supposed to be a masked spree killer; but no ordinary man. No...he is “The Shape” or “The Boogeyman." His theme song goes along with that image.

So I wonder when Halloween stops being Halloween, and when it becomes HINO: Halloween In Name Only. To some degree, it’s the aura of hubris that concerns me here too. Zombie wants to keep the title Halloween (or rather, Halloween 2), but he also wants to do his own thing at the same time…even though his changes are radical. If Zombie wants to do a movie about a serial killer without a mask, he should craft an original franchise featuring that character. He’s smart enough and talented enough to do just that. (And listen, I love House of a 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, so I'm not just picking on Zombie to be a "hater.")

But Rob Zombie shouldn’t corrupt the character of Michael Myers and the character of the Halloween films to fit his particular tastes simply because it’s convenient. Because the well-known title offers him a built-in audience, and a guarantee of a good opening weekend. Zombie has a responsibility to be true to what's come before.

If, in Zombie’s version of Halloween 2, Laurie asks Loomis if Michael Myers was the Bogeyman, I expect Loomis to answer, honestly. “As a matter of fact….he wasn’t.”


He was just a big wrestler dude in overalls with a beard. If that's truly "The Shape" of Things to come for this franchise, it saddens me. Michael Myers is a great movie villain and I hate to see him brought down to the realm of the ordinary,

Chillers and Thrillers Looks at Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper

My 2003 reference and film study book Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper (McFarland) gets excavated and examined in "Building Horror and Suspense Tobe Hooper’s Way," a new, in-depth article by Gary Pullman over at the excellent blog Chillers and Thrillers, a site "on the theory and practice of writing horror fiction."

Here's a snippet:

"In Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper, John Kenneth Muir explains some of the narrative and symbolic devices that Hooper uses in his film, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), to build horror and suspense..."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

So Long, Starlog...

I'm a day or two behind on this news, but Entertainment Weekly's Pop Watch reports that the 33-year old genre magazine Starlog is "temporarily" folding as a print publication in 2009 (though the online site will continue). This is sad and unwelcome news for the genre, and for me too. Personally, I will forever gaze back on Starlog with nostalgia and great affection .

The magazine was first published back in August 1976 (with a beautiful Star Trek cover) and the periodical looked at the state of the genre -- film and TV -- with great detail, love and intelligence. Starlog was around for the heyday of Space:1999, Star Wars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and so many other landmarks of the disco decade.

In the eighties, the mag covered everything from Doctor Who and Blake's 7 to Highlander, Aliens and the Star Trek feature films. I had a subscription to the magazine in the 1980s and early 1990s, and spent the early part of the Reagan Era avidly collecting back issues at Englishtown Flea Market (where I could purchase each issue for $2.00).

I especially remember reading and enjoying David Gerrold's columns in Starlog over the years ("State of the Art," and "Rumblings"), plus David Hirsch's great updates about the Gerry Anderson universe (called "Space Report"). I also recall with affection issue #33, which featured reviews of Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Harlan Ellison, editor Howard ("Lastword") Zimmerman and Gerrold. Over the years, I enjoyed reading extensive interviews and detailed retrospective pieces from great writers like Lee Goldberg and Jean-Marc Lofficier. Every summer for a while, Starlog ran a must-have summer review issue too, and had the likes of Ben Bova, Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur C. Clarke, Alan Dean Foster and Robert Bloch penning critiques.

Sure, there was occasionally stuff to complain about in Starlog. For instance, the coverage of Space:1999 seemed particularly jaundiced; I remember how every Star Trek cast member and writer interviewed by the magazine felt compelled to slag it off, even when it wasn't the topic of the interview. But that's water under the bridge. What Famous Monsters represents to the older generation, Starlog surely represents to the Star Wars generation (my generation...Generation X).

I can't tell you exactly why, but I stopped reading and collecting Starlog sometime in the early 1990s, after I graduated from the University of Richmond. Yet every time I spotted a fresh issue at a newsstand or in a book shop, I felt happy and content to see that a cherished old friend -- one which did so much to ignite my love of the genre in film and television, not to mention journalism --- was still going strong.

All good things must come to an end, I suppose, even Starlog. For today I simply want to toast the 33-year old magazine that started so many of us off on our fantastic odysseys. Thanks for all the memories, Starlog, and job well done. If you can, come back to print soon...bigger and better than ever.

You know, just thinking about the magazine makes me want to get my back issues out of storage and read 'em all again

Against the Grain likes Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television

My award-winning reference book, The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television (now in a second, updated edition) just got another great review, this one from Against the Grain (Volume 20, # 6, page 57). ATG is published six times a year and counts itself a news source "on the issues, literature, and people that impact the world of books and journals."

ATG writes that The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television "will appeal to both enthusiasts of the superhero genre as well as serious students of pop culture," that it contains "interesting facts and off-beat trivia" and that libraries will "need a second copy," one for "reference purposes" and one for fans "to check-out."

New From McFarland

The horror genre harbors a number of films too bold or bizarre to succeed with mainstream audiences, but offering unique, startling and often groundbreaking qualities that have won them an enduring following. Beginning with Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage in 1921, this book tracks the evolution and influence of underground cult horror over the ensuing decades, closing with William Winckler’s Frankenstein vs. the Creature from Blood Cove in 2005. It discusses the features that define a cult film, trends and recurring symbols, and changing iconography within the genre through insightful analysis of 88 movies. Included are works by popular directors who got their start with cult horror films, including Oliver Stone, David Cronenberg and Peter Jackson.

Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero:

For more than 60 years, Captain America was one of Marvel Comics’ flagship characters, representing truth, strength, liberty, and justice. The assassination of his alter ego, Steve Rogers, rocked the comic world, leaving numerous questions about his life and death. This book discusses topics including the representation of Nazi Germany in Captain America Comics from the 1940s to the 1960s; the creation of Captain America in light of the Jewish American experience; the relationship between Captain America and UK Marvel’s Captain Britain; the groundbreaking partnership between Captain America and African American superhero the Falcon; and the attempts made to kill the character before his “real” death.

Hollywood in the Holy Land

This collection of essays analyzes film representations of the Crusades, other medieval East/West encounters, and the modern inheritance of encounters between orientalist fantasy and apocalyptic conspiracy. From studies of the filmic representations of popular figures such as El Cid, Roland, Richard I, and Saladin to examinations of such topics as Templar romance and the role of set design, location and landscape, the essays make significant contributions to our understanding of orientalist medievalism in film.

Monday, April 13, 2009

TV REVIEW: Dollhouse: "A Spy in the House of Love"

Without exaggeration, hyperbole, or histrionics, let me just put it to you straight: "A Spy in the House of Love" is the best episode of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse aired thus far. And more than that, it's the installment of the fledgling series that finally -- perhaps irrevocably -- broke down my sense of resistance to the series, not to mention my considerable feelings of distance and alienation from the heretofore opaque dramatis personae.

And no, it doesn't have anything to do with the fact that Eliza Duskhu makes her initial appearance in the episode brandishing a whip and wearing the sexy leather gear of a dominatrix.

Or not much, anyway.

"A Spy in the House of Love" involves Topher's surprising discovery of a spy inside the Dollhouse, one who can tap into his high-tech imprints and alter them without his knowledge. The NSA is suspected to be behind the secret mole, and one fast-paced portion of the episode concerns an Alias-like infiltration of that national agency by a disguised Sierra. But actually, the episode is structured cleverly to follow our four primary Actives as they go out on individual engagements, These Dolls are Echo, Victor, November and Sierra, and and each mini-adventure adds to the narrative of the main story at the same time that it builds good character touches.

In an act of self-preservation, Echo volunteers, for instance, to be imprinted as an expert interrogator, one who eventually brings down the spy. As I mentioned above, Sierra goes on a dangerous assignment at the NSA. November, meanwhile, unwittingly carries information for the spy inside the dollhouse to a bewildered Ballard (Penikott).

Finally, Victor's semi-regular, "a lonely heart," turns out to be the very woman running the entire show, De Witt (Olivia Williams). For the first time, we get to see the cracks in De Witt's shield: her loneliness, her isolation, her moral qualms about the Dollhouse and it's mission, and so on. You know the truism that it's lonely at the top? Well, De Witt has been living that for a long time, and secretly seeking companionship and solace with a Doll. The important thing is that this aspect of her personality gives us another layer to contemplate and sympathize with, something the druggie episode of a few weeks failed to accomplish.

The identity of the spy is revealed before the episode's denouement and the revelation is quite the shocker. I certainly didn't see it coming. I won't spoil it for you here, but let me say that it made sense, even if it seems to have arisen from left field. I also enjoyed the fact that this "mole" character and Echo launched into a brilliantly-orchestrated physical re-match (their first tussle was in "True Believer"); and that the much-discussed "attic" came into play during the finale.

Like Echo herself, Dollhouse is really and truly evolving. With Echo's dawning awareness, and the presence of several competing agendas and characters boasting hidden loyalties, the new Whedon series has at last ascended to a commendably complex, and highly-addictive level of storytelling. So yes -- after nine episodes -- count me officially as a fan.

THB Around The Web

A few post-finale THB goodies to report: Joe Maddrey offers part 2 and part 3 of his analytic "Secret Coda of The House Between" at his blog, looking at both "Religion of Art" and how "The End is Beginning"

Meanwhile, at Quantum Imprimaturs, Lar has posted the results of the Second Season Favorite Episode Poll (we have a runaway winner...) and is now taking votes on Season Three's fan favorite. Plus, he has transcribed and posted the first part of my lengthy and occasionally meandering (!) telephone interview with him from last Thursday night.