Saturday, August 15, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Woodstock (1970)

It was forty years ago today that a generation came together in upstate New York to celebrate a vision of the future that included good music, peace and love...and perhaps a recreational drug or two.

Yep, the Woodstock concert is officially four decades old in August of 2009, and given that landmark anniversary, I thought it would be appropriate to remember Woodstock -- the movie -- today.

This Academy-award winning non-fiction film endures as a remarkable document, one that pain-stakingly charts a specific time and place, particularly Bethel, New York, on the specific weekend when 1.5 million kids descended on a parcel of farmland for what ultimately became a free concert (much to the surprise of the show's concerned financiers).


It's no hyperbole to state that Woodstock is a giant among documentaries (and concert films), much as the event itself remains a colossus among concerts. If you want to witness the dark side of the Vietnam generation, check out (the equally amazing, if depressing...) Gimme Shelter. But Woodstock has the good vibrations. It delivers just what the film's subtitle promises: Three Days of Peace and Music.

Yet what I admire most about the movie Woodstock is that director Michael Wadleigh depicts two engaging stories simultaneously. One is the story of the music itself, of the on-stage performances. You've got Arlo Guthrie, The Who, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Virtually everything about this facet of the film is sterling; from Joan Baez on stage at night by her lonesome, singing about her incarcerated husband (a draft dodger), to the always energetic Jimi Hendrix, doing his particular brand of hard rock.

But today, I'm even more fascinated by the other story depicted by Wadleigh. It's a tale of logistics; of preparations; of amazing, vast scope. In other words, Woodstock is a film that doesn't merely provide shots of teeming masses, it's one that desires to reveal how those masses lived for three days (and nights) in that farmland setting. The film shows us how, where, and when concert-goers slept, carving out territory for themselves and pleasantly "saying goodnight" to their neighbors. It reveals how people made the best of a difficult situation when the sky opened up and it began to rain. Before long, the ground had turned to slick, messy mud...

The film shows us concert-goers standing patiently in line to use a pay phone (and check-in with their worried parents). At one point, we even learn that a baby has been born at Woodstock. And then realization dawns that this is not merely a "shitty mess" as one person suggests, but rather a full-blown, ad-hoc city. There's health care (forty-five doctors from the Army have arrived; all toiling without pay), there's food, there are even bathing facilities (meaning a place for co-ed skinny dipping.)

Improbably, Wadleigh even arranges an entire sequence around the toilets; portable chemical port-a-johns that service the vast crowd. And finally, at the end of the film, we see volunteers cleaning up the deserted field, picking up what appears to be a vast sea of garbage. "Just love everybody and clean up a little garbage on the way out, and everything will be fine," one organizer optimistically suggests.

There was so much footage shot for Woodstock that, at times, the movie cuts to split-screens, ones two-and-three frames strong. To Wadleigh's credit, he marshals the technique when it is merited -- as balance and counterweight, mostly -- not when he's simply attempting to be flashy. The result is a visually dazzling film that's never less than compelling.

Unlike the rowdy, contentious Town Halls we see on TV today, the Woodstock concert didn't require policemen to step in and maintain law and order. Instead, people behaved themselves and didn't act on ignorance or bigotry. Fifty thousand teenagers were expected...and over a million showed up. And yet there were no major incidents to report.

I suspect there's a lesson in that somewhere.

The radical right wing in this country has been very successful at marginalizing, ridiculing and lampooning the Peace Generation (with a little help from the "libertarian" South Park). But that's okay, because the Left has this film -- an authentic time capsule -- capturing Woodstock in all its glory, wonder and peace. And undeniably, this the finest moment of that Peace Generation.

Rent Woodstock, watch Woodstock...and commemorate a time in America when an event like this could actually happen without courting disaster. At this point -- what with those pesky Death Panels and all -- I don't think it's going to happen again soon.

Friday, August 14, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Body Double (1984)

"You can't believe everything you see," declared the tag line for Brian De Palma's 1984 thriller, Body Double.

That statement might also adequately serve as the film's mantra or statement of purpose. Because that which is perceived and that which is real almost never align in this tricky, droll Reagan-era suspense movie, and even the title recognizes that fact.

After all, a "body double" is itself a visual cheat, a substitute "body" (or physique) for a lead actor or actress. For example, when the lyrical camera lovingly panned down Angie Dickinson's nude torso in the shower stall during the preamble of Dressed to Kill (1980), there was that almost-invisible transition from middle-aged A-list actress to twenty-five year old stunt double.

And as Brian De Palma might himself remind us, the camera was doing what it does best at that very moment.


Lying.
24 times a second.

We believed we were seeing one thing; but reality was entirely different.

In the scandalous and controversial Body Double, De Palma points the camera's "lying" eye toward Hollywood and the tricky, even deceitful milieu of filmmaking. This is a land of constant illusion and artifice; of uncertain loyalties and unexpected betrayals. It's a world De Palma has much personal experience with, and so the movie is a blistering critique of Hollywood politics. A director can love you one day, and fire you the next. A fellow actor can be your best friend, and then stab you in the back...all for a prized role. One day you can be the cock of the walk, and the next day, you're a feather duster, to quote Tina Turner.

And down to the often sub-standard rear-projection/process work -- a deliberate signifier that certain scenes are not "real" and form the basis of another visual "lie" -- director De Palma constantly reminds us in Body Double that our eyes are not to be trusted. Ever. This is the perfect approach for a thriller featuring many twists and turns because it challenges us to keep up and to watch closely; to register the underneath bubbling below the glitzy, shallow surface.

Notably, De Palma deploys two popular movie trends of the times to make this particular thriller so effective. The first is the so-called "dead teenager" or "knife-kill" slasher films of the period, which had come to feature ever more dramatic and over-the-top murders (like the drill homicide in Slumber Party Massacre [1982].)


The second trend exploited here is the "music video," the short-form, self-contained music clip that had recently been popularized on the newly-founded MTV Network and in feature films such as Flashdance (1983) and Footloose (1984). In Body Double, De Palma stages a hypnotic video sequence to Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax."

In both cases, we ask if we can really trust our eyes. Is the perpetrator of the horrific violence for real? A lunatic Indian?! Is the music video love scene represenative of the film's "reality" or simply Hollywood movie-making reality? Is a winsome, lonely wife more than she seems? Less than she seems? These are the questions on which we obsess.

I'd Like You To Meet My Favorite Neighbor...

Body Double tells the tale of actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), a struggling actor having a very bad day. He experiences a claustrophobic panic attack on the set of his new low-budget flick, Vampire's Kiss, and the director (Dennis Franz) wants to fire him.

When he is sent home to relax, Scully discovers his girlfriend in bed with another man. Scully starts drinking again and unexpectedly meets an actor friend, Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) at a bar. Sam suggests that Scully camp out at his sub-let, a strange futuristic home overlooking the Hollywood Hills. With no place to go, Scully promptly agrees.

Once living in the strange apartment, Scully watches through a telescope as a beautiful neighbor dances topless each night at exactly the same time. Over days, Scully becomes obsessed with the sexy siren, Gloria Revelle (Shelton), and begins to follow her...even as a gruesome, menacing Indian man means to do her harm. Ultimately, Scully arrives too late to save Gloria from being brutally murdered.

Despondent, Scully later recognizes something familiar in the seductive dance of a porno star, Holly Body (Griffith) and realizes that's he been made a patsy; transformed into the perfect witness to a crime...so that the real culprit can get away, scot-free, in the murder of his wife. To catch the murderer, Scully descends into the world of porno movies in an attempt to meet Holly and learn the truth behind that dance...

Take Off Your Clothes: I Want to Take Some Pictures

As critic Andrew Kopkina wrote in The Nation, De Palma's Body Double boasts "clearly ironic intent" in that it's a movie "about the culture of sex and violence rather than about the awful events of the plot." (November 24, 1984, page 562). That's a distinction worth noting, I submit.

Because I believe that De Palma's ironic intent goes a very long way towards defusing the charges of misogyny perennially lodged at Body Double.

Clearly, however, not everybody concurs with that assessment. Entertainment Weekly's Ty Burr called the film "the most unbearably cruel of De Palma's Hitch rips" and pointed out that "the scene of a helpless woman (Deborah Shelton) getting power-drilled to death is too viciously gloating to forgive." (January 15, 1993, pages 56-47).

Reviewer David Sterritt at The Christian Science Monitor noted De Palma's skill in crafting Body Double, but derided the "sleazy material he's peddling, which feeds largely on a vision of women as objects to be ogled or butchered." (November 13, 1984, page 52).

So again, we're back to that point of demarcation with director De Palma. This is the elephant in the room. De Palma is either ironically commenting on the state of movie-dom and 1980s Hollywood; or just cravenly "peddling" viciousness and misogyny. He's either rewriting the language of contemporary film (not to mention Hitchcock thrillers...) to satirize other movies, or contributing to the crisis of a crass, lurid pop culture. Or perhaps, he's doing both simultaneously.

It won't surprise you to learn that I don't consider De Palma a misogynist, even in Body Double. For one thing, his violence is directed at men and women here; Scully is paralyzed with fear and nearly buried alive at one point....which is pretty sadistic.

For another thing, De Palma's intent to parody Hollywood's ongoing obsession with on-screen violence has very real antecedents, as I noted above. In the aforementioned Slumber Party Massacre -- a film directed by a woman, Amy Jones -- a male killer with a drill goes around homicidally "screwing" women in a fashion not at all unlike Body Double's killer. Is she a misogynist too? Or is violence against women acceptable (and not anti-woman in nature) when orchestrated by a female director?

Furthermore, when Jones has a woman with a machete chop off the killer's drill/phallus, -- thus metaphorically castrating him -- in Slumber Party Massacre, is she being anti-man? I haven't heard any cries of misanthropy there, and nor should I. Jones, like De Palma, transgresses in order to make a point; she utilizes symbolism (the drill, the machete, etc) to craft points about the nature of violence; about male power; about female vengeance, etc.

Is Gloria in Body Double "objectified?" Undoubtedly. Scully is drawn to her because of her nude dance...because of her sexy body. That's the lure to spring Sam's trap, but it's more an indictment of Scully's character (and a comment on men in general), then it is a fault of Gloria "as a woman." Also, we should ask: are women's bodies objectified in Hollywood outside the world of De Palma? In porno movies? In mainstream movies? If you think the answer is "yes," then again, De Palma ought to get a pass: he's noting (and commenting) on a real life context; not crafting some personal vision of hatred towards women.

Perhaps more specificity is required here. Body Double is charged with misogyny particularly because of a murder scene in which Gloria is drilled (bloodily) to death. Indeed, we witness the murder in graphic terms. There's a shot of the drill whirring, coming down between the (male) killer's legs -- like a giant cock -- as it penetrates the helpless, supine female.

Okay. This is undoubtedly excessive. But excessive doesn't equal misogyny, necessarily. Let's recall that Body Double was created in the decade of excess, the 1980s, and the whole film practically explodes with excess. It isn't merely romantic...it's melodramatically, balls-to-the-walls over-romantic, with De Palma's tongue-in-cheek camera spinning in a frenzy as Scully and Gloria share a first kiss and the soundtrack swoons. The film isn't merely sexually provocative, either, it takes us head-first, blunt-faced into the sleazy world of pornography, culminating with a complaint (from a production assistant) that the director didn't get a needed cum shot. Indeed, this scene became such a touchstone that it was mirrored and "homaged" in Boogie Nights in 1997.

Given the excessive nature of the entire film, I suggest that the drill kill isn't really misogynist...just intentionally and willfully over the top. I judge this by the nature of the film, but also from De Palma's cinematic work, taken in totality. Femme Fatale (2002) is the opposite of misogynist, since the main character resists the "dream" that types her as Barbara Stanwyck. Raising Cain (1992) is also rather pro-woman, since the only "heroic" personality in Carter's mad brain is a female, Margo. And sure, Nancy Allen in Dressed to Kill (1980) is a hooker...but she's taken the profession back for women; much more a savvy Wall Street investor than a victimized damsel-in-distress. I can't always adjudge deep complexity to De Palma's females. Indeed, he often goes for the Madonna or Whore thing (Ness's wife in The Untouchables is an example of the former...) but again, that's not misogynist...just archetypal. And very, very Catholic.

This is a personal assessment, but for me misogyny doesn't enter the picture until we hit a few specific points. For one, there has to be some form of "blame" cast on the women for their own murders. In other words, the movie or moviemaker must make clear...it's their fault the bad things that happen to them. And the other side of the coin is that the men have to come off as blameless and superior.

Not to upset anybody here, but the most blatantly misogynist story I can recall arises from the Old Testament: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. That blasted, curious, grasping woman, Eve seduces innocent Adam right out of Paradise, and -- the poor guy! -- he suffers the consequences for Eternity! In Body Double, by point of contrast, Gloria doesn't do anything to earn her gruesome fate, save marry the wrong husband. And her husband, Sam, is defined in terms of pure evil...hardly let off the hook. He's clearly the movie's villain; not someone we feel sorry for or identify with.

I think critics cry "misogynist" because De Palma is never satisfied until he nudges his films over the precipice of good taste. That's the mission of great horror movies: to shatter decorum and transgress societal standards. So De Palma adds the sexual component to the drill kill and it instantly becomes far more memorable (not to mention disturbing). If the director had simply removed the shot of the drill going down between the man's legs, I don't think anyone could rightly complain that Body Double's major set-piece is any more misogynist than Marion's murder in the shower in Psycho; or Tippi Hedren's attack by sparrows in The Birds. But Body Double is about excess, and so the sexual twist on the murder certainly fits the tenor of the film.

Porno, Politics and Moving Pictures

On the surface, Body Double echoes Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) to a remarkable degree.

Both films tell the story of a voyeur who "happens" to witness a crime by using a sight amplification device, whether binoculars or a telescope.

In both productions, that voyeur is a man who professionally toils in the visual arts (either as a photographer, or as an actor).

And in both cases, the voyeur sees a crime committed against a woman; and is dragged into learning more; his foibles and idiosyncrasies hooking and dragging him in deeper and deeper (and tying a noose around his neck, metaphorically-speaking).

In Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart's character is literally crippled -- injured and confined to a wheelchair for a time; while in Body Double, Wasson's Scully is damaged too; given to paralyzing bouts of claustrophobic panic.

We have seen in other films how De Palma uses a Hitchcock film (such as Psycho or Vertigo) as a foundation or template; a well-spring for creativity. He then builds on the precepts and motifs of that older production to synthesize something fresh and original. The same is true here, because Body Double travels well-beyond (the admittedly-brilliant) Rear Window in asking the audience to accommodate competing realities. Are we watching Gloria dance in that darkened apartment, or is it Holly performing? Is the driller killer a strange Indian man, or just an actor in heavy make-up disguising himself so as to cast suspicion elsewhere? Is Scully trapped in a real burial plot, or appearing on a low-budget horror movie set that mimics the appearance of a grave? Is Sam a helpful friend, or a maniacal psychotic?

And Scully is not just a simple voyeur, he is an actor appearing in a movie within a movie, especially during the Vampire's Kiss scenes and the porno movie shoots. So, as an audience, we must constantly recalibrate our senses to understand at which "level" we are witnessing things.

The "Relax" music video is a perfect example. The sequence begins in self-contained fashion, commencing to the tune of the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song. Without introduction, explanation or pre-text, we see Scully enter a stage; a debauched world of leather, lasers and lust. All around him, lascivious sex acts occur in a setting reminiscent of Cruising (a film De Palma was once slated to direct). Scully goes through a silver-curtained doorway labeled "SLUTS" and then finds himself gazing into a dressing room at Holly Body. He watches her dance on one side of the frame; while a mirrored image of Holly dominates the other side. On Holly's invitation, Jake enters the room, and the mirrored doorway suddenly swings ajar.

At that instant -- bam! -- the mirror reveals the porno movie crew shooting the scene; a scene occurring between actors Holly Body and Jake Scully. They are no longer merely the characters in a porno, but players in the larger drama. Then, De Palma breaks down the sequence even further, substituting the dead Gloria for Holly in a series of interrupted camera spins.

So to be clear, we're essentially witnessing a character (Scully) playing another character (in the porno movie) remembering not the woman he is actually with (an actress playing a character in a porno...), but the women he fell in love with; whom Holly unwittingly doubled for.

Got that?

De Palma is doing two things in this film: First, he's satirizing Tinsel Town, a domain where "friendship" is as illusory as are special effects. It's an alien world to most of us, which is no doubt the reason that Sam's pad resembles a flying saucer that has just set down in the Hollywood Hills. And secondly, De Palma is reflecting that form (a satire of Hollywood) with self-reflexive content, twisting and turning the tale so all motives are suspect.

In the end, Body Double is a perfect reflection of the excessive 1980s. De Palma's leitmotif that "you can't believe your eyes" was especially resonant at the time. A Hollywood actor named Ronald Reagan had actually become President of the United States. And he very much brought Hollywood illusion and facade to the White House with him, excelling in stagecraft, if nothing else. Consider:

Reagan claimed to be a family values President...yet was the only divorced commander-in-chief in our nation's history.

Reagan was elected to reign in the Federal government...but on Reagan's watch the Federal government grew by 61,000 employees.

Reagan claimed to be a tax cutter...yet he signed into law the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the largest tax increase in American history at that point.

Reagan was "hired" by the American people to cut spending...but the national debt on his watch accrued to a staggering 2.7 trillion dollars, again, the highest total in history at that point.

Reagan was supposed to be a resolute warrior, but what was Reagan's response to a terrorist truck bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 U.S. Marines? Two days later, he courageously ordered the military invasion...of a small island nation named Grenada!

Yet Reagan played his role perfectly...he was -- in essence -- the perfect "body double" for an authentic "conservative." It didn't matter that reality didn't match his rhetoric...because when he was on camera, we believed in him...even if the camera lied 24 times a second.

So in Body Double, as in American politics of the day, the audience finds it difficult to discern truth from fiction. Like Jake Scully, we were taken in by lies, paralyzed by our fears ("bombing begins in five minutes!"), distracted by sex and violence, and then waiting for the next directorial/presidential sleight-of-hand to make it all right again.

Because in Hollywood the ending is always happy, after all.

But caveat emptor: those fine, perfectly-formed breasts you have just ogled may not actually belong to Angie Dickinson.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Honest Scrap Award!

B-Sol at the great blog Vault of Horror yesterday tagged me for an Honest Scrap Award, a blogger-to-blogger honor now circulating on the World Wide Web.

The Honest Scrap Award is given to "
a fellow blogger whose blog content or design is, in the giver’s opinion, brilliant. This award is about bloggers who post from their heart, who oftentimes put their heart on display as they write from the depths of their soul."

Coming from B-Sol, who pens brilliant posts each and every day, this is indeed a high honor, and I'm deeply appreciative of the recognition. Thanks, man! Right back at ya! And now, in keeping with the spirit of the award, I am to select 10 bloggers whom I also deeply admire, and then provide a list of ten "honest things" about myself.

So the links first. I pass along the Honest Scrap Award to:

1. Radiator Heaven

2. And Now The Screaming Starts

3. Made for TV Mayhem

4. The Lightning Bug's Lair

5. Zombos' Closet of Horror

6. Theofantastique

7. Classic Horror

8. Fantasmo Cult Cinema Explosion

9. Day of the Woman


And -- back at you B-Sol --

10. The Vault of Horror


Ten Honest Things About Myself:

1. I didn't enjoy The Dark Knight (2008). I found it loud, angry and ugly...though undeniably well-made.

2. As a kid, I was terribly afraid of horror movies. Then Tobe Hooper's Funhouse, broke my cherry, and I fell in love with the genre.

3. I once lost a really hot girlfriend in high school because I was more interested in watching a new horror movie than making out with her in the theater. Oopsy.

4. On the days I am a stay-at-home dad with Joel, my two-year old, we often have light saber battles. Yesterday, we crawled under our dining room table and pretended it was a "wormhole."

5. I was an extra in the movie Body Count (1997)...and played a convict wearing a red jump suit. Because I looked "like an intellectual" according to the assistant director, I was not allowed to play basketball with the other convicts. Rather, I was asked to sit at a nearby table and read Herman Hesse's book Siddhartha during my scenes. I finished the book in eight hours, while the scenes were shot.

6. I think my wife looks like Stacy Haiduk (but that's not why I married her.) Or at least not the only reason.

7. I once played Schroeder in a Peanuts play. I also once played Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in high school. I was a better Schroeder than a Caesar.

8. I wore my Superman shirt to my son's birth...so he would become a geek early.

9. I once had an intensely unpleasant personal experience with a genre icon that everybody absolutely adores and thinks is da bomb. I still live in fear that I will share a stage with him at a convention.

10. And -- finally -- I'm addicted to blogging.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #86: The X-Files: "Via Negativa" (2000)

In philosophy, the "via negativa" is an approach to understanding God. Somewhat counter intuitively, it's a strategy that seeks to define God by enumerating those things God is not. God is not mortal. God is not Evil. And so forth.

Sometimes, this unusual approach to comprehending the Divine is also called Negative Theory or The Negative Way.

And in the chilling X-Files episode "Via Negativa," this approach lives up to that nomenclature. The "Via Negativa" of the title is a lonely, unlit walk to the dark side: a spiritual dead end. More specifically, one possible pathway to "knowing" God turns out only to be a pathway to absolute darkness. The dimension of God's "absence" is not...a good place to be.

Written by Frank Spotnitz and directed by Tom Wharmby, "Via Negativa" aired during the eighth season of The X-Files, on December 17, 2000. As you may recall, this was the span that introduced the new lead character on the series, Agent John Doggett, played by Saturn Award winning actor Robert Patrick. All you need to understand about Doggett is encapsulated in his very name: he's literally "dogged:" adamant, firm, indefatigable, persevering, resolute, even pig-headed.

Or put another way, Doggett is your traditional good cop who doesn't let go of a case until it makes sense to him. In "Via Negativa," the character's faith in the rational, in cause-and-effect, in logic, is dramatically put to the test.

"Via Negativa" finds stalwart Doggett investigating the brutal murders of two FBI agents who were staking out an apocalyptic cult. In contravention of long-standing series format, Doggett is investigating this particular X-File alone because a pregnant Scully is away at the hospital. Still new to the X-Files unit, Doggett is uncertain and somewhat rudderless. He's no Mulder, and has no interest in being Mulder. Leaps of faith don't come easily, or naturally, to him. Without Scully to ease him in, the "dogged," meat-and-potatoes Doggett is, in a very real sense, vulnerable, to what he learns during this investigation.

While on the case, Doggett discovers that all the members of the apocalyptic cult also died horribly, and that their still-at-large leader, Anthony Tibbett, is an ex-convict who developed his own peculiar brand of evangelical Christian/Hindu philosophy. "Heaven's Gate" -- the UFO cult led by Marshall Applewhite -- is mentioned briefly in the teleplay here, and Doggett wonders if Tibbett's people were willingly part of a death pact similar to the one that claimed the 39 members of that cult in 1997.

The Heaven's Gate folks reportedly believed they were headed to the "next level of existence," one without the need for a physical body. By comparison, Tibbett suggests that "the body is but clay...to hold the twin aspects of the human spirit: the light and the darkness." Furthermore, he believes that if his dedicated followers gaze into the path of darkness ("the via negativa" of the title), they will see God there.

To help them reach this dimension of darkness, Tibbett administered experimental hallucinogens that would awaken their "Third Eye." It is this "Third Eye" -- the Hindu gyananakashi, or "Eye of Knowledge, positioned between hemispheres of the brain -- that could see into the realm of darkness. We have seen the Third Eye in Scripture (the Book of Revelation) and in modern horror films (From Beyond [1986]), and in The X-Files it is the telltale indicator of one's arrival on the Via Negativa, a dark, lower plane, rather than an enlightened, higher one.

When a now-comatose Tibbett evolved his own "third eye," the cult leader found he could actually enter into the subconscious minds of all those he encountered. Thus -- like nightmare avenger Freddy Krueger himself -- Tibbett could enter the dreams of his enemies. And as we all know from A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), if you die in your dreams...you die in real life.

Doggett delves deeper and deeper into Tibbett's strange, dark beliefs until the agent himself takes an unwitting walk on the via negativa during a horrifying dream sequence. The scene is cast in a suffusing blue light, with intermittent fade-outs and pulsating strobes providing a sense of fractured time and consciousness. This tense, mostly silent scene sees a sweaty, desperate Doggett (depicted in extreme close-up) contemplating murder...and his own internal darkness. Doggett finds himself, he believes, inside Scully's apartment...holding a ceremonial hatchet...Tibbett's weapon of choice. Doggett is faced with the choice of becoming Tibbett's new murderous vessel...or killing himself and ending the nightmare permamently.

Another scene, in which a vulnerable, confused Doggett confesses to a baffled Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) that he is uncertain about his own state of consciousness (dreaming or awake...) also serves as Doggett's real indoctrination into The X-Files...the horrifying case from "outside" that changes him "inside." At the same time, this confession allows us to identify with Doggett for one of the first times on the series. He has gone from being "skeptic" to being "open" (if not a believer.) He understands -- or at lesat senses -- the danger...to his soul.

"Via Negativa's" climactic moments -- with Doggett wrestling with that decision of homicide/suicide -- today endure as among the series' grimmest. Often in The X-Files, the horror is tolerable because we "know" the characters and their central relationship so well; because we know Mulder will rescue Scully or vice-versa. But in "Via Negativa" there's a deep underlying fear at work. Doggett has no support system. He has no one to hold onto; no one to race to his side when he is faced with death. His walk on "the dark path" is really and truly a walk alone (or so we believe, until the denouement) and there's something incredibly unsettling about the brand of evil he faces.

As I wrote above, the Via Negativa attempts to describe God by describing what God is not. In essence then, it charts the absence of God. I'm a committed atheist, of course, and yet the final moments of "Via Negativa" make even the non-believer feel that weight of...absence. The absence of Good. The Absence of Light. The absence of conscious control. It's about existential...aloneness, and it's pretty terrifying.

I've always admired The X-Files. Week in and week out for nine years, the series devised new, cunning ways to terrify the audience, and "Via Negativa" remains one of the most original and most horrifying installments. Here, the horror rests not outside us in some third party. Not in a monster that can come and kill you. But in your own awakened sight. The skillfully-crafted, brilliantly-directed episode also puts truth to the lie that The X-Files somehow grew stale or unsatisfactory during the final seasons.

With episodes such as "Badlaa," (about a legless Indian peddler who would...climb inside people), "Roadrunners" (a body invasion story set in a weird, isolated town...) and the mystical, existential "Via Negativa" dominating the Season Eight catalogue, The X-Files' heritage of horror was honored. The writer here (Spotnitz) not only had to deal with the absence of God, he had to deal with the absence of Mulder (and Scully, actually...)!

"Via Negativa" is so stirring, so disturbing, that it brings us to a reckoning about Patrick's Doggett. Despite our allegiance to Mulder...we like the guy. And thanks to "Via Negativa," we're scared as Hell for him.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Vault of Horror Presents: The Horror Canon

The amazing B-Sol at The Vault of Horror recently tasked the Horror Cyber-Elite -- a veritable "Justice League" of horror bloggers -- to assemble selections for a Horror Canon.

As B-Sol describes the mission:

"My plan was to create a list of absolutely indispensable horror films that every fan needs to have seen in order to consider themselves a proper horror geek. This is not to be confused with "The Greatest of All Time." For example, Plan 9 from Outer Space would not be on my list of the greatest of all time, but I might very well consider it "must-see" viewing for any wannabe horror fanatic!"


"Think of it this way: If someone came to you and said, "I want to get into this whole horror thing, what movies do I need to see?" Which movies would you give them to watch?"

Check out the post in its entirety to see the Cyber-Horror Elite's tally of 35 films for inclusion in the Horror Canon!

To my delight, eight of my ten recommendations/suggestions made the final catalogue. As always, you may quibble with a specific title, or wonder about a particular omission, but I love these lists because they get the debate started, evoke passion, and foster further blogging. For instance, given the success of recent first-person/P.O.V. horrors like REC (2007) and Cloverfield (2008), I would have liked to see The Blair Witch Project (1999) make the Horror Canon, perhaps in lieu of some 2008 - 2009 films that may -- or may not -- stand the test of time.

Regardless of the titles ultimately chosen, it was an honor to be included in the selection process for The Horror Canon, and one of these days, I plan to post in detail about the films in the canon and why, indeed, they remain so important to a deeper understanding of the genre...