Saturday, February 20, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Orphan (2009)

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote "it is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages."

However, in the case of the Jaume Collet-Serra's horror movie Orphan (2009), I'd amend that proverb to read that it is also the lack of trust that makes for unhappy unions.

Case in point: Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John Coleman (Peter Saarsgard).

They're an affluent American couple raising two children, young Danny (Jimmy Bennett) and little Max (Aryana Engineer), who is virtually deaf. Despite a recent personal tragedy (a third Coleman child, Jessica, is born dead...), the surface life of this couple appears normal.

Scratch that surface a little, however, and it bleeds.

Viewers can detect that these parents no longer trust another; that they are alienated from one another. Sure, the Colemans may love one another, but faith and belief is gone. John has confessed to a decade-old sexual infidelity (but his confession came only two years ago...) and Kate is a recovering alcoholic. In fact, her alcoholism was nearly responsible for the death of Max on an icy pond some time back.

As Orphan begins, Kate is on anti-depressants, in therapy, and resisting John's attempts to re-establish physical intimacy. She is depressed, but no longer wants to "be like this." As in the case of so many modern marriages, John and Kate soon seek hope and purpose outside their problem relationship and decide to adopt a third child: a nine year old orphan named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). In very short order, this manipulative, malevolent "child" successfully scratches the surface of the Coleman marriage and brings all the roiling, bleeding undercurrents to the surface.

But even before the evil-to-her-rotten-core Esther enters the picture, Orphan informs the audience that the Colemans are distant from one another emotionally. Commendably, the picture does so mostly in terms of production design and visuals. The Coleman family house is a study in blacks, grays and silvers. It is a cold, sterile, austere place. The iced-over pond just outside the homestead is a metaphor for Kate's emotionally-fragile condition: frozen over; frigid. And all around, the snow falls incessantly, burying any real hopes of an emotional thaw. In the movie's climax, Kate must navigate a blizzard to save her family and then crash through the walls of the house; a metaphor, perhaps, for the emotional impediments that the Colemans have put up, blocking their intimacy.

Esther, of course, is the proverbial bad seed, a bullying, psychotic who hides a terrible and incredible secret. But the fact remains: the Colemans would not have proved such easy pickings for this predator if the couple had just listened to one another; if they still fostered some sense of trust.

Part of the reason that Orphan works as well as it does is because the writer, David Leslie Johnson, proves skilled in observing how men and women relate to one another, particularly within the confines of marriage. Once John Coleman embraces little Esther as part of his family, he is loyal to her to a fault; to the point of dangerous denial. It's easier for him to blame Kate (and her recent history of alcoholism) than to face an unwelcome new truth.

As for Kate Coleman, she makes her case against Esther with such histrionics and emotionalism (and physical rages...) that it is easy to disregard her arguments about Esther as being the product of a jealous, overly-emotional, depressed mind. At one point, Kate tells John she's tired of "connecting the dots" for him, and that, in particular, has the ring of truth to it. John is pretty darn clueless, and ultimately he pays for that. And Kate is so impulsive that Esther can play her like a piano.

Orphan is filled with nicely-staged, small moments involving John and Kate. Early on, John attempts gently to initiate sex, and is put off, not in ugly or mean terms...just in routine, "not now," marital ones. Later, when the couple does have sex (in the kitchen), they momentarily bonk heads during the act of passion and giggle about it like embarrassed kids. It's awkward, but it's also real. We get the impression of a real couple; one in crisis, but also in love.

These small observances about John, Kate and their relationship are important, because so much of Orphan revolves around Esther's ability to totally play and thus derail the Colemans. She is a "Big," Dramatic Evil (expertly played by Furhman), but the solid, understated and human performances of Saarsgard and Farmiga are what prevent Orphan from lapsing into overwrought, hysterical camp.

runs for over two hours and it maintains a sense of reality and paranoia for a good duration of its running time, even despite Esther's almost cartoonish look (which includes a Little Bo Peep outfit) as well as some over-the-top violence (much of it involving a hammer...). One scene on a playground employs point-of-view camera-work successfully enough that you nearly forget the whole scene is ridiculous; that the "imperiled" character is not alone there (parents and children are all around...); and that the Esther cannot bend the rules of time and space to get ahead of her prey and pop-up just in time to push her off a slide. It's Babes in Scareland, and it's sort of silly.

Over the years, there have been many films about "evil" children, and most reviews of Orphan have dutifully noted that cinematic history. Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed (1956) was a sociopath so dangerous that Mother Nature had to take her out. Damien was The Anti-Christ in The Omen (1976). Macauley Culkin was The Good Son (1993), and that mostly-forgotten film featured some of the same wintry settings and inter-family emotional alienation that dominate Orphan.
But here's the thing: all the "evil" children commentary is kind of off-point and off-the-mark given the audacious twist that Orphan unveils with such devilish delight in the third act. Esther doesn't really and truly fit the bill of Evil Child. Half of the description "Evil Child" is a red herring. Thus, this movie is of a piece with another, different sub genre. It's really an example of the Interloper Horror Film that was so popular in the 1990s.

In this sub genre, a secretive stranger comes into a family unit and shatters boundaries, sows mistrust, and spreads chaos. That stranger could be a nanny (The Guardian [1990], The Hand That Rocks The Cradle [1992]), a tenant in the apartment downstairs (Pacific Heights [1990], a new roommate (Single White Female [1992], or even a new pet dog who isn't what he seems (Man's Best Friend [1993]). But the crux of all these films is that the Interloper pushes, shoves, and inveigles his/her way into an existing family/interpersonal unit, and then subverts it. That's Esther's agenda in Orphan too. She's a classic Interloper.

And Esther's evil agenda could not -- would not -- work, if all was well in the Coleman house. So Orphan isn't truly about's about a marriage (and a family) on the precipice, and Esther is the Interloper who kicks it off the cliff. If Saarsgard and Farmiga weren't so authentic in their roles here, so committed to their performances Orphan wouldn't really work as well as it does

An Evil Kid is one thing. But a marriage without trust is really scary.

Friday, February 19, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Zombieland (2009)

Ruben Fleischer's genre comedy Zombieland opens to the familiar strains of Francis Scott Key's The Star-Spangled Banner. Our stirring national anthem is then paired with the image of a small American flag dangling to the side; askew.

A voice-over narration quickly informs the audience that Old Glory's colors have faded. "This isn't really America anymore," we learn,"it's the United States of Zombieland."

Then, in the background, the noble dome of our Capitol is eclipsed. In the foreground...a ravenous, drooling zombie supersedes its prominence in the frame.

Meet the New World Order. The Zombies are in charge.

Arriving at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Zombieland's inaugural conjunction of image, sound and voice strikes a pitch-perfect note. After all, the turbulent epoch spanning 2000 - 2009 was brimming with zombie apocalypses in horror films (Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Diary of the Dead, etc.), so this movie has plenty to satirize in terms of running zombies and other recent genre tropes.

Much more importantly, the bitter decade just-ended was the era of Bush v. Gore, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Anthrax attacks, the Economic collapse and Recession, Swine Flu, Hurricane Katrina, and just about every other apocalypse any modern American could possibly imagine.

It was a toxic time. Color-coded terror alerts, surgical masks in flu season, Terrorist Fist Bumps, Death Panels, Fox News...we've lived through it all.

At one point, our narrator in Zombieland also informs the audience -- tongue not-so-much-in-cheek -- that the zombie plague infecting those within our borders begins in a very specific fashion. By "making you hateful."

Well, that's the only possible rational explanation for Tea Parties and Sarah Palin, isn't it? A (Dick) Armey of Darkness.

Finally, in a very unique (and humorous) fashion, Zombieland even acknowledges and critiques how important and cherished "movie stars" have become in our modern, celebrity-driven pop culture.

Remember George Romero's long-standing mantra? That the zombies are actually "us?" Applying that symbolism to Zombieland, the razor-sharp commentary of director Ruben Fleischer comes into clear focus. From its incipient imagery, Zombieland reveals modern America to be a land populated by seething, monstrous marauders; ones who have overturned the order of things as we know it. And the worst thing we can do, as responsible citizens of Zombieland, is to live by the edicts of selfishness, of simple personal survival...just looking out for ourselves as society spirals out-of-control.

Zombieland's intrepid narrator and protagonist is named Columbus (after Columbus, Ohio), and he (Jesse Eisenberg) relates in detail (and in flashback) the routine of his life before the zombie apocalypse. An anti-social shut-in suffering from irritable bowel syndrome and chronic anxiety (not to mention OCD), Columbus spent his days in a bubble of technological isolation playing World of Warcraft, drinking Mountain Dew and ordering-in delivery pizza. In other words, Columbus was checked out...completely. He was unable, for some reason, to cope with our society as it was (and as it is, in real life.)

At the start of the zombie apocalypse, Columbus coped with the change by attempting to impose a sense of order on the chaos swirling around him. He developed a set of rules to handle every situation: #1: Cardio. #3: Beware of Bathrooms. #4: Seat belts. #7: Travel light. And so on. These rules represent his personal Bible of sorts.

During the course of the film, Columbus joins up with a gun-slinging cowboy, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a sexy con-artist, Wichita (Amy Stone), and a twelve-year old girl, Little Rock, (Abigail Breslin). As this group (slowly) begins to form an ad hoc family, Columbus realizes that his rules can't always save the day. Some rules were meant to be broken. And, in a family...well, you have to forgive and even accept the trespasses.

Again, thinking symbolically, it's important to note that every character in Zombieland is named after a city in America. The city of Tallahassee is in Florida...the very state that handed Bush the White House in 2000. Wichita is in Kansas, so think, perhaps, of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, or the old Wizard of Oz quote "We're not in Kansas anymore." Columbus is in Ohio, the state that handed Bush the White House again in 2004. And Little Rock...well that's in Arkansas; the home of Bill Clinton; the President who presided over the first era of 24-hour cable news cycles, Fox News, MSNBC, and the new national hyper-partisanship. Each one of these cities has a "problem;" just as in Zombieland, each character has a problem (or problems, plural).

George Romero has stated many times that what his zombie films are really about is the overturning and restructuring of society; or the overturning of old order and the establishment of new order. Zombieland also follows that template, albeit in a humorous fashion. In search of their "new" life, Columbus and his friends take a road trip and eventually smash the symbols of the old, zombified U.S.

When they stop at a roadside tourist trap, a place of kitschy, overpriced souvenirs ("We Wantum Your Wampum,") we get a slow-motion dance of destruction, a montage cut to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Consider that selection of music and the decision to destroy, in essence, a place of commerce and craven capitalism. As you may recall, The Marriage of Figaro was an opera (based on a play) from 1778 about a "day of madness," and it was highly critical of aristocracy and nobility. In other words, it was critical of the established much the same way as Zombieland is critical of the contemporary social order.

And then, in another important scene, Columbus himself (accidentally) kills the last living celebrity in America; a final, blazing punctuation to the age of glittering but empty star-worshiping and gossip-mongering that has consumed and distracted our culture while crises loom. Perez Hilton take note: it's Twilight for Twilight.

Finally, Zombieland suggests that the key to rebuilding humanity comes in the willful shattering of Columbus's rules. Be a hero. Do trust others. Take bold action. Otherwise, the movie seems to indicate, things just stay the same; Zombies friggin' Everywhere (including the Capitol Dome). If someone doesn't do something brave soon, we're all just going to forever remain -- in the explicit lingo of the movie -- "orphans in Zombieland."

In some way, Zombieland is a timely reminder of 2008's optimistic "Yes We Can-ism" . If Wichita can learn to trust; if Columbus can form a social circle, overcome his fear of clowns, and become a hero, and if Tallahassee can learn to connect to other people after the death of his boy...what the hell are we waiting for on health care, on the environment, on reducing the deficit, or on national security?

Come on America, Nut Up or Shut Up.

To use an historical antecedent, Zombieland is to the 2000s what Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead was to the Reagan 1980s. It's a wolf in sheep's clothing, a comedy that is actually a scathing commentary on our culture, right now. In particular, it seems to bemoan our cultural paralysis and inability to handle big problems. Is it funny? Hell, yes. I laughed out loud almost probably a dozen times during Zombieland. Is it emotional? Yep. The characters -- for all their quirks -- quickly grow on you. And the movie even succeeds in being scary because you do care about Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita and Little Rock. The visuals are also punchy, dynamic, funny, and technically interesting (particularly in a "pop-up" approach to remembering Columbus's all-important rules.)

In the end, Zombieland isn't about a quest for the perfect twinkie. It's about the quest to connect or re-connect with family, community and neighbors. Yes, we should remember rule #32 "Enjoy the little things," but not at the expense of a re-written rule 17:

"Be a Hero."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Cult-TV Faces of: Roddy McDowall

A veteran of both silver screen and television, the late Roddy McDowall appeared on several cult-TV series over the years. How many of the many cult-tv faces of Roddy McDowall do you recognize? Can you name series and episode titles?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The House Between Turns Three

Three years ago today -- February 16, 2007 -- my independent dramatic web series, The House Between was broadcast for the first time on Veoh and Google Video.

For those of you who weren't visiting my blog back in the early days of 2007, I often termed The House Between "the great experiment."

With the able partnership and assistance of Joe Maddrey, producer of the Discovery Channel's A Haunting and the upcoming documentary Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film, I created and developed The House Between in early 2006.

The mission:
to shoot seven half-hour episodes in seven days. Each episode cost only seven hundred dollars. We had a talented cast and crew, and everybody passionately gave their all for this project. Those involved in the series saw it as a (super low-budget) alternative to the science fiction television of the day. We shot in May 2006, and I edited through the summer, leading up to our 2007 air-date.

The House Between is the tale of five strangers who awake one day to find themselves trapped in an empty old Victorian house. There are no exits, and outside the house is an enveloping null zone of total blackness. The main characters are Astrid (Kim Breeding), Arlo (Jim Blanton), Travis (Lee Hansen), Bill Clark (Tony Mercer) and Theresa (Alicia A. Wood). In the second season, an additional character, Sgt. Brick (Craig Eckrich) joins the "denizens" at this so-called "house at the end of the universe." The characters are not certain if their new "home" is a sanctuary or a prison, but they grow more aware, over time, that the house has a set of "rules" and even a personality.

On February 16, 2007, the premiere episode "Arrived" debuted. The story followed Astrid's first day in the mysterious house, and her apparent introduction to the other characters. We seemed to really hit our stride, however with the second episode, "Settled," still one of my favorite episodes of the show's entire run.

Looking back, the seven episodes of the first season -- though obviously low budget in execution -- (replete with iffy sound quality...) -- meditate about the earthbound matters that still interest me as a writer and human being.

"Positioned" (which our cast and crew dubbed "Die Hard in a Kitchen") was a story about the fight for resources inside the house; a battle that various nations fight every day on Planet Earth.

"Visited" looked at the (creepy) things that existed outside the house (the Outdwellers) and featured, in some fashion, the idea that violence begets more violence.

"Trashed" found the core group of five characters struggling with another problem: in a hermetically-sealed environment, what, exactly, happens to the garbage? "Mirrored" was our comedy show, about hidden character traits brought to the surface by a mystical looking-glass, and "Departed" was a series-ender that was revamped into a season-ender when it became clear we would be producing a second season.

Even amongst the participants, opinions vary passionately about The House Between (and which season was the best...) but nonetheless, I had the time of my life making the show. I wrote about 19 stories for the program (out of the 21 made), and directed 20 of the episodes. I also edited every single my heart was in it. And my heart remains in it.

As far as my personal favorites: I had the best time shooting the first season, but I think the second season is actually our finest. I know many of our crew, especially, prefer the third season programs by a wide margin (a span which saw a new location, and one episode dedicated to my late mentor, Space: 1999 script editor Johnny Byrne). Those stories were certainly more ambitious and experimental, anyway.

At our height in the second season, The House Between actually pierced the pop culture bubble a bit and was a cause celebre in some genre circles.

Much to our surprise and happiness, we developed a passionate fan base during the writer's strike in Hollywood, and the series experienced heavy viewership for the duration of the season. The series was even twice nominated for "Best Web Production" by Sy Fy Portal/Airlock Alpha -- against the likes of Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, Star Trek: The New Voyages and Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog.

Needless to say, every one of those Hollywood competitors costs *slightly* more than 700 dollars to produce.

If you're curious to check out a production created on such a small budget and with such dedication and love, visit The House Between and start with "Arrived." Stick with it after that. You won't be sorry.

Soon, I'll be taking all the shows down from Veoh permanently, to prepare for the DVD release of the first season later this year. Also, a series soundtrack from the talented Mateo Latosa and Cesar Gallegos is imminent. Order information should be available soon.

Monday, February 15, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Trick 'r' Treat (2008)

America has always been a melting pot. Our population includes many nationalities, not to mention a host of diverse belief systems.

...Even werewolves...?

In some weird but extremely substantive way, that unique concept helps form the psychic and visual gestalt of Michael Dougherty's impressive Trick 'r' Treat (2008), a Halloween-themed horror movie (which means that I'm either eight months early or four months late with this particular post...).

Trick 'r' Treat is set on a modern Halloween night in the small, affluent town of Warren Valley in Ohio. This is an unusual burg that appears to live and die by the old-fashioned rules of "trick or treating;" as though everyone who settled in this community boasts both a belief and working knowledge of that pagan holiday.

In short order, for instance, we are informed that "there are rules" to be obeyed on this night. And also that this particular holiday is about "respecting the dead" because the dead "roam free...and pay us a visit." The movie also informs us that the rituals of Halloween actually pre-date Christianity, the predominant religion in our country. (In other words, don't believe it when grand-standers say we were founded as a Christian nation. The Founders were deists. Or lycanthropes. I forget...)

The upshot of all this: the "faithful" human citizens of Warren Valley should know (at least for the most part...) not to snuff out jack-o-lanterns till Halloween night is over. And they should keep a stash of candy at the ready to offer the visiting dead since this is the one night of the year when "the barrier between the living and the dead is the thinnest."

So if the Dutch colonized upper New York State, then perhaps Halloween-worshipping pagans settled Warren Valley (named after Famous Monsters of Filmland's James Warren?) Accordingly, the dead, the undead, the ghoulish and the monstrous sojourn to this town during this "magical night" to partake of the local celebration...and worship. These creatures are the deities -- the Gods using us for their sport -- in this unique slice of America.

And it is America and Americana we see on display here in Warren Valley, have no doubt. The entrancing, beautifully-filmed Trick 'r' Treat is shot to purposefully resemble the idealistic, sentimentalized work of painter Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). According to scholar Scott Eyman, Rockwell "concentrated on evergreen moments that transcend historical periods and changing times — homecomings, dinners, ritual greetings and leave-takings, communal optimism and support. There is joy and there is sadness, but there is never grief."

That description fits to a tee, the visualization of picturesque, lovely Warren Valley in Trick 'r' Treat. It's a world of white picket fences, arts-and-craft bungalows, classic automobiles, town parades, families in (ghoulish) celebration and so on. And yet -- cannily -- the movie balances the Rockwell-esque surface values of religious Warren Valley with the brutal, violent, cruel Underneath of those who actually populate it. One possible way to interpret this duality is as an indictment of religion in general; the belief that below the comforting platitudes and "traditional values" of American religion lurks dysfunction, pain, brutality, exploitation and greed.

Again and again, Trick 'r' Treat asks the viewer to contemplate both the surface and underneath qualities of a character, location or thing. On the surface, Laurie (Anna Paquin) is an innocent, virginal girl; underneath she is a prowling werewolf. On the surface, Steven (Dylan Baker) is the respectable principal of the local high school; underneath he is a serial killer and child murderer. On the surface, Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox) lives in a beautiful, well-kept house on a nice street, but inside the house, the decor is as chaotic as his disturbed mental state: ruined and in tatters.

On and on it goes: a monster called Sam is mistaken for a child because of his diminutive size...but he is a virtually immortal creature; a little girl named Macy houses the soul not of an innocent child, but a brutal tormentor. Even a story about costumed, mentally-retarded children riding a bus to school on Halloween turns into an indictment of merciless adults. This movie doles out trick after trick in defining the dual nature of residents and monsters in Warren Valley.

The point here, I suppose, is that Warren Valley represents the United States in microcosm. Our culture in America (and especially our religious culture) wears a "mask" that hides its true nature. Under the cloak of propriety, decency and spirituality, there is also poverty, judgment, hypocrisy, theft, abuse, and more. The only notable difference is that in the (fictional) Warren Valley of Trick 'r' Treat, the Gods of the believers descend (or ascend...) to Earth and brutally punish the wicked. Accordingly, many of the human characters in the film are vicious, murdering, lying bastards...and the Gods of Halloween punish them for their trespasses. It's the old EC Comics formula of "cosmic scales of justice righted," writ large, but played as modern social commentary thanks to the ubiquitous presence of the Rockwell-ian surfaces.

Although the comic-book opening credits of Trick 'r' Treat connect us to the familiar format of the horror anthology, like Creepshow (1981) or Tales from the Crypt (1972), Dougherty's 2008 film has even been structured as a melting pot of sorts. All the stories are blended together, and the overall chronology of the night is shuffled. In other words, the stories are not separated by discreet beginnings or endings, but sort of roll seamlessly into each other, going backwards and forwards in time, in order to forge this sense of contemporaneous happenings...the rituals and rites of Halloween happening simultaneously across this small town where the holiday is of such importance.

For me, the story that worked best in Trick 'r' Treat involves Cox, his dog Spite, and their nocturnal visitor, Sam, a truly creepy (yet oddly child-like...) creature bent on getting either a trick (meaning death) or treat. This story is particularly scary and surprising, whereas some of the earlier material, especially Dylan Baker's tale, are effective but not overtly terrifying. Baker's vignette, however, features one of the best on-screen vomiting moments since Stand by Me (1986) or at least Team America: World Police (2004).

Trick 'r' Treat is mesmerizing. Doughtery has directed a beautifully-designed and exquisitely executed film. It is also breathtaking in its epic sense of human cruelty, brutality and ugliness. Even when dealing with children. But that's likely the point. This highly-religious community, Warren Valley, isn't prepared to be judged by the draconian edicts of its own stated belief system.

And that's a statement that also goes for a lot of real people dwelling in more mainstream faiths than Halloween worship. People don't always practice what they preach. In Warren Valley, that's a mortal sin.