Saturday, November 09, 2013

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975): "Terror on Ice Mountain" (November 22, 1975)

In the Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) episode “Terror on Ice Mountain,” Cornelius unearths a dangerous book at his latest archaeological dig in the Forbidden Zone.  The book is so dangerous because it was created pre-catastrophe by intelligent humans, and titled A Day at the Zoo.  Inside the book, pictures depict intelligent humans looking at primitive apes in cages…

Zira and Cornelius realize that if Urko should find this book, he would possess just the evidence he needs to wipe out the planet’s humanoids.  

Even as Urko petitions the council to search the chimpanzees’ laboratory for signs they are collaborating with the humanoids, Zira and Cornelius reach out to Jeff and Bill for help disposing of the offending text.

Cornelius tells the human astronauts that he has also discovered the blueprints to a hot air balloon, and needs their help constructing and flying the device.  He plans to take the book A Day at the Zoo to the peak of Mount Gar, where it will be buried and thus hidden until such time as Ape City is wise enough to receive the truth about the planet's history.

Bill and Cornelius launch the hot air balloon, but run afoul of a deadly storm, and the great creature “Kigor,” “God of the Mountain Apes…

I’m not actually certain why, but “Terror on Ice Mountain” is the episode of Return to the Planet of the Apes that I most clearly remember from my own childhood.  I must have been five-years old when I saw it during its first broadcast, but elements of the episode still stand-out, particularly the hot-air balloon and the giant ape.  In fact, I suspect that the giant ape is what really caught my eye, since at that age I was a crazy King Kong fan, and obsessed with everything Kong-related.

Without the warm-glow of nostalgia shining upon it, however, “Terror on Ice Mountain” isn’t one of the more dynamic episodes of this animated series, at least so far.  The episode starts strong with the discovery of the dangerous book (and the idea that, in some societies, knowledge is dangerous.).  

But then, once the hot-air balloon takes off the audience is treated to endless minutes of the craft being buffeted in the storm.  It’s almost as if the episode ran short, and needed padding to round out the half-hour.  The blizzard seems to go on forever.

At episode’s end, Cornelius and Bill encounter not just a giant ape, but those who worship it...beings who are rather like the Tibetan Monks of the Planet of the Apes.  Thus, a second ape society is introduced to the series, and one less hostile to the idea of intelligent man (and the truth).  This aspect of "Terror on Ice Mountain" makes me wonder if there are other ape cities or cultures throughout this world, and if they are all as paranoid and hostile as the one where Zira and Cornelius dwell.

Next week: “River of Flames.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: "Wild Thing" (October 12, 1991)

In “Wild Thing,” the sixth episode of the 1991-1992 Land of the Lost remake, the baby dinosaur Tasha begins to unwittingly make trouble for the Porters.  

She is loud at night, and keeps waking up the family.  Then, Tasha accidentally knocks over the shower stall that Mr. Porter has laboriously constructed.

Feeling that he has little choice, Porter orders Annie to send Tasha away to live in the wild.  

No matter how sweet she is, she’s still an animal,” he notes.

Meanwhile, however, Shung and the Sleestak are looking for a way to gain possession of the Porters’ chariot, and set a trap in the woods for the now-on-her-own Tasha. 

 Fortunately, a brontosaurus Tasha has befriended comes to her aid…

In the original Land of the Lost (1974 – 1977), patriarch Rick Marshall had the presence of mind, foresight, and flat-out good sense to tell his daughter Holly that she could not keep the baby brontosaur Dopey as a pet.  It was hard to let the dinosaur go, but Marshall spared Holly a lot of pain by laying down the law early.  By refusing to let her take the dinosaur as a pet, Marshall prevented a world of problems.

Mr. Porter in the remake of Land of the Lost could learn a lot from Rick.

Here -- several episodes after Annie and the family have “adopted” Tasha -- he decides that she would be better off living in a pen, and then, finally, that she should live in the wild.  In the end, however, he must bring the young dinosaur home again, to Annie, Tasha (and the audience’s) relief.    But what lesson does he teach his child?  That parents can be capricious, cruel, and foolish?

In other words, the whole episode represents an unnecessary exercise.  Porter puts his daughter and Tasha through an emotional nightmare just to end with the original status quo.

It’s weird, but Mr. Porter is uncharacteristically mean and short-sighted in “Wild Thing,” and he also waffles a lot.  First, he tries to get rid of Tasha, but then -- when he sees she could get hurt in the wild -- welcomes her back.  Certainly, if Mr. Porter was advocating for releasing the dinosaur into the jungle, he must have realized that she might get hurt.  How could he have not considered that fact in the first place?

I know I’m not being particularly nice about this episode of Land of the Lost, but the whole story bothered me.  You don’t get rid of a pet -- let alone a family member -- just because keeping them around becomes inconvenient. 

In my house right now, we have three geriatric cats that we love, and one of them is having a problem urinating on carpets.  But she’s part of the family and has been since 1999.  We’re working to solve the problem…but we would never dream of getting rid of her.  Alas, there are many people who do treat pets the way Mr. Porter does in "Wild Thing."  Pets are wonderful...until they do something people don’t like.  I used to know someone who, when they didn’t like a cat, would drive the animal to “the farm.”  The “farm” was actually a euphemism for dropping off the animal alone in the country.

Anyway, “Wild Thing” smacks of that kind of thinking to me.  It doesn’t seem realistic or true to what we know of Mr. Porter’s character that he would suddenly decide to get rid of Tasha, especially given the fact that Scarface is nearby (and in fact, murdered Tasha’s mother and the rest of her litter). 

Secondly, it’s abundantly clear from the get-go that getting rid of Tasha is wrong, so the whole episode feels like an unnecessary exercise in futility, as we wait for Mr. Porter to come to the pre-ordained conclusion that he was wrong in the first place.  Again, he only makes Annie and Tasha suffer here, and does no real good.

Once again, this episode seems like another situation where the writing and characterization on the original Land of the Lost is a lot stronger than it is on the 1990s follow-up.

Next week: “Day for Knight.”

Friday, November 08, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: Southern Comfort (1981)

“Instead of raising the tragic possibility that a subculture might disappear, Southern Comfort explores our anxiety that the dominant culture itself may be divided and destroyed.  [It] seems to suggest that destruction is the price of the desire to use -- rather than understand – another culture.”

-          Jeffrey H. Mahan, The Christian Century, December 16, 1981, page 1322.

“Southern Comfort” is not only a liqueur (a New Orleans original, so-to-speak…), but a turn of phrase that links a storied American region with ideas like relaxation, hospitality, and succor. 

Walter Hill’s 1981 film Southern Comfort plays ironically on the meaning of the term, and forges the director’s second effort -- after The Warriors (1979) -- that involves outnumbered soldiers trapped in harsh enemy territory and forced to fight every step of the way home.

But Southern Comfort is rather steadfastly not the urban fantasy of The Warriors. 

Instead, it’s a blistering social critique as well as a violent action film.  By setting his film in the year 1973 and featuring as his protagonists soldiers from the Louisiana National Guard, Hill crafts a film that, according to Michael Sragow in Rolling Stone, is a “parody of the military sensibility,” “a metaphor for the Vietnam War” and a “study of gracelessness under fire.”

Southern Comfort gazes at the idea of a nation knowingly unloosing aggression and violence on a mass scale, often times by soldiers who are not educated about the nature of the enemy, are insensitive to cultural differences, and who – finally – crack under pressure. 

Can war ever be a moral “right?”  And if so, does it matter who, specifically, a nation sends to war, and how those men wage that war?

These are not easy questions to answer.  And these were not small issues in the days of Vietnam, a war that severely tested American beliefs about its own national might and moral rectitude.  Southern Comfort suggests a home-grown Vietnam culture-clash right here, inside our regional borders, and a so-called “primitive” culture dwelling side-by-side with the more “advanced,” dominant one.    

By making this sustained cinematic battle an intra-American one, so-to-speak -- American National Guard vs. American Cajuns -- Walter Hill allows viewers to see concepts not always readily apparent in the case of foreign wars, where patriotism can overwhelm reason and balance.  In America we cherish and protect our right and responsibility to defend our homes and even our right just to be left alone, the very concepts that the Cajuns wage bloody guerrilla war over in the film.  But when we’re the aggressors intruding in the territory of others, our values seem to change.  This film holds up a mirror to that paradox. It is a non-romantic, non-idealized view of war and soldiers.  

Notice that I didn’t say negative view.  

The approach here is even-handed, revealing how soldiers can be smart and heroic, as well as misguided and out-of-control.  The trenchant idea seems to be that of the Pandora’s Box.  If you release men with guns into an untamed environment, where danger is everywhere, each will respond in his own way.  Some will find and adhere to a strong moral compass.  Others will degenerate into sadistic violence.

Furthermore, Southern Comfort suggests, as the quote from Jeffrey Mahan above observes, that a dominant culture out to “use” a weaker culture is actually the one in danger of being “divided and destroyed.”  

That destruction comes about from a moral failure, the failure to contextualize “the enemy” as human, and understand the enemy on human terms.  Specifically, if we use our might just to take resources from others, or to argue for the assertion of our ideology in someone else’s land, we are in violation of our own cherished beliefs and values.  We say “don’t tread on me,” but if someone else has what we want, we tread on them with the greatest military machine in history.

This cerebral argument doesn’t make Walter Hill’s film any less tense or violent, but rather adds a layer of commentary to the savagery.  As critic Diane Hust wrote in “Heavy Symbolism Ravels Film’s Good Yarn” (The Daily Oklahoman, November 12, 1981): “These ‘civilized’ but allegedly trained soldiers fall apart in a blue-green otherworld, and even the likable heroes...have brutal and vulnerable sides that emerge during the ordeal.” 

The idea here is that all soldiers are not created equal, and until the crucible of combat occurs, it’s almost impossible to determine who will thrive, and who will succumb to cowardice, or animalistic brutality.  The film walks a delicate balance, but not everyone agrees it succeeds.  Vincent Canby at The New York Times noted that Walter Hill is “the best stager of action in practice,” but found the film to be “more an exercise in masochism than suspense.”  Yes, in some way, the same argument could be made of every entry in the Savage Cinema genre.

Time Magazine noted (derisively) that in Southern Comforteverything is a metaphor for something else,” but that’s okay with me too.  When vetting extreme violence, I prefer that movies boast and reflect an intellectual point-of-view about that violence.  In other words, the violence becomes palatable and meaningful because we sense it is being applied to convey a point of intellectual merit.

In this case, Southern Comfort reminds us that once war is uncorked, and men are encouraged to rely on instinctive, violent impulses, all bets are off concerning outcomes. It also reminds us how people with guns can, in a moment of impulse spark a conflagration that can’t be controlled.

“Comes a time when you have to abandon principles and do what's right.

In 1973, the Louisiana National Guard’s “Bravo Team” practices maneuvers in the bayou, tromping through nearly forty kilometers of treacherous and dangerous natural terrain.

Soon, the squad becomes lost and realizes it must procure transportation to traverse a river.  Accordingly, Sgt. Pool (Peter Coyote) orders the men to appropriate three Cajun canoes.  Worse, one of the soldiers, Stuckey (Lewis Smith) playfully opens fire on the Cajun owners. 

They don’t realize his weapon is loaded with blanks, and respond with sustained lethal force.  In the first attack, Sgt. Pool is shot down, and the Cajuns begin hunting down “Bravo Team.”

Inexperienced and scared, the reservists make a bad situation worse when they seek shelter at the home of a French-speaking trapper (Brion James), and blow up his house using dynamite.

As the reservists die in the swamp, one by one, the level-headed Spencer (Keith Carradine) and a transfer from Texas, Hardin (Powers Boothe) try to hold their own and maintain some sense of order and control.

They eventually escape the treacherous bayou, but end up in a remote Cajun village in the middle of nowhere…

“Well, you know how it is, down here in Louisiana, we don't carry guns, we carry ropes, RC colas and moon pies, we're not too smart, but we have a real good time.” 

Set in “the great primordial swamp,” Hill’s hard-driving polemic, Southern Comfort shreds typical bromides about “supporting the troops” and gazes instead, in rather even-handed (if gory...) fashion at soldiers who are ill-prepared emotionally, intellectually and even physically in some cases.

Powers Boothe portrays Hardin, one of Southern Comfort’s main protagonists.  He’s a chemical engineer who recently transferred from Texas, and he immediately understands the brand of man he’s now training with.  He calls them “the same dumb rednecks” he’s been around his “whole life.” 

In short order, this descriptor proves tragically accurate. His fellow “soldiers” steal private property (canoes), and open fire – as a dumb joke! -- on unaware American citizens, the local Cajuns. 

The same “dumb rednecks,” meanwhile, deride the Cajuns as “dumb asses” or primitives.  It’s true that director Hill has on occasion rejected the Vietnam metaphor encoded in his film, but it’s apparent that these soldiers view the Cajuns precisely as some Americans viewed “Charlie:” inferiors who couldn’t possibly pose a threat to modern, technologically-superior Americans.

Again, cementing this Vietnam allegory, the Cajuns in the film boast a strategic advantage because they are familiar with the harsh landscape of their “homeland.” 

Also, they resort to guerrilla tactics, deploying deadly booby traps and other hazards against the lost soldiers.  Like the Viet Cong, then, the Cajuns have been underestimated, and prove more resourceful and cunning than the forces of the more technologically-advanced culture. 

This is very much the same dynamic we see in another film Walter Hill produced, 1986’s Aliens.  There, the titular xenomorphs with their underground (sub-level) tunnels (hive) were grossly under-estimated by soldiers packing high-tech weaponry.  They were derided as “animals,” but they executed brilliant battle strategy.  The idea in both instances is the arrogance of military might, and the misapplication of military power.

Much of Southern Comfort finds the Guardsmen lost, confused, and running in circles as the Cajun hunters pick them off one at a time. Making the plight of the Guardsmen even more dangerous and harrowing, they lose their leader early on, in the equivalent of a decapitation strike.  

Also, and again repeating aspects of the Vietnam War dynamic, the Guardsmen are absolutely unable to distinguish allies from enemies, “good” Cajuns from “bad” ones.  They think (literally) that all the enemies look alike and capture and torture one Cajun man they are convinced must be the one that shot the sergeant.   In short, in “alien” territory, the members of Bravo Team are completely clueless-ness about the nature of things. Yet this doesn’t stop them from acting aggressively, impulsively and violently.

Roger Ebert writes persuasively about this metaphor, though notes the fact that it is plain early on: “From the moment we discover that the guardsmen are firing blanks in their rifles, we somehow know that the movie’s going to be about their impotence in a land where they do not belong.  And as the weekend soldiers are relentlessly hunted down…we think of the useless of American technology against the Viet Cong.

Tremendous tension is generated throughout Southern Comfort not merely by the presence of the almost invisible, omnipresent enemy, but in the exploitation of another brilliantly-expressed (and, yes… politically incorrect) fear.  This is, simply, the fear that your comrade-in-arms is a redneck idiot who could do something stupid at any time. 

For the most part, and excepting one or two important characters, the members of Bravo Team prove that they are not trustworthy, capable or smart.  It’s a two-front war: battling the enemy, and battling “self.”  This again seems like a metaphor for The Vietnam War, where incidents including the My-Lai Massacre raised questions and concerns about the military’s behavior.

The ineptitude of the Guardsmen is also apparent in the team’s misuse of their resources. They continually waste their limited bullets, so that in the end they can’t even rely on their superior equipment.  Ironically the group is termed Bravo Team according to protocol right up until the very end, yet this group has never been a team, and one senses that this is why things go badly.  There is no camaraderie, no respect, and no trust.  These men are thrown together and have little in common.  Unlike the Cajuns, who work in silent tandem and strike without warning, the Guardsmen blunder and fail except for a few – namely Hardin and Spencer -- who evidence common sense at least.

Southern Comfort shares core thematic elements with John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), though, as I’ve noted above, in a far more militaristic setting. Both films are set in treacherous, difficult landscapes.  Both films involve a diverse group of men who, individually, see things very differently.  And both films pit the “visitors” (or invaders) against another culture with superior knowledge of the landscape.

Southern Comfort adds to the Deliverance equation the dangerous and unpredictable factor of guns, and indeed, lots of them.   This addition changes the central dynamic a bit.  In Deliverance, the “invaders” on the river never actually did anything violent to the inbred mountain folk that attacked them.  Sure, they were insulting “city folks” who thought they knew better.  They didn’t belong on that river, and were rude to everyone they met.  But they didn’t strike back and wage war until their lives were on the line.  Their posture, in terms of violence, was largely self-defense.

In Southern Comfort, by contrast, Bravo Team steals property and opens fire on the Cajuns.  The Cajuns don’t have the luxury of “knowing” the attack occurred with blanks.  All they know is that they are suddenly under siege, on their own land.  The posture is different.  In this case, the Cajuns believe war is being waged against them.  And foolishly, Bravo Team has started that war.

The last thirty minutes of Southern Comfort are hair-raising and terrifying, as Hardin and Spencer survive the deadly traps and gun battles only to reach a Cajun village.  Hill provides a trenchant image of the soldiers’ plight here. They sit on the back of a Cajun transport, the truck carrying them to ostensible freedom. But placed nearby, in a key visualization, are two pigs trapped in cages.  The Guardsmen don’t realize it yet, but they are in as much imminent danger as the trapped animals. 

When the men reach the village and the increasingly fast, increasingly intense Cajun music becomes a near constant on the film’s soundtrack, the locals ominously ready two nooses in the center of town…either for Spencer and Hardin, or for the pigs.  This portion of the film, fostering ambivalence and paranoia, is almost unbearably suspenseful in my opinion.

Again, the soldiers (and the viewers too) have difficulty understanding this “foreign” enemy and discerning its motives.  In that “fog,” we begin to understand why people react fearfully and impulsively when in danger.  In essence, Hill makes us understand how terrifying it is to be in a place far from home, observing customs you can’t understand, and having to make “calls” that could result in your death.  This ability to place us in Hardin and Spencer’s shoes is one reason why the film doesn’t indict all soldiers.  It makes us “feel” their plight, and understand why mistakes happen.  Again, I count the film as pretty even-handed and judicious.  We see both really bad soldiers, and some really good ones.

Finally, the film ends in a frenetic, almost insane flurry of dancing, spinning and slow-motion, graphic violence as the Guardsmen are drawn into more battle, this time of a much bloodier, personal dimension.  The first time I watched this finale, I was literally up on my feet because it’s so damn intense, and because I felt so invested in the outcome.  Again, viewers wouldn’t feel that way if Hill were indicting all soldiers or making an anti-American film.

There’s no comfort at all in Southern Comfort, and that, finally, is the point.  The film effectively captures the “domino effect” that can occur once groups of armed men -- without leaders and without any real common sense, either -- start letting bullets fly.  Gunfire is a threshold that, once traversed, is difficult to come back from. “Survival is a mental outlook,” one character in the film insists.  Indeed, but survival is made exponentially more difficult when the guy in the fox hole next to you is a moron, or you don’t understand local customs, or you’re lost, or you’re out of bullets. 

This is the very crux of Savage Cinema ideas.  In the absence of safety and security, violence is, perhaps, inevitable. But in that situation I certainly hope there are level-headed guys like Spencer and Hardin around.  They fight to survive, but also never lose sight of the concept of civilization. 

Movie Trailer: Southern Comfort (1981)

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Lunchbox of the Week: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Collectibles of the Week: The Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark Collection (Kenner; 1982)

One toy collection that I never owned -- but which I sure as hell wished I did -- was the Kenner Indiana Jones collection released in 1982 and 1983, after Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), but before the release of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).

Anyway, Kenner -- the company responsible for the great 3.34 Star Wars line of the time -- released two amazing series of Indiana Jones-related action figures and play sets.  

For some reason, I don't even really remember seeing these toys much in stores, perhaps because, at age 12, I was becoming ever-more self-conscious about my love of toys, and moving away from them.  I ultimately regressed, thankfully, and accepted wholly my enduring love of toys, but the years 1982 - 1985 were lost to me, alas, save for a few precious items.

In the first Indiana Jones set, from 1982, Kenner released several small action figures with accouterments, including Indiana Jones, Marion Ravenwood, the villainous Toht and the Cairo Swordsman. 

The last figure, the Swordsman, is kind of a lame choice for an action figure, I readily acknowledge. He was the butt of the movie's best joke, and not exactly a great or menacing villain.  Also, Belloq "in Ceremonial Robes" was offered at this time as a mail-away prize.  He was included in the second series as well.

The playsets from Series One were amazing, and I'd love to have these today.  They were "The Well of Souls" ("The Hiding Place of the Ancient Ark!") and "the Map-Room."

In 1983, more action figures came along, including Sallah, Indiana Jones in German uniform (another odd choice, I admit...), the German Mechanic (who got pulped by the Flying Wing)..., Belloq, and Indy's "Arabian Horse."  

The playsets in this case were very cool as well: "Desert Convoy Truck" and "the Streets of Cairo."  I'm most interested in the Streets of Cairo set. I've never seen it anywhere, and if I'm not mistaken it comes complete with Marion's treacherous monkey pet.

Again, how could I have been unaware of these toys?

Below, a commercial for Kenner's Indiana Jones line of toys.  If you're like me, you can watch it and dream of being a kid again.  If Adventure has a name...

Model Kit of the Week: Raiders of the Lost Ark Desert Chase Action Scene (MPC)

Board Game of the Week: Raiders of the Lost Ark (Parker Brothers; 1981)

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

What I'm Reading Now - Back in Time: The Unauthorized Back to the Future Chronology

November 5th is an important day in Back to the Future (1985) lore so today seems like an appropriate time to call your attention to the book I'm reading right now.  

Back in Time: The Unauthorized Back to the Future Chronology by Greg Mitchell and Rich Handley is the latest master-work from Hasslein Books, an imprint fast developing a reputation for intricate, comprehensive, exhaustively-detailed texts about beloved genre franchises.

I already own Handley's Planet of the Apes Chronology, and Planet of the Apes Lexicon (for which I submitted a preface...), and the quality of this work rivals both of those impressive texts.  This Back in Time book is filled with beautiful illustrations, flow-charts, and family trees, and is appealing simply on the basis of the dynamic visual lay-out.

In terms of content, Back in Time consists of a meticulous time-line broken down into 15 segments ranging from "prehistory" to "2015 and beyond."  

The book also includes five appendices, which gaze at the history of Hill Valley, and even the ubiquitous Courthouse Square (where the clock tower plays an important role).  

I also loved the appendix which traces the various "family trees" of generations of Tannens, McFlys, Browns, Stricklands, Parkers and so forth. This seems a crucial element of the Back to the Future mythos, as the "series" concerns a core group of families that keep reliving a similar series of events (in the same places),.

The first thing that may strike the reader about the book beyond the attractive graphic design and artwork from Pat Carbajal is the fact that the Back to the Future "universe" (and franchise) is a hell of a lot more expansive than it might appear at first blush.  

The chronology thus includes not merely the three feature films (circa 1985 - 1991), but an animated series, three comic book series, Happy Meal Boxes (!), commercials, music videos, and a card game.  I frankly had no notion that half of this material even existed.

Delightfully, the book provides all the details necessary to finding a story, and understanding where and how it fits in the overall time-line. An added bonus is that the authors add scientific "notes" to many entries, such as those involving the Jurassic and Cenozoic Period, to sort of "accuracy check" the franchise.

The approach -- as that level of detail suggests -- is one of respect and complete-ism, if there is such a word.  

Again, I'm bowled over by the level of detail found in the text, and must credit, at least partially, Rich Handley, the co-author. He is a great writer for this sort of material because he approaches franchises like Apes or BTTF like some obsessed archaeologist reconstructing an ancient culture from diverse, seemingly unconnected clues..  He is constantly organizing and re-organizing chunks of data so that a new, "big" picture of the overall story emerges.  

 I (clearly...) don't know Back to the Future as well as Planet of the Apes, but for fans of the series, this chronology is absolutely a must-have if you seek be a student in that archaeology class, and desire to put all the pieces together so as to glean a sense of the "story" from the distance of an objective observer, in accordance, perhaps with Hasslein (Books?) theory of Infinite Regression.

Back in Time: The Unauthorized Back to the Future Chronology is available at Hasslein Books and at

Cult-Movie Review: Resolution (2013)

Invariably, the best horror movies are the ones that make you think, and the ones that don’t spoon-feed audiences all the answers.

In some way, movies of this type make room for the audience -- and the audience’s imagination -- within the very tapestry of the art work.  For example, I’m on record as loving films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Halloween (1978) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) precisely because they thread this needle.  As viewers, we never learn where those Australian school girls disappeared to, why Michael Myers commits murder, or if the Blair Witch is a real entity. 

Instead, these horror films present a scintillating mystery, construct a consuming, mounting sense of dread, and then end without resolving key questions regarding the narrative.  Consequently, our curious minds fill in the gaps, and so horror and imagination intertwine, multiply, and blossom into something totally wondrous: a scintillating sense of terror and uncertainty that, finally, outlives the work of art’s running time.

Resolution, a film from directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, thrives on the same approach as the aforementioned films, raising questions but never really offering meaningful closure or explanations about the drama. 

As I’ve written before, I feel strongly that it isn’t enough merely to scare audiences with a “jump scare,” or even a well-orchestrated, technically-adroit series of jump scares (as seen in The Conjuring, for instance). 
In the final analysis, horror films must also undercut structure, convention, or decorum in some way. The form of the thing must reflect its content.

And Resolution, in its determined, stubborn refusal to provide that closure -- the very subject of its title -- thrives as a sinister exploration of man’s inability to understand, finally, the universe around him.  In exploring this idea, the film stands up to multiple viewings, and becomes more enjoyable and more stimulating on each re-watch.

There are no special effects to speak of in Resolution, and no real scenes of gore or overt violence, either. Instead, the film generates terror from evocative, resonant imagery (like the specter of a child tapping on a window at night), and two surprisingly strong central performances.  The atmosphere of dread, doom, and inevitability builds and builds right until the movie’s final, nifty trick: a sudden lifting of “the filter” through which we and the characters view reality.

“Someone might be messing with us…”

A husband and soon-to-be father, Chris (Michael Danube) receives a bizarre Internet video showing his best friend, Chris (Vinny Curran) -- a drug addict -- acting bizarrely.

Mike decides to intervene on his friend’s behalf, and visits Chris at his remote cabin in the woods to help him go cold turkey.

Chris is not appreciative of Mike’s efforts, however, and worse than that, is surrounded by danger on all sides. 

Two drug dealers are hounding him, and he’s actually squatting in that cabin, which rests on an Indian reservation. 

A local Indian gang warns Mike that if he and Chris don’t leave the property, there will be hell to pay. 

Meanwhile, a strange girl taps on the cabin window by night…peering in at the duo.

Soon, Mike begins to question his own sanity when he uncovers strange recordings of all types -- photographs, transparencies, slides, video tapes, film reels, and Internet videos -- that seem to pertain to what he and Chris are going through in the cabin. 

Then, Mike learns that Chris never sent him the Internet video attachment in the first place…

Mike also finds the journals of two French students in Archaeology and Physics who disappeared without a trace, and comes to suspect that some ancient being -- a god, an alien, or a monster -- is watching every move that he and Chris make, with both the apparent desire to be entertained, and the power to re-shape reality itself.

“I think they were searching for monsters and they found each other.”

There are many ways to approach Resolution, and thus interpret it.

On a literal level, Resolution involves two men interfacing with some kind of Non-Human Intelligence that has lived on Earth for a very long time, and desires, a la Cabin in the Woods (2012), to be entertained by our violent human struggles. 

In terms of antecedents, Resolution might even be considered a work inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, one in which ancient and malevolent entities -- rendered as drawings on cave walls and also scratched onto modern cabin walls -- impact the human world. 

What’s all the creepier about this idea is that these beings do their harm in the most out-of-the-way, forgotten human places, where law and order don’t’ reach  And these beings can subvert humanity using his own technology against him.

On a more metaphorical level, Resolution might be viewed as a sly and tricky meta-narrative which assumes the existence of The Writer -- the God in the Machine -- acting malevolently upon his characters…his very creations. 

In other words, what Mike and Chris endure in that cabin throughout the film is very much what an unkind writer might put his creations through in hopes of transforming an old, familiar story into something fresh and clever. 

By breaking tradition, and indeed, the laws of Physics, however, this Writer/God figure vexes his confused creations, and thus reveals his heretofore invisible hand in their affairs. The “filter” over reality is thus lifted, and the characters realize that they are not real beings, but mere avatars for the Writer’s desire to mete a “juicy” ending for his or her tale.

Viewed in this way, Mike and Chris come to realize that they are “players” in a larger production, and that their “story” is being shaped, re-shaped, and edited to arrive at a satisfactory “resolution.”

At one crucial moment in Resolution, one of the characters even asks for the equivalent, essentially, of a re-take, in an attempt to appease the Angry Writer/God Figure.

Judging by the long shadow which falls across him, we can assume he doesn’t get his wish.  Once the veil of reality has lifted, you can’t go back to seeing things “the way things were.”

Of particular interest here is Resolution’s use of technological record keeping -- from prehistoric drawings on cave walls right up to 21st century Internet video -- to serve as the key to the universe’s utter malleability.  We assume that a photograph or videotape records only objective reality, but what Resolution suggests is that visual and literary records can lie and deceive.

Ripping away all the post-modernism and commentary on how film and TV lie (24 frames a second?), Resolution could simply be a story of personal hypocrisy.  Mike is a crusader who imposes his personal will on Chris without asking, without seeking permission.  He charges in, initiates an intervention, and takes total control of Chris’s life.

In the course of the film, however, Mike encounters an entity that imposes it’s will over his life without so much as a “by your leave”…and Mike doesn’t like it much. It doesn’t feel good to lose control, or to be controlled by another. 

In other words, the crusading “actor” of Resolution becomes the passive, involuntary “acted upon” and realizes what it feels like to truly be out of control of your life, one minute to the next. 

And yes, that’s a mighty fine metaphor for drug addiction, isn’t it?

Chris, who has lived in a haze of invisible, pesky birds, ghost children, and other weird visions now shares something in common with Mike.  Mike is also encountering an involuntary unraveling of his sense of reality.  In both cases, the characters possess “filters” over their eyes, and view the world -- and reality -- differently.   The filter makes all the difference in our interpretation of life, doesn’t it?

Late in Resolution, a French professor living in a parked trailer discusses with Mike this very idea of “filters” creating separate realities, and Resolution again functions admirably on more than one level.

This Frenchman may be literally speaking the truth.  There may be creatures -- unseen by man -- that can shape our destinies here on Earth.

Or he may be speaking figuratively about how we all construct our little realities, and live determinedly inside those boxes…until the walls fall and we are forced to countenance a different reality than we imagined.

In a fine instance of form reflecting content, the final moments of Resolution showcase the scales falling not just from the character’s eyes, but literally from the camera’s lens.  We are -- for a split second -- shunted into a new reality along with Mike and Chris, and mystery and terror loom.

Reality has layers, Resolution reminds us adeptly.  Therefore, it might be better to leave our little, self-made bubbles intentionally and see what’s out there, then to be forced out on someone else’s terms. 

 The film is itself an experiment in perception -- like the mysterious project of the French students, involving -- “manipulation of light and sound waves” -- and in the very best tradition of the horror film, Resolution makes one view the world in a new light.

Movie Trailer: Resolution (2012)

Monday, November 04, 2013

Ask JKM a Question: What kind of horror film would I like to see come back from the dead?

A regular reader named Jason writes:

"I read your Horror Films FAQ book and your descriptions of all the different types of horror movies. My question to you is: what form of horror film would you like to see revive or rebound today?”

Jason, that’s a terrific question about the horror genre and its current direction.  

My answer is simple: I’d love to see a revival of the rubber reality horror film.

I’m talking about films like Phantasm (1979), Altered States (1980), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Hellraiser (1987), or Candyman (1992), specifically. 

In horror films of this type, the villain is able to rewrite reality as we understand it, and the barriers between realities seem to fall all around us.   I love this type of horror film when it is done well, and I think all the above-listed films manage that feat.  Even Wishmaster (1997) was entertaining as hell.  

In particular, I enjoy the imaginative nature of the rubber reality films (and productions such as Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) and Shocker (1989), because I think they capitalize on the link between horror films and dreams/nightmares.  Phantasm, after all, plays as an adolescent boy’s dream about death.  Altered States is like a drug trip gone wrong, and so forth.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that rubber reality as a horror sub-genre is going to make a comeback anytime soon, and that’s because -- as I’ve written before -- the general movement of film history is from the theatrical or artificial to the realistic or natural.  

You can detect that trend in the kind of horror films made today, mostly of the found-footage genre.  I happen to love and adore the found-footage horror film, and think that it has a lot of life in it (particularly in films such as The Bay, or REC, Lovely Molly, or BWP). 

But because horror movies are trending more realistic, a step in the opposite direction -- back towards “rubber reality” -- doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense. Rubber reality isn’t really “where we are” in terms of the Zeitgeist. 

Some clever writer out there would need to “re-imagine” the rubber reality film for our era today in a fashion that resonates the way Wes Craven’s Elm Street resonated in 1984.  I’m not sure I see that happening…and believe me, I’ve tried!

For example, I wrote a rubber-reality script some years back called The Dead Side of The Street, and it had some (little) interest from agents and producers, but ultimately nothing happened with it.  And I think that has to do with:  a.) my own failures as a writer, but also b.) the fact that nobody is making rubber reality films anymore, especially ones that boast the kind of jaunty humor we see in the Elm Street sequels, or Phantasm sequels.

So, I would really love to see more of the rubber reality I loved as a teenager and college student, but, frankly, I don’t see how it would fit in with today’s culture.  

My only take on the material now would be to consider how nobody sees facts or "truth" anymore, but rather facts and truth through the prism of a pre-existing world view.  In other words, many Americans tend not to believe facts if they come from a political person/party they don't agree with.  Hence, many of us live in very different realities from our neighbors.  A good rubber reality horror movie might find a genre-specific way to take into account that uncomfortable premise of modern life, and twist it into something truly terrifying.

What we need, frankly,  is for someone to do for rubber reality what Kevin Williamson did for slashers in the mid-1990s. The whole approach needs to be re-imagined for the 21st century in a way that we all “get” immediately.

think it’s do-able, but again, not terribly likely.