Saturday, February 08, 2014

Late Night Blogging: Intellivision

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Thundarr the Barbarian (1980): "Raiders of the Abyss" (October 25, 1980)

In “Raiders of the Abyss,” a tribe of rag-tag humans living in a capsized ocean liner from the twentieth century, face peril from a race of bat-like humanoids and their flying, giant rodents.  These “raiders” have, for generations, threatened the people of the ocean liner, and captured them for use as slaves.

Thundarr, Ookla and Ariel happen onto the scene, and realize that the bat people are taking the slaves to their subterranean cave, which exists behind the deadly waterfall known as “the Abyss.” 

Upon scouting out the cave, Ariel is captured and taken to a ritual chamber, where strange vapors threaten to sap her strength, youth and vitality…forever.

First off, I love the title of this week’s episode: “Raiders of the Abyss.”  The title captures perfectly the pulpy, heroic nature of Thundarr the Barbarian. 

All the titles of this series showcase a real Howard-esque imagination in terms of words and that’s just one real pleasure of re-watching this 1980 series in the year 2014.

Secondly, I must comment meaningfully once more on the series’ visualizations (courtesy of Alex Toth and Jack Kirby). Although the narratives are rather straight-forward in terms of their plotting and characterization, the imagery remains incredibly imaginative. More than that, the episode’s images really resonate.

For instance, here we meet another post-apocalyptic culture that, like the mutant city in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, seems to worship 20th century technology.  The same culture is also based on bat biology.  These cloak-wearing, bald, pointy-eared creations are pretty creepy.   The moment when bat-people attack the ship -- astride the backs of giant bats and capturing unwitting humans in nets -- is likely worthy of a live-action blockbuster or two.

By the same token, the episode’s depiction of the good guy village -- a twentieth century ship “speared” on a rock --  is very inventive, and recalls The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).  I just wish the episode had more time to explore this setting, beyond the mere decks, where villagers are imperiled.

The stories, I must say, are falling into a bit of a rut. 

The formula goes like this: Thundarr and his friends discover a problem/injustice while riding through the post-apocalyptic landscape, and must rescue some humans, and destroy a villain.  The villains, meanwhile, boast some weapon or device related to the “destroyed” culture of the 20th century.  In “Raiders of the Abyss,” that weapon is the life-sucking vapor, which is a deadly gas leaking from a bomber plane inside “the Abyss.”

I’ll be looking to see how much or how little this formula varies as we go forward.  But I’ll close with this thought: Thundarr the Barbarian is very lucky so much imagination goes into the visualization of the stories.  It is those visuals which, at this juncture, continue to impress.

Next Week: “Treasure of the Moks.”

Cult-TV Gallery: Gladiators

 The Outer Limits: "Fun and Games"

 "Amok Time."

 The Starlost: "The Goddess Calabra"

 Planet of the Apes: "The Gladiators"

Space:1999: "The Rules of Luton."

 Blake's 7: "Duel"

 V: "The Champion"

 Angel: "The Ring"

 Farscape: "That Old Black Magic"

 Star Trek: Voyager: "Tsunkatse"

Firefly: "Shindig"

 Smallville: "Dominion"

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost (1992): "The Gladiators" (October 3, 1992)

In “The Gladiators” the Sleestak leader, Shung, utilizes his crystal sword to hypnotize dinosaurs into fighting for him as gladiators in his make-shift jungle arena.  When Christa (Shannon Day) interferes to rescue her triceratops friend, Shung decides that she would make the perfect gladiator, and exerts his mind control over her, instead.

With Christa’s unwitting help, the Sleestak capture the Porters, and make them fight in the arena.  When Kevin -- who has been training with his dad in the art of karate -- defeats a Sleestak in battle, Shung decides it is time for a new challenge.

Kevin shall have to fight his father…to the death.

There’s a cliché in science fiction/cult television I call “fight club.”  In stories of this type, peaceful protagonists are forced to fight in an arena or other venue for personal combat.  Sometimes, this fight pits friend against friend, ally against ally.

On Star Trek (1966 – 1969), “Amok Time” saw Spock and Kirk engage in ritualistic combat on Vulcan’s arid surface.  In The Starlost (1973), Devon (Keir Dullea) had to fight the Governor (John Colicos) in the town square to win the hand of Rachel (Gay Rowan) in marriage, and so forth.

This trope has recurred elsewhere as well, in series including Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (“Escape from Wedded Bliss”), and more recently, Angel (“The Ring”) and Smallville.

“The Gladiators” is the Land of the Lost’s version of similar material, with Shung the Sleestak capturing the Porters and forcing them to fight one another for his amusement in a make-shift arena…apparently simply for his own pleasure.

The story of “The Gladiators” is familiar, and yet the episode is still a lot of fun, in part because Christa must overcome her brainwashing to rescue her friends.  Christa is my favorite character on the new series, and we haven’t seen her at all in the second season yet.  But here, she gets to hiss and spit at the Porters as if she is a wild animal, which is fun.

In addition, Land of the Lost pushes its story-arc forward a bit in “The Gladiators.” At the end of the tale, Christa destroys Shung’s crystal sword, a Sleestak weapon that has proven vexing for the Porters since nearly the beginning of the program.  Here, Christa grabs the weapon, and snaps it, leaving Shung without the capacity to pull this brainwashing trick again.

Vis-à-vis believability, “The Gladiators” stretches belief a tiny bit by having Kevin defeat a Sleestak in hand-to-hand combat.  The Sleestak (conveniently) has a weak left eye, a vulnerability that Kevin exploits…but it still doesn’t feel particularly honest. 

It’s also convenient for Kevin that his father has begun teaching him self-defense techniques at the very time that Sleestaks are capturing people to be used as gladiators.

Next week: “Life’s a Beach.” 

Friday, February 07, 2014

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: Discovery/Searcher Edition

2010: The Comic Book (Marvel; 1984)

The Films of 1984: 2010: The Year We Make Contact

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is absolutely, indisputably a one-of-a-kind movie.  It is a cinematic masterpiece, and more than that -- as I noted here last week -- one of the greatest films ever produced.  

So the simple and apparent fact that must be acknowledged and embraced regarding the Peter Hyams sequel -- 1984’s 2010: The Year We Make Contact -- is that it is not in the same class.

Kubrick’s film was part science fiction, part art film, and part “ultimate trip” head  movie, and 2010’s ambitions are, well, if not smaller, then at least a great deal more direct.

When approaching 2010, one must, therefore, dispense with the perhaps-unreasonable expectation that the enterprise is going to rival, or even near the majesty and awe of its 1968 predecessor.

Because a funny thing might happen once you jettison those personal expectations (or, perhaps, your memories of 2001).

Another truth looms ever more apparent.

2010: The Year We Make Contact is still a very good science fiction film, though of a markedly different style. 

Where 2001: A Space Odyssey took man to the precipice of his own future, and to the next step of his very evolution, the sequel is very much about who man is “now” (in 1984, essentially).

Where 2001: A Space Odyssey offered a commentary on how man’s tools could overwhelm his life, and his environs (remember the white-on-white minimalism of the production design…) 2010 instead reveals man grappling with his still-human nature: the propensity to fear that which he doesn’t understand, and to go to war over territory or ideology.

2001 paid some attention to that idea, certainly. One scene in the space station lounge saw Heywood Floyd meet some Soviet scientists, and they questioned him about all the secrecy on Clavius. The scene hinted at on-going rivalries and distrust between Super Powers.

Similarly, the orbiting nuclear platforms depicted in A Space Odyssey suggested that war and hostility had survived and endured to the 21st century. Man’s competitive nature -- apparent from the moment the ape-man tossed a bone-weapon into the air at the dawn of the species -- was thus seen as unchanged.

Yet in Kubrick’s film that idea was merely a note in a great and elaborate symphony.

In Hyams’ 2010, by contrast, that note underlines and even dominates the entire composition. It does so in faithful, earnest adaptation of Clarke’s 1982 literary source material, as well as in a brutally honest reckoning with the political details of the early 1980s.

In many ways, 2010 is thus the “hot” to 2001’s “cold.” 

The snow-blind whites, minimalism  and yet majesty of the space station and other settings in 2001 have been replaced, largely, in 2010 by cluttered, smoky control rooms bathed in suffusing red alert lighting. 

And the sequel’s characters -- instead of showcasing smooth, emotionless efficiency as Frank Poole or David Bowman did -- experience outbreaks of panic, fear, homesickness, and even…humor.

If Kubrick’s film took a big step back from the characters and attempted to observe the long arc of man’s development with a sense of cerebral detachment, Hyams’ film instead examines man at this juncture with passionate, colorful, up-close strokes.

When considered in such terms, 2010: The Year We Make Contact might be viewed as a pretty strong and, yes, wholly valid complement to Kubrick’s film. It is both a faithful continuation of the franchise’s overall narrative, and at the same time an apparent commentary on the visionary world envisioned by Kubrick. 

It’s almost as if this sequel applies the brakes -- the aerobrakes? -- in response to 2001’s flights of imagination and futurism. 

It says, insteadHold on!  We’re not quite there yet

The famous black Monolith may have judged Bowman ready to evolve into a star child, but for now, the rest of humanity remains mired in conflict and self-destructive impulses.

Absent entirely in 2010: The Year We Make Contact is Kubrick’s sense of “order in the universe,” the amazing compositions which suggest a God’s eye view of the cosmos.

Missing as well is the feeling that we humans are part of a long, ongoing process of development, moving from our “dawn” to “the infinite and beyond.” 

The sequel substitutes such awesome visions and ideas with a direct, teletype-style message to mankind (from the aliens…), transcribed by HAL.  “All these worlds are yours except Europa. Attempt no landing there. Use them together. Use them in peace.”

In 1984 -- soon after The Day After (1983) aired on television, and at the height of East-West Cold War tensions -- the Klaatu-esque message of this film really resonated, at least with my teenage self. It was less “grand,” perhaps, “less cosmic” than Kubrick’s intellectual musings, but perhaps 2010’s direct approach was the very thing that audiences needed to hear at that moment in history.

Bluntly worded, 2010 tells its audience this: you can’t evolve and be “a star child” until you grow the fuck up. 

The astronauts of the film -- men and women from the United States and the Soviet Union -- are at the vanguard of that growth, and become the very symbols for man’s ability to, even in dire circumstances, to evolve beyond basic tribal instincts.

So if 2001 concerns what man will one day become, 2010 suggests how he needs to get there, through the end of war and petty conflict.

“My God, it’s full of stars.”

Nine long years after Discovery One went silent near Jupiter, and Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) was lost approaching the strange, alien monolith, the Cold War on Earth has grown hot. 

The Soviet Union and the United States of America tussle over the resources and loyalty of the Third World.  A problem in Central America, in Honduras, grows ever worse, and the United States threatens a naval blockade.

Meanwhile, Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) is asked to spearhead a mission to Jupiter, to re-activate the HAL 9000,  nd then determine the nature of the mysterious Monolith.  

Unfortunately, the Russians will beat the Americans to the derelict Discovery One, so an accommodation --- a joint mission -- is broached by the competitors.

Floyd and an American team consisting of computer expert Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban), and Discovery One designer Walter Curnow (John Lithgow) thus board the Russian craft, Leonov, under the command of Captain Tanya Kirbuk (Helen Mirren) for the journey.  In turn, they will share their findings about the Monolith.

Leonov begins its long space journey, and takes a detour to Europa, where chlorophyll -- an early sign of life -- has been detected.  A probe is sent to examine the surface of Europa, but is destroyed by an unknown force.

Later, the Leonov conducts a difficult aero-braking maneuver on approach to the Discovery, and Dr. Chandra revives HAL.

Meanwhile, on Earth, an entity resembling Dave Bowman begins to appear to the astronaut’s surviving family members.  He tells them that something wonderful is going to happen, and soon.

Tensions on Earth grow exponentially worse, and at the same time, HAL warns the crews of the Leonov and Discovery One that this area of space is becoming dangerous because of a strange “storm” of Monoliths in the atmosphere of Jupiter.

With the storm expanding, and the outcome unknown, the two space crews must put their ideology and suspicion behind them to survive and escape this region of space.

“We should each be treated with appropriate respect.”

2001: A Space Odyssey raised many questions about the universe, mankind’s evolution, and even the reasons why the HAL 9000 went berserk.

2010: The Year We Make Contact makes no bones about the fact that it is in the business of providing answers.

For instance, early in the film it is established that the final reports regarding Discovery One and the Jupiter Mission failure left its readers with “a good amount of questions.”  Just like some members of the audience for 2001. Later, Floyd reveals, in voice-over, very detailed information about the Monolith “controlling” everything in nearby space. He seems to know a lot about it.

If the sequel boasts any substantial flaw it is that it feels both conceived and executed to satisfy those who were unsatisfied by 2001: A Space Odyssey. Accordingly, the answers just keep on coming.

And yet, if you were unsatisfied by 2001, you didn’t really get the movie, did you?

Leaving that issue aside 2010 takes great artistic pains to “ground” all the proceedings in terms that its audience would easily comprehend. For example, Floyd feels guilt and remorse about sending the Discovery One crew people to die, and so this Leonov mission is explicitly one about his redemption.

This won’t bring those men back,” or provide “absolution” suggests Heywood’s wife. 

And again, one need only note that in 2001, we had no such insight into Mr. Floyd, or his motivations. He was not humanized in such fashion.

Other characters are similarly endowed with traits that ground them, or make them more recognizably human and contemporary. Chandra is prideful at times, and Curnow undergoes a bit of fear or agoraphobia on a harrowing spacewalk. During the tense aero-breaking scene, Floyd and an attractive Russian astronaut clutch one another, out of abject fear.

Even when Dave was locked out of the Pod Bay of the Discovery in 2001, he evidenced no such outward signs of fear.

Indeed, the film’s entire approach to character is best exemplified by Curnow’s line that he misses the color “green.” 

Was there any green (outside the Dawn of Man segment) in 2001?  Was there any explicit longing for it?

What 2010: The Year We Make Contact wants to suggest, then, is that although man may erect a white-on-white future, he’s not going to like it, and he’s still going to long for the “green” of terrestrial Earth.  He’s still going to be “man" as we recognize him now.

HAL is newly humanized as well in this sequel. We learn that he is, essentially, schizophrenic, because of the contradictory orders he received from home base. Instead of acting as a ruthless, cunning opponent, he becomes here a figure of sympathy, one who even asks if he will “dream” when Discovery One is destroyed.

Finally, the ghost of David Bowman indulges in behavior that we would consider extremely human and emotional too. He visits his relatives on Earth. He combs his elderly mother’s hair.

Again, this kind of material is absolutely absent from 2001: A Space Odyssey, where even a vid-phone call between father and child feels strangely distant and unemotional. But 2010 is a different film.

This film’s modus operandi -- also evidenced in the desire to create thrilling space action scenes like the space walk or the aero-braking --  is to showcase the yin/yang of human emotions or passions.

The environs of the Leonov, the new ship created for the sequel, likewise showcase this aesthetic. The ship’s control room is always either under-lit and dark, or bathed in red light. Papers are scattered everywhere, on panels and tables. The visual aesthetic is much more Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) than it is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. And again, that’s because the film wants to present a realistic portrayal of emotional, contemporary man in space. 

Why? Well, the film examines man at close-up range. He can be wonderful and good, seeking absolution, longing for nature's "green," or acknowledging his fears. Or he can bring the world to the precipice of nuclear Armageddon. 

And again, I feel it incumbent to note as well the apocalypse mentality of the country in the first Reagan presidency, which forms the cultural context behind this sequel. This was a time when in public forums Russia was derided as “The Evil Empire,” and it was announced (as a joke) that bombing Russia would begin in "five minutes." It was an era in which cabinet appointees like Secretary of the Interior James Watts declared it was not really necessary to take care of the planet's environment because Jesus Christ would return in his lifetime, and this would be the last generation.  These words are not my opinion of what happened, they are part of the historical record, and therefore not partisan or biased. These things were said in public, and heard in the public square, by children and adults alike. They were noted.

2010: The Year We Make Contact is very much about that context (as well as the Falklands Island War…), an environment of distrust and concern about nuclear war in which it becomes impossible to visualize your “enemy” as another human being, but rather as a godless monster that must be destroyed. 

The message is made plain in the film terms of the astronauts’ behavior, and their cooperative solution for survival. 

To endure a disaster near Jupiter, two ships and two crews must literally become one. 

The Russian Leonov and the American Discovery One must join together and pool resources -- literally as one ship -- to see a new sunrise.  This is the Monolith’s lesson for the entirety of Earth as well. The two rival super-powers --  if they hope to claim their stake in space -- must become one. They must treat each other “with appropriate respect” and recognize their enemy’s common humanity.

The aliens final message in the film is very on the nose.  “Use these worlds together. Use them in peace.” 

If humans do not do so, the implication is that the Monolith aliens will respond accordingly. The events on Europa with the destroyed probe reveal that these aliens will brook no interference with their agenda. Again, this seems highly reminiscent, at least to me, of The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), and its alien ultimatum.

“Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.”

2001: A Space Odyssey doesn’t transmit an easily-digestible message like that, which can be stated in a few simple words, and 2010: The Year We Make Contact does.  The two films stand in stark contrast because of that difference. 2001 coolly asks its audience to interpret its message, and 2010 states its message, rather bluntly and emotionally, and with some degree of heat and excitement.

In general, I prefer Kubrick’s approach, but there are times when the 2010 approach becomes a necessity too…especially if you are the parent of a misbehaving child. 

As such a parent figure (as the Monolith aliens may be to humanity), it is necessary at times to make certain you are heard and clearly understood

The message in 2010 is indeed clearly heard and understood. That fact doesn’t make the movie “bad.”  It just makes the film a very different kind of space opera from its predecessor. 

Beautifully mounted, and buttressed with splendid recreations of the Discovery One, and some tense moments in space, 2010 is a worthwhile film, and a solid sequel to one of the cinema’s all-time greats.  We can remember it that way, in part, because it sought not to imitate a great film, but to chart its own (if ultimately less challenging..) territory.

Another way to put it.  We may not give 2010 equal respect to 2001, but let us all treat it with "appropriate" respect nonetheless.

Movie Trailer: 2010 - The Year We Make Contact (1984)

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Late Night Blogging: The Making of 2010

At Anorak: Childhood’s End: The Five Most Terrifying Movies Made From A Child’s Perspective

My latest article at Anorak is up! It is called Childhood's End, and it concerns the horror movies that embody a child's viewpoint to create horror.

Here's a snippet:

"ALFRED Hitchcock once remarked that every person understands fear, because everyone was once a child.  “After all,” he declared, “weren’t we all afraid as children?”.
According to the authors of Monsters under the Bed and Other Childhood Fears (Random House; 1993, page 1), “childhood is a time of many fears” and children between the ages of six and twelve “experience an average of seven different fears.
At its best and most illuminating, the horror film genre expresses fears about the future, about mortality, and about, even, how we live day-to-day.  Some notable horror movies, however, have also attempted to explicitly sow terror (and indeed, melancholy…) by adopting the perspective of a child as he or she broaches change, and  the onset of maturity.  After all, the end of childhood is also, in many ways, the end of innocence itself.
The following five genre films masterfully express the difficulties of childhood’s end with expressionistic and haunting visuals, and thus explore, in cinematic terms, what it can mean to “grow up.”

Check out the full article at Anorak, and if you can, leave a comment!

Cult-Movie Review: V/H/S (2012)

The home video revolution began approximately thirty years ago.  What that home video revolution entailed (and still entails today, though with different and updated equipment…) is the capacity to transform each and every person with a video camera into a journalist, a movie-maker, or even a porn star.  

Consider for just a moment all the people in the world equipped with video cameras (or today, phone cameras…) and then imagine thirty years’ worth of home movies, sex tapes, family holidays…and other stuff, all on tape or DVD, rattling around the periphery of the pop culture.

Where do these old forgotten tapes or discs go once discarded or forgotten?  To flea markets?  To yard sales?  To traders?

Whose hands do those recordings ultimately end up in, and for what, perhaps voyeuristic purpose?  What value do these personal “productions” have in the eyes of strangers?

These are just a few of the unsettling ideas that the found-footage horror anthology V/H/S explores. The film showcases five unsettling genre stories told from a first-person perspective, and the wraparound narrative device involves a group of not terribly-bright, small-time miscreants desperately searching for one particular video tape in the house of a (presumably) dead tape collector. 

As these crooks ransack the home, they watch one tape after another, and the audience witnesses some pretty disturbing and offbeat material after the VCR first lights up with the block word “PLAY” (seen over the ubiquitous blue VCR screen).

The first found-footage horror omnibus yet produced, V/H/S is an impressive horror production not merely because of the stimulating ideas I named above about three decades worth of consumer-recorded media existing around the edges of polite society, but because the stories featured here all appear joined by a common thematic thread: man’s cruelty to his fellow man, and his manipulation of his fellow man for his own ends and/or entertainment.

This is not a small thing. And V/H/S ably suggests that the “cognitive surplus” (to borrow a term from Clay Shirky) that permits us the time, technology and opportunity to make personal video recordings is being spent not on crafting art or even furthering commerce, but on hurting others. It takes a special breed to hurt another human being in the ways we witness in V/H/S, but what order of supreme narcissism is required to hurt another person, and then record that pain and torment for posterity?

What does it say about a culture, the film seems to ask, when our “precious” moments recorded on tape are all about tricking, abusing, and even murdering other human beings, even ones we ostensibly love (as is the case in at least two of the five stories)? 

In some senses, this omnibus feels like an answer to the questions first raised by Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1989) some twenty-five years ago. 

In that film, a serial killer taped his own bloody and vicious acts, so he could enjoy them (with a beer…) at his leisure.  At the time, this act was seen as an especially atrocious, but also individual one.  Henry was a sicko, but also an outlier.  He didn’t represent the norm. 

By contrast, V/H/S suggests that, perhaps the reality-TV obsessed culture of the 2010s is as much about pain as it is about fame.  You might get your fifteen minutes of celebrity, but you’re going to suffer for it.

 “A new turns of events will soon come about…”

In V/H/S a gang of dumb crooks are hired to break into the house of a tape collector and steal an important video tape.  Unfortunately, the house is veritably filled with stacks of videotapes, and finding the right one is no easy task.  The crooks thus watch five different tapes, hoping to find their quarry.

The first tape (“Amateur Night”) involves three young men who hope to bring a young woman back to their motel from a local bar for purposes of group sex.  One of the boys, Clint, has been outfitted with a camera in his glasses, so he can tape the entire transaction.  Finally, after a long night at the bar, the boys bring two girls back to their motel room.  One woman, Lisa, passes out before she can put out.  But the strange, bug-eyed Lily (Hannah Fierman) has a few surprises in store for the guys...

The second tape, “Second Honeymoon,” follows a married couple -- Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal) -- on a road trip out west.  Late one night, they are accosted by a stalker asking for a ride. Sam refuses, but remains creeped-out by the incident.  But then, by night, the stalker breaks into the couple’s motel room and watches them sleep.  Over a few nights, the behavior escalates and becomes more and more dangerous..

In the third tape, “Tuesday the 17th,” a tortured young woman named Wendy (Norma C. Quinones) brings a group of friends back to the woods where she once faced a terrible trauma.  But this time, she’s ready to face whatever comes, even if the video camera can’t quite register the Bogeyman she fears.

“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” involves a web-cam conversation between Emily (Helen Rogers) and her boyfriend as she explains a series of night terrors…and the bruises and wounds that keep appearing on her arm.

In the final, harrowing tale, “10/31/98,” a group of friends looking for a Halloween party instead find themselves in a real life house of horrors, one where some kind of occult ritual is occurring in the attic…

 “Amateur Night”

If I had to describe “Amateur Night” briefly, I would use this (admittedly trite) term: the hunters become the hunted.  

Here, three young men hope to lure a woman back to their motel room to taped sex acts. They believe that they are the predators, but in fact -- as they discover -- they are the prey.  

One extremely gory moment in the action sees the “monster” pull the penis off one of the boys, and toss it onto the motel carpet with a splat.  It’s a sight you don’t see in a horror movie every day, but the shot reflects the story’s purpose, and the idea of the (apparent) weak turning on the apparent strong.  Since sex is part of the “weaponry” used by the young men in the beginnings, it’s appropriate that sex should be part of the violence, or comeuppance as well.

“Amateur Night” works like gangbusters because the installment doesn’t hold back in terms of confronting the racy subject matter. There’s not just the severed penis, for instance, but, relatively late in the game, we are treated to a moment when the (lonely?) Lily attempts to perform fellatio on one of the boys. 

But her feelings are hurt when the guy -- after witnessing the bloody demise of his friends, falling down a flight of stairs, and breaking his wrist -- can’t get it up for her ministrations. 

This valedictory moment is important because like the earlier scenes set in the motel room, the subject is sex, and how sex can be used by the strong to victimize the weak. In this case, it turns out that the guy who wanted to have group sex so badly isn’t actually in the mood for sex when the tables are violently turned on him.  What a surprise.  Nobody likes to have control taken away, and in some sense that’s the lesson of this first tale.

Second Honeymoon”

The sophomore sortie in V/H/S comes from director Ti West.  I’m an avowed admirer of West because of his impressive horror films House of the Devil (2008) and The Innkeepers (2012).  His story here takes a decidedly different approach than you might expect after the “Amateur Night” gore-fest, and it concerns a young couple on a road trip.

All throughout the story, there are small signs that Sam and Stephanie aren’t really getting along, and aren’t particularly happy. But what I appreciate about this story is how little is actually revealed through dialogue or action.  Most of the frissons are unspoken, or unremarked upon. We just get little things to cue us in that things are not right, like a discussion in which Sam accuses Stephanie of stealing money from his wallet.

It’s not a portrait of marital bliss, but if you’re not paying attention, you won’t pick up the clues of discontent, either. Like much of West’s work, there’s a high degree of nuance here.

“Second Honeymoon” is the probably the least overtly horrific of all the segments in V/H/S, but something about the human drama between Sam and Stephanie really resonates.  Like “Amateur Night,” the story involves how people set out to hurt other people, often with intricate strategies to do so. The terror escalates from mischievous (a nasty gag involving a tooth brush...) to bloody murder.

I can’t take sides in the dispute we see prosecuted in “Second Honeymoon,” but there are, of course, better ways to end a marriage.

“Tuesday the 17th

I imagine that if Cabin in the Woods (2012) hadn’t also premiered this year, many horror fans might be lauding this V/H/S segment for the way it catalogs and re-purposes horror movie clichés.  It plays roughly the same game as Whedon’s film, but boasts the added benefit of actually being scary. 

In this case, a girl who was previously attacked by a Jason Voorhees-type slasher figure, returns to the woods where she was originally hunted (and escaped).  Once there, she intentionally smokes weed and courts pre-marital sex to lure him out, essentially recognizing the old “vice-precedes slice-and-dice” scenario.

The only problem in her plan, of course, is that to lure the strange killer back into the open, Wendy needs human bait.  And thus she willingly offers up three friends -- or pseudo-friends, I suppose -- as chum.  The story thus functions on a post-modern level, recognizing and mocking elements of the slasher movie lexicon while simultaneously offering a further variation on V/H/S’s theme about how people are cruel to one another for their own selfish purposes.

One of the elements that makes “Tuesday the 17th” an especially effective horror story is the visual presentation of the Jason-like killer.  For some reason, he never appears clearly on the video tape. 

Instead, he’s a creeping, darting, sometimes-invisible visual “distortion,” and this unusual appearance is genuinely fear-provoking.  This character might be worthy of a horror franchise all on his own…but he also suggests something about silver-screen boogeymen.  With their fearsome powers (and canny ability to be at the right place at the right time), they don't quite adhere to reality.  Therefore, reality can't register them.

“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger”

Punctuated by a number of jump scares, the fourth tale in V/H/S really seems to be a comment on domestic abuse and spousal exploitation.  

A kind, sweet girl named Emily faces night after night of confrontations with the ghost-like figures of malevolent children.  Her boyfriend thinks she is crazy -- even when he sees evidence of the ghouls -- and doesn’t come to her aid.

I don’t want to reveal the punch-line or surprise ending, but you may have guessed that all is not as it seems, and that there is a conspiracy (a la Rosemary’s Baby [1968]) to keep Emily firmly trapped in this cycle of nightly abuse.

Again, I don’t want to belabor the people-hurting-people-and-then-recording it aspect of these stories, but suffice it to say that “The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” fits in with the film’s leitmotif.  Visually, the story plays like a combination of the Paranormal Activity series and the Japanese water girl horror movement.

I should also add, perhaps, that my wife found this segment the most disturbing and frightening of the five stories. 

As for me, that honor goes to…


I can see why the filmmakers left this story for last.  

It’s a harrowing, effects-heavy tale about lost trick-or-treaters who end up in a House of the Devil-type scenario, almost literally trying to outrun the Devil. 

I found this story absolutely spell-binding, in part because the protagonists violate the movie’s established character “type” up to that point.  They are not miscreants, exploiters or manipulators.  They are not murderers, either.  Instead, they are just average Joes who end up in the wrong house on the wrong night and are faced with a moral crisis. 

Should they rescue the girl they find in the attic, or just get the hell out?

What I enjoyed so much about this story is that it best gets at the idea of life unfolding around you spontaneously, and in front of the camera.  In other words, our characters walk headlong into situations they don’t understand, and have no frame of reference for any understanding.  Are the men torturing the girl upstairs actually devil worshipers? Or are they performing an exorcism?  Is the girl an innocent child being exploited (thus keeping with the people-hurting-people leitmotif) or possessed by a horrible demon?

The guys who blunder into this situation have no time to determine the truth.  But -- heroically -- they act on gut instincts and attempt to rescue the girl before getting the hell out of that damned house.

And damned house is an apt description. 

As the visitors attempt to flee, monstrous arms lunge out of walls, doorways reshape into solid walls, and other surreal terrors ensue.  In all my years reviewing horror movies, I’ve rarely seen a story more viscerally present a human vs. the Devil clash, with the Devil holding all the cards.  This story is genuinely terrifying, a cinema-verite-styled nightmare. Accordingly, “10/31/98” ends V/H/S on an adrenaline rush of anxiety, giggles, and outright terror.

As you probably remember, I’m a long-time admirer of the found footage approach to horror films, and here that approach does the seemingly impossible: it raises the moribund genre form of the anthology from the grave. 

Together, the stories all carry an umbrella of unity thanks to the theme I’ve mentioned above, but also in terms of consistent visual approach.  This is quite an accomplishment, considering the diversity of the tales, from supernatural horror (“Amateur Night”), to psychological thriller and intrigue (“Second Honeymoon”) to post-modern meta-horror (“Tuesday the 17th.”)  A lot of ground gets covered in terms of the genre, and none of it feels like a stretch, or out of place.

In most anthologies there’s also stinker story or two weighting down the whole, but V/H/S is rock solid in that regard, and ends on a high note of horror.  V/H/S is America’s Scariest Home Videos.