Saturday, March 15, 2014
My latest article is up at Anorak, and it covers one of my obsessions: found-footage horror movies.
As readers of the blog know, I've been really taken with this sub-genre, and the inventive twists that many directors have managed within the confines of the formula. In this article, I gaze at five films which, while not well-reviewed, nonetheless boast some real merit.
Here's a snippet of "Their Last Known Photograph: Five Found-Footage Horror Movies that Deserve a Second Look:"
THE found-footage horror film genre is one that isn’t often appreciated. The late Roger Ebert himself once wrote that movies of this type often consist of “low quality home video footage,” are “usually under-lit,” are “lacking in pacing” and seem “intentionally hard to comprehend.”
Indeed, there seems to be the pervasive misconception that a found-footage horror movie is somehow easy to shoot and produce. You don’t need a star, for example, or much of a budget either, to make such a film. You don’t even need expensive equipment.
All an intrepid film crew needs is a good concept, and a whole lot of shakin.’
None of this is true.
A good found-footage horror film — while cut-off in large part from the elegance, structure, and language of traditional film grammar — nonetheless has its merits.
For one thing, found-footage films ramp-up the experiential or immersing aspects of the genre. The hand-held camera-work provokes a brand of immediacy and urgency that other horror sub-genres can’t necessarily emulate.
Horror movies in general concern situations that are impossible to escape, set in isolated locations. The found-footage genre runs with this idea, landing its stars in frightening landscapes and then charting a kind of pressure-cooker intensity as terror boils over.
For another thing, the compositions in found-footage films must appear spontaneous and on-the-fly, all while simultaneously capturing crucial action. This balancing act requires quite a bit of legerdemain.
A unique development of cinema-verite documentary techniques, the found-footage horror film thus requires patient preparation of shots, split-second timing, long takes, and a certain brand of non-theatrical or “naturalistic” performance that not every actor can easily master.
The overt critical dislike and disregard for the found-footage genre reminds me very much of the critical hand-wringing that occurred in the 1980s over the slasher movie formula, or in the mid-2000s over so-called “torture porn.”
Basically, movie critics are always finding some reason to object to horror’s latest trend, even as audiences are ahead of the curve, and excavating reasons to appreciate the new format.
In short, a good found-footage film — such as the genre’s classic, The Blair Witch Project (1999) — isn’t just a case of point-and-run film-making. In The Blair Witch, for instance, artistry can be detected in the escalation of the film’s throat-tightening terror, and there is even a clever sub-text about the camera operating as a “filter” that occludes reality.
The found-footage film genre has many undisputed highs, from [REC] (2007) to Trollhunter (2008), but the five found-footage horror films featured below have generally been dismissed by critics, even though they possess abundant virtues not necessarily associated with this derided sub-genre.
In “Portal into Time,” Thundarr, Ookla and Ariel are in the process of establishing a camp for the night when they notice ancient war machines closing on a small nearby fort: the Alamo!
A group of humans are living in the pre-holocaust structure, but have been besieged by a wizard named Crom.
Until now, the humans have been able to defend themselves using an ancient computer known as the Guardian, but the machine is malfunctioning and needs a new circuit-breaker. The only place -- or time -- to acquire such a device is the 20th century.
Using Crom’s time machine -- a “moon dial” – Thundarr, Ariel and Ookla travel back in time to the Guardian Computer Company. They are aided in their recovery efforts by a little girl, Samantha, who takes the trio to her house.
There, Ookla enjoys cookies and television…
Finally, however, it is time for the new battle of the Alamo, and Thundarr and his friends return home with the circuit breaker, so the Guardian can dispatch the villainous Crom and his minions.
“Portal into Time” is a fun episode of Thundarr the Barbarian, and it offers some nice and welcome variations on the standard formula.
Here, the three protagonists travel through time and experience the strangeness of 20th Century life. Thundarr is baffled by a door knob-lock, and Oookla is unsettled by a TV program featuring a clown.
The best moment involves Thundarr sizing up an escalator and concluding that it is a “trap.” Fortunately, Ariel sets him straight. “No, it’s just an escalator,” she replies.
Given such banter, it’s clear that “Portal into Time” is a fish-out-of-water story, and not a bad one at that.
In fact, “Portal into Time” boasts a very good sense of humor, and that isn’t exactly typical of the straight-forward fantasy series.
I also enjoyed the fact that this episode is set at the Alamo…only 2,000 years in the future. The site is famous for one hopeless battle, but Thundarr keeps it from experiencing the same fate.
“We just won the Battle of the Alamo,” Ariel deadpans…and she’s right.
Finally, an in-joke: fans of Conan the Barbarian may note that the wizard’s name in this episode is apparently “Crom,” which also happens to be the name of the deity of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age.
Next week: “Battle of the Barbarians.”
Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost (1991 - 1992): "Annie in Charge" (November 7, 1992)
In “Annie in Charge,” the Porters learn that termites are decimating the support logs for the family tree house. Kevin and Mr. Porter head into the jungle to get more wood, leaving Annie in charge on the home front.
Unfortunately, Kevin and Mr. Porter experience amnesia after being exposed to a future cyborg’s toxic nerve gas.
When the same cyborg captures Christa and drags her inside the craft, it’s up to Annie -- still in charge -- to save the day. Her only weapon is Tasha’s horrible singing voice…
“Annie in Charge” is that old TV standby, the amnesia story.
This familiar tale has been featured in many cult-television series including The Adventures of Superman (“Panic in the Sky”), Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Conundrum”) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Tabula Rasa.”)
In stories of this type, protagonists unexpectedly succumb to amnesia, forgetting their identities, and facing a crisis without benefit of personal experience.
In this case, Mr. Porter and Kevin don’t remember who they are, where they are, or even who Annie is. The episode resolves a bit anemically when the amnesia simply “passes” and everything is back to normal again. Not even a mallet to the skull is required, alas…
The other plot strand in this episode involves, as per the title, Annie, and her experience taking care of Tasha and Stink and rescuing Kevin and Mr. Porter. The episode starts out by showing Annie as a wee bit power hungry. “Chop, chop!” she shouts, acting the role of drill sergeant, as a drum riff is heard on the soundtrack.
But once real danger is in the offing, Annie devises a plan to outsmart the cyborg and rescue Christa, using Tasha as a (very loud…) distraction.
Although not as weak as some episodes of the new Land of the Lost (1991 – 1992), “Annie in Charge” raises more questions than it answers.
For instance, how did the Cyborg (first seen in “Future Boy”) manage to survive his plunge off a mountain top?
Secondly, if his spaceship is here – and we see it in this episode – then how come the Porters don’t try to commandeer it and escape? Wouldn’t they at least want to get inside?
Finally, “Annie in Charge” finishes up with no mention of the termite problem, or the effort to replace the tree house’s support logs. It’s as if the whole thing never happened.
Still, in total, this is a harmless if undistinguished segment.
Next week, things take a turn for the worse with: “Make My Day”
Friday, March 14, 2014
“To Serve Man” remains one of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes ever broadcast.
Everyone remembers the tale’s unforgettable punch-line: “it’s a cook book!!!” But by the same token, it’s easy to forget what a sturdy, brilliantly-constructed episode it is.
Based on a 1950 short-story by Damon Knight (1922 – 2002), “To Serve Man” features a flashback structure.
From his room (or cell…) on a spaceship in flight, an American man named Chambers (Lloyd Bochner) recounts how alien Kanamits (Richard Kiel) came to Earth promising friendship and peace, but actually executed an insidious and secret agenda.
Chambers explains how the alien spaceships were first seen over many cities across the globe, and how the U.N. Secretary General welcomed the aliens, with some reservations.
But the 9-foot tall Kanamits promised peace and honorable intentions. They planned to transform Earth into a veritable paradise by offering economical new power sources, and radically improving means of agriculture. And if humans didn’t want their help, the aliens promised that “nothing would be forced” upon them.
All the while, Chambers worked on translating an alien book that one Kanamit representative left behind at the U.N.
The deciphered title?
To Serve Man.
Over the months, Chambers toiled further on the extra-terrestrial book even as excited humans boarded Kanamit spaceships and headed to the distant home-world for vacations, shopping excursions, and guided tours.
Chambers then decided to go on one such visit for himself.
But before he left -- right as he was boarding a saucer in fact – Chambers’ assistant discovered a terrible secret.
To Serve Man was a cook-book…
Much of “To Serve Man” appears to concern humanity’s short-sightedness.
Chambers regrets that the human race should have been focusing on the “calendar” and not the “clock” while contending with the Kanamits.
He states that humans should more often be worried about “tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow.”
This is a universal real-life refrain, certainly, in regards to man’s stewardship of the environment, and even his foreign policy principles.
Too often, it seems, we are focused on crisis-management and dealing with what is right in front of our face, rather than planning for the looming disaster just around the next curve.
Here, humanity is taken in by the Kanamit promises of a brave new world, and immediate gratification too.
“It was the age of Santa Claus,” Chambers notes with cynicism.
In other words, because things seem to be good at present, humans don’t look beyond that “shiny” surface to the future. In “To Serve Man,” no one really examines the alien race’s long-term motivations for fundamentally transforming the Earth.
In this case, the Kanamits end war (with the creation of national force-fields…), hunger, and poverty…but for the express purpose of growing and fattening the herd.
Clearly, given the episode’s prominence in the pop-culture, “To Serve Man’s” most memorable moment arises when the other shoe drops.
Chambers assistant tells him that “To Serve Man” is a cook-book. And then he is forced on the ship anyway…by a hulking Kanamit.
In that moment, Chambers learns that mankind has gone from “being ruler of a planet to an ingredient in someone’s soup.”
“Sooner or later,” notes Chambers caustically “we’re all of us on the menu.”
This week, I’ve been writing about some of the inspirations or antecedents for the V franchise.
Yesterday, I remembered It Can’t Happen Here, about the fictional rise of fascism in America.
It’s clear that “To Serve Man” represents a different part of the V equation.
Like the Visitors in V, the Kanamits of “To Serve Man” come to Earth in flying saucers, take their case to the United Nations, and promise the Earth they have arrived as “friends.”
Also like the Visitors, the Kanamits offer to advance Earth science, while boasting secret motives. As Chambers says here, “therein hangs the tale…”
In both cases, the aliens establish “embassies in every country,” and wish to use human beings as a food source.
In some sense, however, the Visitors of V are even more deceptive than the Kanamits because they also lie about their physical appearance.
The Kanamits don’t cloak their alien-ness in human guise. The Visitors try to fool us by acting just like us, by blending in with humanity.
The Visitors, as we learn in V, also possess another dark agenda: they are stealing Earth’s water supply because they have depleted their own.
“To Serve Man” doesn’t really reveal much detail or background information about the Kanamits. We don’t know if there is famine on their world…only that we are their latest smorgasbord, and that they have been to other worlds…and done the same thing before.
And, I suppose, we know that their name -- Kanamit -- isn’t far from our word “cannibal.”
The brilliance of V, I would assert, is the creative melding of the “To Serve Man” extra-terrestrial prototype with the politics of It Can’t Happen Here.
If “To Serve Man” is all about man’s short-sightedness, V is about his ability to adapt and serve a cause that is the antithesis of what he actually desires: freedom.
Next on The Visitors are Coming (on Monday afternoon): Shadow on the Land (1968).
On a purely surface level, the science-fiction/horror film Event Horizon (1997) is a sturdy amalgamation of familiar imagery from the cinema’s storied past and traditions.
The film’s central visual of a haunted spaceship extruding blood by the gallon seems to emerge from a similar image (of an evil hotel elevator…) in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), for instance.
Meanwhile, the notion of an inscrutable -- and unseen -- alien entity manifesting living “guests” from the memories of bewildered human beings deliberately evokes memories of Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Solaris (1972).
And certainly -- with doorways to Hell opening and closing willy-nilly, and one character’s transformation (or degradation…) into the Devil’s inquisitor -- there seem to be powerful echoes of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) evident here as well.
Ultimately, however, the familiarity of these images does subtract one iota from the film’s thematic coherence or its success as a compelling work of art.
On the contrary, these visuals are carefully marshaled by director Paul Anderson to convey the film’s overriding theme: Catholic guilt.
Specifically, at least three main characters in Event Horizon suffer from feelings of intense guilt about their past behavior.
I call it Catholic guilt because that’s an easy and familiar short-hand for many of us. Explicitly speaking, Catholic guilt arises from one’s knowledge of personal wrong-doing. It is felt by all people, however, who are intelligent and insightful enough to realize that they have committed moral trespasses.
The key aspect that makes this guilt “Catholic,” perhaps, is the knowledge that Jesus died for man’s sins, and yet in sinning again, we betray that merciful act. In sinning, we waste the greatest gift it is possible to receive.
Accordingly, those who suffer with the weight of guilt must decide how to harness and re-purpose their feelings. Knowledge of guilt can lead to great acts…or merely deeper shame.
That is the key leitmotif of Event Horizon.
There are two men -- mirror images -- in the film, who choose to succumb to darkness, but do so for utterly different reasons, and with very different objectives.
One succumbs as a direct, nihilistic renunciation of faith and goodness, and the other does so as an affirmative act; one of both a self-punishment and self-sacrifice.
Given this theme, Event Horizon is brilliantly constructed -- from sets and dialogue, to camera compositions and special effects -- as a direct expression of Catholicism, and specifically the harsh Catholicism of the Middle Ages.
“God help us.”
In 2047 AD, a small search and rescue ship, Lewis and Clark -- under command of Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) -- is dispatched to Neptune to respond to a distress call from a vessel that has been missing for seven years: Event Horizon.
Aboard the Lewis and Clark is one passenger, Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill).
He is the scientist who designed Event Horizon, and he reports to the crew that it was a prototype with a “gravity drive,” an engine that could fold space-time by opening a doorway between dimensions.
After a rocky ride to Event Horizon, the crew of Lewis and Clark explores the derelict ship.
Lt. Starck (Joely Richardson) is perplexed by the fact that her scanners keep picking up trace life-forms on the ship, but at no specific location. It’s as though the whole ship is a life-form.
The ship’s doctor, Peters (Kathleen Quinlan), meanwhile, discovers carnage on the long-missing vessel’s bridge. All the crew died, and in grievously bloody circumstances.
Worse, Engineer Justin (Jack Noseworthy) explores the engineering section of the ship, and is pulled into a dark black vortex at the gravity drive site. He returns from his visit to the “other place’ in a state of shock and catatonia.
Although Weir insists the gravity drive could not have activated itself, Captain Miller begins to grow suspicious of the ship…especially after he sees a strange specter, himself: a burning man from his past.
While technician Cooper (Richard T. Jones) attempts to repair the Lewis and Clark, which was damaged when the gravity drive was apparently activated, the remainder of the ship’s crew starts seeing additional hallucinations.
Weir keeps seeing his wife, who committed suicide in a bath tub.
And Peters repeatedly sees phantasms of her crippled young son, whom she left at home on Earth.
The burning man witnessed by Miller is also someone from a personal and shameful past: an officer whom the captain was forced to leave behind in a catastrophe.
Soon another horror occurs.
The captain’s log is re-activated, and Miller’s crew sees the Event Horizon crew going mad…totally insane. The crew’s bizarre and violent behavior leads Dr. Weir to conclude that when it activated the gravity drive, Event Horizon entered a dimension of pure chaos and pure evil…Hell itself.
Now, the ship wants a new crew.
Miller hatches a strategy to destroy Event Horizon and return home, but first must contend with a demonic Weir, a man who has willingly given himself to the dark…
“It knows my fears. It knows my secrets.”
The men and women depicted throughout Event Horizon are all facing a very specific Monster from the Id: guilt.
First and foremost, Dr. Weir is ravaged by his feelings of guilt. When we first meet the character, he is alone in his quarters on a space station, and he looks longingly at a shrine he has set up to his dead wife.
He tenderly touches a photograph of her, and says aloud “I miss you.”
This opening sequence brilliantly telegraphs -- without overtly stating it -- the motivations for Weir’s intense guilt.
We see him use the rest room, and shave his face. But while he is shaving, his gaze wanders irrevocably over to the bath-tub, where water is dripping ever so slowly.
Then he stares at the straight razor in his hands…just inches from his own neck.
With no dialogue or weighty exposition, these visuals immediately convey the connection between objects. We understand instantly that Weir’s wife took her own life, and that, in some way, Weir feels responsible for her final, monstrous act.
Later, we learn more. When Weir sees the ghost of his wife, she is still nude, and bearing the wounds of her death in the tub. Weir tells her “I know I wasn’t there when you needed me. I let my work come between us.”
The source of Weir’s intense guilt is that he never helped his wife. He never went to her when she was hurting, when she needed him. And worse: he knew she needed him.
But Weir wanted to continue working (presumably on Event Horizon). In a very real sense, then, the ship is a child of their failed marriage, a product of his decision to remain away from her. It is his sin personified, and a haunted expression of his guilt.
Weir is tortured by his failure to save his wife, and he experiences visions of her in the “deep cold” of the gravity couch, even before returning to Event Horizon. She speaks words to him that she also no doubt said in real life: “I’m so alone.”
This is the call for help Weir willfully ignored.
She also says words that indicate her suffering has not ended, even in death. “Billy, I’m so cold…”
Late in the film, Weir is forced to relive his wife’s suicide in the bath-tub, and perhaps this is the final reckoning for him.
Instead of continuing to resist the darkness, or finding a constructive way to contend with his guilt, Weir surrenders to it. He gives over to it.
Weir realizes that his sin can’t be forgiven, and that he is truly a terrible sinner. When Miller tells him they must go home, Weir responds that he is already home. He believes he belongs in Hell…or at least aboard the physical manifestation of his sin, the Event Horizon.
In essence then, Weir doubles-down on his feelings of Catholic Guilt, and is not able to erect something constructive from his emotions or feelings. When his wife implores “Be with me…forever,” Weir consigns himself to damnation. He believes that’s what he deserves.
Captain Miller is the second character in the film suffering explicitly from terrible guilt.
He keeps seeing phantasms of a man named Corrick, a crewman whom he left behind to die in a fire.
Corrick’s death has haunted Miller in the same way that Weir’s wife’s suicide has haunted the good doctor. Miller has closed off all of his emotions and humanity, and become a sort of military martinet, one who shows no humanity towards his crew, and yet worries about them incessantly.
He can’t lose another one. That’s his worst fear: reliving the pain and the ensuing guilt.
Accordingly, the evil ship manifests the monster from Miller’s id. The burning man -- Corrick -- appears to Miller and begs him “Captain, don’t leave me…”
However, Miller finally does something that Weir never manages: he confesses his guilt. The captain tells one of his crew-members, Smith (Sean Pertwee) the entire story:
“I did the only thing I could. I closed the lifeboat hatch…and I left him.” Miller reveals.
Importantly, it is after this confession of sin and recognition of guilt that Miller starts to take away Event Horizon’s power over him.
The ship knows his “fears” and “secrets,” but now at least one member of his crew does so as well. With his options for survival narrowed, Miller makes a selfless decision (and one that honors Christ’s choice to “save” mankind): He remains on Event Horizon to stop Weir so that Starck, Cooper and Justin can live.
In essence, Miller gives his life for theirs, and thus exorcises his demon, his guilt. By staying behind, and making certain that his crew survives, Miller may go to a dimension of literal damnation, but there is little doubt that he has saved his soul.
Peters is the third major character who suffers from Catholic Guilt in Event Horizon. She was called back onto active duty for the search-and-rescue mission, and had to leave her young, badly-crippled son behind on Earth with her husband.
It is clear that Peters feels she abandoned her child, and early in the film we see her watching home-video footage of the sick boy.
Once aboard Event Horizon, the ship manifests Peters’ son (though he is actually still alive, on Earth), and her feelings of guilt go into overdrive. She sees him, in particular, as sick and vulnerable.
Then, at the very moment Peters should be trying to escape the ship, she takes a wrong turn instead. She goes the wrong way…pursuing the phantasm of her boy instead of her own survival. It is as if she wants the boy to forgive her, to negate her feelings of guilt. Instead, he leads her to her death.
Peters’ fate is a demonstration of the fact that guilt -- while sometimes useful -- can also lead one astray, or down blind alleys.
Even a fourth character – a supporting one -- Justin also makes some key references to guilt in Event Horizon.
When he awakens after his journey to “the Other Place” (Hell…), Justin notes that it showed him “the dark place inside” himself, and that seems a veritable definition of how guilt feels.
“It shows you horrible things,” he adds, but importantly, all those horrible things are inside him, and that too defines guilt well: the internal memory of bad deeds committed.
In keeping with the overarching concept of guilt, Event Horizon is dominated by Catholic imagery and allusions. For example, the exterior of the malevolent spaceship -- when seen from precisely the right angle -- resembles a high-tech crucifix.
Worse, if inverted it could be interpreted as an upside-down crucifix, suggesting the Hellish nature of the thing. It is a place of sin and guilt made flesh.
At least one window at the fore of the ship, on the bridge, likewise resembles a crucifix.
In an unforgettable composition from the film’s opening act, a dead human figure floats weightlessly before such a window, his arms outstretched in a Christ-on-the-cross pose. He has been crucified for his sins, and left for dead.
Similarly, much of the interior of the haunted old ship deliberately reflects the Gothic architecture of European cathedrals, right down to the frequent appearance of arches.
The main hallway connecting forward life boat and rear propulsion section is but a series of ridged, pointed arches, for example.
Even the ship’s airlocks are labeled rather unconventionally with Medieval Roman numerals. Although invented, of course, in Ancient Rome, these numbers were also used extensively in the Middle Ages in a regnal fashion…to denote the reigns/identities of Popes, and national rulers.
And when Weir re-appears one last time for the film’s final sting, just look at his attire. He wears a space helmet that resembles something out of the Spanish Inquisition, the tribunal tasked with maintaining Catholic orthodoxy.
In popular culture, the Inquisition has come to symbolize intolerance or a capricious, arbitrary justice. In Event Horizon, the guilty Weir becomes the chief inquisitor of the ship itself -- the chief torturer – and so the helmet seems appropriate.
Further intimating Catholicism, the first message received from Event Horizon upon her return to our universe from Hell is spoken in Latin, like the liturgy of the Mass.
The words are: “liberate tutame ex infernis.”
The translation is literally “Save me from Hell.”
As I’ve written before, I believe that a movie reaches its apex of artistry when form and content intermingle meaningfully. In Event Horizon, the idea of Catholic guilt informs several characters, and the film’s singular, horrifying setting -- a haunted, Catholic spaceship, essentially -- visualizes their strife and turmoil, reflecting the nature of their conflict.
It is also significant that so many figures in the film lose their eyes -- or gouge them out -- from Weir and his wife to Justin and the original Event Horizon crew.
The idea seems to be that if you can cut out your eyes (the window to the soul?) you can't see your guilt anymore. You can't recognize it.
Of course, that isn't true. Guilt isn't about something external that you can look away from. It's an internal quality of the mind that is always there, even with your eyes shut, even without eyes at all.
There are those who will gaze at this film and see only the visual quotations, the many resonances of popular culture or the horror genre. They are present, to be certain.
However, Event Horizon travels some distance beyond mere homage to cogently express its riveting (and frequently grotesque…) tale of guilt and regret, damnation, and salvation.
The film serves as a brilliant "yang" to the "yin" of another 1997 genre film, Contact. The light, new age mysticism of that Jodie Foster movie contrasts very strongly with the heavy, almost dungeon-like Medieval exterior and interior architecture of Event Horizon.
Both films concern "portals" that open to other dimensions, and reveal something of human spirituality. Here, many of the discoveries are dark ones, but Miller's sacrifice, while grim, is a positive takeaway.
Hell is just a word, as Dr. Weir notes here, but Event Horizon visualizes the grim reality of that word in ways that are unforgettable, horrifying, and, finally, aesthetically coherent.
Thursday, March 13, 2014
YEAH! TV is kicking off a month-long celebration of Spinal Tap's thirtieth anniversary.
The site is hosting a special version of the movie with new commentary by director Rob Reiner, and with some other special features as well.
One web feature is "From AC/DC to Zombie," a treasure trove of appreciation or tribute for the world's loudest band by some of the most famous rockers on the planet.
Among those talking about Spinal Tap on the tribute page: Meat Loaf, Chris McCready, Dave Mustaine, Dave Navarro, and Rob Zombie.
And also..yours truly. Yep, I'm in there too.
So if you get the chance, celebrate "Stonehenge," "Big Bottom," "Sex Farm" and thirty years of Spinal Tap with YEAH!.
Last but not least, be sure check out my book about the making of the film: Music on Film: This is Spinal Tap.