Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What Needs Does He Serve By Killing? The Tao of Hannibal Lecter

In the impressive anthology Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror, author and co-editor Daniel Shaw opines in his essay "The Mastery of Hannibal Lecter" that Hannibal the Cannibal (Anthony Hopkins) "is one of the most powerful human characters in the history of horror" and that this is "the primary reason why we are so drawn to him." (Scarecrow Press, 2003, page 11.)

That is no doubt an accurate observation, and so today I want to gaze into the eyes and heart of this popular silver screen villain and see -- to paraphrase the good Dr Lecter -- "what is it in itself?" about him that makes Lecter so powerful a force in our psyches.

"What is his nature? What does he do...?"

The first thing to consider, perhaps, is the context from which Thomas Harris's Dr. Lecter sprang. The character -- a serial killer -- was created in the early 1980s (in the novel Red Dragon), but gained wider prominence after the release of Jonathan Demme's 1991 seminal (and oft-imitated) The Silence of the Lambs.

In other words, Hannibal "rose" in the American pop culture during the very epoch that the public was developing a deeper awareness both of the real life serial killer and the tools which could be used to catch this strange predator -- the tools of Forensic Science.

"Hannibal the Cannibal" entered the Cinematic Bogeyman Hall of Fame, for instance, not long after Ted Bundy was executed in Florida, and in the very year that Jeffrey Dahmer was apprehended, 1991.

In terms of other cultural influences, best-selling
author Patricia Cornwell, a medical examiner in Richmond, penned the Kay Scarpetta novels (Post-Mortem [1990], and Body of Evidence [1991], for example). Cornwell’s literary work focused on a new kind of contemporary detective, one who could scour a victim’s corpse and pinpoint concrete evidence about the identity of the killer based on skin or hair fragments, semen samples, or DNA evidence. Forget crucifixes, prayer or arcane exorcism rituals, the key to exorcising serial killers from our culture rested in the law-enforcement deployment of behavioral science (psychology) and forensic pathology.

So clearly, Lecter appeared in The Silence of the Lambs at exactly the right time. But that serendipity alone doesn't explain the character's ongoing popularity, appeal and fame nearly twenty years later. To comprehend that, we must indeed understand "what he does," or more accurately, "how he does it." So, without further ado, I present the most important components of "The Tao of Hannibal Lecter."

1.) He Mostly Kills The Rude (Or, he operates by his own sense of morality).

Unlike many of the slasher bogeymen popular in the 1980s, Hannibal is not an indiscriminate killer. He isn't a berserker with a machete.

On the contrary, Hannibal selects his victims very carefully. He kills them because they have violated some code of behavior that he cherishes; and that personal code has something to do with...courtesy.

In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal is directly responsible for the death of another inmate, Migs, who tossed a handful of his semen at Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as she was leaving the cell block. Migs actions were disgusting and rude. They showed no respect for Clarice (and no chivalry, either) and so Migs violated Lecter's powerful sense of decorum. Lecter killed Migs by verbally upbraiding the man all night...until he swallowed his own tongue.

Similarly, In Hannibal, Clarice's F.B.I superior, Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) manufactures false evidence against Starling, another violation of chivalry and decorum, and makes it appear to her superiors as though she is having an illicit, romantic relationship with Lecter. Again, Lecter strikes back at the man for his moral trespass. Specifically, Hannibal cooks Paul's brain and feeds it to him. But not before reminding him, "I hate rude people."

Lecter's treatment of Mason Verger (a convicted child molester) is very much in the same mold. Lecter realizes that the man is a monster, and then sees to it that the man cuts off his own face. "Try peeling off your face and feeding it to the dogs," he suggests, while Verger is hepped up on drugs. Then, he hands Verger a shard of broken glass.

Again, Hannibal's official, appropriate capacity here is as Verger's court-ordered psychologist...but Lecter detected a "higher" morality he could serve and did not wait for society to punish (or possibly not punish...) Verger. He did it himself.

In Hannibal Rising (2007), the audience witnesses an early example of Hannibal's sense of chivalry and moral code. A fat butcher (Charles Maquignon) insults Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), young Hannibal's lovely ward. The butcher's insult is sexual in nature (involving the shape and form of her genitals) and unforgivably crude. So Hannibal bides his time...then strikes back with a vengeance: gutting the butcher with a samurai sword, and then decapitating him.

The real problem with Hannibal Lecter, as Will Graham points out to the good doctor in Red Dragon, is simply that he is insane. Lecter's moral barometer is off the mark at times, and this fact makes the killer an unpredictable monster. For instance, Lecter famously killed an untalented flutist (and then served his corpse to the symphony board members...), but a poor performance (or even a series of poor performances...) hardly feels like an adequate justification for murder. Similarly, that census taker whose liver Hannibal ate (with a nice chianti and some fava beans...) could only have been so obnoxious, right?

In other words, Hannibal Lecter remains terrifying because the filmmakers (and Hopkins) allow us a glimpse of his moral code and justifications for murder, but not an ironclad, black-and-white understanding. Also, Hannibal brooks no interference over issues such as his personal freedom (as a few unlucky Tennessee police officers learn the hard way in Lambs). This means that Hannibal will always be at odds with characters like Clarice, and thus always a menace.

Still -- in broad strokes -- we can see that Hannibal punishes the morally corrupt who, for one reason or another, have escaped justice. He kills all the men who murdered his sister, Misha, in Hannibal Rising, destroys corrupt figures representing authority/the establishment (Krendler, Pazzi and Dr. Chilton), punishes rudeness (Migs) and, essentially, rewards politeness.

2.) He Appreciates The Finer Things (and Admires Beauty)

Hannibal Lecter is no mad-dog killer. He boasts a keen intellect, and is thus able to contextualize himself and his life in terms of literature, music, art and history.

In Hannibal, the serial killer presents in Florence a meticulous lecture on the work and life of Dante Alighieri, for instance.

In The Silence of the Lambs, we see his beautiful paintings of Florence in his cell, too. He isn't a dabbler...he's an artist and a scholar.

Hannibal admires physical beauty as well, particularly in women such as Lady Muraski and Clarice Starling. So much so, in fact, that Lecter is unwilling to corrupt such ideal beauty with his own hand.

At the conclusion of Hannibal, the cannibal half-heartedly makes a sexual pass at Clarice (Julianne Moore), aware that she will deny him; and more so that he wants her to deny him. She represents an ideal for him: an ideal of incorruptibility. And in denying his advances, Clarice passes Hannibal's test. (This is quite different than in Harris's novel, Hannibal, by the way, wherein Clarice and Hannibal run away lovers.)

It's odd to write these words of a serial killer, but Hannibal -- as a character and fright icon -- boasts clear aesthetic, intellectual and interpersonal standards, and in the tabloid, gutter culture of the 1990s (the era of The Jenny Jones Show, Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer), that was something that many people came to miss.

Also, it's critical to note here something else about Lecter's nature as a Renaissance man. Historically-speaking, the slashers of the early 1980s morphed into the rubber reality killers of the latter part of the decade: all-powerful supernatural forces like Freddy or Pinhead.

Arguably, Hannibal Lecter remains as frightening as either of those two silver screen bogeymen, yet there's an important distinction: he is grounded entirely in reality. To make Hannibal appear formidable the makers of the Lecter films (Ridley Scott, Jonathan Demme, Brett Ratner, Peter Webber) could not rely on the supernatural elements that built up Freddy, Pinhead, or even Candyman.

Instead, they presented a human character possessing full control of his psyche, in full control of his body, who -- simply put -- was smarter and more deadly than anyone else he might happen to share a room with. Hannibal is thus an unusual mixture of the best in us and the worst in human nature. He loves art and literature, but uses his knowledge of it to commit murder. He understands the human mind, yet uses that understanding to hurt others. He can paint a delicate, beautiful landscape...and then turn around and bludgeon a man to death. Hannibal is a gourmet cook...and a cannibal. He has achieved more than most men have in a lifetime...and yet Lecter is a monster.

3.) He Lets the Punishment Fit the Crime

Hannibal's moral code or sense of justice is not arbitrary or capricious. When this madman commits murder, the punishment fits the crime, at least, again, for the most part.

For instance, in Hannibal, Lecter makes certain that Inspector Francesco Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), -- who has accepted a three million dollar award for Hannibal's capture -- dies according to the traditional, historical method of those who have been avaricious: hanging.

Before he kills Pazzi, Hannibal informs the detective that avarice and hanging were linked in Medieval times. He then proceeds to hang poor Pazzi in the tradition of the detective's ill-fated ancestor. Hannibal then throws in a little disembowelment for good measure...

Paul's punishment -- seeing his own brain eaten -- goes back to Hannibal's considerable knowledge of Dante Aligheri. In The Inferno, in the second lowest circle of Hell, there were two men depicted there: Ugolino and Ruggiero. Ugolino was seen eating the skull of his betrayer, Ruggiero, and this ring of Hell was explicitly reserved for those guilty of treachery (against country, family, benefactors, etc.). Hannibal -- an expert in Dante -- no doubt saw Paul's betrayal of Clarice (his "kin" in the F.B.I.) as the sin for which he was to be punished. He picked a literary punishment that fit the specifics of the transgression.

In Hannibal Rising, a film which depicts Hannibal's earliest crimes, the audience sees how the serial killer develops this sense of "the punishment fitting the crime." Hannibal learns that his sister was not only killed, but eaten, and so sets about eating the men who committed this crime. It's an eye-for-an-eye punishment (or a cheek-for-a-cheek, as the case may be.)

4.) He is a Mentor (and he doesn't play favorites).

A man of great knowledge and yes, even wisdom, Hannibal is not shy about sharing what he knows (especially if there is a "quid pro quo" that interests him). As Hannibal notes, he comes to his victims and friends both "in the guise of a mentor."

Lecter mentors F.B.I. agents Will Graham (Ed Norton) and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), but then turns right around and also mentors the budding serial killer known as "The Tooth Fairy" (Ralph Fiennes) in Red Dragon. Hannibal is not confined or bound to our conventional sense of morality, and is thus a willing teacher to anyone who approaches him with respect and courtesy.

In Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, intrepid F.B.I agents go before Hannibal and must lay themselves bare before his laser-like mind; before his total understanding and mastery of human psychology. They do so willingly, to catch monsters like the aforementioned "Tooth Fairy" or "Buffalo Bill," but their experience is nonetheless terrifying to those of us in the audience. As Jack Crawford insightfully warns Clarice: "you don't want Hannibal Lecter inside your head."


So while Freddy Krueger arrives through the subconscious doorway of your dreams, Hannibal is, perhaps, equally powerful. He utilizes his uncanny, inevitably accurate, complete understanding of you -- your very identity -- against you. He gets inside your head in a different, more subversive way, perhaps.

Finally, Hannibal Lecter boasts a great, ghoulish sense of humor. Before killing you, he may ask "bowels in or bowels out?," or some such thing. Like Krueger, Lecter is an acknowledged master of the bon mot. In this case, however, the humor doesn't mitigate the terror in the slightest. When Lecter amuses himself at your're going down. Soon.

With Hannibal Lecter on the prowl, the lambs never stop screaming...

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Cult-TV Faces of: Barbara Bain

Monday, June 28, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Director Quentin Tarantino may have intentionally mangled the English language with the misspelled title of his latest cinematic effort, Inglourious Basterds (2009), but this prodigious talent speaks the language of film with a perfect accent.

Although Tarantino's production shares a title (sort of...) with 1978's The Inglorious Bastards (from director Enzo G. Castellari) there's not actually much similarity between the two efforts. Both films are set during World War II, and both films concern an important mission behind enemy lines.

After that, leave your expectations at the door. The 1978 film is a low-budget exploitation actioner (with Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson), but Inglorious Basterds is Tarantino's trademark specialty: art-house exploitation.

In other words, Tarantino doesn't craft anything remotely like an action yarn here. Instead, Inglourious Basterds is an almost sedentary, deliberately-paced film about personal warfare, not the international, global variety we've come to expect from the WWII film. This isn't Saving Private Ryan (1998). No beaches are stormed. No wartime platitudes are reinforced.

"Looks like the shoe's on the other foot," The Powerful and the Powerless in Inglourious Basterds

The backdrop for this 2009 drama is indeed the war effort in general, and a group of American soldiers behind enemy lines, but the guts of the narrative involve feelings of personal disquiet: the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness engendered by the Nazi Regime, and the Basterds' dedicated attempts to give the Nazis a taste of their own medicine.

Some scholars and pundits have suggested that the film is morally facile, a simple revenge picture that makes the American Basterds (Jewish-American soldiers...) as reprehensible as the Nazis they fight in Europe; but that doesn't seem legitimately the case.

Tarantino's focus isn't necessarily on brutal, bloody violence, but on power, and how it feels to be the party without it. The Basterds in the film, as well as a Jewish cinema owner named Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), exact violent retribution against the Nazis, it is true. But, oddly -- in almost every situation -- it feels not like eye-for-an-eye Draconian violence, but rather an assertion or re-assertion of self, or self-actualization, if that's possible.

This is why, I suspect, the film's fiery final sequence quotes extensively from De Palma's Carrie (1976) and the famous sequence at the Prom. Both movies concern the victimized pushed too far, taking back the power for themselves in an apocalyptic showdown.

I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, however. Inglourious Basterds is a film consisting of five separate, even episodic chapters. The first chapter "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" goes a long way towards establishing the feelings of personal powerlessness the Nazis so ruthlessly exploit.

A dairy farmer who is hiding Jewish refugees in his house is visited on his remote farm by Colonel Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz), who is nicknamed "The Jew Hunter." Landa gains entry to the house, enjoys a glass of milk, switches the conversation from French to English, and then -- without even verbally leveling much of a threat -- makes the weeping farmer, LaPadite, surrender his hidden wards. The refugees are then brutally shot down, and only 18-year old Shoshanna escapes the massacre.

The conversation between Landa and LaPadite is lengthy. It goes on and on, and Tarantino holds the scene for a duration approaching twenty minutes. The aspect of this scene that makes it work so splendidly (and makes it increasingly suspenseful as it continues...), is the very thing that remains determinedly unspoken: Landa's total and complete domination of the poor farmer. LaPadite has no options; no recourse; nowhere even to lodge a complaint. He can't fight, or he will sacrifice his family. He can't bargain, either. There's absolutely nothing to be done. Landa comes into his home, is unfailingly polite and courteous...and is completely in control. The Nazi has no need to flex his muscles (or twirl his metaphorical moustache), to assert his authority. His authority simply...goes without saying.

This powerful and frightening idea recurs in Chapter Three, "German Night in Paris." Shoshanna, now a cinema owner in France hiding under the name Emmanuelle Mimieux (think Yvette Mimieux), unexpectedly meets Nazi sniper and war hero Zoller (Daniel Bruhl). He is starring in Goebbel's latest propaganda film, Nation's Pride, and he quickly devises the notion that Shoshanna's cinema should host the film's premiere.

Again: she is not asked about this. Her counsel is not sought. She is not given an out so she can politely demure. Instead, she is escorted to a nearby restaurant and introduced to Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), who also immediately and unquestioningly assumes her total and complete cooperation. Like Landa in Chapter One, the Nazis here are not over-the-top schemers or brutal torturers for us to sneer at. Instead, they are so confident in their total authority that there's no need for showy demonstrations (as we would no doubt see in lesser films...).

In the most dramatic example of Shoshanna's utter powerlessness in the face of the Nazi domination, Hans Landa even gets to dictate to the cinema owner when she should eat her strudel. She is about to take a bite, but he has forgotten to order whip cream. "Wait for the cream," he utters with a wolfish smile.

It isn't a request. It's an order.

Thus, in albeit strange fashion, the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds are more frightening than almost any you've ever seen depicted before in a movie. They appear courteous and civil, but that's only because their domination is unchallenged; unquestioned. These men walk the Earth as Gods: every demand met, every order followed, every desire sated.

From the predicaments of the farmer and Shosanna in their respective chapters, the audience quickly detects how the basic human freedom of choice (even the choice when to eat your dessert) has been removed from those living in territory occupied by the Germans. Tarantino's selections (in actors; in tone; in holding on a particular scene) all play this idea out adroitly. The scene set in the Tavern is not much different: an S.S. officer strides onto the scene and expects to have his demands for attention met, without question.

The eminently just punchline comes in the film's valedictory scene (and shot). The leader of the Basterds, Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) has been forced to cede authority to Landa. Landa thinks that -- as usual -- he is totally in charge. He has become used to his unlimited, unspoken power. And with one powerful, if small act, Raines questions that assumption....with a knife. It's not just revenge for the sake of revenge; it's not bloody for the sake of gore. It's a lesson, actually, in what freedom represents; and the fear that people feel when that freedom is stolen from them. When Aldo carves swastikas on the foreheads of his enemies, he is questioning what the Nazis believe is unquestionable; their total authority and superiority. Aldo does not kill, but he makes the Nazis experience fear -- and powerlessness -- for the first time.

"We're going to make a film. Just for the Nazis." Homage and Tribute in Tarantino's Film

Inglourious Basterds also proves intriguing in much the same the fashion as Tarantino's other films. In other words, the movie functions as a dedicated homage to other war films, and as a tribute to the culture of movies itself.

In ways simple (Aldo Raines = Aldo Ray) and ways complex, Tarantino gets in some edgy commentary here about the power of images; about the power of the medium itself.

Even casting is vitally important. For instance, horror director Eli Roth plays the "golem" nicknamed "The Bear Jew," the Basterd who brandishes a baseball bat against recalcitrant Nazis.

We already associate Roth with scenes of extreme violence and gore thanks to his role directing (the masterpiece...) Hostel (2005), and so the actor's participation in what promises to be the film's most violent scene works commendably to the movie's advantage. Here comes Eli Roth doing what Eli Roth does best...or so we think.

But Inglourious Basterds is a movie about movies in deeper, more meaningful ways too. A propaganda film, like Goebbel's "Nation's Pride," could conceivably galvanize a demoralized nation, we are meant to understand. It could literally turn around the war, and that's something that can't be allowed to happen. How Shoshanna subverts Zoller's film is one of the film's highlights; especially since her "phantom edit" plays to what is literally a captive audience.

Likewise, a movie critic like Hicox (Michael Fassbender) could conceivably boast the knowledge to make for an effective undercover agent in France, although a hand signal (not entirely unlike "thumbs up" or "thumbs down") could also doom him.

And finally, as Inglourious Basterds trenchantly reminds us, a film can be an instrument of propaganda or an instrument of justice. Film might even be, literally, a weapon. Film reels double as the bomb that kills Hitler in the film's denouement.

And there's another thing about movies that Tarantino tells us. They have no overriding responsibility to be true to the historical record. I mean...we all know how World War II ended, but Tarantino provides us a more satisfying, fairy tale, movie ending: one in which the powerful are given a lesson in powerlessness, and those without freedom find -- even for an instant -- liberty's power.

Inglorious Basterds
is not the place to seek historical accuracy; it's a place to ponder the ways that movies -- as propaganda or vehicles of justice/vengeance -- can satisfy and offer emotional closure regarding a whole variety of issues. Isn't it better, really, that a Jewish woman victimized by the Third Reich should bring it down? If we could write our own endings, isn't this the dramatic, poetic one we'd want? The underdog has her day, and the scales of justice are righted. Since this isn't real life, why not?

"I think this just might be my masterpiece." Or "That's a Bingo."

Given the importance of movie history and film in Inglorious Basterds, I find it fascinating that the last act in the film quotes so heavily from the work of Brian De Palma.

I mentioned Carrie at the Prom vs. Shoshanna at the Premiere, but it's much more than that too.

Notice, for instance, that the interior of Shoshanna's cinema is colored and designed to resemble the palatial interior of Tony Montana's Miami home in Scarface. There are staircases bracketing both sides of the central hall, with a ledge above -- on the second floor -- and, finally, a room (in the center of the frame...) leading back to a private domain (office or auditorium).

In Scarface, this grand hall is where Tony goes out in a blaze of glory ("Say Hello to My Little Friend..."). In a very real way, that's also Shoshanna's fate.

Both characters also share something else in common: they went from being powerless, to possessing all the power. Only in Tony's case, he misused and abused that power (through a drug haze). By contrast, our sympathies remain with Shoshanna throughout Inglourious Basterds. She is setting things right (and ending the war...), not committing a cocaine-addled suicide.

Why quote De Palma so extensively here? Well, we know that Carrie is in Tarantino's top five favorite film list (at least last time I checked). But the images and compositions that recall De Palma are well picked for reasons of theme and recognition too. Both Carrie at the Prom: the victim taking out the victimizers and Tony's last stand: a staccato suicide by machine gun -- embody an important part of our contemporary pop culture lexicon. Carrie is about the effect that cruelty has on a person, even a good person. And Scarface is about power corrupting, absolutely. Shoshanna may be Carrie; and Hitler may be Tony Montana, in some sense..

One of the things that I admire most about Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's manner of making the intimate seem epic. This movie is about a big topic indeed (World War II) but it features almost no scenes of battle or any traditional war scenes, for that matter. The film consists mostly of a scene in a farm, in a tavern basement, and, finally, in a cinema. We see no tanks, no infantries on the move, and no impending air strikes.

Instead, Tarantino hammers home his theme of the powerful versus the powerless, and does so with just a handful of very interesting, very human characters. The drama is entirely intimate though, in typical Tarantino fashion, it's the human behavior is also a bit exaggerated in some caes. In the case of Aldo Raines, I would argue it's almost cartoonish. But even he reflects something vitally important.

Sometimes you need bravado in the face of a powerful enemy.

Inglourious Basterds
reveals that Raines has that bravado in spades, but even moreso, that the film's director does.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

28 Years Ago This Weekend...

...John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) was released in theaters nationwide (against Steven Spielberg's E.T.) to a slew of negative reviews and even a backlash against its talented director.

It's a funny turn of events: today, almost three decades later, the film is critically lauded and there's even a prequel in production. But in 1982, the film was considered a bomb, and some people even feared Carpenter's career was over. Hah!

Here's a snippet from my review of The Thing:

In the waning days of the summer of 1982, my parents took me to an afternoon matinee, a double-feature at a second-run theater in Los Angeles. I couldn’t have guessed so beforehand, but this excursion to the movies was a life-changing event for me.

That description sounds like unwarranted hyperbole until you understand that the double-bill consisted of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Imagine -- just for a moment -- seeing those particular films back-to-back, one after the other, on the big screen.

Then consider the impact these two genre films have on our pop culture had over time. It's...staggering.

If you think about it, both productions share more in common than may appear obvious at first blush. Primarily, both Blade Runner and The Thing explore the existential angst of what it means to be human. Protagonists in each film combat creatures that mimic or imitate the human shape, but are indistinctly inhuman. In both films, the impostor is also an infiltrator...virtually unrecognizable -- hidden -- in a larger population. Both films also feature ambiguous endings: we're not exactly certain if humanity is victorious. In far more grounded terms, both genre movies have outlived overwhelming mainstream critical disdain and poor box-office receipts.

Indeed, Blade Runner and The Thing have emerged as two of the most beloved (and forward-looking…) films of the Age of Reagan. They've defined the direction of their respective genres too.

Suffice it to say, I had much to think about in the days and weeks (and months and years…) following that double feature matinee. So today, in keeping with my recent John Carpenter theme here on the blog, I want to gaze at The Thing, the film that almost literally cost John Carpenter his career in Hollywood.

Why? Well, in the summer of Spielberg's E.T. -- in the days of the ascendant Moral Majority -- a great many critics found Carpenter’s trailblazing horror film…questionable. On one notorious occasion, the auteur was actually termed a “pornographer of violence” for what was, in essence, a faithful visual recreation of a short story written in 1938 (“Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell). The moral watch guards weren't alone in their condemnation of The Thing; an older generation of horror fans raised on Howard Hawks' original version of The Thing also seemed to reflexively dislike this remake. This dislike was in spite of many deliberate (and elaborate) Carpenter homages to that famous screen predecessor.

I summarized the poisonous critical reception to The Thing in my book, The Films of John Carpenter (McFarland; 2000), but for context and history, I wanted to provide at least a handful of quotes here and now, so you might accurately glean a sense of the absolute vitriol spewed at the film and its helmsman.

Newsweek called The Thing an example of “the New Aesthetic – atrocity for atrocity’s sake.” (David Ansen; Newsweek: “Frozen Slime,” June 28, 1982). Reviewing the film for Starlog, Alan Spencer wrote: “It’s my contention that John Carpenter was never meant to direct science fiction horror movies. Here’s some things he’d be better suited to direct: Traffic accidents, train wrecks and public floggings….” (Starlog # 64, November 1982, page 69.)

And that’s just the tip of the bloody iceberg, to adopt an appropriate metaphor.

Yet today - in 2009 - John Carpenter’s The Thing is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece. It resides in the top 250 movies of all-time on the IMDB (at #173), and I counted it as the best horror film of its decade in Horror Films of the 1980s (McFarland; 2007). Of The Thing, The Village Voice’s Scott Foundas wrote in 2008: “this spatial masterpiece of desolate Arctic vistas at odds with close-quarters claustrophobia has...been hailed as a high totem of modern horror-making. There remains something deeply unnerving about Carpenter's ambiguity as to whether the movie's shape-shifting alien is distorting its hosts' personalities or merely revealing something of their primal selves.”

For me, The Thing stands the test of time as a great film for several reasons. It’s not only the film’s finely-honed sense of paranoia that makes it a remarkable achievement, but the glacial, icy feelings of personal “alienation” from society that the story and presentation seem to evoke so powerfully.

Furthermore, John Carpenter’s The Thing involves not just alienation from civilization. It also makes a very squeamish, very uneasy case for the frailty and fragility of the human form itself; call it alienation of the flesh.

Additionally, it’s difficult not to interpret the “invasion” by the shape-shifting thing as an early harbinger of AIDS, a malady whispered about at the time of the film’s genesis as a “wasting disease” or “The Gay Plague.” In much more general form, the film succeeds in raising hackles over the universal fear of contagion, of disease…of the body subverted, co-opted and deformed by an implacable and invisible intruder. If not AIDS, the invader could be cancer, another STD, even old age itself.

Finally, The Thing represents such a singular experience because of the titular monster. Never before in the history of the horror film had audiences witnessed such an elusive, transcendent entity: a life-form in constant evolution and motion, never pausing -- never stopping -- long enough for us to get a grasp of what it "was." Although Scott's Alien was undeniably brilliant and fascinating in its depiction of an alien life-cycle, that life-cycle still had, ultimately, a recognizable shape and a direction (egg, face hugger, chest burster, adult drone...). By contrast, Carpenter's "Thing" was always...becoming.

The Thing serves as the first movement in John Carpenter’s self-named “Apocalypse Trilogy” (followed by 1987’s Prince of Darkness and 1994’s In The Mouth of Madness), and most genre fans are familiar with the general outline of the story, either from the remarkable Campbell literary work, or the 1950s Howard Hawks version, The Thing from Another World (1951).

In short, John Carpenter’s The Thing lands us in freezing Antarctica during the winter of 1982. A strange incident occurs at American Outpost 31, when a Norwegian helicopter breaks the peace and silence of snow.

The foreign chopper pilot and his cohort seem to be relentlessly (and madly...) pursuing a dog, a malamute. The pilot attempts to kill the canine, but in the ensuing scuffle the helicopter is destroyed and an armed Norwegian is shot dead by Outpost 31’s macho commander, Garry (Moffat).

Curious about what could have possibly driven the Norwegian scientists to such heights of apparent insanity, Outpost 31's Doc Copper (Richard Dysart) and helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) travel to the foreign camp and find it utterly ruined, destroyed. Record tapes reveal that the Norwegians unearthed a flying saucer – and an alien – frozen in the ice for 100,000 years. They used Thermite charges to bring both to the surface. MacReady and Copper bring back the tapes, and also the inhuman, half-burned corpse of...something.

Before long, the men of Outpost 31 must grapple with the fact that an alien life form is loose in their camp. It is a chameleon who can perfectly imitate human beings right down to the minutest memories and speech patterns. Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) calculates that after 27,000 hours from first contact with the civilized world, the entire planet Earth will be infected by the extra-terrestrial shape shifter. MacReady and the others must now determine -- in short order -- who is a “thing” and who is a man, and arrange for a blood serum test to help them identify the interloper (or interlopers) hiding in their midst.

Nobody Trusts Anybody Now: Alienation from the World At Large

The political and societal turbulence of the 1970s (from Vietnam to Watergate to the Energy Crisis to Three Mile Island) gave rise in some cases to a deepening sense of personal, community and spiritual dissatisfaction in America of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

One might term this mood the “spirit of the times,” but whatever we call it, many Americans began to feel deep misgivings about the status quo, about an increasingly untrustworthy, shallow, unjust, and material culture. The nation’s confidence – which had so memorably suffered a “crisis” in Carter’s America - had eroded.

Punk/thrash music gave voice to this sense of discontentment in popular music throughout the 1980s; and horror films such as George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and The Amityville Horror (1979) pinpointed sources of anxiety in the consumer culture and such seemingly-sturdy American cultural pillars as home-ownership. In these visions, the faceless masses at the local shopping mall were actually slobbering zombies, and monthly mortgage payments could run you out of your too-expensive house faster than your average demonic possession....

There also begin to arise a sense in late 70s-early 80s America that the person next door – your very neighbor -- could actually be a monster in disguise…a person that, despite all physical appearances to the contrary, could be harboring monstrous, murderous secrets (think David Lynch's Blue Velvet [1986]).

In part, this uncertainty about the nature of "the next door neighbor" was a result of an unexpected reversal in population migration patterns. Whereas in earlier decades of the 20th century, people from small-towns had moved to the big cities (as part of industrialization…), in the early 1980s we saw “counter-urbanization:” a flight or escape from metropolitan population centers in favor of quieter, emptier areas, whether rural or suburban. This pattern was possible because of increased car production and affordability, and governmental incentives that made new home construction and home-ownership easier.

But the evils and eccentricities that some people (rightly or wrongly) associated with “big” cities also came home to roost in suburban America in this process of counter-urbanization. The Evils were named, in some cases, Ted Bundy, or John Wayne Gacy. On the surface: normal appearing. The truth: monsters in human shape.

As I’ve written before in regards to this epoch, the combination of inexpensive air transportation and the uniquely American tendency to put down roots far from one’s original home, assured that the neighbors within your average “Cuesta Verde” might be ethically or morally separate from the ideals of those living around them.

In a sense, this was true American integration: blacks and whites living peacably next door; Yankees and Confederates amicably perched across a drive-way; Christians and atheists on the same cul-de-sac; gays and straights sharing a common backyard, etc. Most of the time this was good -- we learn from each other's differences -- but in isolated circumstances (if your neighbor happened to be Jeffrey Dahmner, for instance)...not so much. With a burgeoning tabloid media developing on young cable TV, it was the negative and sensational incidents which became widely known and disseminated.

The resulting ambiguity about what evil might dwell in "the house next door” created an age of uncertainty in which people didn’t really know -- and therefore could not always trust -- their neighbors. The result: deeper alienation, suspicion and even paranoia.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is very deliberately crafted in this world of estrangement and alienation. Consider that all the men at Outpost 31 have left behind their mother society (America), much as many disaffected youngsters in the early 1970s attempted to leave the American culture for "new" communal societies. An early version of Bill Lancaster's script allegedly revealed MacReady’s specific sense of “displacement” after the Vietnam War, another expression of alienation from country...

You can read the rest of the piece here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 109: Alias (2002): "The Box"

I've probably written about this before here, but I once pitched a book project to a publisher entitled "Die Hard in a Book" and its intention to was to survey all the Die Hard (1988) films, and also all the Die Hard rip-offs, tributes and off-shoots.

Let's see: there was Die Hard on a plane (Passenger 57), Die Hard on a bus (Speed [1994]), Die Hard on a cruise ship (Speed 2 [1997]), Die Hard on a Train (Under Siege 2), etc.

One chapter of that proposed book would have been called "Die Hard on the Tube," because over the years so many TV programs have also re-purposed the sturdy Die Hard premise (terrorists take over an isolated setting, grab hostages, and end up battling an action hero like Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal or Wesley Snipes).

Just off the top of my head, I remember Captain Jean-Luc Picard battling terrorists for control of the evacuated starship Enterprise in the Next Gen episode "Starship Mine." And then there was an episode of the 1990s Glen Larson superhero show, Nightman, called "I Left My Heart," in which the hero had to combat a terrorist gang in a high rise building, in a plastic surgeon's office.

Probably the finest and most exciting television variation on Die Hard, however, arrived in early 2002, on the ABC J.J. Abrams spy saga Alias, starring Jennifer Garner as secret agent Sydney Bristow.

In "The Box," written by Jesse Alexander and John Eisendrath, and directed by Jack Bender, guest star Quentin Tarantino portrays the Hans Gruber/mastermind, antagonist role in the by-now familiar Die Hard scenario. This time, the character's name is McKenas Cole, and he has endured torture, humiliation and guilt after a failed overseas mission and a lengthy imprisonment. He blames SD-6 director Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin) for his suffering.

Beginning in the parking garage of SD-6 headquarters (from a van labeled with the legend "McTiernan," after Die Hard's director...), McKenas and his machine-gun-armed terrorists began a ruthless, violent take-over of the high-tech offices. SD-6's staff is held hostage, abused and threatened with death. McKenas seeks -- again in old-school Gruber-style -- something important (and secret...) from SD-6's impenetrable vault. In Die Hard, of course, opening up the Nakatomi Building's computerized vault was a lengthy, elaborate process, and "The Box" keeps that aspect of the story to help ramp up the tension.

Our John McClane (Bruce Willis) in this variation of the form is lovely and lethal Sydney, who returns to SD-6 HQ determined to quit, only to find an emergency already-in-progress. In short order, Bristow takes to the vent shafts and begins eliminating Cole's operatives one at a time. Just as McClane had some crucial help from outside, provided by Officer Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), so is Sydney assisted in her efforts here by her CIA handler, Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan). But, in the tradition of Powell, Vaughn must cut through infrastructure and bureaucracy, plus the efforts of a wrong-headed superior, in order to join "the party."

The core concepts of the Die Hard prototype are popular and oft-utilized for a reason. The story sets a loner and law-enforcement official against superior numbers, gives him or her a unique central location (high rise bldg., ship, bus, etc.) to grapple with, and then provides an obstacle that holds him/her back: the safety of hostages. In Die Hard, of course, John McClane had to worry about his captive wife, Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia). In Alias's "The Box," Sydney's Dad, Jack (Victor Garber) -- a fellow agent -- is among the hostages.

Quentin Tarantino is probably the undisputed contemporary king of movie homage, so it is appropriate that this particular director should be a guest star in the very Alias episode that most closely pays tribute to what is today considered an action-movie classic. But "The Box" is a laudable episode of Alias not merely because it adopts the Die Hard template, but because it so cannily re-purposes the ingredients of the Willis film to the specifics of its own storyline.

For instance, "The Box" opens at a low time for Sydney. She has just learned in the previous episode ("The Confession") that her mother was not a school teacher, but rather a murderous KGB agent in America. This knowledge has caused Sydney to question her work in the intelligence community, her continuing education to become a teacher herself, and much more. The unexpected take-over attempt at SD-6 by Cole is thus the very thing that jolts Sydney out of her self-doubt and self-recriminations. Her friends (including Dixon) and father need her help now....or innocent people will die.

More interesting, however, is the fact that Sydney realizes during the course of "The Box" that her agenda (to bring down Sloane and SD-6) actually aligns with Cole's (Tarantino's) agenda. In other words, Sydney has a moment of realization in "The Box" during which she realizes that Cole and she, in some sense, want the same thing; and are on the same side. Should she join him in taking down SD-6 -- her ultimate goal -- or stand firm and rescue the very man she hates, Sloane?

This is a very clever updating of the Die Hard concept: the notion that the hero and villain are joined by a common goal, but, for whatever reason, still must fight. This is part of the reason why Alias remains such an interesting series: Sydney is a double agent, and must constantly consider not only how her actions affect the real C.I.A., but how they will play out in the crucible of SD-6. Add her personal life to the mix, and Sydney's life is a delicate, split-second dance of lies, secrets, and feints. This episode, "The Box" really expresses that idea well.

I also find it intriguing that so much of this Alias episode involves Cole's "enhanced interrogation" (torture) of Sloan utilizing a box filled with acupuncture needles. Again, Alias has spent the first dozen episodes of the first season making viewers aware of what a terrible, villainous person Sloane is. He is, without a doubt, the big bad of the series (the man who had Sydney's fiancee killed). And yet, "The Box" goes out of its way to make audiences feel first sympathy and then respect for Sloane as he is tortured ruthlessly by Tarantino's character. The sympathy is bad enough...but then Sloane volunteers to have a finger chopped off (so as to de-activate a bomb with a computerized fingerprint read-out) in order to save the lives of his people. Suddenly, the bad guy seems...selfless.

In other words, "The Box" makes things even more murky for Sydney. She finds herself sympathizing with Cole's agenda; and then learning that the "monster" she hates actually features some admirable human qualities.

What I'm getting at, I suppose, is that Alias knowingly uses the Die Hard template as a starting point and then launches into some great and valuable character territory based on the specific elements of the series' narrative and overarching purpose. Like most episodes of Alias, the pace here is breathless; the action is endlessly intense. In particular, I enjoyed the final battle between Quentin Tarantino and Jennifer Garner. His character, Cole knows how to land a punch, and Sydney's a deft kick boxer, so it's fun watching their diverse fighting styles in action. Sydney moves with grace, like a dancer, but Cole hangs in there, blocking and punching away. Tarantino is clearly having the time of his life playing a smarmy bad-ass here, and the scene in which he makes Sydney drink his backwash (!) from a champagne bottle (in lieu of a kiss....) is classic.

I watched the first two seasons of Alias when it aired on ABC in the early years of the 2000s, and episodes like "The Box" still really get the blood flowing. I guess there's been serious talk of a series re-boot in the last few weeks, and I can't comment on that idea too much except to observe that today Alias holds up remarkably well. It looks like it was produced last week; not eight years ago. A re-boot so soon sounds unnecessary, and I'm not certain that anyone could portray Sydney Bristow with more verve, more humanity, than Jennifer Garner brought to the role.

Why not an Alias feature film reuniting the original cast, instead?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Cult-TV Faces of: Terry O'Quinn

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"All the gods...they cannot sever us. If I were dead and you were still fighting for life, I'd come back from the darkness. Back from the pit of hell to fight at your side."

-Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Monday, June 21, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Lost Highway (1997)

"There is no such thing as a bad coincidence."

-David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997)

"It should be acknowledged, straightaway," opined critic Eric Bryant Rhodes in Film Quarterly (Spring 1998, page 57), "that Lost Highway is, by design, extremely resistant to reduction into a definitive narrative account; by the film's end it is evident that Lynch has intentionally withheld the answers to questions inevitably provoked by the narrative's elusive and elliptical plot. It is virtually impossible to reconstruct a definitive and rational account of what happens in Lost Highway."

Critic Kenneth Turan called David Lynch's film the director's "most accomplished work since Blue Velvet" and termed it a "metaphysical stag film," (Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1997, page 10), while David Denby noted that the film is a "virtuoso exercise in spooky unintelligibility" (New York, March 3, 197, page 53).

Meanwhile, Jack Kroll at Newsweek suggested insightfully that with Lost Highway Lynch had become "the Heisenberg of cinema, telling us that the uncertainty principle rules our lives" (February 24, 1997, page 68).

Elusive. Metaphysical. Spooky. Uncertain.

All of these critical descriptors highlight the confounding essence of this beloved and beguiling David Lynch film noir. It's a movie that can't be intellectually "understood," perhaps, only "interpreted" in relation to the director's style and singular voice, in particular his pervasive use of "dream sense," the surreal language of dreams.

Specifically, Lynch has has publicly likened Lost Highway to a Psychogenic Fugue...a mental state of disassociation from oneself. That comparison could be the very key that unlocks a few of the film's most enduring and baffling mysteries.

We've met before, haven't we? Or We Got Some Spooky Shit Here...

Lost Highway depicts the startling descent into madness of a jealous saxophonist named Fred Madison (Bill Pullman).

Experiencing strange dreams about his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette) -- whom he suspects is having an adulterous affair -- Fred also comes to believe that someone is watching him inside his own home; videotaping him as he sleeps. Fred is a paranoid man, and even his house -- painted in deep, dark shades of crimson and scarlet -- appears to reflect his intemperate, suspicious nature.

When Renee is discovered murdered, Fred is arrested for the bloody crime, but then something truly strange occurs.

In his jail cell: another man seems to take his physical place. Fred wakes up...and is different. He is now Peter (Balthazar Getty), a young fellow, a car mechanic, associated with gangster Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent (Loggia). And Eddy/Laurent’s girlfriend is Alice (Arquette)...a dead ringer for the murdered Renee.

Behind this strange metamorphosis -- and this strange new life -- is a terrifying and ubiquitous "Mystery Man" (Robert Blake) with a video camera...a man who can apparently be in two places simultaneously.

In the Far East, when a person is sentenced to death, they're sent to a place where they can't Escape: Or The Splintered Psyche as Madison's "Escape" Valve. 

A restless spirit of madness seems to haunt angry Fred Madison in Lost Highway. That spirit, while actually a part of Fred's psyche, is manifested externally in the film; as another "being" he physically encounters.

Specifically, this specter of violence, revenge and madness takes the form of the pasty-faced, grinning maniac portrayed by Robert Blake.

In the film’s most deeply unsettling, most dream-like sequence, this specter of violence and guilt confronts Fred at a party and informs the saxophonist that he, the Mystery Man, is at his house right now, killing his wife.

Of course, a person can’t be in two places at the same time but the Mystery Man urges Fred to call his own house to confirm his disturbing story. Fred does so, and at his house the Mystery Man answers the phone. “I told you I was here,” he says.

The idea underlining this horrific, surreal sequence is that Fred has effectively disassociated from himself, from his personal identity, in order to carry out an evil, brutal deed: the murder of Renee. Fred has created a Boogeyman, a monster, to complete the task for him, since -- as a rational, evolved human being -- murder is not an acceptable act. Instead, Madison has reached deep down into his reptilian brain and created this thing, this monster.

Psychogenic fugues or dissociative orders are often precipitated by intense stress, and there's plenty of that to go around in the early scenes of this Lynch film. Sexual intercourse between Fred and the gorgeous Renee goes poorly, for instance. After some slow-motion photography and the exaggerated sounds of panting, Fred loses his erection, and Renee appears frustrated. The impression is of a troubled marriage and of Fred's looming, impulsive rage, ready to be sated. The Mystery Man appears briefly in this scene too: superimposed over Renee's lovely face. The monster's sudden appearance here is Fred's "flash" of violent intent, of rage, when he proves impotent.

Jealousy and looming rage are manifested again in the film's very color scheme, in Lynch's presentation of another important sequence. After a public musical performance, Fred rings Renee up on a red telephone and he's likewise bathed in hellish neon-sort of red light. She’s not home, and Madison's conviction that she is cheating on him grows exponentially. His very world seems to visualize this “red” streak of jealousy. Unable to get satisfaction from her husband, Renee has sought fulfillment outside the relationship...or so he imagines.

After creating the "mystery man" as an alternate identity from which to commit the murder of cheating Renee, Fred then disassociates again after the crime, creating an additional personality, Peter Dayton, where he can hide from his intense feelings of guilt and responsibility. Those unlucky souls who experience psychogenic fugues in real life often create totally new personalities, in new environs, with no memory of their real personalities or histories.

Of great significance, Madison's new personality, Dayton, is a heroic, young character who liberates Renee (now Alice...) from sexual humiliation and slavery at the hands of a powerful exploiter and abuser, Eddy/Dick Laurent.

Where Fred is impotent, Dayton is virile, engaging in satisfying sexual intercourse with Alice on a beach by night. He is the "dream" persona of Fred, as an unspoiled, vigorous, desirable youth. Fred Madison does not "snap back into being" until the film's conclusion when his Peter Dayton identity closes the loop and informs him that "Dick Laurent is dead." The death of his competitor for Renee's/Alice's affections allows Fred to be restored to his "real" state.

Importantly, this scene represents a kind of cinematic Möbius strip, relating back to one of the first scenes in the film. There are two ways to interpret it. The first is the psychogenic fugue approach. The early appearance of an unseen "stranger" at the door, informing Fred that "Dick Laurent is dead" is actually the fledgling start of Madison's dissociative mania; the sort of mental canary in the coal mine that pushes Fred to kill his wife and his competitor for her affections.

Or contrarily, one might read the entirety of the film as a murderous, disassociated fantasy occurring in Fred's dreams as he awakens to receive that cryptic message. He is only told once that "Dick Laurent is dead," and every event that happens in the film seems to occur in that very instant; his dream of murder; his escape into another identity, etc. This is the Jacob's Ladder (1990) reading of the film, I suppose.

David Lynch's description of the film as a Psychogenic Fugue also relates, in fascinating fashion, to musical terminology. A fugue is defined as a piece of music consisting of "two or more voices." Fred Madison, the Mystery Man, and Peter Dayton are all different voices inhabiting one psyche and their tale might appropriately be described as a musical fugue as well as a psychogenic one. For instance, a "fugue" often begins with an opening key (here, the "key" in which Fred Madison exists). Then, further episodes establish additional notes or keys (the Mystery Man, Dayton...). Finally, after expressing these "new" notes, the opening key in a musical fugue is re-asserted as the piece ends.

That is precisely the structure of Lost Highway, with Fred Madison -- our opening "key" -- brought back for the film's conclusion. A fugue (psychological dream state) explains the movie's narrative, and a fugue (piece of music) explains the movie's structure.

I swear I love that girl to death: The O.J. Simpson Connection?

Those associated with this Lynch film have reported that Lost Highway represents the director's free-association meditation on the O.J. Simpson trial which occurred mid-decade, shortly before the production of the film.

This clue helps us discern another layer of the film. Pullman plays a public figure (a musician, not a sports hero), who becomes irrevocably connected to the murder of his beautiful wife.

The opening shot, a point-of-view from the dashboard of a car rocketing down a lonely highway by night -- the pavement illuminated only by headlights -- even recalls O.J.’s famous freeway chase in the white bronco.

Like O.J., Fred Madison also loudly proclaims his innocence, but he’s not necessarily a reliable witness. For one thing, Fred doesn’t like the prying eye of the video camera. “I like to remember things my own way,” he complains “not necessarily the way they happened...” But go deeper. If the glove does not fit, you must acquit. And if Fred Madison is Peter Dayton...who do you arrest for the crime?

A true appreciation of David Lynch’s cinematic work arises from interpreting his symbols and reading carefully his powerful, subconscious dream imagery. In the case of Lost Highway it feels like Lynch is attempting to capture the psychological condition of instinctual, unconscious, reptilian rage, the utter madness and insanity of a jealous husband who is destined to kill his wife. Even the settings reflect this rage, in shades of terracotta, crimson and blood red.

The Lost Highway of the film's title is, perhaps Fred Madison's threadbare sanity; his psyche now fractured into blind alleys, dead-ends and avenues that go, approximately, nowhere. Lynch takes us into this nightmarish fugue state, showing us pieces of the splintered psyche and making us feel Fred's impotent, bubbling rage.

And some real "spooky shit."

Sunday, June 20, 2010

35 Years Ago This Weekend...

...Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) opened in theaters and captured the nation's imagination.

I was old enough (five) to get a good, long look at Jaws fever, from the Ideal-produced game to joke books and beyond. I still recallthe onslaught of sea-based horror movies that came in the film's wake too, including Orca (1977) and Tentacles (1977).

In many important ways, Jaws still hasn't been outdone. The Spielberg film has stood the test of time, and remains scary as of the great horror movies of the disco decade.

Here's a snippet from my Jaws review to celebrate the 35th birthday of Bruce the Shark:

"Jaws derives much of its terror from what you might half-jokingly term "information overload." Although the great white shark remains hidden beneath the waves for most of the film -- unseen but imagined -- Steven Spielberg fills in that visual gap (and the viewer's imagination) with a plethora of facts and figures about this ancient, deadly predator.

Legendarily, the life-size mechanical model of the shark (named Bruce) malfunctioned repeatedly during production of the film, a reality which forced Spielberg to hide the creature from the camera for much of the time. Yet this problem actually worked out in the film's best interest. Because for much of the first two acts, unrelenting tension builds as a stream of data about the "monster" washes over us. It's the education of Martin Brody, and the education of Jaws' audience.

After a close-up shot of a typewriter clacking out the words "SHARK ATTACK" (all caps), images, illustrations and descriptions of the shark start to hurtle across the screen in ever increasing numbers. Chief Brody reads from a book that shows a mythological-style rendering of a shark as a boat-destroying, ferocious sea monster.

Another schematic in the same scene reveals a graph of shark "radar," the fashion by which the shark senses a "distressed" fish (the prey...) far away in the water.

Additional photos in the book -- and shown full-screen by Spielberg -- depict the damage a shark can inflict: victims of shark bites both living and dead. These are not photos made up for the film, incidentally, but authentic photographs of real-life shark attack victims.

Why, there's even a "gallows" humor drawing of a shark (with a human inside its giant maw...) drawn by Quint at one point, a "cartoon" version of our learning.

Taken together, these various images cover all aspects of shark-dom: from reputation and lore to ability, to their impact on soft human flesh, to the macabre and ghastly.

The information about sharks also comes to Brody (the audience surrogate) in other ways, through both complementary pieces of his heroic triumvirate, Hooper and Quint, respectively. The young, enthusiastic, secular Hooper first becomes conveyor of data in his capacity as a scientist.

Hooper arrives in Amity and promptly performs an autopsy on shark attack victim Chrissie Watkins. He records the examination aloud, into a tape recorder mic (while Brody listens). Hooper's vocal survey of the extensive wounds on the corpse permits the audience to learn precisely what occurred when this girl was attacked and partially devoured by a great white shark. Hooper speaks in clinical, scientific terms of something utterly grotesque: "The torso has been severed in mid-thorax; there are no major organs remaining...right arm has been severed above the elbow with massive tissue loss in the upper musculature... partially denuded bone remaining..."

As Brody's science teacher of sorts, Hooper later leads the chief through a disgusting (and wet...) dissection of a dead tiger shark (one captured and thought to be the Amity offender). Again, Hooper educates not just Brody; he educates the audience about a shark's eating habits and patterns. All these facts -- like those presented by illustrations in books -- register powerfully with the viewer and we begin to understand what kind of "monster" these men face.

Later, aboard the Orca, Quint completes Brody's learning curve about sharks with the final piece of the equation: first-hand experience. Quint recounts, in a captivating sequence, how he served aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis in 1945. How the ship was sunk (after delivering the Hiroshima bomb), and how 1100 American sailors found themselves in shark-infested water for days on end.

Over a thousand sailors went into the water and only approximately three-hundred came out.

As Quint relates: "the idea was: shark comes to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin' and hollerin' and screamin' and sometimes the shark go away... but sometimes he wouldn't go away. Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about a shark... he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be living... until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then... ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin'. The ocean turns red, and despite all the poundin' and the hollerin', they all come in and they... rip you to pieces."

This testimony about an eyewitness account is not the only "history" lesson for Brody, either. Brief reference is also made in the film to the real-life "Jersey man-eater" incident of July 1 - July 12, 1916, in which four summer swimmers were attacked by a shark on the New Jersey coast.

This "information overload" concerning sharks -- from mythology and scientific facts to history and nightmarish first-person testimony -- builds up the threat of the film's villain to an extreme level, while the actual beast remains silent, unseen. When the shark does wage its final attack, the audience has been rigorously prepared and it feels frightened almost reflexively. Spielberg's greatest asset here is that he has created, from scratch, an educated audience; one who fully appreciates the threat of the great white shark. A smart audience is a prepared audience. And a prepared audience is a worried one. We also become invested in Brody as our lead because we learn, alongside him, all these things. When he beats the shark, we feel as if we've been a part of the victory.

Another clever bit here: after all the "education" and "knowledge" and "information," Spielberg harks back to the mythological aspect of sea monsters, hinting that this is no ordinary shark, but a real survivor -- a monster -- and possibly even supernatural in nature (like Michael Myers from Halloween).

Consider that this sea dragon arrives in Amity (and comes for Quint?) thirty years to the day of the Indianapolis incident (which occurred June 30, 1945). Given this anniversary, one must consider the idea that the shark could be more than mere animal. It could, in fact, be some kind of supernatural angel of death.

Thematically, the shark could also serve as a Freudian symptom of guilt repressed in the American psyche. The shark attack on Indianapolis occurred thirty years earlier, at the end of World War II, when a devastating weapon was deployed by the United states.

Now, in 1975, this shark arrives on the home front just scant months after the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam War (April 30, 1975) -- think of the images of American helicopters dropped off aircraft carriers into the sea. This shark nearly kills a young man, Hooper, who would have likely been the same age as Quint when he served in the navy during World War II.

Does the shark represent some form of natural blow back against American foreign policy overseas? I would say this is over-reach, a far-fetched notion if not for the fact that the shark's assault on the white-picket fences of Amity strikes us right where it hurts: in the wallet; devastating the economy. It isn't just a few people who are made to suffer, but everyone in the community. And that leads us directly to an understanding of the context behind Jaws..."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Seventh Moon (2008)

Eduardo Sanchez, one of the co-directors of 1999's landmark The Blair Witch Project, returns to the horror genre with 2008's Seventh Moon, a dazzling and effective roller-coaster ride that wastes not a single breath, a single frame.

The skillfully-crafted Seventh Moon actually adopts some of the Blair Witch's specific story points and famous techniques, including the pervasive (and controversial) use of unsteadicam/shaky-cam.

The important point, however, is that Seventh Moon successfully generates and develops a consuming, throat-tightening sense of fear that endures right up until the final, catharsis-inducing frames: a montage of the (welcome) sunrise after a long, harrowing, moonlit night.

Seventh Moon is the tale of young newlyweds Yul (Tim Chiou) and Melissa (Amy Smart), who are honeymooning in China. After a busy day at a street festival, the couple's Chinese tour guide drives the exhausted and inebriated newlyweds to meet Yul's family. They fall asleep during the ride, however, and when Melissa awakens, it is night and the guide confesses that he is "lost;" that the roads in this rural part of China are "very tricky."

The guide goes off in the impenetrable darkness to find help and directions...and then promptly disappears, leaving Melissa and Yul to fend for themselves in unfamiliar terrain. The locals, they soon learn, believe in the story of the Seventh Moon, a time when "hungry ghosts" walk the Earth in search of offerings. This is the one night a year in which "the Gates of Hell are open."

Long story short, the local villagers believe that if they leave "live" offerings outside their doors, the hungry ghosts will not come calling for them. Mel and Yul attempt to flee from the small cluster of houses, driving away in the guide's car...but a feral, fast-moving, white-skinned creature crosses their path and runs them off the road. Before long, Yul and Mel are on the run, pursued by a hunting group of these ferocious creatures...

Like The Blair Witch Project, Seventh Moon involves young people of some arrogance (early on, Yul teases and cajoles his Chinese guide about a T-shirt). The movie also focuses on the truth/fiction of a local legend (the legend of the Seventh Moon rather than Burkittsville's Blair Witch). And, after a wilderness chase, some of the action occurs at a mysterious, isolated house in the woods (not Rustin Parr's this time). Also like The Blair Witch Project, the movie plays on the deep fear of being lost -- with literally nowhere to turn -- and the shaky camerawork ultimately becomes so frenetic that, almost by itself, it forges a borderline sense of hysteria.

But where The Blair Witch Project gazed meaningfully at the artificial barriers we construct (barriers like media) to insulate ourselves from unpleasant facts/reality, Seventh Moon offers a more heroic portrait of mankind.

Some viewers have apparently asked what's "the point" of all the terror in Seventh Moon (not necessarily a pertinent question in the genre, actually...), but the movie does have a point. The narrative concerns marriage, and specifically the idea that sometimes there is no other option than to sacrifice yourself for your loved one. The character in Seventh Moon who at first appears weak is the one who ultimately proves strong; the one who broaches that sacrifice. The movie's last view of that character is legitimately haunting.

Much of Seventh Moon's drama arises from this crucible of the newly-married couple. At first, they bicker relentlessly. "You should have paid more attention to where we were going," Mel accuses Yul at one point. As for Yul, he's stubborn and slow to accept the reality of the horrific situation. In the end, however, both characters cowboy up, and cast-off recriminations for heroic action. And, in harrowing fashion, that action takes the form of a pitch-black excursion into an underworld, into the "nest" of the creatures in a subterranean cave.

One of the newlyweds broaches this shadowy Hell with nothing but the light from a cell phone, and the lengthy sequence makes for a nail-biting bit of suspense. Again, I've read some genre reviewers complaining that these moments are under lit, and that you can't make out enough detail.

I disagree wholeheartedly with that assessment: the low light and the brief excursions into total blackness only enhance the movie's already-keen sense of creeping uncertainty and the terror of an unfamiliar terrain. This isn't supposed to be The Waltons, it's supposed to be a scary movie that plays on your fears. One of those fears, one of our basic human fears, is fear of the dark.

Much of Seventh Moon is as suspenseful as that dimly lit scene, actually. There's a scene early on during which Yul and Melissa became trapped and surrounded in their damaged car. The ferocious, frenetic monsters attack en masse, and the couple is left with no recourse but to rip out a back seat and seek (brief) sanctuary in the tight confines of the car trunk. The action is so intense that the shots virtually bleed into each other, a flurry of images that suggest unmatched velocity and violence.

The shaky-cam approach -- which also is often derided by many -- makes you feel like you're right in the thick of the action (not unlike the outstanding [REC][2007]. It's a different approach to visualization, to be sure, but not one nearly so easy to forge as it looks. Sanchez uses this style exquisitely, much as he did in The Blair Witch, and gives the movie a cinema verite, spontaneous atmosphere that heightens the aura of stark, inescapable terror. At times, when highlighting the action involving the creatures in particular, Sanchez knowingly goes out of focus (another quality of the cinema verite school), and denies us the very details our eyes covet. This choice of visual approach maintains the mystery of the monsters' appearance. The ghouls never become so familiar that they lose the capacity to scare you.

Good horror, frankly, is often very much about this idea; about denying the audience the very things it seeks: a good, long view at that thing lurking in the dark, for instance.

In Seventh Moon -- a low budget film -- Sanchez makes the absolute most of his lighting and camera work to deny viewers any morsel of comfort, either visual or narrative. The film also moves at a blazing pace, denying us the time to process entirely what we have witnessed.

Like Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Seventh Moon is all about showing just enough to frighten us...and then artfully pulling back,and permitting our minds to do the heavy lifting and imagine the rest. In my opinion, good horror movies should sow discomfort any way they can. They don't necessarily need to feature expensive make-up or special effects.

I admired Seventh Moon because it gets about its ghoulish business with a ruthless sense of efficiency. It dispenses with explanations and certainties and gets right to the matter at hand: an all-night descent into Hell itself.

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...