Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween-a-Thon 2013: Trick or Treating in the 1970s

That's five year old JKM as The Six Million Dollar Man!
Given my penchant for horror films, it won’t surprise you to learn that Halloween is a big holiday at the Muir house. 

I still dress up along with Joel every October 31st, and head out into the neighborhood collecting candy.  We have one amazing neighbor up the street who only gives out “movie”-style candy, giant, over-sized boxes of Raisinets and the like.  I pretty much have to muscle my seven year old out of the way to get to them.

Just kidding. I let Joel get the loot. 

My love of Halloween goes back to my earliest memories in the seventies.  I grew up in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, a picturesque Essex County suburb, and the trick-or-treating there was pretty great. 

Glen Ridge is a small town, so a kid could cover a lot of ground in one night, if he or she was willing to do a lot of walking.  

My sister and I would get started on Halloween at about 4:30 pm (in costume), trick-or-treat for an hour, eat dinner, and then go back out and trick-or-treat until nine o’clock at night.  

Then, we’d return home, dump our bags out on the kitchen table, and assess the sweet loot.  For many years, it seemed, we went trick-or-treating “for UNICEF” (United Nation’s Children’s Fund) as well, and I still remember carrying along those little orange boxes filled with change.

Part of the fun of Halloween in the 1970s involved those classic, if flimsy, Ben Cooper costumes of the era.  One year, I went out trick-or-treating as Ben Cooper’s Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man.  As you can tell from the photograph, however, I look more like President Ronald Reagan than Colonel Austin.  

Another year, I went out as Ben Cooper’s Darth Vader, and the next year, as the same company’s Cylon from Battlestar Galactica.  If I’m being honest, these costumes weren’t really very good, and certainly not “show accurate” to any degree.  

And after a long night of wearing those masks, they always smelled like sweat.

I still went trick-or-treating in high school, and one year dressed up as Freddy Krueger.  I had an Indiana Jones fedora, a red-and-white sweater, a Freddy glove and a pull-over mask. 

Instead of focusing on trick or treating, however, I focused on scaring my sister.  I remember that I waited until it was about 8:30 pm, and I found a great perch at the nearby railroad tracks where we had often played as children. The tracks were near -- I kid you not -- a graveyard. 

As my sister crossed the railroad tracks on her return journey, I jumped out from behind a tall signal post and scared the heck out of her.  And man, was it fun.

It’s Halloween.  Everyone is entitled to one good scare, right?

Actually, I had my own bad scare one year while trick-or-treating in Glen Ridge. 

I think I must have been nine or so at the time.  I’m pretty sure it was the year I went out as a Cylon.  There I was in my costume, collecting candy in Glen Ridge, when I approached a large suburban house from the side. 

I should have stayed in the light, and out on the front walk.  Instead, I ran up the side yard trying to beat the other kids.  I ran by a large hedge, and then quite unexpectedly fell into a seven or eight foot hole, dug right out of the yard.  It was quite a shock.  I remember wondering what the hell happened, but fortunately I was rescued after about a minute or so “buried alive” in that ditch. 

One good scare indeed!

Just a week until Halloween now, and I’m super excited to go out trick-or-treating with Joel.  He’s dressing up as The Grim Reaper, and I’m probably going (again) as Mr. Spock, as I often do. 

I’ll make certain, however, we both stay on the path, and avoid any ditches…or dream demons.  

Happy Halloween to all!

Halloween-a-Thon 2013: The Conjuring (2013)

The Conjuring (2013) is a slick and entertaining horror film buttressed by solid performances, good production values, and quite a few highly-effective jump scares.

The film’s recreation of the 1970s milieu is also effective, and pinpoints genuine terror in a time of our national “crisis of confidence.”  

For some reason, there’s just something about the 1970s -- the era of The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Carrie (1976), Halloween (1978), and The Amityville Horror (1979) -- that remains scary to many of us.  

Perhaps it is because the 1970s was the last time we really let ambiguity seep deeply into the national Zeitgeist, before it was “morning in America” again -- and eternally -- even in times of war or other strife.

There’s also some solid suspense wrought in The Conjuring’s first act, particularly in a chilling prologue involving a doll possessed by a demonic entity. This opening sequence plays like a mini-movie (or mini-Twilight Zone episode) in its own right, and gets things started off in good, creepy fashion.

All these values earn the film a positive recommendation from this writer, yet many aspects of The Conjuring don’t work nearly as well as they ought to, and manifest as a kind of carelessness in terms of storytelling.

In short, The Conjuring is a good movie, but not a particularly deep one.

Elements of the film feel very familiar, and on top of that, narratively inconsistent.  The story makes a mincemeat over its central debate (the difference between a ghost and a demon), and even gets a key historical date wrong, all while banking on a “based-on-a-true-story” approach to add to the effectiveness of the horror. Then, the film ends with a paean to superstition, suggesting an ardent belief "in the fairy tale" (of an afterlife) rather than in the auspices of science and reason.

Also, and in some very crucial ways, The Conjuring feels more like a TV pilot  -- an inducement to franchise-i-fication -- than a horror film with the potential and desire to transgress, shatter decorum, or undercut convention.

To put this all another way: The Conjuring is a great roller-coaster ride and you’ll have a good time watching it.  Have no mistake about that.

But it simply isn’t the kind of horror movie that will trouble your slumber, or linger in your memory.  The film is entertaining in a generic “summer blockbuster way,” yet never quite succeeds as a work of transgressive art…which is the highest calling of the horror movie, in my opinion.

The Perron family moves into an old farmhouse in Rhode Island in the year 1971, and almost immediately begins to encounter strange, supernatural manifestations.  After the death of the dog, Sadie, events spiral out of control.  The girls report imaginary friends, the smell of rancid meat saturates the house, and the family even discovers a dark, hidden cellar. 
Bruised and oppressed by an unseen “ghost,”  matriarch Carolyn Perron (Lily Taylor) seeks the assistance of paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Verma Farmiga).  The couple visits the house and confirms that a demonic entity has “latched on” to the family.  The Warrens plan for an exorcism, but first must gather information so the Catholic Church can approve the procedure.
Research reveals that the Perron’s house was once home to a witch, Bathsheba, who murdered her infant child in an attempt to gain favor with the devil.  Bathsheba hanged herself soon thereafter, but not before cursing any and all trespassers on her land.
Ed and Lorraine worry that Bathsheba is now attempting to possess one of the Perrons, the most psychologically vulnerable of the clan. 
Before long, their fears come to fruition…even as Bathsheba also attempts to latch onto Lorraine, and her daughter…

When The Conjuring stays focused on the Perron family and their haunted farm house, or explores the possibilities of a malevolent ambulatory doll in its prologue (arguably the film’s most effective sequence), The Conjuring absolutely qualifies as an adroit horror machine, a roller-coaster ride with all the requisite bells and whistles.  The film is a big, successful crowd-pleaser.

And shit, what’s wrong with that?  

The film is a machine that works.

But test drive the machine some, and the film’s narrative doesn’t cohere.  For example, consider the film’s menace: a witch called Bathsheba who possesses mothers and makes them kill their children. 

The Conjuring spends a great deal of its early running time describing in detail the important differences between ghosts and demonic entities.  Ghosts haunt places; demonic entities latch onto people, the Warrens explain.  Demonic entities never walked the Earth as humans, but ghosts did.

All these “facts” are ably related by the film’s screenplay, but in terms of Bathsheba, the whole idea is terribly muddled. Bathsheba is a witch who died years ago, and who -- actually -- walked the Earth as a human.  So quite clearly, then, and by the Warrens’ own definition, she’s a ghost, not a demonic entity, right?

Yet the film continually refers to Bathsheba as a demonic entity who latches onto people (not to a place, like a ghost), when in fact she simply can’t be, since she was formerly a human being. 

The Conjuring thus seems terminally confused about the very nature of its monster.  

If Bathsheba’s a dead personality continuing to exist after the end of her life on this mortal coil, she’s a ghost. By Ed’s own definition -- provided in the prologue -- she can’t be a demon.  So our question to the film’s writers must be this: why go to such great lengths to present these definitions of ghosts and demons, then simply to ignore them?  Better not to bring up all these details in the first place if the script can't stick to them.

Secondly, Bathsheba’s range of powers shifts radically depending on the needs of the screenwriters.  At one point, Lorraine Warren turns her glance skyward, and ominous clouds blot out the sun, moving in around the house.  

The inference is that Bathsheba is literally casting a shadow over the land.  Similarly, Bathsheba can appear anywhere, at any time, and literally throw people around the room (gripping them by their hair).  She can press the trigger on a shotgun, and even shoot at people, too.

But yet Bathsheba can’t endure in the physical body of a mother who…wait for it…loves her children. 

The conclusion of The Conjuring literally suggests that Perron’s love of her children is the very thing that repels Bathsheba’s presence. 

This is a lovely sentiment about a mother’s love, to be certain, but not one that survives close scrutiny.  Given such facts, are we then to assume that the ghostly Rory’s mother didn’t love him, since Bathsheba possessed her, and she killed her own son? 

Or does Carolyn Perron just love her son more than Rory’s mother loved him?

Mother’s “love” is kind of an occupational hazard of the job, isn’t it?  Wouldn’t Bathsheba take that into account when possessing Moms?  It's like saying that a ghost who is allergic to garlic decides to possess only people who eat garlic.

The problem here is, frankly, a deeper one.  

The Conjuring simply doesn’t leave any room for ambiguity. It settles on its rules fairly quickly, and then attempts to show how those rules work in practice. Demonic entities are not ghosts, but beings that can latch onto people, and this demon, Bathsheba, exists to make mothers kill their children as she killed her own. The antidote for possession by Bathsheba is, per the climactic scene, a mother’s love. 

It’s all neatly tied up in bows for the audience, but that kind of clear-cut explanation of a supernatural entity’s motivation is the enemy of successful horror, which seeks to foster uncertainty, not bring clarity.

Even in terms of getting historical details right, The Conjuring trips over its feet. It is established that the events at the Perron family farm occur in the year 1971, for example. 

When the possession crisis ends, the Warrens return home, and get a call from a priest to investigate another haunting on Long Island: the Amityville Horror Case.

But history clearly records that the Lutzs didn’t even move into the house at Amityville until 1975.  If the Warrens are investigating the DeFeo case at the same house, well, those murders didn’t occur until 1974.

For a film that tries so hard to squeeze mileage out of a “based on a true story” approach, The Conjuring places fast and loose with the Warrens’ chronology (not to mention the actual fate of Bathsheba, in real life…).

I would agree that I am nitpicking heere were it not for the fact that The Conjuring works so assiduously to succeed on its claims of veracity.  The movie even ends with authentic photographs of the Warrens and the Perrons, furthering the apparent connection to historical “fact.”  But the photographs are less persuasive than they appear.  All we see are personalities, never anything supernatural.  Given all the “demonic activity” that the Warrens witness (and record on film...) in The Conjuring, why not end this movie with their authentic footage, with excerpts from some of their "sessions" curing people of possession?  Or, the film could play the audio of the possessed woman that apparently spawned the making of the film

But instead, this true story only throws up a few photos which establish, simply, that the Warrens and the Perrons knew each other, in the 1970s.

The very structure of The Conjuring actually diminishes real psychic fear or terror too.  Ed and Lorraine are presented as demonologists who do this kind of work on a regular basis.  The film opens with one of their previous cases (and again, quite effectively so…).  The movie ends with the promise that we will see their future cases.  In the middle, we see their present “case.”

So, essentially, then, we know that Ed and Lorraine, a priori, are going to survive whatever horrors they face in the film. 

That’s why I made the comparison to a TV pilot in my introduction: The Conjuring feels more like a set-up for a (perhaps very good…) TV series: one in which we follow a pair of investigators on their quest to deal with supernatural entities. But most horror movies are built around their monster, not their protagonists, and the could be a problem, going forward, for the franchise.  We know the Warrens are going to "make it," don't we?

The true concern here, however, is that in terms of the horror genre all of this franchise setting-up only serves to diminish the terror of this entry. We’re being prepared, from start to finish, in The Conjuring for a movie series…and that very fact takes away the filmmakers’ ability to surprise audiences, or take risks with structure, format and theme.

A really good, really memorable horror movie must subvert expectations and play with those things -- think Psycho, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or even Wolf Creek.  

Or think instead about the sub-textual messaging of The Amityville Horror (1979), a very like-minded haunted house film from 1979 that treads in economic woes (as a source no less than Stephen King commented on...).  The haunted house there, in other words, was a metaphor for something else; something disturbing the society of the Carter recession.  

By contrast, there is no meaningful structural or thematic subtext in The Conjuring.  It is simply – and I don’t mean to minimize the accomplishment – a strikingly effective “scare” machine.  The "bumps" and jump scares are orchestrated brilliantly and effectively.

But the supernatural encounters in The Conjuring, while well-vetted in terms of visual presentation (make-up, wire-work, and so forth), are also, alas from the same stew of genre clichés we’ve seen many times in recent years. 

The exorcism angle we’ve seen in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Last Exorcism (2010), and The Devil Inside (2012) to name just three films of the last decade. 

The ghost hunters we’ve met recently in films like Apartment 143 (2012), and the malevolent entity endangering families might as well be the demon from The Possession (2012), the evil inter-dimensional interloper from The Apparition (2012), or the child-killer of Sinister (2012).  

While I enjoy the fact that The Conjuring locates the 1970s as America’s decade of true terror (it was, in a very real sense, given the Oil Embargo of 1973, Watergate, Three Mile Island, and the Vietnam War), the period trappings are simply not enough to make The Conjuring feel original or fresh.

Again, I wish to be plain.  I enjoyed The Conjuring.  It passed the time pleasantly and scarily, and I jumped a few times, but there is not one quality about this film that takes a chance or risk, or that challenges the audience’s perceptions of reality. 

Imagine how we’d look at Psycho, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project, or other films deemed “classic” today, if they had adopted the same commercial approach.

So The Conjuring will entertain you, but it will not, I suspect, endure as a horror classic.  An equally effective scare machine will show up next summer, and replace it in audience affections.  

In fact, that movie might even be the inevitable sequel…

Movie Trailer: The Conjuring (2013)

Halloween-o-Thon 2013: The Invoking (2013)

By some weird happenstance, the micro-budgeted horror film The Invoking (2013) and the mainstream studio release Texas Chainsaw 3-D (2013) share a premise. 

In both productions, a young woman inherits a house from a dead relative and in the process of exploring that “home” re-discovers a dark family past. 

Amazingly, while Texas Chainsaw 3-D utterly botches this scenario (tripping over its own   chronology and the date of the original Chainsaw “events” in the process), The Invoking handles the subject matter masterfully, relying on subtlety, sturdy performances, and a slow-dawning vibe of horror and suspense.

It’s not often that a small, independent film totally laps a big, 3-D franchise film, but that’s precisely what occurs here. Texas Chainsaw 3-D is likely the dumbest horror movie in a while (at least since Shark Night…), while The Invoking veritably demands engagement. It’s a cerebral horror film -- and still on the Festival circuit as of this writing -- and a very good one at that.

In The Invoking, written by Berg, Matt Medisch, and John Portanova, a young woman named Sam (Trin Miller) learns that she has inherited a house from an aunt she has all but forgotten about. 

Along with her friends -- Mark (Brandon Anthony), Caitlin (Andi Norris) and Roman (Josh Truax) -- Sam embarks on a road trip to visit the property, which is located at a remote rural spot near Sader Ridge.

When the group arrives at the run-down house, it meets Eric (Midili), the grounds-keeper, who remembers playing with Sam when she was a little girl.  Sam has almost no memory of Eric at all, or the events about which he speaks.

The others don’t trust Eric, but are distracted by their own personal issues as well.  Mark, Sam’s former boyfriend, is interested in Caitlin, and Roman is jealous.  Meanwhile, Sam keeps hearing strange prayers emanating from the bedroom, and she wakes up with cigarette burns on her body.

Later, Eric, a war veteran, offers to take the four friends to see Sader Ridge. 

But on the way into the woods, Mark disappears, and day slips into darkest night. 

Sam, meanwhile, begins to remember more details of her childhood, and her father…

The key to The Invoking’s artistic success rests not merely in the better-than-average performances (particularly that of D’Angelo Midili, as a fellow named Eric), but upon the film’s almost entirely unique central conceit. 

Specifically, the movie from director Jeremy Berg indicates something strongly supernatural in some sense, right down to its choice of title.  An “invoking,” after all is the summoning of a spirit by means of charm or incantation.  

Appropriately, an invoking of a type occurs in the film -- through the memories spawned by the house, by words spoken in a creepy prayer, and also by the words of one character, in particular.

Yet the “monster” and central threat that emerge from this invoking are not at all what one expects, but rather a very different kind of human menace; one with roots in psychology, and child abuse.

This notion works distinctly in the movie’s favor, and not only that, makes The Invoking a compelling exercise in Freudian Theory.  In broad terms, the film is about “the return of the repressed,” to co-opt an oft-repeated phrase.  The past re-asserts itself in the present in The Invoking, and at times, the two eras seem to blend, with characters taking on more than one personality.

The Invoking eschews a lot of the modern bells and whistles of the horror film -- namely elaborate special effects and overt violence -- to focus on little things that have a big impact. 

One example is a simple scene, set at dusk.  Night is falling.  Sam and her group are walking out in the woods, trying to find their way back home.  Suddenly, a figure appears in the darkness, at some distance, walking zombie-like…on some apparently unknown agenda.  Who is it? What is he doing there?  We don’t know precisely, and the scene carries an electric charge of uncertainty. 

The film boasts a number of good moments like that, where something simple -- like the presence of a stranger where no stranger should be -- is harnessed effectively to create a mood of dread and terror.

Perhaps even more impressively, The Invoking doesn’t tread in the shallow land of clichés or easy answers.  There’s one “broken” character in the film that, despite every action taken, remains immensely sympathetic.  This character has a moment where a decision to commit murder is forged.  The act is undertaken decisively and effectively, though not enthusiastically, and the violence carries a horrifying atmosphere of realism.  We are shocked at the scene, but not quite as shocked as the victim is.

As I’ve noted above, The Invoking is a micro-budgeted film -- shot down and dirty in seven days, if I understand correctly -- and yet the cinematography is astoundingly precise and attractive.   The soundtrack also underlines the action brilliantly.  If the film boasts any flaw it is that the ending feels too abrupt, a little too ambiguous, especially when the audience has become so invested in the characters and their plight.  I suppose it is better to be left wanting more than feeling that a movie outstayed its welcome, but still, The Invoking calls up such a mesmerizing spell that it isn’t easy disassociating from it as the end credits roll.

Of course, that may be the point, in some sense. 

Sam returns to the home of her father and grandfather there at Sader Ridge, and the memories come rushing back, re-shaping her present… the past spilling dangerously into the present.

The Invoking makes you feel the weight of that past too…   

Movie Trailer: The Invoking (2013)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Lunchbox of the Week: The Real Ghostbusters

Collectible of the Week: The Real Ghostbusters Fire Station Headquarters (Kenner; 1987)

Over the last year or so my son Joel and I  have become hooked on The Real Ghostbusters (1986 – 1991), the long-lived Saturday morning cartoon adapted from the popular 1984 movie starring Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd.   

These episodes, which pit the intrepid Ghostbusters against the Bogeyman, Samhain (The Spirit of Halloween), the Sandman and other ghouls are a lot of fun, and clearly written with affection for the horror genre.  We’ve probably watched the first season together three times by now…

Anyway, this adventure continues for Joel and me with The Real Ghostbusters Fire Station Headquarters (1987) from Kenner, a really great multi-story play-set from the mid-1980s.

The over-sized set features a containment unit for the ghosts and a three level spinning elevator pole so the Ghostbusters can race to their car and get to any emergency.  

The bottom story of the firehouse is large enough to house the Ecto 1, though we have only the Kenner Haunted Highway vehicle, which is a yellow Volkswagen that transforms into a giant praying mantis.

Originally, the Real Ghostbusters Fire Station Headquarters also came with some “Ecto-Plazm” slime, but since these toys are twenty-five years old, we’re missing that particular accessory.

To my delight, Joel has ceded the firehouse play set largely to me and the heroic Ghostbusters, while he has set up a haunted castle for the ghosts from the series, which include “Haunted Humans” like “X-Cop,” “Granny Gross,” “Tombstone Tackle,” “Hard Hat” and “Terror Trash.”

These beasts are currently in league with his other ghouls, which include a haunted toilet called “Fearsome Flush” (!) and several creepy-looking ghost “mini-traps.”   There's also a skeleton monster called "Bad to the Bone."

All spoken for, Joel has probably about twenty ghosts from the Kenner series, and he loves to make them launch an attack on the fire station, which the Ghostbusters (played by me…) must then defend.  And by the way,  I do a mean Peter Venkman impersonation (half-way between Bill Murray and Garfield…).

If only we had a Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man…

Model Kit of the Week: Ghostbusters II Ecto 1A (AMT/ERTL)

Board Game of the Week: The Real Ghostbusters

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Halloween-a-thon 2013: Blade (1998)

Based on a disco-decade comic-book written by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by Gene Colan, Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998) is an underrated and action-packed gem of its era.

This late-nineties film highlights several effective horror movie-style jolts and blazing martial arts sequences, but remains notable and noble today for its dedicated attempts to re-contextualize the vampire and vampire lore for millennial audiences. More than that -- and from the perspective of a decade later -- Norrington film seems a treatise on issues of race in modern America.

In Blade, the vampires are not the romantic, Byron-esque, "tragic" breed of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire (1994) or Forever Knight (1992-1996). Nor are they the pack hunters, savages and desert bugs of From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998). 

Rather, the vampires of Blade appear as a purposeful reflection of the decade's conspiracy-phobia, and under-the-surface fear of an unseen, rich cabal pulling the strings in America.

Blade commences in 1967, at the dawn of the counter-culture era in American history. A baby is born to an African-American woman (Sanaa Lathan) who has been bitten by a vampire.

Some thirty years later, the counter-culture movement is dead, Big Business reigns during the "dot-com boom" and that child -- that orphan -- is a man called Blade (Wesley Snipes). 

This vampire-human hybrid is also known as "The Daywalker" in some circles because of his human ability to survive in sunlight. With the help of his mentor and friend, Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), Blade now wages a war against the un-dead scourge infesting Los Angeles.

After interrupting a vampire rave called "Bloodbath," Blade rescues a hematologist named Karen (N'Bushe Wright) from a vampire gangster, and then begins to investigate the latest scheme of vampire warlord, Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff). 

Frost is attempting to bring about a brand of un-dead Armageddon by raising an ancient vampire God,: La Magra. This attempted resurrection not only raises Blade's ire, but disturbs the leader of the status-quo-seeking Vampire Nation, Dragonetti (Udo Kier). Finally, Frost attempts to use Blade's very blood to bring about La Magra's ascension....

The character of Blade -- for all intents and purposes a superhero -- first came to life in Marvel's The Tomb of Dracula, issue # 10 in 1972. Originally, he was a tough-talking, shade-wearing representation of the blaxploitation era of filmmaking. In the comic, Blade's enemy was an elder, white-haired vamp, Deacon Frost, not the young rebel and upstart of the film who shares his name. Also, in the comic books Blade was raised by Jamal Afari, a vampire hunter.

Over the years, Blade appeared in comics including Nightstalkers (where he teamed up with the slayer Hannibal King) and even Dr. Strange

But it took more than two decades for the character to come to the big screen. And when he finally arrived, Blade certainly did so with a (bloody...) splash. Genre historians often credit Bryan Singer's The X-Men (2000) for revitalizing the superhero in the cinema, but Blade was actually one of the first such genre films to follow the disastrous Batman and Robin (1997) and accrue overwhelming box-office success.

You Gotta Understand, They're Everywhere: The Secret History of the Vampire Nation

The vampires of Blade are frightening creatures: they're lawyers. No joke: in Norrington's film the vampire overlords are presented as perfectly-groomed but predatory businessmen in Armani suits.  And as the movie's dialogue suggests, these wealthy individuals "own the police." Equally worrisome, this Old World cabal relies on high-tech tools, secret back-room alliances with human political conspirators, plus a smug sense of racial superiority to lord it over less desirable half-castes. 

Importantly, Blade himself notes that these corporate monsters “have got their claws” into all walks of human life…from finance to real-estate. The vampires own “half of downtown” Los Angeles in point of fact. 

And, when the Vampire Nation meets mid-way through the film's narrative, the discussion of most-importance concerns not literal blood sucking, but the status of “off-shore accounts.”

Thus the vampiric ruling class of Blade serves as a metaphor for the “One World” movement often mentioned (and feared) in conspiracy circles. Such theorists believe that the Rockefeller family, large banks, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission secretly run the United States and the world itself.

In other words, the ruling class of the globe is a Rich, White Boy’s Club of Bankers and politicians, one that metaphorically “feeds” on the rest of us.

Blade just makes that blood-sucking literal.

This idea carried a lot of relevance in the decade of the 1990s, because on September 11, 1990, President George H.W. Bush announced in a televised speech his dream for a "A New World Order." 

Some suspicious-minded folks believed that this grandiose-sounding turn of phrase was actually a coded message to let the take-over by the Conspiracy begin. 

Adding fuel to the fire, Bush had once been a member of the Trilateral Commission. Similarly, the passage of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in the mid-1990s was supported by both Presidents Bush and Clinton, and was believed by many to be the gateway to an expanded America that would soon incorporate Mexico and Canada. You still hear a lot of this conspiracy stuff today, especially if you watch Glenn Beck.

In fascinating terms, Deacon Frost, Blade's central villain, is an outsider to this Secret Boy's Club as much as Blade is. 

But importantly, Frost views himself as a victim of race and of a hierarchy that refuses to accept him because of it. You see, Frost was merely “turned” into a vampire, not a “pure blood” of noble (vampiric) birth. The other vampires, including board CEO-type Dragonetti use this impure origin as a way to demean and control Frost. He may serve the cause, but he will never be one of the Chosen. 

Outside of race, and going back to the Conspiracy theory for a moment, one might see this relationship as a metaphor for the way The Trilateral Commission and Zbigniew Brzezinski viewed Jimmy Carter in 1976. He wasn't one of their own, but he was useful and could be educated, or trained.

The wholesale derision of Frost by the Vampire Nation is like the Old Rich deriding the Nouveau Rich; or an exclusive white man’s club refusing to accept a black man of great accomplishment. Blade proves clever, however, in orchestrating Frost’s revenge. It is clearly a racial revenge, a kind of supernatural brand of affirmative action (another hot-button issue of the 1990s...).

Specifically, Frost attempts to bring to life an ancient Vampire blood god called La Magra who will render all such genetic differences like "impure" or "pure blood" moot.

 Once La Magra rules "all will serve" the cause as equals. Deacon's selected utopia, oddly enough, involves the total erasure of class and race lines.

Thus, much of Blade involves the concept of racial identity. Blade himself is genetically half-vampire/half-man and an African-American to boot. But he rejects his vampire heritage by utilizing drugs to suppress is hunger for blood. 

At film’s conclusion, however, Blade realizes that he can never be at home among the human race, either. Dr. Jensen offers him a cure for his vampirism, but this medical solution (a symbol, perhaps for another form of cultural assimilation?) will rob him of his strength, speed, and other vampire-enhanced qualities. 

Blade realizes that this is an impossible accommodation since the war with the vampires still rages. By necessity he must remain what he is: an outsider in two worlds; the one and only “Daywalker.”

Interestingly, neither race -- vampire or human -- accepts Blade. 

The human world sees him as a law-breaker by and large, a man who needs to be stopped. The Vampire Nation also views Blade as an enemy who must be destroyed. 

It is Frost, however, who is most disappointed in Blade because he clearly senses that they have much in common. They are both derided by the vampire establishment; they are both rebels. But Frost also finds it mystifying that Blade should protect human beings, the equivalent of cattle in his eyes. 

Spare me the Uncle Tom routine,” he barks at Blade in their first face-to-face meeting, thus contextualizing their shared experiences explicitly in racial terms. Frost pretends to serve a master, "the Vampire Nation," while actually plotting an overthrow, so he finds it baffling that Blade should allow the beliefs of the human world (compassion, etc.) to be his "master."

Bloodbath: The Veneer of a "Sugar Coated Topping"

Blade's racial sub-text and 1990s obsession over conspiracies prove fascinating components of the film, but to many viewers it is the movie’s aggressive and colorful style that ultimately makes it so memorable.

For instance, at several points in the film, the movie incorporates fast-motion photography of Blade’s metropolis transitioning from safe daylight to dangerous darkness. The shift is rapid so that the shadows themselves seem to crawl and creep up and across glass skyscrapers. These shadows take on a life of their own (not entirely unlike Dracula’s creeping silhouette in Bram Stoker’s Dracula [1992], or the earliest vision of screen vampires, the silent Nosferatu).

But the transitional technique (of fast-motion photograph) also reflects an essential characteristic of the vampire world (and the vampire conspiracy). This world is unmoving, patient and seemingly eternal, a direct contrast to the speedy human "march of days:" a never-ending procession from night to day and back to night. Indeed, this is how the mortal realm might very well look to an immortal creature of the night.

In addition to a hyper-kinetic sense of pace set in what The New York Post termed a "techno-styled urban landscape" (Rod Dreher, August 21, 1998, page 57), Blade offers breath-taking vistas of extreme and stylish violence. 

The opening set piece -- a pulse-pounding, party or "rave" for vampires -- starts the film off in blistering fashion. A sexy woman (secretly a vampire) leads an unsuspecting human male into the crowded subterranean party. But before long, the real "underneath" is revealed as overhead sprinklers douse the gyrating revelers in gallons of human blood. Rapidly, the human realizes he’s surrounded by vampires,and that he's the only mortal in attendance. As vampires sensuously rub blood all over their bodies, the color palette of the film morphs from cold metallic blue to hot, lurid red.

Down on all fours -- a position exposing his position in the food chain in this hidden world -- our imperiled human reveler crawls for safety until he comes upon an immovable object: Blade, making his stunning arrival in the film. The vampires back-away in horror at the sight of the Daywalker, and Snipes remains frozen in the frame, literally a stone.

That the vampires retreat (and retreat quickly) and that Blade does not move at all (at least at first...) provides the viewer a visual cue about who is dominant in this situation. The framing and choice of blocking asserts the Daywalker's “power” over his vampire prey.

What quickly follows this stellar introduction is a furious action scene. 

This bload-soaked battle between Blade and scores of vampires is a tour-de-force of choreography, stunt work, scoring, and editing. And Snipes himself is poetry in motion. Gene Seymour at the Los Angeles Times describes the actor as "the movie's biggest asset." The reviewer added, "He may snarl, hiss and twitch in ways that are often disorienting, but you can't take your eyes off of him." (August 21, 1998, page 4). Indeed, it's a star performance.

To some extent, the film’s final battle between a possessed Frost and the wounded Blade in the temple of La Magra can’t match the pure exhilaration of that vigorous, red-blooded opening fight scene. Yet Blade still impresses with its sub-textual commentary on a conspiracy of the rich preying on the weak and poor, and with its impressive sense of visual style.

As many critics suggested, the Norrington film is also part "Oedipal Drama" (Justine Elias, The Village Voice, September 1, 1998), since Blade must in the course of his battle and heroic journey face down his own mother, now a twisted, perverted "assimilated" vampire. 

Momma Vanessa (Lathan) offers Blade belonging, succor, and even sexual comfort. On the latter front, it is noted, quite literally, that Blade, Vanessa and Frost can be one "big happy fucking family.

But Blade understands that his Mother has bought into the sick value of Deacon Frost and resists the proffered family ties. By breaking the human taboo of incest, Blade understands that he is playing into Frost's chosen method of domination: erasure of "traditional" cultural barriers and differences.

Watching Blade today, and looking past some of the superficial 1990s cliches (a hero garbed in black leather finding his destiny as The Chosen One), one senses a genre film grappling with big, intriguing ideas. Blade, the Daywalker navigates the knife's edge between two cultures that want to own him; but to which he doesn't, and can't ever, truly belong. Today we've had two sequels and even a Blade TV series (which aired on Spike), but in some ways, this first, blazing journey into Blade's world remains the most satisfying and artistic one.

In Blade, the "world we live in is just a sugar-coated topping." 

Beneath that topping is racial strife and resentment, conspiracy, domination, and even the difficult quest for independent identity.

Hallween-a-thon 2013: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

To aggressively analyze and interpret a David Lynch film is to invite agitation. 

On one hand, many critics suggest the artist's movies are dense and impenetrable; that they are weird just for the sake of weirdness. Therefore, no possible interpretation for what occurs on screen exists, and the interpreter is simply partaking in a wild goose chase. Or worse, being self-indulgent.

Reviewing Lynch's Lost Highway (1997), for instance, one of my favorite critics, the late Roger Ebert, admitted "I've seen it twice, hoping to make sense of it. There is no sense to be made of it. To try is to miss the point. What you see is all you get."

Yet, David Lynch's films are so abundant with symbolic representation; so rife with abstruse dream sequences; so criss-crossed with narrative alleyways, and so thoroughly dominated by opaque characterizations that they virtually cry out for contextualization and analysis.

To leave such treasure troves of figuration uninterpreted or unexamined is to abandon a half-solved puzzle.

Contrarily, to delve into the mysteries of David Lynch's cinema is to grow nearer the mind (and dream state...) of a most singular American film artist. For me, the temptation to dive in is...well...irresistible.

Sometimes, audiences, scholars and critics have also been willing to take that giant leap of faith and gaze -- unblinking and unbowed -- at the secrets and enigmas presented in Lynch's twisting, tricky narratives. Many of Lynch's productions, such as Blue Velvet (1984), are indeed held in high critical esteem. 

But at the same time, other Lynch films have not met with the same aggressive intellectual curiosity. Exhibit A: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) a prequel to the popular TV series; a movie produced a year after the program was canceled.

As you may recall, the movie was booed at the Cannes Film Festival, and New York Times critic Vincent Canby suggested "It's not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be. Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree."

Jay Scott at Toronto's Globe and Mail called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me "a disgusting, misanthropic movie," and compared a viewing of the film to "cocaine-induced paranoia."

To many critics, the layered, perplexing Fire Walk with Me is but "as blank as a fart," to quote one of the film's quirkier characters.

Yet taken at simple face value, Fire Walk With Me is a disquieting exhumation of the "underneath" in America. In the film, we encounter homecoming queen and Twin Peaks resident Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). We follow her through her harrowing last week on this mortal coil, and see that this "typical" teenager is anything but.

If the movie feels like a case of cocaine-induced paranoia, that is likely intentional. Because Laura is indeed experiencing a cocaine-induced paranoia throughout much of the movie. She's a junkie (and the film depicts Laura snorting coke on several occasions; as well as participating in a drug deal gone wrong.) Thus the film's lurid, jittery, unpleasant shape perfectly reflects the piece's content. 

Long story short: we seem to be viewing the film from inside a drug fever.

Quit Trying to Hold on So Tight...I'm Gone: Laura Palmer as Victim of Incest

David Lynch's films work on different metaphorical layers, and one thematic layer of Fire Walk with Me involves a truly unpleasant topic: incest.

Beautiful Laura Palmer -- the envy of every girl at Twin Peaks high school -- is the victim of incest. She has been the victim of sexual molestation by her father, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), for several years.

Unable to cope with this monstrous reality, Laura's shattered mind has come to visually re-interpret her father's nocturnal bedroom visits as the home invasions of a swarthy stranger, a monster named "Bob."

Laura informs her psychiatrist, Harold ,that "Bob is real. He's been having me since I was twelve." Furthermore, she notes "he comes through my window at night...he's getting to know me. He wants to be me...or he'll kill me."

And sure enough, one day, Laura arrives home from school early and sees Bob prowling around in her bedroom. As if sniffing her out. It's a terrifying scene: we suddenly register the unexpected intruder in a place of safety and comfort, and almost physically blanch at his intrusive presence. Scared, Laura runs out of the house, terrified, only to see not the Evil Bob emerge after her...but rather her beloved father, Leland. He is the Monster of Her Id.

In another disturbing scene, Bob slips inside the Palmer house through Laura's window at night. In electric blue moonlight, he seduces her. In the throes of their mutual passion, Laura suddenly sees that the stranger is actually her father, Leland, and nearly goes mad at the revelation. Again, this is the thing she is trying to bury under mountains of cocaine or in alcohol. The betrayal of a trusted loved one.

How does a the typical victim deal with persistent sexual abuse and incest? According to author Ken Chisholm's article on the subject, "Some of the social maladjustments arising from incest are alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution and promiscuity."

Consider these factors in relationship to Laura Palmer. We already know she is addicted to cocaine. We already know she drinks.

But Laura is also sexually-involved with at least two boyfriends at school: the temperamental Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) and James-Dean-ish James Hurley (James Marshall). She seems to ping-pong back and forth between them. And, as prescribed above, prostitution is part of Laura's life too. We learn in Fire Walk With Me that (as in the series before...), Laura has been selling her body both at One Eyed Jacks and at the film's sleazy Bang Bang Bar.

In other words, a history and pattern of incest leads to self-destructive behavior on the part of the victim. 

It leads to the destruction of -- and disassociation from -- the healthy ego. This is also evident in Fire Walk with Me. "Your Laura disappeared," Laura informs James blankly, feeling unworthy and undeserved of his authentic, romantic love. "It's just me now," she explains, feeling ashamed and guilty over her behavior.

At one point, late in the film, even Laura's guardian angel seems to abandon her, vanishing from a painting in her bedroom. 

It's thus clear that Laura blames herself for her father's behavior, and consequently that she views herself as ugly and corrupted. She isn't the golden girl anymore, she's tarnished.

This self-hatred becomes especially plain during the moment when Laura confides in her psychiatrist Harold about "Bob's" visits.

Suddenly, the film cuts to a nightmarish view of Laura as an ivory white crone; one with alabaster skin, but yellowed teeth, scarlet gums and blackened lips. She looks like a terrible, corrupted monster: an outward reflection of her low self-esteem. 

This is how she sees herself.

Later in the film, we see Leland Palmer -- suffering his own personal hell of guilt and shame -- imagining himself in identical terms, right down to the black lips. This is the form of the bad conscience made manifest.

Those who endure incest and sexual abuse also, over time, may experience night terrors, hallucinations, or insomnia. Laura is not immune from these symptoms either. She lives through terrifying nightmares, especially ones that involve a creepy painting. 

On that painting is rendered a half-open door; and in Laura's dream she mindlessly treads though that door into the evil world of the Black Lodge. The Black Lodge is a place were "garmonbozia" (pain and suffering) is eaten like creamed corn, and her suffering will provide a feast. Laura is, literally, the Devil's candy. And she knows it.

Laura is aware that she is a moth driven to the flame (a woman consigned to Hell...) and again and again, Fire Walk With Me brings up the idea of fire in connection to Laura. Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly) asks Laura a weird question. "If you fall in outer space, do you think you'd slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?"

Laura's telling answer is that she would go faster and faster...without knowing it, and then spontaneously burn up. No angels could save her...because they're all gone. The world is devoid of angels.

Again, this answer appears to be a metaphor for Laura's increasingly "fast" life (a life made even more jittery and fast by the cocaine use): dating two boys; scoring drugs; acting as a prostitute...trying desperately to escape her real life and the sexual abuse.

In the end, however, no matter how fast she goes, Laura will still be consumed by flame; destroyed. The Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) tells Laura -- in an important, if brief, scene -- that "When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy."

Once more, you've got to contextualize this remark in terms of the incest: the act which has made the self-loathing Laura change from golden girl to promiscuous drug abuser and prostitute. 

In the execution of that bad behavior, the first victim is Laura's innocence...her childhood. 

The second is her goodness (and now she can't even volunteer to feed the hungry in the meals on wheels program...). 

The third existence itself. Laura understands this. She realizes she is headed ""  In this case, nowhere means oblivion.

Another frequent quality of incest victims is a protective impulse; an overriding need to save or rescue younger siblings from the life-destroying behavior that has ruined them. In Fire Walk with Me, Donna goes to the Bang Bang Bar with Laura. Donna drinks alcohol, takes drugs, and seduces a john. When Laura witnesses Donna's craven behavior -- the tender boughs of innocence about to burn -- she is roused to act. 

Unable to save herself, Laura does the next best thing: she rescues naive Donna. Afterwards, Laura warns Donna cryptically "don't wear my stuff," an indication that Donna has "tried on" Laura's lifestyle. But it doesn't fit Donna; and Laura doesn't want Donna to be like her.

There's No Tomorrow; It Will Never Get Here: The Spirit World in Fire Walk With Me

A central question regarding Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me involves the rogue's gallery in the Black Lodge. This gallery includes Bob, The (backwards-talking) Man from Another Place (Michael Anderson) and the One-Armed Man. They dwell in that sitting room (the velvet-lined room with zig-zag floor). Are they real? Or imaginary? Are they sentient, or symbolic?

Is Leland an all-too "human" sexual abuser? Or is he an unlucky man possessed by an evil spirit? Who do we blame for the incest: the spirit (Bob) or the body (Leland)?

In a sense, it doesn't matter a whit. It is immaterial. When criminals commit terrible acts, they often claim the "devil made them do it," right? Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me may suggest a universe of Hell (in the form of the Black Lodge) and Heaven too (in the form or Ronette Pulaski's and Laura's individual guardian angels), but it never suggests that Leland is innocent.

There may be a "monster" cowering inside him; but there is a monster cowering inside all abusers, isn't there? 

If evil dwells in the human psyche, then it dwells in the human psyche...and we must combat it. Leland never does that. He murders Teresa Banks, and eventually he murders his own daughter, Laura, because he is so consumed of "the evil spirit." That's what makes him a villain.

That really was something with the dancing girl, wasn't it? What exactly did all that mean?
Encoded in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a self-commentary on David Lynch's approach to symbolic story telling.

Early in the film, FBI agent Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) and Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) are tasked by Lynch's deaf FBI chief with the investigation of Teresa's murder. 

After briefing them in very general terms, Lynch's character then maddeningly introduces the two agents to "Lil" a woman in a red dress wearing a blue rose. He says, in essence, that she represents the case that the men have embarked upon.

Then, in a bewildering moment, the strange Lil dances up to the two agents, grimaces -- revealing a sour face -- and makes a fist.

Then, Lil is never seen or heard from again as a living, breathing, human character. 

But soon after this scene, Desmond and Stanley interpret her presence. They analyze her facial expressions. They note the color of her dress. They register the presence of the blue rose, and ponder the meaning of her balled fist. 

On one hand, this is Lynch's oddball humor, acknowledging the Twin Peaks' aficionado's propensity for analyzing every little detail.

But in another sense, Lil -- and Desmond's explanation of Lil -- is the audience's primer to successfully reading or interpreting the figurations of this movie. 

Following Desmond's example, the viewer is meant to weigh characters and events symbolically. We are supposed to "see" Bob as Laura's "safe" interpretation of her father's criminal, unacceptable behavior. We are supposed to understand the drug use and prostitution as a victim's escape from guilt and shame. 

Even the passing of Theresa's ring we are to comprehend as a legacy of death, carried from one victim to the next. 

And the creamed corn? Human pain and suffering as the food of the gods.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
is really The Tragedy of Laura Palmer and the Tragedy of Small Town America. The golden girl -- the cheerleader beloved by all -- is actually a secret victim of sexual abuse...and no one sees it. 

Or no one cares to see it.

This is the roiling "underneath" that Lynch so frequently expose in his films, and it was never more relevant, perhaps, than in the early 1990s when this film was made. These were the early years after the notorious 1989 Glen Ridge rape case (wherein popular football jocks repeatedly raped a retarded girl with a baseball bat and broom); these were the years of the Spur Posse. 

Suburbia's shameful secrets were spilling out into the tabloid culture in creamed-corn torrents.

Perhaps an entire American generation of teenagers was actually fire walking with us; possessed by its darkest impulses.

What remains profound about Laura Palmer's tragedy today is that, in the end, David Lynch grants the character a small measure of contentment. 

The guardian angel she believed she lost during her last, brutal hours on Earth, returns anew (in the afterlife) to heal her pain; even as good Dale Cooper lands a comforting, supportive arm on her shoulder. Our last view of the cheerleader is of Laura smiling.

In life, Laura was relentlessly victimized...her goodness burned away by life's ugliness. In death's sitting room, of all places, peace is finally at hand.

Although this may seem decidedly bleak, it is also Lynch's balancing of the spiritual world. It may be a place of garmonbozia -- death and suffering -- but it isn't populated merely by the likes of Bob and the Man From Another Place. The winged celestial being is there too, the seraph, and that means that forgiveness is possible.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
isn't misanthropic or misogynistic. In Laura Palmer, there's sympathy for the victim of abuse. Even in Leland Palmer, there's sympathy for the devil. 

If we do "live in a dream," as one character suggests in the film, then it is also up to us to shape that dream, and keep Evil Bob at bay.

Come see at Monsterama! (Oct 27-29, 2023)

I'll be a guest at Monsterama - "Sinbad and the Eye of the Monsterama" -- this coming October! The convention is in Atlanta, a...