Saturday, August 16, 2014

At Flashbak: The 5 Most Awesome Rides of the Post-Apocalyptic Future

My newest article at Flashbak considers the five most awesome post-apocalyptic rides.

"If several decades of post-apocalyptic movies and TV series have taught viewers anything, it’s that after civilization ends, you’re going to need a good ride.

Following the fall of man, a sturdy vehicle is a home base, a shelter in the storm, and the only thing that can get survivors away from a mob of zombies, or to that safe zone in Albany, New York.

With that thought in mind, here are my selections for the five best rides of the post-apocalyptic future. Your mileage may vary..."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: BraveStarr: "BraveStarr and the Law"

In “BraveStarr and the Law,” two prospectors discover a rich vein of Kerium under Star Peak, the planetary preserve where BraveStarr’s elderly friend and mentor, the Shaman resides.

The prospector’s promise to let the Shaman live on the property in peace, even after staking their claim with the assayer’s office. 

But Tex Hex uses hypnotism and trickery to steal their claim, and he orders the Shaman evacuated at once. The Shaman refuses to leave.

BraveStarr goes to court to stop Tex Hex from proceeding, but alas, everything appears “all nice and legal.”  

Accordingly, BraveStarr refuses to execute the order for eviction, and resigns his position as marshal rather than do so…

In the terminology of the episode itself, “BraveStarr and the Law” is about the choice between conscience and rules.  

"A man can run away from his duty, but not his conscience," says BraveStarr.  In the end, of course, everything works out, and BraveStarr keeps his job, but what I like about the series is its frequent forays into gray legal areas like the one explored here.

What is the responsibility of a lawman when the law rules in favor of someone he dislikes? BraveStarr can’t act illegally, and that’s the point.  He can still, protest something he sees as being wrong, but he can’t do so as an officer of the law.   He can ask “what kind of law kicks an old man out of his home?” but he can’t, as Marshal, refuse to execute the law.

Accordingly, the episode’s message is that a person must still respect the law, even if he or she disagrees with it under certain circumstances.

On another note all together, I admire the level of background visual detail frequently evident in BraveStarr.  

Here, for example, there’s a girlie or “pin-up” calendar evident in the assayer’s office.  It’s a nice touch of realism and also incredible detail, and wholly unexpected in a children’s show.

Next week: “Eye of the Beholder.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Godzilla (1978): "The Seaweed Monster"

This week on Hanna-Barbera’s Godzilla (1978), the Calico travels to the Sargasso Sea. 

Carl warns Quinn and Brock about getting tangled up in seaweed when they go for a dive, noting that “these waters can be dangerous.” 

But even he couldn’t have anticipated that beneath the waves a giant, malevolent sea monster lurks.

The giant monster below the ocean’s surface entangles the swimmers, but Godzooky rescues them, and then barely escapes himself.  Godzilla is summoned by Godzooky’s cry, and the goliath defeats the monster handily

But before long, Quinn’s samples of sea-weed on the Calico begin growing as well. 

Quinn determines that only the heat of sunlight can dry them up these monstrous specimens and destroy the beasts. 

Now Godzilla must get the monsters to the heat of a nearby island to let the sun do its job.

“The Seaweed Monster” is a fun episode of Godzilla, though there are some major gaps in logic here to consider too. 

First, sea-weed can be burned up by any number of means, and there is no reason to depend solely on the light of the sun.  Godzilla’s atomic fire-breath is a perfectly adequate weapon, and indeed, he uses it in the episode’s final frames to burn up one of the monsters. 

This is a solution that any fan of Godzilla (and any kid paying attention…) would like hit upon almost immediately, so it’s baffling that it takes Quinn and the others nearly twenty-two minutes to come up with it.

Secondly, Godzilla must laboriously drag one of the Seaweed monsters -- on his back no less -- to a nearby island, where the sun is apparently hotter.  Now, I would understand this idea if the island were far away, near the Arctic or Antarctic, for instance.  But this island is within walking distance for Godzilla.  So is it really that much hotter there that it would make a difference in terms of burning the creature up?

Outside these issues, there is a degree of tension in “The Seaweed Monster” that makes it a lot of fun. 

The seaweed monster keeps adding mass, as more seaweed joins with it, and even after dispersed, more seaweed can come together rejoin, and produce another monster. 

Some instinct is making the seaweed assemble into one giant mass,” a character notes, and that may not be a very good scientific explanation, but it makes for an enemy that is harder to pin down, and more difficult to permanently defeat.  The scenes in which the divers are pursued by the monster, and it grips them with ever-more tendrils are actually pretty effective and suspenseful.

That fact established, you’ve just got to feel sorry for the last seaweed monster as it crawls away, dried up in the sun, and is pursued by Godzilla.  We don’t ever really learn why it is so hostile, and it is kind of pathetic in this final form.  

Maybe it just didn’t want its territory to be invaded by humans…  

Friday, August 15, 2014

Beach Week: Shark Night (2012)

If you recall (the criminally underrated) Back to the Future II (1990), you may remember a “future” scene set in 2015, wherein hero Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) sees the holographic shark for Jaws 19 and declares that it the creature still “looks fake.”

Well, here we are in 2014, and the sharks of Shark Night (2011) still look fake. 

The mechanical shark called “Bruce” who starred in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws way back in 1975 may not have been wholly convincing – which is why the director often kept it hidden or cut to P.O.V. shots  – but when viewers did see the great white beast, he at least operated by the same laws of physics as we do.  When Bruce broke the surface, water would run off his back.  When Bruce bit a victim, blood would run down between his very sharp teeth.  We might not have always believed Bruce was 100% real, but we believed that he showed up for work, at least.

In Shark Night, the sharks phone it in.

They exist in abundant special effects shots that diminish their size and sense of scale.  Seen in the clear light of day, these “animals” look like under-detailed cartoons.  They can’t scare anyone because they actually bear no connection to the environment forces which purportedly work upon them; forces such as gravity

In fact, the sharks of Shark Night not only look incredibly fake – just a step or two up from Jabber Jaw -- they also act in most un-shark-like fashion throughout much of the film, often leaping high out of the water (like…twenty feet out of the water…) to swallow their cowering human prey.  In one of the movie’s least effective kill scenes, a shark intercepts a racing jet-ski …from the front, no less…and leaps several feet out of the water to do so.  On this occasion and several others, director David Ellis lets the shark hold center frame as it leaps towards the screen (for 3-D impact), thereby offering extreme evidence of the animal’s incredible phoniness.

Shark Night earned pretty terrible reviews, and studying these special effects sharks, one can detect why.  That established, I must reluctantly admit I didn’t hate this nearly as much as I thought I might, and that’s because the film unexpectedly plays around in the terrain one of my favorite sub-genres: the savage cinema.  In keeping with that form, the film acknowledges human ugliness as the overriding source of real evil in the world.  In other words, we might escape sharks, but we can’t escape human nature.

In Shark Night, Sara (Sara Paxton) returns to her home on Lake Crosby in Louisiana for the first time in three years along with a group of co-ed friends, including shy Nick (Dustin Milligan), a med-student.  Sara has been away so long because of an accident involving her former boyfriend, local diving expert Dennis (Chris Carmack). 

Back when they were going steady, Sara began to drown on a dive and Dennis wouldn’t share his air with her.  Panicky, she made it back to the surface alive, but when she piloted the boat for home, she accidentally struck Dennis’s face with the boat propeller, permanently scarring him. 

Dennis – who looks no less handsome or buff with that facial scar, by the way -- has never forgotten this traumatic incident, and with the help of a dumb redneck, Red (Joshua Leonard) and the town’s heavy-metal loving sheriff, Sabin (Donal Logue), plans to release several captured sharks upon Sara and her buddies while they frolic on the lake…

You can just tell from the first attack in Shark Night that you’re in a different league here than in Jaws.  Remember that film’s classic prologue, and how a beautiful blonde went for a tranquil midnight swim only to be attacked and killed by a shark?   This introduction to the film remains creepy, unsettling and highly effective, even today.  By point of comparison, Shark Night opens with a blond in a white bikini swimming in the lake and getting attacked almost instantly by a shark.  It’s all thrashing and splashing, and there’s no sense of suspense or even surprise during the attack.  People inclined to use the phrase “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” regarding Hollywood will be sorely tempted to employ it here.

Lacking suspense, Shark Night is abundantly predictable.  If you’ve ever seen a horror movie, you can predict -- down to the last person (and animal) -- the characters destined to survive the film’s bloody events. Also, Joshua Leonard’s character Red is a walking talking cliche, right down to his bad teeth and bad Southern accent.  He’s supposed to be the movie’s comic relief, but again, we’re in cartoon territory here.

And yet, as I wrote above, I didn’t entirely hate Shark Night.  I don’t generally prefer horror movies this dumb and vapid, but they can occasionally be fun if you’re in the mood for something trashy and light. Plus, Sara Paxton is the star here. She was terrific in The Innkeepers (2012) and is very good here too, despite the thinness of her character.

And Shark Night boasts at least one legitimate inspiration.  It turns men into the film’s villains, and gets at the notion that the sharks – while obviously the tools of mass destruction here – aren’t really the ones with the evil intent.  Instead, Dennis and his mates are the ones to blame.  Interestingly, they view themselves as victims.  They’re victims of women (Sara), victims of a bad economy, and victims of class warfare.  Their plan is to make it rich by creating a shark snuff film for fans of cable television’s “Shark Week.”   In other words, they have something to sell, and they’ve had to put their humanity aside to sell it.  

When one of the would-be victims notes that such a money-making enterprise is sick, the evil conspirator notes, importantly “There’s no such thing as sick anymore.  There’s only moral relativism.”  It’s a biting, caustic commentary on our culture, but one entirely of the times.  If you remember Governor Rick Perry’s comment about “vulture capitalists” who go in and eat up companies for profit, you might also see how the metaphor works with sharks.  These animals (like some capitalists) must keep moving forward -- devouring things, resources and people to live -- and the rest of us are, well…merely chum.

I don’t mean any of this commentary to suggest that Shark Night is deep or especially thoughtful, only that it is “of the moment.”  It’s unique that unlike Jaws (1975), the film portrays man as the real terror in the water, one eager to destroy his fellow man for a leg up the economic ladder of success.

The special effects in Shark Night are bad, the characters are mostly barely two-dimensional appetizers, and there’s precious little in terms of interesting narrative.  Yet to his credit, director Ellis seems to know all this is the case, and at times (like during the road trip to Lake Crosby), literally fast-forwards the film so he can get to the meat of the drama – the shark attacks – quicker.

Some may see this photographic trick as an admission of creative bankruptcy.  But contrarily, it may just be an example of efficiently cutting to the chase.  Who wants to see shallow characters talking and relating to one another when we can watch them getting chewed up and spit out instead?

Shark Night isn’t a good film and it isn’t a scary horror movie.  But it is amusingly trashy and lowbrow.  It features moments of interest, especially whenever Donal Logue is on-screen playing-up the resentment angle of his blue-collar economic climber.  I didn’t hate the movie that much, in part because Shark Night was clearly made in a spirit of dumb fun.

However, if I had been the maker of Shark Night I would have gone one step further with the movie, and offered up as its ad-line the very joke from Jaws 19 in Back to the Future 2.

This time, it’s really, really personal.

Beach Week: Shark Night (2012) Movie Trailer

Beach Week: The Reef (2010)

Movies like The Reef (2010), much like Open Water (2004), remind us that no matter our toys, our technology, our social class or income level, we are all a part of the natural world, and not separate from it. 

That’s a fact it is all-too easy to forget from our modern, air-conditioned cocoons of safety and security.

And because -- on a day-to-day level -- we are so safe and secure, many of us actually start to believe that we will endure forever;  that our days will continue on and on for eternity.

More Facebook posts. More tweets. More summer blockbusters…

But the truth -- which we interface with occasionally -- is that we remain just as susceptible to mortal injury, or sudden death as any other animal that inhabits this beautiful planet. 

When we’re in the ocean, we sometimes feel that mortality more acutely, because the illusion of control is gone. 

In the ocean, we are buffeted on the tide, splashed by waves, pulled and pushed to and fro.  It is here in this realm of infinite mystery, quite fully, that we start to understand that we are connected with nature, not above it or protected from it.

The Reef concerns five young, attractive vacationers who go for a yachting excursion near Indonesia and must reckon with their place in nature.

Before long, these folks are forced to reckon with an unenviable choice: Desperately swim for an island ten miles distant and in shark-infested waters, or stay with the cap-sized, slowly-sinking ship…also in shark-infested waters.

It goes without saying, but all five of these modern, youthful, hopeful humans desire to live. And not one of them could have anticipated that they would die in this fashion. Or on this particular day.

As prey.

There’s a horrifying simplicity and intelligence underlining The Reef.  There’s almost no artifice in this horror film at all, just five desperate people who would make any deal and take any chance to continue living. 

To some extent, the film’s events -- and perhaps even the order of events -- might be described as predictable right up to and including the final kill sequence.

My wife, a therapist -- who is tortured by films such as this -- often asks me why I enjoy them so much.  According to her, the only “drama” in a movie like The Reef arises in seeing people suffering and, inevitably, dying horribly.

My stock but hopefully well-considered answer is that movies like The Reef remind all of us that life isn’t necessarily about our final destination, which is known, but rather the choices we make in the struggle to avoid that destination as long as possible.

One character here, in the film’s final minutes, makes a choice I totally sympathize with.  I’d like to think I’d do the same thing given the same circumstances, but one never really knows.

Unlike Jaws (1975) The Reef features no real sense of camaraderie among its characters, and it doesn’t reflect any particular social context, like the post-Watergate milieu of Spielberg’s classic. 

Instead, this effective horror film is simply about five unlucky people who go into the water with sharks, and have a very, very bad day.

“You look like a seal in that.  Sharks love seals.”

In The Reef, vacationers Matt (Gyton Grantley) and Suzie (Adrienne Pickering) travel with Matt’s friend Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling), delivering a yacht to a customer near Indonesia. Also along for the ride is Kate (Zoe Naylor), who was once an item with Luke.  Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith), meanwhile, is a sailor on the yacht who knows the local waters well.

After an excursion on a small island, problems occur on the trip.

The yacht’s inflatable raft/motor-boat is punctured and deflated by a coral reef.  The yacht itself suffers catastrophic damage when the coral rips the keel right off.

Luke proposes a simple choice.

Swim for nearby Turtle Island, or stay and sink with the boat. 

Warren -- who has seen sharks in these waters -- refuses to go.  But Kate, Luke, Matt, and Suzie begin their long swim.  Luke estimates it should take them no longer than five hours to reach land…

Before long, however a great white shark catches sight of the group, and begins hunting…

“The boat is fucked.”

The Reef is an absolutely relentless horror film and one that also plays as extremely plausible.  There are no last minute rescues, no miraculous survivals, and, finally, just a reckoning that fate can be remarkably cruel. 

One character notes early in the film that people are more likely to be killed by a bee sting than by a shark attack, but certainly the odds change dramatically in open water.  The film’s terror quotient also rises when the swimmers realize that they are being attacked not by different sharks, but one very determined hunter…who has been pacing them since they first got their feet wet.

The Reef is dark, but not as nihilistic (and perhaps, not as artistically high-minded…) as Open Water was.  So here the idea is not surrendering the inevitable and going through the five stages of death.  Rather, in The Reef our choices can make a difference, if even a small one. 

For instance, Matt -- once bitten by a shark -- begs his fellow swimmers to stay away from, knowing that they will be attacked next.  But Kate is Luke’s sister, and Suzie is his girlfriend.  They can’t stay away, and their survival is jeopardized.  They behave in an irrational manner, and that fact says something important about the human species. 

At another crucial point, Luke makes a choice about his survival, and about Kate’s, and it is brave, for certain. 

The upshot is that we see that, even in a terrible situation, humans remain human.  Even when facing abject fear and in an environment where we are out of our element, we can make a selection that is valuable, and will be remembered. 

So The Reef may be predictable in broad strokes  -- a  shark attacks swimmers in the water -- but in little ways, it forges these little grace note moments, wherein a character responds with heroism, or selflessness. 

This seems a key point.  A shark is a shark is a shark.  It is going to feed on humans when it gets hungry. 

But man is also man and even in the water, he holds certain relationships and concepts dear.  I appreciate how The Reef compares the two species.  Sharks don’t second guess themselves and worry about those who are mortally wounded.  They don’t hesitate.  They meet their needs, and that’s it.

But humans are of a vastly different tribe, and even in a venue as dangerous as the ocean, cultural rules about valor, honor, and decency play a role.

Can a shark understand the concept of self-sacrifice?

Above, I wrote about the idea that man is not separate from nature, despite all the smart phones, social media and so forth that dominates our 21st century existence.  There are two worlds -- the world that is really there, under the surface, and the world that we look at every day, on the surface.  

This very notion is played out in the film through a composition that often appears: Luke dons his goggles, peers under the water, and looks about to see if there are any sharks nearby, threatening the group. But above the water, on the surface...everything is calm.

I believe that horror movies like The Reef (and 2010’s Frozen to a similar extent) hold a place of value in the society because they serve as reminders of this fact.  Watching a movie like The Reef, you can’t help but put yourself in the position of Luke, or Matt, or Kate and wonder what you would do.

So The Reef isn’t really just about seeing people die. That idea is sort of built into the concept, and the genre itself.  Instead, it’s about seeing people survive, and people making choices about how they want to leave this mortal coil.

Every now and then it’s good to look up from the monitor or phone screen and consider such things, and that’s why I always argue for the validity and legitimacy of horror movies.  On the surface we might describe them with terms like “torture porn” or “graphically violent,” but horror films are really the only movies in our culture right now that remind us that life doesn’t last forever.

Movie Trailer: The Reef (2010)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Beach Week: Jaws-Mania

Following Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster adaptation of Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel Jaws in 1975, "Jaws-Mania" hit America hard.  The film was rated PG -- which is hard to believe today -- but this fact made the (bloody) horror movie fair game in terms of merchandising and toys.  Soon, toy stores added Jaws-inspired items to their racks, and kids could relive the thrills and screams of the movie.

Prime among these toys was Ideal’s The Game of Jaws, which I’ve featured here before.  

Designed for 2 to 4 players (ages 6 and up), the game box noted: "It's you against the great white shark...One wrong move, and the JAWS go snap!"  

The goal of this game was to utilize a probe to fish out contents from the shark's stomach without those fierce jaws snapping closed.   Some of those stomach contents included a human skull, a fish skeleton, a tire, a camera, a pistol, a glove, a boot, a walkie-talkie, and a wagon wheel (!).  In the version of the game I own today, these delicacies are all molded in white or blue plastic, but the game box shows different colored items.

Addar, a model kit company, featured Jaws in its “super scenes” product line in 1975 as well.  Here, young modelers could create a detailed diorama from the a bottle.  Addar described this kit as an “exciting replica from the movie Jaws.”  It featured a miniature oceanographer, a diving cage, the great white shark and a full-color background.

I also remember a Jaws-Mania collectible that I found at the school Book-Mobile when I was in kindergarten, and promptly purchased.  It is a book from author Phil Hirsch titled 101 Shark Jokes: Biting Humor From Our Funny, Finny Friends (1976).  This book featured page after page of ridiculous, terrible shark-related puns and jokes like: What makes an ideal shark breakfast?

Captain Crunch.

I can’t stress enough how much I absolutely loved this book as a six year-old kid, and I must have read the darn book a dozen times.  For a spell, I took 101 Shark Jokes with me everywhere, especially when my Mom went shopping at the Fabric Ville store in Cedar Grove, NJ, which always seemed to take forever.  

The funny thing about the book, looking back on it, is that it featured a lot of pop culture references that, at six, I couldn’t possibly have recognized.  For instance, one joke included a reference to a shark game show, Tooth or Consequences, which would have been an allusion to Truth or Consequences (1950)…which I never saw.

I also remember with envy that my friend Stephen who lived on Ridgewood Avenue wore a custom-made Jaws Halloween costume to kindergarten that year. I don’t remember what I wore for Halloween in Kindergarten, but I absolutely remember every detail of that huge, canvas, toothy shark head costume to this day.  Also, Collegeville released a standard plastic costume of the Shark from Jaws for those kids without the wherewithal to create their own.

The mid-1970s also brought the Jaws knock-off movie by the veritable boatload.  There were sea-based movies such as Orca (1976), Tentacles (1977), Tintorera: Tiger Shark (1977), Barracuda (1978), Piranha (1978), and Killer Fish (1979).  There were also land-based knock-offs, including William Girdler’s Grizzly (1976) and Day of the Animals (1977).

Television programming wanted a piece of the profitble Jaws action as well.  

Chevy Chase memorably appeared in a Saturday Night Live skit during its first season in 1975 as a “land shark,” an “urban predator” capable of “disguising its voice”(!) and striking at any time or place.  On a more serious note, a 1977 episode of The Six-Million Dollar Man featured the Bionic Steve Austin (Lee Majors) tangling with sharks.

By 1979 and the franchise sequel, Jaws 2, the shark-based merchandising effort was at full steam ahead with photo-novels, trading cards, a novelization and the like, but by then, the manic moment had passed.  

Today, I recall this spell of my youth with tremendous fondness, especially as Jaws-Mania occurred pre-Star Wars, and shared pop-culture space with Bicentennial Fever, Space: 1999, and Logan's Run.

Beach Week: Open Water (2004)

Shot on digital video, Open Water is a fictionalized account of a harrowing real-life incident. In 1998, an American couple was accidentally abandoned at sea by a commercial scuba diving boat following an incorrect head count.

Directed by Chris Kentis, Open Water depicts the routine of a very modern, very professional, very youthful American couple, Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan). They've ceded too much of their lives to all-consuming careers. When the couple needs a respite from incessantly ringing cell phones and e-mail, Daniel and Susan steal away on vacation to the Caribbean.

Ironically, when the exhausted Dan and Susan get to the islands, they don't relax. Instead, they fill every iota of free time planning expensive, colorful excursions, including a scuba diving trip. But once on the dive, a simple mistake results in the heretofore unimaginable: Daniel and Susan are left behind by their diving boat!

Adrift together in a turbulent, endless sea -- with night falling and sharks circling ever closer -- Daniel and Susan start countenancing the incomprehensible truth. No cell phones are available to call for help. No e-mail can type out a distress message. No rescue infrastructure, bureaucracy or "mommy" government will pluck them from the immediate and mortal danger. The easy, automatic, nay thoughtless technological connection of their daily lives proves an illusion in nature. And out here -- in the swallowing, hungry sea -- they have only each other to hold onto.

The majority of Open Water's scant seventy-nine minute running time is indeed spent at sea, featuring endless, vertigo-producing ocean-level shots of the couple coping with their horrible circumstance. Dan and Susan grow hungry. Fish nip at their legs. They vomit. They urinate. They fall asleep. They clutch at life, and, finally, to each other. It's a chronicle of unceasing agony...a hell on Earth.

The authentic location, the naturalism of the nearby threat (no CGI or mechanical sharks here...just the real thing...) and the capable hand-held camera work weave a more-than-sufficient tapestry of dread. This isn't a movie to watch dispassionately, it's one to experience almost literally as a participant. Those eye-level shots put you in the water too; so that you can almost feel the endless, merciless lapping of the waves.

Yet Open Water also remains an effective horror film because of the template that forms the bedrock of its simple narrative. This movie -- with such spare aesthetics and a blunt depiction of the worst no-win scenario imaginable -- intriguingly mimics Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's famous "five stages of death and dying."

Basically, Kubler-Ross's theory is that in facing mortality, human beings transition through a series of developments or stages. Open Water walks the audience through these five stages, as our protagonists attempt to come to terms with their fate in the pounding, eternal ocean. In other words, the movie -- once it hits the water -- is about preparing for the inevitable.

In accordance with the first stage of death and dying, at first, there is complete denial on the part of these tech-savvy, over-scheduled Americans. Daniel stubbornly clings to the hope that they will be miraculously rescued. In fact, he doesn't even swim towards another boat that is visible on the horizon because he believes so fervently that their diving vessel will recognize the mistake and return to the exact spot where it left them. Needless to say, that doesn't occur.

After a time, anger swallows-up denial. Splashing his hands in the water like a petulant child, Daniel bellows at the top of his lungs and throws a temper tantrum. He is bitter that they "paid" for this experience, the opportunity, essentially, to die at the mercy of the sharks. This too is a subtly funny comment on modern Americans, I suspect. Daniel seems more upset that the company took his money than that he is going to die. Soon.

Daniel and Susan then argue a lot, and she blames him for their crisis. This is her encounter with anger. He remained underwater looking at fish for too long, she complains, and that's why the boat left. It's always nice to be able to blame someone else, isn't it?

Ross's third stage of death and dying is bargaining. So Susan and Daniel talk about how -- if only they could just return to their comfortable life in front of the television and the Discovery Channel -- they wouldn't be so foolish as to entertain a venture like this again. They stepped out of their natural habitat (a technological one, interestingly), and have paid the price.

Shortly, the fourth stage, depression, sets in on our unlucky protagonists.. The doomed couple realizes that no one is coming to rescue them and that this is, indeed, how they are going to die. Here. Today. Now. No TV, Hollywood bullshit. No last minute cavalry coming over the hill.

Ross's fifth and final stage -- acceptance -- is at last broached. In one of the most coldly realistic, unflinching and horrifying scenes I've ever seen in a horror movie, Susan analytically accepts the reality of her situation. This protagonist makes a choice that is carefully weighed as a better option than being eaten by sharks. Our final survivor dips below the sea on purpose...and willingly drowns. With Daniel gone (eaten), Susan lets the ocean take her under...and away from life.

Open Water follows the Ross-style transition from one stage of death and dying to the next stage, from denial all the way through acceptance. The movie climaxes only when all five stages have been adequately vetted, and this structure grants the horror film a kind of artistic completeness and intellect that is all too rare in the American cinema today. It rings scarily true.

I still recall leaving the theater after Open Water feeling discomforted and troubled. The movie doesn't blink, doesn't retreat from the reality of the horrifying scenario, and there is no sunlight to part the dark clouds. Instead, the film reminds us that we don't control our fate. Something as simple and ultimately as meaningless as a mistake — a frigging arithmetic error — could impact our very lives. It's a horrifying thought, and one that we have all considered, no matter how briefly, after the terror we saw on 9/11. And this thematic terrain makes Open Water a profound statement about the human condition today.

Da Vinci once stated that water is the driver of nature. In Open Water, water is the medium that drives our human nature. How do we face inevitable death? Denial? Anger? Bargaining? Depression? Acceptance? Open Water is a brilliant horror film and a great character piece because there's something universal in Susan and Daniel's progression through Kubler-Ross's gauntlet of mortality. We recognize the steps.

And we fear them. For after acceptance...oblivion.

Beach Week: Open Water Movie Trailer

Beach Week: Memory Bank - Blood Beach (1980)

I was just ten years old when Blood Beach (1980) arrived in theaters.  I didn't get to see the low-budget horror film -- my parents wisely wouldn't let me -- but the trailer scared me to death:

"Pretty, isn't it?"

Okay, so today the trailer looks cheesy and kind of funny, and it makes the film look quirky and appealing instead of all that scary. 

But as a kid, the possibility of this particular "living nightmare" really terrified me. 

At about the 1:40 point, for instance, a woman walking across a picturesque beach at night gets dragged down to her some "horrible thing...under the beach."

The unlucky woman can see a man inside a house ahead, and she calls for help, but he's on the phone and doesn't notice her.  Instead, she gets dragged down, beneath the surface by something monstrous but unseen.

There's just something about that image that terrified my young mind.  Every time this commercial played on TV -- and it played a lot -- I sat and watched it, rapt.  I remember, actually, going to sleep at night sometimes and re-playing the commercial in my head. I wondered what kind of terrible monster could be dragging people down through the sand to their death.

The funny thing is that Blood Beach is a really terrible movie, and that if I had seen the whole thing -- instead of being left to my own imagination -- I probably wouldn't have been frightened of the imagery at all.  
The movie's only ingenuity seems to arrive in its funny re-purposing of The Jaws II ad-line: "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water..."

" can't get to it."

Bad movie or not, that tag-line is genius.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Beach Week/At Flashbak: Just When You Thought it was Safe (The 5 Best Jaws Knock-offs)

My latest article at Flashbak ties in with the Beach Week theme on the blog this week..  In particular, I look at the five best knock-offs of Spielberg's Jaws.

"In other posts here, I’ve recall the five best knock-offs of The Exorcist (1973), Star Wars (1977), and Alien (1979), but another key genre blockbuster from the 1970s also inspired a rash of imitators: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, based on the best-selling novel by Peter Benchley.

From 1975 to 1979, basically, it “wasn’t safe to go back” to the theater, because every low-budget filmmaker with any degree of ambition was recreating the watery attacks of Jaws, only with different aquatic animals, from killer whales to piranha, substituting for the great white shark. 

These knock-off movies had titles such as Tentacles (1977), Tintorera: Killer Shark (1975), Barracuda (1978), and Devil Fish (1978), to name just a few trend-followers.

Sometimes, really inventive Jaws knock-offs repeated the precise plot-line of the Spielberg film, but changed settings too. William Girdler’s Grizzly (1976), for instance, was set at a state park, not at the beach, and deployed a giant grizzly bear rather than a great white shark as the film’s menace.

So without further ado, here are the five best Jaws knock-offs of the late 1970s:"

Beach Week: Jaws 2 (1978)

I once wrote regarding Jaws II (1978) that your enjoyment and appreciation for this sequel may depend, finally, upon which end of the pool you’re swimming in.

If you’re in the deep end of the pool, having just finished a viewing of Spielberg’s superb Jaws (1975), you may find the 1978 Jeannot Szwarc sequel a serviceable horror film, perhaps only lacking a bit in terms of inspiration and execution. It’s a step down from greatness, for certain.

But if you’re swimming in the shallow end of the pool, having recently watched Jaws III (1983) and Jaws: The Revenge (1987), this first sequel may rightly be considered an unqualified home-run.

Unlike either of those later sequels, Jaws II features some strong horror set-pieces, and re-connects the viewer powerfully with Roy Scheider’s Chief Martin Brody, and his family.

Importantly, this sequel also seems to occur in a reality viewers can identify with, and not in some fantasy land in which sharks growl like lions or jump headlong onto the pointed masts of passing ships.

But while Jaws was a remarkable human story -- made doubly so by the unforgettable friendship of Brody, Hooper, and Quint -- and a great adventure set on the sea to boot, Jaws II adheres to a less awe-inspiring template. 

Essentially, the film is precisely what critic Roger Ebert called the slasher film sub-genre: a “dead teenager” movie.

Only this dead teenager movie happens to feature a great white shark in the role of Jason or Michael, and is set at sea instead of in suburbia or at a summer camp. 

The crazy thing is that on these terms, Jaws II is actually a pretty good slasher movie.   It’s just -- again -- a come down from the brilliance of Spielberg’s picture.

“I think we’ve got another shark problem.”

In the waters near Amity a great white shark prowls again. 

The first victims are two vacationers that are attacked near the underwater wreckage of the Orca.  The next victims are a water skier and her mother, but their death is ruled accidental.

Amity’s sheriff, Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), however, becomes obsessed with the notion of a great white threatening the peaceful town, much as one did a few years earlier.

But the town officials all think he is simply Chicken Little, insisting that the sky is falling.  When Brody causes a panic on a public beach in front of potential real estate investors, the town officials take his badge away, declaring him a menace.

Soon, however, Brody learns there is even more at stake than his job. His sons Mike (Mark Gruner) and Sean (Marc Gilpin) join a group of teens on a boat race to Lighthouse Island. 

They change course for Cable Junction, however, unaware that a great white is shadowing the convoy’s every move…

“I don’t intend to go through that Hell again.”

To examine Jaws II as a “dead teenager” or slasher film, let’s take just a moment and unpack the slasher paradigm a bit, as I defined it in my book Horror Films of the 1980s (2007).

All good slasher movies begin with an organizing principle, and then a set of related elements in orbit around that organizing principle. 

The organizing principle is a “hook,” the key aspect to connect every element of the film together, and in Jaws II, our organizing principle is not unexpectedly summertime in Amity, a beach town. 

This umbrella provides us our primary settings (the beach and the ocean).  It also gives us a sturdy victim pool, in this case not the unsuspecting swimmers of Jaws, but rather a gaggle of teenagers sailing at sea in their rag-tag boats.  This flotilla comes under attack by the menace, a great white prowling the waters nearby.  We also get, under this same umbrella, water-skiers and other summertime revelers.

In addition to the victim pool, another common element of slasher films comes into play in Jaws II. In particular the “crime in the past” plays a kind of oblique role in the action of the film. Chief Brody wonders if this shark has arrived in Amity because it is the mate of the one he destroyed in Jaws.  Perhaps it has come looking for its opposite number? 

If that is indeed the case, then the shark picks the right victims by going after Brody’s family.  The crime in the past is the death of the shark from Jaws, and Martin -- the only survivor of that “murder” is the overall target of the apparent rage spawned by that crime.

You see, this time it was actually “personal” as well…

If we break down the dramatis personae of Jaws II, we see that it consists of “types” also dramatized often in slasher films. For example, the killer in slasher films is almost universally defined as “the other” by appearance and nature. That appearance generally includes a mask, but may also include a blue collar uniform (garage overalls) of some type. 

In broad terms, the shark in Jaws II is certainly easily defined as an “other” since it is a fish. Also like a slasher it depicted with near-supernatural powers.  It always knows the right place to be to seek the weakest or most vulnerable victim.

Jaws II also gives us the common slasher movie archetype of the Cassandra Figure, named after a figure in Greek myth that could see the future but was never believed about her visions.  In many slasher films, we meet a character whose warning are dismissed, even though he or she speaks the truth, and knows that danger is imminent. 

In Halloween that figure is Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence).  In Friday the 13th (1980), the Cassandra figure is Crazy Ralph.

Oddly enough, Jaws II’s Cassandra Figure is heroic Chief Brody himself, who loses his badge over the (correct) assertion that another great white shark has arrived in the waters of Amity.

Jaws II distinguishes itself from the typical slasher film largely in its heroic depiction of the teenagers who encounter the shark. One teen jumps into the shark’s path and saves Sean Brody.  Others pray aloud, seeking fellowship and grace in prayer. Sure, some of the kids act as the stereotypical “bitches, practical jokers and jocks” that I note in my book, but overall these teens aren’t so dislikable that you root for them to be killed. Sure they want to score and have fun, but they aren’t rotten or indulged to the point that we despise them.

In terms of film grammar, Jaws II -- much like its predecessor -- frequently employs the P.O.V. subjective shot, as it bears down on victims.  In other words, our eyes are the killer’s/shark’s eyes, and indeed this is a crucial aspect of the slasher format, though for different reasons.

The P.O.V. in the Jaws films relieves the director of having to deploy a malfunctioning robot shark for several compositions, whereas the P.O.V. in slasher films is deployed so audiences will be surprised by the killer’s identity when it is revealed in the last act.

By breaking down Jaws II into the slasher paradigm, we can note, at the very least, that the film seems far more formulaic (and thus predictable) than its predecessor did. 

For example, there is no moment in the film with the raw, human power of the Indianapolis scene aboard the Orca, and no death here that carries the same weight as Quint’s, or even Hooper’s (apparent) demise in the shark cage.   

In some sense, the sheer number of teens in the victim pool here also renders Jaws II less scary. We never get to know the teen characters all that well, and so it matters not very much when a few of them die.  They aren’t differentiated to such a degree that we are knocked back on our heels and left in shock when we lose them.

That said, Penelope Gilliatt writing in The New Yorker pinpointed the sequel’s great virtue.  She wrote. “It lies in the performance of Roy Scheider as the kicked-out police chief, an underdog with a nose for danger and with real tenacity.”  She further notes that Scheider is a born actor and “seems always to be contemplating the temper of things.”

Scheider is Jaws II’s most valuable player because he invests the material with real humanity and real passion, even when the screenplay isn’t entirely up to snuff.  In 1978, we might have termed his emotional state “shell-shocked” but we can see today that Chief Brody suffers from PTSD.  He’s never gotten over that encounter with the great white in Jaws, and so Jaws II very much concerns him confronting his own state of fear, his own demons.

Finally, Jaws II is a bit less effective than its predecessor because of the carnage candy factor (see: Scream 2 [1997]). In this case, that means not only are there more victims to kill (and therefore less identification with each individual), but also much more elaborate death scenes, including ones that strain believability.  The deal killer in Jaws II is the moment that the shark brings down a helicopter. 

I can readily imagine and believe that Brody and company fight a supernaturally-powered giant shark once, in Jaws.  But the next shark he encounters is also so powerful and vicious that it can down a helicopter, without being killed itself?

This, my friends, is Jason Voorhees territory, and that brings us back to the movie’s structure. It’s a (wet) slasher film.

Not that there is anything wrong with that.  Jaws II is an entertaining horror movie, but it does not endure as a classic like its predecessor does.

That said, I will happily watch this sequel over and over again if the alternative is Jaws III or Jaws: The Revenge.

Finally, there's one scene I'd like to mention here that continues the amusing cinematic sea animal war begun by Orca (1977). There, you will recall, the killer whale saved Charlotte Rampling from a shark, dispatching the great white with relative ease.   In Jaws II, there is a rebuttal to that moment.  Here, we get a scene where the corpse of a killer whale is seen on the beach...ripped apart by a great white.   

Too bad there was never an Orca II to continue this pissing contest between Jaws knock-offs.