Saturday, February 14, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Secrets of Isis: "Rockhound's Roost."

In “Rockhound’s Roost,” a new student from another country, Fabian, is being bullied by Kevin, a boy who refuses to learn or accept responsibility.

On a field trip with Mrs. Thomas’s class, Kevin runs away, and Fabian tries to stop him.  Together, they end up in the woods, facing down a territorial bear.

Fortunately, Isis shows up to stop the bear from doing the boys harm, and to teach Kevin a lesson in responsibility.

After a brief uptick in storytelling last week, The Secrets of Isis returns to familiar territory with “Rockhound’s Roost.” Here, Isis is asked to do little more than babysit a wayward kid, and one who doesn’t even break the law. It’s not exactly a demanding assignment. Shouldn't a superhero be saving the world? Or at least the city?

In terms of powers, Isis’s capabilities are still being expanded.  At one point in the episode, she telekinetically extracts discarded plates from a river bed, lining them up in a box on the shore-line (an effect accomplished by running the footage backwards).

Later, Isis stops the prowling bear “harmlessly” in its tracks by trapping it in a ring of small fires.  

The bear, incidentally, is an actor in a really bad costume that looks like it was exported directly from the Korg 70,000 B.C. episode “The Web.”

The lesson in this episode is to take responsibility, because, in part, having responsibility makes one “feel needed.” 

Next week: “Lucky.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Korg, 70,000 B.C.: "The River"

In “The River,” a raging fire near the cave as driven animals far away.  Hunting is bad, and there is a real chance the family will starve. At one meal in the family cave, Mara (Naomi Pollack) goes without eating so that her children, Ree (Janelle Pransky) and Tor (Charles Morteo) can eat.

Bok (Bill Ewing) returns from a several day hunt and reports that he saw game near a big body of river.  It is a long hike to reach that river, but Korg makes a difficult decision.  The family abandons the cave and makes the multi-day trek to the river, which Korg calls “the wide water.”

When Korg nearly drowns attempting to cross the river and catch a deer, Mara declares that “the water is evil.”  Korg, however, thinks otherwise.  As the days pass and the family starves, he begins devising a method of passage on the river: a makeshift raft…

In “The River,” Korg and his family face the possibility of starvation, and such danger leads them to a new discovery: how to traverse a river.  Intriguingly, the story also contends with superstition.  

Mara is a compassionate character who loves her children, but she is also the most fearful and superstitious individual in the family. She refuses to step aboard Korg’s raft, and is nearly left behind on the river bank because she can’t control her fear (or belief that the water is alive…and angry).

Therefore, it’s a tough moment when Korg must choose between his family’s survival and staying with Mara, his wife. Ultimately, he decides to leave, knowing that the children must eat...or die.  At the last minute, Mara comes too, but it is not an easy moment, for certain.  It does, however, play as realistic…and difficult.

Just as Korg drew inspiration from a spider in “The Web,” so does he here draw inspiration from nature, from a bird, specifically. He sees a bird standing on a log in the river, and realizes that a log can also carry him and his family across the river; where food (in the form of a deer) awaits.

“The River” features all the qualities I appreciate in Korg episodes. It features a new location (a river, in this case), a difficult dilemma for the family, and an example of how a religious belief system can hold somebody back, even with survival on the line. 

Next week, the sixteenth and final episode of the series: “Ree and the Wolf.”

Friday, February 13, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Friday the 13th (1980)

Surveying the eleven-strong Friday the 13th saga (twelve if you count Freddy vs. Jason…) the weight of several really bad entries in this slasher-styled film cycle is a difficult cross to bear.  This is especially true for the occasionally-inspired franchise entry, such as this sturdy and even visually-accomplished 1980 originator from director Sean S. Cunningham and writer Victor Miller.

There’s no doubt that the original Friday the 13th is an exploitation film designed to capitalize on the success and popularity of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).  But there’s also little doubt that this first entry in the long-lived series is a much stronger film than most people likely remember, at least in visual and symbolic senses.

Although Friday the 13th doesn’t always succeed, particularly because it overuses the stalker P.O.V. shot, other visual flourishes remain impressive, or at least laudable.  In other words, the exploitation here is -- at the very least -- grounded in some solid craft.  And the narrative details and structure as crafted by Miller are both sturdy and simple, thus permitting director Cunningham to shape the visuals in a unique direction.

Today, I want to shine a light on some of the film's more unique and intriguing visual touches, and point out a few reasons Friday the 13th boasts social and cultural value as a work of pop art, and as a product of its time period.

“We ain’t gonna stand for no weirdness out here.”

A group of camp counselors, led by Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), prepare for the grand re-opening of Camp Crystal Lake, even over the objections of locals like Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney).

These objections stem from Camp Crystal Lake’s checkered history.  In 1957, camp counselors failed to pay attention when a young boy, Jason (Ari Lehman) drowned in the lake.  Soon afterwards, two counselors were murdered.  Then, some years later, the water in Crystal Lake inexplicably “went bad,” scuttling an attempt to re-open the camp.

But Steve is committed to the cause, and with the help of a sensitive artist and fellow counselor, Alice (Adrienne King) gathers the troops for the big day of the camp’s re-opening.

In short order, however, the curse of “Camp Blood” resumes as a secret assailant begins killing the camp’s new denizens.  The crisis comes to a head during a powerful thunderstorm, and the murderer is revealed as someone who was very close to young Jason…

“God sent me.  You’re doomed if you stay…”

One quality most people forget about the original Friday the 13th is the film’s strong sense of place.  In particular, Crystal Lake is visualized as an idyllic American town, one filled with abundant pastoral and natural beauty.  Early scenes in the film document this beauty, creating an almost Rockwell-ian vision of the surrounding area (actually Blairstown, New Jersey).

This is Friday the 13th?

And this?

And this?

These visualizations serve a crucial purpose, because Friday the 13th largely concerns innocence lost or destroyed. Two camp counselors, while making love, allow an innocent child to die.  Thus while they sacrifice their (Biblical) innocence, Jason loses his innocence…his very life.  At the same time, Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) loses her son and therefore her innocence, along with her mind.

The beauty of the natural environs subtly reinforces the film-long conceit of a Garden of Eden-type setting, but one that is now corrupted.  For example, one short scene relatively early in the film reveals a snake inside one of the counselor’s cabins, a snake in the garden, as it were.  The snake is promptly decapitated by a counselor’s machete, putting an end to the threat and thus restoring order.

Symbolically speaking, that moment is intentionally reiterated in the film’s bloody denouement as our final girl, Alice, lops off the head of a more dangerous snake in the garden – the killer -- also utilizing a machete.  The two images connect meaningfully.

In both cases, we get the idea of natural order overturned by the presence of evil (a serpent, specifically...), and then order is restored, even if the respite is brief.

A snake in the garden gets decapitated by machete.

And then a second snake in the garden gets decapitated by machete.

The Serpent -- the dangerous and murderous invader in the Garden of Eden -- spends much of the film watching and stalking prey, and thus the film frequently repeats one specific composition.  In particular, the camera takes up a position outside while it gazes inside a building (a cabin or a bath house), through a window-glass.  Outside the window is only darkness since the setting is mostly nighttime. But inside the buildings, the characters are brightly lit and attending blithely to their mundane business, unaware of danger.

I wrote about this intriguing composition some in Horror Films of the 1980s, but it’s a significant element of the film’s tapestry.  It reveals not merely the voyeurism of the killer as she stalks her prey.  It also visually constricts the space of the protagonists within the rectangular frame, literally boxing them inside a series of smaller and smaller boxes.  In the tightest, most claustrophobic of those boxes, our heroes go about their business without realizing their world has become limited and closed off by the (invisible) presence of the slasher nearby.

Tight-framing is a regular and de rigueur feature of horror films, but Friday the 13th goes a step further with its relatively ingenious framing technique. Here, characters blindly walk into bloody death, a fact which we, the audience, can recognize and anticipate, but they cannot.  The result of this near ubiquitous staging is that the film becomes more genuinely suspenseful.   We wait, and wait, wondering when the terror will strike, and how it will strike.

Victim in a box #1

Victim in a box #2

Victim in a box # 3

Victim in a box #4
At the same time that the film "boxes in" its victims, the original Friday the 13th also offers wicked sub-textual commentary on the teenagers’ fates because stenciled and stickered camp legends reading “danger” and the like punctuate the Camp Blood's landscape.   Just as the characters are unaware of how their lives have become limited and finite by the presence of the unseen killer, they similarly take no notice of signage which constantly warns them of a threat.  They literally can't see the forest for the trees.

Well, the sign (on right) does say "DANGER."

Well, the sign (upper right) warns "KEEP OUT."

On a basic level, these visual touches make Friday the 13th more intellectually adroit than your average example of the slasher film.  Although the film wants to ape the energy of Halloween, it clearly boasts its own, frequently clever life force as well.

Where Friday the 13th treads even deeper into sub-text, however, is in the explicit connection between man and nature.  The film’s full-on bloody assault occurs under cover of thunderstorm, pounding rain and lightning.  If you watch every Friday the 13th film, you’ll find that this idea recurs more frequently even than the presence of Jason Voorhees.  The “invader” arrives with natural cover, thus with the implicit help, perhaps, of a force beyond the human world.  Is God on Jason (or Mrs. Voorhee's) side in this battle?

Going back to the Jean Renoir short film A Day in the Country (1936) -- an effort based on a story by Guy de Maupassant -- film has frequently connected human nature with Mother Nature.  The Renoir film depicts the tale of a family that vacations near a beautiful lake.  Two women in the family are seduced by burly farm hands that live nearby, and the romantic assignation culminates in an unexpected thunderstorm. 

Have they affected nature with their wanton acts?  Or contrarily, has nature affected them and thus spawned these very acts?

The equation in Friday the 13th is not that different, at least on a basic level. A storm rolls in and it is one that metaphorically "rains blood," according to one character’s dream, recounted explicitly in the dialogue.  

Accordingly, this storm brings with it a vengeful murderer.  

Is the storm thus a manifestation of the killer’s undying rage?   Is it a protest against the unnecessary death of an innocent child?  Or does the storm represent the tears of God, as it were, the fact that a mother’s love has turned to cold-blooded murder?

I’ve often noted that 1980s watchdog groups like the Moral Majority were foolish to protest the Friday the 13th films because, by one interpretation, these slasher films certainly tow the conservative line about human vices and bad behavior.  

One way of  gazing at the film is to consider that those who are negligent -- those who smoke weed, and those who indulge in pre-marital sex -- are punished by a supernatural avenger, the Hand of God, for their transgressions.  Mrs. Voorhees does the actual punishing via machete, but it is God himself – in the form of the rolling thunderstorm – that grants her murderous campaign the cover it needs to succeed.  You can take or leave that interpretation, but it represents one valid reading of the film's text.  As I like to say, in Friday the 13th and it sequels, vice precedes slice-and-dice.

There are other elements of this exploitation film that audiences now tend to forget about because of all the water and bad sequels under the bridge, yet which probably bear mentioning.  For one thing, the film is dominated by imagery which portends doom.  

One such moment involves Moravian Cemetery, the last turn-off on the road to Camp Blood.  In essence, the shot of the graveyard reminds the audience it’s a short commute from the camp to death.  

Secondly, one of the camp counselors -- the Practical Joker stereotype, Ned -- pretends to drown in the lake early on.  His cruel and thoughtless act foreshadows, of course, the motivation behind the murders at Crystal Lake.  He is re-enacting (unknowingly) the moment that killed Jason, and the moment that actually brings about his end.  Thus even his "joke" is portending of doom.

And then there’s Crazy Ralph.  He’s not a subtle guy, even in terms of his wacko, almost cartoon appearance.  But Ralph is undeniably the “Cassandra” of the film: the old man warning the young people about their impending doom. Like the mythical Cassandra of Ancient Greece, he is doomed to know the future and not to be believed.   Within the context of Friday the 13th, he is also, however, a conservative symbol of tradition.  He is the herald (or historian) who warns of danger, and who is ignored by irresponsible, unworried, callow youth.  They believe that tradition and history don’t apply to them; that they are free of those restraints.  Ralph knows this is not the case, but is dismissed as crazy.  

Again, many of these elements have been repeated so often in the formulaic slasher film sub-genre that it’s difficult to look the original Friday the 13th in its original context, before all this stuff – the Cassandra, the storm, the P.O.V. shot – became reflexive and de-rigueur ingredients.  But all these elements exist for a valid reason in Friday the 13th, and generally enhance the film’s sense of anxiety and danger.

Camp Blood?  Take a left at the grave yard. 

Crazy Ralph: The Cassandra Complex.

Did somebody drown here?
Slasher movies still get a lot of guff, even today, for lacking “socially redeeming features,” and many critics treat Friday the 13th as Exhibit A in that argument. The late Roger Ebert wrote, for instance, that the “primary function” of the teenagers in the F13 films is to “be hacked to death.”

On the contrary, I would argue the primary function of the teenager in films like Friday the 13th is to survive.   

While Mr. Ebert -- a personal and professional hero of mine, by the way -- reflects fondly in his review of Friday the 13th Part II on the innocence of his youth (and the cinema of his teenage years in the 1950s), he fails to acknowledge something important.  The cultural context that gave rise to the slasher format is entirely different from the one he nostalgically describes. 

Friday the 13th and its ilk arise from a teen culture that witnessed the Vietnam War played out bloodily on television news. It arises from a generation that witnessed a U.S. President toppled in the Watergate Scandal. It arises from a generation that saw the Energy Crisis, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, America held hostage by an Islamic regime in Iran, and the brutal madness of Charles Manson and his cult. 

The self-same teen generation saw a U.S. President’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt testify -- straight-faced -- before Congress that America’s natural resources need not be preserved for future generations, since Judgment Day would arrive in this one.  If you also recall some some of the pervasive cultural fears of nuclear apocalypse in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, you can see how America by 1980 had traveled a significant distance from Annette Funicello and The Mickey Mouse Club (1955). 

So why would discerning film critics expect the entertainment of 1980–1985 to be identical to the entertainment of 1950–1955?  The world had changed, and entertainment -- as it always does – changed with it.

The important question to ask, instead, is what kind of entertainment arises out of such a roiling, turbulent cultural context?   At the heart of Friday the 13th...what is it really about?

Consider that in these slasher films, the best and brightest teenagers battle for survival.  Many teenagers die, it’s true, but a handful of the smartest triumph over seemingly insurmountable, nay supernatural, odds. 

Even better, the slasher format -- Friday the 13th films included -- universally champion a very specific brand of hero: the final girl. 

This character archetype is female, obviously, but also smarter, more insightful, and more courageous than her peers of both sexes.  While those peers smoke weed or indulge in pre-marital sex, the Final Girl has instead detected that something in the world is not quite right; that something is off-kilter. While her friends waste time on momentary pleasures, she becomes clued-in to the fact that the world is a dangerous and troublesome place. She starts to "see" the world's dangers (as I enumerated them in above paragraphs...), and devises a life-saving response.

So where critics such as Zina Klapper argue that slasher films champion and actually “induce” violence against women, I’d again argue the contrary point.   Based on the cast dynamics of the Friday the 13th films alone, these movies are equal opportunity offenders in terms of murders, yet pro-woman in terms of survival.  

In other words, the slasher films kill a whole lot of teens of both sexes, but offer, almost universally, one type of survivor: the smart and resourceful female.

This is certainly the case with Alice in Friday the 13th.  She has no recourse but to trust herself -- and her instincts -- on the night of the attack.  No man comes to rescue her, or to sweep her off her feet.  She can rely on nothing beyond her own personal qualities.  Not government (Watergate), not the military (Vietnam), and not corporate interests (Three Mile Island).  

In the end, Alice gets locked in mortal combat with another woman, Mrs. Voorhees, and that's significant too.  How many times in horror movie history have women been afforded the role of primary hero and primary villain in a single work of art?  Sure Mrs. Voorhees is certifiably bonkers, but she is an example of a person who saw something in the world she didn't like and sought to change it.  She is thus the dark reflection of an assertive final girl like Alice.  Accordingly, I can’t see how this movie fits the established party line about misogyny and horror flicks.

Final Girl

Final Monster
When I look back at Friday the 13th, I do see a cheap exploitation film, to be certain.  It's a step down from the artistry and vision of Halloween, for instance.  Yet Friday the 13th undeniably speaks to a specific historical context. Given that historical context I described above, is it so surprising, so morally corrupt that one generation’s entertainment of choice concerns a crucible of survival in which only the clever, the moral, the resolute and the resourceful manage to survive an apocalyptic world that seems stacked against them?  Where evil always resurfaces, even if in a new form? 

Slasher movies don’t make audiences meaner, as Janet Maslin asserted in a column in The New York Times.  They simply take the real world of the 1980s as it already was and demonstrate to teens that they can survive it, given the right skill set. 

Impressively, that skill set is associated not with stereotypical male qualities or even with men at all, but with young, intelligent women.

I can’t legitimately argue that all slasher movies are well-done or social valuable.  Some are dreck.  

But I’ve always felt it was wrong to lump in the first Friday the 13th with the mountains of dreck because it features some visually accomplished moments, a smattering of interesting symbolism, and -- not the least of all -- it conforms to the slasher format’s most noble conceit by reminding kids (and particularly girls) that even if the Boogeyman is at the door (in the form of the Cold War or anything else), they can survive.  

And they can do so with the qualities they already possess in spades, namely intelligence and insight.  

Cult-Movie Review: Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

I could have selected any Friday the 13th film to review today, to celebrate this horror holiday. 

But I chose 1988’s The New Blood, directed by John Carl Buechler, for a few reasons. 

First, this entry features my all-time favorite kill in the long-lived slasher franchise: the sleeping bag murder. 

And secondly, the film’s climax is dominated by a clutch of really great, really inventive gags. Jason Voorhees, like Wily Coyote, gets felled by a falling roof, and punctured by nails to the head. And then he falls through a staircase, and finally gets burned alive (or undead, as the case may be.)

What’s not to love?

Well, actually, quite a lot. 

The New Blood is not exactly a good horror film, but at the very least it helps demonstrates a theory that I have attempted to explain to my eight-year old son, Joel.

And that theory goes like this: Once upon a time horror films didn’t take themselves so bloody seriously, and emerged, sometimes, as a whole of fun. 

During my teenage years, a group of high school friends would get together on Friday nights and we’d all go see these films at the theater. The Friday the 13th movies were good for a laugh; and sometimes good for a scream too.

That doesn’t mean such films are actually good, however. It only means they are fun.

The New Blood is, in terms of this dynamic, buckets full of “fun.” It’s not good in any conventional or critical sense.

If you are seeking a “good” Friday the 13th movie, I would recommend the 1980 original, the 1981 first sequel, or Part VI: Jason Lives, which has a great sense of humor about itself.

The New Blood -- a kind of Jason vs. Carrie on the cheap -- also represents a point of no return for the franchise. The Jason saga was competing, at this historical juncture, with the far more popular (and more imaginative) Nightmare on Elm Street series, and the writers/producers/directors of the late era Friday the 13ths embarked upon creative somersaults to help Jason compete.

In the span of a few years, Jason battled Carrie, visited New York City, became a body-hopping demon, went to outer space and was re-born as a menacing cyborg, and then went head-to-head with Freddy before, finally, a 2009 reboot that felt like Jason’s Greatest Hits…one…more…time.

A New Blood is the inauspicious start of that trend, an era when a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach was adopted for the Friday the 13th franchise. New Blood is low brow, slapdash and dumb for a lot of its run, and yet, in its climax, just the right amount of zany too.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement? 

That’s probably true.  The acting in the film is dreadful, the story is ridiculous and underdeveloped, and yet the final act -- featuring Jason riddled with nails, doused in gasoline, drowned and otherwise abused --plays like real life Looney Tunes cartoon.

Even against my better judgment, I can’t quite resist the bloody thing.

So Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood?  I can’t help but love it…at the same time I’ll tell you flat out it isn’t a very good or accomplished film.  Sometimes fun is just where you happen to find it.

A young girl, Tina, is traumatized when her parents argue at their home on Crystal Lake. She runs down a pier, jumps into a boat, and wishes her father dead.

The pier collapses and her father drowns. Tina, possessing telekinetic abilities, feels lingering guilt over his demise.

Years later, a teenage Tina (Lar Park Lincoln) returns to Camp Crystal Lake with her mother and her psychiatrist, Dr. Crews (Terry Kiser).  She walks to the pier where her father died and attempts to resurrect him.

Instead, she awakens the sleeping juggernaut, Jason Voorhees (Kane Hodder).

The undead Jason is soon back to his old tricks, hacking up and murdering local teenagers. But before long, Tina realizes she must harness her unusual mental abilities to put an end to Jason’s reign of terror…

My first observation on this re-watch of The New Blood is that, in the Friday the 13th universe, the 1980s have lasted for approximately 25 to 30 years. 

Think about it: We know from on-screen title cards in the first film the action occurs on the cusp of the 1980s. 

Three films follow and then in The Final Chapter (1984), we meet Tommy Jarvis, a ten year old kids, or thereabouts. 

He kills Jason, and Jason is dead and buried. 

Eight or so years later an adult Tommy Jarvis visits Jason’s grave to be certain the killer is dead, and ends up accidentally reviving him (with a little help from lightning).

But in that film, Jason Lives, it’s still the mid-1980s, even though almost a decade has passed.

Now, The New Blood starts. One early image is of Jason defeated, right where Tommy Jarvis left him: floating submerged in a lake. 

A little girl with psychokinetic powers, Tina (Lar Park Lincoln) wishes her father dead at the lake, and the pier upon which he stands crumbles and falls apart. He drowns. 

Seven to ten years later, a high school aged Tina returns to the lake and attempts to revive her father with her unusual mental powers, but awakens Jason instead.

So Jason has been at the bottom of the lake for about a decade at this point.

And yet it’s still the 1980s. 

Talk about a hell you can’t awaken from: a world of shoulder pads, acid-washed jeans, and mullet haircuts lasting for not a few years, but a few decades.

The other crucial thing to understand about the film is that in this eternal-1980s, Jason has developed the power to defy and violate the laws of physics. 

Sure, in other films of the franchise, Jason possesses the knack of always appearing at the right place at the right time so he can execute the most isolated or vulnerable teen victim. 

But here, he actually seems to boast the ability to teleport.

During one kill sequence, two teens decide to go skinny-dipping in the Lake. One young woman strips down, and gets into the water.  She submerges, and while she is underwater, Jason murders her boyfriend.  She pops up from underwater to see her boyfriend dead, murdered, and suddenly -- just a second or two later -- Jason emerges from under the water too, right next to her.  Without making a sound (like splashing water as he enters the lake), the killer has moved from somewhere on shore to being underwater, only inches away from his prey.

This power grows more pronounced in Jason Takes Manhattan, when a victim in a cruise ship disco sees Jason at the room’s entrance, but can’t manage to keep his eye on him, and Jason teleports closer and closer to him…

Jason’s been through a lot these films, however, and perhaps it is no wonder that he’s taking the easy way out, using teleportation skills to catch and kill his quarry. The film’s best and most humorous kill occurs, similarly, when he picks up a girl in a zipped-up sleeping bag and smashes her head first into a nearby tree. 

The (violent move) is so easy and simple, that you may feel Jason just isn’t into his work anymore. There’s no hunting or stalking here, no ratcheting up of the fear.  He just slices open a tent like a can of fruit, pulls out the girl (in sleeping bag) and with one shot unceremoniously cracks her skull.

It feels, at least to me, that all the energy in the film was being rallied for the climax, which finds Tina doing her Carrie shtick and using her fearsome mental powers against Jason. There’s a great shot here of the roof dropping on Jason’s head (and then his undead hand punching through shingle). 

And then Tina telekinetically douses Jason in gasoline and sets him on fire.  Jason burns, in glorious long-shot before our eyes, and I’d be lying if I said the stunts and effects didn’t still look impressive.

I also love how Jason looks in this film. He’s been rotting so long that we can see the skeletal structure of his back poking through his flesh, and when Tina telekinetically tightens his trademark hockey mask on the back of his head, white/yellow pus oozes out of his flesh. 

In other words, Jason looks like a real monster, not just a mad-dog slasher this time around, and I appreciate the adjustment in premise. He’s been dead and buried before so he’s clearly a supernatural entity of some type.

Perhaps the most ludicrous aspect of The New Blood is the manner of Jason’s resurrection, which I alluded to above. Tina’s telekinetic powers miss their target, her Dad, and accidentally hit Jason instead.  

This is almost as bad as a dog pissing on Freddy’s bones…in a dream.

I didn’t know that telekinesis works this way; that it can make wrong turns or hit unsuspecting corpses.

Of course, if Tina can resurrect the dead, like Jason or her Dad, just using her mental powers, why doesn’t she resurrect her Mom before the end of the movie?  

Once you open up that can of worms, it’s tough to shut down. Why not resurrect all the dead kids who are still in one piece?

The New Blood is filled with dopey, quasi funny moments that hover in a nebulous twilight zone, half-way between the realm of intentional and unintentional humor.  Dr. Crews (Terry Kiser) slowly goes cross-eyed when gutted by Jason, for instance.  And one teenager is killed by a party horn to the eyeball. 

It’s tough to take any of this action seriously, at any level, and yet one scene -- with a young woman trapped in a wood-shed as Jason hunts her -- is surprisingly suspenseful.

The New Blood makes me laugh every time I watch it. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it isn’t concerned with much of anything, besides punishing vice (the precursor, universally, to slice-and-dice).  I noted here that dead teenagers aren’t the only commonalities of all these franchise films.

Instead, every Friday the 13th movie features a moment in which a storm rolls in, lightning crackles, and the power goes out.  Jason moves in with the storm, a supernatural avenger operating under cover of Mother Nature, punishing transgressors for the unpardonable sins of premarital sex and smoking weed.

It used to be that critics did a lot of hand-wringing over these films, but in today’s horror film environment, the New Blood looks positively innocent and naïve. 

Still, in the telekinetic-a-thon of the finale, viewers do get their money’s worth out of this Friday the 13th entry, and good heaping dose of fun, too.

Movie Trailer:Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Coming Soon: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Cult-Movie Review: Starship Troopers (1997)

In recent weeks on the blog, I have examined the science fiction films of director Paul Verhoeven, including favorites RoboCop (1987), and Total Recall (1990).

The third film in Verhoeven’s sci-fi trilogy is Starship Troopers, an adaptation of -- or more correctly, a cinematic rebuttal to -- Robert A. Heinlen’s Hugo Award winning 1959 novel.

Owing in part to his early life in Nazi-controlled Netherlands, Verhoeven’s science fiction films often parody or critique extreme right-wing aspects of American culture, namely the excessive freedom and power of corporations, and the alarming violence of the society as a whole.

Verhoeven’s films are gory, pointed, and funny, and accordingly Starship Troopers succeeds, in many ways, as the perfect capper for the trilogy.

In other words, it functions as a summation of the director’s individual and artistic perspective.

This time out, Verhoeven reminds audiences of how easily and readily some citizens fall in line behind totalitarian, even quasi-fascist regimes, and how Authority (with a capital “A”) utilizes propaganda to transmit its message of unthinking nationalism or patriotism. 

Also, Starship Troopers points out how easy it is to manipulate opinion based on fear, specifically after an attack on the homeland.

Like RoboCop, the central narrative of Starship Troopers is interrupted periodically by short films. These interstitial interludes do not mock TV commercials this time, but rather propaganda films of the fictional Federation. These short films reveal the Earth government at its absolute, pandering worst.

These shorts -- and particularly those involving the indoctrination of children into patriotic group think -- also remain hysterically funny to this day.

Yet, while everyone seems to understand the social critique presented by RoboCop, there exist two camps of thought regarding Starship Troopers.

In the camp of those who don't really understand the film are those folks who complain about the callow cast, the tongue-in-cheek approach to violence, and the sometimes hard-to-swallow tactics adopted by the futuristic mobile infantry in the war against the vicious Arachnids, the "Bugs."

But those who do get and understand Starship Troopers tend to see it for what it actually is: a humorous warning against blossoming totalitarianism, and mindless nationalism. 

As was the case in RoboCop, Verhoeven artfully uses exaggeration to craft the film’s dystopian landscape, and by doing so, points out just how silly -- and transparent -- propaganda can be.

To put the matter another way, some critics and viewers mistake Starship Troopers for a stupid, special effects adventure, when in fact it lampoons stupid, special effects adventures, and reminds us through its grotesque, bloody carnage that there is nothing heroic, glorious or ennobling about war, or its mindless pursuit by the State.

And no, this is not at all how Heinlein imagined his literary universe.

Contrarily Heinlein’s novel suggests that violence has settled more contentious issues in society than any other course of action. The author reserves the right to vote and lead in his Utopian future only for those who have served in war.  

Everyone else is just a civilian, less-than-a=second-class citizen. Heinlein also dehumanizes his enemies in terms that Americans are all too familiar with. The Arachnids are “Bugs” in the same way that other, real-life enemies were labeled “Gooks.” 

It’s so much easier to hate and destroy an enemy when we give them names that don’t register their full humanity or intelligence, when we can separate them from "our side" and tag them as different from us.

Verhoeven’s film aptly punctures these aspect of war and fascism too.

As noted above then, the movie Starship Troopers is actually a meticulous, dedicated rebuttal to the novel, and a warning about the brand of thinking that informs Heinlein’s world view.

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“They’re just like us.  They want to know us. So they can kill us.”

In the not-too-distant future, a limited democracy, the Federation, faces a new challenge from deep space: a rival race of powerful Arachnids, or bugs.

When Buenos Aires is pulped by an asteroid that originated in the AQZ (Arachnid Quarantine Zone), war is declared, and three friends go different ways.

Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) joins the Mobile Infantry, Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) pursues her dream of piloting a star-ship, and Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) joins military intelligence.

After a botched, failed invasion of the Bug home world, Klendathu, the Earth Federation changes Sky Marshals, and adopts a new philosophy. To defeat the Bug, humans must think like the bug.

Part of that new approach involves capturing a Brain Bug, an intelligent arachnid that has never before been seen by human eyes.

“We’re in this for the species, boys and girls.”

Much of the pseudo-fascist philosophy of Starship Troopers is voiced in the Verhoeven film by Michael Ironside’s character, Rasczak. He starts the film as the high school teacher of Rico and Ibanez, and is thus able to describe the historical and moral underpinnings of the film’s “universe” in his class lecture and discussion.

Rasczak describes, specifically, the “failure of democracy” in the past (implicitly our time, the 20th and early 21st century), and the ensuing course correction: veterans took control of the levers of power and established stability.  

What he describes, though not in exact words, is actually a military coup. 

Bluntly stated, soldiers knocked down a civilian democracy and installed themselves as rulers of a free people. Then, they favored their own people -- veterans and soldiers -- and forbid any non-veterans from serving in the government or in any other positions of leadership, for that matter.

The new Federation, then, is an example of leadership by the few, the proud, the privileged and the powerful, while the masses can only succeed by serving in the wars that their masters choose.  

There’s some debate among readers and viewers, based on Heinlen’s book, about whether all Federation service is military service, but that’s certainly how it appears in the film. To gain citizenship and even the right to vote, you must first hope you don’t become cannon fodder in your master’s chosen campaign of sustained invasion and attack.

Rasczak also notes in the film that “naked force,” violence, is the “supreme authority from which all other authority is derived.” 

Again, what this means in practice is simply that might makes right.  Violence is a moral good in this fictional universe. Those with military power get to impose their value system on the losers in any conflict. Why, because they have might on their side.

And yes, indeed, this seems very much like a fascist world-view. It is right in line with the precepts of Spanish fascism in the early 20th century (as voiced by Primo de Rivera): “no other argument is admissible than that of fists and pistols when justice of the Fatherland is attacked.

We see this very tenet played out in theVerhoeven film.  

At first, the Federation doesn’t believe that bugs are intelligent at all. But when territory in AQZ (Arachnid Quarantine Zone) might be acquired by Earth, suddenly the bugs are capable of hurling an asteroid directly at us, launching a sneak-attack or war upon the human race.  

Ask yourself, if the bugs have no intelligence, how could they have possibly slingshot that asteroid into Buenos Aires?

This question is never raised in the film, or by anyone in the Federation. Instead, we see news footage of the city’s destruction. We see the body count tally on the screen, going up, up and up into the millions.  

And then, quite simply, before we know anything about the enemy, we see the call to action, the call to all-out war. Honor must be satisfied. Blood must be avenged.

Importantly, a journalist asks a question about the Bugs at one point. He wonders if it is possible that they have responded in this bloody fashion because humans invaded their territory first.  He similarly questions if negotiations can’t begin, based on the things that the Bugs and the humans have in common (implicitly, territoriality).

Rico’s response? “Kill them all.”

There will be no accommodation with this particular enemy. 

The jingoistic rhetoric mounts (“we’re in this for the species, boys and girls,”) and the mobile infantry invades the Bug solar system.  And yet the so-called meteor attack may not even be an attack at all. But if it is an attack, it may be based on the same fears regarding territory and dominion that our species frequently ponders.  

But no quarter will be given, and Bug Space will soon be Human Space.

In school rooms across the planet, human students learn that bugs have “no intelligence” and that they are “evil.” And the propaganda industry begins broadcasting scenes that show mobilization on the home front. 

One very funny Federation propaganda video reveals children in a suburban neighborhood going out in the street and stomping terrestrial bugs, while a happy Mother claps and cheers, encouraged by the mindless hatred for anything insect-like.

Notice again that this isn't a defensive war launched by Earth to protect the planet or the homeland; rather an offensive spearhead deep into Arachnid territory. The battle doesn't even occur in neutral territory.  

The troopers fight them there so they won't have to fight them here, right?

The point is that the attack -- intentional or otherwise -- is mere pretext, something a fascist government requires to keep the war machine oiled and continuing...eternally.

We can tell from Starship Troopers that Earth has become a fascist state not just by Rasczak’s words and by the explicit nature of the war effort, but by the existence of the propagandist Federal Network that controls all the news broadcasts.

In describing a "WORLD THAT WORKS," a govt. propaganda film shows kindly soldiers handing out giant machine guns and bullets - like they're candy - to smiling civilian children in a suburban neighborhood. 

The military is seen here as a kind of helpful big brother; the first recourse when there's a crisis. They come bearing not food or shelter, but heavy arms.

Again, forget diplomacy, please.

Another propaganda film is called "CRIME AND PUNISHMENT" and it informs us that a convicted criminal is arrested, tried and executed in one day. 

Swift justice? Or too-swift justice? Is there any longer a thing, in this state, known as due process?

In a fascist society, all dissenters are called "criminals" and dispatched quickly. Lest the government be threatened by facts or evidence.. Lest viewers get to hear an argument that goes counter to government policy.

Another propaganda film in the movie is called "KNOW YOUR FOE," which gives advice about how do successfully manage a kill shot on a bug.

And then, there's "I'M DOING MY PART," which shows young children in heavy combat armor and helmets and makes the case for obliterating the Bug Homeworld, for genocide.

There's also "DO YOUR PART: COUNTDOWN TO VICTORY” which assures the scared masses at home that no matter how many soldiers die in the field of battle (308,000 die at the Klendathu encounter alone...), their country is winning. 

Facts -- and reality -- be damned. Just stay the bloody course.

So, what Verhoeven has accomplished here, in very dynamic and memorable terms, is make the protagonists of his unique film -- the starship troopers of the title -- part and parcel of an autocratic, controlling, fascist society. 

They are cogs in a fascist machine, and these Federal Network "films" dotting the movie make us aware of that fact. Again and again, but always humorously.

But that's not the only clue. 

The other obvious "tell" in Starship Troopers that Verhoeven is making a statement about the perils of blind nationalism comes from the wardrobe, the costuming choices. 

Just take a gander at the uniform Neil Patrick Harris wears as he enters the battleship near the end of the film. 

The black leather. The hat. The trench coat. Look at all familiar to you?

Who does he resemble, this heroic representative of Earth's "military intelligence" division?

There's no doubt: he looks like a Nazi, a Gestapo officer, specifically, and that's very much the metaphor here. Of course, Nazis were fascists, but also masters of propaganda, so it's a strong historical allusion.

As for the cast? Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Casper Van Dien and the like have been disparaged many times and in many places as callow and insipid clothes-horses and WB Network stars-in-the-making. 

Indeed. I think that, on certain physical/visual level this is exactly right. They are all gorgeous.

In fact, I think this is precisely why they were cast in the first place. Not a one of these protagonists seems very smart (Despite their test scores in Math). Not a one of them has any depth. Let alone perspective or insight. They are all immature.

Yet these are exactly the kind of people a fascist society would want to see populate its citizenry. Callow folks who don't question orders or the "way things are." They gladly take orders and are easily riled to violence.

So even down to casting,  Verhoeven has pulled a fast one on his audience.  What happens, one might ask, after a century of Paris Hilton/Kim Kardashian culture?

I submit that you end up with the characters of Starship Troopers: physically beautiful nincompoops. 

Village idiots all...just like the characters in this film. They're tan, gorgeous, physically fit, and without a single important thought in their pretty little heads.

And at least, from the government's standpoint, they're easy to control.

As for the attack tactics dramatize in the film, well, it's true, the Earth mobile infantry seems pretty lame and ineffective. The men and women of these forces stand around and form circles carrying over-sized machine guns, and blast away (wasting ammo...) at the indestructible bugs. 

It's not subtle, but this is surely another way of indicating that to the fascist overlords, the common man -- the grunt -- means absolutely nothing. They’re cannon fodder as likely to shoot one another as they are the bugs. We need numbers, not sound strategy, dammit!

And, in verification of this notion, by the end of the film, the government is recruiting twelve old kids.

To its credit, Starship Troopers also predicts one of the absolute worst developments in the military and journalism: embedding journalists with the troops, so that they owe their safety to the soldiers and can’t be objective about the nature of the conflict, or the purpose behind it.  It is a journalist’s job to be dispassionate and objective, but it’s hard to do that when soldiers are physically protecting you from harm, and you come under fire. 

Finally, Starship Troopers notes well how, in times of war, propaganda helps to dehumanize our enemies.  

Our opponents in combat become “savages,” and “brutal,” and “barbaric,” like they are craven monsters…not actually fellow human beings with whom we have ideological differences.  

Starship Troopers provides the ultimate example of this de-humanization: the enemies are, literally, monstrous insects. 

They are disgusting bugs, and so humans have no compunctions whatsoever about destroying them utterly. These citizens of a totalitarian, highly-militarized state have been conditioned to believe the bugs are inferior to us, and deserve to die.  Again, you can go back in history and look at descriptors such as Gooks, Charlie, Japs, Jerry, and more to see how easy it is to slip into a slang that de-humanizes the enemy, making them less than our equals.

Even outside the social critique, which is more relevant today after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan than it was in 1997, Starship Troopers really holds up.  

The special effects remain, for the most part, astonishing. The scenes involving the Rodger Young in space combat look staggeringly good. And I scanned and scanned for signs of fakery with the rampaging hordes of bugs, only to not find many at all.

Over a decade ago, Verhoeven gave us a warning about the slippery slope of totalitarianism and jingoistic, blind nationalism. It was in the form of a silly, special-effects laden, gory outer space movie, and I guess it was pretty easy to ignore or discount.

It’s not that easy to ignore anymore.  

The gap between the world of fictional exaggeration and the world of reality, as we also saw in RoboCop, seems to be shrinking at a terrifying rate.