Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Special: The Great Pumpkin

It’s time for a little sacrilege. I have a like-hate relationship with Peanuts. Like most people, I have fond memories of the images created by Charles Schulz, such as Snoopy fighting the Red Baron. And I fondly remember the holiday specials as being part of my childhood. But at the same time, there is much to dislike about Peanuts. The kids are cruel, the humor is sparse, and the whole thing has the cynical defeatist quality that crept into so much produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” falls into that.

“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” is the Peanuts Halloween holiday special. The story begins with Linus van Pelt writing his annual letter to the Great Pumpkin. According to Linus, the Great Pumpkin is a bit like Santa Claus who “will rise out of the pumpkin patch that is most sincere. He flies through the air and brings toys to all the children of the world.”

For having this belief, Linus is ridiculed. Charlie Brown disbelieves him, though he isn’t rude enough to make fun of him (until the end, when he essentially calls him stupid). Snoopy, however, laughs. Patty condescendingly assures us that the Pumpkin is fake. Lucy threatens Linus with violence if he doesn’t stop talking about the Pumpkin and then refuses to help him mail his letter. Linus eventually convinces Sally to stay with him in the pumpkin patch because she’s stupid and is easily influenced by her attraction to Linus. She will eventually abandon and angrily denounce him when he mistakes Snoopy for the Great Pumpkin and gets her hopes up.
Of course, nothing happens because Linus is wrong.


So the Peanuts kids are assholes. They show nothing but contempt for their friend and his beliefs. In fact, Lucy even threatens to violently suppress his beliefs. Sally is shown to be shallow and stupid and ultimate hypocritical. Even Charlie Brown, who is himself constantly ridiculed by others, fails to support his friend. These are horrible characters and a horrible lesson to teach kids.

Moreover, the fact that the Pumpkin never does show up essentially makes Linus’ vigil a joke. Some have said this is a parody of Evangelical Christianity, though Schulz denies it. I can see that, though I personally see it more as a cynical adult mocking children who uncritically believe in Santa, particularly with the specific mention of the Great Pumpkin being drawn by “sincerity” and by the rest of the story being just as cynical.

Indeed, while Linus is engaged in his quest, the other kids go trick-or-treating. They receive an assortment of goodies, except for Charlie Brown, who somehow gets nothing but rocks. The reason, it is implied, is because Charlie Brown’s ghost costume is poorly done. What is the message of this? It’s either the cynical message that life simply craps on some people and, no matter what you do, you will fail if you are one of these people – a great thing to tell kids. Alternatively, this reeks of some sort of quasi-socialist message about the horrible way the poor are treated compared to everyone else.
The kids then go to Violet’s Halloween party. When Lucy hears that Charlie Brown has been invited, she informs him that this must have been a mistake:
“Charlie Brown, if you got an invitation, it was a mistake. There were two lists, Charlie Brown: one to invite, and one not to invite. You must have been put on the wrong list.”
Again, this is pointless cruelty as there is no lesson that comes from this. Violet doesn’t admit her mistake and end up thankful that Charlie Brown arrived. The other kids don’t mention their outrage at the exclusion of their friend. Essentially, this is just more of the same message that you will be excluded if you are unpopular and that’s ok with everyone else... tough luck kid.

This is what bothers me about the whole Charlie Brown empire. Snoopy is drawn quite cutely and he merchandizes well, but the stories and characters themselves are cruel, unpleasant and uncaring. For the handful of good lessons, such as at the end of the Christmas special, there are dozens of nasty, discouraging messages.

In fact, one of the tests to really see what is going on in a cartoon is to substitute adults into the roles to remove the “cute factor” and then to ask yourself how the show would be perceived. If you put adults into these roles, I think people would at best view this as a dark comedy, but would more likely simply dismiss it as a cruel, unfunny, offensive film like The Invention of Lying.
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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Toon-arama: Frankenweenie (2012)

by tryanmax

In 1984 while working for Disney, Tim Burton created a half-hour, black & white, live-action film about a boy’s love for his dog as perhaps only he could imagine it. In a tale closely following the 1931 Universal Frankenstein, young Victor’s dog Sparky gets hit by a car, so he takes inspiration from his science class to bring the beloved pet back to life. Burton was fired from Disney for his efforts.

Twenty-eight years later, Disney invited him back to expand the project into a full-length, stop-motion feature.

With as much time as Burton has spent focusing on remakes and re-imaginings lately, it feels very refreshing to see him put out something of his own again, even if it is a reworking of his own material. Frankenweenie is possibly his best effort since the 1990s. Still, he’s not entirely out of the derivative woods with this one, either.
The heart of Burton’s tale remains the same, but the embellishments are plenty. This time, when Victor’s schoolmates discover what he has done they don’t react with horror. Instead, they launch into a sort of sci-fi arms race, spurred on by the prospects of winning a trophy at the upcoming science fair. Each attempts (and succeeds) to bring a deceased pet back from the grave with a wide array of monstrous results. These macabre experiments happen to coincide with the town of New Holland’s Dutch Days festival, which the children’s monsters set about terrorizing. It is up to Victor and Sparky to put a stop to the chaos they helped create.

The twist on Frankenstein is, of course, the primary gimmick. I don’t fault Burton one iota for that. But what separates this self-remake from the original more than the runtime or change of medium is the barrage of other film references this movie is packed with. Some of them, like E. Gore and the Bride-of-Frankenstein poodle, are essential. Others are central to the plot: all the kids’ creations pay tribute to classic monsters, the Mummy, the Wolfman(rat), the Invisible Man (goldfish), even Gamera (the turtle-monster from the Godzilla films).
Beyond that, the references are laid a little too thick and actually become distracting. The plot is not hard to follow, but the viewer is still pulled away with all the “what’s that from?” moments. Oh, and did I mention that, in addition to classic horror tributes, Burton also nods to his own prior work and whatever else he fancies? Of course, younger viewers wouldn’t know many of the more obscure references. (Do kids today even know who the Burgermeister is?) For them, the movie is good fun with some mild thrills.

It’s almost impossible to comment on the quality of the animation. It is, in a word, perfect. Taking a lesson learned from Corpse Bride—that stop-motion can actually be too fluid (many critics and fans were convinced it was CGI)—Burton deliberately chose to make this film’s animation slightly more crude, to charming effect. The technique is paired with black & white photography which, as far as I know, hasn’t been done since it was the only option, and the film is set in the same indistinct mid-20th century setting that some of Burton’s earlier films resided in. Once again, Burton teamed up with Danny Elfman for the musical score. While I can’t say that this score left any particular impressions on me, it is suited to the action and helps drive the pace. In combination, the aesthetic choices achieve a sense of timelessness that suits the film well and portends for it a good future.
All in all, Frankenweenie is a return to form for Burton. For fans who fell in love with Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, this is a long overdue propitiation.

(BTW, the 1984 original short is, inexplicably, not included in releases of the full-length feature. Instead, it is included with The Nightmare Before Christmas. Oh, and HERE if you’re interested.)
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Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 98

There’s nothing like a movie made from a book to open your mind. ;-)

What book do you want to see made as a movie?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

I have read and loved every novel in author James Clavell's Asian series. King Rat, Shogun, Tai-Pan, and Noble House were made into either standard theatrical films, or "made for television" mini-series. Of the two that were not, I would love to see Gai-Jin which was written in 1993, and set in the 1860's in Yokohama, Jaapan. Involving the Struan family of the Noble House, it explores the end of the Shogunate system in Japan. I'm a sucker for costume period dramas. This story is rich and complex, and might be better done as a premium network mini-series to give it it's due.

Panelist: ScottDS

For novels that I've actually read, I'd love to see some of Michael Crichton's later work made into feature films, specifically Airframe, Prey, and Next. (State of Fear will never happen.) And for novels that I've never read, Gregory Benford's Cosm and Victor Koman's The Jehovah Contract. COSM: When a brilliant young physicist's experiment goes awry, the ensuing explosion leaves behind a wonderful sphere made of nothing yet known to science - an object that opens a vista onto an entirely different universe. THE JEHOVAH CONTRACT: A dying assassin is given one final assignment and one last chance for survival. The job: find God Almighty and destroy Him. The payment: eternal life. With the aid of a mysterious trio of women - a beautiful lady gambler, an ancient Hollywood witch, and a telepathic hooker - Dell Ammo breaches the gates of Heaven and Hell to pull the Cosmic Trigger.

Panelist: Floyd

In this age of terrorism and social upheaval G.K. Chesterton's early 20th century novel about infiltrating anarchists' groups called The Man Who Was Thursday would be timely as both a commentary on terrorism and political upheaval and doubly as a Christian allegory (which it also contains of course). A policeman goes deep into the world of anarchy to gain intelligence and break up the main group. It's said Michael Collins, of the IRA, was inspired to "hide in plain sight" (not philosophically mind you) by the book.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Okay, this is a really girly thing to want, but Janet Evanovich’s series with Stephanie Plum. The books are funny bounty hunter slash romance novels with great characters and interesting crimes. Though I have to admit. A few years ago, someone did film one “One For The Money” which with Katherine Hagle. She was dreadfully miscast and…well…just dreadful.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. This is one of my favorite fantasty stories and it would make a heck of a film. That or my first book: Without A Hitch. :)

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, October 25, 2013

Film Friday: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a cult classic. In fact, it’s the first film I personally recall ever being called a cult classic. We’ve said before that what causes a film to become a cult classic is that the film is original, smart and well written, but doesn’t spoon-feed the audience, so it ends up being rejected by general audiences who lack the ability to understand the film but then finds a home with smarter audiences who “get” the film. This time, that may be a bit of a stretch.
What Is The Rocky Horror Picture Show?
For those who don’t know, Rocky Horror began as a musical by Richard O’Brien. In 1975, it was turned into a feature film. It bombed. Boy did it bomb. But like a Phoenix, it rose from the ashes and became wildly successful. How successful? The film opened in only eight theaters and only did well in Westwood, Los Angeles. It was withdrawn. Seven months later, on April 1, 1976, the film was shown at the Waverly Theater in New York City at midnight. This time, it caught on. By October of that year, people were attending the show in costumes and talking back to the screen. Fan groups formed. By 1979, it was showing twice-weekly in over 230 theaters. Since that time, this film has taken in $365 million on its original budget of $1.4 million... with no end in sight.

So what is it? Well, it’s a musical.
The story begins with Brad Major (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) driving on a back country road in the rain. They get a flat tire and are forced to walk to a nearby castle. They are let into the castle by the creepy butler Riff Raff (Richard O’Brien) and an even creepier maid, Magenta (Patricia Quinn). The frightened couple are told to wait for the master. As they do, they discover a group of weirdoes dressed in tuxedos and various accessories that appear kind of clownish. They suddenly break out into song and dance, singing “The Time Warp.” As they finish, the master arrives. This is Dr. Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry), and he’s uh... eccentric. To give you a sense of how eccentric he is, the song he sings to enter the film is "Sweet Transvestite From Transsexual, Transylvania."

The film gets weird from there. Dr. Frank N. Furter has built a “monster,” in the shape of a bodybuilder, who comes to life. He fights Meat Loaf (pre-Bat Out Of Hell), who plays Eddie, an ex-delivery boy on a motorcycle. Frank N. Furter molests both Brad and Janet, kills and cooks Eddie, throws a hissyfit or two, and in the end, it turns out that some of the characters are really aliens sent here for no reason you will be able to understand.
How Did This Become A Cult Classic?
So this is the part where I tell you that while most people find this film strange and confusing, in reality, it’s a brilliant and wickedly clever film that has been widely misunderstood by general audiences. Yep, that’s what you’re expecting. Not gonna happen. Rocky Horror, as a film, is bizarre, confusing, confused and ultimately pointless. It feels like a campy comedy that pushed everything too far and became clinically insane. And to put a fine point on it, if this hadn’t been a musical, this film would be long forgotten.

But it was a musical. And therein lies what made this a cult hit, because these songs are unique, catchy, and a cut above what you get from most musicals. How? Well...

For starters, this is a rock musical and that makes it more accessible to a broader and younger audience than it would have been if this had been a more classical musical, and those are the very people who would run with a story like this. At the same time, the songs are nowhere near as pretentious or relentlessly negative as The Wall or Tommy. These are fun songs, meant to be enjoyed, not bitter, angry or depressed songs meant to exploit teenage angst. That fact alone makes this a unique musical. Moreover, the types and styles of songs vary a good deal, which gives the film a lot of reach. Indeed, there is something here for everyone to love, as compared to most musicals that stick with a single song style from start to finish.
Making the songs even better, they fit perfectly into the film. Too often, in musicals, once the song starts, the plot stops. Not here. These songs move the plot along and the characters maintain their personas. You can actually skip all the songs in Cabaret without affecting the plot. You can’t do that here. Again, this is rather unique in the world of musicals and that makes this stand out.

In a related point, these songs are perfectly integrated with the action and the dialog to tie the film together in a manner much like the way The Fifth Element is tied together, where lines of dialog spoken by different characters (often in different locations) are jammed together to form meanings that the audience can pick up. Thus, for example, you may find one character starting a line and another character in a completely different scene finishing it. That gives the film an interesting, clever, quirky feel which cult fans seem to enjoy... it’s like being treated like an adult for once.

Further, the lyrics (and the dialog at times) are sharper than they appear at first glance. The rhymes used are clever, and the analogies, allusions and meanings are complex and deep. And each song has multiple layers of meaning. For example, the song “Over At The Frankenstein Place,” which essentially starts the film, has the obvious meaning that the characters see a light in a building and they believe that means someone there can help them. But the song is awash with deeper meaning as well. Brad and Janet actually sing: “There’s a light, In the darkness of everybody’s life.” Clearly, they are talking about something larger than finding someone to help change a tire. What they are saying is the theme of the film: this film will be about people who aren’t happy in their very normal lives and who want to try something new... and boy are they going to get it. Riff Raff then adds a lyric related to the use of morphine to find “light” in his life.
Throughout the film, the lyrics constantly have these layers of meanings. On the surface, each song is about that particular moment in the film and advances the plot, but simultaneously, the lyrics are also about drug addiction or O’Brien’s struggles with coming to terms with being a transsexual. And then there is the overriding theme which hides in each of these lyrics as well, which is the idea of normal people looking for something new. Consider this lyric:
You better wise up Janet Weiss,
Your apple pie don’t taste too nice
Here, Tim Curry sings this very aggressively at Janet when he’s trying to seduce her and she rebuffs him. On the surface this sounds like Curry is simply telling Janet that she’s not desirable. But there’s more here. The context is actually deeply sexual and there is a suggestion Curry is talking about oral sex and telling Janet she better be thankful for his attentions because she’s not going to get this from Brad or anyone else. Further, the word “apple pie” suggests “wholesome” to most people (as in “mom and apple pie”), which is what Janet is claiming to be and why she won’t have sex with Frank N. Furter. And what Curry is telling her here is not only that she’s not particularly desirable, but that her wholesomeness turns him off. This is the theme throughout as Brad and Janet delve into this bizarre, definitely un-wholesome world. Sadly for them, they are poorly equipped to handle it.

So what you end up with are clever songs that deal with a variety of truly bizarre topics and which offer multiple layers of meaning. The lyrics are edited together, as with The Fifth Element, to make you pay attention to get the full meaning. The music is varied and of a fairly high quality. The tone and songs are unique among musicals. All of this speaks rather highly of the film.
Add to this that the film touches upon a series of taboo subjects (drug use, murder, cannibalism, homosexuality, transsexuality, and swinging, among other things) which is always popular with young audiences, but it does so in a safe and ultimately ridiculous manner that lets people enjoy the topic. In fact, the ridiculousness here is the key because it’s the difference between seeing a murder and joking about a murder. If Frank N. Furter was earnestly examining his feelings as a transsexual or his murder of Eddie had been taken more seriously, then this film would probably be unbearable. But he isn’t. Instead, he’s so far over the top that the black humor of the film crosses over into genuine humor. And what this does is make this a highly entertaining film for audiences who want a little abnormal in their lives... just not as much as Brad and Janet get.

That’s how this film found its audience and why this film has become a cult classic.

Thoughts? (Other than WTF?)
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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Questionable Bond No. 15

Credibility apparently isn’t a requirement in many of these films, but some moments really stand out.

Question: "What was the biggest ‘Why didn’t he just...?’ moment in the series?"

Andrew's Answer: You Only Live Twice... Bond... Blofeld... gun pointed... there is a noise... Blofeld scurries away. He could have killed Bond in 4/100th of a second, but he didn't? What? Why? How? I'm also wondering why they did the whole Rube Goldberg thing with giving Tiffany Case the diamonds at Circus Circus in Diamonds Are Forever. I guess the CIA gets bored sometimes. Just give her the diamonds.

Scott's Answer: I bet you're expecting an answer involving a villain making a bad choice, but nope! Maybe because it's freshest in my mind but in Skyfall, Bond takes M to his childhood home (the titular Skyfall) in Scotland where they EXPECT the bad guys to find them. Do they bring additional weapons? Vehicles? Troops? Nope. They go all Home Alone, planting booby traps and other such mayhem. So I am forced to ask, "Why didn't he just bring more weapons or call in the Marines?!" (Seriously, Skyfall is an extremely well-shot, well-edited, and well-acted movie, but the script definitely has holes in it.)
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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Top 20 Horror Films You Should Know

October is upon us! Run for your lives! It’s horror movie month! So let's revive this article.

Horror is consistently one of the most popular genres in film, with even middling movies guaranteed to make money. Why? Because audiences want to feel emotion from their entertainment, and no emotion is easier to evoke than fear. Fear comes in many forms, everything from being startled to deep psychological terror. Few movies reach that final level, but when they do they leave a scar on our culture. With that in mind, let’s talk about the twenty most significant horror films. These aren’t necessarily the best or the most scary or even my favorites, but when you die. . . these will be on the test.

1. Night of the Living Dead (1968): The importance of this film cannot be overstated. This film brought horror movies to adult audiences. Before this, horror was costumed monsters aimed at kids. This film also created the zombie craze which continues unabated today in film and within the Democratic party, and it established all the conventions for the zombie subgenre. “Yes we can. . . yes we can.”

2. The Omen (1976): The Omen spawned the “Satan is coming” subgenre and gave us Damien Thorn, a figure who now represents pure evil in the popular culture. There are even indications this film influenced the American view of Satan and the Book of Revelations. And Gregory Peck playing Damien’s father made it respectable for big name stars to do horror movies. “Let him that hath understanding count tonight’s lotto numbers: 6 - 6 - 2.”

3. The Exorcist (1973): Before Rosie O’Donnell’s Potty-Cam Extravaganza, The Exorcist was considered by many to be the scariest movie of all time. This film brought exorcism to the public consciousness and spawned a demonic possession craze in modern horror films. It also introduced the now-clichéd idea of pitting a demon against a priest who lost his faith. . . gimme $20 on the priest. “The Power of Christ compels you, and your little dog too!”

4. Alien (1979): Alien brought modern horror into the realm of science fiction. It established Ridley Scott (who would redefine science fiction) and it taught us that some aliens want to do worse to us than probe our nether regions. “In space, no one can hear you squeal like a pig boy!”

5. Jaws (1975): Jaws sparked a nationwide panic over and fascination with sharks, which continues to this day. Jaws is particularly noted for waiting to reveal the monster until late in the film to build suspense, though ironically this wasn’t intentional, they just had a hard time making the mechanical shark work. . . which is what they get for hiring a union shark. “Be a real shame if something happened to your boat.”

6. Halloween (1978): Though tame by modern standards, Halloween introduced the slasher film. Halloween gave us Michael Myers, as a masked, speechless, killing machine, who escapes a mental hospital and returns home to kill his family and everyone else in town. And they say you can never go home again?! This murderous Marcel Marceau has become the template for modern slasher villains. “It’s not a man, baby!”

7. The Shining (1980): One of the most iconic and oft-referenced horror films, The Shining is the story of Jack Torrance, who ostensibly goes insane while working as the winter caretaker of a haunted hotel. . . ** cough ** drama queen. This movie, more than any other, defined Jack Nicholson and made Stephen King stories a staple of horror films (though, ironically, King and the film “hated” each other). “All work and no play increases Jack’s take home pay!”

"There's no zipper inspector."

8. The Ring (2002): At a time when slasher flicks had become the norm, this film imported the Japanese vision of horror in which creepy, but non-gory images (often involving children or Hello Kitty) terrorize the heroine while she tries to solve the mystery of what created the evil spirit. It also taught us how bad computer viruses can get. A whole slew of identical, remade Japanese films followed (e.g. The Grudge, Dark Water, The Eye, Children of a Lesser Godzilla, etc.). “It’s the Michael Jackson sex tape!”

9. The Haunting (1963): This oft-remade and copied story of a group of paranormal investigators who deserve everything they get for spending several nights in a HAUNTED house established the haunted house subgenre. Seriously, what part of HAUNTED did they not understand? Idiots. “The spirit of Pelosi haunts the House.”

10. 28 Days Later (2002): This movie revived the slowly dying zombie subgenre, by introducing fast-twitch zombies. Suddenly, zombies became a whole lot more menacing. “Repent the end is extremely f**king nigh.”

11. Resident Evil (2002): Resident Evil established the craze of turning videogames into movies, for which we’re all thankful. It also popularized the use of scantily-clad, young women as the butt-kicking heroes, for which we’re all thankful. “You're all going to die down here. . . and not in a good way.”

12. Poltergeist (1982): This anti-clown diatribe introduced the country to the poltergeist, not a ghost but a malevolent force that haunts people rather than places. This has since replaced simple hauntings in films. It also told ghost hunters what kind of equipment they’re supposed to bring and it introduced ideas like the blinding white light you see after paying your taxes. “They’re here. . . and they brought beer!”

13. Friday the 13th (1980): The story of risen-from-the-dead, hockey-mask-wearing, chainsaw-wielding Jason Voorhees, this film added a supernatural element to the silent, killing-machine character first seen in Halloween, and gave us motiveless killers who can’t be killed no matter how many times you shoot them, stab them, or drop a piano on them. . . unless you use dip. This movie also taught us not to go skinny dipping when you’re in a horror movie. “They call this place Camp Psycho-Bait.”

14. Scream (1996): The story of a killer who’s watched too much Sesame Street, Scream revived the horror genre for younger audiences by setting the film around thirty-year-old teen actors and following like a hipper, totally like cynical, tongue-in-cheek style or whatever. “Obama let me down!”

15. Saw (2004): A snuff film with little else to recommend it, Saw opened the door for modern torture porn, which all but abandons story in favor of 90 minute, sadistic bloodbaths. . . a real leap forward for the human spirit. “Let's play a game. How about Clue?”

"You want us to cut through our wrists. . . but only when it's funny?!"

16. The Blair Witch Project (1999): Shot like a home movie, this story of three film students, who vanish chasing an urban legend started the “found footage” horror film subgenre. “We shouldn’t have meddled!

17. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Elm Street gave us Freddie Krueger, who can kill you in your dreams. . . just like noctosoriasis. This film is referenced in dozens of later films, inspired numerous sequels and copies, and encouraged slasher films to step up the special effects and creativity by 16%. “Your eyes are getting sleeeeepy.”

18. The Amityville Horror (1979): Father goes crazy, repeats the murderous rampage of the prior owner, blames house. Now that’s creative lawyering! This film popularized the fake “true” horror story, which has become a bit of a cottage industry. “Honey, I got a killer deal on a repossession!”

19. The Evil Dead (1981): Gory, silly and primitive, Evil Dead is not a good film, but it is a cult classic with a devout following among horror aficionados, who will hate this sentence. The story of four people in a cabin who demonstrate that things actually can go wrong when you open a doorway to hell, this film made Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi Hollywood names. “Pass me some sugar, baby!”

20. Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Four out of five Satanists think Rosemary’s baby is the Antichrist. This film made Roman Polanski famous before he made himself infamous. It also taught us that perfectly normal looking people could be Satanists. . . or Obamatologists. “He sleeps above his crib. . . three feet above his crib.”

Again, these aren’t necessarily the best movies or the scariest movies, nor are they my favorites. But they will be on the test, so know them. And if you’ve missed any, October is the perfect month to catch up on them.

So what did I miss? Or better yet, what are your favorites?

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Can You Make An Animated Horror Film?

I wonder if you can make an animated horror movie? I mean, obviously, you can... but can you make it sufficiently scary that it works as a horror movie? I think so.

At the outset, let’s point out that a great many cartoons do end up scaring kids. There has long been criticism of classic Disney films for scaring children. I don’t accept the criticism because dealing with things which scare you is part of growing up and learning to separate real fears from fake fears and deal with all of our fears appropriately is a necessary part of life. But that is neither here nor there. For while those films may scare children, scaring children is easy as they haven’t yet fully grasped the difference between the real world and make believe. Scaring adults is different and those films don’t scare adults.

So the next question is has there ever been a truly scary cartoon? I can’t honestly think of one. Cartoons are generally aimed at kids and, thus, tend not to really try to scare very much. And those that are aimed at adults tend either to be violent and/or sexual, and aren’t really aimed at producing emotions so much as they are aimed at seeming “cool.”
Anyways, the key word here is emotions. We’ve seen that animated films are very capable of bringing out emotions. Obviously, we know they can make you laugh. But think about the opening of Up and you will see an amazing range of emotion, with the strongest being a deep sadness or sorrow. Bambi produced the same thing, as did the episode “Jurassic Bark” in Futurama. Clearly, happiness and sadness can both be achieved by cartoons. And if we can bring happiness and sadness, then it’s obvious that cartoons are capable of getting people to see these characters as real even though they are obviously just drawings. That suggests that we can achieve fear as well.
Indeed, we have come close at least once that I am aware... at least as far as tension. In 1978, they made Lord of the Rings as an animated film. This film was largely done with live action which was then rotoscoped into appearing animated. Then main characters were hand drawn like normal animation and added to the action. The result was a dark and effective film which gave you a lot of tension and a lot of believability. In fact, in some ways, this film was stronger than the Jackson films (Jackson, by the way, initially denied having ever seen the 1978 film, but later admitted that he had and then claimed that some of the things he stole from that film were an “homage”... an homage to a film he repeatedly denied ever seeing). This again suggests that we can create fear.

So what would it take to make an effective animated horror film? Well, for one thing, I think you would need the animation to be more realistic and life-like and less cartoon-like than normal because you need to strip away the safety that comes with being able to laugh at the characters because of the way they are drawn. I think you also need to avoid anime or the 1950's comic book style, both of which scream “animated.” Similarly, you need to avoid the other excesses that get nerds everywhere to go “cool!”, like splattering blood and strange effects. In effect, you need to avoid anything that screams: “animated!”

Secondly, you would need a strong character-story. This would be essential because that is what pulls you into the story: caring about the characters. It’s no coincidence that most of the best horror movies involve strong character stories.

Third, I think you would need to go for menace and tense rather than outright horror. In effect, you would need to scare the audience throughout as we discussed with Paranormal Activity rather than lining up a complicated plot with a single payoff. It would also be wise to restrain yourself from the desire to draw creepy monsters. Monsters almost always end up looking silly and injuring horror films, and adding a cartoon monster would probably make that doubly so... stick with eyes and shadows.

So what do you think? Do you think it can be done? Any other conditions you would add? Any conditions you would change? Any scary cartoons you can name?
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Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 97

Shoulda been a cowboy, should've learned to rope and ride. Wearin' my six-shooter, ridin' my pony on a cattle drive. Stealin' a young girl's heart, yes, like Gene and Roy, Sang a few rodeo songs, yeah, I should've been a cowboy.

Who is your favorite movie/TV Cowboy?

Panelist: Floyd

I'm assuming by "cowboy" you mean Western character as opposed to only cow punchers so I'll go with Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. And by "favorite" I mean "most compelling". John Wayne's portrayal is still a revelation. The fact he didn't win an Oscar for this is still a travesty. He's just a force of nature -- that ill wind that blows into town. On a positive note, I'd put John Wayne's John T. Chance -- the sheriff in Rio Bravo as my favorite from a positive viewpoint.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

I was in love with Chuck Connors as The Rifleman when I was a child. And who can forget Sheriff Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke! And as for the movies, it has to be any cowboy that John Wayne ever played. He was the best.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

I’m a big fan of westerns and there are a lot of great western heroes, but there’s nobody who holds a candle to Gene Autry. Not only is Autry the epitome of the American west, but he’s probably the nicest man ever on film. It’s just impossible not to like him and not to cheer for him.

Panelist: T-Rav

Er, Woody from the Toy Story movies? Honestly, he embodies a lot of the cowboy values like friendship and loyalty--and look, I'm a bit young to have grown up with cowboys and stuff, so frankly, it's either this or Chuck Norris.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

While it is hard to not pick my first hero, Roy Rogers ("King of the Cowboys"), I really have one that stands above all else ….. Clint Walker as Cheyenne Bodie. He was the proto-type tall, dark, and handsome, strong silent type (to use two fantastic cliches.) Walker mad Gary Cooper seem like a blabbermouth. Once, when a bad guy was trying to bait him ("what are YOU thing, Bodie?") Cheyenne drawled "I think you're trying to talk me to death."

Panelist: ScottDS

I haven't seen enough westerns to give an intelligent answer - it's the one genre where I'm lacking in experience. I did like Kurt Russel in Tombstone, though. His dialogue in this scene hits rather close to home.

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, October 18, 2013

Film Friday: Paranormal Activity (2007)

Earlier this week, we talked about how too many horror films fail to take advantage of the things that naturally scare us. Instead, they rely on a final reveal to scare the audience along with a few moments of shock as their monster jumps out at the audience or a few moments of gore as they try to scare us by showing a bloody death. Paranormal Activity is different. This is a super smart film.

** Major Spoiler Alert **
Paranormal Activity is a “found footage” film about a young couple, Micah and Katie, who have moved into a new house in San Diego in September 2006. As the story opens, Micah is setting up a camera as Katie tell us that she has been haunted periodically throughout her life by an evil presence. Micah is determined to capture evidence of this entity on film.
After a few nights, small things begin to happen: items move, lights flash, etc. These things scare Katie and she hires a psychic, Dr. Fredrichs, to come examine the house. He specializes in hauntings and he warns Katie that she is not dealing with a ghost, but is instead dealing with a demon. He tells her he cannot help her, but he gives her the name of a man who can. He warns her and Micah not to try to communicate with this demon. Micah, however, refuses to take Fredrichs seriously.
Over the next few days, things keep getting worse. Katie wants to call the demonologist, but Micah keeps stopping her. Then Micah buys a Ouija board despite promising Katie he would not do this. They fight and storm out of the room. When they do, the demon takes over the Ouija board and causes it to burst into flames. After this, the demon becomes increasingly more powerful as we move steadily toward the ending.
What This Film Does Right
Wow, where to begin? Let’s start with the fact that they focused on believability, they eschewed cheap gore, and they did exactly what we discussed earlier in the week: they used human nature against the audience. Three great choices!

In terms of believability, they chose a well-known bit of mythology that most of us fear deep down: demonic possession, and they handled it extremely well. For example, to make the audience buy into the demon, they ratcheted up the danger each night as the movie progressed. This made the demon seem more plausible because we feel that we understand how it gained its power: the more they fight, the more the thing grows, and when Micah buys the Ouija board, it really becomes strong. Since you see the cause and effect, it all starts to feel natural to you.

This idea also plays on the part of human nature that looks for patterns. By ratcheting up the demon’s powers and giving the demon more power to manipulate our world each day, the writer establishes a pattern which the audience will recognize and extrapolate. The result is a constant feeling of dread as we see this thing getting stronger and stronger without end. That is ominous to us and makes us feel trapped because we know it will soon be too powerful for us to handle. The writer then makes the characters oblivious to this pattern which triggers our need to warn people of a danger. And since we can’t fulfill that need, we end up feeling helpless and anxious.
Important to maintaining the believability, at no point, does the demon do anything we can’t imagine a ghost doing. At no point, does it show more power than we imagine a ghost or demon might have. At no point does it do something that makes us doubt that it is real. And the more real something feels, the more scary it will be. It even behaves consistently, which adds to the realism. Indeed rather than randomly doing scary things, this demon has a purpose. Interestingly, at no point are we ever really told what it wants, but its behavior is so consistent and so obvious that we realize the demon is sexually obsessed with Katie and it wants her. It acts like a nasty, obsessed (and supernatural) jilted boyfriend, and it portrays the role perfectly. This makes its motive real to us as we can understand this from our own lives. In fact, this is a motive that will already scare a great many people in the audience who have dealt with an obsessed ex-lover.

Beyond this, the director expertly plays upon our instinctual fears. The demon attacks at night. It cannot be seen or fought. It can be next to you and you wouldn’t know it. It cannot be escaped because it can find Katie anywhere. In fact, it has followed her since her youth. Each of those things terrifies us and triggers our “fight or flight” mechanisms. Then they go further. In one scene, we watch as Katie gets out of bed and stands by the bed for more than half an hour watching Micah sleep. This is amazingly creepy to us because we are completely vulnerable when we sleep and the idea of someone standing over us as we sleep is a terrifying one. It also suggest unnatural behavior on the part of Katie, which tells us that the demon is gaining the power to possess her.
All of this is compounded by some smart choices regarding the characters. Throughout the film, the characters do things they’ve been told not to do. But unlike most horror films where the characters are just morons, these two are doing this because it’s in their natures to do them. They are told the demon feeds on negative energy, yet they fight. They fight because their emotions are raw and they are an incompatible couple. Micah is told repeatedly not to use a Ouija board, yet he does. He does so because this is all a game to him and he thinks he can solve the problem in this manner. We know better, but he doesn’t. This frustrates us and makes us feel helpless that we can’t stop them. It fills us with dread too because we know the consequences. And what’s best about this, is that it again draws upon moments in our own lives where people we know refused to follow good advice and then found themselves in trouble. Thus, once again, the film evokes emotions that are already within us rather than trying to get us to imagine something we’ve never felt.

Then, as we near the ending, everything begins to fall apart. We can’t trust Micah anymore because he stopped Katie from calling the demonologist and then he took away her cross and burns it. At best, this is bad judgment and cruel. At worst, this is the final straw which leaves her defenseless to the demon. And either way, he is clearly a hazard at this point. At the same time, Katie puts us into an impossible position. It is time to flee the house. Even Katie agrees. But then Katie suddenly refuses. Yes, she is showing signs of possession, but what do you do with her at that point? If you care about her, and the audience does, then you can’t just abandon her. But it’s clear you can’t stay either. And Micah shows no ability to force her to leave. Thus, the audience is faced with an amazingly difficult decision and ultimate must choose a path they know they will regret.

(spoiler alert reminder)
Finally, we come the ending. There is a huge twist here in a way as the ending unfolds in a most unexpected way. Indeed, throughout this film, we are constantly told that the danger is to Katie. The demon wants her and it has followed her. She cannot escape it... but Micah can, he can just walk away. In conformance to this, she is terrified of the demon and Micah is not. What we don’t suspect watching the film, however, is that the demon will use her to kill Micah. So it comes as a real shock when that happens. This shock is genuinely frightening because it wasn’t something the audience considered. The entire film had built up to the demon taking or killing Katie, and now it instead killed Micah. Unexpected twists like this strongly enhance the terror of a horror movie. The film even does a fantastic job of not showing what is happening, which leaves the audience on the edge of their seats as they wait to find out.
And in terms of this being a twist, it is very well done. Up to this point, you’ve been focused on what the demon wants to do to Katie, but now it flips that around. Yet, when it happens, you immediately remember a whole series of clues that this would be the ending which you missed or misunderstood. For example, the demon wants Katie sexually, i.e. it’s not looking to kill her. It attacks the picture of Micah, but not her, showing hostility to him only. It possesses her several times, once controlling her enough to leave the house and the second time making her stand over Micah as he slept. There is even a strong suggestion that the demon possessed her when she was eight and made her burn her house down. That shows it can use her maliciously. And then Dr. Fredrichs flees the house in a near panic because he senses that the demon resents anyone who helps her. All of this suggests that the demon’s hate is focused on Micah... but you don’t see that because the writer cleverly misdirected you throughout by pointing to the danger to Katie. This is clever, it’s like undermining everything you thought you knew for certain right at the end.

To sum this up, this is a brilliant film. Rather than trying to scare you with fake gore and a horrific ending, this film steadily builds your level of terror step by step by playing on fears you already have, by making you feel helpless in light of the characters’ mistakes and lack of knowledge, and by making each scene count. In fact, you never know what will happen in any scene, if anything, and that keeps you nervous and on edge. Then it finishes strongly by expanding the threat in a way we should have seen coming, but didn’t.

The end result is a truly terrifying film that drew in amazing numbers. With a budget of just $16,687, this film made an incredible $210,391,025, and it was well-deserved.
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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Where Most Horror Films Go Wrong

Horror is an interesting genre. It’s the one that’s most accessible to new talent because it doesn’t rely upon specific formulas, established actors, or huge budgets. It also seems the easiest in which to make a decent film. After all, we all know what scares us, right? Well, not quite. A lot of horror films just fall flat. And where I think they go wrong is that they fail in one specific regard: they don’t understand human psychology.

The reason people like horror films is because they want to be able to face their fears in a safe environment. By watching a movie that triggers their fears, they get a chance to experience their fears without subjecting themselves to the danger that would normally entail, and they are afforded an opportunity to try to master their fears. In a way, this is a survival skill in that it prepares us to handle the moment when our fears suddenly appear in response to something real. This is the same instinct why kids test their fears by standing on a high, unstable place, by venturing into a darkened abandoned building, or by seeking to touch an animal that can easily bring them down in the wild. It’s our way of testing ourselves and learning to tame instincts that could one day undo us if left unmastered.

Knowing this, it should be obvious how to make an effective horror story. Essentially, you consider the things that scare us on an instinctual level and you find ways to let people experience those while they are watching the movie. Indeed, I would argue that with rare exceptions, most of what scares us in horror films has little to do with the plot itself. It is, instead, the presentation.

For example, people are afraid of the dark. . . of the unknown. . . of being alone. . . of cramped spaces. . . of confinement. . . of spaces that are too large to monitor effectively. . . of things that creep up upon us when we are vulnerable or from our blind sides. These are all instinctual fears that can be put to use in any film. Yet, too often, filmmakers seem to ignore these, or they take one and use it to the point of abuse.

Kubrick was genius in his use of space in The Shining. He presented rooms that were so small the characters could barely move their arms. Then he would suddenly throw you into a vast room that was so large that anything could be standing in a corner and you just wouldn’t see it because the room was too big to notice. Or consider the maze-like hallways where anything could be around the corner and how scary that is, or how terrified you feel as Jack enters Room 237 where anything could be waiting for him. Those are brilliant choices. Yet, so many horror movies have their characters run across fields or parks or down city streets, areas that are familiar and feel safe to us.

And don’t forget that humans have any number of fears, such as snakes, insects, and disease, but their fears require more than just showing these things. What terrifies us is the danger they represent to us. So a smart filmmaker will find ways to approximate that danger. Yet, again, so many bad filmmakers use these things in a cartoony fashion or show you a spider climb a wall and them move on with their scene... as if that somehow scares us.

Consider also that the fear of the unknown in this context can be your most powerful aid in making a horror film. The less you show the audience, the more they imagine, and their imagination will by its very nature find the things that terrify them. This is the accidental lesson of Jaws and all the smart films do this: less is more! Yet, so many horror films completely lose their audiences early on because the director can't wait to proudly show off his big toy. It’s sad.

There’s more too. Beyond simple presentation, you have to examine the audience’s other real fears to get to that next level in a horror movie. That requires understanding what really scares people compared to what the conventional wisdom thinks scares people. For example, soldiers have long reported that one of the greatest fears in war is not the fear of death, but the fear of permanent maiming and disability. Some of the best Twilight Zone episodes dealt with this fear, just as some of the best horror films have dealt with a form of this through the damaging of the human soul either as ghosts or possession. Yet, most horror films revel in the kill because that's what the conventional wisdom says is the worst thing that can happen to you. But the problem with the kill is that once it happens, the horror ends for us and we forget that character.

Other common fears include making a disastrous choice, facing an impossible choice, having our failings exposed and not being up to the moment when it finally comes. There is much to exploit here, especially among secondary characters. Yet, the temptation in modern horror films is to have several throwaway moronbeciles to use as cannon fodder. That is a totally wasted opportunity. Rather than warming up the audience to their insecurities, these characters become comic relief. Ask yourself: do you think The Exorcist would have been better if Father Karras was comic relief to warm up the audience for the main match with Father Merrin?

Finally, when it comes to plot, remember that humans are creatures of habit and patterns. We find comfort in those things. And when you give them what they expect, you reduce the horror. A horror film should always shatter their comfort level and keep them tense. Do you think it’s a coincidence that The Exorcist and The Shining are two of the greatest horror movies ever made, and that both involve jarringly unexpected moments to the normal patterns you see in films. . . such as when Father Merrin dies suddenly in The Exorcist or when Hallorann dies the moment he appears to be starting his heroic moment in the sun in The Shining? How about Gregory Peck dying before he finishes his task in The Omen? How about the alien NOT attacking when Brett looks up into the water? Take away the comforting formula, and you tap into that fear of the unknown.

The point is this. Most modern horror movies are made the wrong way: they try to scare you with the stakes contained in the storyline and the outcome of the film, when they should be focusing on the journey itself. The great horror films take advantage of all of our fears to discomfort us, to bring us to the edge of our seats, and to make us close our eyes whether the hero ultimate wins or loses. Watching Danny ride his Big Wheel, or Tom Skerritt panic in the ventilator shaft of the Nostromo, or Linda Blair sitting quietly next to the body of Father Merrin, or Gregory Peck too terrified to speak to his son Damien is where these movies paid off... not in the stakes, not in the outcome. Those are the moments that made you shiver later at night. And notice that everything I discuss above are the things you do apart from the story itself, i.e. they can be done regardless of what the plot maybe. This is how horror films need to be built.

So tell, me what do you think? What other things scare you on film? What doesn't?
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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Cartoon Halloween Specials

I’ve been thinking about cartoons and Halloween this month. It’s easy to find Christmas specials. Not only do you have things like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, but most cartoons do some sort of special where they present A Christmas Carol. Halloween is different. Halloween often gets overlooked in the cartoon world, and when it doesn’t, few of the Halloween specials are memorable. . . save one: The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episodes.

I think the reason the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes resonate, whereas other Halloween specials don’t, is that the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes are a different animal than your average Halloween special.

When most cartoons do Halloween specials, they are typically just the characters doing one of their standard episodes while they are dressed in costumes. If they really want to be daring, the writers may inject something “spooky” like cartoon witch who has cast a spell over one of the characters or something along those lines. This is rarely very interesting or memorable because it’s basically just another episode or, even worse, it’s just a fake episode. Moreover, at no point does it really get into the spirit of Halloween except at the very childish trick-or-treat level: “Gee, Scooby, let’s go trick or treating! Oh no, a witch has cursed us and if we can’t get enough candy by midnight then we’ll turn into frogs!” Hmm. Yawn.
The “Treehouse of Horror” episodes are different. These are really clever little parodies of famous horror films using the Simpsons’s characters. Because of this, their stories are more sophisticated. They tend to be more adult as well. And they tread much closer to horror than other cartoons dare to go, yet they are lampooning the horror, so they are still accessible to children.

Further, these aren’t just parodies in the Scary Movie sense. These are still social commentaries as well and that lifts them above just being a cartoon. For example, in the episode where Lisa wishes for world peace and everyone throws away their guns, Kang and Kodos enslave humanity. Then Mo get angry and attacks them with a plank with a nail in it. Soon Kang and Kodos are on the run, but the story ends with Kang and Kodos prophesizing that: “They’ll make bigger boards and bigger nails, and soon, they will make a board with a nail so big it will destroy them all!”

That’s a pretty laughable idea, but it also touches upon things like the silliness of disarming the good guys, the futility of gun control, and the part of human nature that often gets us ahead of ourselves. And that gives this episode the kind of depth that makes it memorable, both through the combination of the parodying images which remind us of other films we know and love and the addition of the commentary which gives us something to think about and talk about later. An episode about a witch hypnotizing someone who is trick-or-treating just can’t compete with that.

This is why “Treehouse of Horror” episodes are so memorable and so little else is.

Thoughts? What are some of your favorite Halloween episodes?
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Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 96

Be excellent to each other. Always carry a towel. Films are packed with philosophical moments.

What philosophical moment have you taken from a film that has influenced your life?

Panelist: BevfromNYC

My number one would be the entire movie Dogma. It was just an interesting take on spirituality, religion and Christianity.

Secondly was in The Devil Wears Prada when Anne Hathaway and Stanley Tucci are in a workroom and Hathaway is threatening to quit the fashion magazine because she is a “real journalist” and that she couldn’t possibly learn anything from these people who take fashion so seriously. Tucci says “Okay, quit then. Why should we care? But remember that what you deign to do, others would kill to do.” That hit home me. I realized that I did exactly the same attitude as her and that he was right. It made me re-evaluate the way I worked and to try and get the most out of every job I took. But mostly I learned from that one scene to respect the passion of others even if my passions lay elsewhere.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

There are some excellent, true but negative moments. Men in Black smartly said that a person is smart, but people are panicky and stupid. The Usual Suspects taught us that power is often just about being willing to do what others won’t. Star Trek V asked us why God needs a spaceship, by which they really meant to look closely at what people are telling you God wants. But the one that influenced me the most is Spock in Star Trek II: “I have been and always shall be your friend.” This reminds me that good friends are friends you keep forever.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

One that comes to mind is the character (hence the film) Dirty Harry. The point was, of course, that sometimes the only difference between the bad guys who would do us harm, and the people we pay far too little to protect us from them, is only a matter of which side they are on. This is an oft repeated theme, of course (see Jack Bauer and 24, for example.) I think it reminded me that policemen, despite their training, are only human. Yet they are so often reviled and considered pigs. It has reminded me to cut them a certain amount of slack.

Panelist: ScottDS

"Every age is the same. It's only love that makes any of them bearable." - H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell), Time After Time

"Curiosity, that's what kills us. Not muggers or all that bulls--- about the ozone layer. It's our own hearts and minds!" - Greek chorus leader (F. Murray Abraham), Mighty Aphrodite

Panelist: Floyd

As a Christian, I'll say Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. All too often of course, religion becomes either too intellectual and unfeeling or, at the other extreme, all feeling and little thought. I tend toward the former in my faith -- favoring reason over emotion -- sometimes too much. Mel Gibson's depiction of the Crucifixion put a visceral stamp on an event that is not just mere historical fact -- but one of eternal spiritual significance. In other words -- it is an event that should spark an emotional response as well as an intellectual acknowledgement. And while I believe Christ's words to St. Thomas (aka "Doubting Thomas") that "Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed." I also know that seeing does help make lasting impressions. While this Protestant doesn't believe all of the Catholic theology in Gibson's film, we agree on the essentials and his masterful film helped solidify an already strongly held faith.

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, October 11, 2013

Film Friday: Phantasm (1979)

I love Phantasm. Phantasm is one of those films that somehow does it all right. Relatable characters. The mood is tense. The villain is scary. The plot is strong and original. The sets and effects are believable enough that you can suspend your disbelief without trouble. Indeed, the low budget lends a reality to this film which slicker productions typically lack.
Our story opens with a funeral. Mike Pearson’s parents have died. Thirteen-year-old Mike has been barred from the funeral by his older brother Jody, an aspiring musician. But Mike sneaks to the cemetery anyway to watch the proceedings. What he sees is shocking. Not only does he think that he sees dwarf-like creatures scurrying just out of sight behind headstones, but he witnesses the mortician, a tall man in a black suit, lift a coffin all by himself!
Mike races home and tells Jody what he saw. Jody doesn’t believe him. Jody is twenty-four and he doesn’t want to be tied down by a thirteen-year-old kid. He wants to be out on the road trying to build his career as a musician, and he thinks Mike is making this up because he senses that Jody is planning to leave him with relatives, and he wants to trick Jody into staying. With Jody refusing to believe him, Mike goes to a fortune teller and her granddaughter for advice. She warns Mike that fear itself is the killer. But is that really true?

Apparently not, because Mike soon finds himself attacked by the Tall Man’s minions. These are dwarves, dressed like Jawas from Star Wars. Then the Tall Man himself attacks. He has several unusual powers, and when Mike cuts off his fingers, they subsequently come to life. This is enough to convince Jody that something evil is going on. Jody, Mike and their friend Reggie, a milkman who also plays guitar, check out the mortuary. Once there, they discover a portal to another world. They also learn that the dwarves are the dead who have been entrusted to the mortuary, e.g. their parents. These dead are sent through the portal to another world, where they are crushed down and made to work as slaves.
Can they escape the Tall Man? Can they stop him?
Why This Film Works
This is another one the critics hated, but which has become a cult favorite. (Ignore the sequels.) The critics essentially said the film shows flashes of brilliance and the director had raw talent, but the film was a mess. But the film isn’t really a mess at all, it just doesn’t spell everything out. And as we’ve learned, a lot of these people who claim to be experts on film are incapable of understanding films that don’t spoon-feed them all points.

Phantasm is a solid film with moments of genius. The story is highly original, but it doesn’t spoon-feed you. Yet, it’s easy to follow and understand if you use your brain. For example, they never tell you what the Tall Man really is, i.e. they never explain his true nature. But his threat is obvious. It’s also obvious that he’s not human. But again, you have to pick this up from his behavior, because they don’t tell you “Hey, he’s not human!” What they do instead is show him doing things humans cannot do, like lifting a casket on his own or re-growing fingers. As for his nature, they give you clues to that too. For example, he can appear to be something he is not, like when he appears to be a scantily-clad woman to lure a man to the graveyard and when he appears in dreams. There is also a truly brilliant scene where you see him stop to smell what appears to be steam rising from dry ice.
This is a brilliant scene. Reggie is taking ice out of his truck and you see the Tall Man, who has an unnatural stride, walk along the street intending to pass Reggie. Mike is watching the Tall Man from a distance. The Tall Man suddenly stops right next to Reggie. He turns to face Reggie and he seems to breath in the smoke/steam coming from Reggie’s truck. This is intensely creepy for two reasons. First, it’s creepy because this isn’t human behavior. Yes, humans do this, as they may stop to smell at a bakery, but no human would stop to smell dry-ice steam. This suggests alien origin. Indeed, it feels like he has stopped because what he smells reminds him of his home world.

The second reason this is creepy is that we don’t actually know what he thinks he’s smelling. It is equally possible that he can smell death or the soul or something along those lines and he smells it on Reggie. In effect, he has stopped to savor the smell of a victim he wants. You don’t know which is it or what he smells, but you know it’s bad news and you know this isn’t human. He then looks directly into the camera and thereby pulls you in... is it you he is really after? Or is he warning you that there is nothing you can do to help Reggie?

None of these things are explained, but that’s not a problem unless you need everything explained to you. To the contrary, by not explaining these things, you have a brilliantly creepy scene that is open to many interpretations depending on what would be most creepy to you. It’s actually an inspired bit of filmmaking.
The film’s themes are the same way. The minor themes are obvious, though relatable: Mike is dealing with the fear of being left alone now that his parents are dead and Jody is dealing with the tug between the responsibility he feels for his younger brother and wanting to be free to live his life. These are real world themes that each of us can appreciate and which bring us to the right state of mind for what comes next, which is the main theme (as an aside, this is also more and more complex “character development” than you usually get these days).

The main theme involves the struggle against the Tall Man. The Tall Man represents the fear of the unknown that accompanies death. Most people think of death as involving either a blinking out of existence or some presumably happy afterlife. But we all have a fear in the back of our minds that maybe... just maybe... there is something worse waiting for us. That is what Phantasm delves into: Mike learns that death is a nightmare of enslavement to an evil, cruel master on a hellish alien world. But again, this is not something the characters stop to explain through exposition. Once again, you need to pick this up from seeing the dwarves, from their speculation about what the dwarves are, from their brief five word acknowledgement (“What about mom and dad?!”) that their dead friends and family could be among the dwarves, from the nature of the portal and from the brief glimpse through the portal. Presumably, that’s too much for the reviewers to grasp, but it really is laid out quite simply if you pay attention to the film.

And what do we get in exchange for this ambiguity? Well, you get a movie that lets an active mind run wild. You get a mystery buried within a film where you weren’t expecting one. You get clues that you need to assemble and base around educated guesses as to what is going on, who the Tall Man is, what he wants, and what each part means. That allows you to imagine so much more than the movie is able to provide in its run time; indeed, you can imagine whole worlds of backstory... as people have done on the net. And that gives you is a very rich film. That’s a decent tradeoff.
There’s one more thing to mention: the budget. One of the things I love about this film is that it feels more real and has stronger imagery than most big budget films. In fact, this film puts the lie to the idea of the tent-pole film. Consider the portal to the other world. This is a tuning fork made of two silver tubes placed in a bright white room with a loud hum in the soundtrack. This makes for a stunning visual and is better than all the “gateway” CGI I’ve seen. Indeed, think of all the lights and CGI-whatnots needed to move John Carter to Mars and then compare it to the simplicity here. Tens of millions of dollars of CGI effort couldn’t hold a candle to a smart director who used $10 worth of tubing and $50 worth of paint to make a truly memorable image.

Or consider the ice-sniffing scene discussed above. Most films would use CGI to show the creature transforming from human into its natural form. But in so doing, they would inject a cartoony monster into the story which will lose half the audience. Not here. Here the director had the actor stop and sniff the air in a very non-human and creepy way. Thus, $0 resulted in an iconic moment that directors with access to tons of cash never would think to do.

Indeed, part of what makes this film so inventive, I suspect, is the need to work around the low budget. The budget was $300,000, borrowed from friends and family. The director’s mother made some of the special effects. The cast and crew were friends. It was filmed over weekends over the course of one year. The car was borrowed. And the director, Coscarelli, handled all the technical aspects because he couldn’t afford to hire a cameraman or an editor.

Nevertheless, in finding ways to tell this story without CGI, without special effects, and without a huge budget, the director created a series of iconic horror images that all horror fans know today; he also netted around $12 million at the box office. Clearly, a smart director not only can get by without money, but can thrive in that environment. This film is the posterboy for the fact that money means nothing when it comes to making quality films. What matters is the quality of the story and the creativity of the presentation. And the more crutches directors rely upon, the more their films cost... but they aren’t getting any better.
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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bond-arama: No. 0013 The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

When I was a kid, The Spy Who Loved Me was clearly the best Bond. It also happened to be the one on television every few months. The savvy and ultra-well dressed Roger Moore saves us from the evil madman whose ships are eating submarines and he shows up those dirty Ruskies in the process. . . how cool is that? Um, yeah. Time has not been kind to this film. Still, it’s a “classic Bond” and that’s why it deserves to be No. 0012 of 0023? However, this comes with a caveat. This film will probably slide down the ranks as time passes.

Plot Quality: The plot to this one isn’t half bad. In fact, I liked it a lot when You Only Live Twice did it, and for the most part, this rip off is handled well. The story opens with British nuclear submarine HMS Ranger vanishing. A Soviet submarine suffers the same fate. The only clue to what happened is that someone in Egypt is offering for sale a system that will let anyone track nuclear submarines. As proof that the system works, the British are given a map showing the track taken by Ranger before she vanished.
Bond travels to Egypt, where he discovers that the Soviets are also trying to buy the system. The Soviet representative is Major Anya Amasova, aka Agent Triple X. As she and Bond compete against each other, their contact gets killed by a tall man with metal teeth: Jaws. After fleeing from Jaws through various tourist attractions in Egypt, Bond and Amasova return to their headquarters, where they are told they will team up.

The Russians and British suspect Karl Stromberg of being involved in this somehow. So Bond and Amasova visit Stromberg for no apparent reason except to pass time and alert Stromberg that their governments suspect him. They get to see Hollywood’s favorite red lionfish. Then they leave and they are attacked. To evade attack, Bond drives his Lotus into the ocean where it turns into a submersible. Director Lewis Gilbert then brings eternal shame to himself and his family by letting Bond drive up onto the beach as animals do double-takes and drunks look at their bottles. He even has Bond drop a fish out of the car. Up yours Lewis, up yours.
Anyway, with no reasonable way to move the plot forward, Bond hops an American submarine and goes cruising the ocean, waiting for Stromberg to capture him. It’s not clear why Stromberg needs three submarines since his plan calls for two, but Stromberg takes the bait. Using some unexplained device, he cripples the submarine and her crew as one of his freighters drives over the sub. But rather than causing a fender-bender, the ship opens up in the front and pulls the sub inside to an interior dock. The crew is then taken prisoner and mixed with the Russian and American crews, who have not been liquidated even though Stromberg’s plan is to wipe out humanity.

Stromberg launches two submarines, both under new ownership. The Ruskie sub will nuke New York City and the American sub will nuke Moscow. He thinks the Soviets and the Americans will then nuke each other, destroying the world, and Stromberg will live happily in his undersea kingdom all by himself until he starves or can’t get replacement parts until he emerges and the survivors turn to him to rebuild the world.
Once the submarines leave the ship, Bond rallies the troops: “And gentlemen in England now a-bed, Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks, That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.” A shootout ensues. I won’t spoil who actually won for you.

//scratches head

Bond Quality: By this point in his films, Moore had started to come across as a lounge lizard more than anything else. His fashion sense may have been fine for 1977, but by 1981 it was as dated as disco. His character’s flirting felt like smug sexism by 1981 as well. More importantly, his version of “tough” would be seen as effete by the 1980s, which saw the public gravitate toward “common man” and working class heroes like Rocky Balboa, John Rambo, and John McClane from Die Hard. In fact, The Spy Who Loved Me’s Moore has more in common with some 17th Century fop than a modern action hero. Moore didn’t help this either because he wasn’t at all physical as Bond.

The Bond Girl: The Bond girl was Barbara Bach as Anya Amasova/Agent Triple X. She was a KGB agent assigned to the same case. She and Bond competed throughout the film and eventually teamed up. However, Bond had killed her lover in the opening scene of the film, so she swore to kill Bond when the mission ended. Bach is attractive in a 1970s “Twiggy” sort of way, which means her figure is as flat as her acting. She speaks in a monotone and uses a fake Russian accent. Throughout the film she is best when trying to one-up Bond, but proves pretty useless as spies go. Ultimately, she’s not nearly the worst Bond girl, but she’s nowhere near the best either.
Villain Quality: The villain here is Karl Stromberg (Curd Jürgens), and he blows. Jürgens projects neither charisma nor menace on screen. He’s just grumpy. His actions are inconsistent and largely pointless, like why he invites Bond to visit him at his secret base when he knows it’s Bond. He kills his henchmen to save money, even though his plan will make money pointless.

His scheme isn’t much better. He wants to cause the Americans and the Soviets to nuke the world to wipe out humanity while he hides under the ocean in his secret base. Then he will build a new civilization. Uh, yeah. Here’s the catch. First, he has no plan to build a new civilization. Secondly, he has no resources collected to build a new civilization, and I suspect Home Depo will be closed after the apocalypse. Third, why would anyone listen to the turd who hid under the ocean? This is a stupid plan and never feels real. But at least the submarine eating effects are cool.
Stromberg’s henchman is Jaws, who somehow is one of the most popular henchmen. He’s tall and has metal teeth and he’s very, very lucky. He’s lucky that anyone who tries to shoot him apparently either runs out of ammo before they shoot or freezes up because they are tall-ophobic. His victims also tend to stand there and wait for him to grab them, just as Bond strangely chooses to punch Jaws in the metal jaw rather than the exposed crotch.

//scratches head again

Ok, look, here’s the thing. The story is ripped off and stupid. The scheme is nonsense. The acting isn’t much better than a porno. Director Lewis Gilbert should be shot for crimes against cinema, and writer Christopher Wood (who would triple-down by repeating this film as Moonraker) should have his fingers broken. BUT this was the highlight of 1970s Bond, and it’s surprisingly watchable. There’s just something about the film that was entertaining; it’s like an adult cartoon. The critics loved it too.

Perhaps what makes this film work is that it’s guilty pleasure Bond? This thing is so bad that it crosses that magical line where it become entertaining in its badness. This is Bond-nado v. MegaJaws. And that causes us to rank this film much, much higher than it would otherwise deserve. That’s why this oh-so-shiny turd is No. 0013 out of 0023.
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