Monthly Archives: October 2012

Tricks and Treats

It’s Halloween! The one day of the year when everyone concedes that candy and horror movies are the best things in life. Therefore, I give you some thoughts on what I’ve been watching lately…

The Paranormal Activity movies (2009-) fascinate me. They’re yet another annual horror franchise, low on ideas and high on jump scares. But since they’re shot in the “found footage” style that’s been so in vogue lately (blame 2007’s one-two punch of [REC] and Cloverfield), the PA movies actually look and sound a lot like austere art cinema. The long takes, the static camera, the ongoing obsession with documenting the mundane, the lack of non-diegetic music… they’re like Michael Haneke if he fast-forwarded through all the “boring parts.” They’re formalist horror, fixated on mise-en-scène but devoid of any real acting or dialogue. Does that make them perversely experimental, or just cynical and hollow? Maybe both.

Universal’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) is catnip for a Bela Lugosi aficionado like me. You’ve got the “man of science” angst that afflicts Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle; the vanilla hero (Poe’s detective Dupin) who hunts the mad doctor; and of course the hero’s girlfriend, with whom Lugosi develops an intense erotic obsession. All the typical tropes that crop up in Our Favorite Hungarian’s movies. As usual, Lugosi—hamming it up with a unibrow and jack o’ lantern smile—steals the show, although he does have competition from Karl Freund’s silken cinematography and some surprisingly florid dialogue. (Sample line: “Think of what all those walls are hiding! Broken hopes, bodies, hearts. Absent dreams, starvation, madness. Crimes of the streets; tragedies of the river.”)

The titular landmass in Isle of the Dead (1945) is a liminal space, constructed from shadow and illusion. There, modernity wrestles with superstition for the soul of General Pherides, played with brittle gravitas by Boris Karloff. Although directed by Mark Robson, Isle of the Dead was produced and co-written by Val Lewton, meaning it’s one of his wartime horror movies—and as such, it shares much with his earlier films, like Cat People and The Ghost Ship (the latter also Robson-directed). Evil is again represented as nebulous and invisible; fear as the genesis of fascism; and statues as omnipresent totems. Furthermore, all three are suffused with noir atmosphere and homoeroticism. Perhaps my favorite technique specific to Isle of the Dead is its repetition: of the words “No one may leave” and “vorvolaka”; of water drip-drip-dripping on a prematurely sealed coffin. Such a stark and haunting film.

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Link Dump: #82

Ewwww, this week’s kitty comes from Hostel: Part II. You’d think the milk in that bowl on the table would be more appetizing than poor Paxton’s bloody neck-stump, but cats are unpredictable like that. (Apologies for the incredibly graphic image, but it’s late October!)

Some amusing search terms: “wonem love wonem pussy” (wonem also love misspelling?), girl with icicle pussy (not a Stieg Larsson book), “tumblr ludic pussy” (highbrow, meet lowbrow), and finally “halloween sluth fucked.” Is a “sluth” a slutty sloth?

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Spooky Specials: “Sugar Frosted Frights/Ed is Dead: A Thriller!”

Good evening. Tonight’s selection is a chilling tale of mayhem, shrubbery, and a wallaby who knew too much.” —Heffer introducing “Ed is Dead: A Thriller!”

My previous foray into childhood Halloweeny goodness was pretty gentle; Rugrats wasn’t really one to push the boundaries of children’s television. Rocko’s Modern Life, the subject of this week’s Spooky Specials, did nothing but push those boundaries. Along with the equally disgusting, adult-pitched Ren and Stimpy, Rocko was a media watchdog’s worst nightmare: brimming with crude toilet and nudity humor, thinly veiled sex jokes (the damn restaurant was named the Chokey Chicken for nearly four whole seasons before someone figured out that it was a masturbation joke), and absurdly adult themes and situations. (Does anyone else remember when Rocko was a phone sex operator? ‘Cause I sure do.) So, it follows suit that the Rocko’s Modern Life Halloween special is strange, disturbing, and very obviously not for kids (but fuck if we didn’t watch the hell out of it anyway).

The first segment really typifies the average Rocko episode. It starts off with a normal premise (Rocko and Heffer are going trick-or-treating!) before rapidly spiraling into a cacophony of screaming and toned down expletives. Then begin the non sequitur plot points, the plethora of adult jokes and references, all concluding with an out-of-nowhere or unsatisfying (or both) ending. Since the first segment sticks very closely to this kind of unstructured style I find it the weaker of the two. The plot (and I use that term loosely) has Rocko, Heffer and the ever-petrified Filbert going trick-or-treating and crossing paths with a Headless Horseman-esque ghoul (The Hopping Hessian). There’s a strange sub-plot about Filbert’s childhood Halloween trauma and him cracking out on candy, followed by a completely incomprehensible ending. “Sugar Frosted Frights” works for sheer manic spooky fun, but when it comes to constructing  an actual scary story “Ed is Dead: A Thriller!” just gives me goosebumps.

“Ed is Dead” is one of those great over-kids’-heads episodes that I’m sure many parents got a kick out of. For starters, the segment’s plot is an homage to Rear Window and the whole thing is a Hitchcock pastiche, which I’m pretty sure most kids in my age bracket didn’t catch. Also, the segment centers around Ed and Bev Bighead, two of the least child-friendly characters on the show: middle-aged toads whose embittered bickering and simmering-just-below-the-surface contempt for one another is only outweighed by the amount of disturbingly passionate sex they have. Ed is curmudgeonly and insensitive to his always horny, often frustrated wife, which brings us to the comedy of errors in “Ed is Dead.” A cursory familiarity with Rear Window (or any of its many parodies) is all you need to know the plot of this segment, as Rocko thinks he sees Bev brutally stab Ed to death from his window and begins searching for answers. The truth, of course, is that Ed was fine all along, merely away to get a bothersome wart removed from his ass.

For a child unaware that it’s just a wacky Rear Window parody, however, this shit was actually pretty horrifying. The disturbing sounds of the Bev “stabbing” Ed, the lightning and darkness that surround the Bigheads’ house, the tense moments where Rocko is in the house and Bev arrives home… it was all very scary but when coupled with exaggerated cartoon elements it was also silly and funny. I believed that Ed was actually dead but was still laughing all the while. And therein lies the twisted joy of Halloween specials and the holiday itself. They expose children to terrors that are normally hidden—and they make it fun. “Ed is Dead” makes marital murder into a game, tightly packed in a bright, frenetic bundle, and ready for juvenile consumption.

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A Real Good Thing

Wanna know what scares the shit out of me? “It’s a Good Life,” that Twilight Zone episode where Billy Mumy plays a 6-year-old with godlike powers. And it’s not just because of Mumy’s wild eyes when he howls “You’re a bad man!” nor the half-flaccid shadow of a jack-in-the-box that follows his cry, although the episode has many such bone-chilling images. It’s… well, the concept, the execution, the performances, the layers of built-in political/moral resonances packed into its lean 20 minutes. So much about this episode terrifies me on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin.

The realism. Like so much of The Twilight Zone, “It’s a Good Life” doesn’t look like sci-fi or horror at all. It looks like conventional 1960s television. Everything about Peakesville and the Fremont household is emphatically normal; the only aberration is The Monster, Anthony. This is a common Cold War anxiety—of something wrong sprouting out of healthy American soil—manifested in the bluntest, most horrific way possible. It’s the flip side of Leave It to Beaver, with the Beave as a Lovecraftian abomination. The uncontrollable Anthony calls to mind the words Bob Dylan would sing just a few years later: “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your old road is rapidly agin’…” or perhaps the lyrics to David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things”:

Look at your children

See their faces in golden rays

Don’t kid yourself they belong to you

They’re the start of a coming race

The mind games. Rod Serling’s writing here is razor-sharp, and every conversation with Anthony is like a game of Operation. The adults have to steer him, ever so gently, away from violence (at least, violence against them) and toward—well, not “goodness” exactly but toward some heavily compromised approximation of it. These exchanges are like supplicant prayers to an unbalanced and amoral god, a god who must always be appeased with the refrain of “real good thing,” a god ruled only by his own ego. “I hate anybody that doesn’t like me!” whines Anthony, and that’s his first and only commandment. His power so outstrips the scope of his comprehension or empathy. This is Old Testament theology filtered through the mind of a child.

The representation of trauma. As the episode begins, Peakesville is populated by survivors: the tight-knit community of sweaty, miserable adults who’ve curried Anthony’s favor thus far. (The timeline of Anthony’s reign is hazy; it feels like he’s been in control forever.) Through these adults, “It’s a Good Life” delineates the behavior patterns adopted by trauma victims in impossible situations. They try to decipher the ambiguous looks on Anthony’s face; they prioritize self-preservation above all else; they bargain with one another to stay on his good side. “You’ll tell him, won’t you, Ms. Fremont?” begs Bill, the pathetic delivery boy. “Tell him I brought the tomato soup ’cause I heard he liked it? Tell him I brought it, won’t you?” But as Ms. Fremont knows, these tactics are meaningless to the unpredictable Anthony. Either he likes you, or he doesn’t.

The climax. And in the case of Dan Hollis (Don Keefer), he doesn’t. Dan is irascible, increasingly hard-drinking, and on the outskirts of middle age. He’s in no mood to tolerate Anthony’s bullshit, especially on his birthday. Your birthday is supposed to be about you, a day to flaunt your ego, but in Peakesville every day is about indulging Anthony. So Dan snaps. Earlier in the episode, when Bill says “We love that boy,” a look of soul-shaking nausea flashes across his face. But Dan is the only one to take this revulsion at being reduced to a child’s plaything and whip it up into blind outrage. Everyone else grovels before Anthony with fear-induced sincerity; only Dan has the temerity to give him a sarcastic salute. It all comes down to one line, after Anthony puts the kibosh on playing Dan’s new record: “Nuts. Can’t even play my own record; I can’t even play Perry Como!”

If he can’t play Perry Como, life is not worth living. If he can’t play Perry Como, no risk is too great. (The great irony is that Como was a quintessentially Establishment performer, as safe as Kennedy-era pop culture got, yet in Peakesville he’s a Molotov cocktail.) Dan lashes out at Anthony, begging the others to follow his lead and “take a lamp or a bottle or something and end this!” And of course none of them do, because Anthony’s control is their “normal” now. Misery is the new default. They even have a tacit protocol in place so that when Dan gets transformed into that jack-in-the-box, Mr. Fremont reflexively asks that Anthony send it away to the cornfield. This 6-year-old tyrant is now their status quo: they know how to survive under him, but not how to rebel.

In “It’s a Good Life,” free will can be conditioned away. Children are not innately innocent. And the hell you live in must be described as a heaven, cognitive dissonance be damned. These are but a few of the macabre implications that leave me shuddering long after Rod Serling has signed off. (“No comment” being the only postscript he can muster.) Somewhere in my mind, the threat of Anthony is always lurking, and that’s a real good thing.

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Paradise Lost

Nothing else is quite like Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974). It’s a gothic horror story, showbiz satire, and pastiche-heavy musical that somehow fuses camp and pathos; a movie whose style I can only describe as “everything and the kitchen sink.” Phantom draws us into a parallel world, a warped vision of 1970s decadence that’s as hellish as it is seductive. And although De Palma’s manic visuals may lay the foundation for this world, it would all fall apart without the tragic heft of Paul Williams’ music.

Therefore, I’ve written an encomium to Williams’ Oscar-nominated score for The Film Experience. It’s hard to overstate how much Williams’ songs, which double as catchy pop ditties and incisive autocritiques, do for this movie. Not every song is a keeper—I’m lukewarm on “Special to Me” and “Life at Last”—but several of them (e.g. “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye,” “Faust,” “The Hell of It”) are damn near sublime. They’re as pleasurable and eclectic as De Palma’s camera technique, each one flying off in its own lyrical directions but all of them rooted in the same Nixon-era cynicism. Frankly, they’re awesome.

A few more scattered thoughts on Phantom:

  • “The Hell of It” invariably calls to my mind “Movin’ Right Along,” which Williams wrote for The Muppet Movie. The pacing, structure, tune… really, everything but the subject matter.
  • In addition to De Palma’s usual Hitchcock homages (like a shower scene), Phantom contains probably my favorite Touch of Evil homage, which even uses a split screen to compound the tension.
  • Another of De Palma’s auteur trademarks that pervades Phantom: screens within screens (within screens). I recently caught up with Snake Eyes, and it’s startling how similarly the Paradise and the Atlantic City Arena function as panopticons. Every space lies under layers of surveillance.
  • Lastly: Phantom is cleft, up to its closing seconds, by a crowd/spotlight dichotomy. This visual motif recurs at the climax of my other favorite De Palma movie, Carrie. The spotlight translates to power, to an escape from anonymity, and of course to death.

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Picture Perfect

It was as if the painting had sweated a dew of blood.

This has to be one of the most infamous, gruesome images in horror film history. And rightly so! Congratulations go to painter Ivan Albright for creating this indelible bit of 1940s psychedelia. It is, of course, the titular objet d’art from The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), with Dorian’s iniquity embossed on its very surface.

I recently revisited the film so I could write about Angela Lansbury’s performance for The Film Experience, and I was shocked by how icy it becomes after her character commits suicide. Emphasis shifts from faces to furniture, with the camera gazing over mirrors, statuary, and tiled floors. Even the visage of Hurd Hatfield, who plays Dorian, acquires an inhuman sheen. The whole movie becomes a mausoleum, a final resting place for both portrait and subject.

A final note on Dorian Gray’s writer-director Albert Lewin: the man really had a thing for the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. (Also George Sanders, who starred in 3/7 of his films.) Observe the following, from Dorian Gray and Lewin’s later film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman:

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Mummy Dearest

A lot of horror movies require you to dig for subtext. Not so with mummy movies, however! In something like Hammer’s The Mummy (1959), the monster is a walking mass of anti-colonial rage, his significance lying right on the textual surface. This is a paranoid fantasy grown out of imperialist guilt—a “Return of the Oppressed,” to paraphrase Robin Wood. And the mummy here is an Egyptian variation on the golem, a weapon of revenge acting on behalf of an ethnic Other.

The plot of The Mummy is generated, beat for beat, by the same formula as Universal’s Karloff-starring Mummy, or miscellaneous creature features made between the two, or even slasher movies of the ’70s and on. A family of genteel archaeologists violates a tomb; a sinister Egyptian tracks them back to England; and then they’re murdered one by one. First the patriarch, who’s already mad from the sight of the reanimated, shuffling mummy. Then his brother, strangled to death at the family’s estate. And finally the son, played by Peter Cushing, who proves troublesome. He’s our “final boy,” you see.

I enjoy Cushing as a horror hero because he’s so unconventional. Hatchet-faced with a receding hairline, he always looks a little skeletal and cerebral; nothing red-blooded about him. In The Mummy, he even gets a limp as a result of his father’s tomb-violating zeal, compounding this impression of frailty. He’s mutilated by England’s decadence just as he represents its future. He’s a pale contrast to Mehemet Bay, the mummy’s fez-clad puppetmaster, with whom he argues archaeological ethics. The latter is played by George Pastell, who’s actually from Cyprus, but swarthy enough to be Egyptian by Hammer standards.

This “swarthy enough” mindset pervades The Mummy’s casting, which colonizes Egyptian identity on a metatextual level. The mummy himself is Christopher Lee, who’s British to the core but spends most of his screen time plastered with bandages. (Lee would go on to portray another ethnic villain, Fu Manchu, in the mid-’60s.) And Cushing’s wife is the white-as-snow Yvonne Furneaux, yet she turns out to be a dead ringer for Ananka, the ancient object of the mummy’s forbidden love. It’s racial sleight of hand, encompassing this “Egypt vs. England” tale entirely within the sphere of whiteness.

In the end, of course, Egypt is defeated. The wife is used as bait—a “beauty killed the beast” tactic familiar from King Kong and films of its ilk—resulting in Bey’s death at the mummy’s hands, then the mummy’s re-death via police ammunition. His battered body tumbles to the bottom of a rural bog, the ideal resting place for a monster that might need to be resurrected should a sequel roll around. This resolution morally validates Cushing, his family, and their actions. It insists on the legitimacy of their cultural theft, since 1) they’ve reaped knowledge and 2) Bey’s revenge has been so disproportionately violent. No need to dig: this is as semiotically explicit as horror gets. “Hail Britannia,” indeed.

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