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Punch Drunk

John Larch in The Phenix City Story | Brian Keith in 5 Against the House

Modern Gothic vehemence… a chilling documentary exactness and an exciting shot-scattering belligerence.

That’s Manny Farber in his essay “Underground Movies,” describing some tendencies found within Phil Karlson’s filmography. I think I’ll add abrasiveness and angularity to his pool of nouns as well. Each one of them is immediately apparent in The Phenix City Story (1955), which may be Karlson’s magnum opus and which is also the subject of my most recent column over at Movie Mezzanine. I’m especially fond of that “modern Gothic vehemence”: Karlson’s movies are forceful, like a boxer’s glove coming toward your face in 3D, the full power of a heavyweight artist behind them. (They’re kin to the films of Samuel Fuller, whose own novel The Dark Page was actually filmed by Karlson as the 1952 newspaper noir Scandal Sheet.)

Alleyways in Phenix City and 5 Against the House’s Reno

In addition to The Phenix City Story, I recently watched Karlson’s 5 Against the House (also 1955) which is thankfully much milder. No child murders or bloody mass beatings here; just four college buddies goofing around, two of whom served together in the Korean War, and one of whom was psychologically damaged by the experience. As a prank, the friends plot a brilliant heist on a Reno casino, intending to return the money later—but Brick (Brian Keith) is slipping into psychosis due to his post-traumatic stress, and he has other plans. 5 Against the House starts out as a lightweight comedy of Eisenhower-era male bonding, which makes its descent into mental illness and very real noir danger that much more gripping. Brick’s a reluctant villain, and his friends are reluctant heroes; no one thinks they’re in a crime thriller. The normal turns into the abnormal so quickly that you hardly notice at first.

Richard Kiley in The Phenix City Story | 5 Against the House’s parking garage climax

This, I think, speaks to one of Karlson’s greatest directorial strengths: he seems to coax brutality out of the everyday. His are blue-collar movies; sloppy, smudged, fashioning a world you can imagine living in before he blows it all to hell. John Payne’s ex-prizefighter in 99 River Street (1953), for example, has real relationships that he needs to balance with the bitterness seething inside him. The residents of Phenix City have homes and families they don’t want to endanger. Maybe this is the “chilling documentary exactness” Farber spoke of. His movies reek of tabloid sensationalism, but that never keeps them from being uncomfortably plausible. They’re like a full-page spread of crime scene photos snapped right in your own backyard.

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Seein’ Me

You’ll be seein’ me. You’ll be seein’ me. Every time you bed down for the night, you’ll look back into the darkness and wonder if I’m there, and some night I will be. You’ll be seein’ me.

This is terrifying. This is a man embittered by betrayal who’s turning himself into a weapon of vengeance. This is Jimmy Stewart in Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River (1952) with a bloody lip and hellfire blazing in his eyes. He’s spent the whole film thus far repressing his killer instincts, defending a wagon train of ranchers and farmers in order to refashion himself as a good man. But to paraphrase Robin Wood, the repressed will always return. The second he’s double-crossed by a former ally—played with a demonic grin by Arthur Kennedy—his old, violent self rises up like a werewolf against the full moon.

Certainly the film provides warning signs. Stewart and Kennedy first meet up just before a Shoshone attack, where (as usual) the Native Americans are manifested through bird calls and arrows. The new friends quickly slay the attackers, strengthening their white solidarity but tantalizing the audience with a glint of danger: both men are still handy with weapons, too handy. Afterward, Kennedy decides to pan for gold in California, and Stewart gives him a farewell that doubles as foreshadowing: “I’ll be seein’ ya!”

They do see each other again, teaming up later to shepherd supplies from Portland back to the near-starving settlers. But a recent gold rush tightens around their necks like a noose: greedy prospectors are everywhere, alternately bribing and threatening to get their hands on some food. Stewart and Kennedy enlist a few ruffians, then refuse to pay them until they reach the settlement. One protests: “The law won’t let you get away with this!” Stewart’s face curls into a wry half-smile as he retorts, “What law?” So when a Kennedy-led mutiny abandons him on the mountainside, it’s no surprise that he stands there, framed starkly against the Technicolor sky, and transforms into an avatar of revenge.

And after that blood-curdling “You’ll be seein’ me” monologue, he disappears. For nine whole minutes out of Bend of the River’s last twenty, its star and hero is nowhere to be seen. Instead he lurks off-screen, occasionally dispatching stray members of Kennedy’s posse or firing into their camp, rapidly becoming an invisible agent of fear. A guerrilla, a ghost, a myth. He returns for the climax, yeah, and he gets the girl, even convincing her father that bad men can fundamentally change. But we know better. He might settle down with a home and family, but that same old bloodlust will always be lurking just beneath the surface.

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Dreams I Have Had About Pregnancy

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The Past Decade in Horror, Part 2

By Ashley

About a week ago, Andreas posted his top 10 horror films of the past decade for The Montana Mancave Massacre and now it’s my turn up to bat. We spent quite a while discussing what we thought were the best horror films of the past ten years and then to narrow that list down even more while trying to avoid a lot of overlap between our lists. It wasn’t too hard: we’re both die-hard horror fans and love a lot of the same films but still have very specific tastes and things that appeal to us especially. So, without further babbling, here’s my list of the top 10 films from the past decade!

10. Grace (Paul Solet, 2009)

As I’ve shown time and time again, I am a sucker for pregnancy/infant/child related horror. Due to my own internalized fears about pregnancy and children, even the worst of this type of film could still chill me. Grace was an unexpected gem for me. After Madeline’s obsessive attempts to have a baby in a completely controlled environment fail, she gives birth to an undead baby who lives on Madeline’s blood. I thought it did well with the typical “evil baby, scary pregnancy” cliches. It could have gone in the direction of the It’s Alive remake and made the baby like a wild animal eating people’s throats out, but Grace offered up a much more subtle horror. We watch as this young, widowed mother literally lets herself be drained, physically and mentally, for the sake of her child.

9. The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001)

I was about 12 the first time I saw this movie and it seriously scared me; I slept with my light on for a few days afterward. As an adult, the film still chills me. Nicole Kidman gives a powerful, sometimes icy performance (which is kind of her thing but it really works here) as the long-suffering mother of two photosensitive children. I love The Others because it really is an old-fashioned haunted house story: large, dark shadowy manor, foggy woods, ghosts hiding behind curtains. Something else I love about it is how emotional the story and the characters are. I sometimes feel that horror films tend to shy away from tapping into the emotional potentials of the genre, as if being sad and being afraid are two mutually exclusive emotions. The twist ending may not pack that much of a surprising punch but what the climax lacks in creativity it makes up for in raw emotion.

8. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)

Shaun of the Dead is one of the best zombie parodies ever. It manages to quite flawlessly mesh comedy, horror and romance. Shaun is so perfectly balanced: it never gets so cheeky in its self-awareness like some movies (cough *Zombieland* cough) that it renders the horror aspects of the film ineffective, and the romance doesn’t overwhelm the plot or feel shoehorned in. In any other slacker comedy, our loveable but lazy and ambitionless protagonist would learn to be more responsible and hardworking through a series of wacky events; in Shaun, he learns it through a series of wacky and terrifying events that involve beating zombies with a cricket bat, pretending to be the undead, and defending their very penetrable fortress of a pub.

7. Ils (David Moreau & Xavier Palud, 2006)

I love French horror and I love home invasion movies. Pretty simple. I live in mortal fear of someone not just breaking into my home, but fucking with me while they do it. Coming in and messing with a person’s home is such a violation; our homes are where we go to be safe and the idea of people entering it and making it dangerous is terrifying. This movie is often compared to The Strangers, which came out 2 years later, and in my opinion Ils is the superior film. Mostly because Ils is not fueled by an Idiot Plot; our two main characters don’t leave each other alone or get caught by the people invading their home because they make foolish mistakes. The only reason they (spoiler) get caught by their assailants is because they’re simply outnumbered. It’s so simple and so chilling.

6. The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009)

I want more movies like this movie. I am the audience for this movie. Slow and atmospheric, it builds quietly, bides its time, gives the audience little jolts of fear but for most of the film deprives us of any release in adrenaline. It just builds and builds and builds, winding the viewer up tight with expectation. It’s a pitch-perfect throwback to the horror of the late ’70s and ’80s; it emulates all we love about that era’s horror flicks while managing to be a superior film than most of them. It takes some of the best horror cliches—Satanists, babysitter, scary house in the middle of nowhere, satanic pregnancy—and turns them into something new. It’s a weird, satisfying blend of familiarity and modernity. And I still maintain that “Are you not the babysitter?” is one of the most chilling lines in recent horror cinema.

5. The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

The Descent scared the ever-loving shit out of me even before we got to the scary, wall-climbing cave people: tight caves and crumbling rocks, claustrophobic sets, total darkness and total vulnerability and helplessness on the part of our characters. Scary shit, for sure. And then they get attacked by the creepy cave creatures. One of the things that sets it apart from other horror films is that not only is the cast entirely female, but most of them actually act like they like each other. You get the sense that these women are actually friends, not backbiting teenagers whose only defining characteristics are either “have boobs and die sexy” or “have boobs and be final girl” like we’re usually served up in typical horror. Even with Sarah and Juno, between whom there is a very palpable rift, you can sense that they’re at least trying to work things out. I have kind of a thing for bleak endings (some of my favorite movies include The Stepford Wives and Martyrs), so this movie, from start to finish, is right up my alley.

4. Oldboy (Park Chan-Wook, 2003)

Some people don’t consider this a horror movie and I’ll admit that it’s definitely got a revenge plot going on rather than a straight-up horror narrative. But I feel like often times revenge films (and especially South Korean revenge films) have lots of horror aspects. And in any case, this movie scared me pretty intensely. The very premise is scary enough; kidnapped and trapped for 15 years, no idea why, your captors never talk to you or tell you anything. And then you’re let go, again no explanation. Beyond that, all-consuming revenge is a concept that deeply frightens me: all you exist for, all you want, your entire identity is wrapped up in revenge. And then, in the case of our protagonist Dae-su, to reach the end of your endeavors only to find it was all for naught, that this was the plan all along and, worst of all, that you’ve been fucking your daughter. I’d cut my tongue off too. And that ending. Does Mi-do have any idea who Dae-su is? Has Dae-su really forgotten the truth about who this woman is? Or is he so desperate for love and comfort that he’s willing to pretend he doesn’t know, just to keep the love of his lover-daughter? Creepy, disturbing, intensely unsettling stuff.

3. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

This is the only overlap between my and Andreas’s lists and it really can’t be avoided. Let The Right One In is undeniably one of the best, most powerful, beautiful films of this past decade, horror or otherwise. Since Andreas already discussed this film in his list I’ll keep this brief. Oskar and Eli are one of recent horror’s most deeply sweet and troubled couples. The quiet of this film is what gets me; it’s not full of screams and a pounding soundtrack. It’s so quiet that you can literally hear the snow falling in the opening scene. It’s such a full and complete quiet that when something terrifying does happen and someone gets their throat eaten or someone screams it’s like shattering glass. I could literally go on about this movie for days, so suffice it to say that I love Let the Right One In.

2. Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008)

Something else I love is the New French Extremity. I can’t explain why I love Martyrs so much. I saw it and didn’t sleep for about two days. Not because I was afraid but because the movie had affected me so deeply that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What was this movie trying to say? What was it saying about women and violence and religion and mental illness? Why am I so drawn to a film that doesn’t have a single ounce of joy or hope? Because Martyrs is not an enjoyable film; it’s an endurance test from start to finish. I guess one of the reasons why I love it, why I’m drawn to it, why I consider it one of my all time favorite horror movies is because, other than being a deeply terrifying film, every time I watch it I spend days thinking. I like movies that make me think and this one does that in spades. Ultra-violence and incredibly unsatisfying ending aside, it’s an intensely intellectual film in that it encourages (and sometimes forces) people to think about what is happening.

1. Inside (Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo, 2007)

Long time readers of this blog should already know that I am a big fan of this movie. I’ve written at length about it a few times. I’ve mentioned my deeply internalized fears of pregnancy and children and how that manifests itself as a deep fear and love of all horror movies involving pregnancy/infants/children.  Inside is everything I love about pregnancy horror: I love the way these horror films take the clichés about pregnant women and twist them through the codes of the genre, turning maternity into a horrifying perversion of itself. We all know the stereotypes about Mama Bears and snooty moms who bicker with each other and all that jazz. But once horror gets its hands on these ideas, bickering turns to terrifying stalking and bloody show downs and pregnancy turns into an all-out, no-holds-barred war. And frail little Sara’s hugely swollen, vulnerable body is the battleground.

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The Key to the Fourth World

This week’s pick for The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series is a film that’s rapidly creeping up on my list of all-time favorites. It’s a keenly observed tale of adolescent love, loss, and resentment that doubles as a sensationalistic true-crime drama and is dripping with bizarre fantasy elements. It’s Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, which for my money is better than Dead Alive or any individual piece of the Lord of the Rings saga. Like Jackson’s zombie movies, it’s got a charmingly disturbed sense of humor, and like LOTR, it’s visually powerful, exploiting everything his native New Zealand has to offer.

Best of all, though, these skills are put in the service of a small, human, well-written story. Jackson and co-writer/wife Fran Walsh took the real-life tragedy of the Parker-Hulme murder in unexpected directions, letting us see the world through the wide eyes of Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet)—two romantic, volatile girls with an unquenchable passion for Mario Lanza, James Mason, and each other. Heavenly Creatures is overflowing with memorable images, but one shot captures this descent into the girls’ shared universe especially well. This is my best shot:

This arrives at the end of a delirious, gorgeous sequence in which the landscape morphs around the two girls to suit their narcissistic fantasies. It’s when, as Pauline explains, they realize that they’re not just “genii,” but also princesses of the Fourth World (a land which is, naturally, imperceptible to the commoners around them). In this image, Jackson draws the viewer into their folie à deux and we see the sheer, naïve beauty of their fantasy. We see them as they see themselves: symmetrically positioned at the center of rich, private world, one which encompasses all the natural grandeur of the New Zealand coast and then piles on a Weta-animated majesty of its own.

It’s garish and even tacky, yes, but that befits a pair of swooning teenage girls in the 1950s. It looks like a book cover, and in a perverse way it’s the dark counterpart to, say, Dorothy’s first entrance into Oz, or the Pevensies’ first glance at Narnia. But for Pauline and Juliet, it’s their first step on the road to mental illness and murder. (Oddly enough, this “best shot” is more or less the teenage equivalent of my favorite from A Streetcar Named Desire.) My second-favorite shot from Heavenly Creatures also showcases Jackson and D.P. Alun Bollinger’s extremely stylized cinematography, along with that gleefully disturbed sense of humor:

This is probably the most indelible shot in the whole movie. Who could forget the distorted, unflattering extreme close-up on the psychiatrist’s mouth as he ominously utters the word “HOMOSEXUALITY”? It feels like Jackson’s playing a cinematic prank on this quintessential Old White Guy, a man who pretty effectively embodies the widespread bigotry and intolerance of the 1950s. In a lightly satirical way, this puts a fear-mongering representative of the medical establishment in an ugly light, and makes his professional opinion look similarly grotesque.

However much Jackson may mock this psychiatrist, though, Heavenly Creatures doesn’t totally side with the girls, and that’s what makes it so great. It empathetically details their dreams and desires, but never loses sight of their immaturity and selfishness. Juliet’s family may be dysfunctional, and Pauline’s parents may be simple, unambitious folks, but they always have the girls’ best interests at heart. Honora Parker is, above all, a good, loving woman who doesn’t deserve to die. By juxtaposing fantasy and reality, Heavenly Creatures seeks to understand the girls without absolving them, and it gets that much closer to the truth.

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Saturday Theme Songs: Powerpuff Girls

The Powerpuff Girls, maybe along with Dexter’s Laboratory, epitomized everything good about Cartoon Network’s output in the 1990s. Maybe some of their shows were a little too repetitive, or sophomoric, or smug, but the channel was committed to producing original and interesting cartoons for our generation. Like the decades-old cartoons they once aired, Cartoon Network took a more absurdist approach to animation. Unlike, say, Fox Kids or Kids WB, which were more action-oriented and toyetic with only a few exceptions, Cartoon Network’s roster as a whole was premised around either very unusual situations, or twisted adaptations of familiar scenarios. Dexter’s Laboratory and Courage the Cowardly Dog were both totally new and bizarre; The Powerpuff Girls was a fresh, humorous look at one of the oldest concepts in cartoon history – the superhero.

The show is based around a historical gender divide: little girls are supposedly gentle and demure, while superheroes (i.e., men) are tough, powerful, and sometimes brutal. Craig McCracken knew better. He plays on the old cliché of girls as being made of “sugar, spice, and everything nice,” but then adds Chemical X, which derails any and all expectations. The girls maintain their “girliness” – in fact, when Professor Utonium is knocked against the wall, it happens in a burst of hearts and stars – but it’s still very compatible with their superheroism and violent acts. Kick-Ass‘s Hit-Girl was nothing new; the Powerpuff Girls have been doing the same routine for years.

As if to underscore the girls’ comfortable fusion of girlish innocence and manly violence, there are gender divisions within their ranks. These are all communicated from :33-:41 in the video solely using musical leitmotifs and the girls’ unchanging facial expressions. Blossom is marked as the standard, the perfect balance of power and puff. Bubbles and Buttercup, meanwhile, represent the opposite poles within the girls’ unusual range of gendered behavior – the giggly maiden and the sneering tomboy. Nonetheless, both of them take equal pleasure in savagely beating up villains. The way that their rogues gallery is presented and then dispatched hints back at their origins as the “Whoopass Girls”; they may be little girl superheroes, but they’re still willing to take out Fuzzy Lumpkins with more than a little sadism.

The opening abridges a lot of the show’s psychological complexity, especially as the girls’ childish outlook is put up against Townsville’s harsh realities. (This would most often happen with their greatest foe, Him.) But it gets across a pretty good one-minute synopsis laying out the show’s huge appeal. They’re extremely violent superheroes, but they’re cute little girls, and they’re served up with a very ironic edge. So boys, girls, and jaded college students can all find something to enjoy. As effective as the opening may be, though, I actually enjoy the closing theme more, mainly because it’s a full-blown song by the Scottish band Bis. Enjoy!

What about you, dear reader? Have any fond Powerpuff Girls memories?

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Cartoons: They’re Not Just for Children EVER

I don’t know where people got the assumption that animation is a children’s domain. Maybe through further research I could ferret it out. Is it because animation’s ability to violate physical rules appeals especially to children, who may not yet entirely understand them? Or is it because animated characters tend to be especially broad and caricaturish, and this is supposedly geared toward a child’s lack of sophistication? Is it because animation has historically been realized best – for many artistic and industrial reasons – in 5-10 minute shorts, as opposed to the more critically respectable feature length of live-action films?

I don’t yet know, but the assumption couldn’t be more wrong-headed. It’s been mostly within my lifetime, since the emergence of “adult animation” as a distinct category, that magazines have trumpeted (and continue to trumpet), “Cartoons [or, often, comics]: they’re not just for children anymore!” Well, duh. But what’s particularly sad about this sudden realization is the fact that animation was never just for children. From the very first (lost) feature-length animated films of Argentina’s Quirino Cristiani, which were apparently full of complex political commentary, right down through beloved classics like “Red Hot Riding Hood” and “What’s Opera, Doc?”, animators have consistently operated at a level of sophistication (and perversion) equal to or even above that of conventional, live-action filmmaking.

Which brings me to Max Fleischer’s 1931 cartoon “Bimbo’s Initiation,” which I was recently introduced to by my friend Jacob. It’s 6 1/2 minutes of mayhem, persecution, and Freudian nightmares. Its visual sensibilities lie somewhere between M.C. Escher and Alice in Wonderland, and its characters’ primary motivations are sheer sadism and uninhibited lust. It dispenses with all but the minimal necessary narrative: Bimbo is dropped through an open manhole out of his mundane surface world and into a violent underground funhouse, where he’s systematically pursued and tortured for the remainder of the cartoon. The only real plot progression occurs as Bimbo’s trials become increasingly dangerous and nonsensical, and when the Mystic Order that’s attempting to initiate him reveals themselves as dozens of Betty Boop prototypes.

I can understand how an anti-realistic story like this, brimming as it is with flagrant absurdism, could be potentially viewed as childish. It’s practically preverbal, as most of the dialogue is a simple chant – “Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?” – followed by Bimbo’s “No!” The cartoon physics at play, especially in the Rube Goldbergian torture devices, follow their own ridiculous logic, and the anthropomorphic characters include a sword, fire, a skeleton, and a shadow. These aspects of the cartoon’s universe suggest either a child, or else an altered state of consciousness, whether dreamed or drug-induced. These aren’t just infantile fantasies; they’re a baring of the male psyche, reducing Bimbo to his lowest state of vulnerability and victimization. This cartoon has some pretty intense psychoanalytic subtext for it to just be “kids’ stuff.”

And then there’s the afore-mentioned sadism and lust. This isn’t just typical cartoon slapstick as Bimbo tries to reach some concrete goal; he is literally running for his life from a secret society obsessed with killing him, or at least paddling his ass until it burns. (This cartoon really has an unhealthy ass fixation.) And it’s only after Betty’s rubber-bodied dance that Bimbo’s interest in becoming a member is quite visibly aroused. The happy ending seems to imply a forthcoming orgy – is this the transition from nightmare into wet dream? Whatever it is, it’s definitely beyond the sexual reckoning of your typical child. This cartoon takes haunted house clichés and stretches them out through repetition into rituals of torture; it’s as if this underworld were itself conflicted, infinitely punishing and rewarding Bimbo.

I don’t pretend to understand “Bimbo’s Initiation,” but I do enjoy it immensely. Wikipedia claims that comics artist Jim Woodring was heavily inspired by this cartoon, and if you’ve read anything by Woodring (like, say, Frank), the influence is clear both in architecture and in tone. A child could easily find this funny, sure, because it is funny. But there’s so much going on below the surface, and even on the surface, that’s decidedly adult; it strikes you on numerous levels simultaneously. This is a sick cartoon. That’s not a judgment, but more of a declaration: this cartoon has diagnosable psychosexual maladies. It’s sick. This isn’t the only place I could have started when talking about how cartoons, even back in 1931, were never just for kids, but it’s an entertaining place. Disney may get the press and all the money, but Max Fleischer had one hell of a perverse creative vision.

asshttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vkRsylQ0lg&NR=1

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