Friday, October 31, 2014

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Season Five)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from the fifth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you have not seen the fifth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer in its entirety, then continue at your own peril. For a spoiler-free introduction to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, click here.

Season five is utterly depressing. It is the most depressing season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Other seasons (especially those following this one) are dark, but this season is just stark and depressing. From Buffy and Riley's frustrating breakup, to the apparent futility of our heroine's struggle against this season's Big Bad, to her own mother's bout with cancer. On the other hand, it introduces my favorite character in the series - Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) - so at least there's that.

Dawn's introduction to the series is downright brilliant. The season begins with Dawn present as Buffy's little sister, without explanation for her sudden appearance, and with all the characters acting like she'd been around the previous four seasons. It's uncanny, because you know something's not right about the situation, but the series doesn't serve up the explanation right away. And yet, there is a perfectly good explanation - it's not merely a retcon for the sake of giving Buffy a sister. Memories have been tampered with, and Dawn is actually a force of energy (literally a destroyer of worlds) that has been formed into the container of an adolescent human girl.

Referred to by an ancient order as "the key", she has been transformed so that Buffy - without realizing it - would protect it with her life. From what? From this season's Big Bad using it to unlock a gateway to other dimensions and unleash Hell on Earth. Whereas before, the Big Bad was a vampire or demon, this time around she's on the level of a God (more precisely, Goddess), so the stakes are high. And like Buffy, she's a pretty woman who can kick ass - but she's so strong that for once this is an opponent Buffy can't stand against. She is the radiant and ill-tempered Glorificus (or Glory), portrayed by Clare Kramer.

And her weakness is that she spends half the time reluctantly manifested as a mortal - a more or less innocent mortal, who must be murdered in cold blood if Glory is to be stopped. As if that weren't depressing enough, the only way for Buffy to save Dawn from her destiny to die in order to unleash Hell on Earth, is for Buffy to sacrifice her own life instead. And unlike at the end of the first season, this time Buffy's death feels real. I'd read that this was supposed to be the end of the series - and it works well that way, but - well, I'll say more about that next season.

Before all that, though, a lot goes on in this season. Of particular note is that Giles finds his new calling as the owner of a magic shop (the "Magic Box") - a role he seems well suited for - which becomes the gang's new central hub. Riley skips town after a frustrating development involving the revelation that his and Buffy's superficially perfect relationship lacks a certain level of passion, feeding the conclusion that Buffy has a thing for bad boys. On that subject, Spike slowly comes to the realization in this season that he's in love with Buffy, which is an interesting development that further encourages his change over to the good side. Even though Buffy's distaste for Spike at the outset is well-founded, I thought she was still a little too harsh in pushing him away.

And then we come to Joyce's cancer. Unfortunately, that Buffy's mom dies in this season was spoiled for me by two independent sources, so it did not come as a surprise. It was, however, still very uncomfortable, even though I never particularly liked Joyce's character. The episode in which it happens is one of those artistic detour episodes, and, I have to say, did a fascinating job of covering a very serious plot development in a way that stands apart from every other episode in the series. Fascinating, but uncomfortable, and not one I'd relish many rewatches. It was heartbreaking, an artistic masterpiece, and an award-winning episode, but I would feel a little off calling it one of the best episodes of the series...

Other memorable episodes in this season include the premiere, which features the appearance of none other than the legendary figure of Dracula himself. It was inevitable that Dracula would sooner or later meet the Vampire Slayer in this series, and this was a fun episode, although ultimately a little goofy, I think. Then there is Fool For Love, which explores some of Spike's history with Drusilla, and the two Slayers he'd killed in the past. We also get introduced to Warren (Adam Busch) in this season, who will become a primary antagonist in the next season, though here he is simply a nerdy loser who builds sexbots.

Continue to season six!

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Season Four)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from the fourth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you have not seen the fourth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer in its entirety, then continue at your own peril. For a spoiler-free introduction to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, click here.

Season four is basically Buffy: The College Years. The feel of the show is a bit different, with the characters moving from high school to college, and living in dormitories. Plus, Giles is out of a job, having lost the library with the rest of the school at the end of season three, although he continues to fulfill his role as mentor (officially sanctioned by the Watcher's Council or not), from his apartment - which becomes the new central hub for the characters.

In spite of these changes, it's still a good season filled with some excellent drama. And that's also in spite of the ambiguous loyalties of the new Big Bad. Season four features The Initiative, which is a covert military operation based in Sunnydale, helmed by [not-quite-mad] scientist Maggie Walsh (Lindsay Crouse), who daylights as a university psychology professor (ironically, given her insensitive personality). She's not actually evil (although she does at one point try to kill Buffy), but she is a bit misguided in her dedication to her dubious research.

The purpose of The Initiative is to capture "hostile sub-terrestrials" (i.e., supernatural baddies) for government research. Spike - who returns as a regular character this season, after being absent for most of the last season - is captured, and a computer chip is installed in his head which inflicts terrible pain every time he tries to hurt someone (who is not evil or a demon). This is the beginning of his long and gradual transformation into a good guy, though at this point he is still very much a reluctant anti-hero.

The other purpose of The Initiative is to steal demons' supernatural abilities, so that Maggie Walsh can give them to her bio-mechanical Frankenstein uber-demon, simply named Adam (played by George Hertzberg). Why would a scientist who's not exactly evil create an all-powerful uber-demon? I guess she just got carried away with her scientific curiosity - and certainly the military doesn't ask enough questions when they see an opportunity to weaponize new technology.

Adam himself is a pretty interesting character - he's certainly badass enough, with all his power, yet he possesses a calm demeanor and a rational intellect, and is prone to philosophizing about the meaning of his existence (which I think is pretty cool). Still, his ambiguous morality and origin makes him less compelling than the Big Bads of other seasons. And his ultimate takedown by the "Scooby Gang" (I've never liked that term) at the end of the season feels a little anticlimactic, although it does a good job of cementing the core group - Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles - and demonstrating each one's role in their combined fight against evil.

From The Initiative also comes new character Riley Finn (Marc Blucas), who will become Buffy's new paramour. He's the most normal and well-adjusted of Buffy's lovers in the show, and their time together is sweet and romantic, while it lasts. This season also features Xander and Anya strengthening their unlikely relationship (Anya being a vengeance demon who hates men). I like Anya in this season - her frank approach towards the subject of sex is charming, and her otherwise lack of understanding basic human social cues is similarly endearing.

One of the most dramatic moments of this season - and of the whole show, if you ask me - is when Oz leaves Willow - not for lack of love, but due to the complications of his werewolf nature. Sad as that is, it opens the door for another new character, Tara Maclay (Amber Benson), whom Willow meets through a Wicca gathering. The development of their friendship is sweet and subtle, and feels incredibly natural, and I was really excited when the show ultimately confirmed the romantic subtext that appeared to be going on between them.

Now, as great as Willow's conversion to lesbianism is (and it is!), I do feel that the show pushes a little too hard to present her as a Gay Character (TM). Nothing about her gayness is wrong or unwelcome, but I wonder about her transformation from perfectly straight to exclusively gay. Could she not be bisexual? It seems to me that there wasn't any faking going on in that very passionate relationship she had with Oz. Then Tara comes along, and it's like, this could be a character who is capable of falling in love with a person regardless of his/her sex, that's great! Except she's all stereotypically "guys are gross now" once the Tara thing takes off.

Granted, there could be other stuff going on under the surface - like the pressure to align oneself with a gay identity, and coping with the invisibility of bisexual people. At the time this show came out, I imagine having a proud and openly gay character was probably a big deal, and I'm looking at it from a lens at least ten years in the future, when gay rights are making huge leaps and bounds, and I'm coming from the perspective of a more open sexuality, where people don't have to just be straight or gay, but can express themselves along the whole Kinsey scale.

It's possible that the character of Willow is actually bisexual, and she's merely constructing for herself a gay identity for the sake of simplicity, or community. Or, more likely, it's possible that the writers decided at some point, "let's make Willow gay!", and then wanted to make a positive example out of her. Neither approach I could really criticize, and certainly there's much to applaud in making Willow a gay character. However, I feel like the truth is a little more involved than that, and the way the character is occasionally treated on the show buries the complexity of her situation.

Memorable episodes from this season include Hush - one of the few genuinely scary episodes in the series - in which baddies referred to as The Gentlemen steal the voices of everyone in Sunnydale; an episode where Faith returns to get her revenge by switching bodies with Buffy (and learning something in the process); Superstar, a clever alternate reality episode in which dorky outcast Jonathan (Danny Strong) becomes the talk of the town; and the unconventional season finale (after the Big Bad has been taken down), Restless, which breaks formula and explores the origin of the Slayer through a series of surreal (and very Lynchian) dream sequences.

Continue to season five!

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Season Three)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from the third season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you have not seen the third season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer in its entirety, then continue at your own peril. For a spoiler-free introduction to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, click here.

Season three is senior year of high school. The main plot thread hinges on a new character - Faith (Eliza Dushku) - who is the new Slayer chosen on a technicality due to Buffy's death at the end of the first season. We are also introduced to Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), who is the Slayers' new Watcher on account of Giles losing his gig due to his personal attachment to Buffy (the Watchers' Council being a bit of a heartless bunch whose only concern is using the Slayer as a tool to combat evil).

Faith and Buffy get along at first, but soon it becomes clear that there is a darkness at the core of Faith's being, which comes out over her lack of remorse for the accidental murder of an innocent. Faith is a great character - not always likeable, but her ultimate betrayal and conflicted emotions (she's never purely good or evil, like Buffy and her main antagonists usually are) make for some great drama. Plus she acts as a great counterpoint to draw out some of Buffy's own issues about what it means to be the Slayer.

The Big Bad this season is none other than the Mayor of Sunnydale (portrayed by Harry Groener) on a quest to acquire immortality via demonic ritual. He's an interesting character, in that he comes off as a very lovable (if a bit dorky) family man, while being evil to his core. I would have liked lackey Mr. Trick (K. Todd Freeman) to have lasted longer, or had a more important role as a villain (and I could say the same about Doc in season five and Rack in season six), although I guess his ultimate replacement by Faith as the Mayor's number two suited the story.

Romance has always been an important part of the show, and there are a lot of pairings in this season. Angel returns from a hell dimension (with his soul intact) to continue his tumultuous relationship with Buffy (made even more so by his temporarily turning evil in the last season). Willow and Oz get hot and heavy, while Xander shacks up with Cordelia (in an "I hate you so much, let's make out" sort of way). At the same time, there are some illicit sparks shared between Willow and Xander.

Being Buffy's two sidekicks, you couldn't be faulted for thinking that Willow and Xander were destined for one another. An early episode (in season one, I think) actually plays with that expectation, when Willow makes a tongue-in-cheek comment while the two are pretending to be on a date (to do some undercover sleuthing). I thought that was clever and refreshing, but creating some serious romantic tension between the characters later kind of deflated that.

It's been made clear in season two that Willow has a crush on Xander, meanwhile, Xander will chase after any tail in Sunnydale (including Buffy, and even Cordelia whom he hates), except Willow. Only after the two of them are both in relationships with other people does he start reciprocating Willow's feelings, which I felt was pretty frustrating - although it makes for some good dramatic tension in the show. I thought Willow and Xander's brief moments together were very sweet, but clearly the show had no intentions of bringing them together, as will soon become even more clear.

Their stolen moments together put some stress on each one's relationship, which ultimately serves to demonstrate that Willow and Oz's affection for one another is much stronger than Xander and Cordelia's (and really, that makes sense). Meanwhile, newcomer Wesley harbors a taboo (and mutual) crush on Cordelia (she being just a student), which finally finds expression by the end of the season (although their lack of chemistry prevents anything serious from developing).

There are several memorable episodes this season. One fan favorite is Band Candy which is fun in that it features the adults (notably Giles, and Buffy's mom, Joyce, played by Kristine Sutherland) behaving like teenagers (indulging in drugs, rock n roll, and illicit sex). Another episode (The Wish) introduces the character Anya (in the form of vengeance demon Anyanka, played by Emma Caulfield) who will become pivotal in later seasons, and features an alternate reality where Buffy doesn't exist and vampires (including a really badass sadomasochistic Willow vamp, who returns again in the later episode Doppelgangland) has taken over Sunnydale.

One of my favorites is The Zeppo, which has been described by Joss Whedon as a "conscious deconstruction of a Buffy episode", reoriented to focus on Xander, who is usually only a side character. It sidesteps, instead, what Buffy and the rest of the gang are up to - which includes preventing yet another apocalypse, and fighting the Hellmouth (again). I would have liked to have seen more of what they were up to, although clearly their actions were hyperbolized for the sake of the episode's inversion. Nevertheless, it is a surprisingly compelling episode.

I mentioned before that Faith's betrayal made for good drama. The episode where Angel allegedly turns bad (again - the fear of which will continue to be a recurring theme wherever the character appears), but is really just acting, in order to entrap Faith, was a fantastic twist. At the end of the season, the Mayor turns into a giant snake and the students completely destroy the high school during graduation to defeat him. Talk about a bombastic send-off.

This is a turning point for Buffy (the series), and two important characters leave to populate the spin-off series, Angel. These are Angel (obviously), and Cordelia. The splitting of Angel and Buffy, who are clearly made for each other (as much as I do like Spike as a character, I think Buffy belongs with Angel and vice-versa), was pretty frustrating for me. There was a buildup to it at the end of this season, that I didn't feel was very satisfying.

There's no lack of love between them, but the argument (reinforced by Buffy's mom, Joyce, who can be an insufferable prick at times, like during the witch hunt episode, or in the way she deals with ultimately finding out that Buffy is a Vampire Slayer) hinges on the fact that, as a vampire, Angel is an immortal creature of the night, who will neither age with Buffy, nor be able to live with her in the daylight, and will therefore not be able to give Buffy a "normal" life. So it's irresponsible for him to go on loving her.

What, like they can't make some kind of exception to the rule of normal life and love? It's not like Buffy has any chance of living a normal life anyway, being the Slayer (she'll try in the next season, but watch how that ultimately turns out). Of course, there's also that thing about how Angel will turn evil if he has sex, but it seems to me that they're just assuming the curse is still in effect. My reading was that it was pretty much a one time thing, since I doubt the gypsys were counting on anyone returning Angel's soul again.

So I was pretty pissed that they split Angel and Buffy up just so they could siphon Angel off into his own television series. Although, it's ultimately a creative decision I can forgive, since Angel was a pretty good series (I'll say more about that in a separate review in the near future), and that rehashing the Buffy/Angel plot might have gotten boring after a while (although they kept Spike hanging on for rather a while later in this series without making it feel too repetitive), and his absence opens up room for Buffy to explore some other romantic pairings.

Continue to season four!

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Season Two)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from the second season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you have not seen the second season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer in its entirety, then continue at your own peril. For a spoiler-free introduction to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, click here.

Season two introduces Spike (James Marsters) - who will become a recurring character through to the end of the series - and his partner Drusilla (Juliet Landau), both vampires. They make a great pair: Spike, with his sadistic British rebel charm (and a look inspired by Billy Idol); and Drusilla, with her willowy voice and prophetic visions. They are the season's Big Bad, although they'll have to share that title with their old friend Angel (David Boreanaz) in the second half.

Season two explores Angel's situation - how he was one of the cruelest vampires in history, going by the name Angelus; how he was cursed by gypsys to have his soul returned to him; and the self-loathing caused by his recovered conscience. I know some people that don't like the Angel character that much, but I've loved him from the start. I guess I see something inspiring in his quest for penitence, trying to make up for the unforgivable crimes he's committed. That theme plays a central role in the coming Angel spinoff (more on that later).

What we also learn about Angel is that part of the gypsy's curse dictates that if he ever achieves a moment of pure bliss (interpreted as sex with a woman he loves), he'll lose that soul again (because god forbid - or rather, the gypsys forbid - Angel should ever be happy, after all the suffering he's caused). Unfortunately for the good guys, Angel has finally found a soulmate in Buffy, and they're getting pretty hot and heavy.

The episode titled Passion, after Angel flips, was one of the first truly memorable and standout episodes in the series. Narrated in voice-over by Angel, it involves the first death (cold-blooded murder, really) in the series of a major sympathetic protagonist. I really like Angel - or, rather, Angelus - as a villain. He's not just concerned with violence and physical torture, but in really making his victims suffer, emotionally. And he enjoys it so much!

Another landmark in this season is the introduction of the character Oz (Seth Green), who quickly becomes a werewolf (albeit a reluctant and sympathetic one), and gradually begins a really tight relationship with Willow. To be honest, I didn't like Oz at first. You'd think I'd relate to him, because he's so taciturn, but I just found it annoying to begin with. However, over time, I really got used to his succinct quips, and he really grew on me.

This season also introduces Ethan Rayne (Robin Sachs), a former friend of Rupert Giles', who provides insight into the latter's past. And, in the Halloween episode we learn that, contrary to popular belief, in the Buffyverse, creatures of the night actually consider it fairly tacky to get up to mischief on the night of Halloween. Although that won't stop the series from doing a few rather fun Halloween episodes during its run (this one involving people turning into the costumes they're wearing).

Continue to season three!

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Season One)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from the first season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you have not seen the first season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer in its entirety, then continue at your own peril. For a spoiler-free introduction to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, click here.

Transitioning from the film to the TV series is a little bit awkward. It seems to want to wipe the slate clean (which is understandable, given Whedon's opinion of the film), but while still making vague references to a previous incident in Buffy's life. In any case, they're easy enough to overlook - and certainly, you needn't watch the film first in order to get into the TV series. As the series opens, our protagonist has just relocated to Sunnydale, a small California town that embodies the same dichotomy as Buffy herself - pleasant on the surface, but harboring a focal point of dark energy (the "Hellmouth") just underneath.

Sarah Michelle Gellar takes over the role of Buffy Summers, and is re-introduced in the first episode to her Watcher (charming fan favorite and English actor Anthony Stewart Head), a man by the name of Rupert Giles, who is the high school librarian (secretly specializing in occult texts), as well as her destiny as this generation's Vampire Slayer. This is understandably a tough revelation to swallow, and will be the cause of much existential drama, until Buffy ultimately comes to accept it as her purpose in life (whether she likes it or not).

We are also introduced to Buffy's two new best friends: the awkward tech geek Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), and dorky comic relief Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon). Rounding out the cast are Buffy's semi-rival - stuck up high school diva Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) - and her soon-to-be much-conflicted lover, Angel (David Boreanaz), the vampire with a soul (the irony of the Slayer falling for a vampire is not lost on anyone). All of these characters speak in a strange dialect that I can only describe as "Whedonese", as it's not familiar to me, and I was in high school during this series' initial running. It's a bit awkward at first, but after a while you do get used to it.

I feel like the individual seasons of Buffy are largely characterized by the "Big Bad" (the main boss/villain/antagonist of each season), and so in the first season we have actor Mark Metcalf gloriously made up as The Master, an ancient vampire trapped in an abandoned underground church. I really liked The Master, and would have liked to have seen more of him. I was disappointed when, after escaping his supernatural prison in the season finale, instead of setting him up for a reign of havoc throughout season two, he was slain instead. I mean, they went to the trouble to kill Buffy to get The Master out, and then she just resurrects and kills him anyway. It doesn't make any sense, except to set up the Faith character in season three...

What's interesting about watching the first season of Buffy (which is a short season, with only 12 episodes, compared to the rest of the series' 22 episode seasons) is that, for such an established pop culture show, it has a very undeveloped feeling. Obviously, this is because it was only the first season, and it matures incredibly over its seven seasons, but to see it in such an early stage is, well, a bit uncanny. The show hasn't quite found its footing yet. The characters are still new and underdeveloped, and the show is very episodic - with a focus on the monster-of-the-week, which, in later seasons, would supplement and then eventually take a supporting role to the ongoing drama between the main characters.

Continue to season two!

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992)

Note: This review is part of a continuing series on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Read the introduction here.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer is the brainchild of geek idol Joss Whedon (contributing writer on recent pop subculture and genre-related sensation The Cabin in the Woods), that first saw life as a feature film - though Whedon was not satisfied with what the filmmakers accomplished with his script (a complaint that would be repeated with the abomination that was Alien: Resurrection).

The film is not nearly as impressive or as memorable as the TV series would prove to be (which spanned seven seasons, and which Whedon had much more control over), and it does seem aimed more for laughs than poignant dramatic content. What the film does accomplish is provide the viewer with a crash course in the basic concept of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" (even if some of the finer details would later be adjusted for the TV series' continuity).

Every generation, going back at least as far as the middle ages (and in the TV series, certainly even farther than that), a young woman is "chosen" to be the Slayer. The Slayer (Kristy Swanson in the film version) is trained and instructed by her Watcher (Donald Sutherland), an experienced member of an occult organization, in the finer details of mortal combat against the denizens of darkness (particularly - but by no means limited to - vampires) rampaging throughout the land just under the cover of night.

As I understand it, the crux of Whedon's concept is the juxtaposition of superficial feminine traits (a blonde cheerleader named "Buffy") with the destiny of being a badass righteous avenger and evil's worst nightmare - earning the series a deserving feminist reputation. But all of this would be developed better in the television series, as the film - while certainly not the worst campy horror film ever made, and worth watching if you don't expect too much from it - is, in the end (and especially standing in the towering shadow of the TV series), mostly forgettable.

Continue on to the TV series!

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Introduction)

Created by Joss Whedon, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a cult classic in dramatic fantasy horror television, with a huge fanbase, and a significant pop culture footprint. The series deftly juggles horror, comedy, and drama, with likable characters and imaginative villains. Though heavily steeped in horror themes, I consider it primarily a coming of age drama, as it rarely manages to be genuinely scary.

However, it is a very compelling drama that is often a lot of fun to watch, yet takes its craft seriously, and is not afraid to confront serious life issues (and can even be emotionally challenging to watch at times). If you like horror, and enjoy dramatic television, and especially if you're keen on the idea of having a strong female protagonist, then I wholeheartedly recommend this series.

It's also highly rewatchable, with quick (and mostly unobtrusive) clip recaps at the beginning of most episodes, serving as a reminder of important plot points (or an indicator of where things stand with various characters, if you're jumping in out of order) that will be built upon in the following episode. If you're already familiar with the series (or not deterred by major spoilers), and want to read my thoughts in more depth about each of the seasons (and the preceding film adaptation of the concept), I invite you to use the following links:

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Movie)
Buffy (TV): Season One
Buffy (TV): Season Two
Buffy (TV): Season Three
Buffy (TV): Season Four
Buffy (TV): Season Five
Buffy (TV): Season Six
Buffy (TV): Season Seven

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Antichrist (2009)

I thought that maybe Lars von Trier was a feminist after watching Nymphomaniac (also starring Charlotte Gainsbourg), but the point of Antichrist seems to be that misogyny is justified because women are evil. But I don't think it's a sexist message so much as a plainly misanthropic one. Nymphomaniac taught us that murder is natural to humans, and Antichrist seems to want to say that the nature of humanity is evil - and women shouldn't get a free pass just because historical injustices may have been done to them. If you think about it, that's actually an egalitarian stance, but it would be more inspiring if it weren't so damn cynical and pessimistic.

I loved the symbolism of the "three beggars" - grief, pain, and despair - represented by three haunting animal guides. And the themes of nature and its inhumanity (at least until the movie twists it around and emphasizes that people are animals too) are chilling and beautiful and horrible all at once. Von Trier is an excellent cinematographer, and much of this movie consists of haunting atmospherics. I also like his frank approach to sexuality - this movie actually features explicit intercourse, but in a way that feels more arty than pornographic. It's just a shame this approach is wasted on a person with such an apparently damaged psyche. I mean, one of the two main characters in this movie is a therapist, but I feel like von Trier could use some therapy himself. If his movies are any indication, he's got a very unhealthy relationship with sex.

One thing is for sure - Lars von Trier's films are consistently frustrating. And it's too bad, because this movie had the makings to be a masterpiece of psychological horror, reaching levels of surreality that approach David Lynch's most haunting dream sequences. But, like Lynch, von Trier isn't very good at telling stories. I beg you to watch the first half of this movie, because it's that good, but I would advise you to simply shut it off halfway through, after the part where Willem Dafoe goes into the attic, because it's just downhill from there. It's not like you'd be missing any satisfying explanations. I mean, there's not even anything about the "antichrist" in this movie - that's all just a red herring to disappoint you in the end.

Escape From Tomorrow (2013)

I read about Escape From Tomorrow in Entertainment Weekly and was intrigued by the fact that this was a "horror" movie filmed in Disney World - or Disneyland, or maybe both (but not sponsored by Disney) - since I think Disney's image is far too pure and pristine. Well, this movie's got sex, and this movie's got violence, but that doesn't necessarily make it good. It's full of promise and potential, and certainly the method of filming is ambitious, but it falls short of delivering any kind of coherent vision. It's also filmed in black and white, which is a peculiar decision. Perhaps it's to emphasize the draining of life in this "trouble in paradise" tale of hardship (not that there's anything new about that) in the so-called "Happiest Place on Earth". But I still think I would have enjoyed it more in color.

I'll tell you what, Escape From Tomorrow is a head trip. It's a surreal experience that starts out like that last childhood vacation your family took before your parents got divorced, when all they could do was argue with each other, and evolves into what seems to be the fever dream of a schizoid alcoholic, who may or may not be suffering from the symptoms of "cat flu". Unfortunately, it's closer to a feature length version of a short from The ABCs of Death than Itchy & Scratchy Land (which I was hoping for). The subplot about a family man [innocently] stalking two hot French teens around the park was painfully relatable (although he totally goes overboard, neglects his kids, and makes voyeurs everywhere look bad - as the visible cases always seem to do), that could have made some poignant commentary had it felt inclined to. Alas, it's a very imaginative film, but I'm afraid that it just doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Monsters (2010)

Monsters should have been a better movie. It starts with a great premise - something between The War of the Worlds and District 9. Years after an extraterrestrial invasion claims a strip of land separating the United States from Mexico, two strangers have to hotfoot it through the infected zone to get home. The cinematography is beautiful - featuring many picturesque landscapes of untouched Mexican jungle (just south of the U.S. border), and also a fair share of post-apocalyptic panoramas of destroyed civilization. The creature effects are similarly beautiful - showcasing giant, floating, luminescent octopodes.

Monsters is a little hard to pin down. It's not, in fact, a found footage film, but - technically, and thematically - it feels very much like one. Yet the focus is really not on surviving the monsters. The way the film is put together, you get the feeling that the most poignant moments are the ones between the two main characters, which makes the movie feel more like a depressing romance than a horror. But the characters are utterly unlikable people, with not very inspiring dialogue, so it's very hard to follow the romantic developments or even really care about them much at all.

Then there's the photojournalism theme. The main character is a photojournalist who makes a living shooting tragedy. There are some comments in the movie that seem to cast aspersions on courting disaster for a paycheck, and when things get their most exciting, the photojournalist conspicuously puts his camera way, despite being the last person in the world (being a photojournalist) who would cave to sensationalist drudge of that sort (obviously it's to court the female, because not shooting a dead little girl that would earn you $50,000 is going to win the heart of the girl you so callously replaced with a hooker the drunken night before when she wouldn't cave to your insensitive hints that you wanted to sleep with her)...

But what this movie avoids are the more difficult questions about why these things make good stories, and why people who follow them are actually justified in what they do. By the time the credits roll, you're left feeling like maybe the "monsters" are just a metaphor for something, but it's not at all clear as to what that is. I'm certainly not against unconventional narrative approaches - like using an extraterrestrial invasion to tell a love story - but here it comes off in the end feeling very underwhelming.

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

The Dunwich Horror is another movie adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story (this time one with the same title). The original story, boiled down to its most basic form, is a tale of the antichrist trying to open a gateway and summon hell on earth. But this is not your typical tale of Satanism - we're dealing with H.P. Lovecraft here. It's not the Christian devil, but Yog-Sothoth, whose minions are other-dimensional creatures of imperceptible horror. The movie takes a few liberties with the story - largely in creating a female protagonist (Sandra Dee), and extending the male antagonist's life, since imperceptible horror has trouble carrying a film.

That antagonist, one Wilbur Whateley - descendant of dubious birth origin of a family with long ties to the occult, in the superstitious town of Dunwich - is played magnificently by Dean Stockwell, who is mesmerizing as an eccentric with a haunting charm. The Necronomicon - one of Lovecraft's enduring contributions to pop horror culture - makes an appearance in this story (and I don't doubt that Sam Raimi must have taken some inspiration from this movie). Also there is a pretty exciting demonic ritual, that is probably the best one I've seen since Rosemary's Baby.

As for the alleged scene of "tentacle rape": it's not quite what you'd expect if you've watched a lot of hentai, but it's still a very startling scene. It is the first in which we get a "look" at the rampaging colossus that stars in the second half of the story. Some of the effects are a bit dated, but the overall impression is very effective, and is so far the best film representation of the sort of cosmic horror - that even a glimpse of will drive a human insane - that is characteristic of Lovecraft's style.

It is unfortunate, then, that it has a hard time carrying the film, especially when it's wandering about, and you can't tell if it's supposed to be invisible (as it was in the written story), or if the camera is just being coy to maintain the mystery. The whole end of the film kind of struggles - the final ritual drags on a bit, and the conclusion doesn't offer much in the way of explanation, and the big reveal is maybe not as exciting as one would hope for (again with the mystery and the imperceptible horror).

Still, the film constructs an unsettling atmosphere, and even though not a strictly literal interpretation of the source material, does justice (I think) to the original story. Dean Stockwell is unmissable in one of the lead roles, and the cosmic horror is worth the price of admission alone. It's not a flawless film, nor a flawless adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft, but I would rate it one of the better ones I've seen so far.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book of Blood (2009)

Book of Blood is based on what is essentially the "wraparound" or framing story of Clive Barker's early collection of short stories, the Books of Blood. As such, this movie (which is a good hour and forty minutes long) plods along slowly and feels very much "padded out" for what would have worked better as an hour (or less) length episode of a horror anthology. On top of that, it relies too much on cheap scares, the CGI is obvious, and the characters are never believable as real people.

Example: after a paranormal episode leaves a young man with cuts all over his body, instead of leading to a discussion about the ethics of their little science experiment, it leads to a sexual encounter with the researcher that hired him (who, oddly, must be turned on by his fresh flesh wounds). It's not the perversity (nor the nudity, which is skewed here in favor of the male) that's at fault - this is a Clive Barker concept, after all - but the poor writing and lack of realistic motivations.

For, the concept itself is compelling and original. The "book of blood" in question is the skin of a man which the dead use to etch their stories - in blood. But the bulk of this movie manages to squander that concept in a fairly run-of-the-mill haunted house/paranormal investigation tale, that gets boring fast (and is nowhere near as effective as Paranormal Activity). This is why I think the movie would be improved by cutting the runtime down significantly, and giving more weight to the wraparound of this wraparound. And the underlying theme - of the dead wanting to tell their stories, and our imperative to listen to them - is much better suited to the introduction of a collection of horror stories than a standalone feature length film.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

The Call of Cthulhu was not the movie I was expecting. It's a bit of a curiosity, and definitely a surreal experience. The date is marked 2005, but the movie is shot in the form of a black and white silent film. This is, perhaps, to make it feel contemporary with the publication of H.P. Lovecraft's stories, which occurred between the years of 1917 and 1935. Although, I wonder if this approach was not at least partly inspired by the desire to preserve some of the hauntingly crafted written words of Lovecraft's story, or otherwise to avoid even an attempt at vocalizing the largely unpronounceable words of Cthulhu's language.

In any case, this is a strikingly faithful adaptation of Lovecraft's story of the same name. This was the story that introduced the world to Cthulhu, and laid down the backbone of its mythos. It might not be Lovecraft's best story, but it is certainly an influential one. It is told mostly in the form of recollections of recollections, as a man pieces together the horrible knowledge of a secret thing that occurred in the spring of 1925, after posthumously acquiring his great uncle's notes. There are basically three chapters: the first involving the study of an epidemic of strange dreams in March of '25; the second telling the earlier story of an inspector's raid of a devil-worshipping cult ritual in the deep swamps of New Orleans; and the third recounting a sailor's experience on a strange, unmapped island, and the terrifying Thing he encountered there.

But it's the piecing together of these disparate parts that yields the most terrifying picture - one that hints at the existence of an ancient creature from the cosmos, worshipped as a god by savages throughout history, that is so terrible as to drive men mad through thought alone. The short glimpses we do get of Cthulhu (certainly nothing as concrete as the picture on the poster) manage to be pretty effective in spite of apparently being composed of claymation - but the clever way the film is designed assures that, if a little bit toy-y, it doesn't look too silly. And while I can't complain too much about the "geometry" of the island, it does look a bit too much like "crazy angles just to look crazy" rather than tapping in to some kind of non-Euclidean geometry that we can only guess how to make sense of. But I guess that's one of those imaginative things that's more effective when hinted at and not explicitly shown.

It's a remarkable adaptation of the story, with a suitably haunting atmosphere. Although there are little bits here and there that don't make the jump from page to screen so well - particularly, in my opinion, the philosophical/psychological impact of the horror of Cthulhu. And even with a little of Lovecraft's haunting prose thrown in, there's still so much more that gets left out. Which leads me to the conclusion that, if you want a proper introduction to Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, there's really no reason not to go straight to the source - the written story. It's not super long. But, once you've read it, this is certainly a fascinating movie to experience. It's not that long, either, clocking in at only 47 minutes.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)

I was expecting Count Yorga, Vampire (a.k.a. The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire) to be more cheesy than creepy, but the opposite turned out to be true. This is a serious, straightforward take on the classic Dracula story, with Robert Quarry making an excellent Count Yorga. The movie opens on a pretty decent seance scene, where the Count demonstrates his old world charm and mystically philosophizing nature. Just the type of vampire who can seduce his victims, and not have to attack them out of the dark like a monster. There's also a pretty tense standoff when the lead protagonists (mainly the boyfriends of the girls being seduced by Yorga) are trying to keep the Count up until sunrise on the mere suspicion that he may be a vampire. It's a pretty conventional Dracula story, but it constructs a pretty effective atmosphere.

Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)

Invasion of the Bee Girls is very much a product of the '70s. It's also pretty much a softcore porno, and probably fits snugly into the category of exploitation cinema. Naked women abound, and it's not very PC. All the women (including the scientists) are supermodels, and all the men are sleeping around; there's even an attempted rape scene. Although that does express a central theme of the movie, which is a battle between the sexes. When men start turning up dead, apparently as the result of sexual exhaustion, city officials impose a curfew and suggest a course of abstinence (which, to their credit, the townspeople reject), inspiring resentment among a few of the local men towards women, who would seem to be responsible. It's eventually traced back to a nearby government research facility, and involves radiation and genetic mutation, where bee-minded women in lab coats (and nothing else) strip down and slather each other with ooze in an erotic group ritual, surrounded by flashing computers. Like I said, it's a product of its time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Rawhead Rex (1986)

Rawhead Rex is one of the stories in horror writer Clive Barker's early collection of short stories, Books of Blood (from which also came Candyman and the more recent adaptations of Dread and The Midnight Meat Train). Aside from the broad strokes, the thing I remember most about this story of an ancient evil unearthed to run amok in a small countryside village, is its characteristically Barker-esque wicked perversity, particularly in the scene involving the beast's unholy baptism - which I'm happy to say is preserved in the film (though kept at a broad distance).

The story opens in a small Irish village, where a local is about to overturn an old stone artifact in a field, which bears a startling resemblance to one of the stained glass window designs in the local church, that depicts a devil being trapped underground by a divine figure. Meanwhile, an out-of-town historian is visiting with his family to research the pre-Christian, pagan roots of the town's religious traditions, and you can bet there's a connection between the two. Pretty soon, there's a towering manbeast rampaging through the countryside, wreaking havoc left and right, and the only hope of stopping him is deciphering the old legend to find its weakness.

The design of the monster is excellent. As far as the quality of the effects go, the mask does look kind of rubbery at times, and is devoid of much motion and emotional dynamics, which is a strike against it. But as far as the design is concerned, I think it looks great, and suits the creature perfectly. The story is pretty out there - it comes from the twisted mind of Clive Barker, after all - and I don't think very many people treat it seriously. The monster alone probably raises it above your typical slasher creature feature, and the writing (adapted for the screen by Barker himself) is solid, even if the one acolyte character does overact just a tad. Plus, some of the lightning effects are very cheesy in that lame '80s fx sort of way, and the final scene is pure cliche. In the end, it's not as bad as all that, but it doesn't quite succeed on the level of Hellraiser (which was brilliant).

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Creature (1985)

You can tell from the plot synopsis alone that this movie is an obvious and cheap knock-off of Alien - emphasis on cheap. But Alien is one of the seminal sci-fi/horror films of all time, and so any movie trying to recapture its brilliance (even via direct imitation, rather than creative influence) is going to attract my attention. The problem with Creature, then, is less that it is a shameless rip-off of a much better movie, but is simply the fact that it's not a much better movie itself. It feels quite like a TV movie, and the production values (especially when making comparisons to Ridley Scott's Alien, as the viewer is inevitably compelled to do) are conspicuously shoddy.

And then there are other problems, like the inane banter between the characters. There was a lot of idle dialogue in Alien, but it felt natural, and served compellingly to produce an atmosphere of realism, and help the audience to identify with the characters. In Creature, it's just dumb, and the poor attempts at humor serve only to undermine the film's atmosphere. And then, the astronauts' reaction to finding alien life - particularly alien life that is both vicious and apparently intelligent, given its use of technology - on Titan, Saturn's moon (so, not quite so far out there), is to be entirely underwhelmed, except by the possibility for fame and fortune.

It should go without saying that a monster movie like Creature hinges on the success or failure of it's movie monster. Even Alien wasn't immune to this (though even on that count, it succeeded in spades). Unlike most b movies, the monster in Creature is actually very creepy and compelling. It's like the Carnosaur version of H.R. Giger's sleek and sexy xenomorph, all teeth and glowing eyes and lumps of what-the-fuck-is-that?! It's unfortunate, therefore, that the creature is not featured nearly enough, using some cheap psychic tactic to make its human victims do most of its killing.

One must not oversell the creature in a movie like this, of course, but when you've got a creature as badass as this one is, the viewer is gonna want more glimpses of it throughout the picture. Alas, it is perhaps the movie's only redeeming feature, and saving it for the end means over an hour of story that struggles to keep my interest. Even the addition of actual nudity isn't enough to save it. It's telling that a review of Creature only serves to indicate the elements that made Alien such a great film, where it itself fails sorrowfully. It's too bad, especially in light of the great creature effects, because I would have liked to have seen an at least half-decent movie on the same theme.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Dagon (2001)

Dagon is yet another adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story directed by Stuart Gordon. Although - for those curious about tracking down the source material - it is not, in fact, an adaptation of the short story titled "Dagon", but rather the novella titled "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". Like many of H.P. Lovecraft's stories, this one is narrated in retrospect, by a man who has experienced some decidedly eldritch horrors, and is, usually, on the verge of committing suicide, going completely mad, or else embracing an alternately horrible (yet no less inevitable) fate, having once and for all cleared his conscience by bringing the truth of his experiences to light.

Perhaps this narrative method is more difficult to utilize in the audiovisual (versus the written) medium - although I still think you could make it work. On the other hand, a good portion of the mythology of the story in The Shadow Over Innsmouth is told through long passages of static dialogue. As such, there are some definite liberties taken in the film adaptation of the story, although it does ultimately touch on all the major points. Most notably is the fact that the setting is relocated from New England to Spain, a few more characters are thrown in so the protagonist is not entirely alone on this expedition, and the movie gets more up close and personal with the unholy rituals hinted at in the story (which is probably for the better, because that's kind of the payoff in a movie like this one).

The basic gist of the story is this: the protagonist comes upon a ramshackle coastal town with queer inhabitants who don't quite seem human. They worship Dagon, the fish god (who has some unspecified connection to the Cthulhu mythos). The written story (in classic Lovecraftian style) is a little more subtle (if not entirely unpredictable) in its gradual revelation of the inhabitants' "condition". The movie is a bit more blunt, although it does save some surprises for later on. The way the inhabitants are portrayed is really well done, I think - both convincingly unsettling, and perfectly in line with what I think Lovecraft was probably going for. Although the occasional digital effects leave something to be desired, the practical effects (including makeup and prosthetics) are mostly exceptional, and really add to the otherworldly feel of the setting. Though I do feel that certain scenes must have been written in to the script just to have a few gore set-pieces, as the original story (as few of Lovecraft's stories seem to need to do) does not rely overly much on gore to effectively disturb the reader.

The characters are maybe not the most sympathetic, and the town drunkard's history lesson is spoken in such a strong accent that it's actually very difficult to understand at times, so the movie is not without its flaws. Nor is it a perfect Lovecraftian adaptation, though it much better captures the right spirit than Re-Animator did, for example. But, it does plenty of things right, and foremost of all is the fact that this movie sets itself apart from any other movie you could compare it to, with the both highly imaginative and unsettlingly creepy aspects courtesy of Lovecraft's tortured genius of a mind. And while From Beyond tackles that one characteristic element of Lovecraft's stories - the idea that things exist beyond our capacity to sense or understand them, and that they are so terrible that attempting to do so (often through dreams) can lead only to death or madness - Dagon presents (and explores the connection between) two other elements: the worship of ancient, unspeakable gods, and the existence of creatures whose alien-ness is frightening, but whose partial humanity implies a far more terrifying conclusion.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I Saw The Devil (2010)

I Saw The Devil is not the supernatural Satanic story you might expect from the title (for better or worse). Precious few films with the word "devil" in their title are; many of them prefer instead to use the devil as a metaphor. With that in mind, I Saw The Devil is a Korean film on the popular subject of revenge fantasy, exacted via vigilante justice. Rather than glorify the act of justified revenge (a la Death Wish), and focusing more on the horror (through explicit gore) than action (like, say, Taken), there is a subset of this genre that focuses on the psychological damage caused by exacting revenge. This was exactly the theme of 7 Days - one of the more unsettling movies I've ever watched - as well as the premise of that new movie Prisoners that I have not seen yet.

The blueprint for this type of movie is pretty straightforward. The movie starts with some creep committing atrocious acts against an innocent - the more heinous the better, to provide as much justification as possible for the vigilante-to-be's future retribution. Then, a relative or friend of the victim gets some tip from the authorities and decides to take justice into his own hands - capturing the criminal (sometimes even taking him from the police, because heaven knows the justice system isn't capable of seeing justice done) - and torturing him in ways that make the criminal's initial crime pale in comparison. This is the typical setup, and it's plainly a wish fulfillment fantasy for anyone who's ever read about some creep committing a terrible crime, and then wishing they could do horrible things to the criminal (e.g., rip their balls off, feed them their own waste, skin them alive) - the sort of thing you see in the comments to any online news article.

In the traditional version, the audience is supposed to cheer on the vigilante, because his cause is righteous and the villains are getting only what they deserve. What movies like I Saw The Devil or 7 Days do, is make the carnage so explicit, and show the deleterious effects on the vigilante's psyche, so as to make the argument that the revenge is not actually satisfying, and the only thing it accomplishes is - not to make you feel better, but - to turn you into exactly the sort of monster you were lashing out against in the first place. Frighteningly, some viewers completely miss the point and still treat these movies just like the traditional version, and cheer on the vigilante, even as he destroys his own life and mental well-being, and ends up causing more suffering of the sort that led to this state of affairs than if he had dealt with his grief in a more humane sort of way.

Different movies make this point better or worse, and in different ways. 7 Days emphasized the lack of peace and satisfaction. I Saw The Devil does a great job of manipulating events to demonstrate how closely the vigilante becomes the sort of person that the killer was, in deed if not entirely in psyche. Although the way it ended left a little bit of ambiguity in terms of its message, which is not infrequently the case with morally ambiguous stories like this one. But in spite of the grim subject matter, this movie is very well done - with excellent acting and cinematography. It has a long running time, though. There's a lot going on in the movie, so it's not that it drags, but two and a half hours of sadistic brutality and mental quagmire has a way of wearing you down, perhaps more, even, than is necessary to get the point across.

I think it's telling that revenge fantasy has evolved to the point where we're no longer simplistically cheering on the vigilante, but observing how damaging and unhealthy revenge is. Although it concerns me that we haven't yet moved past that point. I, for one, understand that to give in to revenge is to let the devil win; but, in truth, there are still a vast many out there who don't seem to get it. So maybe we still need movies like this. And this is as good a one as I've seen. If it weren't for the sheer depravity depicted, and the stomach-turning grotesqueries on display, I'd count it on the level of cinematic epics as, for example, The Departed was in the mainstream gangster genre. But perhaps it's best, after all, if not too many people are exposed to movies like this one, in the end. Not everyone has to see the devil to know that he's bad news.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Langoliers (1995)

So I finally got around to watching Stephen King's The Langoliers. It's been on my radar ever since my friend mentioned it in college. I think that his opinion of it was not real great, but when he showed me a picture of the terrible CGI monsters, I thought they looked awesome. At that moment, I vowed to watch it - no matter how bad it might be.

I was expecting a b-grade cheesefest, but, to my surprise, The Langoliers was actually pretty good. Not flawless, by any means, but not terrible either. It's got a fascinating concept, and it constructs an intriguing atmosphere of mystery and suspense. Ten people wake up on a commercial flight to find everyone else vanished, and then have to figure out what the hell is going on. I guess this is a spoiler, but it turns out to be some kind of temporal anomaly, involving cosmic entities that devour reality!

Awesome, right? As for the flaws, the poor CGI can't be ignored. Granted, I still think the monsters (the "Langoliers") look badass, and that almost makes up for the bad CGI. Their behavior could use a little polish, maybe, but there's a solid kernel there in their conception. The other major flaw is the runtime. It's a[nother] 3 hour long TV miniseries, and that, really, is more time than the movie needs to tell its story. As such, it drags on quite a bit. I think a feature film remake pared down to under two hours, with better creature effects and an updated cast could do wonders for this story.

Even so, it's not half as bad as its reputation, and it offers a fresh perspective on the subject of time travel, and the nature of time, that is bound to get your noggin going. It's worth a look, if you can spare the time.

Right At Your Door (2006)

I read a little about Right At Your Door when it came out several years ago, and it's been on my watchlist ever since, though I only just now got around to watching it. As the poster describes, it's an "apocalyptic thriller" that unfolds like a disaster movie, but narrowly focused on one man's experiences at his house on the outskirts of Los Angeles in the wake of a terrorist attack that unleashes clouds of toxic ash on the city and surrounding areas. "Harrowing" is a pretty good adjective for this movie. It definitely plays into fears of a post-9/11 America, and while adopting all the cues of an epidemic movie, it manages to distinguish itself and stay fresh in its approach and perspective.

It's a very tense movie that evolves naturally, and had my heart beating rapidly, especially at the start when the shit first hits the fan, and again at the shocking climax when things come to a head. It has a few slow moments in between, but there's nothing wrong with that, as the ordeal does involve sitting things out while the officials get their asses in gear and decide how to deal with the calamity. There are some human moments in there, too - as to be expected - some of which raise some difficult questions about what you would do in such a terrible situation. But it's the horror of the premise, effectively executed, that makes this ride more than worth its while. I count it one of the better horror movies of the 21st century.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

It's unfortunate that this movie doesn't have a more respectable reputation. Are people so immature that they can't take the concept of a virgin sacrificing cult of giant snake worshippers seriously? That they feel compelled to laugh at the visual effects rather than allow their imaginations to get absorbed into them (and for all their limitations, the effects are pretty effective)? The movie is not pretentious - it doesn't take itself too seriously, and incorporates a good bit of humor - but at the same time, the concepts involved are fascinating, and its execution as a film is very well accomplished

Certainly more so than I was expecting, going partly off its reputation, and partly off my vague memories of it. I swear I saw this film once on television when I was young, and I hadn't remembered it until coming across it more recently. It made an impression on me for its unflinchingly erotic approach to the subject matter, and it's probably one of my earliest memories of seeing nudity on film, and may in no small part have contributed to my interest in erotic fantasies involving pagan rituals concerned with virgin sacrifice.

You might be surprised to learn that The Lair of the White Worm is actually adapted from a Bram Stoker story (not Dracula, obviously) - albeit one that doesn't have so great a reputation. The movie begins with a Scottish archaeologist (Peter Capaldi) finding the skull of what appears to be a giant snake dating back to the Roman occupation of Britain. Local legend tells of the "D'ampton Worm", a giant snake that was named for the man who slew it (whose descendant is played by Hugh Grant). Stories of dragons (and their slayers) and other mythological creatures are not uncommon in the English countryside. But some recent disappearances seem to lend evidence that maybe some offspring of the legendary D'ampton Worm has survived underground in a nearby cavern.

Enter Lady Sylvia Marsh, who wastes no time revealing to the audience that she is some kind of priestess of a cult that worships the serpent - representing Lucifer, and manifesting in the form of a white worm that tormented Jesus on the cross, and may live on even today as the descendant of the D'ampton Worm. Unlike the Christians, this snake cult seems to revel in their own sexuality, and Amanda Donohoe seems reassuringly comfortable in the highly fetishized role of the priestess. I would be willing to bet, on the other hand, that the only reason the virgin sacrifice is stripped only to her underwear is because the actress that played her had a "no nudity" clause in her contract. Which is really rather unfortunate. Prudish movie critics always complain that nudity or sexual scenes are not "necessary" to the plot, but this sort of thing (and it is frequent in movies) just takes away from the story.

It would be easy to write this movie off (as many do) as a cheesy softcore porno with a ridiculous plot and silly effects. But frankly, I think the plot is intriguing (who doesn't love a bit of cryptozoology?), and the characters and their dialogue and their motivations are all refreshingly logical and believable. I watched it for reasons of nostalgia, but was pleasantly surprised to find that it is a decent movie in its own right - both fun, and engrossing. It's not "so bad, it's good"; I genuinely think that it's just plain good. I recommend it with confidence.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Crucible (1996)

The Crucible is not the fantasy/horror movie I've been looking for, since finding out that Salem's Lot is about vampires and not witches, but it is, at least, about the Salem witch trials. It's a very convincing period piece - in set, wardrobe, casting and language - that plays like a colonial courtroom drama. But it's one of the most riveting (and chilling) courtroom dramas I've ever had the pleasure of watching, every bit on par with the likes of A Few Good Men. And considering the historical significance of the Salem witch trials, I couldn't imagine a more fitting dramatization of the mass hysteria that contributed to such a heinous corruption of justice, resulting in the state-mandated murder of too many innocent people.

Winona Ryder stars as Abigail Williams, the scorned lover of John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), a married man who resents his adulterous affair with her, and is trying to redeem his honor and good name. Guided by the voodoo traditions of a local slave woman, Abigail leads the village's young maidens in a ritual to incur the love of the men they each fancy, but takes things too far. A local Reverend catches them in the act, and fear of the devil's influence soon takes hold of the town. In absence of concrete proof of the supernatural, yet firm belief in the powers of god and the devil, even the court of justice finds itself beholden to sensational testimony. The less scrupulous townsfolk see in this an easy opportunity to get rid of their enemies, and soon accusations of witchcraft, not easily disproved, are flying. As tension builds, and the death toll mounts, John Proctor finds himself in a tenuous position; he may be able to put an end to the hysteria, but what will it cost him? And more importantly, how much is he willing to pay, to right the sins of his fellows?

It might be that you need the right sensibilities to properly enjoy this movie. It's not really about witches - just the fear of good Christian men and women falling into temptation and consorting with the devil. And it takes a little warming up to the period setting - the language, in particular, can be a hurdle. But if you give it a chance, once the trials commence, the tension just continues to build as the whole town falls apart over what begins as superstitious fear and ultimately reveals itself to be a travesty of misjustice, that the wheels of bureaucracy (even in colonial times) are mostly powerless (or careless) to stop. You don't have to be religious at all to appreciate it, you just need to have concern for the horrors that superstition and the justice system are capable of exacting on a population of more and less innocent (but all decidedly human) citizens. For myself, I give the movie my highest recommendation; it was a real surprise and a treat for me.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Joe Bonamassa - Different Shades Of Blue (2014)

Last month, Joe Bonamassa released a new album, after the longest hiatus of his career - it's been two years since his last studio record, Driving Towards The Daylight. But that doesn't mean Joe hasn't been busy. In the last few years, he's released three albums with supergroup Black Country Communion (now sadly defunct), two as a duet with soul singer Beth Hart, and one with funk group Rock Candy Funk Party. And that doesn't include all the live albums and DVDs that have been put out, both with those other groups, and as a solo artist - the latter includes Beacon Theatre: Live From New York and An Acoustic Evening At The Vienna Opera House, not to mention the 4 DVD/4 CD set documenting Joe's most ambitious tour yet - 4 nights at four historical locations with four different bands in London - the appropriately dubbed "Tour de Force".

Joe is now over a decade into his career, and this is his eleventh studio album (by my reckoning). It's a more mature offering, as reinforced by Joe's soberingly personal introduction in the liner notes. He acknowledges that the Tour de Force was an ending to one part of his career, this album being the first step into the next phase. The album is distinctive in that, apart from a short instrumental cover of an appropriate Jimi Hendrix tune (New Rising Sun), it features all original material from Joe (who had assistance with some professional co-songwriters). I've always marked Joe as a phenomenal cover artist, but I suppose there comes a time in any serious musical artist's career when he has to consider contributing something new to the cultural repertoire (not that this hasn't been a piece of the puzzle all along). After all, even The Rolling Stones started out as a cover band; it was only when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards started penning songs together that they became the "greatest rock n roll band in the world".

From that perspective, Different Shades of Blue is a promising record. Joe has always - even going back to his solo debut A New Day Yesterday - been a demon on the guitar, but both his songwriting and his singing talent has improved remarkably over the past decade. And his playing - fierce and ferocious at times, delicate and haunting at others - is at a point of sophistication where you could conceivably hire him for a pop session, and he could put one of those fiery solos down in the middle of a song by a commercial band who could never hope for that kind of musical prowess. But Joe is more than that - and his songs are infused with this kind of talent from start to finish. And the musicians he's playing with are at the top of their game as well. He's undoubtedly been growing his reputation over the years, and I think that it's conceivable that he may be on the verge of breaking into the mainstream (his albums are charting even outside the blues chart), without ever having to give up his personal approach to music and the industry, but simply by polishing his talent over the years to the point where it sparkles like a many-faceted diamond.

It's actually kind of weird. I was really looking forward to this album, after I saw Joe perform one of the new songs - Oh Beautiful! - live on a French television show (view it here). The song features relatable lyrics, as one who has spent a lot of time in rapture to beauty, but otherwise consists of a really long guitar solo that just goes on and on and on. But when the album finally came, I wasn't that impressed with it the first time I listened to it. My superficial impression was that it featured way too many horns (this is one of the things I disagree with Joe on - the horns don't belong in the blues). I was resolved that this would be one of Joe's albums that I just wouldn't like as much (like, say, Black Rock, which had some good tracks, but overall felt a little too worldly for a Bonamassa album - not that I begrudge him that musical experimentation).

But after listening to it several more times, I hardly even hear the horns anymore, and what I do hear is all that fantastic guitar, and the great hooks (both musical and lyrical). Honest to god, there's not a song on this album I'm not already singing along with (except the last one, which is softer - I'm not as keen on Joe's softer songs, generally speaking). The standout tracks are the aforementioned Oh Beautiful!, Heartache Follows Me Wherever I Go, the fierce Never Give All Your Love, and the title track, which starts out gently but builds to yet another searing guitar solo. But the rest of the songs are still a joy to listen to, especially with the volume cranked up. Whatever magic is at play here, Joe's got a winner on his hands with this album. And if you want a scrumptious teaser of what this album offers, watch the five part in-the-studio documentary Joe's put out. I recommend it. But if you've only got three minutes, then please, just watch this.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

All The Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)

(Except me).

Slashers have been done to death. Which is not to say that there isn't occasionally a good one still being made (You're Next was worth watching), but those ones are few and far between, in a subgenre that apparently attracts a lot of filmmakers for its simple formula. Slashers were fun when they were fresh and unfamiliar - decades ago - but now, I feel like if you want to make a good slasher movie, you can't just set out to make a slasher movie. The slasher has to be a vehicle for something else that's worth seeing. Even going as far back as 1979, Alien was one of the best slasher movies ever created - because, though it follows the formula pretty closely, it's not strictly a slasher movie - it's a monster movie, for one thing, but it's also an intelligent, and genuinely unsettling sci-fi film. More recently, The Cabin in the Woods hit it off because it went far and above the demands for a slasher movie (and I'll remind you that my criticism of The Cabin in the Woods had less to do with the movie itself, and more with the things people were saying about how it was supposed to be interpreted).

I don't know why I thought All The Boys Love Mandy Lane would set itself apart from the average slasher flick. Maybe it was the suggestion of eroticism dripping from its title. Or maybe that its premise seemed to promise an I Spit On Your Grave-like morality tale. Unfortunately, the movie instead develops like your typical slasher flick - and as is also a complaint with many of those, the characters are not only difficult to relate to, they're utterly unsympathetic. Just considering the drugs alone, no longer are horny 30 year old teens content simply to smoke a blunt and get high, now they're popping pills and even snorting coke - at high school age! Although, sadly, I wonder if this is not simply a reflection of reality, and the modern drug epidemic in America (when I grew up, the concern was drug dealers peddling to kids in the schoolyard - just recently, I had a 14 year old boy ask me for drugs in a public park...).

Amber Heard looks pretty scrumptious as the titular character - although she doesn't quite pull off the "inexperienced adolescent" who just recently developed and is starting to attract all the attention of her same-age 30 year old peers in high school (I'm sorry if I beat the age thing to death, but it's really become ridiculous). Given the premise, what little nudity and eroticism there is is entirely disappointing (they completely wasted that locker room scene, by the way - how can such a depraved generation of rapist drug addicts be such modest prudes?). The sexism and misogyny is just oozing throughout the whole film - neither sex comes off well: the boys are all rapey assholes, and the women are petty, cock-crazed airheads. Why don't people understand that you can make an erotic film that doesn't cater to sexist stereotypes? Or are they intentionally trying to attack sex? In which case, they do a terrible job of it, by setting up unbelievable straw men. One scene almost hints at the main character being a lesbian, which is an idea with enormous potential that could have, if developed, transformed this whole project into something meaningful and worthwhile - but it's totally thrown by the wayside.

Ultimately, we come to the ending, which throws a few twists at the viewer. Sadly, an hour of cliches doesn't make up for a final half hour of "unexpected" twists. But what's worse, the twists don't even make sense. I literally watched the last fifteen minutes with a blank face and resting heart rate. No, "oh my god, I can't believe she did that!" Or, "holy shit, this is extreme/intense/twisted!" If anything, I might have had a furrowed brow because it seemed like the film was trying to be clever, but completely lacked any justification for the characters' actions. It was just simply confusing, and a completely unsatisfying ending to an overall disappointing movie.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Invasions of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

I worry sometimes about old, black and white movies that I won't be able to fully enjoy them, given how much cinema has progressed over the years, and the different sensibilities that previous generations have had. But in the case of the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I had nothing to fear (well, except for the body snatchers themselves). This was the most compelling black and white film I'd seen since the original Night of the Living Dead. Though I'm not the sort of stuffy horror fan who is always complaining about the dire state of modern horror, there may be at least some merit to the claim that modern movies focus too much on gore and cheap scares, to the exclusion of character depth and constructing a truly unsettling atmosphere.

Certainly, as cliche as the subject of alien "body snatchers" may have become, it's a terrifying premise - that seed pods from outer space can almost perfectly replicate human beings - with only the faint hollowness of their going through the motions of human emotion to hint that anything is wrong. Who can you trust when everybody around you that you know and love starts doubting that their friends and family are who they appear to be, and you can't be sure who's still human and who has already become one of them? The theme is rife with potential for symbolic interpretation (e.g., fear of conformity, communist paranoia), and the subject itself represents a haunting psychological phenomena. But even without any deeper meaning, the superficial sci-fi take involving alien pods is scary enough all by itself.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The 1956 film tells the story (in voice-over) of a doctor's experiences as the invaders gradually take over a small town. The 1978 version uses the same basic outline, but with a health inspector in downtown San Francisco. I don't know how much the fact that this story seems better suited to the sensibilities of 1950s America contributes to this, but the 1978 version feels hollow somehow - like it has the shell of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie, but the heart is missing; it's just going through the motions. There are some memorably creepy moments - like the otherworldy intro, the pod garden transformation scene, the dog scare, and the scream at the end - but overall it didn't feel to me as gripping as the '56 version.

And this is in spite of a very prominent cast that includes Donald Sutherland in the lead, with a very pretty Brooke Adams, a young Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright (who played second female behind Sigourney Weaver in the first Alien movie - and is just as panicky here), and even Leonard Nimoy as an obnoxious psychiatrist (who heavy-handedly introduces the film's theme of emotional detachment in then-modern society as a red herring to explain away the alien invasion). Although, it could certainly be said that having so many distinctive faces on screen takes you out of the movie a bit.

Body Snatchers (1993)

The 1993 film Body Snatchers is a decidedly grittier adaptation of the story, with less concern for strictly adhering to the outline of the previous two versions, while still covering all the bases. This time, it's an EPA agent bringing his family to a military base for a working vacation. The primary protagonist is, however, his teenage daughter, played by a very delicious-looking Gabrielle Anwar. Though only in minor (but important) roles, R. Lee Ermey and Forest Whitaker round out an otherwise unfamiliar cast, though Meg Tilly channels the creepiness of the pod people very well, and Billy Wirth counters that as an at times unsettlingly deadpan human.

The performances are all mostly understated (to good effect), except for Forest Whitaker, who goes maybe just a little bit overboard in his big scene. I'm glad that this movie reprised the alien scream from the 1978 version, which was probably the best contribution it made to the Body Snatchers legacy. There are a few parts of this movie that feel like maybe they would make more sense to somebody already familiar with the story, but since this was the third version I'd seen, that didn't bother me. You might - and I stress that this is merely a guess - be better off if this is not the first version you watch, though. I would recommend the original, followed by this one.

The Invasion (2007)

One of the interesting things about these Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies is that they all do a good job of capturing a snapshot of the times when they were made - the '50s, the late '70s, the early '90s. And the 2007 adaptation, simply titled The Invasion, is no exception, with its emphasis on a drug-addled population in the internet age. Indeed, the body snatchers are re-imagined as an infectious disease this time, that takes over people's bodies in their sleep, instead of the plant pod body replacements of decades past. Apart from that, this version of the story resurrects some basic elements (and characters) from the first two adaptations, relocating to a big city like in the 1978 version, albeit not adhering to the formula quite as strongly as that version did.

This movie seems to make several nods to previous versions, with last time's EPA agent upgraded to the CDC, and both a doctor and a psychiatrist in leading roles (yet here, the psychiatrist is a protagonist). The latter are played by Daniel Craig (who we all know as the new "James Blond") and Nicole Kidman, continuing the tradition of featuring an uncommonly attractive woman in one of the lead roles. Veronica Cartwright also, interestingly, returns in a cameo role. The Body Snatchers movies have all prided themselves on their special effects - even going all the way back to the original 1956 version. The 1978 version probably struck the best balance between spectacle and excess. Unfortunately, the CG graphics in the 2007 version largely fail to impress (the switched focus on disease instead of plants surely contributes to that).

One thing this movie does a decent job of, thanks to the ubiquitousness of 24 hour television news networks these days, is demonstrate the difference between human nature and alien pod nature on a global scale. Always has there been an emphasis on the lack of emotion - the source of conflict between humans -  in pod mentality, but to see a world dominated by pod people resulting in global peace treaties, and nuclear disarmament, and an end to terrorism - really drives home the question of whether human nature is really worth preserving after all. Although there's been more than enough Invasion of the Body Snatchers adaptations already, I'd like to see one credibly written from the body snatchers' perspective.