Then Came the Dark of the Black Snakes

Let’s see how many of these I can spit out without going 1000 words for each.

Dark of the Sun (1968) had been getting some good notices at revival screenings around this time last year; it was pointed to as a forgotten gem of manly 60s cinema. Warner Archive put it out as one of their MOD (Made On Demand) discs, and I bit, mainly because The Wild Geese is one of the movies I keep returning to every couple of years.

Rod Taylor, you see, is a mercenary working the Congo Crisis in the late 50s. Along with his partner, Jim Brown (playing an American college-educated native), he is given the task of journeying into unfriendly territory and extracting a bunch of mining employees before the Simbas arrive and slaughter them all – and, oh yeah, also bring along the 50 million or so in diamonds they have in their vault. Things are made more complicated by a wannabe Nazi German merc in charge of the native forces, Yvette Mimieux, who survived a Simba massacre and is gathered up along the way, and the fact that the head of the mining operation set his time release vault way too far in the future, meaning everyone must escape under fire by the Simbas.

That seems complicated, but believe me, the movie itself gets even more complicated. I read through the Wikipedia article on the Congo Crisis, and I’m still pretty much at sea about the backstory. I’m more than a little suspicious of the way the Simbas are portrayed, in their savagery as they overrun the mining outpost; I’m reminded of John Wayne’s The Green Berets, when the Viet Cong overrun the firebase, and are dubbed with war whoops from one of Wayne’s earlier westerns, complete with an Injun motif on the score.

Our main players are solid and professional, and this may be one of Brown’s best roles. I wonder what happened with Peter Carsten’s lines, as Paul Frees winds up overdubbing a lot of them, which gets distracting when you’re a Paul Frees fan. I guess I bought into the hype a little too wholeheartedly, as I rarely felt caught up in the story or the characters. There’s a bit too much “Oh come on” action here, as events spiral out of control, stay out of control, and then proceed to get out of control. I have no idea how Rod Taylor’s merc gets so much work, because he has the worst damned luck.

After that less-than-salutary experience, I decided it was time to swing back to the Quality Portion of The List and watch – finally – Black Orpheus.

I had owned the soundtrack to Black Orpheus for years – overheard it in a back room at a cast party, and I fell immediately in love with it (Same guy also played the score to The Egyptian, and I really hope to have enough bread to buy that Twilight Time blu-ray before it sells out). My Criterion disc tells me this is the movie that “brought the infectious bossa nova beat to the United States.” And infectious it is, there is little wonder that whenever it breaks out, everyone on the screen begins dancing with wild abandon.

It’s hard to know anything about movies and not know the central concept here: director Marcel Camus re-tells the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, against the backdrop of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival. It all starts out normally enough, and gets more fantastic as the story progresses. Eurydice is a country girl who comes to visit her cousin in Rio because she’s convinced a man is stalking her with the purpose of killing her; she meets neighbor Orpheus, a singer local children are convinced makes the sun rise with his songs. They fall in love, of course, much to the dismay of Orpheus’ vain and faintly psychotic fiancée. Then this fellow in a Death costume starts following Eurydice through the Carnival…

It’s amusing that the movie likes to mess with your head; when Orpheus and Mira (the aforementioned fiancée) get a marriage license at the beginning of the movie, and the clerk is informed his name is Orpheus, the clerk brightly exclaims, “Then you must be Eurydice!” to the predictably pissed-off Mira. The legend is common knowledge, what must happen as Orpheus finds himself falling in love with Eurydice is inevitable.

Using the modern Bacchanal of Carnival is so logical and perfect it also seems inevitable. The scene of Death in the parade crowd, ensnaring Eurydice with paper streamers is beautiful and memorable, and Eurydice’s death – though we know it is coming – still manages to be almost entirely unexpected, coming at the end of a cat-and-mouse chase worthy of any horror movie or giallo.

I had wondered how Camus was going to handle Orpheus’ descent into the Underworld to find his deceased lover, and once again, I was surprised and amazed. Orpheus, unwilling to believe Eurydice is dead, searches for her in the aftermath of Carnival; he arrives at the chaotic police building and is told to check with Missing Persons, which is a room full of stacks of paper in a labyrinth of halls where sheets of paper blow in an eerie wind. “People are lost in paper,” advises a janitor, filling in for Charon, He takes Orpheus to a voodoo ceremony where the spirit of Eurydice possesses a woman behind Orpheus to speak to him one last time, and despite her cautions, he turns around, losing her forever. Unexpected yet completely logical, given the setting.

As I say, this is a fairy tale wrapped in the trappings of the real world, a trick Camus managed magnificently. I can see now why it was recommended to me for years, if not why I didn’t watch it for years.

It’s a pity that a little of that magic couldn’t have hung around for my next movie, Then Came Bronson.

This is another oddity from my youth: this was the pilot for a TV show on NBC, and it ran a full season. 1969-70. I vaguely recall the series, and I seem to recall really wanting to watch it, but it was always on opposite something else my parents wanted to watch. Ah, the days of single TV sets and three networks! Warner Archive made the pilot available, allowing me to re-discover that Michael Parks was Bronson. I really dig Parks’ work, so I got the disc.

Well, now.

The pilot gives us the set up, Jim Bronson is a reporter who witnesses the suicide of his best friend, a biker named Nick, played by none other than Martin Sheen. When Bronson’s boss at the paper tells him he’s about to lose his job for writing a full story about “some greaser who offed himself”, Bronson tells him to take this job and shove it, buys Nick’s bike, and sets off on the road to find himself, because that is what you did in 1969. Along the way he picks up a literal runaway bride (played by a 21 year-old Bonnie Bedelia) and on the way to New Orleans, they manage to fall in love.

There seems to be a lot of French New Wave in this movie – now, I may be wrong about that, because frankly I’m more than a bit of an idiot about labels like those, and there’s likely a better one for this movie. There’s no plot, per se, Bronson and his passenger – she spends a lot of the movie not telling Bronson her name – ride around and have… well, not adventures, but stuff kinda happens, and… hm. Bonnie eventually winds up realizing that she needs to go back West and pick up her life, and Bronson rides off into the sunset. That was apparently the thing about Bronson in the series: he always changed people through his simple decency and coolness, but he never changed himself. Makes you think, don’t it?

Anyway, the quality of the disc is wonderful. Then Came Bronson apparently had a theatrical release, as the print bears a “GP” rating. It’s also possible that Warner Archive is giving us the European release, as in our first encounter with Bedelia’s character, when she takes off her bridal gown and throws it in the surf, we are given a very good view of 21 year-old Bonnie Bedelia breasts, and we are going to get flashes of this same scene throughout the movie (in that 1969-70 rapid-cuts-to-induce-epilepsy style). Then again, I seem to recall in this period you could get away with a surprising amount in a “GP” – Parental Guidance Suggested – movie.

It’s tempting to paint this as an Easy Rider wannabe, but the two movies are pretty contemporaneous – If anything, Bronson debuted a few months before the more famous movie. Easy Rider is similarly light on plot but has the power of a lot of pretension going for it; it tries to say something, whereas Bronson…  just seems to exist.

(As quoted by Mystery Science Theater 3000)

From the sublime to the ridiculous, I suppose, because the next movie – and likely the last I’ll try to cram in this entry, was Snakes on a Plane, the movie the Internet wrote.

Well, to a degree anyway. There are lots of rumors about this: it has its origins in a bunch of suits boozing it up and deciding to see who could come up with the worst movie pitch. That the working title “Snakes On A Plane” was going to be changed to something more generic like “Boiling Point” or something but A) Samuel L. Jackson said hell no,  I agreed to do it because of that title, or B) The Internet as a whole said, no, it’s awesome, keep it that way. One thing is certain, however: the Jackson line “I am sick of these motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane” came from the Internet. I was also looking forward to hearing Jackson yell into a radio microphone “We got motherfuckin’ SNAKES!” but I suppose cooler heads prevailed and someone decided that “Leaving them wanting more” would be good in this case.

And that is about the last time we can accuse Snakes on a Plane of subtlety. The central concept is goofy enough: Jackson is escorting an eyewitness from Hawaii to LA to testify against a big drug boss. Since the drug boss can’t kill the guy in any traceable fashion, he instead stocks the plane with a staggering variety of venomous snakes – and, for some reason, a python – and sets up a way to release them mid-flight. To cover up the fact that snakes would normally either attack each other or just hide until the plane landed, there is a macguffin about leis that are treated with some pheromone to make them go berserk. And turn into CGI snakes because real snakes don’t take direction worth a damn.

After spending a lot of time establishing our cannon fodder in the seats, once the snakes get loose, I have to admit the movie squeezes every bit of possibility out of the situation. Snake attacks come from all angles – how the hell that one got in an airsick bag is beyond me – and things keep getting worse and worse in a somewhat believable fashion. I totally get why you wouldn’t want all the vital parts of the plane’s systems in the same place, but why the hell they’re also so inaccessible is puzzling. And dammit, the movie proves it has its heart in right place when a desperate flight attendant, encountering a snake in the galley, tosses it in a microwave and hits the SNAKE button.

I respect that sort of gumption.

So yeah, I admit I went into Snakes with expectations extremely low, but I enjoyed it beyond the level the lowered expectations should have granted. Not bad for Venom on a plane, and that python did eventually pay off.

Crapsgiving 2012

I actually recovered from a week and a half of Extreme Bizzitude the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Wednesday night was spent brining the turkey, Thursday, of course, was cooking and eating, then eating after a nap, then eating some more. Friday was more restful, as old chum Cabot Parsons was down from Noo Yawk to visit, and we made each other remember stuff from our more youthful days that we had good cause to forget (and then I ate). That was the restful day my body had really needed. And Saturday… ah Saturday… was the rest my soul needed, as I had no Show and therefore bullied everyone into a Thanksgiving Crapfest, or, as it is known, Crapsgiving.

Our Author, ready for action.

I think I actually stuffed myself more at Crapsgiving than I had at Thanksgiving. Host Dave had cooked up some excellent beef-and-venison sausages and sautéed the hell out of a mix of mushrooms and peppers and some dirty rice – nay, filthy rice – to accompany them. As the evening wore on we would also tuck into a huge pepperoni pizza Rick had snagged from Costco – I believe the crust was also made from pepperoni, as were portions of the box. In any case, there was a hell of a lot of pepperoni. Then the usual snacks, and Paul brought supplies for root beer floats. After a year spent losing weight, I am finally back to my fightin’ weight of 500 pounds.

While various people arrived, I played a disc of terrible things from, appropriately, Alas, the only people to be scarred by this were myself, Dave, Rick and one of two new guys who had arrived early, Erik. Erik brought his A-game, I must say; he came with some movies of his own, about the worst of which (that I had seen, anyway) was The Angry Red Planet, and I love The Angry Red Planet. But I don’t think he was entirely prepared for the brain-blasting awfulness we put ourselves through on a regular basis; though Everything is Terrible  should have been a fair intimation.

We started off Crapsgiving Proper with The Big Doll House, Jack Hill’s first Filipino Women In Prison flick for Corman’s new company, New World Pictures. It isn’t the absurd perfection of The Big Bird Cage, but it is still pretty entertaining in its own right. This is apparently Pam Grier’s first big movie role, where Sid Haig is giving her acting tips as the shoot progresses. Their chemistry is damned good, so much so that Hill would pair them again for The Big Bird Cage the following year.

There is really only one plot in these movies: there are women in a hellish Filipino prison, and they want to escape. What sets each apart is the bizarreness of the setpieces. Granted, there must always be at least one shower scene, one wrestling match (usually in mud, if Corman has anything to say about it), and at least one torture scene involving nudity, ideally several. Doll House also has a food fight followed up by a general fire-hosing of the inmates (which, legend says, the inmates didn’t know was coming). This particular prison is also, for some reason, run by female Nazis, though there is also a shadowy hooded military man who seems to operate things behind the scenes, leading Erik to deduce that the prison is actually being run by Cobra Commander. (“I hate you, Joe! Now get undressed!”)

Surprisingly little nudity, given the movie’s ultimate venue was the drive-in, but some little caution was apparently called for in 1971. The next year Deep Throat would put “porno chic” on the cultural map and things would loosen up considerably for a few years, providing the teen-aged me with a short Golden Age at the Drive-In. The Big Doll House’s major problems are a Shakespeare-sized cast list (with an identically Shakespearean body count), getting rid of Pam Grier way too soon, and that there is no Vic Diaz. If I had been Ferdinand Marcos, I would have required every movie made in the Philippines to cast Vic Diaz. Dammit, A Filipino movie without Vic Diaz is like a Women in Prison movie without a shower scene.

Also best line of the night comes from Dave: “Sid Haig is like the Cary Grant of Women in Prison movies.”

Best of all, Big Doll House  was one of the movies from The List – I now only have 15 to go before the end of the year (oy). Thank you, gentlemen.

Alan and Paul and the other newb, Joe, sauntered in toward the end of Doll House. Paul might have gotten to see an exposed breast, or two; Alan was not so lucky. Dave called upon me to put something on while he prepared martinis to fortify ourselves against his choice. I put on my new Shazzan disc, but when Dave sneered at it, I huffily withdrew it and substituted something I had promised Paul a long time ago: the very first episode of Hee Haw.

Most of you sneered just then. But then, most people are familiar with Hee Haw from its later, syndicated years, when the bits were old and worn and the writers were desperately pawing through whatever joke books they could find in resale shops to fill up time between country stars. But the first year, all this stuff was new, and the material was smart, surreal and sharp. There was no doubting the musical ability of the visiting stars (in this case Charley Pride and Loretta Lynn, who sang a feminist song about squaws going on warpaths) and there is no gainsaying Buck Owens. No, there is not, because Buck Owens kicks ass. The very first song, on Hee Haw, on the country & western version of Laugh-In, is not a country song. It is “Johnny B. Goode” with Dogpatch-styled go-go dancers.

(You know, when I wrote this, all these things were available on YouTube. I leave this horrid placeholder up by way of protest)

This is your monthly reminder that Buck Owens always disclaimed he played country. “I play American music,” he would say, and go back to rocking out. The twin brothers in the background were the Hager Twins, there for youth appeal. Their songs were likewise good, and I always find myself infected with their “The Gambling Man” for weeks after watching this first episode. Dig the kazoo action:

So despite initial disbelief, the room wound up enjoying Hee Haw. It opened up old memory through-ways  and if nothing else, it was a memory you could sing along with:

Then, finally, Dave was ready to spring his horrifying choice of the evening on us. But it was a digital copy, running off a server in a back room, so while it transferred itself to a closer hard drive (honestly, we were one hot chick with short hair shy of a 90s hacker drama), we popped in an emergency disc I had gotten from Warner Archive some time before: Hollywood Party (1934). The trailer will give you some idea of the surrealism packed into its 69 minutes:

Yes, that’s a shockingly young Jimmy Durante going mano a mano with Mickey Mouse, and that is not the weirdest thing on display in this movie. The contents are surprisingly saucy – Hollywood Party just barely slipped out before the Hayes Code started being sternly enforced. This is the sort of movie that gives you some context into older Looney Tunes gags. We never made it to Mickey Mouse, much less The Three Stooges (still shackled to Ted Healey) or Laurel and Hardy. We never had time to ponder the allure of Lupe Velez, the Mexican Spitfire, whose act consisted of combining a spoiled brat with the worst psycho girlfriend you ever had. Hollywood Party was interrupted by the completed transfer of Dave’s choice: Abby (1974).

Abby is William Girdler‘s blaxploitation version of The Exorcist; it was reportedly more successful than Blacula, and one of several Exorcist knock-offs suppressed by Warner Brothers. I was a bit bemused by the other members of our gathering saying, “Abby? Abby? What’s that?” I sometimes forget what a strange little specialized bubble I occupy.

Snappy pith helmet, Bishop. You must be in Africa!

Abby is the fourth of five movies Girdler made in his native Louisville, Kentucky; he was known for making them fast and cheap, even when he moved on to Hollywood. I’m pretty sure most of Abby‘s budget went to paying William Marshall, and that is always a wise investment. Marshall plays Bishop Garnett Williams, who heads off to Nigeria to aid in pestilence and famine relief, but winds up unleashing an ancient demon who possesses his innocent daughter-in-law, the title character, played by Carol Speed. Again, there’s not much budget, so any demonic activity is limited to cursing, flailing around, popping an alka-seltzer into the mouth, renting a fog machine for one night, and scaring white women to death. And, oh yeah, screwing a bunch of men, much to the dismay of her husband, Williams’ son, himself a minister. I guess that’s a valid (and economical) path to take when your possessed character isn’t a schoolgirl.

Well, Pop comes back from Nigeria and after his son and Abby’s brother, a cop, track her down to a local nightclub, Marshall dons his holy dashiki and lays the righteous smack down on the devil. There’s a lot of not-quite subliminal flashes of Speed in some monster makeup (to echo the one in Exorcist) in the lengthy exorcism scene. They even pull out the stage illusion levitation trick, possible because they didn’t have to bother lifting a bed. Genius!

I’ve never been a big fan of The Exorcist, for much the same reason The Omen leaves me cold; I don’t have much in the way of religious roots to shake. So I’m afraid a cheap copy of The Exorcist (and Girdler, whatever his shortcomings, was refreshingly honest about that) isn’t going to do much for me. At least now I can say I’ve seen Abby.

Really, the most frightening thing about it: It has thrown the door open to a viewing of Exorcist II: The Heretic. Which, surprise, surprise, I have just gotten from the Swap A DVD Club.

You can take that earlier phrase “At least now I can say I’ve seen Abby” and use it for our next movie. Its possibility as a Crapfest entry had been danced around for some time, and finally, it seems, it was time to actually experience it.

Sweet Sassy Molassy. We’ve been through a lot at Crapfests. We’ve subjected ourselves to Dondi, Things and Strange Beings. We keep thinking we’ve developed scar tissue. But The Room punched us in places that hadn’t been touched before.

Writer/director/producer Tommy Wiseau also stars as Johnny, who is a saint, I tell you, a saint. His girlfriend, Lisa (Juliette Danielle) lives with him, and he buys her flowers, dresses, a ring, soon a car and a house. They are to be married in a month. Lisa, though, confesses to her Mom and everyone who will listen that she finds Johnny “boring”, doesn’t love him anymore, and isn’t going to marry him. Then she has an affair with Johnny’s best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero).

The Room is like a vanity novel about human relationships written by Martians; they know what relationships look like, but not what they sound like, what truly makes them tick.

Characters keep getting introduced, right up into the third act – at least I think that was the third act – mainly to tell us how awesome Johnny is and how evil Lisa has become. “She’s a sociopath!” Conveniently Introduced Psychologist tells us. Lisa also finishes every conversation with “I don’t want to talk about it!” and we were really sorry we hadn’t known to count those.

There’s a fair piece of your six million dollar budget right there.

There are four sex scenes in The Room. One is simply the first sex scene between Johnny and Lisa played again, with a different fake rock song on the soundtrack. These scenes make you wonder if you haven’t accidentally flipped to Cinemax; in fact, if not for the tragic ending, I would assume this was Wiseau’s audition tape for directing Cinemax flicks.

Wiseau is working through some issues here, and I don’t need a Conveniently Introduced Psychologist to tell me this. Johnny is just a wonderful human being, everybody agrees about this, even Mark while he’s schtupping Johnny’s girlfriend. So after everything is revealed at Johnny’s birthday party, and he makes everyone leave, Johnny tears the place apart (“I saw Orson Welles do this in Citizen Kane and it was awesome!“) and then blows his brains out, leaving Lisa and Mark to boo hoo hoo over their loss and transgression and doubtless the President to declare a day of mourning.

It’s that last scene, the oh-what-have-we-done scene, that leads me to believe that the vanity novel was written by an adolescent Martian. God, how many stories have we constructed in our little hormone-cooked brains where we died and everybody agonized over how badly they’d treated us? That’s what the last scene in The Room is, and the difference is that Wiseau managed to pull together a reported $6 million to make a movie version of it.

I also can’t help but laugh at the last part of that trailer, the “quirky black comedy” part. That’s the part that finally makes it salable, but The Room was not shot as a black comedy. It’s a teenage I’ll-show-them-all put to film, and I’m glad that Wiseau got some catharsis out of this, even if I and everyone who’s seen it has not.

My first encounter with The Room:

It’s the “Oh, Johnny, I didn’t know it was you” followed by “You’re my favorite customer” that still gets me.

Of course, I was live-tweeting the Crapfest, and about three-quarters of the way through The Room, I had to say this:

Little did I know that there is a Room bot out there, and I came home to this:


I Yet Live

I’ve managed to survive that hellish week-and-a-half, though there were times I was fairly certain that it would have been possible to just lie down and die, like you hear about aboriginal elders doing. I would eventually exit those scenarios, and would lie down, but didn’t die, and that’s all to the better, I suppose. We’ve all heard the “I’m tired, but it’s a good tired” canard before, and yeah, I’ve experienced that. Not this time, though. It was a bad, cranky , irritable tired, a good-christ-will-you-people-get-it-in-fucking-gear-so-I-can-go-home tired.

It was a big week for The Show, the interactive dinner theater murder mystery thingie that supplements my part-time day job, almost adding up to a living wage. I have been doing this Show for, off and on, 15 years or so now. Yes, that is a pretty sobering realization.

Here is the thing about The Show: it is a gypsy operation with no true permanent space. There is a bit of room in the hotel’s banquet office where we keep our costumes, but by and large, everything else is packed into an aging minivan. This means I start every show by being a stagehand, carrying equipment from the van into whatever room we are occupying that evening. Then I get to be a technician, setting up the sound equipment and testing it. Then I get to be an actor for two-and-a-half to three hours. Then I return to technician land, breaking down and putting away the sound, then I get to be a stagehand again, loading equipment back into the van.

Sometimes, when you get several shows in a row, you luck out and get to stay set up in the room, with only minimal changeover activity. Last week was not one of those weeks, being the holiday season and all; in fact, the hotel’s schedule is so jammed that we wound up cooling our heels for close to an hour and a half while the room’s prior occupants finished up their presentation. This had happened once before, years ago and in another hotel. That time was bitterly amusing because the offending group was a time management seminar. This time it was a bunch of telecomm suits who didn’t seem much interested in the blather coming from the Power Point operator, and kept coming out into the hall to chat on their cellphones and be glared at by surly actors.

Setting up everything takes an unhurried hour or so. Thanks to this late group and the early scheduling of a weeknight show, we were being asked to accomplish this in 15 minutes. That didn’t happen; most of it was accomplished in 35 minutes, but then actors had to get in costume and make-up. All in all, the client group spent 45 minutes in the bar, which they didn’t mind, oh no, far from it. They were pretty well lubricated by the time they took their seats.

I hate drunks.

This is one very important reason why I never ever seriously considered a career in stand-up. Folks with a genial buzz on laugh more easily as their inhibitions loosen, but drunks have all barriers removed, they think they are funnier than you will ever be (never mind that you have been doing this professionally and successfully for 17 years), and for a drunk, volume is equal to hilarity. That particular show was a struggle to maintain control, and the aftermath, after the laborious loading back in, was the inevitable period of “What the hell am I doing with my life?”

Roger Murtaugh has become my spirit animal, “I’m getting too old for this shit” my mantra. That became very stark Sunday when the Show traveled; we were actually performing at some teenage girl’s birthday. The teenagers, I should hasten to say, were fabulous; they enjoyed themselves immensely, and the only slight problem was getting our stuff loaded out while they were dancing at the end of the evening. But we got really good at dodging each other.

The exhaustion hit in earnest that evening, and now, on Tuesday, I’m only starting to dig out from under. I obviously haven’t done bupkis on this blog, though I’m way behind in reporting on the movies I’ve watched. Then there’s the other writing project, the one I can’t tell you about, but the one that’s actually paying me money. Absolutely nothing got done on that front, but then most everyone else involved in that project was off at some conference all last week, so I’m not the only one.

In case you were wondering, the movies seen were Dark of the Sun, Black Orpheus, and Eyes Wide Shut. One day, I may get to tell you about them. I still have 18 movies left on the Lists to watch before the end of the year. If I don’t figure out how to lie down and die before then.

Hunting Halloween, Part 2

I keep looking at Google Calendar, and expecting the bad blocks to go away, but it isn’t happening. Monday is going to kick off the most hellaciously busy week-and-a half I have had in some time. So busy that getting up at a ridiculously early hour to cook on Thanksgiving day is going to seem like a lovely break. So I better write about this backlog, quickly, and while I can.

Night before Halloween night belonged to Dead Snow (2009) a Norwegian flick I knew very little about, except it obviously concerns Nazi zombies. Yes, I know, I said I was done with zombie flicks almost ten years ago – House of the Dead was the straw that broke the undead camel’s back. But, like Al Pacino, they keep pulling me back in. The reason I own this? It was 99 cents at a dying Blockbuster. What the hell.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but five medical students go to a remote cabin for the weekend. Your plot twists here are that it’s in Norway, and the cabin is a ski cabin, so you’re dealing with some trees, but a whole lot of snow. Medical student #6 is the one whose family owns the cabin, but she’s a real outdoorsy type, and is cross-country skiing to the cabin. Except she’s not, as we see her die in the pre-credits sequence.

Now, the old-timer local drops in from Central Casting to tell the annoyed students about the Nazi occupation during WWII, and how the villagers turned on the greedy krauts at the tail end of the war, and the Nazis ran off to the mountains – with all the gold they’d stolen – never to be seen again. So there’s an eeeeeeevil in the vicinity. Well, haha, old-timer gets eviscerated in his tent that night – that’s what he gets for not heeding his own warnings – and Dead Owner Girl’s boyfriend goes looking for her with the only snowmobile, leaving the others to find Nazi gold in the world’s worst hiding place, have sex in outhouses, and be set upon by Stormtrooper Zombies who are after the gold.

Dead Snow, if nothing else, wears its inspirations rather nakedly. When Token Movie Nerd asks his friends, “How many movies start with people going to a cabin with no cell signal?” and Token Movie Nerd Girl answers with a number of them, notably Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2, it doesn’t get more blatant than that (yes, it does, Movie Nerd is wearing a Braindead T-shirt – Dead Alive to us Yanks) – of course Movie Nerd Me points out both movies were made before years before the current cell phone boom and that is not a plot point in any of them.

Anyway, once we reach zombie siege territory and (oh alright, SPOILER) both movie nerds get offed (end SPOILER) so we’re spared anymore annoying meta humor, things start moving at a brisk pace and rarely let up. The only real problem is the feeling that we’ve tread this ground before, it’s just that this time that ground covered in snow. The gore is enthusiastic, give them that, and well-done. It’s just that truly inspired moments – like one of the students, after raiding a tool shed, charges a Nazi with a crossed hammer and sickle – serve mainly to point out how familiar the other gags have become.

Absolutely no idea why the Nazis were killing people before that errant gold was found. Guess they just enjoy being evil fucks.

Entertaining enough, but this is a definite rent or Netflix. Although, Norway: Still beautiful.

Halloween night, I know I’m going to get stuck with door duty because a) my wife always goes next door to watch Survivor, b) then she has to pick up my son who is helping his classmate guide her younger siblings around their neighborhood for trick-or-treat. I might as well watch a movie, but it’ll have to be something I’ve already seen, so I don’t mind the interruptions. Last year it was John Carpenter’s The Thing. This year? Well, I’d bought this impressively cheap blu-ray of The Omen. The original, of course. Which is odd, because I’ve never really liked The Omen.

At the end of the horror boom started by The ExorcistOmen at least put an end to the seemingly infinite exorcism movies that were clogging the drive-ins and pointed the way to a wider variety of religion-based, or at least Catholicism-based, horror movies, to be carried on by The Sentinel and Holocaust 3000. Then 1977 came and Star Wars demonstrated that the new way to get rich was to throw spaceships at the screen.

So here is, I guess, my major problem with movies like The Exorcist or The Omen: I don’t find them particularly frightening, because I am simply not very religious. Not in the traditional Christian sense, anyway. I can appreciate the horror elements in both stories, the structure, the build-up, the FX  – but that’s all they are to me. Elements. Ingredients in a recipe. I don’t experience these flicks the same way as the rest of the Western world, apparently.

Something else weighing against The Omen, thirty-five years later, is its deliberate pace. Its refusal to get to the Good Stuff, the stuff I was told about breathlessly on its first theatrical run – is actually something I respect. A movie this long was a bit of an anomaly in ’76, and usually the sign of a prestige Hollywood product… and make no mistake, this is what that was, with full-page newspaper ads and one hell of a cast, from Gregory Peck and Lee Remick to David Warner, Patrick Troughton and Leo McKern.  The Omen franchise became known for its extreme death scenes, and you don’t really get the first one until 45 minutes into the movie, The second, another 45 minutes later. I never bothered with the remake (go figure!), but did it have the same structure? Were more Damien-inspired setpieces inserted for today’s ADD audiences?

I will likely never know. And I’m actually pretty okay with that.

So I admire The Omen for its craft, if not its status as a horror classic. What I do find interesting (and not at all surprising) is that David Warner’s death scene, in my memory, had become something quite more realistic, and done in a way that would be possible today with CGI, but not in 1976. (David Letterman used the beheading scene from the new Omen to punctuate a joke, and I admit it was well done. Then I have to point out that we live in an age when a bloody decapitation is used to punctuate a joke.)

That blu-ray is also packed with three commentary tracks, two of which feature Richard Donner. Those will be worthwhile.

I need to skip forward in time a week or so to keep a thematic thing going. In other words, about a week later, I saw another horror movie, and that movie was Grave Encounters. Oh yeah. Another found footage movie.

Grave Encounters‘ hook is that the footage was shot by the crew of a TV series called – um hm – Grave Encounters. A producer type, at the very beginning, tells us its production preceded all the other ghost hunting shows by a couple of years, and was showing great promise – “until they got to episode 6.”

For “Episode 6” the crew is going to be locked overnight in an abandoned mental hospital, hopefully to actually find some sort of evidence of the paranormal. Unedited footage as they scope out and set up in the hospital reveals they’ve pretty much had no luck in the previous five eps, and therefore none of them is a true believer, least of all their “psychic” – an actor who’s padding his resume.

Needless to say, as the night wears on, they find themselves rather in over their heads.

Grave Encounters has some decent scares, though too many are of the Paranormal Activity “Ooooh, that shouldn’t be moving by itself” type. When it reaches outside that economical comfort zone and get really weird, it hits paydirt. It’s tempting to go into some detail, but… no. If you’re interested, you deserve to experience them on your own.

I will say this, however: this is another movie that shows it’s inspirations, though not with a sense of humor as Dead Snow does. The influence of  other abandoned asylum movies like Session 9 and the remake of House on Haunted Hill are dreadfully, wincingly obvious.

But I’m inclined to cut Grave Encounters some slack. It gets creative many times, and let’s face it: I really hate ghost hunter shows. My son is addicted to them, and frequently gets my wife sucked into them, too, but all I see is some people who found a way to monetize standing in dark rooms freaking themselves out.

Currently available on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. You could do worse. I certainly have.

Hunting Halloween, Part 1

While things moved around and clicked and cackled over the last week or so, I would find myself with some time, but not a lot of time, or if it was a lot of time, it was at the waning end of a long day, So what to do with that time? Watch movies, but not have time to write about them. That’s the cartoon snowball rolling down a mountain and growing into a giant all-devouring globe of hungry ice that is my life.

I’m staring down the barrel of beginning of a new writing project in the next week or so – in fact, the first step of that was what rolled over my Sunday. So pretty soon, my time for staring at a blank piece of virtual paper is going to be spent in the service of another master. Sorry. But this one will be paying me money.

So I better write about that growing list while I still can.

First there was the run-up to Halloween.

In any book or article about Hong Kong movies in general, or Asian horror movies in particular, you’re going to run into Black Magic (1975) a lot. This was an attempt to catch the wave of Western horror that was sweeping the markets in the wake of The Exorcist, a movie that moved HK cinema beyond ghost stories and into the land of the extreme. Black Magic kicks off a cinematic trend that would eventually lead to outrageous stuff like Centipede Horror and Seeding of a Ghost. As I started exploring Asian cinema in the early 90s, I had to take what I could get, so Seeding was one of my first experiences; it’s no wonder that Black Magic seems tame by comparison.

It starts strongly enough, with our Black Magician slicing off pieces of a corpse (handily stored in his hut) and burning them in a ritual to send a death spell at a philandering husband and his lover. Our White Magician shows up at the murder scene, immediately deduces who did this horrible thing, and starts a spell that sends horrible things back at Black Magician, who manages to escape while his hut collapses and burns.

Well, enough of that, though. In the big city, a youthful Ti Lung plays an architect who is being stalked by an incredibly horny (but rich) widow played by Lily Li. Ti wants nothing to do with her though, planning to marry his sweetheart. When a spurned gigolo (played by Lo Lieh, no less) hires the Black Magician to put a love spell on Lilly so he can get his hands on her money, Black accurately sizes up the Gigolo’s character and only applies a one-night spell. Lilly forces the Gigolo to tell her about the Black Magician, and visits him to place the Architect under her spell for a year. The love spell is applied on his wedding day, and Ti leaves his bride at the reception.

When the spurned bride and Ti’s friends try to find out what the hell is going on, Lilly pays the Black Magician to put the Death Hoodoo on the bride; Her landing in the hospital, her body riddled with parasitic worms leads an old retainer to remember the White Magician of his youth. White cures her by ramming a bamboo straw in her back so the worms crawl out (ew), and the battle for Ti Lung begins in earnest.

The trappings of the various spells are intriguing: pieces of corpses, human breast milk, centipedes (White has the best line when Ti Lung is recovering from his first bout of bewitchment: “Feed him these centipedes in the morning. He’ll come to his senses for a while.”). The structure is a bit repetitive, though, with Ti under the spell, then rescued, then put under the spell again, to pad out the running time. The climactic battle between the Black and White Magicians is supposed to wow you, of course, with Black pulling out all sorts of skull mirrors and a rotting head that shoots green laser beams, but all it really does is convince you that William Girdler saw it while working out the ending for The Manitou all cartoon ray blasts and lightning. As the first of its kind, it commands some respect, but make sure you see it before any of its weirder and grosser and more insane progeny.

Next up was Ravenous (1999) yet another movie on my list of Stuff I Hadn’t Seen But It Was High Time I Did. In its heyday, it had lots of Internet buzz, many of my friends positively love it, I’ve had this copy forever. So. Time to watch it.

Ravenous is a deuced odd movie.

Disturbed Mexican-American War veteran Boyd (Guy Pearce) is exiled to Fort Spencer, a remote, ramshackle frontier outpost populated by damaged individuals. He arrives just in time for a horror story from a bedraggled refugee  (Robert Carlyle) whose wagon train, trapped in winter storms, turned to cannibalism. The commanding officer (Jeffrey Jones) states, rightly enough, “This is what we’re here for,” and leads most of the fort – five men – to investigate. Things go rather downhill for everyone from there, and half the fun of Ravenous is watching these berserk circumstances develop.

I had a general idea of the subject matter and how the story would develop (and as two of the characters at the Fort are Native Americans, you just know the Wendigo legend is going to pop up); but what I wasn’t prepared for was how it developed. The Wendigo legend states that whenever a man turns to eating the flesh of another man, this is all he ever wants, forever. Another thread of cannibal legend – that by eating another person, you gain their strength and vitality – is also laden all through the movie, and presented as absolutely true – characters are saved from mortal wounds by the rapid healing engendered by a diet of long pig. That kind of caught me unawares.

It was like watching that episode of Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos that presents voodoo black magic, including voodoo dolls and zombies, to be absolutely real, which is not the sort of thing you expect in a children’s cartoon. That sort of disconnect.

(Where else can you find a discussion about cannibalism, Chuck Norris, and cartoons? The Internet, ladies and gentlemen!)

It is amazing Ravenous exists at all, given the oddness of the story, and its troubled history. The original director was sacked two weeks into production and replaced by Antonia Bird, largely a TV director, who rises to the challenge magnificently. I daresay having a woman at the helm helped to punch up the black comedy quotient quite a bit, because this is truly what this is: jet black comedy wrapped in a horror movie masquerading as a Western. I can’t say I love it as much as my friends, but it is a unique movie, well worth seeing.

Saturday morning belonged to Drive Angry (2011), another movie that had gotten good buzz. As I recall, I bought this Blu-Ray at a Black Friday sale last year for $5.00.

And finally, here is a movie I can be enthusiastic about.

Nicolas Cage plays the appropriately named John Milton, a hardass felon who breaks out of Hell because the Satanic cult who murdered his daughter is now planning to sacrifice his infant granddaughter during the next full moon. Milton teams up with Piper (Amber Heard). a similarly hardass ex-waitress who’s not afraid to throw a punch or shoot a gun. Besides the apparently limitless number of murderous cult members standing in his way, there’s also the small matter of a demon named The Accountant (William Fichtner, who is having a grand time) sent to bring Milton back to Hell. Fortunately, Milton also stole an arcane weapon called The Godkiller…

It has been a long time since I’ve seen a movie like this deliver on all its promises. Action-packed, dripping with sardonic humor, gory, loud, profane. Why in the hell this movie was not a bigger hit is beyond me, but then I also have to admit that my tastes are somewhat more rarefied than that of the rest of the movie-going public. The fact that its smart enough to give Tom Atkins an extended cameo only enhances it in my eyes.

If I have two cavils about Drive Angry, it’s these: the movie seems to owe a debt to author Richard Kadrey’s punk-occult-neo-noir Sandman Slim novels; and the sex-during-a-gun-fight scene was done in one of my other favorite stupid over-the-top action movies, Shoot ‘Em Up. Then, Hollywood has always rather been like Ravenous, anyway: constantly eating its dead. So why I should be surprised to find DNA from other movies is a measure of my naiveté, I suppose.

Anyway, yeah, I dug Drive Angry. Much better Ghost Rider movie than either of the flicks bearing that name.

I haven’t even hit Halloween yet, and we’re already over 1500 words. We’ll leave on a high note, and pick this up later.

Fan Mail From Some Flounder

In my book, there are a few things you don’t discuss, and by you I mean me. These are the usual suspects, politics and religion. Yes, I have my opinions and beliefs. They are mine. If you ask, I will likely tell you them, but they’re not open to discussion. If I’m interested, I’ll ask yours. But frankly, I’m usually not interested.

Nothing comes of these discussions. Well, if there was an actual discussion, it might; but generally, on these subjects, it just becomes an acrimonious debate, each side attempting to score points and drown out the other. I don’t have time or the patience for it. My blood pressure is finally stabilized, and I intend to keep it that way.

Yes, future archeologists, I am writing this in an Election Season. How very astute of you.

I voted on the very first day of Early Voting, another reason why political discussion is a waste of time with me. It’s done, I’ve moved on. In the car, if I don’t need a traffic report, I use an MP3 player instead of the radio (Houston radio is mostly garbage, anyway). I don’t watch much TV in the first place; Netflix and DVDs are my entertainment source.  There is no other media solution for the Already Voted, no surcease from political advertising, and if there were, it would probably be infested with those waiting until Election Day or not voting at all… everybody’s sick of it.

It could be worse. I could live in one of those “battlefield states”. Texas is as red as undercooked steak, something my nose gets rubbed in repeatedly. It is a place where you can wear a T-shirt that says “Fuck Obama” to a family restaurant with apparent impunity.

But there I go, getting political. It’s infectious, in the worst way. It surrounds you, engulfs you like an amoeba. I check Facebook only sparingly; I’m not inclined to shun any friends because they hold a differing opinion from mine, unless it’s on some subject like whether we should eat arsenic or not. But it can be distressing in a very real sense. As I say, these things have a tendency to get ugly very quickly.

Our neighbor across the street has had a sign reading “Vote Republican – We’ve Can’t Afford Any More Change” in his yard. I find it intriguing it is not specifically a Romney endorsement, but I shrug and move on. His yard, his opinion. That is what makes America cool.

My wife is an ardent Obama supporter, however, and that sign rankled. So much she obtained a larger Obama sign and placed it in our front yard. And got Obama magnets to put on our cars. All very well and good. They’re the only political signs on our little cul-de-sac, so we’re nice and balanced.

Then I found a little leaflet in our mailbox, shoved far back, farther back than the mailman ever does – with studied efficiency  he places the mail near the front, slaps the box shut, and moves on. It was a small, trifold religious pamphlet with the words “DEATH — ARE YOU PREPARED?” on the front, the screed in the middle, and a form for more information on the back. That’s what caught my attention:

Yeah, I got smart and blotted out actionable stuff. But, let me attempt to translate:

obama voter are taker

wake up and smell the roses

“obama” is the baby killer party

Gay marriage (although that might be “Guy marriage”, which is to them, I am sure, the same thing)

you can’t be a Christian and vote for a baby killer

The party who kicked “God” out

This is my first actual, physical piece of hate mail. Oh, I’ve gotten hateful e-mail before, mainly from fanboys who were butthurt that I did not regard KISS Meets The Phantom of the Park with proper reverence, or  that I might have hurt the BeeGee’s feelings when I trashed the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie. I am quite, quite serious about this. Those e-mails had the same general tenor.

Of all that, I find myself most drawn to the quotation marks around “God”. I mean, was it not actually God who was kicked out, but an air-quotes “God”? Some sort of simulation? Was the writer not even certain? It’s like the quote marks around “obama” that turns “obama” into the name of the party, if not the party itself. This is the sort of thing that makes the copy editor in me nuts. Sorry, the “copy editor”.

Besides the number of Christians that have voted for baby killers in the past and will continue to (sorry, you start slinging around a broad epithet like “baby killer” I’m going to have to point out it doesn’t just refer to abortion, but every child that’s been killed in a war, that dies of malnutrition, that dies from lack of proper medical care), there is also the lovely cliché, “wake up and smell the roses”. implying I am asleep and cannot smell, which, coming from someone who intended to tell me about why their particular interpretation of a Sky Wizard should affect my life, (at least until they saw the baby eater sign in the front yard) is risible to me at the very least.

There was a cold moment of “You fucking coward, you couldn’t even say this to my face, could you?” And then, I laughed.  All their saying this to my face would have gotten them was my door slammed in their face, if I had even opened it in the first place. (Last time I checked, there was no law that stated I have to open my door just because you knock on it). No, this time they had not even approached my door, perhaps afraid the evil Obama sigil would reach out and grab them like a lamprey, sucking out all their sweet moral fiber.

So that one sign had done what no amount of not answering the door or Sorry, not interested or Could you come back later? I’m sacrificing a black goat in the back yard right now could accomplish: it deflected the missionaries, it left me in peace. I wonder if I should leave it out there after the election.

There, that’s that. I found it interesting, that this person was so discomfited by a sign that he or she not only ignored their supposed calling but felt it necessary to put pen to paper to tell me how horrid and rotten I am. It has been that sort of election. Each side is filled with demons, and they just look like our friends used to look, they can’t be our friends anymore, they believe in the wrong things. There are times I really wish the panic merchants were right and the world would end in December. It would almost come as a relief. Things really cannot continue like this without something breaking.

In the meantime though, I’m going back to writing things not for myself and then maybe write about something safe like the movies I’ve watched (well, safe as long as I don’t diss any rock stars) and then work my three jobs in an attempt to pay this month’s bills. Cuz, you know, I’m such a taker.