Archive for the “Spooky Month” Category

Mixing comedy with horror is, as I’ve talked about in the past, a tricky business. But people keep going to the well, probably because when it’s done well, it is extremely satisfying. There’s just something about those two primal emotions, joy and fear, playing off each other. For some peculiar reason, New Zealand seems to be one of the few countries that really excels at making the combo work.

What We Do In The Shadows is a faux documentary focused on Viago, Vladislav, and Deacon, three centuries old Eastern European vampires living in a run-down house in a Wellington suburb. Also living with them is Petyr, an almost completely feral Nosferatu-type creature, in the basement. Wellington, for inexplicable reasons, is home to a host of supernatural creatures, including a large vampire community, but the three room-mates are, clearly, not adjusting well to 21st century life, spending most of their time in petty squabbles, nostalgia, and utterly failed attempts to find victims. Until one night Jackie, Deacon’s human servant, brings some victims over and one, Nick, is turned into a vampire by Petyr. Nick, along with his very human computer programmer friend Stu, prove to be what the vampires needed to jump-start them into adjusting to the new century and moving on from their past regrets, much to the annoyance of Deacon, who finds his place as the cool, upstart bad-boy vampire taken by Nick. Unfortunately, Nick’s modernity also leads to a lack of care that endangers those around him, leading ultimately to the (re)death of Petyr and the mauling of Stu by a pack of werewolves. Ultimately, though, a kind of happiness is found for everyone.

Much of What We Do In The Shadows is straight comedy. It’s very character driven, establishing the three leads, their particular neuroses, and letting them play off each other and the world around them in a naturalistic way. So, when the film does shift gears into horror, as it does dramatically on at least two occasions, the contrast is jarring. The horror sequences are genuinely tense, and don’t shy away from the inherent monstrousness of the characters. This is actually a recurring feature of the film; it never lets you forget that these three men, as quirkily appealing as they are, are all mass murderers (Deacon even casually mentions that he was a Nazi, just to drive the point home). Yes, there is a pathos to them (the joy they all experience when Stu shows them sunrise videos on YouTube is palpable), but at the end of the day they’re monsters. It’s hard to classify them as evil, though; the only truly evil character would appear to be Jackie, who is quite happy to lead innocents to their death if it means she can get what she wants out of Deacon. The contrast with her and Stu, who actually does seem put off by the supernatural but stays with it because of his friendship with Nick, keeps the film from the now insufferable cliche of “humans are the real monsters” though.

The film also deserves credit for almost aggressively shying away from the trend in modern vampire stories to make the creatures “not vampires” in some way, or to dismiss the accumulation of vampire lore as mere fictions. These vampires die in the sun, avoid crucifixes, are burned by silver; in general, they conform to all the major elements of classical vampire lore. A lot of this ties into the overall themes at play in the film, specifically the conflicts between the present and the past. Each of the characters, in some ways, is unable to reconcile themselves to their place in the modern world. Even Nick, the very modern and contemporary character, is challenged by the realization that he is going to ultimately outlive everyone he knows and that the future ahead of him is one of constant loss, that he is going to become just as much a relic of the past as the others. Sticking to the vampire lore gives the film the grounding it needs that ultimately allows the characters to move forward and find some kind of reconciliation with the present.

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You know how long I’ve waited for a good new entry to the werewolf film canon? It’s been decades since An American in London came out, and even Dog Soldiers is pretty long in the tooth now. So…this isn’t the next great werewolf movie we’ve been waiting for, no, but it does somehow manage to be an interestingly flawed indie horror comedy.

In the small rural town of Woodhaven, Sheriff’s Deputy Lou Garou is an all around embarrassment; not only an incompetent cop but the town drunk as well, which is saying something given the not at all hidden drug cartel essentially running the town. Lou is given the thankless task of investigating local gun shop owner Willie’s claim of a lead in the ongoing investigation of missing pets and animal attacks that are casting a pall over the upcoming “drink and shoot” event, and this leads to the ritual sacrifice of a reforming politician and a pentagram being carved into Lou’s chest. As such things do. Lou awakens the next day with no memory of the preceding night, but strangely heightened senses and a new competence, which surprises Tina, the other deputy, since previously she was pretty much the only person in this town who ever seemed to do her damn job. That night Lou turns, gorily, into a werewolf in the bathroom of the town bar, operated by local temptress Jessica, and kills a couple of drug dealers that were sent to kill him for…reasons? Anyway, turning into a werewolf lends Lou an unanticipated competence that leads him into violently cleaning up the town, as well as attracting the sexual attention of Jessica. Which, unfortunately for Lou turns out to be a trap laid for him by the group of shape-shifters that have been secretly running the town for centuries, and enacting a “turn some poor sap into a werewolf and then sacrifice him to retain our power” ritual every 32 years. Luckily Tina comes to Lou’s rescue and the two manage to clean up the town of criminal and supernatural menaces both.

Wolfcop really wants to be a brisk comedy, and though most of the humor is really terrible and off-putting puns (at one point Wolfcop Lou describes himself as “the fuzz”), there are moments where the film-makers are clearly playing with the absurdity of their deliberately silly high-concept premise. Most obviously this is in the recurrent three robbers in pig masks, but there’s some extremely unsubtle Red Riding Hood imagery tossed into the mix as well. The problems with the film basically come from the concept not really coming with enough plot to stretch a film out to more than 90 minutes, and the efforts to correct that not really making sense. The notion of shapeshifters secretly running the town ties several disparate elements together, but as the characters point out, running a small meth-addled town is pretty low ambitions for a supernatural menace. And while “everyone was shapeshifters” goes some way to glossing over some of the more blatant plot holes, so would “everyone was corrupt” and that’s a hell of a lot simpler an explanation. Despite these issues, Wolfcop is, marginally, better than most of the other films making up the “high absurdity” trend in indie film horror these days. If that’s damning with faint praise, well…

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The Monstrumologist, 2015 ed., Rick Yancey
Well…it finally happened. I got tricked into reading a Young Adult series by a publisher reissuing it under an adult fiction imprint. In all fairness, I probably would have read it anyway, as a series about an asshole scientist in late 1880s America tracking down monsters of the classical variety, in this case some anthropophages straight out of Herodotus, is the sort of thing that is just weird enough to interest me.
I don’t remember kids books being quite so gorey when I was the target audience for YA books, though…

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There are things from your childhood that you barely remember. And, because you were so small when you saw them, you are utterly unable to articulate anything about them to others, and they end up sounding like some feverish dream you had when you were sick. Eventually, you start to half-accept that you never actually saw it, or if you did, that it was fundamentally different from what you remember.
Then you’re in another state and find it in the “Under $10” bin at at national discount chain.

Witch’s Night Out is an animated special about Tender and Small, who are looking forward to dressing up and scaring people on Halloween. Unfortunately, Goodly and Nicely (yes, really), with help from Malicious and Rotten (oh, God, yes, really), decide that what Halloween really needs is to be made into a meaningful, sophisticated holiday for adults, and so they plan to hold a party at the allegedly haunted house in town. Tender and Small end up having their night ruined, and not even a bed time story from their baby-sitter Bazooie can cheer them up. At the party, which looks more like a prelude to a particularly creepy orgy, the witch (voiced by Gilda Radner and looking like an extra from Grey Gardens) who lives in the house is frustrated at her inability to scare anyone. She hears Small making a wish for a scary Halloween and rushes off to the children, transforming them into monsters. The monsters scare the party-goers, which also fails to make the children happy, and the witch loses her wand in the process. Just as the townspeople are preparing a lynch mob to kill the children, the witch gets her wand back and calms everyone down by agreeing to transform the townspeople into their heart’s desires for one night.

As animated holiday specials go, this is a particularly strange one. The character designs are very simple, consisting broadly of outlines and barely rendered faces. Thematically, it fits, what with the characters named by traits thing going on, but it also makes for a very dated appearance. It looks exactly like what you would expect a slightly cheap effort by a bunch of animation school students to put out in the late 70s. It’s not particularly funny, or engaging, despite Radner putting out some one-liners as the witch, so it’s probably not terribly surprising that it never entered the holiday film canon. Mostly what I remember from it as a kid is how Nicely, the fluffy ball of pink sweetness, was absolutely horrifying.

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Some films never really get their due. Philip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin is certainly one of those. It’s a lyrical dark fantasy about the “nightmare of childhood”, as one character puts it, with deep symbolism and ambiguity layered over it. But apart from some notoriety in gore fan circles for a sequence featuring an exploding frog, it’s been mostly neglected. Even the DVD release was a bare bones affair dumped out cheaply by Miramax to try and capitalize on Viggo Mortensen’s Lord of the Rings celebrity. Which is a shame, as it’s a hauntingly beautiful and unsettling film.

Seth Dove is a young boy growing up in rural Idaho at some point after the second World War. He spends his days tormenting the local widow, Dolphin Blue, and getting into minor squabbles with his friends, when he’s not being abused by his mother or ignored by his father. Local children, we soon learn, have been going missing, and Seth, after listening to his father describe a pulp novel about vampires he has been reading, comes to believe that Dolphin is killing the children. The local sheriff, however, pins the blame on Seth’s father, who is known to be a closeted gay man. The real culprits seem to be a group of greasers driving around, seemingly unnoticed, in a hearse-like black cruiser, but the suspicion drives Seth’s father to kill himself. Seth’s brother, Cameron, is released from the military, where he had been involved in nuclear testing on Pacific islands, to care for Seth, but instead begins a sexual relationship with Dolphin, furthering Seth’s obsession with the vampire motiff. As more children die, Seth retreats further into fantasy, even concocting a story about an aborted fetus he finds being the “murdered angel” of one of his friends. Cameron begins to display signs of radiation poisoning, which prompts Seth to make one final effort to save his brother. He lures Dolphin into the care of the greasers, but when her body is found Cameron continues to reject him, leaving Seth shattered.

There are a lot of arresting images and suggestive themes running through this film (drinking and water in a dry, landlocked area are particularly common), but it’s hard to pin any of them down concretely, since the film operates on a kind of dream logic. Partly, it’s that everything we see is filtered through Seth’s understanding of the world, which is childlike both in terms of naivete and in that certain sadism that children can possess. Seth does not understand what is going on around him, and he latches onto fantasy notions and play to try and make sense of his world, but it’s clear that he doesn’t understand distinctly the differences between what is real and what is play. But there’s a further ambiguity over how much is real or fantasy or something else. The murderous greasers, for example, escape the notice of everyone but Seth and people who are soon to die. There’s something vaguely unreal about them, and the cryptic way in which their leaders asks Seth if he’s ready to go for a ride suggest that there’s more than just anonymous child killers to them. But every time the film goes in directions like this, it elides the question, leaving a viewer to simply accept that these are not puzzles that can or are meant to be solved.

I think ultimately that is the best approach, as it ties into the two thesis statements, of a sort, that the film offers, both from Dolphin Blue. The first, is that “sometimes terrible things happen quite naturally” and that is what the film shows us. That all the terrible things that Seth sees and experiences, in a twisted way, follow from the little actions and silences that have gone before. The second, offered near the end, is that this is all “the nightmare of childhood” the gradual loss of innocence and surety as knowledge and age affect someone. By the end of the film, Seth’s childhood is over and all his friends are dead, but he’s still not ready to go for that ride.

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