Archive for the “Spooky Month” Category
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.
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.
Clive Barker is a challenging author to adapt. His later work is nicely lyrical dark fantasy, but it’s hardly cinematic. His early work is slight and heavy on the gore, though, so that’s what usually gets turned into films. And, of course, everyone eyes greedily the franchise potential of “the next Hellraiser“. In general, then, Barker adaptations work best when they use the old “inspired by” trick to take the framework of the story and do something more cinematically appropriate, as is the case with Ryuhei Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train, a somewhat overlooked film which was the victim of studio shenanigans (why, yes, it was released by Lionsgate).
Leon (played by a pre-breaking Bradley Cooper), is a vegan photographer with a straining relationship with his girlfriend and a desperate desire to hit it big in the art world and get away from his current work, photographing crime scenes freelance. After being told that his art-school deep photos simply won’t cut it, he delves into the dark heart of the city and interrupts an attempted gang-rape. The next morning he learns that the intended victim has disappeared and Leon finds the police oddly indifferent to his photos of the possible perpetrators. While investigating, Leon stumbles upon Mahogany, a butcher who has been killing people on the late-night subways. Becoming increasingly unhinged at the refusal of anyone to believe him, Leon continues investigating, and eventually learns of a vast conspiracy behind Mahogany’s actions. Eventually Leon learns that Mahogany, and an unknown amount of other people in prominent positions, are arranging the murders to feed a race of subterranean creatures beneath New York, who only permit humans to live on the island (or at all it is implied) in exchange for the meat Mahogany provides. In a bleakly nihilistic ending, everything Leon values is stripped from him and he is employed as Mahogany’s replacement.
One of the most common complaints about horror films is that they exploit voyeuristic urges in the audience. Lots of films have responded to that by running with it, but Kitamura makes the idea of seeing and being seen a central element of the film’s style. Leon is almost always framing some or all of his actions through a camera lens. POV shots, from a multitude of characters pervade the film, and there are an awful lot of gore shots involving eyes. But not only that, there’s a repetition of mirror shots, reflections, seeing someone through a door or window, and numerous occasions when characters “see” the audience in some way or another. While never directly breaking the fourth wall, the film goes out of its way to make the viewer an active participant in the story in subtle (and not subtle) ways quite effectively.
Beyond that, the film is slickly produced. It’s a reverse-urbanoia film, a film ultimately about the coldness and anonymity of the city and the terrors that could lurk there so easily because there is simply too much going on for anyone to notice them. The film also teases around the “urban legend” theme that appears from time to time in Barker’s work. It’s an effective combo, but I ultimately think I value the placement of the events in the city is where the film draws it’s power. As I’ve said in the past, the classism and racism of most rural horror/urbanoia films puts me off, and the “backwoods cannibal” is a common trope there. It’s nice to see a reversal of that, even if “cannibals in the subway” is itself a bit of a trope, particularly in British and Euro horror, since Raw Meat at least.
There are a number of directors for whom the kindest thing you can say is “they’re competent.” Paul Anderson I would place in that category. He’s clearly good enough to work steadily, and has somehow managed to make six Resident Evil and three Death Race movies profitable, but he’s never really going to be someone superlatives are laid on. Event Horizon maybe is a good illustration of this, as it is a potentially interesting idea that clearly got away from the film-maker.
At an implausible point in the near future, a rescue ship crew led by Captain Miller is escorting physicist Dr. Weir to Neptune, the last known location of the Event Horizon, a spaceship that disappeared seven years ago which has recently reappeared. The ship was on a secret mission to test a gravity drive which would allow it to travel faster than the speed of light by creating wormholes in space to move through, but has returned derelict and with signs of massive violence. Strange events begin targeting Miller’s crew, and an increasingly unstable Weir, backed by the recovered ship logs, suggest that when the ship moved “outside” space it became infected by a malign align intelligence, killed the previous crew, and is now looking for more victims. Between Weir and the ship itself, most of Miller’s crew is killed, and two survivors escape in the Event Horizon‘s “lifeboat” while Miller sacrifices himself to destroy Weir and the evil ship, though it is suggested that enough of the evil has followed the survivors home to wreak further havoc.
Stylistically, the film wears it’s influences on its sleeve, incorporating pretty shamelessly the weathered industrial aesthetic of Alien with the S&M spikiness of Hellraiser, with some dashes of The Shining and Prince of Darkness thrown in there for good measure. That’s an impressive pedigree of films to be cribbing from, but mostly it just ends up reminding you that those are mostly much better films than this one. And while this is another in Sam Neil’s series of films where he eventually succumbs to the whims of vaguely Lovecraftian horrors from beyond time and space, the movie itself doesn’t even have the nerve to take a stab at any interesting conceptions of “evil” or malice. A “science gone to far” theme is staring them right in the face, they set themselves up for a man doomed by grief and guilt, but nope, they end up going with “hell is out in space, somewhere” and an evil ghost ship.
I think one of the minor flaws is that, in general, horror and sci-fi aren’t an easy mix. Overlap isn’t unusual, and a lot of “sci-fi” films are basically just slasher films with aliens in place of masked killers, and horror has never shied away from using science/scientists as easy markers of hubris leading to tragedy and terror. But what you usually see, then, is a horror film in sci-fi drag, and that’s pretty much what this is.
Look, we all know that the 90s were a pretty dire time for horror films, on the whole. So, let’s just get through Luis Llosa’s Anaconda, a misguided attempt to do a PG-13 Jaws riff, and go on with our day.
Jennifer Lopez is a documentary film-maker bringing an obnoxious British documentary host who is in no way meant to be David Attenborough on a river journey in search of a semi-mythical lost tribe. Along with her is sound-guy Ice Cube, Eric Stoltz, and Owen Wilson in one of his many “guy you hope dies horribly” roles. Shortly after it becomes apparent they are lost they encounter Jon Voight as an ethnically unspecific (seriously, he can’t keep an accent straight for more than five minutes) priest turned snake hunter, who claims to know where to find the tribe they are looking for but clearly has his own agenda. Which is to take the crew deep into the Amazon in search of giant anacondas, which proceed to eat the crew one by one (save for Stoltz, who spends most of the film bed-ridden in what I’m guessing was a “rewrite me out of this, please” contract renegotiation). Eventually everyone but Lopez, Cube and Stoltz are dead and they go home, having survived improbable snake attacks.
You can see the very broad hints of something trying to be good, clawing it’s way out of here. A more clever script-writer would have noticed the parallels between the crew seeking to exploit the indigenous people of the Amazon for ratings and Voight and Wilson threatening a Latina and an African-American man in their pursuit of money from selling a big snake, but the obviousness of that symbolism is never taken advantage of. Instead, we get a very obviously plastic snake head and some dodgy CGI on obvious sound-stages. What little fun is to be found in the film is of the unintended variety, like Voight’s terrible performance and the joy of watching Owen Wilson be killed by a snake. It can’t even rise to the level of decent scares, since the snake is so obviously a prop and the PG-13 rating means all the tension is watered down and the film can’t even resort to gore to spice things up.