Monday, October 17, 2016

Why Horror? (Or: What the Hell is Wrong With You?)

I get asked a lot why I'm fascinated with horror fiction. Oftentimes there's that underlying question: 'what made you so psychologically disturbed that you enjoy seeing people be stalked and killed by monsters?'

Well, here's what I know: I was born in 1973, I was part of the first generation of kids that had "Star Wars" toys, the Super Friends were on TV, so was Spider-Man. I loved all that stuff as much as any kid. When I played with those toys, though, the bad guys always won. Why? They were way cooler than the heroes. I mean - Darth Vader was the baddest ass in the galaxy and Luke Skywalker was this boring, whiny kid. There was no contest. It kept going - The Decepticons always beat the Autobots in my world, the poor GI Joe teams never stood a chance against the forces of Cobra. I was a much bigger fan of Electro than I was of Spider-Man. Even when I started watching pro wrestling, I never cheered for the vanilla babyface good guys, not when The Road Warriors and The Masked Superstar were running around actually being awesome by wreaking havoc and gloating about it.
And then there were the monsters. Glorious, gross, hideous creatures that prowled the night or the forest or outer space that took whatever they wanted from a world that was terrified of them. Is there ANY monster movie where I didn't cheer for the monster? I can't think of one.
Now, I wasn't an evil kid. I was a smart ass, maybe a little too imaginitive for my own good, but I wasn't harboring some deep suited hatred against mankind, I was just rebellious and liked stuff with a little more edge to it, even when I was six or seven years old. Charisma was a powerful thing. The good guy saving the day only had limited appeal for me. Especially when that good guy was a milque toast bore like The Lone Ranger who's motto was essentially "I shoot bad guys in the hand and then lecture kids on how to be good neighbors." It's no wonder I cheered for the guys in black hats to put a ball of lead between his eyes.
Good horror stories aren't about a hero saving the day. They're about a character SURVIVING. Man, that's the stuff. They come out WORSE for it. Does anyone think Laurie Strode was anything but traumatized by the events in "Halloween?" Poor Sally Hardesty probably ended up in a therapists chair for years after the events of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." But as protagonists these characters stand up and conquer their fears. Physically. Emotionally. Mentally. They aren't trained for this. They end up in the wrong place and have to decide if they want to live or if they want to die. Is it really that dramatic that all-powerful Superman shows up to give Lex Luthor the business? Superman has no character. He has no arc. He shows up in every story perfectly suited to win, and that's what he does. Ho hum. A punch in the head FOR JUSTICE.
I quickly lost interest in safe little child-proof stories and gravitated toward these dark (and highly inappropriate) stories aimed at adults. I wanted to be pushed and pulled through a story. Horror stories assault the audience. Wes Craven has said once an audience doesn't trust the storyteller that's when real horror happens. YES. As a creative kid, that's what I wanted to see. That's what I wanted to DO.
I wasn't numb to the effects of these movies and stories. It's not like I kept watching scary stuff and grew a thick skin and became immune to their effects. Oh, HELL NO. I was afraid of the dark most of my childhood. I never wanted to be left alone at night. After sneaking a peak of mom and dad watching 'Salem's Lot' once the lights went out I didn't dare look near my bedroom window, I was convinced there was going to be a vampire kid floating out there, waiting to take me to the dark side. But there was a thrill to all of that, even if it made for some long nights in grade school. Everything was ok during the day but once the darkness fell ... well, I wasn't one that wanted to be outside in the woods, that's for sure. I knew what was out there.
Now, I've spent a lot of my life reading super hero stories, don't get me wrong. I'm not trashing them. I'm just saying not every kid is so enraptured by that kind of story. Even in the golden age - lots of kids were sneaking peaks at EC Comics, which were chock full of blood and guts, when mom and dad weren't looking. Lots of kids picked up pro wrestling magazines based on which one had the bloodiest, craziest looking cover on the newsstand, not because they really wanted to know if Brad Armstrong vanquished The Spoiler. There's more to childhood than white knights and men in black hats.
I will say, after about 10,000 failed attempts, I don't have many upbeat super hero stories to tell. It's not my thing. But I have lots of scary stories to tell. It's in my genes at this point. Why? Because an otherwise unexpecting character facing and surviving that thing that goes bump in the night is really compelling to me.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Rob Zombie's 31

Rob Zombie’s previous movie “The Lords of Salem” was a definite step in a different direction for the director. It replaced his usual manic and aggressive violence with a sort of slow burn melancholy. When that movie got both a commercial and critical thumbs down, Zombie appears to have decided to get back to his roots with the ultra-violent “31,” a movie that’s no more complicated than the one sentence description of its plot.
What’s that plot, you ask? “Five people are kidnapped on Halloween and have to survive a twelve hour Murderworld where they’re chased around by maniacal clowns.” That’s it. That’s everything that goes on in “31.” It takes place in 1976 which seems to only be necessary to justify Zombie’s usual exploitation aesthetic. That it takes place on Halloween is completely meaningless, to the point that I’m confident it’s never mentioned once, except in interviews with the director.
The Murderworld of “31” is run by a trio of fops in opera wigs and garish costumes. Malcolm McDowell seems to be the leader and Judy Geeson and Jane Carr are his partners in crime. The fops wager on who they think might survive, often changing the survival odds and announcing them over the PA system to the competitors. Injured competitors find their odds of survival decreased, naturally.
The killers they employ are crazed clowns with their own batch of fetishes and weapons. When the first bad guy you see is a Mexican Nazi Midget, you know you’re in for a special sort of adventure. The killers operate like video game bosses, the longer the heroes survive, the more hardcore the clowns get.
Can I speak freely about how tired I am of Joker/Harley Quinn imagery? We get more of it here. The biggest bad has slick hair and a bloody smile, moving methodically with a seemingly calm drive, blathering on pretentiously about life and death. Before we meet him we encounter a bubbly blonde with a bloodlust and a baby’s voice. It’s completely played out in the DCU, it doesn’t do itself any favors here. Why a person as visually creative as Zombie is aping such a cliched image is a question for the ages.
The five survivors are given no time to develop, not that it would matter if they did. Sheri Moon Zombie is at the center of it, for no other reason than we know she’s Zombie’s wife and is going to be protected. Jeff Daniel Phillips, her co-star in “Lords of Salem” is back too, as is Meg Foster. They each fight to survive in the same basic way - normally a story like this thrives on the character dynamics, who’s strong, who’s weak, who rises up, who collapses under the weight of it all. We don’t get any of that here. They just take shots at whatever comes their way. Not even the ticking time limit of the game adds suspense as the twelve hours elapse with no real escalation in tension.
Zombie’s direction this time is endlessly aggressive. I’m not one that usually notices shaky cameras but there’s so much of it here, along with strobe lights, that most of the fight scenes are impossible to follow. At his best Zombie has made scenes of intense violence that he forces the audience to stare at, even when they don’t want to. Here you can’t stay focused if you try, lest you have a seizure.

Rob Zombie isn’t trying to convert anyone to his style of movie, and that’s fine. I imagine hard core Zombie gore fiends will love this one. Not that anyone is expecting him to be making some sort of subtle masterpiece, but is it too much to ask for a movie to at least have the depth of “House of 1000 Corpses?”

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Scream Season 2 FINALE

Well, I’m not going to tell you who the killer is. You’ll have to watch. Or ask privately.
I will spoil the most important part of the story: Brooke lived.
I’ll say this: the reveal worked as mystery reveals should, what seemed convoluted and complicated and unpredictable ended up making sense and being fairly simple and straight-forward. There were some twists, most of which worked and made sense. Yes, there are still things that could have been solved earlier if people just would have told each other what they knew and what was going on but, hey, that’s showbiz.
Was every plot thread cleaned up neatly? Not really. Some questions didn’t really get answered. It happens. Still, the finale pulled the focus back on the main characters and the central storyline.
The focus was on Emma and Audrey, where it all began. Noah and Brooke were there at their friends’ sides but were a bit on the sidelines. That was a touch of a disappointment. After so much they’d been through because of all the other nonsense, it would have been nice to see them get their hands a little dirtier. After all, this sick game cost Noah two girls he may have loved, and cost Brooke a boyfriend and a father. They had cause to draw some blood of their own, I’d say.
If I have a criticism of Season 2 is that it didn’t give the characters the depth of circumstance they had in Season 1. One thing that made the first season work so well was that the murderer on the loose revealed a lot of dark secrets hidden in the main characters. This season had a lot less of that, it was a lot of clean up from season one’s mess. It wasn’t quite as dynamic or dark.
Still, Season 2 of “Scream” was a lot of fun. And they left just enough dangling out there that should there be a third season there’s still more story to tell.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Scream Season 2 Episode 10

As we get near to the end of this season of “Scream,” it seems everyone decided to circle the wagons this week. The killer is being about as subtle as death metal as he points his focus directly at Audrey and Emma and anyone they care about.
At the same time, the sheriff and Emma’s mom are getting closer and closer to the conclusion that Brandon James may still be alive after all these years. It’s getting so serious that they’re even using flashbacks to show more of the lost history of Brandon James, Maggie and Sheriff Acosta. You know it’s serious when flashbacks are involved!
The real focus this episode though is on Noah in peril. Using Zoe’s phone, the killer lures Noah back to the beach and stabs him, then buries him alive, setting up a couple clues for Emma and Audrey to come find Noah, maybe in time, maybe not.
Sure, the killer could just kill Noah, but that’s not his point. The “Scream” stories are always about making the protagonists suffer, by making them fail to save the ones they love. Finding Noah dead would be traumatic, sure, but failing to save him would be even worse.
Emma and Audrey are hardly a united front. Emma still can’t forgive Audrey for bringing Piper to Lakewood, no matter how much Audrey professes ignorance of what Piper was doing.
There’s a big reveal though: over the course of their arguing, Audrey drops that she and Piper were together the night Audrey’s girlfriend from the previous season died. So if Piper didn’t kill her and Audrey didn’t kill her ... who killed her?
Audrey and Emma continued their personal squabbles while looking for Noah. If the goal was to tear them apart, it didn’t really work. The girls found Noah in the nick of time (of course) but then it was revealed that Zoe was trapped in a similar scenario.
While they were in time to save Noah, they weren’t in time to save Noah. While the killer live fed Noah’s struggles to the girls, the videos of Zoe’s struggles were on tape delay, she was gone before they found her at the lake. Brutal.
The killer also took a swing for the fences by calling Sheriff Acosta directly and sending him to the farmhouse where he’d left a mess of dead pigs and human body parts, notably Branson’s missing hand.
At the end, Emma ended up back at home where creepy Eli emerged from the darkness and watched her house. What was he up to? I guess we’ll find out next week.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Scream Season 2 Episode 9

The big news this week is that Emma knows what Audrey told Noah, thanks to a mysterious email that seems to have been sent by Zoe, even though Zoe’s denies it and Noah, somewhat controversially backs her.
Emma is naturally pissed at Audrey and that makes Kieran and, to a lesser degree, equally pissed at Audrey. I mean, it’s valid. Audrey confessing to bringing Piper to Lakewood is kind of a big deal.
Really, a lot of this episode has to do with Piper. A visit to Ms. Lang in the hospital by Emma goes badly as Ms. Lang reacts like she’s seeing a monster. Still, Kieran snags the keys to Ms. Lang’s place before he goes. Before that, though, one of Ms. Lang’s cassettes is found dangling in Emma’s locker, which makes the teacher’s obsession with Emma a little clearer and also makes it clear she sees Emma as some kind of raging monster.
Of note, though, the message on Emma’s locker was written in lipstick, which is only interesting because right before that scene we were shown Stavo snagging a tube of lipstick from Brooke’s bedroom.
(I’m not really sure why I’m going through this episode backwards, it just seems to make more sense.)
Stavo continues to look creepier, not just for stealing Brooke’s lipstick but his dad finally told Emma’s mom what happened in Phoenix - that Stavo and a friend were playing with a gun, a gun that went off and shot Stavo’s friend in the face. Stavo, though, was cold as ice about it and sat and drew his friend dying. Stavo’s looking a bit more like a sociopath, but, along the way, he finds out that The Mayor was paying Jake to burn down his development that was losing money.
Brooke instantly confronted her dad who didn’t have much to say in his own defense.
A couple loose ends - we didn’t see Eli this episode and we haven’t seen his mother in weeks. If she’s still doing dirty business for the mayor, she could have set the fire in the development, but we still don’t know the tie between that and the bodies upstairs.
Meanwhile, Noah tries to prove to Audrey and Zoe that Zoe didn’t send Emma the email with Audrey’s confession attached. But Zoe definitely sent the email to herself and the fake email it was sent from was also registered to Zoe. Noah stood up for her anyway and then, finally, Zoe and Noah totally knocked boots. And we got a ‘Phantasm 2’ reference thrown in to boot.
Kieran and Emma found a picture of Piper and Ms. Lang together at an old foster home and decided to investigate, only to find that someone had decided to throw a rave there - and all the invites were from Emma and Audrey, even though they didn’t have anything to do it.
Creepy Haley reared her head again, this time knowing who actually threw the party saying it was ‘someone she’s seeing.’ Said someone then killed her in rather gruesome fashion.

We have three episodes left and there’s still a lot of mystery to solve, which is good. Stavo being a sociopath really doesn’t help his cause but there’s still a ways to go.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Lights Out

“Lights Out” started as a two minute short film that got a lot of buzz going around the horror circuit a couple years ago. Making a full length feature out of something completely devoid of actual story, though, is another matter completely. Luckily the creators of the full length “Lights Out” have kept the pure thrill of that initial short but then, smartly, made it part of a story that’s heavy enough on its own, even before the boogeyman starts appearing in the shadows.
Similar to recent movies like “Oculus” and “Mama,” “Lights Out” puts into a protagonist’s life that’s already filled with drama. Here we have a young boy stuck in his house with an increasingly crazy mother. His father was killed and his big sister got out as soon as she was old enough. Because of the scary thing in the house, he can’t sleep, which is causing him problems at school. Problems his mother doesn’t seem especially equipped to help him address.
When mother fails to pick him up from school, the duty falls to the boy’s twenty-something sister, Rebecca, played by “Warm Bodies” alumnus Teresa Palmer as a sharp-edged rocker chick who won’t let her boyfriend too close, even though he’s obviously madly in love with her. She’s also in no position to take over parental duties from her mother but, as things escalate, she’s faced with some hard choices.
The mother here is played by Maria Bello, always a strong presence, here a broken mix of anxiety, depression and terror. As we learn more and more about the creature in the darkness, we start to see her character unspool, learning this far more than a simple house haunting and the sadness that defines their family is far from an accident.
At the center of “Lights Out” is a monster that can only survive in the darkness. It avoids any and all light and as long as you can keep yourself surrounded by light, you’re ok. This leads to an assortment of scenes where lights flicker and the monster appears, only to vanish when the lights stay on, or, in some cases, to be able to make a move when the darkness stays.
As slight as “Lights Out” sometimes is (and even at 81 minutes it still feels padded toward the end,) it’s still working off a foundation of something serious. These are hard characters who have lived a hard life, they’ve hurt one another and been hurt. Palmer’s Rebecca is independent and defiant but knowingly lost. Her decision to take care of her baby brother is not she’s prepared for, but still one she takes, knowing that doing so would put her back near the danger she had fled from so many years ago.
Bello, too, is playing to a serious mental trauma in her character. She’s both manipulated and terrified, a victim from so many directions. She’s lost two men and her daughter to this curse and knows she’ll lose her son. In one scene she attempts to save him by having him embraced by the darkness. She’s the one that gets the most hurt. It’s the tragedy of her situation that fuels the movie’s frantic finale.
Fear of the dark is the basic staple of horror movies. “Lights Out” takes that basic idea and drills into a family dynamic, blurring the line between the horrors of real life and the horrors of the supernatural. It may not be able to completely support its own weight but, even when it falls short, there’s still enough going on in the shadows to make you shiver.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Scream Season 2 Episode 8

This week’s episode of “Scream” took us to the annual Lakewood Carnvial, where people eat dangerously unhealthy food and ride even more dangerous portable rides but the real danger is, of course, the killer that’s on the loose and targeting Emma directly while still screwing with Audrey along the way.
Last week left us with Ms. Lang lying in a pool of blood at the bottom of a high school stairwell, while we didn’t learn the specifics of her fate this week, the Sheriff did find her box of interview tapes with the Lakewood 6 and then hid a tape she made with his creepy son Stavo. (Seriously, though? TAPES? Does she not have a digital recorder?)
Brooke and Zoe were mostly relegated to pageant prep, with Zoe being nervous about an awful Belle-inspired dress and speaking in public. Brooke saved the day with a better dress and then promptly eased her tension by getting really drunk off a flask Zoe brought, then letting the entire town have it in her pageant speech.
Zoe totally blueballed Noah again, for the record. Poor guy can’t catch a break.
Emma, meanwhile, did Emma stuff - this time with Audrey in tow, as Audrey really wanted to tell Emma the truth about bringing Piper to Lakewood the season previous (although we still don’t know if that’s the whole truth and nothing but the truth.)
Creepy Stavo and Eli didn’t help their causes too much. Stavo’s dad, the sheriff, couldn’t find the mask that Stavo has, but Stavo told him if he thinks he’s the killer to prove it. Still, dad did find a drawing of Branson tied to the bedpost. The problem there being I don’t think he has any way of knowing that happened, which leads us to believe it was his video camera in the room that night. He’s still in Brooke’s good faith, hopefully that won’t bite her in the ass.
Eli, meanwhile, was revealed to have a restraining order against him from some girl in Atlanta and when he pushed Kieran’s buttons too much, got a right hook or three for his troubles. For his own troubles, Kieran ended up captured in the funhouse by the killer. Of course he was just bait for Emma to go looking for him but, of course also, she got away and Kieran got saved.
Another episode that sort of ran in place - the dangers of long-form murder mysteries is that it’s tough to have huge reveals every week. But next week Audrey should finally tell Emma everything she needs to know and we can assume the killer(s) will make another move.
Seriously, though, things don’t look good for Stavo or Eli. One of them will probably be a red herring. I’m not sure which one, though.