Showing posts with label documentary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label documentary. Show all posts

Oct 12, 2020

YOU DON'T NOMI (2019)

Before we get into the weeds with You Don’t Nomi, let’s be clear about one thing: You Don’t Nomi, despite its marketing and its cataloging on the World Wide Web, is not a documentary. And that’s because a documentary generally has two things: facts, and a goal. You Don’t Nomi has neither of those things. That’s not to say that it doesn’t offer its fair share of entertainment, or that director Jeffrey McHale didn’t set out with a specific goal in mind, but by film’s end, the goal you take away is the foresight you’d already obtained on your own before you ever sat down to watch. More on that in a bit.

You Don’t Nomi is less of a documentary and more of a visual essay and appreciation, comprised of folks from all walks of life either raining down actual praise on the infamous 1995 flop Showgirls, directed by Paul Verhoeven, or recognizing it for the over-the-top but entertaining piece of shit that it is, or dismissing it as trashy, immature, and misogynistic…well, trash. Obviously, your own opinion on this movie that everyone has likely already seen will determine what you take away from it. Having seen Showgirls a few times during my pubescence but not for a very long time since then, my opinion on it, over time, faded into indifference and dismissal. Just one more movie in a sea of movies that I saw, recognized wasn’t very good, and haven’t really thought much about since. Except for the occasional reissue of the flick on Blu-ray with some kind of included gimmicky swag, I assumed Showgirls was largely forgotten. I had no idea it went onto live out a second life as a cult classic, with theatrical tours and Q&A’s and live reenactments by actors both drag-queen and non-drag-queen alike. I had no idea, after all this time, it was a film people were still discussing at all.

You Don’t Nomi includes participation from film critics, Showgirls superfans and apologists, and pop culture enthusiasts, yet it doesn’t contain any active participation from a single person involved in its making. Whether this was purposeful, or because it was impossible to get anyone involved to go on the record within the confines of a discussion where 2/3rds of its participants recognize that Showgirls is a terrible movie, we don’t know. What that leaves, ultimately, are a bunch of people who had nothing to do with making the movie telling you that Showgirls is brilliant in ways you didn’t notice, entertaining in ways that were never intended, or without any redeemable value at all. Ironically, it’s those participants who deride Showgirls’ content as ill-informed, misogynistic, and immature who come away sounding the most level-headed and thoughtful, whereas those attempting to defend the film’s legacy really stretch the limits of legitimacy. One participant in particular, who has dedicated a good portion of his life to defending Showgirls and trying to make people understand that it’s a flick worthy of a second evaluation, completely invalidates his position by then going on to lampoon other much more well received films like Verhoeven’s own Basic Instinct, or the generally well-regarded Forest Gump and American Beauty, and calling critics who described Showgirls as being poorly made “fucking morons.”  What’s supposed to come off as feisty and fun instead reeks of elitism, and it tarnishes the otherwise honest and fair point of “hey, you’ve misunderstood this movie;” and in almost the same breath where he lavishes praise on Showgirls’ cinematography, he calls American Beauty a piece of shit, which has been nearly universally renowned for that very same thing. (For the record, I don’t like American Beauty, and I recall being fairly unimpressed by Basic Instinct when I first saw it, but I also wouldn’t attempt to downgrade the legacies they’ve gone on to achieve, nor speak for anyone else and dismiss the people who enjoy them. Also, I love Forest Gump – fight me.)

You Don’t Nomi really only comes alive during the moments where we get to see archival interviews with Paul Verhoeven where he both defends and admits Showgirls’ shortcomings, and when there is an honest, critical analysis done by critics who avoid hyperbole and outrageousness by sharing their calm and honest thoughts. From a technical standpoint, You Don’t Nomi is engaging through its clever use of editing, largely incorporating clips from all of Verhoeven’s other films, either to highlight the director’s commonalities of sex, violence, the street-justice vengeance of abused women (and vomiting), or even through the use of editing clips of Showgirls into his other works, as if Verhoeven’s better received films are actually passing judgment on it. (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Quaid turns on the television in his apartment to see a news report of Showgirls’ miserable failure with critics and audiences, and the expression on his face says it all.)

Despite all my misgivings, you should give You Don’t Nomi a shot if you’re even marginally interested in Showgirls’ place in cinema history. You won’t learn a blessed thing beyond the fact that some people out there like it, and others don’t like it, which is something you already know, but you may find some value in seeing how the “world’s first mainstream NC-17 film” is enjoying a second life among the midnight movie crowd. Plus, if you’ve ever wanted to see a supercut of everyone who’s ever vomited in a film directed by Paul Verhoeven, you could do a lot worse.

Aug 15, 2019

'HAIL SATAN?' ISN'T WHAT YOU THINK IT IS


As I sat down to watch Penny Lane’s Hail Satan?, I knew the doc would be covering many different things about this black goat religion, but I was hoping to hear concrete answers to the very pointed question, “Do Satanists actually believe in Satan?” Even before that question is asked, which occurs roughly one-third into the doc, everything that Lane presents up to that point, which includes interview segments with Lucien Greaves, the current leader of the Satanic Temple, would lead you to predict the answer: no. 

Obviously, the next question comes, “If you don’t believe in Satan, why call yourself Satanists?” That answer, this time, is less predictable, and it’s one that sums up Hail Satan? as a whole: Satanism is a direct response to the United States’ gradual transformation into a “Christian country,” despite having originally been founded as a secular nation, and that Satanism is basically the underdog religion using shocking imagery and their own very misunderstood philosophies to shock society into awareness and attempt to teach what they’re really about. Satanism is rebelling against the Church’s butting in of everyday Americans’ lives in the form of limiting women’s access to abortion, or restricting gay rights, or taking the moral high ground and defaming the Satanic Temple as a whole, even though the Diocese of Boston was responsible for the cover-up of thousands of boys being molested by priests over the last several decades--something, the Temple is quick to point out, is far more evil and disgusting than what the Temple is said to take part in.


The third question to come: “If Satanists don’t believe in God, why don’t they just call themselves atheists?” Because non-believers lack a community, one Satanic Temple member puts it: that atheists embrace nothing, and have no philosophy; the same cannot be said for the Satanic Temple, who very much have codes of beliefs (in the form of their own seven Tenets). One of those Tenets? Word for word: 
Beliefs should conform to one's best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one's beliefs. 
Tell me that’s not fucking relevant with respect to the current anti-science administration currently occupying the White House--that the entire world is melting, the temperatures are increasing yearly, that people are embracing ludicrous conspiracy theories about vaccinations and climate change while gleefully turning up their noses at the facts and science anyway. Also tell me that particular Tenet makes less sense than the Commandment that forbids a person from being envious because their neighbor has a maid.

I’ll admit I’ve been intrigued by this movement for a while now: not because I’m a devil worshiper, but because by doing some simple Googling--something anyone is able to do--I was really taken aback by the things I’d discovered, embodying the simplicity of what the Satanic Temple, preceded by Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, aims to do. (LaVey’s Church forbade its followers from killing animals unless for purposes of food and shelter. Sound evil to you?) Modern Satanic Temple members do not sacrifice animals, or take part in orgies, or perform black magic or occult incantations. No, instead, they adopt sections of Arizona highways and pledge to keep them clean--same with beaches, in fact. They run shoe and feminine hygiene drives to benefit the homeless. They form after-school programs to give children a place to go that’s safe, where they can color with other children and expose themselves to new ideas. Satanists are men and women, white and black, hetero and homosexual, former Christians, atheists, and Muslims. One of them in particular, a native of Arkansas who calls himself a former Christian, and who looks and sounds every bit like 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer, wears a respectful blue suit complete with blue bowtie. But this isn’t a put-on: this is what members of the Satanic Temple can look like. The Temple is also comprised of people, though their external appearances may suggest they follow the public’s misconceptions of the Satanic Temple, who are not evil, who are not crazy, and who don’t have hate in their heart. They are people rebelling against the corruption of government and the Church, and who are advocating for the clear separation of both, upon which our country was once founded, but has since fallen by the wayside--after one political party in particular realized it would benefit them at the polls. In fact, the doc is sure to include one prominent member being ex-communicated due to her extremist performances that called for the assassination of Donald Trump. While this is easy for the armchair devout to point at and say, “See? They’re evil!!,” really, what the doc is showing you is that this viewpoint goes entirely against the belief system of the Satanic Temple, and that they did the responsible thing by severing ties. They are, one could argue, remaining more true to their responsibilities to morality than the Catholic Church.


The backbone of the doc is the story that has become quite well known to every-day society through its heavy coverage in the media: the Temple’s insistence that the Arkansas State Capitol either remove its Ten Commandments monument in order to honor the Constitution’s proclamation that religion and government never intertwine, or make room for their own Baphomet statue, which they argue belongs there just as much. Naysayers call this nothing more than a form of trolling, and certain members wouldn’t disagree, but they also know that what looks like theatrics represents something much larger, and it’s their way of breaking through to the everyday American to educate them on what the Satanic Temple is really about.

Hail Satan? is the most fascinating documentary I’ve seen all year and I would recommend it to anyone the least bit open minded. I like to think you will be constantly surprised, amused, and even touched by certain aspects of both the documentary and the religion itself. I would almost guarantee that you won’t be expecting nearly any of what you see. 

Hail Satan? is now on DVD from Magnolia Pictures.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Jul 19, 2019

DVD REVIEW: ‘SCARY STORIES’ DOC FANS THE FLAMES OF NOSTALGIA



As someone who has adored the horror genre ever since I was a kid, even weathering the storm when that adoration made me feel like an outcast, there was always something comforting about discovering that I’d traveled the same exact road, and made all the same stops, as other kids had during their formative years. It was a joy to grow older, meet people with the same interests, and realize that we had  shared experiences and interests before ever knowing each other.

The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy was a huge part of that.

I wish I could remember under what circumstances I first came to read Alvin Schwartz’s three-book collection based on urban legends, folklore, and myths. There was never a shortage of books in my house when I was a kid, as my mother had discovered I was an avid reader, and she was willing to exploit my love for all things horror (within reason) so long as it kept me reading. It got to the point where she would have to lovingly but sternly remind me that those monthly Goosebump books by R.L. Stine were somewhat expensive, as she tended to bring home a few at a time, and maybe I should try to read only a few chapters a night to make them last. (She brought home Deep Trouble one day, and with a shark on the cover, I read that book in under two hours. Spoiler alert: it ain’t about sharks.) I’m tempted to believe that my mother had been the one to bring home one of those Scary Stories books (for whatever reason, Scary Stories 3 was the first one I read), but that she’d done so without actually cracking the book and seeing Stephen Gammell’s illustrations. One glimpse at “The Haunted House” or “Me-Tie Doughty Walker” and she never would have left the store with them.


If there ever existed a bible for the horror-loving youth, it was Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Incredibly, horror-loving kids discovered these books on their own, almost like a rite of passage. It felt like childhood destiny. The illustrations were tantamount to pornography—as if they’d slipped through the parental and school library systems on some kind of technicality and were never meant for kids’ eyes, but something glorious had gone wrong, and those lucky kids were going to get their fill. Gammell’s illustrations were often so surreal that sometimes they didn’t seem to complement their stories at all. One story in particular, “Oh Susanna,” was a retelling of the urban legend about the college student who comes home to her dorm at night and doesn’t turn on the light, only to discover the next morning that her roommate had been decapitated. The illustration that accompanies that story sees an old man in a rocking chair grasping a leash tied around a flying Lovecraftian monster and being pulled through the sky of a stormy limbo. How completely inappropriate this illustration is for that story somehow made both even scarier. Was it a happy accident? Was it a one-off illustration Gammell had done that had been arbitrarily assigned to that story? Or was Gammell depicting the instant madness that the story’s terrified girl was suffering upon the discovery of her dead roommate?

On the cusp of release for the first ever adaptation of the book series (produced by Guillermo Del Toro and directed by The Autopsy of Jane Doe’s André Øvredal) comes this low-fi, DIY documentary by Cody Meirick, which explores the history of the books, the controversies that ensued because of their graphic content, and their legacy today. Sadly, the doc lacks the two keyest players – author Alvin Schwartz died of cancer in 1992, and illustrator Stephen Gammell, still alive, is a bit of a recluse and doesn’t grant interviews. (Nerd brag: I wrote to him about ten years ago and sent him a copy of the Scary Stories hardcover treasury edition, which he returned with his signature.)


The doc speaks to Schwartz’s family – his wife, Barbara; son, Peter; and grandson, Daniel – some of which remains surface level, but some of which, notably the segments with the son, touch on unexpectedly deep material, including the strained relationship between himself and his father, and the regrets he still lives with following his death. Wisely, the doc makes use of seemingly the only interview Gammell ever gave, which is years old; resurrecting certain excerpts from that interview not only allows him a presence in the doc, but also puts the viewer directly within his frame of mind. (Despite how perfectly married his illustrations are to Schwartz’s stories, the doc heavily suggests that the two men never actually met.)

The doc somewhat struggles to have a “point,” with the backbone being the controversies the book series endured over the years, with one parent in particular (who appears in the doc via archive footage and a newly filmed interview) leading the charge to get them banned from elementary schools. The book-ban segments are smartly intermingled with interviews with artists who grew up reading the Scary Stories trilogy and who discuss in what ways they have informed their work, directly or indirectly. Doing so makes the case that, had these books been banned successfully, these artists might never have stumbled upon them, and hence, never become inspired to do their own creating. The doc also attempts to setup a sort-of squaring off between that parent who led the ban charge and Schwartz’s son as a knock-down/drag-out moment of drama, but in reality, they sit down and share their own differing thoughts on the book, neither of which have changed ever since the initial controversy, all while remaining ever polite toward each other.


Scary Stories also struggles to feel consistently engaging, even at a brisk 85 minutes, with too many scenes of interviewees, or in some really distracting moments, actors engaging in storytelling skits, reiterating some of the books’ most famous stories. Meirick uses these bits sometimes to help transition between points, and including actual text from the stories makes total sense, but a simple voiceover accompanied by Gammell’s original illustrations would’ve accomplished the same goal while removing the incidental corniness that results from watching two young kid actors pretend to be scared by a story about an exploding spider bite.

Still, Scary Story mostly works the way it was meant to: it’s a celebration of the black sheep books that permeated so many of our bookshelves in our youth, examining their long legacy and the mark they’ve made on so many impressionable minds. With the world becoming a bigger, warmer, and angrier pile of shit, the nostalgia machine is operating at an all-time high (the self-serving third season of Stranger Things proves this), and Scary Stories is all part of it. This exploration into the infamous books is likely as thorough as it could’ve been, assuming that Schwartz never spoke candidly about them after having written them—material from which the doc could have mined (as it did with Gammell’s sole interview). Because of this, the doc can sometimes feel like it lacks potency, at times feeling more like you’re sitting around having a lightheaded conversation with friends. It doesn’t ask any tough questions about the dangers of censorship, and it lacks the kind of drama that even documentaries have proven to include from time to time. Scary Stories is more interested in serving as a keepsake—a quasi pre-eulogy for books that, it would seem, will never go away, no matter how much certain parents may want them to.

The special features are as follows:
  • Director's Commentary
  • Over 20 minutes of bonus footage
  • Closed Captions
  • Scene Selection
  • Trailers   
Scary Stories is now on DVD from Wild Eye Releasing, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark hits theaters in August.


Oct 16, 2014

#HALLOWEEN: RECOMMENDED VIEWING: CURSE OF THE BLAIR WITCH

 

As I explain (and later lament) in this semi-editorial from several years ago, The Blair Witch Project was a summer 2001 phenomenon following its release upon the unsuspecting world. With the Internet as we know it still in its infancy, the idea of pulling the wool over the eyes of its users was barely an idea. Fifty years prior, Orson Welles had gotten on the radio and insisted that aliens were landing and it was the end of everything as we knew it. Listeners fell for it. Twenty years ago, the BBC aired a program called Ghostwatch, in which a fiction narrative shot to look like live television convinced people that ghosts were not only real, but were soon coming for them. Viewers fell for it, one of whom would eventually commit suicide once he became convinced the ghost featured in the program was haunting his house.

From radio, to television, and now, to the Internet. 

The Blair Witch Project was the first to seize that opportunity to make a lot of people look like gullible jackasses. (I don’t blame people for falling for it – it was very genuine.)

While far less theatrical and dramatic, and far more subtle, The Blair Witch Project was not bolstered by a marketing campaign that highlighted the newbie filmmakers behind the camera and the casts of unknowns – no, the marketing campaign was in actuality a national search for the truth. The Blair Witch Project website was a genius hodgepodge of missing person fliers, tearful interviews with alleged family and friends, and creepy black and white photographs of the items recovered at a rather strange location in the woods where it was believed this three-person film crew had dispatched to investigate the legends of the so-called Blair Witch of Burkittsville, Maryland.

Then audiences found out they’d been duped. Lied to. Made “the fool.”

And they didn’t like that. Not at all.


While some decried the film’s use of imagination (what a concept!) instead of the kind of stupid CGI that same summer’s redux of The Haunting was shoving into people’s faces, there was a kind of unsettling revelation that a lot of people were slamming the film because they thought they were there to see a genuine snuff film; not, it turns out, a well-executed descent into horror and madness that, except for some cold nights and hunger pangs, did not place its cast into any immediate danger.

Following the strange and disturbing viewpoints of people upset that the footage of kids being systematically stalked, haunted, and killed by a witch wasn’t genuine, soon came the next stage of the hype machine: the backlash — people enthusiastically exclaiming their hate for the film simply because so many others were so into it. Such unrelated mind-boggling campaigns of spite still exist to day, but more vitriol has been hurled at The Blair Witch Project than any other film of which I’m aware. Tell someone a film is scary, and it's a natural reaction for that person to find ways and explain ways in which it is not. Tell someone you think something of questionable legitimacy might be true; that someone will explain why you're a fucking fool for ever falling for it. We're human beings and by our nature we're pompous, arrogant, and we think we know everything. And we like to think we're above and beyond something new that comes down the pike if too many people, news media, or pop-culture bon vivants tell us we should.

I am a massive and devoted fan of The Blair Witch Project, and no amount of spite-hate will ever make me feel differently. And the dozens of proclamations that allegedly bolstered the haters’ arguments for why the film was bad – “You don’t even SEE the witch!” – actually works against those shouting it. Essentially, those people are saying, “I have no imagination! I need to have everything spoon-fed to me!”

What dorks.

Granted, I at no point thought any of it was real, and not because I'm a genius, but because I was an avid reader of Fangoria Magazine. Yet that didn't diminish my enthusiasm for what I had just witnessed on-screen.

People are quick to point out that The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first found-footage format film, and people threw out titles like Cannibal Holocaust, or Ghostwatch, or Man Bites Dog as examples. Some went back as far as 1922’s Häxan, for which the Blair Witch filmmakers named their production company.

And yeah, these people are right. The format had been around for years, decades, centuries. But The Blair Witch Project was the first cultural phenomenon in many ways. It was made by a bunch of first-timers with no actual script. Its cast and crew suffered the harsh elements of a Maryland winter just to get the thing on film. Famously, the crew was so broke during filming that, once the film was completed, they returned the camera equipment to Radio Shack for a full refund. And yet these broke filmmakers’ film, with its meager little budget, would go on to make back its budget three times. Wait, did I say three times? I meant THREE HUNDRED TIMES. It bested the previous record for most money made by an independent film – Halloween – and that record wasn’t for an independent horror film, but independent film in general. It inspired a wealth of imitators, all of whom would rip-off the infamous tagline. ("In October of 1994, three student filmmakers..."). It was a middle finger to studios making nonsense like The Haunting and The Mummy and other CGI extravaganzas that you didn’t need million-dollar special effects to put asses in seats. You needed ingenuity, passion, and a clever way to sell it all.

Having said all this, and as much as I love The Blair Witch Project, I love “Curse of the Blair Witch” that much more.

In the weeks leading up to The Blair Witch Project’s release, its filmmakers wrote and directed a television special that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel (back when it was still called, ya know, the Sci-Fi Channel). A companion piece to the feature film soon to terrify audiences to death, “Curse of the Blair Witch” was an extraordinarily well realized and well-written and even well-acted piece that surely would have been the last piece of convincing anyone skeptical about the coming film’s legitimacy would have needed to full-on believe it was all 100% true. Though peppered with scenes from The Blair Witch Project, “Curse of the Blair Witch” is largely as fake a “documentary” as they come – something that would have aired on The History Channel during the month of October, alongside their investigations into actual vampirism that occurred (and still occurs) in Romania, the Salem witch trials, or the origins of lycanthropy. Actors chosen to play doctors, historians, friends and family of the missing, accused murderers, news reporters, members of law enforcement, eye-witnesses, and the list goes on and on, all come together to paint a very convincing myth about the Blair Witch of Burkittsville. At no point does it feel fake, hammy, or over the top. At no point, since the documentary doesn’t offer up anything in-your-face fantastic or too ridiculous to believe, would you ever doubt its contents, if perhaps you’d stumbled upon it while channel surfing and were totally unaware of what this thing was called The Blair Witch Project. And this is the doc’s greatest strength. There’s no newly-created shaky footage of something creepy occurring before you. There’s nothing contained within purported to be actual anything of the witch. What we have are a collection of talking heads discussing myths and legends, history and hearsay collected from journals, newspaper articles, and everything else entrenched in the town of Burkittsville’s past. We have voice-over actors reading from testimonies and diaries, we have members of Burkittsville with tenuous ties to the conflict that are still made to feel important, and my favorite part, you’ve got one interviewee contradicting another participant’s claims – a typical opposing viewpoint taken out of real life.

 

So what the fuck does this have to do with Halloween? Well, let’s start with the witch aspect, which should be the most obvious. Witch iconography has been synonymous with Halloween for a very long time, and the town of Salem in Massachusetts has since embraced this association, going as far as hosting hordes and hordes of people who descend upon them every October for all kinds of witchy and ghoulish activities. Like a lot of other aspects of Halloween, much of its association was never part of its truest roots, but over time began to adopt certain other portions of history as its own, creating one big orange and black hybrid. (For instance, did you know that the idea of death had nothing to do with Halloween until the Catholic Church butted in and insisted people celebrate All Soul’s Day on November 2 as a way to cancel out the “evil” of the pagans who observed Halloween’s original traditions? Halloween’s sudden proximity to All Soul’s Day for the dead would be just one of many times in which something that had nothing to do with it suddenly became part of its traditions. For serious, yo – Wiki that.)

That the kids in the film go “missing” during the month of October, and that their footage contains them walking across a cemetery or dark foreboding woods where trees stand naked like sentries and the ground is blanketed with browning-over leaves certainly helps to add to the ambiance.

As I’ve explained before, when I think Halloween, I don’t think big cities of suburbia. I think small-town rural America – main streets, farm land, and isolated ramshackle houses in the middle of the woods…much like the one the kids stumble upon in the last ten minutes of the film. Burkittsville embodies much of that, from the beginning of the film in which the kids walk around interviewing townspeople, to the end, where they are stumbling around the woods and discovering a creepy abandoned house covered in children’s hand prints.

Most importantly, something has to feel like Halloween to me. I’ve seen films set on Halloween that don’t feel a goddamn thing like it, but I’ve also seen films, on their surface, not Halloween-related whatsoever, but which still become essential October viewing.

 “Curse of the Blair Witch” is definitely one of them.

Jul 28, 2014

REVIEW: KILLER LEGENDS


Co-writer/co-director Joshua Zeman took an interesting approach with his previous documentary, Cropsey. What is ultimately a true-crime examination of a series of child murderers that occurred in Staten Island, New York, actually began with a brief rumination on the idea of urban legends and how real-life monsters become mythical ones. This idea of investigating urban legends must've sat well with him, for he has returned with Killer Legends, a documentary that examines the origins of four of the most infamous urban legends in popular culture. Zeman posits that every urban legend is based on "some sort of truth," and our desire to believe these legends allows us to "pull back the curtain" on what scares us most: reality. This approach is taken as each popular legend is recounted and its real-life inspirations are analyzed.  

I have always been incredibly intrigued by urban legends – their origins, their power to spread from person to person like something contagious, as well as the stories themselves. I recall, when having watched the pretty terrible Urban Legend in my youth, wishing that the fancy leather-bound book one character looks through in the film, called simply "Urban Legends," both existed and sat on my shelf. There was something that seemed especially dangerous about those particular tales – they weren't just ghost or murder stories. They achieved a real power to them because many people who told them honestly believed they had happened to someone close to them. 


Though that fancy schmancy book of urban legends filled with classy pencil-sketch drawings may never exist, Killer Legends is a phenomenal substitute. Well realized and very well executed, urban legends of the "hook man," the "candy man," the "murdered babysitter," and motherfuckin' "killer clowns" are each explored as in-depth as the doc's running time would allow. Though certain legends have more time dedicated to them than others, the filmmakers deserve accolades for having put such effort into each investigation. We hear so often growing up, and see in films when one character tells a camp-fire story, some of which are featured in Killer Legends, only for the punchline to be a cheesy fake scare punctuated with proclamations that the storyteller's yarn never happened - that it was the stuff of fiction.

Not true. And that actually kind of surprised me. For so long we've been reassured by our parents and teachers that such stories we exchanged on the playground never happened, and we shouldn't worry. I suppose it was "okay" for them to lie to us at that age, in favor of letting us have a few more years' worth of peaceful nights before we found out that, yeah, this shit actually happened, and happens, and will happen.

The doc is propelled by onscreen hosts Zeman and Rachel Miller, but interviews with specialists, historians, and the real people who were local to the various crimes being examined also share their insights, some of them more surprising than others. Also bolstering the theme of life's infatuation with the dark are the assembly of movie clips from such titles as Halloween, Candyman, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, and oh yeah, Stephen King's IT.

Killer Legends has a lot to offer, and to many kinds of viewers. Students of true crime, folklore, psychology, and the casual horror fan – the doc will ably provide a wealth of entertainment, information, and at times even poignancy, depending on what you want to get from it. I'd love for Joshua Zeman to consider this documentary as the first in a series in which he examines handfuls of urban legends at a time. This kind of attempt has been done before, in cheesy shows like "Fact of Fiction" or the recent series "Urban Legends," but not with this kind of serious, investigative, or philosophical approach.

It's now available on DVD from Breaking Glass Pictures.

Jul 24, 2014

WATCH: NIGHTMARE FACTORY

 

If I may be frank, it's about fucking time that somebody honored Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and the entire KNB FX group for the work they've been doing in the horror genre since the mid-1980s. I won't even name the films of which they've been a part because we'd be here forever.

I had the opportunity to meet Greg several years back and he was kind enough to field a couple questions and pose for a photo, which I still have (somewhere). I even walked away with a copy of the prop newspaper he'd created for Day of the Dead. (Actually, I accidentally walked away with three. Sorry, Greg...)


Perhaps best known for the current pop culture atomic bomb that is "The Walking Dead," for which Greg both provides the grisly effects and periodically jumps behind the camera to direct an episode, Nightmare Factory starts at the very beginning of Greg's life to show this is something he'd always wanted to do. Like similar FX maestro Tom Savini (who would end up mentoring Nicotero in his youth) or Jack Pierce and Lon Chaney before him, Greg was a horror junkie from the earliest part of his life. Like a lot of us, the first part of his young life was rife with confusion regarding what he wanted to do. As I'm sure is the case in many families, there was an unspoken understanding that Greg would follow in the footsteps of his father and pursue medical school to become a doctor, and that was his path for a couple years while he pursued his love of creature effects on the side. Then came the fateful day when he realized the latter was all he wanted to do. So he and his two buddies, Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman, headed out to LA, bought a smelly house, filled it with smelly bodies, and went after their dream. 

Three decades later, and following multiple awards (including an Oscar), a massive body of work, and the undying love of the horror community, Kurtzman-Nicotero-Berger's KNB is the leading special effects company in the industry. Working for all genres of the medium, and not just horror, KNB has provided effects for the very big (The Chronicles of Narnia), the very small (Splice), and the very art-house (Tree of Life).


Aided by fans, friends, and frequent clients John Carpenter, George Romero, and Frank Darabont (among others), the praises of KNB are rightfully sung in Nightmare Factory, and amusingly, a bit of fun is poked at the frustration that can sometimes occur on-set between impatient filmmakers and the gag that is failing to work the first time. (It's all part of showbiz, kids.)

We so often forget that folks like Greg Nicotero, or those aforementioned filmmakers whom we couldn't help but admire while growing up, were not always the cinema giants they would eventually become. Their place in cinema history didn't just come into being, nor were any of them spoon-fed the opportunities that afforded them the chance to claim that place. They struggled with choices, their fate, and life in general. If honor is having another filmmaker set out to create an examination of your professional and personal life, provided by your friends, colleagues, and peers, then nearly every one of our beloved horror figures has been honored. Nightmare Factory is the newest to honor a member of that crowd. One could say it was long-overdue, but another could argue it was perhaps premature, as KNB are just getting started.

Jun 26, 2014

TEOS RECOMMENDS: THE IMPOSTER

 

A good documentary can competently present relevant information in a non-biased manner. A great documentary can do all that, but also challenge your preconceived notions on the topic being discussed. A fantastic documentary can present the info, challenge you, but also thrill you and affect you on an emotional level, presenting you with a story so unbelievable that you would bet your life that it was all completely made up on the spot.

The Imposter, which revisits the surreal 1994 case of a missing Austin child who suddenly shows back up three years later and is embraced by the family, but who is also a completely different person, is a fantastic documentary. To use a completely cliched expression, The Imposter is a roller-coaster ride of emotions. When first presented with the family of missing thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay, how do you not immediately sympathize for each member as they tearfully recall the events in which the boy went missing? And how, when you're first introduced to "the imposter" Frédéric Bourdin,  who talks about his background of physical abuse and his feelings of helplessness and his longing to reboot his life and start over and who longs for a real shot at happiness, are you not supposed to feel tempted to forgive him before you've heard about how he carried out his plan, or what effect it had on the Barclay family...or what kind of person he really is?

The Imposter is an immensely frustrating experience, and it has nothing to do with how it was executed, but rather everything to do with the complexity of the human brain, and how so easily it can be overridden by our rampant-running emotions. How can you be a mother or a sister or a brother to someone for thirteen years, mourn their loss and probable death when they go missing, celebrate at the news that "he" was found in fucking Spain of all places, be reunited with him, and believe that he is your missing loved one? How do you not know? How do you listen to claims that he was kidnapped by the military and experimented upon (a side-effect being the changing color of his eyes) and buy that? How do you not realize that the boy who claims to be sixteen years old is actually approaching his mid-twenties? It is so very easy for you and me to judge this family and assume they must have been completely empty-minded to have fallen for it...but then again, I have never been in their shoes. I've never had a loved one go missing, and even if I did, I can't even imagine how tempted I would be to believe they've returned to me all those years later, even if they do seem to be an entirely different person. Feelings of mourning and regret and guilt are normal following what is essentially death, but are they powerful enough to cloud everything in your mind?

 

And your imposter, Frédéric Bourdin, adds to the frustration. His first few interview segments are full-on confessional moments delivered right to the camera. And you silently judge him at the same time you delude yourself into thinking that he seems like such a haunted and genuine "character" that you stupidly believe you'll eventually be served a typical Hollywood happy ending, where the family realizes he is a fake but welcomes him, anyway. But this version of Bourdin soon fades and is replaced by the proud sociopathic habitual liar who cannot help himself. Watch him grin as he recounts what he feels are the more especially clever moments of his ruse. Watch him have the audacity to judge the family that took him in, asking the audience the question, "How could they not know?"

And try to stomach the claim he makes against the family, attempting to explain why they embraced him as easily as they did.

The Imposter ends with questions both answered and unanswered. It ends with revelations, but also ambiguity. It ends with emotions running untempered and a disgusting amount of pride. But one thing is for sure: it hasn't, nor will it ever end, for the Barclay family, and for Frédéric Bourdin. One will continue to mourn, and the other will continue to boast. The Imposter is beyond thrilling and beyond upsetting, and it's entirely, 100% true.

Jun 14, 2014

REVIEW: ADJUST YOUR TRACKING


My first ever VHS was the Blockbuster exclusive release of John Carpenter's Halloween. I was in sixth grade, and I had ridden my bike the equivalent of 25 city blocks to my nearest Blockbuster to buy it. It was a defining moment. On that day, I became a collector. And that mindset continued for years.

One of my biggest regrets in life was giving into the changing tide and, box by box, relinquishing my VHS collection, which I had spent over ten years collecting. I had well over a thousand before the VHS era came to a sad, unceremonious end. I held out for as long as I could. I held out until they stopped putting new releases on VHS and switched to DVD (and if I remember correctly, I believe the very unmemorable Mike Figgis film Cold Creek Manor was the very last new release to utilize the VHS format). 

In a way, what could I do? I was a movie collector, and I had a choice: refuse to buy that new release I so desired because it was on a format against which I was silently rebelling, or give in. So I gave in, and since I was going to give in, I might as well begin to upgrade my current collection, tape by tape. 

No one would argue that VHS offers better picture or sound quality over DVD, nor would they argue they enjoy a complete lack of special features over the sometimes-up-to-three extra discs of content. But as far as nostalgia goes? Oh yeah, VHS wins. Hands down. When the last DVD is pressed, the format will never be mentioned again. No one will ever look fondly back on it, because when that happens, everyone will have fully moved onto either blu-ray or digital downloads, which, as far as quality goes, is closer to DVD than DVD was to VHS.

And that's what Adjust Your Tracking, a documentary that presents a collection of sit-down interviews with low-budget film directors and independent video label owners discussing their love of the format and their own VHS collections, is all about: Nostalgia. If you ever were, or are, a collector of the format, nothing they say will surprise you, and everything they say will strike home.


Written and directed by Dan M. Kinem and Levi Peretic, Adjust Your Tracking is essentially sitting around with like-minded collectors and listening to everyone share their memories of visiting mom-and-pop video stories to hunt down the newest titles for their collection. And you can't help but get caught up in the memories of visiting your own mom-and-pop stores and remembering which particular VHS covers captured your attention (definitely I Spit on Your Grave and Deadmate for me).

In Adjust Your Tracking, you won't learn about the inventor of the VCR and the VHS format. You won't learn about its mechanics, and how it was created, and other such typical information. But that's okay, because honestly, I don't care. That's not why I'm here. I'm here to live vicariously through our talking heads as they discuss their undying love for VHS and proudly show off their immense collections. And once the one particular fellow who talks of his 22,000 tape collection ends up in the doc, suddenly my own once-collection seems like small time by comparison. Though I no longer own not a single VHS tape, I can still recall the fondness I had for them. I can still recall how (to sound lame) magical it felt to uncover that one particular VHS at that flea market or thrift store, gaze at its cover art, and get that unmistakable feeling that the movie in your hands has become completely forgotten - a strange relic lost in time. For that reason, VHS felt more special than DVD ever did, and ever could. 

Adjust Your Tracking, lovingly shot on VHS (natch) but available on a 2-disc DVD stacked with special features, is a testament to that.

Apr 4, 2014

UNSUNG HORRORS: THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE

Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre. 

So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time. 

Dir. Adam Simon
2000
IFC
United States


“I think there is something about the American Dream…the sort of Disney-esque dream, if you will, of the beautifully trimmed front lawn, the white-picket fence, Mom and Dad and their happy children, god-fearing and doing good whenever they can…that sort of expectation, and the flip-side of it – the kind of anger and the sense of outrage that comes from discovering that that's not the truth of the matter. I think that gives American horror films in some ways kind of an additional rage.”


Horror genre documentaries have become all the rage as of late. Whether they focus on one horror franchise (Crystal Lake Memories; The Psycho Legacy), or one particular sub-genre (Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film), their aim is to break down and scrutinize this thing previously and often described as dark, threatening, unwarranted, unnecessary, and wrong. Horror, the least respected genre of all, is often misunderstood and condemned for the simple fact that sometimes a head gets cut off or a girl is fed to a lawnmower. A critic unwilling to shed his or her self-righteousness couldn’t sit down with a film like The Last House on the Left without dismissing it outright, labeling it pornographic and void of purpose.

This 2000 documentary from filmmaker Adam Simon (also responsible for the Bill Pullman head-scratcher Brain Dead), perhaps the first to openly discuss and celebrate a specific period of the horror genre (the 1960s/70s), might also be the first to let America’s most culturally significant filmmakers explain their thoughts and motivations behind their earlier work. The 1970s, perhaps the last truly celebrated decade of film, saw an uptick not just in quality storytelling, but also in anger, frustration, and sometimes hopelessness. Filmmakers like Frances Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Sydney Lumet, and so many others ran rampant, free from the type of studio constraints that have today become commonplace. And this kind of independent mentality naturally found its way into the horror genre.

Kicking if off was George A. Romero with his antecedent Night of the Living Dead (1968), to be followed by Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), David Cronenberg’s They Came From Within aka Shivers (1975), Romero's Night follow-up Dawn of the Dead (1978), and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Supporting these filmmakers’ highlighted bodies of work are director John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), special effects maestro Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead), and professional film historians/professors Tom Gunning, Carol J. Glover, and Adam Lowenstein.

Director Adam Simon has not only managed to gather together the modern age’s greatest horror minds for the definitive interview, but he’s also managed to create, hands down, the best examination of modern horror in existence. The previous horror documentaries earlier mentioned are all certainly well made in their own ways, and for the approaches that have been taken, they could certainly be viewed as definitive. But at the end of the day, they are just novelties – impressively expanded versions of IMDB trivia and Fangoria Magazine. Going to Pieces, for instance, is a hell of a lot of fun, and introduced me to films I hadn't previously seen, but beyond that, it doesn't have much to say – certainly not about our culture. It never feels “important” – it never makes the horror films we love feel like anything more than 90 minutes of titillation.

The American Nightmare lets its subjects do all the talking, in their own uncensored, unfiltered, and uncompromising voices. Their words will be tinged in anger, melancholy, and even disbelief. And you’ll know exactly what you’re getting into with the opening of the doc: A scary montage of the films being discussed, intermingled with real news footage of the Vietnam war – of chemical weapons, soldiers with completely brainwashed expressions, and presidents telling us the war is a worthy endeavor. But Vietnam is just one of the several issues discussed here, and whether the inspiring events be damnable (political assassinations, economic collapse) or commendable (the sexual revolution, economic rebirth), all have had their part to play in this collection of high horror cinema watermarks.

"I loved this idea of a revolution… It's a new society devouring the old, and just changing everything."


You all know this one – this story of a group of strangers barricaded inside a Pennsylvania farmhouse as they try to defend themselves from a growing army of the living dead. Since 1968, this concept has been appropriated literally hundreds of times for thousands of films, books, comics, video games, and now television shows – and they all owe it to one man. Shot and released during the height of America’s racial conflict, it had the gall, the audacity (read: the balls) to cast a black actor by the name of Duane Jones, not just prominently, and not just as the lead, but as the hero. And it has perhaps one of the most soul-crushing endings of all time.

Though Romero is quick to dismiss with great modesty anyone's commendation for him for having cast a black man as the lead in his seminal film by simply saying that Jones was the best actor they knew, filmmaker John Landis (interviewed here as a participant, not a subject) recalls having his mind blown at his young seventeen years of age, in awe that he was seeing a black hero on screen during one of the most turbulently racial times not seen since the Civil War. "I just went 'Wow!' because there's this black guy...and he's the lead. The movie was hitting me from all angles."

Complementing NOTLD's footage of lynch mobs assembling with their shotguns, and dogs on leashes barking furiously and pulling men across a field are Lowenstein's thoughts: "[As you watch NOTLD] you can’t not think of lynchings; you can’t not think of freedom marches in the south; you can’t not think of the Civil Rights struggle."

As for the why of it, Romero offers: “Obviously what’s happening in the world creeps into any work. It fits right in, because that’s where the idea comes from – where you get the idea in the first place.”

In a fit of awful irony, insofar as what the film would eventually go on to mean culturally, Romero somberly shares that after having completed the film, he threw it in the trunk, and he and his co-producer took a road trip to New York to try and sell it. On the way there, on the radio, they learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.

“All of a sudden, you really don’t know – it certainly shatters your faith in what’s going on at the top. It really gives you a sense of fragility of things – not just your life, but the nation’s life.”

In the NOTLD sequel of sorts, Dawn of the Dead (also explored in the doc), the character of Fran peers down at a crowd of zombies and asks, "What the hell are they?"  But Romero has the answer this time: "Us. We know we're going to die, right? We're the living dead."

"It just seemed that there was nothing to be trusted in the establishment and everything to be trusted in yourself, and that was the context in which Last House was made." 

 

Likely the most infamous film in Wes Craven’s filmography, The Last House on the Left is an angry, disturbing, and at times vile reinterpretation of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Two young girls on the way to a concert run afoul of three convicts, who proceed to kidnap them and drag them into the woods, where they are then tortured, raped, and unceremoniously killed. Thinking they are free and clear, the convicts, through complete dumb luck, end up at one of their victim's houses, and are then slaughtered one by one by the girl’s revenge-seeking parents. The attack waged against the unsuspecting killers by the dead girl's parents comes close to (and perhaps successfully achieves) a reversing of the protagonists and antagonists roles, presenting a set of parents so bloodthirsty for revenge against their daughter's monstrous killers that they become monsters themselves by film's end.

Craven further explains the film’s tie to Vietnam: "Those kids running down the road, just screaming, naked, after the napalm attack; that was kind of my coming of age to realizing that Americans weren't always the good guys, and that things that we could do could be horrendous and evil and dark and impossible to explain." Examining the film and the young man who had made it, he remarks that it was "made by a man who had a lot more rage than [he] ever realized."


Though the infamous tagline of Last House was the reiterated "it's only a movie..." Lowenstein shares, "What's going on here isn't only a movie. It has everything to do with Kent State, the Vietnam War – that this kind of pain isn't a sick isolated episode. It has everything to do with the world I live in."

This segment is likely the most powerful of the entire documentary, especially after the talking heads somberly recount the war, how they say if you were growing up during that time, you were a veteran of Vietnam whether you were directly involved in the war or not. Even after discussing the film’s inspiration in broad strokes, Craven adds one chilling detail: You will know why he chose to have Krugg execute Marie in such a particular way at the tail end of Last House’s horrific rape scene. It wasn’t just posturing, or what looked good on camera. Instead it was reactionary; it was a real anger transforming into a cinematic one.

Capping off the Vietnam segment of the documentary is a brief but mesmerizing interview with Tom Savini, and there’s really no recounting it. His words are extremely powerful and raw. His remembrance of the awful sights he experienced and captured (as a war photographer) are incredibly difficult to process, but deeply affecting. He explains that, as a child, he would go to see the vintage monster movies – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man – and try to recreate them using his effects materials. And so in 1969, in the midst of Vietnam and mere feet away from dead bodies, and as a way to separate him from the reality of the conflict, he would instead study them, and concoct in his head what materials he would use to eventually recreate the piles of the dead around him.

As far as his eventual approach to special effects, he said, "If Vietnam did anything, it was: If it's going to be horrible, then it's going to be horrible the way I saw it. But you will never see it the way I saw it, which is [with] absolute fear; that if someone walks out of the jungle, he wants to kill you. He has a gun and he's going to try."

"My Wisconsin relatives told me about this guy [Ed Gein] that lived about twenty miles from them. [They told me stories of] these human-skin lampshades and I think maybe hearts in the refrigerator...but really the image I came away with, almost my entire life, was there was someone out there making lampshades out of people."

 

Perhaps kicking off the whole “kids in the middle of nowhere who run out of gas” plot device, Tobe Hooper’s Ed-Gein inspired film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, though we wish were plucked from someone’s imagination, was instead plucked right out of real life. Borrowing elements of the Gein case, along with a personal anecdote in which a medical colleague of Hooper's once wore a cadaver's face to a Halloween party, scenes from Chain Saw of a van rolling up to an out-of-gas fueling station is meshed with real-life footage of the 1974 gas shortage that occurred in America – of gas station officials and police waving off the lines of cars stretching down the street that were hoping to fill their tanks. How something as innocuous as a lack of gasoline could throw society into such disarray and instability directly compares to these kids whose van runs low on gas and forces them to pull over, thus throwing them into the midst of a cannibalistic nightmare. Normal, middle-class, and pretty kids (and Franklin) soon cross paths with a den of cannibals, starving, out of work, and improvising simply to stay alive.

“I was really scared at that time, and I had to find a way to work that out,” Hooper explains. He goes on to add that his film contains “…the stuff in the darkness, in the shadows, and in particular, the stuff we don't open the door on. And those doors start cracking open a bit, because you're forcing them open with images that really blow into the nightmare zone."

And he's very correct. Chains Saw feels more like a nightmare than any of the other films. Its documentary approach gives it the appearance of a well-staged snuff film, where a "real" family of cannibal deviants pray on and decimate a group of kids one at a time. The film takes the elements borrowed from real life and combines it with the anecdote in the next paragraph, and what we end up with is not just a seminal film or the beginning of a still-going-strong franchise, but about the collision of social classes bathed in the blood of middle-class kids traipsing where they ought not be traipsing. Still relevant today due to the current economic climate, it's easy to forget that a lack of good, high-paying jobs affects everyone, from the well-to-do rich right down to the lower class cannibals who rob graveyards late at night and dwell somewhere within the bowels of Texas.

Hooper’s interview segment ends with him explaining, "Mothra didn't scare me. Godzilla didn't scare me. It's people I'm afraid of." Hearing this, following the genesis of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – in which he was at a Montgomery Ward’s hardware department store and slowly being surrounded by more and more shoppers, finding himself standing directly in front of a rack of chainsaws…and realizing, if he really wanted to get out of there, he knew he’d found a way – becomes deeply unsettling. That “normal” people have thoughts like these is scary enough…but there are people out there who don’t have the mental capacity or the emotional barriers to make them realize that doing something like that would be wrong. So you take that, and then take away their job stability and their right to make a home for themselves, then disaster can happen. “It’s people I’m afraid of,” indeed.

"That seemed to be where we were then, in the '70s. It was a different decade, it was a different time. Beginnings of prosperity. Major crises seemed to be over, and everyone was just dancing away."

 

On the run from a chaotic and bloody Philadelphia, four individuals from different walks of life somehow come together, commandeer (steal) a chopper, and get the hell out of dodge as the city burns behind them. They soon find themselves at a shopping mall, originally only stopping to find fuel and regroup until they can come up with a plan. But the longer they rest there, the quicker they realize they're sitting on a potential bounty of every necessity, and every comfort and convenience, they could ever need or want: gourmet food, top-of-the-line electronics, the finest fashion and jewelry – even an arcade! With one member among them pregnant and all of them exhausted, it seems like the most obvious choice to make. The plan is simple: Bed down, fortify a living area, and then clean-house, ridding the mall of the walking dead threat and securing every entrance. But, what begins as simple survival soon devolves into a life of opulence, and when danger comes their way – in the form of both looters as well as zombies – they refuse to give it up.

I've been to one public and several private screenings of the original Dawn of the Dead, and without fail, every time our survivors fly over Monroeville Mall and say, "It's one of those shopping centers; one of those big indoor malls," it always gets a laugh. And that laugh signifies: "Well, no shit – of course it's a mall." What the people who react that way don't realize is that, yes, granted, malls are part of every day culture now and have been for decades, but they were a new phenomenon in the late 1970s. During this time, the reign of mom-and-pop shops and corner stores had begun their decline in popularity while huge corporations moved in and constructed gigantic monstrosities filled with every specialty store you could imagine. What we take for granted as always having been part of American culture was a newborn back during Romero's second zombie film, which many would argue is his masterpiece.

"My zombies have gotten a taste of McDonalds and the good things in life," Romero notes with a grin. "And they can't figure out why it's not happening anymore. They're just sort of lost souls."

The materialism and consumerism aspects of Dawn of the Dead have been discussed ad nauseum over the years, by Romero et al. as well as film critics and film fans. While The American Nightmare's discussion of it is brief, it is discussed perhaps with the most openness from Romero that I have seen yet.

He sums it up rather well:

"Domesticity is not what it's cracked up to be and having all that 'stuff' winds up meaning nothing. There's always that underlining realization of how synthetic this is. 'I have this and that'...without thinking much beyond that."

"There really was [a sexual revolution]. The '60s were unprecedented in terms of openness and experimentation, and it was always political. The sex that you were engaging in had strong political overtones... Sex had meaning beyond sex... beyond the physical realm."

  

A Dr. Frankensteinian scientist is out to prove that humanity has lost its instinct, and so he begins a series of experiments in which he purposely applies a parasite of sorts into willing living hosts in hopes that the afflicted will begin acting on impulse rather than their rationale. The test patients' sexuality is suddenly awakened with an animalistic fury, leaving them acting strictly on impulse. Soon a sex plague of sorts begins to spread and it threatens to tear down society as a whole. In continuing with the Frankenstein theme, the scientist's experiment is ironically and unfortunately a success.

It's strange to think that the sexual revolution of the '60s, which continued into the '70s, actually took place in this, our country. Founded on this artificial ideal about wanting to live free of oppression, and with the freedom to pursue our own religious beliefs, our country has been terrified of sex since we first set foot on this continent. Funny, since we use sex to sell every imaginable product, service, food, or anything else you can think of. Sex sells films, television shows, books, music, make-up, underarm deodorant, and yep, even kids' clothes. Further, it's perhaps not widely known that John F. Kennedy's win over Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential election is attributed to the nation's first ever televised presidential debate, and the American people got their first mass glimpse of the handsome and distinguished Kennedy versus the sweaty Nixon. But when it comes to our own sex – something private, shared between two consenting adults, it suddenly becomes a dangerous and ugly thing. Homosexuality, sodomy, polygamy – these things are suddenly looked down on, preached against, and even outlawed.

Leave it to David Cronenberg to attack this hypocrisy head-on with his first wide-release film, They Came From Within, in which he turns sexuality into an inescapable tangible and intangible force:
I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I'm having trouble you see, because he's old... and dying... and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him, and we make love beautifully. 
While showing real footage from feminist and political rallies, angered verbal prose on abortion rights, as well as scenes from Cronenberg's infamous "body horror" portions of his filmography (They Came From Within, Videodrome, Rabid, The Brood), Cronenberg explains, "Biology is a course destiny... From beginning to end, biology is destiny. But it's a very human thing to want to derail destiny. Therefore it's a very human thing for us to want to derail biology. And many of my characters are in the process of trying to derail biology in order to derail their destiny as well."

Perhaps most tellingly, Cronenberg states that his own personal goal for They Came From Within was not only to avoid filtering out his ambivalence about his belief system that inspired the film, but to let that guide its events. He states that he believes things can be both dangerous and wonderful at the same time, disgusting and beautiful at the same time. Therefore, it's only appropriate that the parasite in the film that spreads from host to host is both an aphrodisiac...and a venereal disease.

Cronenberg says, "I, on a very very basic level, am afraid of revolution. I don't want to have to experience that. And yet I recognize that there are times when those things are absolutely necessary, because there's no other way to change things."

"My father came up to me and said, 'Look, if you hear the [air raid] sirens, I want you to go down this museum building into the basement. And if you see a flash or something, cover yourself up.'"

 

Halloween night, 1963. The parents are away, the little brother's supposedly out trick-or-treating, and the big sister is sneaking a quickie with her even quicker boyfriend. Someone, you – the audience – sneaks alongside the house, in through the back door, grabs a knife from a drawer, climbs a set of stairs, slips on a clown mask, and stabs that big sister to death. You hurry back down the stairs and out the front door, when you're accosted by the big sister's parents. You, the audience, the killer, are a six-year-old boy. You've just murdered your own sister, and no one will ever know why.

Halloween has long been thought of as the ultimate morality tale. John Carpenter's second film, shot independently, went on to make back its budget nearly 150 times. It created a sub-genre, kick-started the idea of the movie maniac, and established all the rules that are still adhered to in films today. Fuck and die, drink/do drugs and die. If you're the virginal type who prefers schoolbooks and quiet nights to sexual escapades and reckless teen behavior, you might not only survive, but perhaps help put an end to a Halloween night of terror created by that masked man Michael Myers.

This segment of The American Nightmare, and the last film to be discussed, eschews cultural and societal discussion in favor of a psychological one. After all, in all the other films discussed previously, each had its own political inspiration for existing – each came about as a reaction to something awful occuring in our world. Therefore it's only appropriate that Halloween – the most innocent film in the bunch – does the heavy lifting of explaining the why. Why do we like to be scared? Why do we come for this? What can be derived from seeing the innocent (and not so innocent) torn apart, vivisected, their life ended with a thick blanket of red stuff?

"People often say a horror movie is a roller coaster ride," Professor Carol J. Glover questions, "but what is a roller coaster ride?"

Professor Tom Gunning might have the answer, equating an audience's entertainment by a horror film to a protective membrane – something we use to screen out the real horrors of the world. If we invest ourselves in terror on the silver screen, it helps us to deal with the actual terrors that await us on city streets, suburban backyards, or in our own homes.

This was never more relevant than during the 1950s, when our filmmakers were just kids, trying to eke out a life in this nasty world bequeathed to them by their parents. And ironically, they were more scared than the audiences whom they would soon terrify with their bodies of work – a direct result from a period of international unrest known as the Cold War.

"There was a sense that we weren't going to make it," Carpenter remembers."There was a sense that all of us were going to die in atomic war."

"Every fourth Friday – every Friday of the month – we heard the air raid sirens," Landis adds. "And we did drop drills. We were told 'face away from the glass.'"

"If the bomb falls in the center of Manhattan, here's complete devastation, here's partial devastation, and here was radiation poisoning," Romero recalls, using his hands to emphasize how glibly the different devastation zones were discussed back then. "I think we were somewhere in the partial devastation zone."

"I started asking my mother and father, 'Is the world going to come to an end?'" Hooper recalls. "I didn't know if death was going to fall from the skies at any time."

So, after all has been said and done, why horror films? Why present these terrible ideas and images to audiences? Why challenge them and scare them, especially in a world that needs no help in causing fear and helplessness?

"[Horror films are] boot camps for the psyche," says Craven. "It's strengthening [kids'] egos and strengthening their fortitude... That's something the parents never seem to think about... Even if [the films] are giving them nightmares, there's something there that's needed."



Jul 13, 2013

REVIEW: MY AMITYVILLE HORROR

 

It has taken something like nine or ten films with the word 'Amityville' in its title before we finally have something that is actually worth watching. Figures it should be a documentary approach to the alleged events that occurred in 112 Ocean Avenue in upstate New York, instead of a series of films whose events became increasingly overblown with each successive entry. Real life is always more terrifying than fiction, after all. (If you're somehow unaware of Amityville, catch up before reading on.)

My Amityville Horror is Daniel Lutz's story. The eldest child of Kathy Lutz (deceased) and step-son to George Lutz (also deceased), Daniel is still clearly haunted by the events that plagued his family for the 28 days in which they lived in the infamous house. And the scars are still certainly with him. Daniel bares his soul in more ways than one. He answers - open and honestly - every question lobbed at him, regardless of how ridiculous and unbelievable he knows his answers are going to sound. Not only that, but he allows cameras in on a session in which he discusses his childhood and the events of the house with his psychologist. At no point does he say "I won't talk about that;" likewise, he even snarls at the camera and says "I can't believe you're making me talk about this shit," before he goes on to answer whatever question it was that provoked such a response. It is an extremely intimate and unyielding look at the son of a horror.


Regardless of where your beliefs lie in terms of the Amityville house, My Amityville Horror proves to be incredibly interesting. Even if it were a work of utter fiction, Daniel is a compelling lead character. In a completely emotionally removed sort of way, there's a bastardized feeling of nostalgia one feels when hearing the eldest child reiterate some of the same stories the Lutz couple told all those years ago - in Jay Anson's book, and in all the subsequent newspaper articles and television specials that would follow. If you've followed the Amityville case in any capacity, you're aware of the fly-infested sewing room, the red-eyed pig demon, and the phantom marching band. But hearing all of these instances retold by a man who claims to have lived it as a child, and delivered in a no-holds-barred way, forces the viewer to reevaluate how he or she may feel about the claims. 

As to the legitimacy of the ghostly and demonic events themselves, I can't speculate, because I wasn't there. Neither were you. People being picked up and thrown across the room, or people becoming possessed by outside evil forces...instances like these are pretty unlikely, but not altogether impossible. Hence, that's the reason why I call Daniel Lutz a compelling lead. On the level or not, perhaps even deluded or not, Daniel's words carry weight. He does not present this information like an actor reading lines from a script. His anger, frustration, and tears make his stories of possession and telekinesis a little easier to swallow. But it is because of this anger that can sometimes make My Amityville Horror difficult to sit through. Daniel is oftentimes impatient with his interviewer. To watch his outbursts can be extremely uncomfortable, even while viewing the film with a thousand-mile buffer zone; I can only imagine the tension present between director Eric Walter and his subject during some of these moments. But because Daniel Lutz is a "real guy" and the documentary is exploring "real events," it would seem disposable to mention that at times Daniel's demeanor can make him unsympathetic. And that's kind of dangerous, considering he deserves your sympathy. This, however, is a slippery slope, because this is being presented as a true and unHollywood approach to telling the story of what "really" happened. As such, it's not like saying A-List Star's character in Such-a-Such movie comes across as unlikable, since that would have been an artistic choice. Daniel is who Daniel is. So while it may be unfair to claim he sometimes comes across as unsympathetic, it cannot go on unmentioned; plus, it does make him a more dynamic "character." (He's also really fond of offering Jim-from-The-Office-like amused glances directly into the camera.)


Those who previously delved into the so-called non-fiction aspects of the Amityville case won't find a whole lot of new information. As previously mentioned, you will hear a lot of the same old stories and become reacquainted with some old faces (I was anticipating seeing an appearance by Lorraine Warren and was not disappointed). But My Amityville Horror isn't about that - it's not about the hell the Lutz family went through then; it's about the hell Daniel is going through now, including a loss of identity and the feeling of being consistently disregarded and written off as the son continuing the farce began by his parents all those years ago.

Smartly, the doc takes an objective approach and allows the possibility that Daniel is simply fabricating his story - and these theories range from him being a pathological liar to having married his unhappy childhood with the claims his parents were weaving and, after a while, having no choice but to believe them.

The take-away theme of My Amityville Horror is two-fold: One - Daniel wanted to finally tell his own version of the story, because he feels he never got that chance; and two - he wants people to believe him. One of those was most certainly satisfied. Daniel's version of the story cuts through all of the baggage and reputation of the house and reveals what such events can do to a person. Not to speak ill of the dead, but in all of the vintage interviews featuring George and Kathy Lutz, even when they talked about leaving behind all their possessions and taking a huge financial hit in abandoning the house and living through the hell that they did, they never appeared broken. Granted, they never seemed ecstatic, but they did seem...okay.

Daniel Lutz does not. Whether the events at 112 Ocean Avenue happened or were a byproduct of an incredibly unhappy family situation, Daniel seems broken. Even when he seems to be okay, or even when someone asks him on camera how he is doing and he answers "fine," you know that's just simply not true. In fact, it may very well be the only purposeful lie Daniel tells in all of My Amityville Horror.

On DVD and VOD August 6.