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The Science-fication of Horror

In the days of olde, let’s say the 1940’s and back, horror movie monsters were the stuff of legends and myth. They were the vampires and werewolves of Eastern Europe. They were the mummies of Ancient Egypt. They were the primitive beasts from the Pleistocene Era. They were the ghosts and ghouls from Victorian castles.

With few exceptions, these beasts came lurking out from the shadows of superstition. They were magical or gypsy curses or hell-borne. Their reason for being was shrouded in the darkness of antiquity.

There are exceptions, of course. There are your Doctor Frankensteins and your Doctor Griffins and your Dr. Jekylls. But they are not so common and the science they practice is only step removed from wizardry and alchemy.

But then came the Atomic Bomb and people realized, suddenly and violently, that science could result in far more potent horrors than one ever found in the works of Stoker, Shelley or Wells.

The 50’s are plagued with atomic horrors, beasts irradiated and made large, deformed and horrific and bent on the destruction of mankind. They were garden variety pests that could chow down on sky scrapers. They were men and women blessed by radioactive stature. They stood tall and large and obscene and loomed like mushroom clouds over the landscape.

At the same time, the Space Race was getting started in earnest and people looked to the skies and saw the potential for menace. Whether space vegetables (either in the form of  pods or James Arness) or giant, crawling eyes or small, crawling hands, we saw invaders from the stars with the same hellish intents as our communist neighbors.

The gothic and the ghastly fell away to make way for horrors created by what Americans saw every day in the paper. Our fears are always defined by the larger pop culture and it rarely takes much to see what inspires our nightmares.

As we head into the late 60’s and 70’s, serial killers dominate the papers and we get Psycho, Black Christmas, and Halloween.

More and more, our fictional fears become more grounded in reality. We are reduced to large men with sharp knives. No matter how colorful or indestructible they are, they are still just glam rock versions of Bundy, Manson and Dahmer.

And that began a slow change within the traditional horrors and it can be seen in the zombie genre most clearly. Before Romero, zombies were voodoo and that was that. Witch doctors cast spells and lo, there came the walking dead.

But in The Night of the Living Dead, there is a passing reference to a comet and the walking dead, albeit in a very slight and subtle manner, are given a scientific reason for their improbable existence. Further, the “zed word” is never mentioned in the movie. The zombies are distanced from their religious roots, from folklore and from legend. As the “of the Living Dead” series progresses, Romero dissects them a little bit more each time. They are subjected to medical experiments and researched and psychoanalyzed.

And that’s what begins to happen to all of the old movie monsterss. Take any movie script involving vampires  or werewolves and you can do a find and replace for “magic” with “virus” and boom, you have the modern horror movie. It’s not a curse, it’s a disease.  It’s not magical, it’s biological. The modern audience does not accept magic as the obvious explanation. The audience needs explanation and dissection and vivisection. There needs to be analysis and intervention.

In all of this, there is a very key point: there is a need to understand the monster so that it can be destroyed.

Horror is our release valve for the internal pressures built up from fear and anxiety and worry. There are a thousand different anxieties that we face day to day and we have very little control over most of them. The horror fictions are only an effective release when we have a way to deal with the monsters they present.

A monster borne of magic is less effective as a release valve, when we don’t believe in magic in any form and cannot relate to the monster on any level, either as a believable threat or confrontable menace. As Americans become more secular, the idea of a monster that can be turned aside by a cross becomes less palatable. But a monster that can be turned aside by an injection or by a prescription becomes that needed release.

Horror, to be effective and relevant, is always adapting. It shapes our fears into beasts that can be killed. It turns car accidents and cancers and school shootings into fanged and fearsome dragons that can be slayed with the correct incantation and the right weapon.

As time passes and we grow more knowledgeable as a society, these dragons must adapt to be more sophisticated and more resilient and reflect our knowledge. The tools to defeat them grow increasingly more complex in response.

As time goes on, it will be more difficult for horror to function as an effective means for release. As knowledge and information become more accessible, our awareness will make it less possible to escape and to enjoy the fictions we create to avoid the painful truths of reality. At that point, fiction will stop being a bastion against reality and humanity will need to confront what it needs to do to continue as a species.

-D-

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James Bond: Chapter One; The First Chapter

“Today we are fighting Communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of Conservatism we have today would have been damn near called Communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”
― James Bond, Casino Royale

I like James Bond. And, like everything else I’m interested in, I have to like it in a obsessive compulsive way that deeply worries the people closest to me. I hate half-measures and lackluster efforts. I have to take my interests and plow them into the ground, wringing out every last bit of enjoyment until I can’t stand the subject and put it on the shelf for a year.

James Bond is one I keep coming back to. He’s a hero that has survived over sixty years, from Ian Fleming’s first novel all the way to his next movie that’s due to be released next year.

He has fought communists, insane madmen seeking to blow up Silicon Valley, North Korean terrorists with a penchant for plastic surgery and duplicitous water stealing businessmen.

James Bond is a hero who has maintained the same posture and panache for his entire run, but, throughout, has maintained a relevancy that few other characters can claim. It is remarkable that someone who was so defined by the culture of the Cold War has not only survived twenty years after the end of that war, but has thrived.

He is defined by a cultured ruthlessness, a suave viciousness. He will lecture you on the correct way to drink a martini and then callously dispatch a henchmen without reflection or doubt. He remains, in many ways, thoroughly British, though beloved around the world.

His longevity is compelling in and of itself. He has been portrayed by many different actors in many different ways through vastly different era. His novels are still being written to this day, in spite of the fact that the original author has been dead and buried for fifty years.

Because of my obsessive compulsive madness, I need, NEED, to figure out a way to go the extra mile in James Bond researches. So, with a complete lack of careful thought and a dutiful inattentiveness to how much free time I actually have, I have decided to watch every James Bond movie, in chronological order, until I lose interest or I reach the final movie.

I will start with the first on-screen appearance. Which is, obviously, the hour long TV episode of Casino Royale.

Look for it at this location next week.

-D-

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Halloween Horror Movies

We all have our ways of celebrating Halloween. If you’re still in elementary school, you put on a costume and beg strangers for candy. If you’re in college, you use Halloween as an excuse to get blitzed. If you’re my age, you sit at home and quietly contemplate opening an Ameritrade account before deciding that adulthood can wait another year and watching a scary movie instead.

Every year, I try and watch a few new horror movies, but there are a few that I must watch, that I need to watch or the season just doesn’t feel right. It’s like not carving a Jack O’ Lantern or not eating a hundred of those tiny fun sized candy bars; it’s part of the tradition and they must be watched.

So, in no particular order, here are five of the movies that I have to see before November 1:

(All images willfully stolen from IMDB.com)

The Thing

The Thing (1982) Poster

I’m not talking about the original that came out in 1951 and starred James Arness as a killer vegetable and I’m not talking about the sub-par prequel that I’m not even going to waste any more words on; I’m talking about John Carpenter’s The Thing with Kurt Russel, Keith David and goddamn Wilfred Brimley.

The Thing, if you didn’t know, is about scientists messing with something buried in the Antarctic and unleashing a potentially world devastating creature from its icy prison. The thing can imitate anyone and it begins to kill and replace the scientists one by one. What follows is ninety minutes of claustrophobic, paranoiac horror with some truly creepy and intense special effects that rival the effects of its predecessor twenty years later.

It’s a movie I can watch over and over again, trying to figure out who is who and when they’ve been replaced by the thing from another world. Great piece of sci-fi horror and one whose horror and striking visuals have withstood the test of time.

Next up, another cinema classic:

Friday the 13th, Part III

Friday the 13th Part III (1982) Poster

I’m a sucker for the Friday the 13th movies. I don’t know why and I’ve given up trying to explain to people why I like such indefensibly horrible movies. They have no redeeming quality except that they’re entertaining.

I learned long ago that I can’t watch all of them in one month without risking irreparable damage to key parts of my brain, so I narrow my selection to a few of my favorites. While I really enjoy Parts IV, VI and X, Part III will always be my favorite. It’s the movie where Jason gets his hockey mask. It has biker gangs, pot smoking hippies and the grungiest corner store owners on the planet: all of whom are cheerfully dispatched by a lunatic with a machete.

My favorite part about this movie, the thing that pushes it right over the edge into hilariously bad territory, is that it was originally released in 3D, leading to plenty of painfully obvious attempts to make use of the technology with harpoons and snakes launching themselves right at the camera on clearly visible wires.

If you watch only one Friday the 13th movie this season, make it this one. Or Jason X.

Next:

An American Werewolf in London

An American Werewolf in London (1981) Poster

An American Werewolf in London is the best werewolf movie ever made. That’s not the hyperbolic exultation of a fan, it’s just the truth. No werewolf movie has ever topped this one in terms of story, effects, writing or acting. It’s as much a black comedy as it is a horror movie and has genuinely funny moments threaded throughout.

It takes the werewolf legend and adds its own spin to the story that has been told over and over again. Plus, it has the best soundtrack out of any horror movie with every song having something to do with the moon.

I will say that if you want a different werewolf movie of equal caliber, you could also check out Ginger Snaps, which is equally creative and equally, bleakly funny.

Oh quick warning: stay the hell away from the sequel. It is inexcusably bad and not in a fun way.

Speaking of dark comedies:

Scream

Scream (1996) Poster

Scream is the creation of Wes Craven, one of the people responsible for the slasher genre and the way it took off big in the 80’s. He took everything he knew about the genre and turned it on its ear. He pulled back the curtain and gleefully pointed out, in the movie itself, the numerous cliches that plague every slasher genre.

Scream was meta before meta was a thing. It’s a self referential, witty take on the genre and also extremely brutal, violent and is a very pointed attack against just how predictable horror movies had become.

For fans of slasher movies, Scream is something you’ve already seen it or you damn well should have.

Which leads me to:

Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods (2012) Poster

Cabin in the Woods is to all horror movies what Scream is to slasher movies. Cabin lays bare the mechanics behind those movies that we love to watch and love to let scare us. It examines the roles of myths and legends and fear. It’s one of those films about filmmakers, but it’s slyly so and subtly so. This is the movie for horror movie fans. It references different genres, specific movies, props and tropes.

It’s entertaining and hilarious and filled with well acted and quirky characters, which is a rarity in any horror movie. This is a loving tribute to the genre and the best possible way to finish out the season. If you love horror, watch this.

Those are just five of the movies I want (need) to watch and this is, by no means, a comprehensive list. There are plenty of others (Trick ‘r Treat, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween) that just didn’t make the list because I capped it at five.What do you watch to get in the mood for Halloween?

-D-

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Saturday Night Movie Review: Nazis at the Center of the Earth

As I mentioned last week, I’m going to start reviewing movies that I believe are perfect to watch while drinking beer and hanging out with friends. Or, if you’re me, drinking a warm bloody mary while you’re by yourself. They’re the movies that are so bad they’re funny, over-the-top violence and acting so wooden you could build a table out of it.

All the movies I review will be readily available online, either through Netflix Instant or Amazon Prime or one of the many other (legal) streaming sites.

This week: Nazis at the Center of the Earth

Now, I have a couple of criteria when it comes to movies of this caliber. They must be delightfully, whimsically stupid. There must be plenty of opportunities where everyone can jump in and throw out a random one liner.

For example, right off the bat, the title of this movie is ripe with stupid and then the plot just keeps delivering.

We follow the tale of a group of intrepid arctic scientists who stumble across a secret, underground Nazi base: by accidentally drilling into it.They start to drill into the ice, the drill screeches to a halt and they brush an inch of snow off of a giant swastika. Because when you’re trying to get a core sample using extremely expensive equipment, you don’t test the ground in any way, shape or form to make sure you’re not drilling into solid rock or a Nazi bunker.

NazisCenter1

As the movie progresses it turns out that the Nazis have a sinister plan (which is not surprising, given the whole “being Nazis thing”) and they kidnap the entire team, dragging them into their subterranean layer where it is revealed that they are also zombies.

NazisCenter2

 

To recap: The villains in this movies are Nazi zombies that live in a underground military base under the Antarctic led by an immortal Doctor Mengele. Oh, and Jake Busey is a scientist, which is humorous in and of itself since the only other thing I’ve ever seen him play is a psychopath who eats a baseball bat in Identity. All in all, you have the perfect recipe for one of the stupidest movies to slither onto the screen since Troll 2.

But here comes the problem. About halfway through the movie, things get nasty. It gets mean spirited and unpleasant and vicious in a way that stops being funny and more makes you feel like you participated in something that you did not want to participate in. It stops being fun to watch and turns into something you’d turn off and walk away from.

Which is a shame, because this is the same movie with a terrible CGI UFO…

NazisCenter3

 

…and that’s not even the stupidest thing you will come across in this movie. That would be terrible CGI robot Hitler.

But I can’t 100% recommend this movie unless you’re the kind of person that found Human Centipede funny. Otherwise, you’ll get to that middle bit and completely shut-down.

If you’re looking for something fun all the way through, avoid this. I can see too many people getting to the shower scene and reaching for the remote in a hurry.

I give this Five “Are you really trying to sell Jake Busey as a scientist?”s and Two Squinchy Gut Roilers.

I’m also a little disappointed that I misrolled two times in a row and I’ve only done this segment twice. Next week, I guarantee that I’ll find you something awesome to watch.

Guaranteed.

-D-

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Movie Review: Dark Knight Rises

If you didn’t see my earlier entry, let me recap here:

I really love the Batman movies. The ones by Christopher Nolan. I’ve been watching them repeatedly since Batman Begins came out seven years ago. I’ve obsessed over them and in no gentle way.

Partly this has to do with the fact that I grew up with the best cartoon Batman ever and partly it has to do with the general awesomeness of what Nolan accomplished with all three movies.

With the newest movie, Nolan has tied it all up, neat and tight. From beginning to end it’s a thoroughly satisfying narrative. He has managed to tell a story with all three movies in a way few directors could (Peter Jackson cheated by doing all three at once and using a single unified source. George Lucas uses plot holes to shore up a cliched story-arc.) They’re not perfect. I will not defend them to the death. There are gaps in logic and weird puns and stumbling lines and some oddly terrible actors hiding amidst stellar performances.

Speaking of which, Anne Hathaway surprised me. I’ve never had much of an opinion about her or her acting, but she took a character I could care less about and made me care. She was funny and bad-ass and stole almost every scene she was in.

But then, in general, The Dark Knight Rises  manages to hit all the right notes. And here and there, they hearken back to the two earlier movies without hitting the audience with a sledgehammer. There are mirrored lines and motivations and scenes that vibrate along those sympathetic wave lengths that make you turn to the person next to you and say, “Remember from Batman Begins when that thing with the thing happened?”

And at the end, satisfaction, because it feels like this was how it was always going to end.  It doesn’t feel contrived or forced. It’s a natural outcome of events as dictated by the actions of the characters.

And it was the best ending for a series I’ve been following for seven years.

Godspeed Batman.

-D-

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The Dark Knight Rises: Prepping

Ever since Batman Begins, I’ve been a little crazy for Batman. I read all the news. Got excited about the casting. Debated the merits of Katie Holmes and how she was going to ruin it.

When The Dark Knight was announced, I nearly exploded from joy. The Joker! Maggie Gyllenhaal! Two-Face! More Batman!

I became certain that I would die before it came out, that I would miss what was surely going to be the best movie ever.

And, now very soon, the third and last movie in the trilogy is coming out and I’m going to be there, front row center. Not literally. Those would be terrible seats.

This time, I have to be there at the  start to see the end. Expect a review tonight or tomorrow.

And expect it to specked with my tears.

-D-

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Movie Review: Antichrist (Part 2)

I finished watching Antichrist and, as promised, here’s the second and last part of my review.

After I finished watching it, I needed a hug. It’s an emotionally draining movie; filled with disturbing images and grotesque elements. It depicted vile things and at the end, I wasn’t entirely sure what I had seen. I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again and I doubt I’ll ever be able to recommend it to anyone.

In spite of that and because of that, I’m more than willing to say that this is one of the best horror movies to be made in the last fifteen years. It went to the very limited of my comfort zones and stayed there for the duration of the movie. At no point was I ever relaxed or settling back down. It ratcheted up the tension and kept it here and didn’t allow for a moment of respite.

It’s  moments like this that I long for when I watch horror movies. I want to be uncomfortable. I want to be on edge. I want to be swept up in a tide of relentless energy.

It’s movies like Antichrist that give me hope that the genre will not be completely lost in a sea of senseless sequels and gratuitous violence. There is hope that people can go to the movies and experience true fear. Because if we cannot be scared in a theater, that leaves us precious few options.

-D-

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