Thursday, October 13, 2016

THE STUFF


Larry Cohen’s THE STUFF is a horror satire that somehow manages to be even more obvious than DAWN OF THE DEAD. Kim Newman once wrote that Cohen “still hasn’t received the critical attention he deserves” because he “makes monster movies”. Newman wrote that line in 1988 in the first edition of his wonderful Nightmare Movies. I’m still waiting for him to receive the critical attention he deserves. Cohen has a sharp, satiric wit capable of the kind of slight exaggeration necessary to make his bigger points work in a genre whose fans are more receptive to hyperbole than to subtle suggestion. Throughout his early works, we can see Cohen’s socially critical eye at work, but his work here seems to be more prophetic than usual. In a society where 36 percent of adults and 17 percent children are obese, what we are eating is killing us.

In THE STUFF, Cohen takes that basic idea and ramps it up to delirious levels. A popular snack treat is on fire all across the nation. People can’t bring themselves to stop eating it. A former FBI agent is brought in by the highly concerned CEOs of ice cream manufacturing companies and he launches an investigation, including visiting a FDA member who basically says that anything that couldn’t possibly cause harm (such as a snack treat) doesn’t deserve the kind of attention something that has health implications deserves. Except that snack treats DO have health implications and The Stuff of THE STUFF most definitely has health implications.

From calling this tasty, dangerous treat “The Stuff”, an obvious reference to what hard drugs were called at the time, to the commercial tagline attached to the product “Enough is Never Enough”, the very philosophical underpinning of the 1980s, Cohen’s re-imagining of our nation’s food obsession as a Pod People science fiction/horror/comedy never stops for breath and never stops being incredibly entertaining. Even though the special effects haven’t aged well (some of the process shots were bad enough in 1985; they look absolutely dreadful now), the story the film tells is much more salient today and is just as insightful as ever. Just like DAWN OF THE DEAD, another film whose satirical bent is every bit as on the mark now as it was then, the narrative implications in THE STUFF (in a way) ensures the film doesn’t age. Sure, the effects are wonky and the fashion is terrible, but what is written between the lines is always what matters most in a Cohen film. Here, he is spot on with his observations. 

THE STUFF is one of my favorite Cohen films, easily standing next to IT’S ALIVE, Q, GOD TOLD ME TO and BONE. It is probably the most fun of all those films. As an amalgamate of popular science fiction films of old (there’s all kinds of nods to films like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE BLOB and INVADERS FROM MARS), it is incredibly fun. As a straight horror film, it definitely fails. But as an elbow to the face of the Reagan era mass consumerism of the 1980s, it’s damn near perfect.

CRUISING


The first key signifier of any genre is iconography and it is rather interesting how often the horror iconography appears throughout other genres. The “psychological thriller” is a relatively new subgenre that typically exists within the larger “thriller” or “suspense” genres, but the iconography associated with the psychological thriller is the same as we would find in the typical urban-set horror film. The real difference between the horror film and the psychological thriller seems to be intent. Horror, in all its forms, is designed around the idea of disturbing or frightening the audience. Its primary motive is fear and/or discomfort, usually centered on an external threat. The psychological thriller is typically more devoted to internal struggles and the possibilité dramatique that comes along with it, even though it can, when the occasion calls for it, call upon an external threat to level the dramatic playing field. In essence, the psychological thriller is actually a bit of a bricolage, something designed to play both ends of the field, taking bits and pieces from the dramatic and mixing them with bits and pieces of the horrific.

In the past, I have argued for a subgenre of horror that I called Urban Horror, films which deal with external or internal breakdown along the lines usually associated with horror genre, but which put more emphasis on the dramatic than the visceral. As such, TAXI DRIVER is a perfect example of an Urban Horror film. Usually the arguments against my including of films like TAXI DRIVER into the horror genre have to do with their privilege of prestige. It’s the very reason “psychological thriller” is used so frequently. A film like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS plays like a horror film, contains mutilation, abuse, frightening set pieces and (mild) gore, but because it is an Oscar winning film with an Oscar winning cast and an air of prestige about it, people stick the “psychological thriller” label on it, as if the attachment of “horror” to the film is an insult to the material.

I generally don’t receive much blow back when I refer to CRUISING as an Urban Horror film, probably because it doesn’t have the same kind of critical baggage that films like TAXI DRIVER have. It feels like an urban-set giallo film. It has the same kind of cynical oppression running through its veins, that feeling of misanthropy, that willingness to push buttons for the sake of pushing buttons. It is an incredibly uncomfortable film (more so if you’re a homophobe) and one that wallows in its exploitation instead of coyly flirting with it. William Friedkin is well aware of each and every leading question the film asks, well aware that he is presenting situations that can only lead to unethical outcomes. Everything about this film is designed for the maximum amount of discomfort. That Friedkin is a fan of Argento and Bava should come as no surprise, but what is surprising is how well he’s taken their lessons to heart. This is a cold film, unsparing in its misanthropic view of a hedonistic underworld and the dismissive, opportunistic cops that patrol it.

CRUISING has the ability to disquiet and disturb precisely because there is no heart beating beneath the surface. It wouldn’t feel out of place among Fulci’s THE NEW YORK RIPPER or Dallamano’s WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS?. It’s very construct, a killer running loose in a world that the pursuers cannot understand but must immerse themselves in, something they do at their own risk, has been the backbone of many horror films. Friedkin’s film resists the politicizing and sociological bent that several of these films take and creates a work that draws largely on primal instinct. The dramatic elements of the film are all centered around an internal struggle brought about from external stress, allowing the film to straddle the traditional lines of demarcation between the horror film and the psychological thriller. By the time the credits roll, identities have shifted, perceptions have changed and ethics have eroded beyond repair.

The typical horror film ends with a coda that assures us that order has been restored, but that the balance is still teetering precariously on the edge. Friedkin rejects such hopeful notions here. In Friedkin’s world, there is no order to be found. It’s all an illusion. An impossibility. Pacino survive his ordeal in CRUISING and brings the psychopath to justice, but loses himself in the process. The ending assures us that no matter how many psychos we lock up, there will always be murderers wandering the streets. It’s a hopeless film. A disturbing film. And yes, an Urban Horror film.

THE INITIATION



Why do I enjoy some slasher films and not others? What is it about one slasher film that makes it stand out from another slasher film? Given that every single slasher film adheres to a very strict, very cardboard structure, what makes one seem fresh and the other seem stale? These are three questions I often ask myself when I’ve seen a slasher film I enjoy. The answers usually come down to characters. There seems to be an unwritten rule book somewhere that dictates that all slasher film characters need to be oblivious, sex obsessed and utterly vapid. Characterization comes down to little more than social standing (popular or unpopular) and/or high school cliché group (nerd, jock, cheerleader, weirdo, etc). That shouldn’t (and probably doesn’t) surprise anyone. These are films made to be immediately accessible to slasher fans, many of whom are either in their high school years or close enough to them to immediately recognize themselves in one of those prescribed roles. There is a notion among film studies of something called “vernacular cinema”. Vernacular cinema tends to stay within rigidly defined scopes, relying on familiarity to appeal to a specific group of moviegoers. Like slang, those who speak the vernacular are instantly comfortable. Those who don’t will obviously struggle to find their footing.

Slasher films fit perfectly into the vernacular cinema. There is a reason that producers, writers and directors don’t fuck around with the “rules” all that often. Doing so would risk alienating moviegoers who are expecting a specific kind of film. For all the dream sequences, mind bending reversals of the conscious and unconscious, and playing around with diegetic elements, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET still plays by those rules. If Craven had stretched his film more, he would have risked leaving behind the familiar (the vernacular) structure of the slasher film and that would have likely caused many ticket buyers to toss their popcorn. 

THE INITIATION doesn’t try to break through the vernacular. It doesn’t attempt any kind of originality in its story or presentation, but it still manages to be one of the better mid-80s slasher films. It presents a charming, interesting Final Girl with more baggage and personality than most (and it doesn’t hurt to have the cute-as-a-button Daphne Zuniga playing the role) and contains a little more subtext and subtlety than usual. It makes identity politics a key element from the get-go and is probably more concerned with its climactic reversal than most slasher films. There is even a smattering of symbolism throughout the film (notice the paired actions or the staging of events before mirrors) that adds a bit of replay value to the film. It is careful in its construction and earns its gotcha moments. Even though it is much more anemic than most of its brethren, it contains a few decent stalk-and-slash set pieces and its red herrings are actually tied into the narrative resolution than simply bolted on for the sake of confusing the audience.

In terms of characters, THE INITIATION is far less annoying than most and actually manages to contain a subplot between two characters that is kind of clumsily touching. Sure the film relies on the typical bitchy sorority sister and a pair of obnoxious jokers to pad out the victim checklist, but they’re underplayed in the film just enough that they never derail the film. If THE INITIATION has one major flaw it’s in the structure of the film. The wait to get to the central location (a shopping mall operated by the Final Girl’s father that they’ve broken into as part of a sorority initiation) takes place rather late in the film. The film feels lopsided. Much like HELL NIGHT or THE FUNHOUSE, we know the majority of the action will happen once the characters are isolated inside the location. Waiting to get there kills off some of the fun. Once the film moves into the mall, it speeds along at a good pace but I definitely wanted more, something to help balance the slow, methodical first half with the breakneck second half. But that’s a small quibble in light of how many things THE INITIATION gets right. In a subgenre full of absolutely terrible films, THE INITIATION comes across as entertaining, interesting and even a bit ingenious at times.

DOLLS


Stuart Gordon’s DOLLS was basically just a dry run for the 1989 cult horror classic PUPPET MASTER. Both films were productions run by Charles Band for Empire Pictures and both have the same kind of childish wonder to their tone. They are films positively dripping with a keen sense of old fashioned, spook show kitsch. Had the gore on display in DOLLS been dialed down a bit, this would have been a perfect horror film for the under 13 crowd. That isn’t a slam against the film. Absolutely not. That DOLLS manages to be able to juggle the serious horror bits with the more old fashioned and relatively harmless fluff horror of childhood bedtime stories is a true testament to how well the film operates. It’s a definite charmer, a work that might be a bit too thin for the hardcore crowd but will easily please those who just enjoy a good horror yarn.

Stuart Gordon was one of the more audacious horror directors of the time and he is both the films greatest asset and, paradoxically, its greatest weakness. Gordon’s surefire direction keeps the film in focus and imbues it with a genuine sense of momentum, but in comparison to Gordon’s previous horror output, the film feels a bit underwhelming. Visually, it is quite beautiful at times and Gordon’s framing makes sure every bit of the small budget is optimized on the screen, but the small budget has seriously crippled Gordon’s ability to really let his extraordinary vision run wild. The film is missing that kind of manic intensity that marked Gordon’s best films. It is professional and lovely to watch, but feels a bit mechanical. This is however a criticism that can only be made in light of Gordon’s earlier works and perhaps not a proper criticism of the film itself.

Killer dolls were a hot commodity in the horror industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It is often fun to compare all of these kinds of films. CHILD'S PLAY was great fun, but it took the more obvious approach, taking a child's toy and turning it into a vulgar, bloodthirsty killer. The PUPPET MASTER series treated its killer dolls like antiheroes with distinct personalities and MOs that made their murderous rampages all the more fun to watch (especially in part 3, TOULON'S REVENGE, when their targets are Nazis). DEMONIC TOYS tried to marry those two franchises into one by mixing the vulgarity of the former with the inventiveness of the latter, but largely came across as little more than an inferior rip-off of the PUPPET MASTER series. DOLLS is the sweetest of the films/franchises. It has the most wonder to it, the most heart and soul. It really is a wonderful little film and one that deserves reappraisal.


THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES



When the Silver Bridge collapsed on December 15, 1976, 46 lives were lost and a mythology began to take shape. In the months prior to the disaster, strange events were supposedly taking place in the town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Strange objects were seen in the skies. Men in black suits wandered through the town, questioning citizens, even threatening them. But most worrying of all were the sightings of a large, winged humanoid creature, a beast with a wingspan of ten feet and eyes like footballs that glowed red in the darkness of the night. Journalist and UFO enthusiast John Keel soon showed up in Point Pleasant to write an investigative report on the events. His conspiracy laden and fantastical tome, The Mothman Prophecies, tied all of these events together, reaching the conclusion that the Mothman might not have been a creature hellbent on terrorizing the community. It might have been trying to warn them of the impending catastrophe. 

Full disclosure: I am an atheist and a philosophical materialist. I do not believe in God. I also don’t believe in spirits, ghosts, extraterrestrial space craft, past lives, psychics, Loch Ness Monsters, Bigfoot (bigfeet?) or anything else for which there is no empirical evidence. I am skeptical of every claim of paranormal or cryptozoological activity. In short, I don’t buy it. Any of it. That isn’t to say that I am unwilling to look at evidences. That isn’t to say I am not willing to have my mind changed. In a way, I wish there were such things as ghosts, alien abductions, sea serpents and mothmen. But I see no reason to believe any of it. 

I say all of that because I run into a specific question quite often. People ask me “if you don’t believe in ghosts/monsters/etc, doesn’t that impact your ability to enjoy a movie featuring ghosts/monsters/etc?” I suppose that’s a valid question, but it isn’t really relevant. THE EXORCIST frightened me. SUSPIRIA frightened me. A great amount of films frightened me. None of them required me to believe in demonic possession, witches, werewolves or various monstrous entities. When I read Keel’s book, I found it a great read. It was interesting. It didn’t matter to me that it was bullshit. It was entertaining bullshit. I read it like someone would read a science fiction novel or a horror novel and was definitely entertained all the way through.

So why didn’t THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES film entertain me? Simply put, it has none of the scope or paranoiac tone of Keel’s book. It’s too slight a film, too slick and far too truncated. Instead of focusing on the events surrounding the town of Point Pleasant, it focuses on one man, Richard Gere’s John Keel stand-in, John Klein. Klein’s role in the film is less proactive than I would have liked. Most of the screen time is dedicated to him doing virtually nothing. The overall sense of encroaching mystery made the book work, but the film has none of that. The film is far too lackadaisical, too narrowly focused. It practically oozes atmosphere, don’t get me wrong, and contains moments that are skin crawlingly eerie, but the compressing of the films point of view hurts the translation to screen. 

Now how would I feel about the film if I never read the book? I don’t think it would have changed much. As I said, the film contains some great moments (the climactic bridge collapse is one of those moments, besting the more graphic, more expensive, bridge collapse from the recent FINAL DESTINATION 5) but it feels more like an extended episode of X-Files than it does a good standalone film. The creature is only glimpsed once or twice (and very briefly in an almost abstract way), a fact that will drive a monster fan nuts, and the characterization is flat and uninteresting. The best thing about the film, a subplot involving a possibly extraterrestrial creature who harasses Klein over the phone, makes the middle section of the film much more interesting than the dull beginning (which plays out like a second rate Twilight Zone episode) and it finishes strong with the aforementioned bridge collapse. There just really isn’t anything else to it. It’s hollow but pretty, filled with good moments that deserved better accompaniment. A disappointment if looked at as a whole. A very minor success if looked at in bits and pieces.

THE MIST


It’s a common idea, take a group of people and stick them into a situation they cannot escape. And it’s a common outcome, the group will collapse under the weight of their own shortcomings. It’s no different than any of George Romero’s zombie films. In the world of Romero, it isn’t the zombies that you need to worry about. It’s the person standing next to you. In Romeroland, the zombie apocalypse won’t bring about the total end of humanity. It’s the inability of people to sacrifice their ideologies and their inability to communicate with one another. That will be the final nail in the coffin for humanity. No matter how many glimpses of hope Romero gives us (and he does give us a few), there will be no chance of us escaping that particular doom. Unless of course we go it alone. But that would likely speed us towards our eventual demise, not prevent it.

Stephen King argued the same point in his 1980 novella The Mist, a gripping little story I first encountered as a 12 year old in his anthology Skeleton Crew. I always thought it would make a great film. In 2007, Frank Darabont proved me right. The novella wasn’t the first time King pulled out the “pressure cooker” scenario (he had done it before with The Long Walk in 1979) and it wouldn’t be the last time (he used it in his 2009 epic Under the Dome), but it was most effective here, the battle lines between the two parties involved was clearer and the action, when it came, was much more satisfactory. The novella format was the perfect format for this particular story. Not too long and not too short, the relatively short length provided the work with a kind of precision that was missing from many of King’s longer works at that time. Gone were the verbose descriptions and painfully complicated plotting. In their place was a true economy of storytelling, all told with the force of a runaway train. The ending struck me as vague at the time of my first reading, disappointing as my 12 year old mind wanted a concrete resolution. But I didn’t think any kind of resolution would have felt right anyway. Where do you go when the world has collapsed? Was there anywhere for David to go?

My reaction to Darabont’s adaptation was strong, unusually so given how familiar I was with the source material. I was impressed that he managed to convey the same sense of mounting tension that King had worked in so effortlessly in his novella. I was also impressed that Darabont didn’t play nice with his audience. As an atheist, I have no sympathies for Mrs. Carmody. Reading the novella, I started out merely disliking her. By the time Ollie put a bullet in her, I passionately hated her. One of the real joys of watching THE MIST was seeing Marcia Gay Harden bring Carmody to full-throated life on screen. I was convinced that the character would lapse into unintentional comedy or larger than life satire. I was convinced that Darabont would find some way to bring an element of humor to her character. I was pleased to no end that he didn’t. I would wager that 99.9% of the people in that auditorium with me were Christians of one stripe or another. All of them applauded when Ollie blew Carmody’s brains out. I have only ever experienced one film where a single event on-screen caused spontaneous, whole theater applause. This was that film.

I wondered about that moment on screen during my walk home from the theater. If something akin to THE MIST would have happened while I was in the theater… Had we all ran to the front doors to find the Earth overrun with hungry, meat-eating, transdimensional insects… Would any of those Christians I sat in the theater with responded to the event by thinking that it was the end of days? Would they have spiraled down the rabbit hole of religious fanaticism like poor, delusional Mrs. Carmody? Would I have found myself being fed to the ravenous monsters outside the lobby doors? Nothing can bring out our buried irrationality like fear and, as Lovecraft always told us, there is no greater fear than fear of the unknown.

Some people criticized the film when it was first released to theaters as little more than a nasty screed against religion. King is not an atheist, though he is non-denominational. The religion called out by the film is certainly Christian but it is far from the standard Christianity on display in most corners of the United States (though not entirely too far; there are plenty of otherwise decent believers who use their Bible to beat those who are not in agreement with their religious beliefs). The assault on the immovable dogma of Fundamentalism is undeniable here, but the claim that this is somehow an anti-religion film is off the mark. Nonetheless, it is this conflict between fire and brimstone Christianity and rationality that provides the film with its dramatic backbone and it holds no punches in drawing the conflict out to its obvious, bloody ends. The creature attacks, spectacular though they may be, come off as mere distractions. That is not to say though bits don’t have a place here or that their inclusion weakens the material. Neither of those things is true, but the really interesting part of THE MIST is the human interaction and not the creature attacks.

Lastly, no review of THE MIST would be complete without a brief discussion of the films ending. Going back to my earlier statements, I had no idea how this story could have concluded properly. King’s novella ends with our survivors driving off into the mist. Nothing further is written. Darabont’s decision to end the film with a suicide pact seems logical (what else is there to do?), but the final plot reversal feels overly pessimistic and cruel. But that’s kind of the point. It still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It just seems so unnecessarily cruel. Not to the characters, mind you, but to me, to you, to the audience. But then the clarity comes in and retrospectively it makes a kind of sense. For the past two hours we have watched what happens when reactionary impulses take control, when otherwise normal people leap to ridiculous conclusions or take actions out of fear and despair. And we’ve seen what can come from those decisions. No one is exempt from that. No one escapes those consequences.

Not even our hero.