Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Review: Frankenstein's Army (2013)



Ever since its trailer debuted, Frankenstein’s Army always enticed me because it teased the idea of a World War II-era Victor Frankenstein, and a plethora of steampunk/dieselpunk monsters. This period of world history has always interested me, and with underwhelming films like War of the Dead or The Keep, it was nice to see a fresh, hard-hitting look at a secret Nazi experiment gone horribly out of control. The possibilities were endless. The monsters (based solely off the trailer) were on par with the creatures of the Resident Evil, BioShock and Silent Hill video games. Who wouldn’t be lured? Well, after finally seeing it, it turned out that it wasn’t a bad film, but I would have loved it had it done a few things right. I did not hate it. My feelings are what you’d call bittersweet. So lets dive in.

First off, what is this movie about? In the final days of World War II, a group of Russian soldiers stumble upon a near-abandoned village, ravaged by some unseen force, only to discover a church that was used as a laboratory for something. Right off the bat we know something is wrong; we even see a cross fitted with electrical wiring, tantalizing the callback to when Victor harnessed lightning to breathe life into his monster. As the Russians dwell deeper and deeper into the underground tunnels, they come face to face with a horde of soldiers horrifically deformed by mechanical equipment. They soon discover that the deranged grandson of Victor Frankenstein is behind the carnage, and that their trusty documentarian (who follows them around filming everything) has a hidden agenda.


From here on out, there are SPOILERS.

The whole film plays out like a sales pitch for a video game. Because it’s told with found footage, we are given a ‘first person shooter’ perspective, and the various Frankenstein monsters are similar to either the demons or the mutants one would face in Doom or Resident Evil. This is the film’s best asset. The level of imagination displayed in some of these ‘monsters’ is impeccable, and makes for a truly memorable and horrific experience. To think, these things were once people (in one case a child). Each ‘monster’ has its own method of attacking. They sometimes have claws, blades, hammers, drills, and in one bizarre instance, an airplane turbine. Further research will yield some very interesting stories about what each ‘monster’ was prior to their “surgery.” In fact, they even have names. Doesn’t this sound like something that would be in a video game? Here are some of my favorite ‘monsters:’









Conceptually, the film is strong and unique. The writers take an old story, one that’s been redone countless of other times, and spins it into something new. Setting it in World War II lends an assortment of primitive and unusual machinery for Frankenstein to play around with. I admit that I am a sucker for period pieces. Instead of following around a German or American battalion, we follow Russian Communists, which I liked because they’re not the usual American heroes. One of the common criticisms of Frankenstein’s Army is the lack of character development, and sympathy towards these characters. While I cannot disapprove of someone not showing any sympathy, I can offer an argument against character development. Unless we follow these men from training, throughout the war, and up until this moment, this is story that doesn’t need character arcs. This is not Full Metal Jacket. This is the end of World War II; the characters should have completed their arc, if they had one. I enjoyed our Russian heroes, except for one but I suppose he was meant to be the film’s asshole. Even our documentarian, a bastard at first; we learn that he is so insistent on persevering because his family will be killed if he doesn’t capture Dr. Frankenstein. There is no development but it adds a sense of humanity to an otherwise generic scumbag. Even Dr. Frankenstein, a man who spent the early days of the war locked up in a concentration camp, isn’t just a generic evil doctor. You can tell that he a man who has witnessed (and consequently warped) by the viciousness of humanity. He has a set belief and a goal.      

There is a lot of gore and dismemberment, and a brain-picking scene that Hannibal Lector would approve of. Karel Roden (Rasputin from Hellboy), who plays Frankenstein, brings an air of ambiguity and elegance to his deranged character. Unbelievably, there is even moments of pitch-black comedy: a legless Frankenstein creation aimlessly crawls on the floor with nobody batting an eye, and a severed head stitched onto a teddy bear to name a few. All of these aspects nearly compensate for the only major downside to this film. I believe if it weren’t for this criticism, I would consider Frankenstein’s Army to be the best horror movie of 2013, slightly above Maniac.


I could nit-pick this film but I won’t because it would be irrelevant and pointless. The biggest problem I have with Frankenstein’s Army is how it was told: through found footage. Before I continue, I must explain the purpose of found footage. It is a storytelling method that is meant to give the impression that the events depicted actually happen through video/film documentation. This does not mean that the footage cannot portray something supernatural, it means that the supernatural activity occurs in our reality (ex: Chronicle, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, ect.). There needs to be some level of realism to fully convince us that the footage is legitimate. Frankenstein’s Army lacks this. I’ll explain:

The camera that our documentarian/main character handles is a Bolex or Super 8 of some kind. To suggest that such an ill-equipped Russian outfit has access to color film stock, and an on board microphone that captures perfectly crisp audio, would be ridiculous. In fact, if this was shot in black and white with poor audio, it could have been much better. The high contrast film stock would give the movie an eerie, unnerving tone, such as the case with Blair Witch Project. It would make the film scarier. While ultimately a minor complaint, the fact that the filmmakers missed the opportunity to play around with this style is the biggest tragedy. It could have played out like Planet Terror, with film grain and scratches, wobbly footage, light exposure, and perhaps a missing reel or two. Not only would it be more convincing (and fun), it would also be a clever way to disguise jump cuts, or to move from one scene to another. However, Frankenstein’s Army should not have been a found footage film, and here’s why:

The film is not shot or edited like a fount footage movie. What do I mean by this? If you ever worked with a Bolex, or any camera the involves changing film reels, uses a winding key, or having to consistently press a button to move the film across the shutter, you’ll realize just how hard and uncomfortable it is to handle. I do not believe for a second that our amateur documentarian has camera stabilizing experience, or is quick enough to film key interactions at precisely the right moment and angle. Each scene/shot is so perfectly edited that it feels like a traditionally produced film. In fact, if it weren’t for the beginning, where our hero explains the purpose of this documentary, I would have thought this was regular movie. Even when our hero switches from a wide-angle lens to a telephoto lens, it comes off as an edit rather than the actual camera turret spinning. This prompts me to ask the question: if the whole film is played out traditionally, why did it have to be found footage? I offer a film that is shot conventionally but whose tone is gritty and realistic, similar to a found footage film: Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The colors are natural, though somewhat de-saturated, the film is grainy, and the whole thing comes off as a voyeuristic experience. Then, there are moments that actually contradict the whole found footage aspect. 



1) Going back to the aforementioned purpose of found footage, and how it’s meant to convince us that the events really happened, why, are the Russian troops speaking in perfect English? Why are the Germans speaking English, except for one? I could buy this if the film wasn’t found footage. In normal films, the camera is sort like God: it moves around each space fluidly and without restrictions, and translates the dialogue into a language we can understand. Valkyrie is an example of this. In actuality, Russians and Germans would not be speaking English. This shatters the reality.

2) There are moments where our documentarian is attacked, beaten and possibly stabbed by Frankenstein’s monsters, all while he maintains camera stability and crisp audio. This is not possible, especially with a heavy Bolex-esque camera. However, there are bizarre instances where stylization is implemented to give the monsters supernatural abilities; as one of the monsters lumbers towards our hero, the film cuts into this stuttering, fast-moving sequence that could never be attained by a film camera. If you accidentally change the speed of a camera, it won’t stutter. Even if the film isn’t laced properly across the quick-release plate, it will wobble, not stutter. The sequence is clearly edited. Not only are moments like this overplayed in horror movies, it, again, breaks the reality.


All of these contradictions would be acceptable if the film was just shot like a traditional movie. I feel as if the filmmakers wanted found footage because it’s in style, but without fully grasping how it works. This was a story that did not need to be told in a found footage approach. However, with all this venting, it may appear that I hate the film, but that’s not true. I really like it; I did not love it. These found footage qualms, though distracting and jarring at they were, did not hamper the otherwise psychotic, entertaining story. There is enough original material presented for the casual viewer to dismiss these reservations, just as I have. If you can ignore them, what you are left with is a truly memorable and enjoyable film. I highly recommend it. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Video Treasures - The Supernaturals (1985)



Back in the days of Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, choosing a movie was a bit like Russian roulette: you based your judgments and expectations on how awesome the cover art was, then you watch it, only to be pleased or disappointed. More often than not, you were let down. The box usually depicted a phenomenal work of art that tantalizes the unsuspecting customer; it either exaggerates the film’s premise, portrays a specific scene from the film, or sometimes it flat out lies to you. In the case of The Supernaturals, it vaguely lays out the film’s general premise. However, it does so with what could only be described as one of the best pieces of VHS artwork I’ve ever come across but we will get to that soon. In fact, the only reason why I bought this is because of the artwork.


So what’s The Supernaturals all about? Sometime during the Civil War, a unit of Union soldiers known as the 44th Division captures a small Confederate division. Within this division we are introduced to Jeremy, a young boy who we are told possess a special gift. When the 44th Division orders their Confederate POW’s to march across the minefield they setup, only Jeremy makes it across in one piece. When he is ordered to walk across it again, we see a blue light emit from his fist; smash cut to the present day (in this case 1985). The modern 44th Division is a small group of novice soldiers who are on a training exercise, overseen by Sergeant Hawkins (Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols). Their camp is coincidently situated on the same site of the former Confederate minefield. Strange things begin to happen: our hero, Private Ellis (Maxwell Caufield, who looks like a young Brad Pitt), hears voices calling his name; the wind blows away from the field, and a woman named Melanie mysteriously appears. Eventually, one of the group members, Private Cort, tries to drunkenly rape Private Lejune, the only other female in the unit. After getting a knife pulled on his balls, Cort angrily stumbles and falls into an underground bunker that he previously fell into the day before. Bad luck, I suppose. Inside, he is attacked and killed by a Confederate zombie. When his body is found the next day, Hawkins launches an investigation to find who’s responsible. They find a small cabin where Melanie, and a mute old man, presumably lives. Hawkins suspects Melanie of the murder, and detains her at the camp. From this point on, the entire Division falls under attack by the newly risen Confederate zombie horde.

The film is… okay. It’s slow but it has its moments. The biggest problem I have is the explanation for the zombies, and the ending. I suppose I should warn of SPOILERS. We find out that the old man in the cabin is actually Jeremy, and Melanie is his mother. In a flashback, we are told that just before Jeremy walks across the minefield for the second time, his mother runs out into the field to save him, only to be blow up. In turn, and stricken with horror, Jeremy uses his gift to resurrect her from the dead. We are never told why Jeremy is old but his mother remains as young as she was when she died. Maybe Jeremy’s gift retains youth, but if that’s the case, what about all the zombie soldiers? Did Jeremy bring them back from the dead to seek revenge on the 44th Division? Did his mother resurrect them? How did she resurrect them? How did she know that the modern day 44th Division would use the site as a training field? Is this movie even about revenge? We are never told how or why the dead are suddenly brought back to life, and whether this was the work of Jeremy or Melanie. We assume it’s Jeremy but the zombies, in a later scene, seem to be working for his mother. In fact, we are never given any explanation for why Jeremy has this gift to begin with.


But here’s the kicker: Private Ellis, our lovesick hero (yeah, he has a crush on Private Lejune and Melanie), is actually Jeremy’s father and consequently Melanie’s husband! What?! Apparently, in the scene prior to the old man’s introduction, Ellis reads a journal (purportedly Melanie’s) that explains that her husband was shipped off to war and never returned. She assumes he’s dead. Now I have even more questions: When was Ellis resurrected? How was he resurrected? He was alive before he even arrived to the campsite. Did old man Jeremy resurrect him? How? When? Did Melanie mistake Ellis for her husband because of his uncanny resemblance? What is happening in this film? There is no explanation for any of this, unfortunately. The twist, if you can call it a twist, is dropped on us like a bombshell, then immediately dismissed and never clarified. For this review, I watched this film a second time, and I still don’t understand it. I think these are the biggest problems the film suffers from, and they’re big. In spite of this, there are some wonderful moments.


I really like the characters, except for Private Cort, but he gets his comeuppance. Ellis, for the most part, is dry but it’s fun to watch him figure out what a latrine is, and how to build it. He seems to be the one everyone jokes around with. At the beginning, his friends dare him to jump off a moving truck and try to get back on it by running. He’s not terribly interesting, but his banter between Lejune isn’t schmaltzy or the least bit cheesy; it comes off as real, candid small talk with subtle suggestions of affection. The unit, as a whole, feels like a group of real young men who just want to have fun, and joke around. They aren’t written as blatant stereotypes, and they aren’t dull-minded jocks. During the dry spells, and there are a lot of them, it’s the characters that keep the interest moving.  
I enjoyed the zombie makeup. You barely get to see it because it’s concealed by shadows, but that may be because it wasn’t that good to begin with. I think it’s a clever method of accomplishing two things: 1) you maintain suspense and 2) you don’t show the limitations in your makeup budget. There are some beautifully lit nighttime scenes, specifically during the zombie battle that reminds me of Bazelli’s work on Pumpkinhead. One of the best action sequences is when Private Mendez (Scott Jacoby) accidentally kills Private Osgood (soon-to-be Stark Trek star LeVar Burton) thinking he was a zombie. He storms off into the woods where, as we were made privy to at the beginning of the film, there are large wooden spikes sticking out from the ground. The whole sequence is so tense because we know what will happen, but we’re waiting for it. He just barely misses them, he falls over some, and we are treated to a reverse P.O.V. making the sequence all the more engaging.
 However, the real star of the film is the score. The main theme is high energy, fun, exhilarating, and sort of comes off as the title anthem to an old TV show. I would even argue that it could be compared to any Mike Post or John Williams composition, while the rest of the score could be compared to Michael Hoenig’s best work (composer for films such as The Blob ’88, The Gate, and Class of 1999). It is for this reason that I wish we would get a soundtrack release to accompany the film’s inevitable DVD release.
VHS scan courtesy of Basement of Ghoulish Decadence
Now, lets talk about the box art. It goes without saying that I am infatuated with it, but I also consider it to be one of the best and most detailed pieces of artwork I’ve seen on a VHS box. Aside from the Confederate cap and eye, the scene depicted is lifted directly from a moment in the movie where Private Cort puts sunglasses on a recently exhumed skull, and shoots at a beer can hidden within it. I think I have a fascination with skulls; I love the detail in the teeth, the shading along the jaw, and the murky, almost sepia tone palette in which the entire piece is drawn in. The cover doesn’t lie; it tells us exactly what the movie is about: Confederate zombies. Perhaps the most baffling aspect of the cover is the sunglasses, which is a modern accessory. It attempts to bridge the modern with the old, and it comes off as intriguing if not strange, however, somewhat awkward in the actual film itself.
I am not praising The Supernaturals nor am I disregarding it. The general consensus seems to be middle-of-the-road territory, and that’s fortunately true. The film had the opportunity to be very forgettable or poorly made, and thankfully it never amounts to either of those. As the blogger who provided me with the high-definition scan said, “This one is actually suitable for young horror fans first getting into the obsession with no nudity and very little blood as the slow raising Confederates dispatch the soldiers mostly off-screen.” The biggest element that works against the film is the lack of any clear explanation for the supernatural occurrences. I understand that less explanation can add a sense of unease and creepiness, but in this case, something for us to grasp onto would have been appreciated.
Available from Embassy Home Entertainment.
Video Treasures is a continuing series of horror films only available on home video, and is in no way affiliated with the distribution label of the same name or VHS Visions. ;) 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

REVIEW: Devil's Advocates - The Thing



Anyone who has read this blog or knows of its history knows that I am a huge fan of John Carpenter’s The Thing. It is my favorite horror movie of all time; I have written essays about it for class and, in this blog’s most recent history, I’ve dedicated entire weeks to it. It seemed only natural for me to hop on Amazon and search for the Dark Horse comics that served as prequels to the ’82 film. In addition to finding them, I stumbled across a book simply titled: Devil’s Advocates: The Thing. The author is Jez Conolly (I mispronounced his name as cannoli). Having interacted with him on Twitter, I decided to order the book and give it a spin. What lay before me was an eye-opener. I thought I read all the critical analyses there were on the film. As a student of filmmaking, I thought I understood all the camera schematics and character placement. I thought I understood its themes, both as a Cold War cautionary tale and as commentary for the AIDS epidemic. I thought I knew all this. Jez Conolly’s book, suffice it to say, has wholly revised my opinion, and the way I will look at my beloved film for the better. There is nothing to critique. I have no protests. I have nothing to supplement it with, and I have no disagreements. Instead, I will explain how it was to read this book, chapter by chapter. I will do my best not to spoil the book.

Chapter 1: “Now I’ll Show You What I Already Know”
This chapter primarily serves as a brief layout for what’s to come, a sort of tantalizer, so to speak. However, it does concern itself with the author’s first-time experience with The Thing, not in theaters in beautiful 35mm or in its video rental run, but on a BBC news broadcast about the so called ‘video nasties.’ For any horror aficionado, the ‘video nasties’ are quite infamous. It marks a crucial point in the history of horror cinema as well as censorship. Perhaps the most enthralling aspect of this segment, aside from Conolly’s own experiences, are the lesser-known stories associated with the film: tales of killers and rapists who claim that they were influenced by it, and a brief scuffle with the Obscene Publications Act.

Chapter 2: “I Know How This One Ends”
I will let Conolly describe this section: “Just in case you’ve decided to buy and read this book, and happen to have spent at least the last 100,000 years encased in a block of ice, it might prove useful at this early juncture to offer a brief outline of the film’s plot before we proceed.” I couldn’t have said it better. Conolly’s synopsis of the film feels like a familiar road trip to us horror fans, however, he offers a few unfamiliar pit stops along the way; trivial but nevertheless interesting side points such as the font in which the first piece of on-screen texts appears in. Conolly even provides us with a map of understanding when he references certain incarnations of the Thing monster (i.e. ‘Kennel-Thing’ or ‘Split-Face Thing). As a Thing fan, some of the side-points were refreshing. Even if you’ve seen the film fifty times, it’s still fun to read the plot.


Chapter 3: “First Goddamn Week Of Winter”
Now, we get into the bulk of things (har har har!). This chapter indulges on many aspects, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of material presented here. I found myself pausing midway to take a breather. I advise everybody to absorb this chapter slowly for it is the start of a whole new perspective of the film.
            For the most part, the chapter is appropriately titled; the general theme is winter and thus snow. Conolly treats us to a quick little detour about photokeratitis, which is essentially snow blindness, and while you may scratch your heads wondering what this has to do with The Thing, I promise you that it correlates to the film’s production and central character. While it may not add anything as far as a critical analysis is concerned, it does lend itself as an interesting character/setting detail to the film’s cold, white backdrop. Besides, it is a fascinating condition.
            We are then led to snow. Snow plays a pivotal role in The Thing especially as a juxtaposing device to contrast the confines of Outpost 31, however, Conolly makes the bold move in comparing this element to highly revered cinematic classics such as Gold Rush, Citizen Kane, and Doctor Zhivago. Conolly explains that there is a “near-monochromatic bleakness” that isn’t all that different from “The Thing From Another World, which was shot in black and white.” Once more, I never drew the parallels in terms of color. I admire Conolly for comparing The Thing to much more ‘sophisticated’ films because I believe Carpenter’s interpretation is much more important to the history of American cinema (perhaps even world cinema) than most film historians would give it credit for.
            Possibly the most interesting topic that Conolly discusses has to do with Who Goes There, the novella by John Campbell in which both the Hawks/Nyby and Carpenter films were based off. The novella was published in 1938 in Astounding Science Fiction magazine. It may come as a surprise to you… but I have not read the novella. I understand that it’s available online for free, but being a rare book collector, I feel as though I must read the actual first-edition. I digress, however. Conolly begins this discussion with the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration” that began in the late nineteenth century continuing into the early twentieth century, up until to novella’s publication. As history buff, I found this whole segment enthralling. Conolly proceeds to discuss Lovecraft, and his most infamous book At the Mountains of Madness. You may be thinking that none of this has anything to do with Carpenter, Hawks/Nyby or Campbell, but you’d be wrong. In fact, as Conolly precisely details, it may be more directly influential on Campbell than we be think. I will not go into details
            The next segment deals with what may be a very overlooked, if not known, motif in the Carpenter film as well as the 2011 prequel of the same name. Conolly mentions magnets, and thus a magnet’s influence on metal. Campbell’s novella subtly references this in description and in location (ex: the base is not referred to as Outpost 31 but rather Big Magnet, situated at the very center of the South Pole), but also as a means to establish a central character that is an individual when compared to the rest. Furthermore, strictly speaking of Carpenter’s film, Conolly presents various examples that acknowledge Campbell’s theme of magnetism and its affects of his characters. I will not go into great detail but I will mention two examples:

“The couch in the rec room twice serves as place of restraint, first when Copper, Garry and Clark are the prime suspects and later when MacReady conducts his hot needle blood test, and in each case several of the men are tied together in close physical contact with MacReady at a distance.”
 They are magnets coming together with MacReady possessing no magnetic field.

“The Palmer-Thing’s blood jumps up and out of the Petri dish in its attempt to escape the hot needle, and then proceeds to run off along the floor of the rec room in a direction of its own choosing, almost as though attracted to a magnetic source.”

Chapter 4: “What Is That… Is That A Man In There… Or Something?”
The beginning of this chapter concerns itself with plant-based horror films of the 50’s and 60’s. Indeed, The Thing From Another World can be honored in the great pantheon of plant-horror like Day of the Triffids, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, given that our antagonist is pissed off vegetable. However, Carpenter’s Thing might also be honored here as well. Conolly’s assessment of the creature design, and how there is a presence of plant-based motifs, is rather intriguing.
            But the majority of this chapter dips into Cold War era politics. As Conolly explains, “The 1951 and 1982 Thing films, however, provide especially intriguing bookends to the Cold War.” Those of us who studied film should be familiar with this segment as it deals with Hawks/Nyby’s idea of a unified America, coming together to combat a foreign enemy (Communism in realty). Some would argue that it was a propaganda film to encourage patriotism, as was the case with Hawks’ Rio Bravo. Conversely, and not unknown, Carpenter’s film proceeds Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and was released in the wake of Reaganomics. It is understood that Carpenter’s Thing was a deconstruction of what Hawks/Nyby sought to portray in the 50’s. 
            This is where the book, once again, becomes overwhelming. Conolly takes the aforementioned political assessment of both films and expands on them by citing wardrobe choices, dialogue quotes, Western motifs (my favorite involving Gerry and his gun), prop usage and scene compositions. Some of these citations may be more known than others, however, some come off as revelations. To explain, I will present two examples that correlate with Vietnam. 1) The imagery of flamethrowers, which were employed by U.S. troops. In the film, they are either malfunctioning or they are partially successful at preventing the Thing from assimilation. There is a deeper meaning here: the U.S. stopped using them in 1978 because of their questionable effectiveness in combat, and the PR surrounding the horrific death they caused. 2) Body horror. I will let Conolly explain this, “The flame-flayed Split-Face Thing found at the Norwegian base, with its fused contortion of appendages and twisted, frozen expression of horrific pain, is shot from angles that make it look remarkably similar to those causalities of the war.” While you may know most of the political ideology of both films, I guarantee there is much more at play than just obvious plot points.
            The chapter elaborates on MacReady’s chauvinistic character, which leads into a critique of the film’s biology, so to speak. Specifically, it uses Barbara Creed’s book The Monstrous Feminine (one that I should read) to compare The Thing with feminine imagery, similar to Ridley Scott’s Alien. While this may appear to be trivial, or perhaps further baffling, there is a looming presence of female imagery that plagues Carpenter’s all-male film.

Chapter 5: “What The Hell Are You Looking At Me Like That For?”
While the title is somewhat amusing, the chapter acknowledges the true language of film, and cites key aspects of The Thing to further the notion that there is an art to filmmaking. Conolly’s interpretation of The Thing’s visual theme is probably the most enlightening, if not indulging, chapter of his book. I have always said that The Thing has some of the best cinematography and production design I had ever seen, and this chapter is a testament to that statement. I will briefly touch upon my personal favorite points of interest, but I will do my best not to spoil anything.
            Firstly, in the beginning of the chapter, Conolly briefs us on the history of the ‘Killer POV’ shot, which, unknown to most, is quite apparent in both Kubrick’s film and Carpenter’s. We are then treated to a comparison between The Thing and The Shining, and while they both seclude their characters in a hostile, wintery environment, they both employ the use of the “probing corridor prowl.”  The Shining infamously uses this tactic when following Danny on his Big Wheel, while The Thing meanders around the confines of Outpost 31, suggesting, in both films, that something not quite human is stalking our characters. While this may not be thematically analytical, it serves as an acknowledgment of Carpenter’s understanding of filmmaking and how he is able to draw the audience into the film’s unnerving corridors. I never thought of visually comparing The Thing with The Shining, however, in retrospect, it seems so obvious.     
            Secondly, character placement in relation to the camera. There is a strategic placement of characters that may subtly reference the theme of magnets from Campbell’s novella. I never thought I would say this but one could consider The Thing to be an extraterrestrial Poker match. In fact, the core concept of Poker is prevalent in this film. Furthermore, Conolly relates a concept made famous by Hitchcock to the residency of MacReady within the frame of the camera. I sincerely wish I can elaborate on this but alas I cannot. I will permit myself to say is this: there is a definite comprehension of greater filmic ideas than one would assume would be in a horror movie of this caliber. Carpenter had a firm grasp on what he was accomplishing.   


Chapter 6: “Weird And Pissed Off Whatever It Is”
This is one of my favorite quotes, by the way. This chapter is interesting because it begins with body-horror, which can almost be considered a sub-genre of horror. Conolly gives us a brief rundown of some familiar titles, but then (curve ball) explains the history of bodily horror, which can be rooted in the mythology of our ancestors. Examples could be found in Greek, Mesopotamian and Babylonian mythology. I will quote Conolly here: “For all this high-minded comparative conjecture, it seems highly unlikely that the Special Make-up Effects Unit and production illustrators that worked on The Thing were terribly familiar with ancient Mesopotamian poetry, and went looking for stone tablet depictions when researching the creature designs.” While this is true, I did, however, find it to be ‘food for thought.’   
            The bulk of this chapter deals with the make-up and special effects of The Thing, and the scathing criticism it garnered upon the film’s release. We start with some context; Conolly introduces EC Comics and their former CEO William M. Gaines who took over the company and began publishing classic horror anthology titles such as The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt. It is an interesting slice of history that pertains to American censorship, and how Gaines actively petitioned his defense for the comic’s graphic nature. Jump ahead a few years, Conolly elaborates on The Thing’s production difficulties. Now, to us Thing enthusiasts, we’re privy to the issues Carpenter and his team had to face but I suppose it does need some mentioning; the film was burdened by ambitious practical effects, it went over its budget, Rob Bottin was hospitalized due to his work, and it ruffled the feathers of various unions. Again, I have not spoiled anything as Conolly elaborates on all these details, providing interesting side-stories that are informative, especially to us film enthusiasts. The chapter concludes with the lashes the film received by critics who were repulsed by the gory special effects wizardry of Rob Bottin’s team. One being Roger Ebert’s famous line: “It’s a great barf-bag of a movie.”
            This chapter isn’t analysis or critique, but I urge all filmmakers to delve into The Thing’s production history as it makes not just for an interesting read, but provides insight into the realm of filmmaking. In the world of CGI, we will never see ambitious effects like those seen in Carpenter’s film. As Conolly sincerely puts it, “Some marvel at how well they stand up and contend that their manifest surreality and palpable, physical on-set presence compared to today’s CGI phantoms lend the film an unnerving other-worldly quality. […] Just as they brought life to the assemblage of inanimate materials to achieve the ground-breaking effects so they help breathe life into the film’s reputation and reception.”  I could not have said it better.

Chapter 7: “It’s Not Dead Yet”
Perhaps the greatest testament to The Thing’s legacy is the aftermath. As Conolly vividly describes it, The Thing is much like the Thing itself, laying dormant beneath the surface of film history, only to be unearthed (via home video) so that it could prevail in a post 80’s market. The fans have kept this film alive, and this chapter pays tribute to those fan-made and fan-inspired works of The Thing. These include the “Ice” episode from The X-Files, and the South Park episode in which Cartman uses a blood test to see who has Lice that is directly ripped from infamous blood-testing scene in Carpenter’s film. I genuinely surprised to find that there exists a stage-production of the film, a claymation short, and a Sinatra-style musical skit. Perhaps the most interesting story is of Quentin Tarantino and how he cites The Thing as his primary influence when writing Reservoir Dogs.  For more information, I suggest that you read the book.
            This chapter contains Conolly’s defense against condemning The Thing as a cult film, of which I fully support. Following shortly after is a brief rundown of various formats in which The Thing was release under, one of which is the televised where they censored out all the graphic transformations scenes and profanity. Conolly includes some of the best lines that were re-edited, two of which are “You buy any of this bullstuff?” and “Yeah, blast you too!”
            Perhaps the best aspect of this chapter is Conolly’s mention of Outpost 31, a fan-site that harbors the largest online community of Thing enthusiasts in which the site’s founders launched an expedition to locate the film’s shooting location. They found it, and they brought back with them a salvaged blade from when they blew up the Norwegian helicopter. Conolly merely scrapes the surface of this site, and so I urge any enthusiast to check it out for his or herself. They have everything concerning The Thing, from floor plans of the Outpost, to essays, to Thing related media coverage. 
            Capping off this chapter, Conolly states his feelings toward the 2011 prequel entitled The Thing. While it is true that the prequel seems to deconstruct Carpenter’s unique horror formula by, as Conolly explains, “routine plotting, lacked recognizable diversity among its characters and fallen back on the scenario of sexual tension and the near-inevitable Final Girl resolution,” it is true that the film took great measures to set up Carpenter’s film but also to recreate what was only briefly seen when MacReady traversed through the remains of the Norwegian camp. My thoughts on the prequel are this: while it was fun it was a needless prequel that I already forgot about.

Chapter 8: “Why Don’t We Just… Wait Here For A Little While… See What Happens…”
Just as this is the last chapter of the book, and the quote is from the end of the movie, Conolly explains the significance of The Thing’s famous downbeat, cold, cynical ending, which was very bold for its time. Carpenter’s film came out in the 80’s where the market was saturated with cash-cow sequels and optimistic family films such as E.T., which infamously led to The Thing’s poor box office intake. However, as Conolly expresses, The Thing isn’t all that unique in its abysmal ending. The 70’s had One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the 90’s gave way towards Unforgiven and Se7en, and even in the post-Clinton/millennial era we have The Mist, which, like The Thing, is a product of its political era. Conolly brilliantly explains, “ordinary people thrown into turmoil by unexpected events, running away from or stumbling into oblivious to face an indiscriminate fate that spares them little or no pity. The occluding and enveloping death-white fog and smoke captured in these films drew heavily on the ashen clouds of destruction that all Americans saw on their television screens in 2001. There ‘s a resonance to these clouds of disarray to be found in The Thing’s obliterating blanket of white snow, isolating conditions that pay no respect to human social order and rob people of their identity.” Perhaps even more revealing is Conolly’s side not involving breath and Child’s earring. While I won’t spoil it for you, I have to admit, I am rather awe-stricken that I never noticed or considered either of these instances.  


So ended my experience with Conolly’s book, and so ends this review. If you have not noticed it now, then I will tell you; I love this book. I have been searching for a good full-length critique of the film, just as Conolly once did, and I am very fortunate that I stumbled across this on Amazon. Be aware that what I have written only caresses the tip of the iceberg. I have intentionally left out some of the best topics, like how the characters are bookended by how they’re introduced and how they ultimately meet their fates. While it’s very overwhelming at first, and some of the concepts may seem farfetched, it’s nevertheless written with a degree of passion and respect that I have never seen before. It will certainly warrant multiples readings to fully grasp each concept and idea. I will admit that I will never be able to watch The Thing the same way again. When I finished the book, I closed it slowly, placed it on my nightstand and quietly sat alone to ponder what I had just read. As it was then, just as it is now, I think Jez Conolly owes me a shot of J&B.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

All In The Family: Mending Texas Chainsaw 3D



I want to start off with a quote from the end of the film. In this piece of dialogue, and throughout the story, we are told the main theme.
“Farnsworth has instructed to give you a set of keys to the manor. The largest key opens the fortified door to the wine cellar. There, you will discover a metal door. Behind it lives your cousin: Jedediah Sawyer, your only remaining blood relative. He is family-bound, and will protect you. He simply requires your care in return. Edith, you are the last of my line of Sawyer. My blood runs through you. The decision to stay is yours. Just remember: you are a Sawyer… and this is home.”
Texas Chainsaw 3D wants you to believe that it’s a movie about family, and while I’m completely on board with that, it not only throws this wonderful idea out the window, it substitutes it for meaningless plot devices and uninspired characters that could have furthered the story’s integrity. This is not going to be a review but rather a breakdown of its problems and my attempt at fixing them. I will not include any criticism of the bland acting, the appalling CGI or its cliché-ridden script. 



Before I get into the bulk of this article, I must explain the idea of family throughout all the Texas Chainsaw incarcerations except for Next Generation because I refuse to watch it a second time. In the 1974 film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I always felt like the Sawyers (their surname was not introduced until the second film) were a bastardization of the humble Midwest family, and thus a grim, ugly satire of the American Dream. In the film’s final moments, we are introduced to the relatives in full. Like a distortion of the infamous ‘Thanksgiving” by Norman Rockwell, the Sawyers are seated together at the table, laughing, mocking and ready to kill our heroine. However, the element of family is present. Just like Rockwell’s vision of an ideal 1950’s household coming together for a grand feast, the Sawyers have gathered together to kill their last victim. It’s ugly, twisted and darkly comedic.  


In 1986, with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part II, we are introduced to Lieutenant Boude “Lefty” Enright whose sole mission in the entirely of the film is to seek vengeance on the Sawyer family for killing his niece and nephew. Already, there is the concept of family rivalry and retribution. (Think of a Hatfield and McCoy type rivalry). In the last third of the film, when Lefty invades ‘Nam Land, the Sawyers are seated together at their table, echoing the final moments of the first film. I will even argue that the dynamic between Drayton Sawyer and his two sons, Chop Top and Leatherface, is much more expressed. Their squabbling banter and slapstick antics seem inspired by those dysfunctional family reunions that we all experience. Drayton also seems adamant with preserving the family name by winning the local chili contest, and mentions the family skill of knowing good meat. There, we are introduced to hereditary pride.


Finally, we have Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. Here, we are introduced to a whole new family but if anything we get a more intimate understanding of how they function and interact peacefully despite their cannibalistic nature. Some of the best moments are when our heroine, Michelle, is tied in the kitchen where the family prepares to cook her friend. Tex, one of the older brothers, hangs Michelle’s friend upside down while his kid sister kills him with a hammer-swimming device that her other older brother made.  This entire sequence serves as a furthering of previously established themes from the first movie, albeit cartoony and ham-fisted. There is a beautiful moment, as pictured above, where Leatherface embraces his kid sister. Norman Rockwell would be rolling his grave. Even the chainsaw has The Saw Is Family engraved on it, furthering the notion that family is all the Sawyers have.  


As for the 2003 remake and the 2006 prequel, I will not touch on them too heavily. With that said, the family in these incarnations are extended to aunts, uncles and a nephew. Like the ’86 film, though not as loony, there are squabbles between Sheriff Hoyt, the patriarch, and Leatherface. In fact, it seems like we are treated to a whole community of Hewitts that live within walking distance of each other. If anything, this franchise is built on family relations, so it seems only natural for Texas Chainsaw 3D to take this notion and run with it. I was all for it, too. I wanted this film to explore the family dynamic further, but I suppose it was all wishful thinking.

Texas Chainsaw 3D picks up right after the events following the 1974 film, where the sheriff and a posse attempt to arrest and enact vigilante justice one the Sawyers. However, the posse ends up shooting everyone, and then burns the house down. One of the posse members finds a young Sawyer woman with a newborn, kills her, and steals the baby to raise it with his wife. Decades later, the baby is now our heroine, Heather. We come to our first problem. We are never given enough time to understand Heather’s character or motivation! All we know is this: she has a boyfriend, and two other friends. She works as a supermarket butcher, and her relationship with her ‘parents’ is cold. We never get to see her feel isolated, lonely or detached. She seems relatively happy, but maybe if we extended some shots or added a few scenes, we could see that it was all a put-on to conceal her loneliness. She never has that “I feel like I am missing something” discussion with her boyfriend, and we hardly get any insight into her relationship with her seemingly unsupportive parents. If we spent just a little more time understanding her interactions with them, it would accomplish A) Heather’s feeling that she doesn’t belong with this family, providing leeway into the adoption conversation, B) it would portray her parents as crucial plot elements to juxtapose with her relationship with Leatherface later in the film, as opposed to stock clichéd rednecks, and C) a more extensive argument in which her parents prohibit her endeavor to Texas would make us understand Heather’s plight and little more clearly. If the writers took their time in fleshing out their character, rather than giving her jet-black hair and eyeliner, then perhaps we would have felt some sympathy towards her. What we get instead is a broad, uninspired final-girl.


Let’s get into the two pointless sub-plots. Our first plot-device is presented as a handsome drifter who, after charming his way into our heroes’ adventure, proceeds to pillage the house that Heather’s real grandmother willed her. Of course, Heather and her friends are blissfully unaware as they are in town gathering food for a barbeque. The idea of a robber could have worked and here’s how: as our thief makes his way throughout the house, pocketing jewelry and stashing silverware in his duffle bags, we follow him with the point of view of Leatherface (the killer’s POV). This adds voyeuristic tension. Seeing a stranger steal the possessions of his departed Aunt angers him, thus he kills him before he could reach the basement. This accomplishes two things: 1) it uses the robber as a means to convey Leatherface’s motivation rather than a cheap ploy to reveal our villain and provide a first victim, and 2) it sets up, early on, the concept that Leatherface is the protector of the Sawyer family lineage, and thus a guardian for our main heroine. None of these concepts would be realized until the very end. Instead, we get a dull sequence of the burglar pocketing valuables only to get his head shattered when he opens the door to Leatherface’s basement den, rendering his entire character pointless. We sacrificed thrill and character for dull, by-the-numbers storytelling.

Our final sub-plot: Heather’s boyfriend Ryan is having an affair with her best friend Nikki. In the film, this plot-point leads nowhere; Heather never finds out about the affair. It’s added to the story as an excuse for nudity and implied sexual conduct. Since the writers killed off Nikki’s boyfriend early on, they needed to find a way to get her naked. Thus, we get detoured away from time that could have been spent furthering Heather’s character. Here is what could have happened if the writers needed this plot-point: Perhaps Leatherface knew all along that Heather was his lost relative (her grandmother, his aunt, told him). He would then feel the need to protect her. When he witnesses the affair, he understands that Ryan, through his dishonesty, is hurting Heather, which prompts him to attack the couple but only kills Nikki. Chronologically, it must happen before Heather discovers Leatherface for the first time. Then, the film plays out normally where Heather is brought down to his lair. In this gruesome but possibly touching moment, we discover that Leatherface actually cares for her. Maybe he shows her his masks. As per the film, Heather escapes and hides in the graveyard. Leatherface finds her, she meets up with Ryan, they attempt to escape, Ryan dies, Heather is chased through the carnival, etc. Once more, this useless plot-point could have furthered Leatherface’s intentions of protecting his only relative, and may have possibly yield a devastating final moment between Ryan, the adulterer, and Heather our victim.


Finally, we have two moments near the end that could have been hauntingly symbolic. As I said before, if we provided a little more hostile interactions between Heather and her parents, it would juxtapose the scene where Leatherface finds her tied up by the town deputy. In that evocative and eerie moment, he lowers his chainsaw (possibly symbolic of a hostile life now passed) we see the love and affection he has for her, and conversely we see Heather feel as though she’s “at home.” When he cuts her down from the ropes, it serves as an allegory for Leatherface releasing her from her wrongful inherited bonds. It’s a shame because this scene comes so close to fruition but is tarnished by the deus ex machina birthmark element. Leatherface, just seconds before sawing Heather in half, sees her birthmark in the shape of the Sawyer family crest. Was this concept ever mentioned or alluded to in the film? If so, it was much more subtle then it needed to be.


The scene just before the final montage in which Heather’s grandmother posthumously narrates her letter, we find Heather and Leatherface together in the kitchen. This scene is played out as one final setup to a cheap jump-scare when it should have been the heart of the entire story. Heather, a little scared and slowly overcoming her shock, should embrace Leatherface as he is the only remaining relative of her true family. Also, this is supposed to be same Leatherface from the original 1974 film. He was already somewhat childish in his actions, despite wielding a chainsaw and a skin mask, and to see him embrace Heather as if she was his mother would have been an eerily touching moment. It would be bold but memorable. Leatherface, now in his fifties or sixties, should be tired and showing signs of age, making him much more sympathetic. He is no longer his youthful self anymore. Maybe, much like Heather, he too feels lonely and detached. That would mean that their unity is even greater as they fill each other’s voids. The film would have ended on an ambitiously high note.

Family is the main theme in the entire Texas Chainsaw oeuvre. It may be portrayed subtly or blatantly, but it’s always there. I wanted Texas Chainsaw 3D to set new grounds and turn our beloved horror movie icon into an anti-hero. I wanted it to take that bold new step in a completely wild direction. Sadly, what is given to us is a bland, inferior sequel to an iconic masterpiece. Texas Chainsaw 3D did not need to live up to its predecessor’s reputation, but it should have taken the franchise to its inevitable destination. When you have characters spout off lines like, “family is family,” or “no one loves you like your family,” it serves as a grim reminder of what could have been. The entire story was one enormous block of marble waiting to be sculpted into a striking figure. All it needed was careful molding, precise engraving, and delicate smoothing. Instead, the writers and producers fired up their chainsaws and reduced it to a haphazard abominable mess. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Review: Standards of Living (2014)



I love watching independent films, especially those that lie within the horror genre because it seems they are more ambitious, risky and creative as opposed to their big-budget counterparts (zombie flicks being my favorite). It seems fitting that my first review in three years is an indie flick called Standards of Living by Aaron Mento, who I have the pleasure of talking to every now and then on Twitter. The movie is a mixed bag, not exclusively yielding to one genre. It has elements of horror, science fiction, fantasy and thriller. I can’t help but speculate that Mento is trying to appeal to the fans of all the genres he admires, and I would say that he succeeds in doing so. For a first film (shot on iPad 2, of all things!), it’s a damn fine production. At the very least, to you naysayers, he made a feature film. So, what’s the movie about? Well, before I lay out the details, I must admit that this is where the film gets a little convoluted, which may be the biggest setback it has. Not to say that it’s glaring or jarring but if you were to sit down and ponder it, it does make you scratch your head (perhaps that’s what it’s suppose to do).


NOTE: I may or may to be coming up with “fan theories,” here. Also, slight spoilers.

The plot in its most basic sense is this: Peter (Scott Yarborough) is a stand-up comedian who isn’t all that funny. Nobody seems to like him. Then, one night, he receives a phone call by a man known as Mr. Randall (played stupendously by Bill Ferris), who offers him a unique opportunity including double his pay. Peter takes the offer, arrives at his home and discovers that Mr. Randall has the ability to make objects disappear, than reappear with improvement. Example: he makes Peter’s scruffy silver peanut disappear only for it to reappear as a gold peanut. Well, Mr. Randall wants to send Peter to the place where the objects disappear to so that he could retrieve his daughter. Some time ago, a mysterious man with black teeth arrives to bestow this magical gift onto Mr. Randall but he also seems to have enchanted his wife and unborn daughter. That same night, she kills herself (it’s implied that the stranger warped her mind, somehow) and Mr. Randall attempts to use his gift to save his unborn daughter. Sadly, he ultimately makes her disappear entirely from the womb. Peter crosses over into the alternative dimension and finds his now-grown-up daughter living with Alternative Mr. Randall and his alternative servant Stu (played by Derek Houck). They believe he is an angel from God sent to deliver salvation. However, Peter soon discovers that the man with black teeth isn’t who he appears to be, and that Mr. Randall my have… dare I say it… alternative motives.

Now, to go back to my one complaint: I don’t think everything was completely fleshed out, which is why it was a little hard to keep up with the story. Let’s start off with the stranger with black teeth. Some may ask: who is he or where did he come from? That’s irrelevant. My question is, what’s his motive? Why is he doing this? We don’t need him to explicitly state why, but maybe the answer lies somewhere within the reality of the alternative dimension. This dimension is inverted from ours: non-Christians are firm-believers, and the Union seems to be the Confederacy, as there are still slaves. However, our black-toothed stranger claims that Mr. Randall’s daughter is the second savior and that he brought her there to save them. That’s some understanding into his motives but why does that dimension need saving? If we understood the alternative dimension a little more, we will understand why it needs saving, and thus the motives of the stranger. Fan theory alert and SPOILERS: I gather that this stranger is some inter-dimensional being, perhaps a police officer of sorts that regulates different dimensions. It would explain why he is so invested in everything. I understand why he gives Mr. Randall the ability (so that he could ultimately use it to benefit the other dimension) but why doesn’t he take it away right after?  What would be the benefit of leaving him with that ability? I wish we knew a little more about the character or perhaps about the alternative dimension. Mento gave us pinch of sugar when, maybe, we needed a teaspoon.


Onto the main characters! I loved all of them. First lets talk about Peter. Living in Chicago and going to an art school, I know tons of people who yearn to be successful stand-up comedians. It’s a tough gig to get into and if you’re not funny, you’ll fall hard. Immediately I understand Peter and his plight. He is our ‘fish-out-of-water’ character who is an everyday guy caught in a supernatural situation. When he’s confused, we’re confused. When we need some clarification, he asks for clarification. I enjoyed him quite a lot. He’s funny too! The audience just sucks. Now, lets get to Stu, my favorite character. He’s like Dave Thomas in Rat Race: monotone, not very expressive, devoid of personality on the outside but inside… he’s exploding. He gets impatient but he’s passive about it. He has a constant frown or grimace that adds just a little more depth to his character, and he genuinely cares for his employer (and possibly only friend). The striped Polo shirts and suspenders are fantastic touch, and he has some of the best lines. “It’s about a stormy interracial romance in an intolerable small town,” he says after defending his boss’ work. The context is lost, I know, but it’s presented completely straightforward. The genius of it is that it foreshadows what’s to come. As for Mr. Randall, he is a character who is shockingly complex. He is a loving husband and father. He makes an honest living, and he seems levelheaded. Underneath this mask he is an extremely determined man who will stop and nothing to save his daughter, however, when conflicts arise, he seems to question the morality of what he’s doing. It’s not explicit but you gather it based on his body language. I don’t want to discuss any other characters because it may reveal major plot details and spoilers.


Also, Bill Ferris looks an awful like a young Stephen McHattie.

The whole film plays out like an X-Files episode. The plot is essentially a missing persons report with a supernatural twist. From a horror perspective, I see influences of Raimi (visually exclusive), body disfigurement reminiscent of early Cronenberg or Gordon, and biblical themes as previously explored by Bergman or King. I may be far-fetched in those comparisons but it’s what I see. I believe there is something to be said about shooting on an iPad. The independent scene is rapidly adapting to the consumer market. Now, anybody can pick up their iPone or Galaxy Touches and make a movie. You’ll have hollow audio (thankfully all the dialogue in this movie is recorded separately and synched later) but you’ll have a movie. The future for the micro-budget filmmaker lies within these devices. They may not be widely accepted, now, but soon we’ll be seeing movies at Sundance or Cannes that were shot on phones or tablets. It’s the future folks! Standards of Living is a great kick-starter to this new style of filmmaking. Needless to say, I look forward to what Mento has in store for us. 

If you are curious, you can catch the movie here