Friday, December 24, 2021

"Christmas Evil" is "Joker": only better!

Welcome to my seasonal hot take, based on a recent re-watch of the 1980 classic Christmas Evil, in its clean and shiny new Blu-Ray form, where it looks unexpectedly beautiful. Thanks, Vinegar Syndrome, you're the best! While I enjoyed the movie in the past as a mix of campy violence and late-70s grittiness, this time I was struck by the story's resemblance to the 2019's critically acclaimed Joker. Maybe that very acclaim made me rethink it. 

So hear me out. Both movies are character studies about mentally ill loners, living realistically drab lives in uncaring cities. Under stress, the obsessions that sustain them develop into full-on delusional states. As they begin to act out their fantasies, some people view them as in some way heroic, which reinforces their delusions, and since the audience is inside their perspectives, we're inclined to sympathize with them, even though they start committing murders.

For me, Christmas Evil is a much more subtle and nuanced take on this basic shared story. It doesn't feel the need to over-dramatize the plight of hapless Harry, who mostly just wants to believe that Santa Claus is real, even if he has to become Santa himself to make that happen. He has a decent job, with a recent promotion, and a tense but intact relationship with his brother. Some of his co-workers rag on him, but others are friendly. People think he's a little strange, but especially in the build-up, it's not over the top. This provides a much better depiction of mental illness. For him, it's a low-key background radiation in his life that eventually comes to dominate him. 

Joker, by contrast, gives its protagonist Arthur much more dramatically visible symptoms, and really piles on his problems and traumas. After all, he becomes the Joker, or at least a Joker, with all the flamboyance that suggests. The Joker is always in some way over the top. It's not even necessarily unrealistic, but it feels a lot broader, a lot more obvious. And that's the difference between a film that's trying to evoke a late-70s New York feeling, and one made in the late '70s, with New York actors in real New Jersey locations, during a time when a film like this could be made without any glossiness. Christmas Evil is an absurd story full of campy violence (and that torch-wielding mob is still a wonder to behold!), but I think it succeeds in doing what Joker was trying to do, in a more grounded way. 

Too bad it never got its Academy Award nomination.


Friday, October 15, 2021

Halloween in a Suburb: WandaVision

The 2021 Halloween episode of Marvel's WandaVision aired in February, which will probably lead to it being neglected in this season's viewings. It doesn't help that it takes place in the middle of a heavily serialized storyline, so it can't function well as a stand-alone one to watch for Halloween. Nonetheless, its ambience is fantastic; up there, in my opinion, with Trick 'r Treat and the opening shot of H20: Halloween Twenty Years Later

For those who haven't watched WandaVision, its format is that each episode mimics the style of TV sitcoms from a particular time, from The Dick Van Dyke Show era to that of Modern Family. These recreations are meticulous, not just in the wardrobe and set decoration, but also the lighting, camera angles -- everything. This episode, "All-New Halloween Spooktacular!," clearly evokes Malcolm in the Middle as its primary influence, and that chaotic energy is perfect for Halloween, with shaving cream pranks and smashed pumpkins, courtesy of Wanda's visiting brother, dubbed "a man-child" by the precocious Malcolm-like narrator. Wanda and Vision dress in kitschy costume versions of their original outfits from the comics, and a whole panorama of neighborhood kids trick or treat in broad daylight. 

Later, they attend the delightfully named "Town Square Scare," complete with a hay bale maze and goofy inflatables.

But true to the spirit of the season, under the colorful paper decorations, cartoony blow-molds, and kid-friendly atmosphere, it's really about darkness, loss, and death. Pressed on the alternate reality she seems to have created, Wanda describes the origin pretty bleakly: "I only remember feeling completely alone. Empty. Just -- endless nothingness." 

Away from his family, Vision experiences a different kind of ambience: the darkness on the edge of town. His scenes are truly eerie, as he moves from scenes of frolic and fun to ones where people seem trapped in a kind of purgatory, against a background of night darkening over increasingly more isolated suburban homes.

The houses are lit up with decorations, but that only highlights the darkness and emptiness of the world.
The entire sequence of Vision walking alone through Westview, to the empty fields near the city limits, is gorgeously unsettling, backed by an equally eerie piece of soundtrack music aptly titled "Dead or Alive." The orange plastic gives way to the uncanny, right in the middle of what's so often thought of the safest of places. A whole spectrum of what Halloween contains.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

All I Have to do is Scream

Spoilers for all the existing Scream movies, plus an assumption of familiarity.

We just did a re-watch, and I had completely forgotten that Scream 5 is in the works until we were midway through. I’m sure I’ll see it, but I don’t know how I feel about it.  It’s a unique situation in the genre to have four films with the same director, a consistent core cast, and three of the four written by the original creator. Even the same composer worked on all the films! The only comparable situation I can think of is the Phantasm films, where four of the five had the original director/creator, and all five starred Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm. So I have mixed feelings about Scream returning without Wes Craven at the helm, even if the series had the usual diminishing returns. Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courteney Cox are all set to return, along with Scream 4’s Marley Shelton … and I swear to God if there’s a love triangle I’ll, well, scream. It’s being directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, and written by Tyler Gillett, the team who did Ready or Not, so that's promising.  In the meantime:

Scream (1996)

A slasher full of characters who’ve seen all the horror movies, and base their ideas about a killing spree in their town accordingly. I couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen this. I even bought the score. I used to have a coffee mug! And the script, published as a trade paperback. For the record, I was obsessed with Party of Five in the '90s, but never watched Friends, except an occasional snippet.

Most frustrating death: I think I’ve been mad about Tatum’s death every time I’ve seen it, all the way back to the first viewing, and I’m still mad. Her "Bam! Bitch went down!" scene, reenacting Sidney slugging Gale with a stuffed bunny, is still super-endearing, as is her general protective instinct toward her friend. And I feel like she should have done more damage with those beer bottles.

Cringiest moment: The mean girls gossiping about Sidney in the bathroom look way too old, and are so exaggerated, it’s like they’re in a different movie.

Cameo: Henry Winkler turning up was a real surprise on the first viewing, and he’s pretty fun as the creepy, ultra-vain principal constantly startled by the many mirrors in his office.

Personal favorite: I enjoy the early stages of the Gale/Dewey relationship. They have a really natural chemistry, easily falling into a rapport, and I like how Gale is clearly flirting with him as a manipulation technique, but that she also enjoys his company and starts genuinely flirting at the same time. It’s all pretty charming.

The twist: Good, actually. It was certainly a surprise at the time. Billy was such an obvious suspect, slasher conventions made him seem like an obvious red herring. But that convention was the red herring! I’m sure I never believed it was the father, though, so I honestly don’t remember who I thought the killer was.

Scream 2 (1997)

Ghostface goes to college. The survivors of the first film are trying to get on with their lives when people are murdered at the premiere of Stab, a movie based on their ordeal. 

Most frustrating death: Randy. Over time, he’s definitely become the iconic character (far more than any of the killers under the Ghostface mask), especially with his speech about the rules. I guess his death lets us know that nobody’s safe, but still, once he’s gone, some energy goes out of the whole series.

Cringiest moment: When Derek sings “I Think I Love You” to Sidney in the college cafeteria. Eeg.

Cameo: Portia de Rossi in an early role as a sunshiny sorority girl, already showing off her comedic skills saying things like: “Hi! I really mean that. Hi!”

Personal favorite: The final confrontation has some great moments, possibly the best of the series, with Sidney saying that Mickey forgot one thing about his hero, Billy Loomis: “I fucking killed him.” Then Mickey tells Sid she has “a Linda Hamilton thing going … It’s nice. I like it.” That's a compliment near to my heart! Sidney and Gale totally blowing him away with massive overkill is also pretty great. Side note: Timothy Olyphant gives one of the funniest performances of all time in the underrated Santa Clarita Diet, as the uptight suburban dad flummoxed by his wife turning into a zombie, and it’s crazy to remember this as where I first saw him. I wonder if he and Drew Barrymore ever compared notes on their times in the Scream franchise!

The twist: Already getting to be a bit of a stretch. The presence of Laurie Metcalfe makes you think there's more to this character, but since she excels at playing the everywoman, she could have been a red herring to give Gale more to play off. However, it would have been more of a surprise if Mickey and someone else had just been copycats, and not tied back into that rat-looking mama’s boy, Billy Loomis. Insisting on that muddies the waters. If Mrs. Loomis’ whole motive was to get revenge on Sidney for Billy’s death, she could have killed her way more easily if they hadn’t orchestrated the Stab killings and gotten her into protective custody. I guess she also wanted to torment her and make her suffer, but doing that clearly made it harder to achieve her true goal.

Scream 3 (2000)

Cartoonishly meta at points, this one’s set in Hollywood, centered on the set of Stab 3, the sequel-within-a-sequel.

Most frustrating death: Parker Posey, no doubt. Her Gale Weathers is the best thing in the movie, and I wish the option was open for her to return. 

Cringiest moment: At the time, I’d have named the creepy, stalkery vibe given off by Patrick Dempsey’s red herring cop. But now it’s the existence of a whole casting couch/executives raping young actresses subplot in a Weinstein film. That's really unpleasant.

Cameo: Despite the presence of Roger Corman, Carrie Fisher, and Jay and Silent Bob, my fave is definitely Heather Matarazzo as Randy’s sister. We should have gotten to see more of her!

Personal favorite: Everything with the two Gales. “Are you gonna help Gale Weathers or not?”

The twist: It’s not as egregious as Freddie Krueger suddenly having a wife and daughter he’d never thought about before, six or seven movies in, but it’s getting there. All the Scream killers to this point have had specific blame-the-victim mentalities, which is kind of weird. Sidney’s targeted for having killed someone in self-defense.  Her mom was a target because she gave a kid up for adoption, and then had an affair, while the men involved (like her just-as-guilty lover) are barely mentioned,  I guess the sleazebag who hosted the party where she was raped does get his throat cut, but it seems more like part of the plot to frame Sid than the killer caring about it. Also, here and in Scream 2, the killers have elaborate plots, contingent on all sorts of coincidence and dumb luck, which involve grooming catspaws to do their killing for them, when they’re perfectly willing to kill people themselves, and no one would have any reason to suspect them. I mean, if Billy and Stu hadn’t been killed in the first movie, they'd have sold out Roman in a second!

Scream 4 (2011)

Somehow this one is so undistinguished, I kept referring to it as Stab 4. Several years later, Sidney returns to Woodsboro on a book tour, on the anniversary of the original murders. She acts above all the exploitative promo stuff, but come on, she knew that wasn’t a coincidence, but timed for maximum press.

Most frustrating death: Mary McDonnell. Come on! Casting the President of the galaxy just to waste her in such a nothing role is downright bizarre, especially since she functions as a never-before-hinted-at aunt for Sidney right there in Woodsboro. Apparently just to explain why there’s a cousin to position as an heir to scream queendom. But she gets one line about “hey, the murdered Maureen Prescott was my sister, so I have trauma too!” Then a line about shopping when she’s stressed. And then she’s dead. So wasteful. 

Cringiest moment: Maybe the whole vlogging thing? No, wait, it’s the guy who says the only way to know that someone will survive a horror movie these days is if they’re gay. I’m still trying to figure out what his evidence for this is.

Cameo: Anna Paquin and Kristin Bell from the opening. I am equal parts both characters, so having the “I dunno, I enjoy a dumb scary movie” woman stab the critical, analytical one was like a scene inside my own brain. 

Personal favorite: Alison Brie’s performance really hits the same notes from Community, but it’s admittedly fun to see a version of Annie who’s so foul-mouthed and gleefully insensitive. 

The twist: It’s okay, I guess. I’m not sure I suspected Jill the first time, but it does smack a bit of “the kids today.” Which, to be fair, was also a thread in the original, about desensitization and whatnot. There is an interesting, if barely noticed, nod to the gendering of violence and the assumption of female innocence when Sidney asks her cousin how she could do this to her friends. I don’t think anyone has ever, at any point, questioned how Billy and Stu could have done the same to their friends. For young men, it’s taken as more of a “why not?” And “there’s always some bullshit reason to kill your girlfriend,” as Randy pointed out so long ago. 

Overall, while they're all enjoyable, it's hard to look back and understand why I was so deeply invested in the Scream movies. All the '90s copycats, with their glossy surfaces and attractive young casts plucked from TV, certainly dulled the freshness of the original. In retrospect, the first film does have an unusually strong sense of place. Filmed in California wine country (my cousins went to high school in the building used as the Woodsboro High School!), the real locations give it a dual impression of affluent ease and unsettling isolation. And you really feel the relationships: Dewey and Tatum snipe like real siblings, and Sidney genuinely seems like she's known Dewey all her life. There's a lot of little warm touches in the performances, and that all works for me. It probably helped that, for example, the very worst Halloween sequel, The Curse of Michael Myers, had just come out the previous year, so a lot of us were pretty desperate for something new to come along. And that might be enough to explain the phenomenon.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Back to School Horrors: Rush Week

Spoilers galore, so beware!

In Rush Week (1989) a transfer journalism student investigates the disappearance of a young woman at a mostly sedate college, at the same time a rowdy fraternity house is reopening, which may or may not be connected. The film begins with a nighttime vista of the empty campus, set to creepy background music, showcasing a sense of emptiness and isolation, before shifting to a frat party full of (mostly drunken and immature) camaraderie. 

Coincidentally, I just read the book The Great Good Place, with its discussions about place, and the increasing difficulty of creating community in modern spaces, so much so that people are losing “the habit of association” (73), and I noticed it was originally published in 1989, the same year as Rush Week came out. The campus isolation contrasts with one of the main reasons why people join fraternities and sororities: to make friendships and/or connections. Even if it’s for future professional reasons, there’s an assumption that personal ties will help with that.

Unlike Monster on the Campus, the emphasis in this film is solidly on the students. The adults are unhelpful, exploitative, or downright sinister. Like Dr. Blake in Monster on the Campus, this college’s Dean Grail is concerned with civilization and the danger of regression: “Fraternities, sororities tend to accentuate the very worst, the most degrading influences.” He wants to guide the students instead toward “productive futures,” but this is clearly part of his mental instability. An attitude of “don’t trust anyone over 30” is ingrained even in young people who, certain Animal House-style shenanigans notwithstanding, dress like yuppies and are far removed from the hippies who popularized that idea.   

In that 1958 film, the lead was a professor distracted from his classroom duties by higher research; here, they’re students distracted by their extracurricular social activities, which certainly seem more important than their schoolwork. In the case of protagonist Toni, she’s a journalism major, but she spends all her time at the campus newspaper office and the computer lab, not in class. And how quaint are those early CRT computer terminals! Awwww!

Like Monster on the Campus, many of the horrific events center around the science building, but not because of instruction or experimentation. The dangers are no longer centered around science itself. Instead, it’s a large, empty place where a cafeteria worker can moonlight taking nude photos of female students, who are openly motivated, at this stage in the ‘80s, by the difficulty of paying for college. There’s one significant exception who probably didn’t need the money, but it’s hard to say for sure. Wealthy parents controlling their kids by controlling their finances isn’t a new story either.

One thing I appreciate about Rush Week: it contains actual female friendships, and recognizes that the characters involved in sexual "transgressions" are motivated by financial need. The roommate of the sexy first victim (last name McGuffin, by the way!) sincerely worries about her, describing her as a responsible young woman, and is reluctant to reveal her friend's sideline in amateur porn, knowing she’ll be judged negatively for it. New student Toni is immediately befriended by Jonelle, who introduces the audience identification character to the campus and its various groups. Thanks to film conventions, when she first appeared, I half expected her to be a “bitchy girl,” but this film didn’t have one! 

Jonelle's an attractive blonde with big hair and bedazzled clothes, and a boyfriend in the frat, but she’s also the computer expert who explains “back doors” to Toni, and later hacks into the university’s system to warn her of potential danger, before showing up with a whole cavalry of people from a costume party to rescue her in the last act. Not only that, but she sings with the band at a frat party; a fun featurette with actress Courtney Gebhart on the Vinegar Syndrome blu-ray talks about this as one of the highlights. The famous L.A. punk band the Dickies also appears, and “Baby Doll,” the parodic Devo pop song featured in Tapeheads, is also heard in the background, so I like to think these films take place in a shared universe.

In some ways I wish the fun-loving and multifaceted Jonelle were more the focus than Toni, although that’s not the fault of Pamela Ludwig, who’s fondly remembered, especially, from 1979’s teen rebellion classic Over the Edge. As the most serious and stolid character, Toni comes across as something of a straight woman to her campus peers. She’s hampered, too, by her relationship with frat president Jeff (Dean Hamilton), a red herring who’s never called on his awful behavior in condoning his frat brothers’ cruel pranks on a prostitute, which, in the worst of frat boy stereotypes, they do just because they can. When the young woman goes missing and Toni worries about her, Jeff says, “Hey, she’s just a hooker,” and she should have dropped him right there.

Their relationship is especially frustrating since he's rude to Toni from the start, immediately telling her “you’re too intense.” He cuts down her ideas, telling her to “wake up. This is real life, not some stupid horror movie,” and “I told you not to get so wrapped up in this.” Even though there was an unsolved ax murder on campus the year before, and he knows she’s onto something! If he was concerned for her safety, he could warn her about that! But nope, he just constantly tells her not to follow her instincts, and not to be herself.

In response, she overlooks his Jekyll/Hyde qualities, gives in to his persistence, and out of nowhere says she’s falling in love with him. He might not be the killer, but the fact that he’s such a plausible red herring is still a red flag about his potential as a boyfriend.  He’s also involved in the film’s gay jokes, which are unfortunate but certainly period-appropriate.

I do like the scene where the two have a date at a campus hangout, because it brings back fond memories of places like Minneapolis’ Valli Pizza, all of them long-gone, and Jeff’s musing about how for the students, “most of ‘em have no idea what they wanna do with their lives.” While his frat house seems to be 100% dedicated to crazy pranks and mooning, there's one interesting aspect in that Jeff’s heart really isn't in it anymore. His best friend has to keep nagging him to do the responsible thing by taking part in fun and debauchery, where he presides over the ceremonies, announcing “I sever the bindings of social constraint.”

This brings up a question of what that even means. The frat's resistance to social constraint is itself ritualized, a tradition, and it’s the authority figure on top of the org chart who is actually freed from social constraint to the point of ax murder.

This all made me think of the apparent decline of frat culture, at least anecdotally, and certainly locally. My own alma mater had eight Greek organizations and one home-grown fraternity in 1970, seven of which had free-standing houses right next to campus. I couldn't find an official count for the '80s, but as of 2021, there are three Greek groups, none of them with a house.

The social upheavals of the ‘60s clearly affected the popularity of Greek life, which then saw a revival in the ‘70s; a frat house like the one seen in Rush Week would probably have gotten their ideas from movies like Animal House as much as from local tradition. By this time, there was a lot concern about alcohol abuse and hazing. As late as 2020, AHS: 1984 includes a fraternity hazing death in one of the characters’ back stories, so this still comes up in pop representations, although social and economic changes probably do more to influence the decline of interest among new students.

Overall, while there are certainly slashery elements, like hooded guys committing ax murders, Rush Week's plot gives it more of a mystery/thriller feel, creating more forward motion than some of the more bare-bones slashers do. I’m not arguing that it's a real lost masterpiece, but it was still a fun new discovery. Sometimes “you need something new, yes you do,” as Jonelle sings at the frat party (voiced by Addie, of the Addie Band). 

It's clearly unsatisfying for some viewers, with a frequent consensus that the movie fails because it’s fairly tame, with fewer, less graphic, and less creative “kills” than other slashers. However, the idea that this is the primary way, or the only way, to judge a slasher film seems like a limited view of the genre, one that plays to stereotypes about lowest common denominators. I’m probably in the minority, but I’ll go on blithely assuming that’s not the case, and that other people might enjoy a competent film with decent acting and a baseline of suspensefulness.

Director Bob Bralver was most well-known as a stunt man and stunt coordinator, who did some actingand started directing TV shows. Rush Week was his first full-length film, and watching the Vinegar Syndrome release blu-ray, I was fairly impressed. For a mostly unknown film, it looks GREAT!

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Back to School Horrors: Monster on the Campus

As colleges welcome their students back for the new school year, and don’t get me started on real-world issues, we’re featuring a few campus-set horror movies that deserve more love.

Director Jack Arnold’s is revered for his work on the all-time classic Universal monster movie The Creature from the Black Lagoon and its sequel, Revenge of the Creature. He also directed famous genre films like It Came from Outer Space, This Island Earth, Tarantula, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, not to mention one of the equally all-time classic MST3K shorts, “The Chicken of Tomorrow” (“in a deadly battle against the Chicken of Today.") Later in his career, he primarily directed for TV. His last credit, in 1984, is for his 8th episode of The Love Boat, one in which teenage Vicki gets drunk and Captain Stubing has a heart-to-heart with her about his alcoholism. Quintessential!

He also directed an episode of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries called “Campus Terror,” which was the tagline on the poster for our first Back to School Special, 1958’s Monster on the Campus, a film that has received significantly less attention than many of his other works, but which totally agrees: We Are Devo.

Unlike so many later horror films, the focus here is on adults, not on the students. The college setting would seem ideal for young audiences, who were flocking to the new science fiction and horror films, to relate to, but this one doesn’t offer them much in the way of audience identification. The academic environment is more important thematically, as a forum to explore evolution and its counterpart, devolution. The campus, a site of education, progress, and general intellectual advancement, can be potentially threatening as well as enlightening. Study can lead, indirectly, expose people to something dangerous, and here those dangers are extrapolated to outright physical ones.The protagonist, a professor at Dunsfield University, is introduced making a sexist joke, just to remind us what we’re dealing with in the time period. This is Dr. Donald Blake – yes, the name of Marvel’s original Thor alter ego, and Jane Foster’s ex-boyfriend in the film version! He has a coelacanth shipped to him as a scientific specimen, which was exposed to – what else? – gamma rays! So that makes me wonder if Stan Lee or somebody saw this movie and it stuck in their unconscious.

Like The Vampire, which came out the previous year, this is a contemporary scientific twist on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, although its science is more than shaky. The radiation causes anyone exposed to the fish, or even the water it came in, to quickly revert to a lower stage of evolution. Although the effects wear off fairly quickly, when a dog turns into a large-fanged wolf, or a man to a Neanderthal, their behavior becomes immediately violent. Progress took millions of years, but it only takes moments to devolve back to an earlier stage of brutal instinct.This idea is reinforced by Dr. Blake’s speechifying and his general attitude toward life. His fiancée Madeline argues that “Humanity still has a future,” but the professor is dour about its chances, believing that unless it can learn to control its primitive instincts, “the race is doomed.”

More on this theme: “Man can use his knowledge to destroy all spiritual values and reduce the race to bestiality. Or he can use his knowledge to increase his understanding to a point far beyond anything now imaginable.” Also, “Man’s only one generation from savagery” and “Civilization isn’t inherited, it’s learned.” And “The past is still with us … It’s the savage in modern man that science must meet and defeat if humanity is to survive.” He’s pretty gloomy for a guy with a good job and an attractive, supportive fiancée well-placed to help his career.

Some scholars, like Patrick Gonder, see a message about segregation and integration in the film, that the devolved throwback represents a white supremacist fear of black Americans, often coded at the time in the language of the primitive. This is certainly a possibility, and an interesting angle. It’s clear that white men at the time believed they had things to fear from black advancement, even as they continued in their positions of power. Gonder's excellent essay is online here, so check it out.

Dr. Blake is deeply worried about the survival of humanity’s baser instincts, pontificating about this at length, but it’s his experimentation, his efforts to understand the primitive state in order to rise above it, that unleashes these forces. Without his fear of devolution, this extreme form of devolution wouldn’t have happened, and a lot of people would still be alive. This seems to reflect a popular distrust of science and what it might lead to, especially with something like evolution. The Scopes trial took place decades earlier, well before any college students of 1958 were born, but anxieties about evolution and its teaching have never left American life. 


The students’ perspective on all this is largely unexamined, but when Blake dismisses class to work on the fish, the students are mostly happy about it, some of them going off to a movie instead. In the background, though, you can hear one of them complain, “Don’t you want to get an education?” Academia is maybe most strongly represented by Madeline’s father, an administrator hoping that the prehistoric fish will bring in publicity and alumni donations. He says, “An institution’s like a living organism. The moment it stops growing, it starts degenerating. So, anything that promotes growth is all to the good.” So the language of science, even of evolution and devolution, is put in the service of capitalism. Later, even after mysterious deaths start happening on campus, his real tipping point is when Dr. Blake makes a lengthy and expensive phone call to Madagascar, at “$5 a minute!” which is unusually realistic.

I have to note that Dr. Blake goes to a cabin in the woods to record his story on an old-school tape recorder, which is very Evil Dead.

It’s all over the Internet that this movie premiered December 17, 1958, in Bismarck, North Dakota, a real WTF? I could not find a citation, and the same sentence with this factoid is repeated in tons of places, so I couldn’t track down the original source. It did play there at the Bismarck Theatre in December 1958, as a double feature with The Blood of the Vampire, which was originall released in October 1958. After Interlibrary loaning microfilm reels of the Bismarck newspaper and scrolling through them, though, I feel fairly certain of one thing: if Monster on the Campus did indeed premier in Bismarck, nobody in Bismarck knew that at the time.

It's only mentioned in the regular columns about the films currently playing in town, and even there, only in passing, barely footnotes to material about bigger pictures like the thriller Cry Terror! and Disney's Tonka. The Bismarck Tribune stated on 12/12/58 that "Wednesday through Saturday a double feature shocker will show at the Bismarck. Blood of the Vampire is one half of the feature, Monster on the Campus the other ... Both movies have their crazed monster created in the medical laboratory." They were mentioned again on 12/19/58: "A dim-witted, one-eyed hunchback ... runs wild in Blood of the Vampire. In Monster on the Campus, a test tube horror takes its toll. Of course pretty girls have to be the victims in each show." 

I did not cross-reference with our own library's microfilm to see if Monster on the Campus played any local theaters at the same time, or any other cities, because I was already microfilmed out. All I can say is that the Bismarck showing has no indication that it's a premiere, or that it's anything but part of a regular B-movie package. Of course, who know? As Dr. Blake says, rather metafictionally about the plot of his movie, it's "as improbable as life itself!"

Monday, August 23, 2021

I Know What You Did Last Summer: Hollywood Lets Everyone Off the Hook

Spoilers for the book and the movie, so beware!

Hollywood is not a single entity. Individual works and filmmakers are sometimes willing to explore complexities and ambiguities, but in general, the mainstream movie industry tends to simplify issues, dodge hard ethical questions, and let its protagonists off the hood for lasting consequences and moral judgments. It’s safer to have a clear-cut sense of right and wrong, ultimately freeing film protagonists, especially, from meaningful moral judgment. A classic example of this phenomenon is the case of I Know What You Did Last Summer.

In Lois Duncan’s 1973 YA novel, a group of teens is threatened with exposure, and worse, a year after their part in a deadly hit-and-run accident. The novel’s potency comes from the fact that the protagonists are being punished for their real moral failings, relatable ones that invite us to question what we’d have done in the same situation. Even the most likeable characters, especially Everygirl Julie (played in the film by Jennifer Love Hewitt), are in the wrong, and have suffered no meaningful consequences for their actions, which motivates a grieving family member to take murderous vengeance. 

The 1997 film adaptation ups the violence; none of the hit-and-run drivers actually die in the book, much less random characters in their periphery, whereas the film has a bloody body count. But while the film’s stakes are more extreme, it also lets its characters off the hook, morally speaking, softening their accountability and then removing it completely. Despite the film’s violence, the novel is darker by remaining more ambiguous. There are various points on which the novel is changed in order to soften the moral responsibility of the characters.

1. In Duncan's version, realistically, everyone’s drinking. The movie strains to show that this was a more innocent accident. Julie’s boyfriend Ray has remained a sober designated driver, and prevents their friend Barry from drinking under the influence. Barry, however, drops a liquor bottle on Ray, causing him to smell like alcohol. This is all more than a little convoluted. In the novel, all of the friends are buzzed, and fate, in the form of a coin toss, determines which of them drives. The “good” couple is happy to let Barry drive drunk, so they can make out in the backseat. Ray, who lost the coin flip, acknowledges that Barry “just happened to be the one who was driving” (50), and Barry points out to the moralizing Julie that “you were awfully anxious to get into the back seat tonight … You knew I was a little high. It didn’t bother you then” (51). 

2. In the aftermath of the accident, no one in the book is shown suffering due to their actions. The retribution against them is partly fueled by the fact that none of them have faced any real negative consequences. Julie and Ray, the pair with more moral qualms, have broken up, and Julie’s gotten a little more serious about life, but Helen and Barry are still together, and everyone’s school and career goals are on track. The person threatening them, a family member of the person they hit, sees that “Our whole family is wrecked, and what about you four, the ones responsible? … All your lives are going along peaches and cream” (182). In the film, though, all of them have suffered indirect punishments. The romantic relationships have all fallen apart, career aspirations have failed, and Julie is a pale, guilt-ridden wreck of a person. In the book, she has some pangs of conscience, sending anonymous condolences, but that’s about it. They all felt bad about it, but time passed, there was nothing to be done, and they went on with their lives, which infuriates their grief-ridden persecutor. 

3. Most significantly, in the novel, the accident really was a hit and run, not the result of someone stepping in front of their car. They hit a child, not a grown man. They do drive away, not stop and agonize about what to do. While they telephone for an ambulance, they don’t go back, leaving the child alone. The actions in the film are more extreme, since they toss the victim’s supposedly dead body in the ocean, and at the last minute realize he was still alive, so in this case, their actions would be real murder. Not surprisingly, though, he doesn’t die, and they are able to honestly say “We never killed anyone.” Then, of course, it turns out they hit a vicious murderer, who then goes around killing people unrelated to the incident, apparently just to mess with them. This places a focus on the sinister fisherman as much worse than they were, so that actually killing him would have meant other innocent people would still be alive. 

In the book, however, it's clear that they did do something wrong, legally and morally, and were on the path to getting away with it, forgetting about it in time, and suffering no repercussions. It’s almost a fluke that they are held accountable in any way. Of course, Julie and her friends don’t deserve to die, but they shouldn’t experience no consequences, either. On the last page, Julie muses, “We can never erase it … What we did last summer is done. We can’t undo it, ever. But we can face it. That will be something” (198). And it’s a lot more than the film version can bring itself to do.  

Side notes:

The film has its charms, like the post-Roseanne, pre-Big Bang Theory Johnny Galecki hilariously failing to be a tough guy. Hewitt’s line-reading of the on-the-nose dialogue “The secret is killing us” is so earnest it edges into its own kind of camp. And then ther's Freddie Prinze, Jr., who I thought was so bland in this, thanklessly playing the blandest character, little knowing some day he would voice my all-time favorite Jedi Knight, even overtaking Obi-Wan Kenobi in my heart, as Kanan Jarrus in the animated Star Wars: Rebels. There’s great scenery, too, which always makes me fleetingly want to move to the movie’s version of North Carolina, and it’s great to hear L7’s version of “This Ain’t the Summer of Love” on the soundtrack. 

Overall, though, the changes to the story, and the softening of its whole thematic center, creates a lot of unnecessary plot complications. Like, they find out the fisherman’s name. He lives in the area, and had been in the news due to his daughter’s death. Don’t he and Ray both “work the boats” in the same small town? Does he have friends, or neighbors, or people who buy his fish? What do they think happened to him? Or do they think he’s dead? There’s an attempt here to graft the “unstoppable slasher killer” mystique on something too grounded in reality to make that work. His ability to move dead bodies in broad daylight, and at a workplace full of people  in the next room, brings it into the satiric territory of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, with its scenes of the killer planning how to pull off these impossible things. 

Plus, for all the whole plot is motivated by the group’s fear of legal repercussions, there don’t seem to be any! The authorities don't even notice the killing spree going on the middle of the annual “Croaker Festival,” and in the end, they don't question Julie and Ray's half-truths about the events, allowing them to go on with their lives ... the same thing that motivated the novel's original threat!

Finally, I can't resist commenting on the problem this shares with much 1990s horror. Everyone’s too pretty. Pretty people are nice, but when everyone has a movie star sheen, it can add to that glossy, Hollywoodized feel, separating a story from relatability. It's particularly noticeable here with Helen’s frumpy sister Elsa, who in the book has a “heavy, doughish face” (79) and “plump shoulders” (158), and is shown as a complete contrast to TV personality Helen, who’s pretty enough to be “beauty queen material” (11). In the film, Elsa is played by Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, an actual beauty queen (1990’s Miss Teen USA). That kind of says it all on this subject!

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Reprint from The Haunted Cinema: Us and Them

Like so many things in my life, this essay started as a joke. When I first watched Jordan Peele’s thought-provoking 2019 horror film Us in the theater, I proposed a double feature with Gordon Douglas’s 1954 giant ant epic Them! Later, on re-watching, I found that, while in many ways as different as different can be, these favorites have some striking commonalities, placing the origin of their horrors in relation to threats internal and external. Us and Them! both involve people living their normal lives, who encounter incomprehensible and horrific threats which will potentially affect the entire world. Each begins with a little girl, about the same age, who is traumatized to the point of muteness by an uncanny event.

Them! has its climax in the 700 miles of storm sewer tunnels under Los Angeles. Us opens with mention of “thousands of miles of tunnels” under the United States, and the concluding confrontation takes place in one of these tunnels under Santa Cruz, California. In each case, the protagonists must venture into a hidden, interior space, an act with a built-in psychological symbolism. 

In Them!, there are authority figures who seem to have things under control, and are the focus of much of the action in fighting the ant invasion. But at the same time, scientists, working for the U.S. military, caused the problem in the first place, so the government is working heroically to solve a problem it created. By contrast, in Us , there are no authorities who can do anything to help. Faced with violent and inexplicable doppelgangers, the family calls 911 early on, and are told the police will be there in 14 minutes, but they never show up. Later, when they find the lines are busy, it’s clearly because there are “too many twins,” and their first call took place at the start of the larger event that will prevent them from getting help.

Among the recurring subjects of horror is the question of whether the threatening elements come from the outside, as an external intrusion, or inside, from the dark side of a person or their community. Many works that are particularly evocative complicate this question. For example in Halloween, Michael Myers seems like an external force of evil that randomly comes upon the teenage babysitters, but he originally sprang firmly from within a nuclear family, killing his sister in their own comfortable home. 

One fairly common way of looking at the insides and outsides of horror is through the lens of the “other.” In The Birth of the American Horror Film, Gary D. Rhodes defines this frequently discussed phenomenon as “any race or group of people who were different than healthy white Protestants. With notions of difference came those of white superiority.” Of these others, he says “They are not Us, and so perhaps They should be exhibited for Us to examine” (256, capitalization in the original). All of which raises the question of what’s “other,” in relation to what, and what is just plain old “us.” 

In opposition to “us,” the human race, the threat of “Them!” is a distinctly alien part of the natural world, all animal instinct with no human feeling or reason. Us, by contrast, is more psychologically oriented, and the complications of inside and outside form an intrinsic part of its premise.

It’s easy to look at Them! as the epitome of an Atom Age big bug movie, but despite the limited, non-realistic special effects, there is nothing campy or cheesy about it. Much of the film is a straight-forward procedural, first with a local investigation, then the FBI and the Department of Agriculture, all of which creates an environment of plausibility around the events. 

When the father-daughter team of scientists arrives, the elder Dr. Medford immediately starts talking about the atomic bomb. He acts as a prophetic voice throughout the film, with many excellent lines: “We may be witnesses to a biblical prophecy come true … the Beasts shall reign over the Earth,” and “we’ve only had a close view of the beginning of what may be the end of us.” 

This continues to what becomes a somber ending. With the immediate danger past, there is speculation about all the nuclear explosions that have taken place since the first one, which caused this terrible mutation. Dr. Medford says that “when man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world, and what we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.” 

The connection to the Atomic Age lies in more than the origin of the monstrous insects: when reporters catch wind that something’s going on, their question is “Has the Cold War gotten hot?” 

While killer ants are clearly a “Them!”, a threat that comes solidly from without, they also come symbolically from beneath (in this case, under the desert sand), formed from within the nation by the actions of its highest authorities. The veneer of reassuring resolution ultimately leaves open the possibility of related future nightmares. 

In Us, there’s an ambiguity about the identity of the others, who call themselves the Tethered, which has irritated some viewers but plays into the film’s themes. Many reviewers have referred to the sinister doppelgangers as clones, but there’s no real evidence for that, and much of the backstory wouldn’t make sense if they were. The character who explains things, Lupita Nyong’o’s Red, doesn’t really know what’s happening, or exactly how it works, but whatever the mechanics, somehow these shadow selves, dark reflections of living people, were given physical form. An abstraction familiar from Jungian psychology was somehow made corporeal, by what appears to be the government, “so they could use them to control the ones above. Like puppets.” 

This is reminiscent of the dead souls being enslaved in Phantasm, or the subplot from Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, in which a shadowy government agency captures souls for use by the military, which then have to be controlled and pacified like troubled children. 

Arguably, from a psychological perspective, people can and do develop complicated relationships with parts of themselves that they ignore or reject, so the idea that they are “alienated” from themselves doesn’t sound odd to us at all, and this is part of what plays into the film’s themes. Even more, the existence of these others reflects everyone who loses so others can win, representing every form of underclass that suffers away from everyday notice. The conspiracy element illustrates how our unconscious impulses, and the darker sides of our nature, which are here literally unable to express themselves, can be used to manipulate behavior. This can be seen in advertising or political rhetoric that influences people in ways they’re unconscious of, particularly by appealing to their “dark” or shadow sides. 

In the film’s prologue, the events are set in motion when a little girl enters a “Vision Quest”-themed Hall of Mirrors, where the sign reads “Find Yourself.” She is inextricably drawn to her shadow self who, we eventually learn, captures her and takes her place in a version of the changeling myth. Here, though, the two remain connected, so that what happens to one affects the other, and the better things are for the above-ground persona, the worse they are for the underground one (part of what makes this some kind of shadow self and not a clone). 

But it isn’t that one is the “real” version, and the other a copy or a fake, or that one girl is innocent and the other is a villain. Neither deserves to be imprisoned, especially since they’re legitimately the same person, just somehow manifested into two, with the one kept hidden, unable to communicate, and the other unconscious of the other’s existence. They can be exchanged, and either can fill either role. In this reality, separate as they are, there is no “other.” There’s only us.

Given his obvious interest in exploring American race relations through the context of horror film, it doesn’t seem coincidental that Peele would use tropes of “otherness” in Us. In the study On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, author Stephen T. Asma discusses how “the myth of the black monster has had a prosperous career in the twentieth century” (233). He makes a lengthy exploration of the philosophies and psychology behind “the demonizing or monstering of other groups” (234), and ends up quoting a biologist who states that “Us-versus-them thinking comes very naturally to us” (239). 

With the likeable Wilsons as our focus for audience identification, the idea of African-Americans as demonized “others” is almost completely brushed aside. The film casually presents the Wilsons as the norm, the average nuclear family, who still identify with touchstones of black culture: in one detail, the nostalgic music from the parents’ youth is a hip-hop classic. But the remembrance of this racial history complicates the fact that the family itself, as successful Americans, is implicated in the suffering of a deeper, invisible underclass. They aren’t “others” because they’re “us,” the same as their richer, crasser white neighbors are, at the same time as those mirror image others exist as a part of themselves. 

Yeah, it’s twisty stuff. 

It’s too simplistic to treat these films, which were almost randomly selected, as singularly representative of their times. But on some level, they do seem to reflect changes in the way their themes are thought about. 

Them! has an archetypally sincere depiction of competent authority, that runs alongside a matter-of-fact view of military complicity in the crisis would be unusual in a contemporary film. By contrast, in something like 2018’s Rampage, the giant monsters are similarly created by science, but it’s motivated by the greed of over-the-top evil villains. 

The more cerebral storyline of Us feels very modern. In previous decades, science fiction on the page could be speculative and open-ended, but what appeared on the screen tended to be less ambiguous. The film’s basic situation could have come from an alien invasion film, or the original Twilight Zone, but it’s hard to imagine it becoming so focused on the complications of personal identity and responsibility. 

Early on in Us, daughter Zora talks about fluoride in the water, which, in a bit of foreshadowing, “the government uses to control our minds.” When her family responds with silence, she adds, “I forgot. Nobody cares about the end of the world.” At the film’s conclusion, Nygong’o’s character tells her son that “everything’s gonna be like it was before.” This promise is reminiscent of the theoretically conclusive ending of a more traditional kind of horror film, in which the heroes defeat the menace, as happens in Them! Unfortunately, the way it was before was a nightmare for the Tethered, and continuing on the same path would only spawn more monsters, just as continued nuclear testing could theoretically breed more terrifying mutants, however much we want to bury this knowledge in our unconscious minds.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

For the Love of C.H.U.D.

C.H.U.D. (1984)

There are several movies that, if I hear them mentioned, I can't help bursting out with my affection for them. I just can't let it go unsaid. The Gamera movies are like that, Carnival of Souls is like that, and, probably most amusingly, C.H.U.D. is like that. Any hint of its existence and I am guaranteed to exclaim "I love C.H.U.D.!" And why not? It's true. I do love C.H.U.D.

My history with the film is sort of roundabout. Even though I'm the correct vintage, I never saw it back in 1984. I was pretty poor in the '80s, so I missed a lot of movies in the theater, and then I didn't have a TV for years. Filling in the gaps in my movie watching, I picked it up, more or less randomly, at some DVD sale in the early 2000s. On the bus, I read the poster blurb about how "They're not staying down there, anymore" and said, "I could write an essay about this as a Reagan-era artifact and I HAVEN'T EVEN SEEN IT YET!"  Luckily, it turned out to be a good Reagan-era artifact in the vein of They Live, with a distinct critique of the government and the socioeconomic status quo, so I can enjoy that aspect along with its crazy monster effects.

The film has a peculiar relationship to the sociological studies of underground homeless communities in New York City. One of the most famous was the book The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York, by Jennifer Toth, although its inaccuracies in geography and information about the actual subway system have led many to question its validity. In particular, see the detailed essay "Fantasy in The Mole People" by subway expert Joseph Brennan. Another well-known example is the documentary Dark Days, directed by Marc Singer, a photographer who befriended various homeless New Yorkers and was welcomed into their world, just like the photographer played by John Heard in C.H.U.D. 

In the back of my mind, just based on the general knowledge, I vaguely assumed that C.H.U.D. had been inspired by some of these works. However, Toth's book came out in 1995, an expansion of reporting she did in 1990, and Singer's film wasn't released until 2000, based on material he gathered in the 1990s. Another photographer, Teun Voeten, did similar work in the early '90s, leading to a 2010 book called Tunnel People. Another documentary, Voices in the Tunnels, came out in 2008.

So C.H.U.D. predates all of these! 

According to the American Film Institute's information, the screenplay was partly inspired by a New York Times article from November 29, 1977. Written by Dena Kleiman, the headline reads "Hobo Colony Lives Mole‐Like in an Inferno of Pipes Under Park Avenue." The article calls it "a shelter from the street that offers space, privacy and sanctuary from harassment by authorities," and that the residents "prefer their freedom and privacy to the world of regulations and limitations on their movement." This ties in with attitudes displayed by various C.H.U.D. characters, who are similarly in retreat from a society that treats them with disdain and disrespect. This theme is, of course, reinforced by the presence of Daniel Stern's street reverend, who runs a soup kitchen and only reluctantly deals with the authorities. 

And they have good reasons not to trust those authorities, since while the homeless population is victimized by a society and an economy with no place for them, they are doubly harmed by the actions of greedy business interests, that dump toxic waste in the spaces they've retreated to. Financial greed and government corruption are directly complicit in what happens to the people underground, and responsible for those killed by the monsters they've been turned into. The only reason police officer Harry Bosch is trusted by anyone is because he actually lives in the neighborhood, and so has a personal stake in what's going on. 

Making use of the problems of unhoused people for a monster movie can be seen, fairly, as inherently exploitative. At least this film is sympathetic to the counter-cultural Reverend and his regulars, even when they're unwashed or mentally ill, and that isn't something one always sees in mainstream media.

Similarly, while one might wish that Heard's character, so kind to elderly street people, would be less of a jerk to his partner (Brazil's Kim Greist),  she also comes off in a positive light. A fashion model who's joined him in moving to a gritty inner city apartment, she has doubts about NYC's suitability as a place to raise a child, but she doesn't come off as uptight, or a nag, or any of the stereotypes so ubiquitous in films of the era: just as a person with legitimate concerns. She expresses both vulnerability and strength, whether she's facing monstrous creatures coming up from her basement, or the concern that, despite their commitment, she and Heard might not be compatible.

There's a lot of evocative nighttime alleyway photography, which in many ways is all I really want from a movie. This is aided by Martin Cooper and David Hughes' eerie synth score, which was mysteriously hard to find for a long time, but recently released by the good people at Waxwork Records.

C.H.U.D.'s always been a little under the radar; not forgotten, certainly, having a place in the '80s horror pantheon, but it's never gotten the attention of the slashers, or anything like The Lost Boys. That seems appropriate, somehow, for a movie that centers on a literal underground, and how the evils that befall a society's forgotten people will eventually bite everyone. Classic Reagan era!