Thursday, October 31, 2013

Field Trip: Halloween Eye Candy

Happy Halloween, all! Here's my first post on somebody else's blog (apart from my CinemaBeach posts, but that blog is still technically my own)! That somebody else is my roommate Travis, who has been curating this blog for quite some time now so it's a pretty polished affair.

He asked me to helm a special Halloween post because duh hello.

So click here to read my list of the Top Fifteen Sexiest Horror Victims (Male and Female) for your Halloween treats!
Word Count: 2098

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Year: 2013
Director: Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen
Cast: Jay Baruchel, Seth Rogen, James Franco
Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

First, an apology for missing This Is the End when it was in theaters - due to reasons I've never been able to adequately comprehend, movie tickets cost money.

This is the first "End of the World" film from the relentlessly unwatchable and overwhelmingly nihilistic 2013 summer season and to my knowledge the only mainstream comedy (if not the only mainstream film in general) to deal with the Biblical Armageddon. Granted, it's Biblical Armageddon as experienced by a group of douchey comedy actors and viewed through a haze of pot smoke and dick jokes, but it's an interesting fact nonetheless.

Also to my knowledge, this is the only film in which the entire cast is playing themselves (albeit slightly fictionalized versions). This idea could almost certainly not exist in any other era, what with the mainstream media's increasingly microscopic coverage of the minutiae of the celebrity lifestyle. Thanks to Reality TV and TMZ (don't get me started), stars are more accessible to us. They have characters outside of their onscreen personas and they seem like they could be our friends. They are our friends.

It's hard to imagine Clark Gable or Audrey Hepburn being willing to take on a project like this (even without the dicks), but in today's world we have the ability to see what Anna Kendrick is having for breakfast. We can see Kim Kardashian's Christmas presents. We can visually explore the subtle daily shifts in Justin Bieber's abdominal body fat percentage. Why not make a movie like this?

Essentially, This Is the End is the apotheosis of meta. The period of postmodern cinematic recursion that didn't start with but reached highest visibility with the release of Scream, a film that thoroughly explored the concept that its characters were well aware that they were characters in a movie has reached its pinnacle. We've seen characters who know they're characters but what about characters that simply aren't characters at all?

Such a brilliantly weird high concept would almost certainly have ended up in a back drawer somewhere had it not been for the high profile cast attached to the project (and their willingness to take massive pay cuts). 

OK, so enough with the film theory BS. What about the actual movie?

It's.... OK.

The Bling Ring has gone way too far this time.

This Is the End is certainly funny, but it's funny like a California winter - mild and enjoyable, but you can't shake the feeling that it really should be something else.

The plot follows Jay Baruchel (Jay Baruchel, one of many Judd Apatow alums in the cast, having starred in Undeclared in 2001) on his first trip back to LA in some time. He's staying with his buddy Seth Rogen (Seth Rogen, who also co-wrote and co-directed) who suggests they hit up a party at James Franco(James Franco)'s new house in the Hollywood Hills despite Jay actively despising the whole scene and everyone there.

The party scene (one of the funniest scenes in the film) is a veritable avalanche of guest stars including Mindy Kaling, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, a coked out Michael Cera, and scores of other good natured celebrities who gave up a weekend to help out with their friends' movie. It's really quite charming that none of the guests seem to be plugging themselves in any way, just appearing for the sake of how funny it is to see them die violently.

And boy do they. Immediately following the Rapture, a massive sinkhole opens up out front, swallowing fistfuls of celebrity partiers into the bowels of Hell. Michael Cera is impaled by a broken streetlight. Paul Rudd accidentally squishes a woman's head. It's really quite hilarious in a low fi CGI kind of way, although it seems more like a silly celebrity home video than an actual wide release motion picture (something which is true of essentially the entire movie).

Stars are nonchalantly chucked left and right without so much as a backwards glance. The only one who's actively mourned is Rihanna, a pop star whose preponderance of close-ups suggest that the filmmakers' passion for her rivals even Sergio's, a concept that is scientifically impossible.

As calculated by Einstein's Theory of Rihannativity.

The only survivors of the world's biggest party foul (besides a bedraggled Emma Watson who makes an extended cameo) are Jay, Seth, James, Craig Robinson (Craig Robinson), Jonah Hill (Jonah Hill), and Danny McBride (Danny McBride). And I hope I speak for more people than just me when I say who the hell is Danny McBride?

Against Jay's wishes, the six of them hole up in James Franco's palatial home to try and survive the siege of flames and sinkholes and poorly composited CGI monsters (the atrocious CGI is mostly forgivable here because the film in no way asks us to actually take the demonic threats seriously). The motley crew goes through the motions arguing over rations, forming alliances, and desperately trying to survive. Oh, also dancing to Gangnam Style (an already dated touch) and filming homemade sequels to Pineapple Express.

They also film reality TV-style confessionals that I choose to believe is part of the overarching parody of the Hollywood elite because they serve no actual purpose.

The bulk of the film takes place in this location and the comedy is mainly derived from watching these horrendously emotionally stunted individuals dealing with the apocalypse. The longer we spend in the house, however, the more grating the humor gets and by the time two of the men have a three minute shouting match about cum before another of them gets raped by a demon, I had long since checked out. By that point, the good bits had waned to the point of plateauing and the bad, sometimes unnecessarily offensive, abrasive bits had taken center stage.

The movie sags greatly in this middle half, but picks up again once our heroes are forced to exit the house after a truly hilarious exorcism scene, the best in the entire film. The final act of the movie is inconsequential but much less infuriating and thus a considerable success.

Also Emma Watson is the best.

For the most part, the actors are solid, the standout being Jonah Hill as a hilariously sycophantic toady and the worst being Danny McBride as all of the worst qualities of humanity rolled into one doughy ball.

And despite the infrequent truly hilarious scenes and the thankfully not overwhelmingly intolerable bad ones, there is a heart buried deep in there, the core story arc being Seth and Jay struggling to repair their  fizzling friendship. It's no Old Yeller, but it's more heartfelt than most of any of these actors' entire output put together.

Overall, This Is the End is breezy entertainment that deserves more laughs than cringes, especially considering the fact that it's essentially a silly celebrity YouTube video with a $30 million budget. 

Yes, that comes with its flaws, but such an idiosyncratic project should be embraced in today's cinematic climate. I mean a movie that contains a lengthy reference to The Exorcist and a fully choreographed Backstreet Boys performance within half an hour of each other is to be cherished. And though it isn't the crown jewel of comedy, such an eccentric little film is welcome in an age of bland blockbuster flops and endlessly manipulated, committee-mandated sequels. This Is the End is a fluke; a strange and mostly accidental byproduct of a waning studio system, but a charming one nonetheless.

TL;DR: This Is the End isn't exactly funny enough to earn its dizzyingly high concept, but it's a quirky and fun meta film.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1296

Monday, October 28, 2013

Italian Horror Blogathon: Bird of Prey

Year: 1970
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: GP

For the first time, I'm participating in a blog event that I've been following avidly for some time now, Kevin Olson's Italian Horror Blogathon, a yearly Halloween event around the movie blogging community. Basically, in the seven days before Halloween, any blogger who wants to can watch an Italian horror film (or as many as they like), write up a post, and submit the link to the Blogathon. It's an excellent way to discover new blogs and see what other people have to say!

I'm a big fan of Italian horror with its "Colorful violence first, plot later" mentality and the influence it holds over a lot of my favorite American slasher films (A Nightmare on Elm Street particularly). And while I have yet to plumb the depths of what I have heard is an indefatigable joy for gory zombie pictures, I have spent quite some time with the giallo films, the precursors to my beloved slashers. In fact, I've reviewed several of them here. Since I started this blog in June, I've reviewed Joe D'Amato's Video Nasty Anthropophagus, Mario Bava's seminal work Twitch of the Death Nerve, and even included Dario Argento's masterpiece Suspiria in my list of the five scariest films I've ever seen.

Considering the influence the genre has had on me (those are three of my favorite horror movies), I decided to expand my knowledge, beginning with Italian horror maven Dario Argento's debut film L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo or The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

Before it begins with me.

That screengrab alone is enough to make any fan of the gialli squeal with pleasure. The black-gloved killer was a staple of the genre, even more than hockey masks or chainsaws are today. And here is the shot where Argento begins his long and illustrious career - an array of knives laid out on a blood red cloth. Fitting, don't you think?

The plot of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is simple (and admirably comprehensible, considering the frequent nonsensical excesses of the genre). American writer and Patrick Dempsey doppelgänger Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is vacationing in Rome with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) when he witnesses a crime in an art gallery. A woman and a black gloved man grapple with a knife atop a staircase, but the shadowy man vanishes through a side door before Sam gets a chance to see his face.

Sam is trapped between two glass partitions, unable to escape and unable to help the woman, who he later learns is the gallery owner's wife Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi), who is writhing in pain on the floor of the gallery.

McSteamy's healing hands unfortunately can not penetrate solid glass.

Monica survives, but Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) suspects that her attempted murder is one of a string of mysterious killings that have been taking place over the last month. As the key witness, Sam's passport is confiscated, forcing him and Julia to cancel their trip back to America. They decide to help out in the investigation because apparently there's nothing else to do in freaking Rome.

As the investigation is underway, more and more beautiful women turn up murdered and Sam and Julia receive threatening phone calls from the deranged killer. Pretty standard Italian horror goings on. 

But let's back up a minute. At the gallery, Sam is between two barriers - immobile, helpless, forced to watch and ponder the imminent death of a young woman. Does that seem familiar, moviegoing audience? Perhaps that's too intimate a reading of the film, but remember this is Argento we're talking about.

Regardless, this is a unique and creative way to stage a horror sequence, and while it is maybe not as inspired as Argento's later works, it and many other sequences are clearly little seedlings of who this man was going to be. Besides, it's dreadfully unfair to compare any horror film to Suspiria, even one Argento made himself.

The original plan to make an Inspector Gadget film went very awry.

The visual style is strong in this one, but for every stylized sexual killing (and even for an Italian slasher film, the deaths are very sexual in nature - one takes place on a bed as the woman grabs handfuls of sheets while screaming - an idea that starts to make sense once you finish the film in its entirety), there is a policeman setting up a lineup and shouting "Bring in the perverts!" For every freeze frame flashback that mirrors the killer's habit of photographing his victims, there is a 70's supercomputer with so many spinning wheels it looks like the local laundromat or a painter who proclaims his genius after drawing a circle.

In short, although visually appealing, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage suffers from being a little cheesy, even taking the time period into consideration. This problem would be resolved as the director got practice and discovered his voice, but this film ain't as scary as some of the others that are just around the bend.

That doesn't mean it doesn't have a killer Final Girl sequence (which it does) and a dread filled atmosphere (which it does, despite occasional sputters). Just, with its stabs at atmospheric musical score that would later be perfected by frequent Argento collaborators, Goblin, and engaging but drab setups, it can't help but feel like a stepping stone. A very important and well composed one, but a stepping stone nonetheless.

Although this staircase shot is worth proclaiming to the Heavens.

TL;DR: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a cerebral and well crafted slasher thriller, but pales in comparison to Argento's later masterworks.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 968

Saturday, October 26, 2013

CinemaBeach: Scare Yourself To Death

My newest article on CinemaBeach has been posted, just in time for the scariest day of the year!

Here's my top five scariest horror films! Half classics, half modern, this list should have something for everybody!

Happy October, everybody!
The holiday season is upon us, and if you don’t agree with that statement what are you doing on a horror blog anyway? The month leading up to Halloween provides the general public a chance to live like I do every week – watching scary movie after scary movie until the 31st.
Unfortunately, because Paranormal Activity 5 has been pushed back, the only wide horror release this year is theCarrie remake, which I am still excited for (see: Julianne Moore), but by no means can carry the entire horror genre on its back for all of October. Luckily, some cool indie horror is hitting cinemas this month (like Skinwalker RanchHaunter, and the long awaited All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) but some people don’t have time to rush out and see a film during the one week it sticks around.
So for those of you stuck at home with nothing but Netflix or (who am I kidding?) the local video store, you’re S.O.L.
Thank goodness I’m here, because I’m prepared to steer you in the right direction with my personal
First, a caveat. Horror, like comedy, is highly subjective. What scares me might not necessarily scare you because we come from different backgrounds and worldviews. Or we may simply be affected by different things. We may both look at The Exorcist and be scared, you from the idea of demonic possession, me from the idea of a mother unable to protect her child.
So, like all lists on the internet, take this with a grain of salt.
But you should keep in mind that I’ve been at this a long time, sifting through the dreadful sludge of the horror genre to find lasting gems of terror. If something scares me, it scares me bad, and my jaded self is not easily perturbed. Read on with caution and have a happy Halloween.
#5 The Birds (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
I often find that I’m in a minority on this one – I much prefer The Birds to Alfred Hitchcock’s other horror masterpiece, Psycho – but the idea of nature rebelling against its human tormenters strikes fear deep into this suburban heart.
#4 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (dir. Tobe Hooper)
A proto-slasher movie so brutal and intense that people just straight up imagined that it was incredibly gory. Tobe Hooper’s down and dirty shocker is light on the blood but heavy on savage and unrelenting horror.
#3 Suspiria (dir. Dario Argento)
Suspiria movie image
Perhaps not one for the twelve-year-olds in the audience, Argento’s quasi-giallo magnum opus combines stunningly beautiful death scenes with jangling music and startlingly vivid colors that beat the audience into submission.
#2 The Descent (dir. Neil Marshall)
A perfect illustration of the twin fears of the dark and enclosed spaces. Marshall’s heroines are trapped in a subterranean cavern where the encroaching shadows are even more blood-curdling than their monstrous adversaries.
#1 [REC] (dir. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza)
My number one favorite horror film of all time. This Spanish found footage epic proved simultaneously that cinéma vérité could still pack a punch and that modern horror was still relevant, all in one fell swoop and on a sock drawer budget.
BONUS SHORT FILM: Mamá (dir. Andrés Muschietti)
In two minutes, this short film (that piqued producer Guillermo del Toro’s interest) wrings more low-fi scares than its American adaptation did in an entire feature. Hands down the scariest short form picture I’ve ever seen.
You can watch Mamá here.
I hope everybody has a happy and safe October being scared witless by zombies, vampires, serial killers, and ghosts!
If you take up one of my suggestions and love it (or hate it), please feel free to comment below!
Happy Halloween!
Word Count: 1108

Friday, October 25, 2013

Beat It, Essay: Blob Me Gently

Welcome to my first official academic post of the semester! Most of my classes this time around are technical, so I haven't gotten a chance yet to wow you guys with my unparalleled wordsmithy. But the time is nigh! As I have mentioned (repeatedly - there's a three part feature on this already), I am taking a class called American Film Genres: The Horror Film, which as you may have guessed is focused on the history of horror.

This class has been fascinating as a horror buff. I've gotten a chance to really delve into the sociopolitical backgrounds and implications of horror films spanning from German Expressionism in the 1920's to the Universal Monster Movies of the 30's to the Val Lewton RKO Unit of the 40's and so on as we progress our way chronologically through time and terror.

As midterms season draws near, our first essay has been assigned and I have never been more excited to write a paper in my life. Seeing as I spend basically every day writing about horror films, it wasn't really much of a stretch.

So here's my second official academic paper about a horror film (the first being my Scream essay for my Media Aesthetics class last semester)! I hope you are all as pumped as I am! You're probably not, but here it is anyway!

(I've added in pictures to keep y'all entertained.)


The Prompt
A) Compare and contrast The Blob from 1958 with the 1972 Beware! The Blob and the 1988 remake, The Blob. Which works better and why, and what does each film tell us about the time they were made?
B) Using two of your favorite sci-fi/horror films, cite five elements necessary for a great sci-fi/horror film and discuss each in detail. Which works better and why?
Horror, more than any other genre, reflects the cultural mores and societal issues of the time and place it is born from. Nothing describes a people better than what they're afraid of, and since the very beginning of cinema itself we have been using horror films as catharsis to face our fears in a safe and adrenaline-fueled (and endorphin-releasing) environment.

Horror is cheap, easy to make, and usually a guaranteed return on investment so it's no surprise that studios pump out horror franchises with great efficiency. By the time of writing in 2013, the world has seen 12 Friday the 13th movies, 9 Nightmare on Elm Streets, 10 Halloweens, 5 Exorcists, 4 Psychos, and 7 Saws. As the years progress, the villains and plots must adjust themselves to properly resonate  with modern audiences, resulting in some tremendously fascinating sociological insights.

One of the most absorbing (pun absolutely intended) franchises is the three part Blob series, with each of the films being released more than a decade apart. Much can change in ten years, and each film shapeshifts into something totally new and mired in the advents of new American cultures.

The original The Blob in 1958 was released during a time of national complacency. World War II was over, the depression had ended, televisions were readily available, and people flocked to the cookie cutter suburbs with their nuclear families, content to be exactly like one another. As the rock 'n roll Baby Boomer youth culture emerged, many older Americans (a minority in the population for the first time) felt that their way of life was being challenged.

At first glance, The Blob is a typically 50's horror film. It's more silly than scary (Because who wants to be scared anymore? The horrors of the war are still in the back of everybody's minds.) and has an overt fascination with the dangers of outer space. The world was at peace (more than it had been recently, anyway) and since the at home threats had been reduced, people began to fear the night skies and their unknowable power.

When a mysterious asteroid carrying a ravenous gelatinous beast crashes into the forest nearby, the citizens of Downington, PA must overcome their fear and distrust of teenagers to work together and eliminate the threat. Their sheltered suburban lifestyles have met an even greater challenge and the adults slowly begin to realize that maybe the young men and women they've been so afraid of are, in fact, on their side.

In this film, the blob is an agent for social change, a common enemy to unite against. Yes, it may be a silly monster in a dumb sci-fi/horror hybrid picture. But when Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut struggle to be heard in a community that has long since given up on them, it resonated deep within the hearts of the young audiences who were just trying to find their voices in a world that persecuted anything Different.

1972's Beware! The Blob is easily the worst of the franchise. It's a cheap film that embraces the camp humor of the original to a severe degree, merrily crossing the line between silly and scary that the original was so precariously balanced on. Shot like an exploitation film on thin sets with flat lighting with what appears to be an even lower budget, Beware! The Blob is the only film in the franchise where the amorphous being absolutely does not feel like a credible threat.

This overly goofy and resolutely unfunny tone absolutely destroys the film (in which a sample of the blob is taken from the Arctic and accidentally unfrozen to wreak havoc on a small town) as a work of horror cinema, but there are still elements of interest here that could only ever have existed in America in the 1970's.

In a film so haphazardly made it is perhaps not fair to apply this level of analysis, but it is hard to ignore the salon scene. It is a brief, three minute chunk completely divorced from the rest of the characters or events in the film in which a young hippie asks a male hair stylist for a haircut. As the man begins to shampoo his hair, the boy begins to groan with pleasure.

"We'll have to moisten you a little bit." "Hey that feels good. You are good." "And you are dirty." "Oh yeah." "You do grow a great deal." "I think you're purring."

No, I didn't accidentally grab a DVD from the adult section at the video store. This is a scene smack dab in the middle of Beware! The Blob in which it is almost impossible to see anything but two men having implied intercourse and then being devoured by a metaphor for their own semen, as a punishment for their "sins."

In the 70's, gay culture was finding its first real foothold, and the "traditional" American way of life was being threatened once again by these queer newcomers. In similar (but less emphatic) scenes, the blob also attacks hippies and a bizarre overweight man with a heavy Eastern European accent. The rampant homophobia, xenophobia, and conservative fears of the burgeoning hippie movement are reflected here in the town's police force.

The sheriff and his deputies completely ignore the protagonists' warnings when the blob is attacking hippies or foreigners or gays, but when the wholesome townsfolk at the bowling alley are endangered, they spring into action. In this manner, Beware! The Blob is almost the polar opposite of its precursor, depicting a world that's more threatened by societal change than the alien menace.

The 1988 remake, also titled The Blob, brings the franchise back to its roots with another high quality camp classic, this time heavily informed by the slasher movie trend that had been going strong in American cinemas since the release of Friday the 13th in 1980. A practical effects bonanza, The Blob successfully wrings whatever amount of tension it can from its remarkably silly premise.

The most major change from the original is the nature of the blob itself. Instead of an alien being, the monster is a government experiment gone wrong. This film's palpable fear of the government certainly wouldn't have been so credible in the days before Watergate, a fact which would immediately mire it in time if the rest of the film (and Kevin Dillon's hair) hadn't already done so.

By 1988, the Baby Boomers had children of their own and the tables had turned. The new youth culture was enacting social change left and right, quite ironically scaring them to no end. The decade that saw the rise of punk, slasher films filled with nudity and buckets of blood, androgynous musical role models galore, and the growing appeal of teen rebellion fueled by John Hughes also saw a lot of terrified parents.

The female protagonist of The Blob isn't fighting to have the adults listen to her. She's fighting to get anyone to listen to her. She's fighting the homogenization of suburban society and embracing the idea that young people can enact real change in the world.

The blob in this case represents her biggest fear as townspeople are literally homogenized into one giant quivering mass. This theme is hit heavily in the first act as her vanilla jock boyfriend (and Steve McQueen stand-in) is messily devoured by the creature before the audience can even blink. She trades him up for a motorcycle-riding, leather clad love interest and saves the day by daring to be different and refusing to follow the rules set down for her by her parents and the government.

While Steve McQueen and his posse are struggling to find a foothold in the world of their parents, Kevin Dillon and his girl reject the notion entirely.

Thus, all three films synthesize the three main ingredients (the enormous man-eating blob, youth culture, and the rejection faced by people who are different) in three completely unique ways in the context of three totally different genres (sci-fi romp, cheapie exploitation film, and slasher movie).

The film that works the best is, by a hair, the 1988 Blob, because it has the ability to draw parallels between the old youth culture of the 1950's and the new youth culture of the 1980's, something which would have been frankly impossible in the original. By drawing the themes of the original into the context of late 80's culture and smashing them into a brand new slasher movie framework, The Blob 1988 shows that they are universal.

Young people will always be struggling to find a voice in a world that's afraid of being left behind. That, at its core, is what The Blob is about. Not alien monsters devouring people. Not the evils of gelatin. The timeless story of The Blob is at once eternally relevant and intensely human.

That, at its core, is what sci-fi and horror are all about. While horror shows us the fears and social issues of today, sci-fi shows us where those issues might take us tomorrow. When combined, those two ideas can provide immensely intelligent and hard-hitting commentary. Unfortunately, true sci-fi/horror hybrids are few and far between. Alien and The Thing come immediately to mind, but other than that, there is a paucity of films in the subgenre.

Most of the other horror films that dabble in sci-fi elements are campy little microbudget pictures, but that doesn't mean they're inconsequential. Look at The Blob, for instance. Nobody would place it in the same pantheon as Ridley Scott or John Carpenter's masterworks but it and its remake nevertheless have sharp and perceptive minds hidden beneath their goofy shells.

Campy films are often forgotten by critics but receive huge cult followings due to the brain buried in the cheese. Two such films (and two of my favorites of the genre) are the tenth Friday the 13th film, Jason X and the 1984 cult classic Night of the Comet.

Jason X brings our hockey masked villain to the farther reaches of outer space on a training ship for young students, where he defrosts after centuries of cryogenic sleep and begins the cycle of blood anew. Night of the Comet's titular entity blasts across the sky turning anyone who isn't in a solid steel shelter to dust, reducing the population to ribbons and leaving the rest to battle radioactive subhuman monsters.

These are fun films, certainly, but both have surprisingly positive things to bring to the genre, much like The Blob and its cohorts. It's not as easy to marry camp and clever as I'm making it seem though. To properly do so, a film must contain these five necessary elements.

First, a good sci-fi/horror film should have a solid commitment to camp. For a movie with a budget as low as some of these flicks can be, it doesn't pay to take oneself seriously. It's important for filmmakers to work within the restraints they have to avoid releasing a film that's merely unintentionally terrible drivel. And a film that embraces camp can deliver its message successfully to a much larger cult audience than it would be able to otherwise.

The campy hook for Jason X is obvious: "Jason's in space!" But the film is also full of tongue in cheek dialogue, cyborgs toting pistols in both fists, and a Cyborg Jason built by nanobots. Night of the Comet masters the craft with action heroines straight out of the cheerleading squad at the local high school. Valley girls, boom boxes, and bloodthirsty monsters are the perfect setup for a classic.

The second necessary element is having something to say about modern times. If a film that is both sci-fi and horror can't find anything useful to say, it has no right being put into theaters. Both genres are so intimately connected with the pulse of modern society that it's almost impossible not to have some amount of sociological import.

Night of the Comet works in a similar vein as 1988's The Blob when the teenage protagonists discover a top secret underground bunker populated with government scientists who predicted the catastrophe but saw fit not to inform the public for their own personal gain. The government was a major antagonistic presence in the United States at the time, and many such films (including John Carpenter's They Live) have similar themes. Jason X works in the same register. The professors in charge of the Starship Apache decide to defrost Jason's perfectly preserved corpse so they can sell him off to the highest bidder, inadvertently dooming the entire crew.

Third, a perfect sci-fi/horror film must have a fundamentally unfathomable villain. Because there is, in fact, a horror element to these films, the primary antagonist must be something completely alien to the audience and characters alike. People are afraid of the unknown, and working within a sci-fi framework allows for a lot of freedom in creating a supremely unnatural villain, much like the blob itself - there is nothing on Earth like it.

Jason X has Jason, a hulking beast that resides in the shell of what used to be a man. He has long since died multiple times but keeps coming back to kill again, driven by mysterious forces of pure evil. And Night of the Comet never adequately explains its monstrous creatures, insinuating that the power of the comet is something that we'll never be able to understand.

The fourth important element is evidence of a world beyond what we see onscreen. For a sci-fi universe to be whole, it can't have just developed within the very limited space in which the primary story takes place. Whatever technological advancements or new discoveries we see onscreen have affected various cultures differently across the globe and encountered hundreds of permutations depending on a variety of contexts. The film doesn't have to show this in its entirety, but the implication that there is a broader universe beyond the capsule of the plot is a must.

In Jason X, the sinister cartel in charge of the student ship is never fully explained, merely seen briefly and sporadically mentioned, implying that there is a much larger governmental and economic structure in place that we only get glimpses of. In Night of the Comet, we see only what happens to LA. The comet has afflicted the entire Earth and there are presumably thousands of different stories that could be told across the globe of the different ways the survivors deal with their desolation.

The fifth and final element is the element of surprise. Each new sci-fi film, horror or not, needs to have something new to bring to the table. Whether its a new technology or merely a new use for a previous idea, in order to have any real agency, it needs to be something audiences haven't already seen a million times before.

Jason Voorhees is something audiences have seen a million times before. But blowing him up and using medical nanobots to secure him to a metal exoskeleton is a completely new idea. A desolate and abandoned city is old hat, but throwing in mutant creatures and a couple valley girls spices it up.

While both films do an admirable job with these five elements, Night of the Comet is the obvious standout of the two. With an impeccable blend of superficial high school humor and abject horror that would later be mirrored in the cult TV hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the film is consistently clever and sprightly.

But a final act that witnesses the ultimate grotesqueries of human behavior as portrayed by an underground scientist cult sends Night of the Comet into the stratosphere as a work of camp cinema. With razor-edged satirical wit, the film dissects the issues inherent with its protagonists and antagonists alike.

Perhaps these films will never reach mainstream acceptance as works of art, but that may be for the best. If Night of the Comet, Jason X, and The Blobs received immediate acceptance, they wouldn't have paved the way for all the films like them that are in circulation today. Camp, sci-fi, and horror are very important tools in our cinematic exploration of the human condition and the fact that these films have always been underdogs give them their raw power.

All hail The Blob.

UPDATE: I got an A-! I think I was a little too loquacious, I ran way over the page limit. But hey! I'll take it.
Word Count: 3041

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Track by Track: PRISM

Year: 2013
Artist: Katy Perry
Label: Capitol

Welcome to my new feature where I break down recently released albums track by track! I'm gonna review each song on Katy Perry's new album individually and rank them as well. Let's try this out. (And if you like it, remember ARTPOP comes this November!)

Track 1: "Roar"

Just like all lead singles on a pop album where the artist is trying to go in a new direction, "Roar" plays it very safe. It's mainly just a diluted retread of the themes in "Firework" that, while catchy and bouncy, is rather unadventurous.

Best Line: "I stood for nothing / So I fell for everything"

Track 2: "Legendary Lovers"

Now that's more like it! "Legendary Lovers" is different from anything Katy has done before, taking its cues from Indian musical stylings with heavy sitar, syncopated rhythm, and lyrical references galore to cultural touchstones like third eyes, lotus blossoms, and karma. She speed talks her way into a chorus that soars over dark hip hop fusion beats. Her breathy falsetto voice isn't quite unleashed to its full potential yet but reveals an early glimpse of what she's trained it to do since Teenage Dream.

Best Line: "Take me down to the river / Underneath the blood orange sun / Say my name like a scripture / Keep my heart beating like a drum"

Track 3: "Birthday"

"Birthday" occupies something of a middle ground between Katy's New Direction vision and standard Top 40 pop. Sexy birthday metaphors aren't exactly breaking new ground, but luckily she mostly reigns it in to just a few lines (one of them is absolutely stellar piece of bubblegum pop smut). It's peppy and fun with a funky groove that makes it sound something like a cross between Karmin and Earth, Wind, & Fire.

Best Line: "So let me get you in your birthday suit / It's time to bring out the big balloons"

Track 4: "Walking On Air"

Something like what EDM would sound like if it was invented in the 70's. Another fun and bouncy track, "Walking On Air" draws its strength from a gospel charged closing chorus that stems from Katy's roots in Christian music in a totally natural and enervating way. Let's keep our fingers crossed that she keeps it this light on her more obviously religious songs down the road.

Best Line: "You're reading me like erotica / Boy, you make me feel exotic, yeah"

Track 5: "Unconditionally"

Here we are at Prism's first ballad! "Unconditionally" gives us a chance to sit back and see how far Katy has come from the young vixen who kissed a girl and liked it. She's seen a few heartbreaks, sang a few love songs, shot whipped cream out of a few bras, and now she's ready to show off her new mature voice. This song has heart, and I can totally see teen girls belting this with their friends at karaoke bars twenty years from now.

Best Line: "Acceptance is the key to be / To be truly free / Will you do the same for me?"

Track 6: "Dark Horse (feat. Juicy J)"

"Dark Horse" is Katy's most deviant track yet with a revolving hip hop club beat, husky vocals, and a hazy atmosphere driven by percussive snaps. I welcome Katy trying something new and the hippity hoppity is certainly that, but the song suffers from a weak drop (an anemic and tinny thing that does not maintain the energy of its buildup at all) and a truly atrocious guest appearance by Juicy J, a studio-inserted guest rapper who chimes in with such instant classic lines as "Shawty's heart was on steroids cuz her love is so strong" and "She can be my Sleeping Beauty, I'm gon' put her in a coma". I don't even know what he's trying to say with that last one. I don't think I want to.

Best Line: "Once you're mine / There's no going back"

Track 7: "This Is How We Do"

"This Is How We Do" is another hip hop influenced song that takes itself much less seriously than "Dark Horse" and fares way better for having done so. Katy sing talks her way through a dynamic paean to getting ratchet. It's hard not to compare it to early Ke$ha, but Katy makes it her own. With its unabashed frivolity, this song is great for driving down the freeway with the top down.

Best Line: "Day drinking at the Wildcats / Sucking real bad at Mariah karaoke"

Track 8: "International Smile"

"International Smile" is spunky, but it's rather shallow and the least daring song on the album so far. There's a cool dubstep breakdown before the last chorus that would redeem the song exponentially if it weren't a nearly exact copy of the sizzling and invigorating wubs from Ke$ha's "Thinking Of You." Nevertheless, it's impossible not to dance along. 

Best Line: "She's got that je ne sais quoi / You know it"

Track 9: "Ghost"

I was hoping this would be a "banging a ghost" song along the lines of "E.T." or Ke$ha's "Supernatural," but instead it's just a Russell Brand song. This is the first song obviously informed by her divorce (check out the best line - definitely RB) which is odd because I was expecting a lot more heartbreak out of this album. This song is basically a Prismified "Wide Awake" or "The One That Got Away" with a clacking drum beat, a sedate verse, and an admittedly good chorus that doesn't do anything to raise it above its predecessors.

Best Line: "You sent a text / It's like the wind changed your mind"

Track 10: "Love Me"

A down tempo self-empowerment anthem that's raw and sweet, "Love Me" strips away the layers of pomp and metaphor from the likes of "Firework," "Pearl," and "Roar" to tell her story of finding herself in the midst of heartbreak. This second half of the album so far is a lot more Russell Brandified, which is to its credit. "Ghost" didn't really do it for me, but Katy harnesses her power in this song and her straightforward but heartfelt lyrics float through a universe of electro-drums, soft synths, and the more organic side of computer instrumentation and vocal manipulation.

Best Line: "I lost myself / In fear of losing you"

Track 11: "This Moment"

The 80's are back, folks! Opening with a chuckling bass and a breezy synth drumset, this song calls to mind Depeche Mode or the Human League in a very good way (at least for me). Katy synthesizes the modern trend of nihilistic YOLO-ing prevalent in songs like "Give Me Everything," "Feel This Moment," and "Die Young" with a pronounced retro feel. Katy's voice does acrobatics above a track that sweeps you away, shifting subtly from 80's electrobeats to an instrumental quotation of "Teenage Dream" and back, subliminally reminding us of just how far Katy has come better than any track on the decidedly more mature Prism has up to this point.

Best Line: "And we pop what is prescribed / If it gets us first prize"

Track 12: "Double Rainbow"

Unfortunately, "Double Rainbow" really isn't as fun as its title would suggest. It's just a plodding love song that doesn't land the camp value inherent in its title and pales in the wake of the magnificent "This Moment." This song makes the same missteps as "Roar," dropping lyrical clichés like breadcrumbs. The chorus overpowers the lackluster verses, much like Ke$ha's "Love Into the Light," but what makes that song a masterpiece is not present here at all.

Best Line: "The two of us together make everything glitter"

Track 13: "By The Grace Of God"

Katy's voice is tremendous, but she can't lift this unimaginative ballad up on vocal strength alone. The longest song on the album at four and a half minutes, this overtly religious self-empowerment/post-divorce piano track is too overstuffed to definitively decide what it wants to be. It lacks the spiritual joy of the likes of "Walking On Air" and is due to alienate most of her secular fanbase. It's absolutely not a fault that she's accessing her religion for a personal song, but it just doesn't resonate. It's too swallowed by everything else in the song.

Best Line: "We were living on a fault line / And I felt the fault was all mine"

Track 14: "Spiritual" (Bonus Track)

It's trying to be "Like a Prayer" but it sounds more like the closing credits song to a Twilight movie. Like all the songs on Prism, "Spiritual" is objectively good, but it just can't compare with the likes of "This Moment" or "Walking On Air." It definitely feels like a bonus track.

Best Line: "Your electric lips have got me speaking in tongues"

Track 15: "It Takes Two" (Bonus Track)

A heartfelt apology song about learning that you're not always the protagonist in your story of love. Again, Katy shows off her more mature voice both in songwriting and belting. But still, it just doesn't have that spark that the main album has. Another overlong and unimpressive bonus track.

Best Line: "Is Mercury in retrograde / Or is that the excuse I've always made"

Track 16: "Choose Your Battles" (Bonus Track)

This is what a bonus track should be! Perhaps not as polished as the main album but delightful and experimental. Katy shifts rapidly between her sing talking and sinewy trills within the verse itself before slamming into a house inspired chorus underlaid with crashing war drums and grinding dubstep blasts. A great slow jam.

Best Line: "You are my hurt locker lover / Keep me walking on a wire"

Overall: Prism is a solid effort. Katy has taken a big leap away from the pervasive Top 40 jams of Teenage Dream, and she's found herself in unfamiliar territory. She fumbles now and then as she tweaks her sound to fit her more mature voice and worldview but this album feels like an important stepping stone to an out and out experiential pop masterpiece of a fourth album.

She's taking a lot of pages out of Ke$ha's songbook, which is absolutely not a detraction considering that Warrior is possibly the most experimental and exciting pop album of 2012. Although her lyrics occasionally leave something to be desired, her exploratory forays into EDM, world music, retro, and hip hop (mostly in the first half of the album) are generally her strongest tracks. 

Each song is great, but the back half suffers somewhat from a lack of brevity despite stronger themes. All in all, it's a stellar third album so any complaints I may have are just minor nitpicks but I need something to write about, don't I?

You go Katy. I can't wait for whatever's on the horizon. 


# 16 "By The Grace Of God"
# 15 "Double Rainbow"
# 14 "Spiritual"
# 13 "It Takes Two"
# 12 "Ghost"
# 11 "Choose Your Battles"
# 10 "Dark Horse (feat. Juicy J)"
# 9 "Roar"
# 8 "Unconditionally"
# 7 "International Smile"
# 6 "This Is How We Do"
# 5 "Love Me"
# 4 "Walking On Air"
# 3 "Birthday"
# 2 "This Moment"
# 1 "Legendary Lovers"

Word Count: 1846

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Splatter University 3: The British Are Coming

Since my teacher seems to hate the 50's so much, it's a wonder he keeps showing us these films. Bring me the 80's! Bring me the action!

Oh well, we might as well work with what we've got. And what we've got is a whole boatload of late 50's horror movies from across the pond!

You see, after the end of World War II, we Americans saw fit to help out the decimated European countries financially. Yadda yadda yadda, politics. What concerns us is but one itty bitty portion of all that.

Some of that money went to establishing film industries in other countries to avoid America having the monopoly on filmmaking in the entire world. If that doesn't sound very capitalist to you, listen to this. Once the film industries started booming, we stole their best filmmakers and brought them to Hollywood. USA! USA!

This was a complex deal, in which a portion of the box office would go toward fueling even more films alongside the American money which was not allowed to leave the country. So that's how British production companies ended up with a seemingly limitless pool of American funding.

There was a quota system in place - the UK could only receive the highly profitable American A pictures if they produced a certain proportion of their own films. This led to a lot of microbudget horror films being knocked out to fulfill the numerical requirements to get to the good stuff. These were called Quota Quickies, because the British are required to have a charming nickname for everything under section 9 of the Magna Carta.

Almost completely by accident, it turned out people loved themselves some British horror and a booming industry was created in the late 50's, with Hammer Films at the forefront. More on that in a little bit.

Night of the Demon

Year: 1957
Director: Jacques Tourner
Cast: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

Night of the Demon was evidently a huge influence on filmmakers everywhere, but it's hard to see why today. This British black magic picture features (of course) an American protagonist in Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), a psychologist who seeks to refute claims of paranormal occurrences at a symposium in England.

When he arrives, he runs afoul of local cult leader Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) who puts a death curse upon him. Although he doesn't believe a word of it, he is convinced to investigate the matter by Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), a young woman whose father has just died under very similar circumstances.

Director Jacques Tourner's usual style of "fact or fiction?" (as exemplified by another of his films - the tedious I Walked With a Zombie) is at play here which would be stimulating if anything noteworthy actually happened in the film. For the most part, it's just our two heroes running around trying to discover the secrets of a mysterious piece of paper and that's exactly as exciting as it sounds.

It has a cheesy demon that only appears briefly, an annoyingly obtuse protagonist, and an overwhelmingly slow crawl that is redeemed only by a few scattered scenes of actual tension and the first truly effective jump scare I've seen in a film of its age.

Rating: 5/10

The Curse of Frankenstein

Year: 1957
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Robert Qrquhart
Run Time: 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

The Curse of Frankenstein was Hammer Films' first real success. In attempting to cash in and pop out a couple Quota Quickies, the Hammer execs had the brilliant idea to recreate all of Universal's classic monster movies. As you can imagine, Universal wasn't too pleased with that, but there was nothing they could do as long as the film was suitably different from the Karloff vehicle. It was based upon a book, after all.

The film... well, it's Frankenstein. No big news there. The most important addition Hammer films made was the use of color film, which was unprecedented for horror in those days. The genre was usually viewed as a B picture medium that didn't deserve the more expensive color stock. But using realistic color allowed the film to display shocking murders (shocking for the time anyway) with blood that was actually red, which captivated audiences everywhere.

Rated X in its native territory for violence (Hammer wouldn't pick up any truly explicit sexual content for quite some time yet, although young Victor is notably more lecherous in this incarnation), Frankenstein made a massive splash across the pond.

The only problem is that the story of Frankenstein is inherently the story of a man without a monster. Watching him acquire it can be a dull affair, and Christopher Lee's (the man who played Count Dooku, for those of you who want their mind's blown) portrayal, while perfectly suitable, wasn't a patch on Big Boris.

Rating: 6/10

The Horror of Dracula

Year: 1958
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough
Run Time: 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

When The Curse of Frankenstein made approximately 90 bajillion dollars in the US, Universal decided that maybe they should give in and fork over the rights to the rest of their monster catalogue to Hammer in exchange for a cut of the American distribution profits. Thus Hammer was granted the freedom to thoroughly explore that universe without fear of being accused of copyright infringement.

What they did with that power was produce a Dracula film so far from the source material that it was rendered almost unrecognizable.

Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) is vamped and murdered about 20 minutes into the film and the rest of the time is spent with Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) attempting to save Harker's fiancée Mina (Melissa Stribling) from the devilish Count (Christopher Lee), who's now in search of a new bride.

All the great classic vampire elements are here - the garlic, the stakes, the crosses, the thinly veiled sexual imagery. Frankly, it's pretty great, aided by the histrionics of a cast that's clearly having a good time hamming it up to the rafters.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1038
Reviews In This Series
Splatter University: Part 1 (September 25, 2013)
Splatter University: Part 2 (October 5, 2013)
Splatter University: Part 3 (October  23, 2013)