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Monday, August 30, 2010

The Mist: special effects, political correctness

Prepare for spoilers. This is a relatively recent film.

The 2007 film The Mist is based on Stephen King's 1980 novella about dangerous monsters hidden by a thick, inexplicable mist. I had low expectations for this story, because given King's tendency to rehash the works of others, I expected to find justification to my suspicion that this story would rip off The Fog, released by John Carpenter in 1980 as well.

Any similarities or whatever aside, the 2007 film is brilliant. It is difficult for a film to earn my respect when it includes a lot of digital special effects. Usually, no matter how advanced the technology, they don't match the rest of the world. The digital monsters in Silent Hill distracted from any moment of terror I might have felt. In Panic Room David Fincher opts for some impossible photography of digital scenery that I can't understand there being a purpose for. I acknowledge that sometimes you can't tell a fantastic story without fantastic visuals, and I look to Spielberg's 2005 War of the Worlds, a film so awash in cohesive special effects that I never felt distracted.

The monsters in The Mist are not natural-looking. They tend to err on the cartoony side. But what makes this forgivable is the way that the film does not rely too heavily on the monsters to tell its story. The film is not about people fighting monsters. The creatures are a reminder of the stakes of the situation. This film could have been done without the lavish visuals. I can imagine it even being a stage play, where the monsters are offstage. This attests to the strength of the story. The Mist is the heir to Shyamalan's Signs as a film about people, who may happen to encounter some CGI.

A question that you've got to ask when a 27 year old story gets made into a movie for the first time is "why now?" There are two relevant facets to the plot that speak to our era. The first is that of the military saddling the public with something terrible. In this case, the military higher-ups unleashed other-dimensional monsters into Maine. The obvious parallel is the war in the Middle East, where military higher-ups have committed Americans in every possible way to a mistake, requiring continual sacrifices to right that wrong.

The second, and more affecting facet, is the situation with Mrs. Carmody. Carmody is a local pariah, with an alluded-to history of instability. She embodies a fervent Christian fundamentalism, which initially gets under the skin of everybody in the film, especially those she tries to "save." As conditions worsen, her sway over the other characters grows. Rather than leave any possibility for her legitimacy as a prophet, Carmody is portrayed as having her ego strengthened as her cult of personality grows.

Mrs. Carmody's place in the story is that of the most strident, maddening voice you'll ever hear, that doesn't go away and is multiplied by its listeners. She's the film's Glenn Beck or Pat Robertson. She'd be the Sarah Palin if the film had come out a year later. Carmody manifests the infurating feeling of being trapped that we may feel in the political world. It's the feeling of hearing people say horrible things and not being allowed to stop them, because their rights are protected. Mrs. Carmody embodies the feeling of being a guest at a table where the host makes a homophobic remark and everyone else is laughing along, or listening to people defend the murder of Dr. George Tiller on the news. Whenever someone rebuffs Mrs. Carmody in the film, it's a moment of liberation from the tyranny of political correctness. When Ollie tells her to shut up, I feel conflicted, because as much as I want her to can it, I recognize her right to her worldview. When Irene hits her with a can of peas, chiding that stoning is allowed in the Bible, I am conflicted, because her argument is fallacious. But when she and her rabble become murderous and Ollie shoots her dead, I just want to high-five everyone in my apartment complex.

I bet that's how prosecuting attorneys turn into conservatives; watching criminals get off on their protected rights must make it feel damn good to put one away when you've finally got some good evidence.

Finally, I love the scene near the end where Ollie pulls a gun and the knife-wielding zealots back off. The gunshots at Mrs. Carmody call them out on their faith. Suddenly, the wrath of God that compelled them to murder isn't quite as serious as a grocer with a revolver. It's like The Lord of the Flies for grownups, except... No, that's exactly what it is.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Fun and Unfun Horror

I recently moved six hours from everyone I know for law school, into an apartment without internet. Knowing no one, I took the opportunity to work through my significant collection of unwatched horror films. Curiously, I discovered that I had no desire to watch certain movies in my collection, opting towards ones that I for a long time had little desire to touch, things like Tobe Hooper's miniseries of Stephen King's Salem's Lot, which I've had for several years.

Most notably, I watched The Blob from 1958, its 1988 remake, Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956, and its 1978 remake. The Blob spawned a mirthful remake, while Invasion's next of kin was significantly less-so.

Keep in mind that a film does not have to be "fun" to be excellent. I wouldn't describe many of my favorites in the "fun" category, because fun usually means not thought-provoking.

I had intended to explore what makes a film fun or unfun, but did not have much of an idea of how to do so. But I was inspired while watching a really cool program reproduced on YouTube called "Horror Cafe" (, wherein several prominent genre heroes discuss their craft over a multi-course meal. John Carpenter gave an analysis breaking plots into "right" and "left," just as you would imagine the political spectrum. According to Carpenter, films belonging to the right are "us versus them" scenarios," while on the left, we have "us versus ourselves." Right-leaning films present a sympathetic tribe combating the forces of otherness, a monster, an opposing, less human tribe, etc. In left-leaning films, the sympathetic characters are often isolated, without a tribe, or the tribe is being threatened from within, not by something inhuman, but something very, unpleasantly human. On the right, we have films that reaffirm group identity and demonize otherness. On the left, films expose the weakness and human flaws; things that the tribe doesn't want to admit.

I like to posit American Psycho as a prime example of the left-hand film. The power I find in this film comes from the sympathetic Patrick Bateman character, who is an exaggerated caricature of human jealousy and hostility, the externalization of everything you think when someone pisses you off.

Both of the original versions of The Blob and Invasion of the Body Snatchers were made in the 1950s, when science-fiction/horror was bound to the pro-military, anti-science paradigm of the nuclear age. As such, both films present threats from space, which terrorize the characters of a small community, and pose a greater threat to the United States at large. Both conclude with successes. In The Blob the monster is incapacitated, and in Invasion the central witness finally has his testimony acknowledged.

Invasion is often interpreted as symbolizing the threat of communism. Outsiders infiltrate America, take over the minds of the populace, and covert America to an empty, efficient way of life. Sounds a lot like the promise that communism would destroy individuality and institute forced atheism. Herein we have a reinforcing of the American identity against the sway of the other.

The Blob is just about space monsters.

The remake of The Blob is interesting, because it's really just the same story, updated to the 1980s. It draws together disparate groups into one communal identity, where the loner/biker character must join with the jocks and cheerleaders. This is a fun film, not in spite of, but because of the high degree of gory special effects. The film doesn't challenge the viewer emotionally, so it's not like the gore punctuates any kind of heart-chilling point the director is making (see this entry for a discussion of the serious use of gore).
Instead, we can revel guilt-free in the labors of the FX guys, who worked hard doing what they love: coming up with the grossest practical joke they could think up. You ever see a nasty effect and rewind it? That's what I'm talking about.

Contrary to this, the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not fun. Some say it's a commentary on the downfall of American culture. I don't know what it's supposed to be about. I could hypothesize about it, but I'm not comfortable committing. Still, it's not a fun movie. The scene where Donald Sutherland smashes the head of his doppelganger with a garden hoe is really gross, and deadly serious. No music accompanies this act to cue any set response in the listener. The gore punctuates the internal identity struggle of the character, who brings great emotional investment to the dispatching of the imposter. The final scene of the film is the most significant plot difference from the original. In the 1956 version, the main character survives his encounter and successfully warns the world. In the 1978 remake, he is transformed, and betrays his former friend, who may be the last human on earth. In the original, the tribe suffers many losses, but the central figure maintains the tribe. In the remake, what starts as a tribe becomes the struggle for individuals to survive, and the central character eventually loses himself and becomes something else.

Donald Sutherland's character is filled with anxiety about what he could become. Do we sense that in ourselves? Losing our idealism? Betraying those closest to us because we were swayed to something else?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Speculative fiction makes for good horror

As an avid horror fan across all media, I became interested in Old Time Radio while reading Stephen King's nonfiction Danse Macabre, where I found that Bill Cosby's OTR parody "The Chicken Heart" actually parodied a real episode of Lights Out!" I located the show at, as well as other programs that Cosby mentioned in his routine, "Suspense" and "Inner Sanctum Mysteries." From these I eventually got turned onto the science fiction program "Dimension X," which often did versions of Ray Bradbury stories, frequently much creepier than any episode of "Inner Sanctum." After listening to many of these, I realized that I never gave sci-fi enough credit.

The term "speculative fiction" is said to have arisen as a response to science fiction growing too attached to genre convention, sacrificing creativity to retread worn ground. Just because it takes place in space doesn't make a story speculative fiction. Speculation implies an element of "what if?" Ray Bradbury's stories from "Dimension X" have this in spades. What becomes of a smart-home after a nuclear war? Or if an alien invasion is assisted by children? Both were broadcast together as "There Will Come Soft Rains/ Zero Hour."

This satisfies my requirement that a great plot can be great in the abstract, like a philosophical treatise or a thought experiment. I cannot overstate this.

This accounts for my fascination with H.P. Lovecraft. I have spent much more time reading about his work than actually reading it. Though I find his writings inaccessible, the internal coherency of the Lovecraft universe is incredibly appealing to me. His work speculates on the possibility of gods in a realistic way, positing that an actual experience of the incomprehensible could only lead to madness. Speculation about "ancient astronauts," as At the Mountains of Madness is sometimes described, is similarly enthralling.

Sorting through my list of favorite horror films, my first post to this blog, I see that though not all of my films satisfy this requirement. But many do. Se7en is a speculation about ethics, American Psycho about the limits of personality, Antichrist about perceptions of women, and onward.

The horror film is a place to say something. The reason my top 10 horror films is only 9 long is because the genre is polluted by vacuous violence.

Virtuosity in the Horror Film

In keeping up with John Kenneth Muir's I took up his recommendation to see the 2009 film The House of the Devil. It streams on Netflix. Couldn't be more convenient. This film is kind of a problem for me. On the plus-side, it is the scariest movie I've ever seen. I give it very high marks for that. On the other hand, it does nothing else for me. This leads to tonight's topic: virtuosity in the horror film.

Technique, skill, virtuosity. All relate to the same thing. Ti West served as the author, director, and editor of the film, and the unity of vision showcases his virtuosity as a filmmaker. Except for the ending, which struck me as a somewhat derivative letdown, a storytelling weakness, West demonstrates his pitch-perfect technique at crafting suspense that scares the pants off me. A couple of shocks early on set up a slow crescendo, as the audience anticipates more of the same but gets no such release. There is no span of easy breathing.

No doubt, West is a master of suspense. His technique for serving it up is unparalleled in anything I've seen before.

Why doesn't this make a good movie?

Virtuosity is a tough thing. As a guitar player, I've lived in a musical culture with factional relationships to virtuosity. To some, the virtuoso is the highest hero, the fastest, most technically proficient of players (shredders). Others decry virtuosity, arguing that shredding lacks depth and gets in the way of playing with feeling. Shredders respond that "feel" players are bitter about being slow.

I'll say this: in any endeavor, virtuosity alone doesn't cut it. Musical virtuosity can be exceedingly boring, or it can be entertaining but lacking substance. West's film, I think, is wonderfully entertaining, but does lack undercurrent. Every time I see a film with a thought-provoking premise wrapped in a botched execution, I will recall this film and wish that West had helmed the thinker instead.

This post relates directly to another from 6-29-10, "Endings: strong, weak, or immaterial." The ending/plot isn't really related to the best aspects of the film. I wish it had been about something else. As rewarding as the suspense play is, I wish it was grafted onto something stronger.