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by AJ Ramirez

11 Oct 2009

If I were to pick a definitive Smashing Pumpkins song, it would be the overlooked nugget “Hello Kitty Kat”, originally released as a b-side to the single “Today” in 1993, and later rounded up as part of the 1994 rarities compilation Pisces Iscariot. To me, the best Pumpkins songs always resembled huge swaths of color. The group was never afraid to be vulnerable or full-on rock monsters, and often did both in the same song, all while constructing walls of melodic guitar fuzz that built up to explosive finishes. “Hello Kitty Kat” is the Pumpkins at their best, incorporating all those factors while firing on all cylinders on a roller coaster of a song until the track practically collapses in on itself.

Speaking of melodic guitar fuzz, “Hello Kitty Kat” is sick with it. It’s no coincidence that frontman Billy Corgan’s best material was written between 1990 and 1996, a period when the man seemed inseparable from his Big Muff guitar pedal. Unlike lesser alt-rock guitarists, Corgan knew how to use the pedal in a way that the tone it generated enhanced his guitar parts instead of overwhelming them. The sounds Corgan coaxed out of his Fender Stratocaster thus served as the perfect missing link between psychedelia and grunge. That’s why I can never get hung up on Corgan’s nasally vocals like many of the band’s detractors do. At their artistic height the Pumpkins’ chief strengths were A) the guitars, and B) the arrangements. The more focus on both of those aspects, the better the song generally turned out.  On “Hello Kitty Kat”, Corgan’s vocals are mixed unusually low, sounding insubstantial next to the architectural wonder he has constructed with his arsenal of guitar tracks.

by Bill Gibron

11 Oct 2009

In retrospect, it’s amazing to consider the ongoing link between cultural heritage and folklore and what we call ‘horror’. Fear is such a part of who we are personally, so tied into the very facets of our humanity and human knowledge of mortality that the fables and fairytales which fueled our youth often translate into the terrors that remain as adults. It’s all a matter of updating and contemporizing. This is especially true in countries with long standing traditions, regions more or less formed out of the myths and legends of the past. In the wonderful new film Left Bank, Belgian director Pieter Van Hees uses a modern setting to tell an ancient tale of ritual, sacrifice, and the beast that must be appeased. Within this world of cellphones, skyscrapers, and instant information, some remnants of our dark ages linger, unholy…and hungry.

Marie is a professional runner with hopes of making it to the European Championships in Portugal. Her coach has faith in her, while her mother hates how she pushes herself. When she is diagnosed with a mysterious blood disease, Marie is sidelined. Hoping to ease her disappointment, she moves in with new boyfriend Bobby. He’s a car salesman and the dean of a prestigious archery guild. His apartment on the outskirts of Antwerp (known locally as ‘Left Bank’) also has a bit of a history. The previous tenant, a woman named Hella, simply up and disappeared one day. Her fiancé, Dirk, thinks it has something to do with the complex’s haunted history. It was built on the site of a heretical church, a place where a pit to the underworld is supposedly located. Soon, Marie learns that she’s in line to be a sacrifice to the monster that lives in the basement, an entity served by many in the building - perhaps even Bobby.

Left Bank is so much more than a standard horror movie that when it starts its slowburn stomp toward a truly crackerjack ending, we tend to distrust the pacing. Few fright films use deliberate moments of silence and inactivity as a means of creating menace, especially in the newfangled formula in which everything scary is supposed to be over the top, action packed, and hyperactive. Instead, Van Hees hopes we will buy into the blatant David Lynchian nods, the sequences of dream logic surrealism that evoke something other than shivers. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the obvious last act macabre, narrative fusing the modern with the mythic to create a visceral creepshow callback, we’d swear this was some manner of Inland Empire riff. There are shots here that instantly recall the clinically controlled approach of Kurbrick, the Coens, and of course, the aforementioned Midwestern madman himself.

It’s also interesting the way Van Hees misdirects the audience. When we think of horror, we automatically assume diabolical or disturbing ends. But Left Bank may not be asking for our concern. Instead, we could be dealing with a question of implied perception. We hear words like “sacrifice” and “underworld”, see situations in which other characters appear terrified and tormented, we see a leg injury turn gangrenous and oozing, and we instantly sense something sinister. But all throughout this amazing movie, Van Hees never goes for the throat. Instead, he keeps things ambiguous, baiting the viewer with portents both evil and evocative. If we are to believe Bobby, if we listen very carefully to everything he has to say, the fate of those introduced to cellar 51 might not be all that bad - at least, within the context of what we usually associate with the realm of fear.

The cultural differences also make Left Bank compelling. The entire subplot involving Marie’s running career is very interesting, giving us insights into the character that otherwise might be missing from the narrative. Indeed, it reflects on her health food store managing mother, her overly friendly coach, and the oddly detached doctors who treat any injury like a combination of calamity and inconvenience. Superstition also rears its illogical head, residents of the apartment complex responding in oddball ways when they learn of its potential history. There’s even a small amount of socio-economic commentary at play, Bobby’s Russian buddies clearly illustrating the growing connection between Eastern Europe and Asia. That they also act both aggressive and subservient to the situation at hand offers its own clever conclusions.

Like other knowing foreign fright films, Left Bank definitely lets us in slowly and methodically. We are never overwhelmed with information, even when Van Hees turns up the trickery to add some artistic flourishes (the party scenes, complete with superbly spastic camera movements, really amplify the dread). There are many unanswered questions here - why is Marie’s father so unimportant to the story? Why did Hella disappear if our heroine was always the “target”? What is the significance of the files in the archery guild (except, perhaps, to act as a shout out to The Shining)? And when Marie finally understands her fate, what is confronting her and why does it seem so…apathetic? It’s mysteries like these that make Left Bank so intriguing. It allows a viewer to bring their own interpretation to the mix, making as much sense (or as little) out of Van Hees’ designs as possible.

In the end, Left Bank will probably be unfairly judged for its lack of gore, understated approach, and often indecipherable conceits. But when something is this moody, this given over to gorgeously composed shots of sinister inference, a lack of blood or believability is a minor complaint at best. Pieter Van Hess has created a thriller that seeps under your skin, that shocks you with its nonconformity to the written rules of terror. Instead, what we end up witnessing is one girl’s chance at a second life - albeit one drenched in the pagan beliefs of centuries gone by. How that fits within the facets of modern metropolitan life in today’s Belgium is what this movie is really driving at. As with many movies made outside the US, it’s a battle between the ways of the past and the wants of now. How said struggle ends is what give something like Left Bank its power - and its ability to unnerve.

by Bill Gibron

11 Oct 2009

Sometimes, technology can be a cinematic godsend. It can salvage an entity long missing from the medium, or reinvent a title that has been unfairly dismissed thanks to poor transfers, unnecessary editing, or a general lack of availability. Add in DVD’s (and now Blu-ray’s) ability to amplify the experience with all manner of contextual bells and whistles and it’s a shame that more movies aren’t given the updated format red carpet treatment. Luckily, Richard Stanley and Severin Films got together to give his rarified masterpiece Hardware a high definition revamp. The results are so revelatory, so outside one’s original perception and opinion of the film that it’s like the commercial cliché states - you re-experience this fascinating future shock sensation for the first time.

The dystopian storyline finds former military grunt turned wasteland scavenger Moses Baxter returning from a trip into the irradiated landscape surrounding one of the last major cities on the planet. Along with buddy Shades, he arrives at a trading post, hoping to get something special for his girlfriend Jill - it’s Christmas after all. She’s an artist and spends almost all her time cooped up in her heavily guarded apartment. With the influx of refugees squatting in the building and a perverted stalker across the way, she’s overly cautious and more than a little concerned.

When Moses brings her the skull piece from a weapon known as M.A.C.H. 13, neither one knows what they have. She adds it to a commission she is constructing. He’s glad he’s made his girl happy for once. They are not prepared for a resulting power surge, the mechanical brain’s ability to regenerate itself and its weaponry, or the killer robot it constructs. It’s not long before both Moses and Jill are fighting for their life, desperate to destroy this murderous piece of hardware before it destroys them.

For many, their first (and only) experience with Richard Stanley’s carefully configured social commentary was a sloppy VHS version that was underlit, poorly cropped, and edited to remove material deemed unseemly by the MPAA - and even then, it was an astonishing work of visionary genius. Taking the tired Terminator conceit and twisting it into something far more deadly and dynamic, the South African auteur mixed a little of his haunted homeland into the narrative, giving us sly inferences on segregation, class warfare, and a person’s inability to avoid the consequences of both. There are also references to Mad Max, untold ‘50s sci-fi schlock, and the advent of computer porn. The results continue to astound to this very day, a movie so dense with visual and psychological meaning that you need multiple viewings to catch everything the then 24 year old (!) was working through.

Perhaps the biggest eye-opener with this new Blu-ray release is how opulent and ornate Stanley’s production design is. We get loads of details in the corners of the compositions, overheard asides that make the narrative all the more multi-dimensional. In essence, this is a battle between war and peace, a private insular world where love and companionship are infiltrated by the military and its ever-present desire to annihilate. The repugnant aspects of the real world (represented by peeping pervert Lincoln) also creep into the calm Jill is trying to manufacture for herself. She wants Moses to settle in, to stop heading out into the dusty orange nightmare than is what’s left of nature and simply share her bed. It’s interesting then that, after the M.A.C.H. 13’s restart, our heroine becomes its most important target. It’s as if the machine can actually sense her anti-establishment view of the world and wants to destroy it once and for all.

There are lots of other interesting themes at work in Hardware, material that makes this more than some sly subgenre workout. Stanley offers up radio shock jock Angry Bob (voiced by Iggy Pop) as an obvious Greek chorus. But instead of simply mocking the means of everyday survival, this mouthpiece has some salient philosophies to push. Lemmy of Motorhead fame also turns up as a cabbie with his own take on things. Together, they form a front that more thoughtful people like Moses and Jill have to conquer and overcome. In Dylan McDermott and Stacey Travis, Stanley finds an unlikely duo. The pretty boy actor thrust upon him by a wary studio (including then executive producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein) just can’t compete with his costar’s ethereal femininity. The final confrontation, which pits beauty against scary scarp iron beast remains the movie’s ultimate statement, a clash for the very soul of humanity heightened by the knowledge that there may be no actual winning strategy.

Stanley is lucky to see his masterwork land at Severin, a company that shows an intense amount of care and consideration for how they manufacture and supplement important outsider titles. We are treated to several short films from the director (including the brilliant “Incidents in an Expanding Universe” which formed the basis for Hardware), a discussion over the sequel which never came to be, a collection of deleted and alternative scenes, and a wonderful, all-new Making of labeled “No Flesh Shall Be Spared”. Featuring many in the cast and crew in updated interviews, we get a marvelous overview of the production and its many problems. Stanley is also on hand to deliver a full length audio commentary that completes the package, highlighting various facets of the filmmaking, including a marvelous robotic villain that more or less fell apart after every take. 

The biggest bonus here, however, is the transfer. Argue all you want to about 1080p and its variations or the levels of grain and the use of edge enhancement, but when the results are as amazing as the Hardware image, you have a hard time arguing format. The Blu-ray is indeed a shock, a testament to the time taken to remaster the movie, as well as Stanley’s imagination and cinematic creativity. This is a small movie that’s massive in scope, sets and backdrops suggesting vast post-apocalyptic locales and endless miles of sand strewn nothingness. Compositions create concepts of free association, Stanley suggesting things that you must then decipher and determine. Even better, the action and random splatter are handled in an artistic and stylized manner. This is not just a gonzo gorefest. As a director, Stanley uses blood as a means of amplifying his ideas, not drawing your attention away from them.

This makes Hardware all the more appealing, a movie that clearly needed the 19 years of technical advances in digital reproduction to fully realize its audio/visual aims. It also argues for Richard Stanley’s unlikely status as auteur in waiting. After his equally electrifying Dust Devil, and the little seen Brave, he was given the chance to direct the big budget Hollywood update of The Island of Dr. Moreau, featuring Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. After four days of irrefutable personality clashes, he was fired, replaced by John Frankenheimer. Since then, Stanley has made minor documentaries and a few short films, but nothing to compare to this amazing first shot at fame. Hardware didn’t deserve to be dumped onto home video during the heyday of the VHS. Here’s hoping that two decades later, a new type of technology will broaden its appreciation. As seen here, it definitely deserves it.

by Kevin M. Brettauer

11 Oct 2009

Merriam-Webster defines the word “planetary” as “of, relating to, or belonging to the earth” or “having or consisting of an epicyclic train of gear wheels”.

Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s recently-concluded epic series, Planetary, is a cultural hodgepodge, the mythology of the last 150 years of adventure stories shoved into a distinctly Ellis-owned blender, building to an emotional catharsis that can, in fact, only be described as epicyclic.

It was stated recently that, when it comes to his views on humanity and respect for the rest of the species, Warren Ellis is a lot like a perpetually hung-over Joss Whedon. It would probably be more accurate to call him the UK’s Kurt Vonnegut; here is a man whose work always finds a way to betray or subvert the angry, bile-filled venom inherent in his characters by the end of a given tale. While it’s clear that Ellis, like Vonnegut did, has a cynical view of the group “humanity” as a whole, he is always open to, and actually encourages, being surprised by the individual. Is that, after all, not the purpose of Spider Jerusalem, Miranda Zero, Doktor Sleepless and, indeed,  Planetary’s own Elijah Snow?

Ellis has always portrayed Elijah Snow as a man with a very simple, very human mission, perfectly replicating the human condition by depicting that mission’s constant evolution and taking it to its only logical closure point. One realizes, upon finishing their first read of the series, that Elijah Snow doesn’t just want to keep the world safe and strange—he wants to save the life of the Individual, here typified by the missing Ambrose Chase.

Because Elijah Snow, despite his frosty behavior towards some and the cold shoulder he gives to others, is just like the rest of us; beneath his white suit and pale skin is a warm, beating heart.

While cloaked as a cultural history of the last 150 or so years, Planetary is really the Joseph Campbell-inspired tale of a hero’s second chance at life and attempt at the hero’s journey and, indeed, how one man can make the world a better place, no matter how strange it really is—even if it means keeping it that way.

This coming week, The Iconographies explores both the series as a whole and the years-in-the-making final issue of Planetary.

by Bill Gibron

11 Oct 2009

Imagine you’re Sam Raimi. You struggle for years to be recognized as a true directing talent, delivering fright films as beloved as The Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness while battling a studio system that thinks horror is all you have to offer. You broaden your career horizons with tongue in cheek comic book efforts like Darkman, as well as equally effective thrillers like A Simple Plan. And then, to top it all off, you turn the superhero movie into a multi-billion dollar genre by helming the Spider-man franchise (at three popcorn blockbusters - and counting). Yet like Woody Allen and his ‘earlier, funny’ films, the fans keep clamoring for more macabre. You could direct a dozen visionary dramas and still the geeks will complain about the lack of new dread on your resume.

No wonder the wildly appealing Drag Me to Hell feels like a friendly extended middle finger to all those who keep wishing for the filmmaker to return to his roots. Raimi hasn’t lost his touch with terror, nor has he been avoiding the cinematic type because of a lack of inspiration. The results here - captured brilliantly in a new Blu-ray transfer from Universal - show that, even in a stripped down PG-13 format, the man who made Bruce Campbell’s chin a household name is as feisty and fevered as ever. Working from an original idea (brother Ivan once again contributing the script) and featuring a classic creepshow premise, we get the kind of edge of your seat shivers that haven’t been readily available since the last time we saw the all powerful Necronomicon. Add in the latest technological tweaks, and Raimi is ready for the 21st century.

Our story centers on Christine Brown, a loan officer for a small town bank. She desperately wants a promotion, if only to prove to her boyfriend’s parents that she’s not some hick loser. Unfortunately, in order to get ahead, she’s required to make some cutthroat decisions. When an old woman comes in looking for yet another extension on her mortgage, Christine is faced with a quandary. If she denies the deal, she’ll definitely win favor with the boss. But doing so will also hurt the elderly lady, who doesn’t look too long for this world to begin with.

Naturally, needing the brownie points, Christine turns her down. Next thing she knows, she’s cursed, destined to be tormented by a demon for three days before finally being dragged down to Hell. Looking for help, she turns to her lover. When he appears ineffectual, she has no choice but to contact a psychic for advice. His opinion is not very helpful either. With time running out, Christine must find an answer, or be doomed to an eternity of agonizing torment and torture.

As much a directing tour-de-force as a showcase for some sensational up and coming actors, Drag Me to Hell is why many of us fell in love with fright in the first place. It’s a wonderfully wicked journey with a genial genre guide who clearly knows all the horror hot spots. Even in a teen friendly format, Raimi revels in making people squirm. There are sequences here that should have even the most cynical scary movie buff hiding their head in gleeful gross-out shame. In fact, the highly touted “Unrated” version of the film is more of an MPAA mandate than a true amplification of the grue. The minimal amounts of added blood and bile are almost indistinguishable from the original theatrical cut. But anytime you mess with the original edit and don’t show it to the ratings board, they demand it go out sans score.

It really doesn’t matter since it’s Raimi behind the lens, the man who married laughter to legitimate scares to create the first true horror comedies of the post-modern age. Here is a filmmaker in full control of his faculties, able to elicit gasps out of scenes as simple as a young woman wandering around an unfamiliar house. We get fly attacks, projectile nose bleeds, false teeth fu, and enough old lady sputum to make an entire nursing home staff nervous. There is also a marvelous moment toward the end where Raimi pulls out all the stops, Evil Dead style, to turn a séance into a marvelous bit of audio/visual overkill. What’s even more appealing is the director’s desire to stay firmly within the kind of fright films he loved and loved making in his youth. There is no desire to go torture porn or full bore bloody. Instead, he wants to craft a rollicking rollercoaster ride where the inevitable downtime helps prepare us for the continuing chaos to come.

Drag Me to Hell has an expert cast ready to lead us through this maelstrom of motion picture menace. Alison Loham makes a perfect victim - savvy without being too smart, innocent but with enough bad-girl baggage to guarantee she won’t go down without a fight. She is matched well by Justin Long who gives new meaning to the concept of the well-intentioned wimp paramour. Solid support comes from David Paymer as the unscrupulous boss willing to play his employees against each other for greater business bonuses, and Dileep Rao as that classic fright night character - the psychic with an ever-changing means of making things better (or in his case, worse). The real star here though is Lorna Paver, made-up to resemble a rotting human ogre, her broken teeth and cloudy eye a sure sign of impending evil. Thanks to the Blu-ray, the level of nauseating detail in her performance is accentuated for squeamish viewers to revel in.

It’s too bad then that Raimi was too busy with Spider-man 4 pre-production to sit down for an audio commentary (the film’s less than stellar box office might have aided in that lack of availability). He’s a great narrator through his own films and a true fan of the genre. We do get a few production diaries, but they’re not the same. Indeed, the lack of complementary bonus features on this digital presentation presents a problem. Fans who’ve longed for Raimi’s return won’t be happy with something they feel is basically barebones. Yet those new to the man’s way with macabre probably could care less. For them, it’s a wonderful high definition transfer of the movie and that’s all that’s important. Luckily, the Blu-ray of Drag Me to Hell succeeds in said category. It’s also a brilliant return to form from someone who never really left. Once again, Raimi will have a hard time living down his legacy. When the movie is as good as this one, it’s not hard to see why.

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