Folk rock-shoegazers, The Uglysuit, have independently released “1902 Deep Ocean” from their upcoming EP, Merrycan Prairie. This psychedelic tune is part creepy, part soothing—perfect for the fall season.
1902 Deep Ocean [MP3]
Watch the video for Zola Jesus’ “Clay Bodies”, filled with the glorious, decaying remains of Detroit. Channeling the Corpse Bride, the gothic songstress adds to the ambient despair with her haunting falsetto. Full of gloom and lace, “Clay Bodies” is unwaveringly bleak yet beautiful.
As a cinematic rule of thumb, animation and horror do not go well together. Not that many have tried such a mix however, and with its wealth of invention and imagination possibilities, it seems odd that cartooning and the creepshow haven’t comfortably co-existed before. Maybe the right artists weren’t approached. Perhaps the studios who sell pen and ink to the public believe no fresh-faced family will sit through an example of hand-drawn dread. But again, since so few have actually made the effort, the verdict is still out on the craven combos possibility. Thanks to the French, and the fabulous anthology Fear(s) of the Dark (new to DVD from IFC Films), however, we get our first real glimpse at how the two genres would function collectively, and it’s an eerie, ethereal experience indeed.
Divided into sections, with some clever linking material in between, the five stories here (delivered by five different directors) each deal with a differing dynamic of terror. Filmmaker Butch brings us a glorious pencil to paper tale of a nobleman, his hounds from Hell, and the fatalistic fun he has with said pets. Charles Burns then gives us the story of Eric, his love of gathering insects, and his unearthly experience with a girlfriend named Laura. This is followed up by an Asian inspired saga from writer Roman Slocombe and director Marie Caillou. It centers on a young girl, a group of bullies, and the surreal spirit of a dead samurai. We then travel to a terrified township where people have been disappearing. Lorenzo Mattiotti gives us the details from the perspective of two young boys, one of which may know more than he lets on. Finally, a burly man breaks into a seemingly abandoned house, looking for shelter from a snow storm. Inside, he finds a sinister secret, and as Richard McGuire illustrates, a fate worse than the elements.
There is also an attempt by abstractionist Pierre Di Sovillo to deal with the essence of fear, his monochrome designs deconstructing audio only interviews with people as they admit their deepest phobias and apprehensions. Sometimes it succeeds, but more times than not, these otherwise obtuse images detract from the real macabre meat. In fact, much of Fear(s) of the Dark is so powerful, so solid in its scary movie statements, that we wonder why others haven’t been bothered to try this kind of project before. Right from the very start, as Butch’s bedeviled dogs snarl and growl with near demonic desire, we understand how animation can amplify fright. But it’s the moment when Burns pushes 3D CG to the point of perversion where we drop all pretense and get lost in the lingering terror.
Indeed, the unusual tale of love and locusts would probably seem silly if not for the artist’s well known style. The use of sharp, bold lines and simplistic, primal shapes creates an unsettling sense of heightened reality. Then, as the narrative plays out, we feel the impact of every plot twist, the spine-tingled truth behind every previously referenced act. Since it is rendered in black and white (all of the short films featured here use the same bi-color palette, with just a little ripe red bloodshed for added effect), there is a wonderful sense of old school schlock at play as well. It’s an approach that really works flawlessly for the rest of the segments as well.
Mattiotti makes wonderful use of it during his subtle tale of superstition and folklore gone gangrenous. As the narrator informs us of the various indistinct clues that seem to indicate a monster in the marshes, we get chilling imagery that suggests more than it shows. In fact, at a pivotal moment in the narrative, an important reveal is offered in a barely visible blurry design. Sensational! Things aren’t as understated in Caillou’s homage to Japanese ghost stories. The look is divine, but the plot is obvious in its revenge/payback ideals. We anticipate what happens with little suspense, allowing the lush application of Asian imagery as a means of making up for a lack of shock.
There is no need for such substitution with the last effort. McGuire’s classic dark house tale is masterful in its no frills approach to narrative. There is no dialogue, no voice over explaining what’s going on. As a lumbering ox of a man breaks into a secluded home, we see nothing except what the available light illuminates. It’s all eyes, odd angles, statements in silhouette, glimpsed deviousness, and subtle suggestion. As the layers build, as we learn about the building’s history, about the person who presumably still lives there, and the terrifying truth of our protagonist’s fate, we keep waiting for the other shocking shoe to drop…and wait…and wait…and wait…
If this DVD presentation from IFC films has a failing - and it’s a minor, non-feature film misstep at best - it’s in the inability to hear the creators speak for themselves. The extras consist of material that comments on the project (an art exhibit of some of the drawings) or discusses the basic nuts and bolts of the process (like how Burn’s images where turned into 3D shapes for computer manipulation). What Fear(s) of the Dark really needed was a collection of commentary tracks, or at the very least, interviews which would allow the artists to explain their ideas and judge the final product. Without said content, we feel like we’re missing something integral to this unusual (and otherwise masterful) marriage.
Still, the resulting feature is fabulous, a true integration of one artform into another. Fear(s) of the Dark should put to rest once and for all any qualms about mixing animation with angst. In fact, with the recent renaissance in CG titles, one could easily see someone like Pixar picking up the bedeviled ball and running with it. Considering their current track record, the possibilities literally boggle the mind. Still, just because a chosen few can make the concept work does mean it’s a universally applicable standard. Fear(s) of the Dark is special because of its rareness and singularity. Once horror and cartooning establish a norm, we will see what sort of benchmark it truly is/was.
Driving home from a really tremendous rock show is an adrenaline-fueled bummer for me. I am so hopped up on the rocky goodness that I can fairly stay strapped into my Honda, buzzing with all of the things I want to pour out into this blog—and knowing damn well that I won’t, because I can’t. Because the saddest truism for a writer like me is that I cannot find the words to say why I love the music that I love. The emotion does not easily translate to the written word, nor does the giddiness, the sore glutes that come from rocking out as violently as is possible on a barstool, the can’t-hardly-wait anticipation of “OH MY GOD THAT SONG IS AMAZING WHEN ARE THEY GOING TO RELEASE IT?!” Punctuation is so cumbersome to the 14-year-old I become in the wake of a show like the one Apes of Wrath played on October 9th at Tin Can Alehouse in San Diego.
The venue, bless it’s heart, was as nondescript and tiny as one could imagine, and my companion assured me the sound was atrocious. I myself do not really care about stuff like bass levels or other minutiae of audio amplification, as those things have never stopped me from getting my face rocked off. Going to the women’s restroom necessitates stepping almost right onto the stage, or at least the invisible border that delineates the stage from the regular old floor. Opening acts the Sunday Times and the Howls put on energetic and entertaining sets, especially the latter, who handed out burned copies of their homemade CD with their website name written in Marks-a-Lot. The music reminded me of early Wilco, and the singer was sort of like Whiskeytown era-Ryan Adams (but without the crazy). I especially dug the song “Dead Men Tell No Lies”. The adorable factor went through the roof when the singer announced that this was their first show since their drummer turned 21. (Adorable to me, anyway, since 99% of the crowd wasn’t far ahead of him.)
Apes of Wrath are a San Diego band who put out a wee gem of an EP in 2007 called Plastic, Fake & Frozen that really blew my hair back after I bought it at one of their Casbah shows. It was this really manic pop that reminded me of early Oingo Boingo and had great lyrics like “I wear purple in the sun now / Cos it doesn’t retain too much heat”. Months later, I still haven’t removed it from my car stereo, and after the Tin Can Alehouse show, I officially declared Apes my New Favorite Band. They didn’t play even one song off that EP, and therefore not one song that I knew, which usually bums me out to no end. That’s the mark of true musical love for me—if the words “This is a new one off our upcoming CD” don’t send me running for a bathroom break. I can’t wait to see them again. For all those reasons that I can’t describe, and all those feelings that I can’t put into words.
Before mass communication, globalization, and the easy availability of information, superstition was the stuff of horror. Myths and legends, folklore and faith mutated into a kind of communal angst, a way of dealing with the unexplainable, the unfathomable, and in many cases, the unconscionable. Early civilization was riddled with conflicts, wars and crusades meant to purge the world of certain evil ideas, and yet with each new battle, an entire series of fallacies were forged.
During the early part of the 16th Century, Russia and Finland clashed for pride and property. After nearly 25 years, a truce was agreed upon and signed. Now, with aggressions ceasing, a band of surveyors are out drawing borders between the powers. Led by ex-soldiers and military officials, the process involves cunning, negotiation, and more than a little glorified game playing. But when two brothers, Knut and Erik, commit a horrible crime in one of the remote villages, they feel haunted by more than their duty to the crown.
Things come to a head in a small uncharted town smack dab in the middle of the proposed border. Most unusual, there’s a building in the center of a swamp, a place the fearful residents claim is either evil or ethereal, an oasis of horrid darkness or sin-free soul salvation. Thus begins the provocative, potent period piece fright flick Sauna, an amazing work of subtle menace by Finnish director Antti-Jussi Annila. Similar in style to the brilliant Let the Right One In, this story of blame and belief, terror and trepidation uses an unfamiliar era and event to lay the foundation for one undeniable work of fear.
Thanks to its antagonistic premise, the Russians and Finns constantly clashing back and forth over every little element of the treaty, we easily buy the actions of Knut and Erik. Anywhere else, they would seem like cruel opportunists, men using the foundation of enemy to relegate human life to an afterthought. As the story progresses, as the superstitions of the mystery burg begin to affect our heroes, we see that Annila has something even more serious to say. Sauna is, at its heart, a morality tale where no act goes unpunished, where irrational fears and baseless dread turn individuals against each other. It’s also a thought-provoking indictment of atrocities, since our main characters are literally “haunted” by an act that, just a few weeks before, was celebrated as patriotic (or at the very least, part of the process of war).
Thanks to the dour and grimy atmosphere, a time when swordsmanship was more important than the ability to read and write, we understand and accept the baseless brutality. We sense why Knut is so afraid, and why Erik is so melancholy. These men are tired - tired of the hypocrisy of mediating claims they battled over for years, tired of the long trips away from their homeland, tired of the dirty looks and intentional deception of the Russian, and tired of having to support each other out of familial obligation. There are many times in Sauna when we believe one brother will turn on the other. It’s not a matter of sibling rivalry, but the internal ravages of bringing death.
For his part, Annila creates a very terrifying if tactile environment. Light barely illuminates the sets and some of the sequences are purposefully lost in a never-ending darkness. Even better, the dirt and fifth of the 16th Century bathes everything in a kind of medieval sadness. We feel the pain these men have gone through, indirectly experiencing the senseless nature of their enterprise with every frozen step. The landscape is as bleak and lifeless as the soldier’s purpose and Annila takes every opportunity to use nature as a means of undermining their resolve. The endless snow, the dead forests all seem to suggest that nothing good will come from Knut and Erik’s mission.
And then there is the title element, the surreal concrete building which the villagers swear brings about penance for and freedom from one’s sins. Of course, such a sentiment flows reciprocally, but no one in Sauna sees it that way. After a quarter century sparring over small parcels of land, all they want is to be forgiven. But payment for one’s crimes can be equally cruel. This is especially true of our two leads. They carry a greater burden than one found in armed conflict. The sequences inside the structure have a sinister edge, even as they promise something far more righteous. Religion is not a major part of Sauna, except for the notion of how faith (and blood rituals) can battle even the most entrenched failed folklore.
Thanks to its wonderful cast (Ville Virtanen is especially effective as a gaunt and ghoulish Erik) and a primitive location, Sauna finds a way to get deep under your skin. This is the kind of horror movie that has you thinking more than shrieking, that offers dread in how it presents its ideas vs. how creepy things will get. We don’t necessarily indentify with these men or their mission, and recognize that they require punishment more than deliverance, but in the end, that’s not really why we watch.
Instead, director Annila works a kind of wicked magic over the audience, involving them in a time and predicament far removed from their current frame of reference. Even in this, the 21st Century, there are still parts of the world that drape their cultural ways in ancient, almost archaic beliefs. As Sauna shows us, the reaction to said convictions are often as unholy as the initial fears themselves.