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by Bill Gibron

27 Oct 2009

Gather around neophyte fright fans, it’s time for a long overdue lesson in what is truly scary. Somewhere along the way, you’ve been misguided, believing that being startled equals a feeling of dread or a shorthand for suspense. For the record, both emotional responses are completely and utterly different. Shock is a sudden sensation, one that comes from the unexpected or the unanticipated. A car pulls out in front of you as you precede through an intersection; the cat jumps on your computer while you are cluelessly chatting with your Facebook pals; a door slams or a vehicle backfires while you weren’t paying attention - each one of these situations produces a considered response, one that can have a deleterious effect on your psyche. You’re jumpy. You’re afraid. But unlike being truly scared, such a feeling is merely temporary, a momentary lapse before rediscovering your fairly consistent everyday comfort zone.

No, fear is literally spine tingling and chilling. It seems under your skin and raises the fuzz on the nape of your neck. It brings about sleepless nights, eyes open as the darkness descends on your already anxious thoughts. Being scared is being constantly reminded of the reason for your fright, of being unsettled for no obvious reason except for the subject of said terror. A loud bang might bring about a couple of minutes (or hours) of unease, but the sensation soon goes away. Terror should be something that sticks to you like a leech, sucking away your resolve until you can no longer stand the stress. Being startled therefore is not the same thing, and as a result, any movie that functions as a series of jolts is nothing more than the cinematic version of a defibrillator. It may be startling, but it’s not also scary.

Last weekend, Paranormal Activity was the Number One film in the nation, raking in almost $22 million at the box office. Declared by some limited perspective websites as “the scariest movie of all time”, this $15K clunker is really nothing more than 90 minutes of meandering followed by five minutes of predictable “BOO!”. No attempt is made to deliver suspense, to take the viewer through a collection of connected scenes leading to an unholy feeling of trepidation. No, like those YouTube video where people tell you to look closely at the screen before a photoshopped version of Regan MacNeil’s devil face pops up and causes you to jump, director Oren Peli realizes he can’t get you with style or storytelling. So he sets up a video camera, cranks up the stillness, and then systematically showers the viewer with nothing more than anticipatory, formulaic surprise. Again, it’s startling, but it’s not scary.

A couple of years ago, another unlikely hit, The Strangers, followed a similar format. Though we did have the notion of blood and gore as a byproduct of the shocks, the entire movie was made up of two people responding to door knocks, window crashes, footfalls, and the sudden appearance of masked mugs. Again, there was no attempt to get the audience to identify with the plight of the people involved (not the failed relationship aspect - the being surrounded by psychos part) and after the initial jolt, director Bryan Bertino went right back to boring us to death. Indeed, the false scare has been a scary movie mandate since the beginning of the artform. Before complicated elements and psychological chills became part of the fright flick landscape, the carnival dark ride ideal was the main creative ploy used by artists and hacks alike.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to define scary. Being startled is almost universal. You have to be incredibly laid back or uber-cynical not to flinch when something comes unexpected flying at you (as in Paranormal Activity‘s finale). But fear is a lot more ambiguous. It’s like phobias - some people can’t stand heights, while others would hang out at the top of a tall skyscraper if they could. Others hate bugs or certain types of animals while others embrace these subjective fear factors. Going back to something said previously, being scared is about being disturbed, about worry that won’t go away, about dreading the next image or idea coming up on the screen (or into your brain). True, some can mistake the adrenaline rush of a probable shock as something akin to the scary experience, but true terror comes not only from what is seen - it’s the unknown element or concept that is waiting around the narrative corner, claws sharp and fangs caked with grue.

As mentioned before, The Exorcist is an example of one of the scariest movies of all time. It’s definitely shocking and highly upsetting, but there is more to it than crucifix masturbation and a Satan influenced potty-mouthed adolescent. William Friedkin used the unusual setting to discuss the growing generation gap between ‘70s youth and supposedly tuned-in parents, exploring divorce, separation, and selective parenting along the way. Author William Peter Blatty tapped directly into the lingering superstitions surrounding religion and its rituals while referencing a supposedly real life case of possession. The combination created a kind of perfect supernatural storm, the constant bombardment of evil and everyday explanations setting the stage for a finale so horrific it remains a genre classic.

Similarly, Dario Argento brought a Mediterranean view of macabre to his brilliant horror crime thriller Deep Red (Profondo Rosso). Using a standard whodunit set up (a famous psychic is killed, and a jazz musician tries to find out who…and why), the famed filmmaker takes us through a wicked whirlwind of childhood trauma, familial secrets, and one of the creepiest abandoned manors ever. All the while, blood sprays, gloved killers conspire, and a horrific atmosphere is manufacture out of pure visual wonder. Like The Exorcist, Argento’s movies (including Suspiria and Inferno) function as psychological stumbling blocks. They do not let you rest. You cannot easily forget them. And when the time comes to turn off the lights, to try and settle in for a little sleep, the visions created in both efforts lie right along with you, replaying in your tired, troubled mind over and over again.

Unless a tree limb falls on your roof overnight, memories of Paranormal Activity are not going to disturb your slumber. It’s like a rollercoaster or other amusement park thrill ride - a few moments of empty edge of the seat thrills followed by a slow fade into memory. Indeed, the embracing of this idea as scary seems indicative of the contemporary tread toward better-than-instant gratification. We want our pulse quickened and we want it now! No time for character development or careful plotting. Shock us, startle us, and then let us get back to our cellphones. If that’s all you want in a horror film, there are perfectly perfunctory examples of same currently showing. Once you’ve been jolted and jostled, why not give some real fear a try. Then you will hopefully know what truly is “the scariest of all time.”

by Bill Gibron

27 Oct 2009

They remain the last cinematic taboo, a sinister subject that gets bandied about once every decade or so before crawling back into the annals of scary movie manipulation to fester for a few more years. Each time it’s dragged out, audience respond with a combination of shock and indignance, wondering how anyone could taint the innocent of a child like that. You guessed it - the evil kid killer is back, an archetype made infamous by Patty McCormick in 1956’s The Bad Seed.

Since then, we’ve had grindhouse versions (Harry Novak’s The Child), post-modern rewrite (The Exorcist, The Omen) noble TV attempts (Child of Rage) and the notorious Macaulay Culkin vehicle The Good Son, each one taking the offspring and turning them into something awful. Sadly, none of them can match the latest installment in the wicked wee one horror show, Orphan (new to Blu-ray from Warner Home Video). What it lacks in scares, suspense, thrills, chills, pacing, plot development, logic, realism, authenticity, and satisfaction, it definitely makes up for in fudged up homicidal brattling…and that’s about it.

Esther is an odd child. When John and Kate first meet her at a local orphanage, she is shy and distant. Taking an instant liking to the family, the couple feels safe in bringing her into their fragile home. You see, Kate is a recovering alcoholic, and during one particularly memorable bender, her deaf daughter Maxine slipped into a nearby pond and almost drowned. John saved her life, and helped his spouse sober up. Along with son Daniel, things were starting to look up for the Colemans. Then Kate’s last pregnancy ended in a stillbirth. Thus, the decision to adopt.

At first, Esther is odd addition to the clan, but tries to fit in. She wears frilly dresses and ribbons around her neck and wrists. She draws the ridicule of her new classmates, and Kate begins to grown suspicious of her new, nosy daughter. Within a few short weeks, Esther has scared poor Maxine and Daniel into submission, and a few “accidents” have left people injured…or missing. When Kate decides to look into Esther’s past, the unassuming kid turns from polite to psychotic, doing anything she can to protect her “secret.” Suddenly, the Colemans are all in danger.

If you’re looking for a fright flick that does its damnedest to get by on contrivances, coincidences, and outright plot convolutions, Orphan is it. Existing in a parallel universe where nine year olds are adopted without much legal (or medical) wrangling, where the local branch of Child Protective Services is apparently on extended vacation, and where the prissy manipulative nonsense of an Eastern European eccentric takes precedence over common sense, supposed intelligence, and the obvious arrival of some incredibly bad luck. No one seems the least bit concerned that Esther is a cheeky manipulator, overplaying her “glad to be part of the clan” conceits to the hilt. Everyone assumes it’s an expression of happiness, even when her “Helter Skelter” maniac eyes give her away.

Even worse, parents John and Kate (how apropos) have opposite ways of dealing with this newfound affection. He thinks Esther is just peachy keen, capable of nothing more than big fat hugs and butterfly kisses. She thinks her new daughter is a demon. Such extremes make many of the interpersonal machinations between the couple hard to swallow. Every time Kate has a legitimate concern about her safety - say, when Daniel’s treehouse goes up in a blaze of lighter fluid fueled-glory (with Daniel in it), John thinks she’s nutso…or worse, back on the sauce. Even during one of the film’s most outrageous moments, he blames himself for giving off the wrong signals to Esther (rationalizing with a grade schooler - never a good sign).

And then there’s the pacing. House of Wax remaker Jaume Collet-Serra spends so much time setting things up, over an hour’s worth of handwringing and touchy feely kvetching that we wonder if Esther’s secret is that she’s just an incredible asshole. Granted, actress Isabelle Fuhrman gives good jerk, but it’s not until much later in the plot that she lets her inner Voorhees shine. By then, we’ve been lulled into a sense of scripted stupidity. David Leslie Johnson apparently created his narrative out of old fright flick beats, false scares, and one iffy reveal, telegraphing much of his purpose (beyond the ending) to anyone old enough to remember the rules of terror. Sure, we feel our pulse race when Esther removes the parking brake and sends the family SUV careening down a hill, little Maxine inside and a sequence shrouded in blacklight also works well. But to get to that material we have to slog through moments crafted directly out of the direct to video terror tome.

You really do have to buy a great deal of bullspit to believe in what Orphan is offering. No one thinks like its 2009, an era of skepticism and overreaction. Everyone is nonsensically gullible to a fault. Even the deleted scenes and alternate ending offered on the new Blu-ray release of the film fail to fill in the gaps created by an attempt at atmosphere over realism or rationality. Instead of turning Esther into Michael Myers with worse fashion sense, why not show how a young child deals with being adopted into a troubled family, her missed signals and unmet needs slowly turning into confusion, and then rage. But then we wouldn’t get the serial killer slice and dice at the end, or the overwrought “huh” of the twist.

While it’s true that some of Orphan works (good vs. evil smackdowns always have a way of satisfying our innate bloodlust), but most of it is one big schlock tease. When taken in total, Esther is a remarkable creation, something that could have functioned expertly within a much better film. But Collet-Serra style is so frustrating, and Johnson script so aggravating that we wish a studio-sponsored killer kid would show up and simply thin out a few in the crew. There is nothing wrong with bringing back the evil child for a post-millennial update and Fuhrman’s performance guarantees that she’ll have a few more cracks at making a major motion picture impact. But Orphan is not very good. At 90 minutes, it might have been amazing. At two hours, it’s tedious.

by Tyler Gould

27 Oct 2009

We posted a free download of this song earlier this month, and now there’s a shimmery video for everyone to enjoy. “Under the Sheets” has so many well-worn trappings of pop music that might otherwise be boring—the extra oomph leading up to the second chorus, the gang-singing breakdown—but the chirpy production and Ellie’s transcendent voice reaffirm these tropes’ manipulative intent: to build anticipation, to swell the emotions, to lead us around, rapt and tense, until, at long last, catharsis.

by Eleanore Catolico

27 Oct 2009

Chomp More
Releasing: Out now

Legendary ‘80s post-punk outfit Pylon is set to re-release their sophomore effort Chomp, digitally re-mastered and expanded as Chomp More via DFA. The new record also includes a 7” version of “Crazy”, a “male version” of “Yo-Yo”, a remix of “Gyrate”, and the rare single, “Four Minutes”. You can download “Beep” and watch a couple live performances below.

01 K
02 Yo-Yo
03 Beep
04 Italian Movie Theme
05 Crazy (Album Version)
06 M-Train
07 Buzz
08 No Clocks
09 Reptiles
10 Spider
11 Gyrate
12 Altitude
13 Crazy (Single Version)
14 Yo-Yo (Male Version)
15 Gyrate (Pylon Mix)
16 Four Minutes

Beep [MP3]

by Tyler Gould

27 Oct 2009

Fan Death, the band, just put out a video for an extended mix of “Reunited” from their upcoming A Coin For The Well EP. Fan death, the Wikipedia article, describes one of the more entertaining urban legends I’ve ever been aware of, which I hope catches on stateside.

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