After a long trip to the cold(er) North-East(ern) territories, I’ve taken this week to dry out in the South(west). Europe for America is not an equal exchange for many, but with a cough rattling around in my chest and phlegm coating my airways, at this point I’ll take it. Besides, there’s JACK-FM, where “we play what we want” and, therefore, the morning drive from my here to my kid’s there is punctuated by “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley, “Desire” by U2, “Hold Your Head Up” by Argent, “Crying” by Aerosmith, and “Don’t Take Me Alive” by Steely Dan.
Yeah, with JACK pulsing from the speakers, I could stay busy for minutes on end, slamming the steering wheel and wailing in the direction of my dash. Not a care in the world. Life in paradise.
Although I’m here now, I’m reminded of the place from whence I’ve come. The last stop on this peripatetique‘s mystical mastery tour.
That stop was not the home town In which I now sit recuperating; rather it was Oslo, on my final day. Then, it was in a public garden—an amazing park featuring over 200 statues, friezes, molds, gates, grates, and figures designed by the twentieth century Norwegian sculptor, Gustav Vigeland.
You have to feel sorry for Glen Morgan. Here’s a director so desperate to bring some manner of meaning to the horror film that he literally takes his fright film’s failures personally. Case in point – 2003’s brilliant update of the killer rat epic from the ‘70s, Willard. Featuring the masterstroke casting of Crispin Glover in the title role, and reconfiguring the standard revenge motivations of the original to expand the psychological landscape of the characters, Morgan tried his darnedest to combine the best of all macabre mannerisms. Indeed, that film was the rare combination of the sinister and the shocking, the up front and the undercurrent. When it failed to find an audience, it devastated Morgan. As his hard earned efforts slowly faded from theaters, he fell into a deep depression. Convinced he would never direct again, he saw his chances at making the kind of creature features he craved slowly diminish.
With this revelation, just part of the insightful bonus features offered on Dimension Films DVD release of Morgan’s 2006 Black Christmas (yes, another remake, this time of the 1976 underground cult classic) we gain a new perspective about what drives an artist like Morgan. Long noted for his work on The X-Files TV series, as well as his writing/producing credits on the Final Destination franchise, this is a man who clearly holds genuine genre credentials. But he takes things so personally, from criticism to complements, that it’s hard to believe he can maintain a successful show business career. Even his wife, actress Kristen Cloke (who co-stars in Christmas and adds her own two cents to the “behind the scenes” material) laments the toll each film takes on her man. His is a concern bordering on the obsessive – meaning every decision, creative or commercial, weighs heavily on his frequently shrugged shoulders.
This makes his continued career choices all the more puzzling. Beyond the initial reaction of “why God, why?”, remakes face several uphill entertainment challenges. Perhaps the most difficult one to overcome remains the lingering legacy of the project being pilfered. When a Michael Bay announces he will produce an update of the classic Texas Chain Saw Massacre masterwork by Tobe Hooper, the various indisputable images associated with the film rise from the genre grave like emblematic zombies and immediately start stalking the artistic landscape. Their presence is palpable, their ability to be ignored almost impossible. Then there is the redux that reduces the original concept to a mere stepping off point. In the case of John Carpenter’s terrific take on The Thing, the notion of a monstrous creature from outer space stalking a group of polar explorers was twisted into a glorious celebration of geek show gore.
As for Bob Clark’s classic seasonal scarefest, Black Christmas, the stakes get raised even higher. Hitting theaters a good four years before John Carpenter would prove that the slice and dice dynamic had real financial teeth, Clark’s ideas were radical and, for the most part, unrealistic. He wanted to make a mad killer movie without ever contextualizing the fiend. His Billy would have no past, no present, no motive and most of all no backstory. He would simply exist as an object of terror for a group of holiday minded sorority sisters. Even worse, the murderer would be made even more enigmatic with the use of POV techniques. Billy would never be seen. Instead, the audience would view the world through his sick, twisted eyes. With an ambiguous ending and the introduction of elements (a dead girl near the lake, the oddball boyfriend played by Keir Dullea) that hinted at horror but never paid off, it was as if Clark had anticipated the formulas and stereotypes that would mar the genre in the decades to come, and subverted them before they even started.
Morgan makes no such aesthetic choices. Instead, he develops discernible visual (eyes) and metaphysical (family) themes. Then he tosses all of his deep rooted musings into a good old fashioned splatter fest, turns the entire enterprise sideways, and sprinkles in a little Scream style self-referential irony to polish off the presentation. This makes his version of Black Christmas simultaneously old school and new jack swinging, a gloriously goopy retread and a brilliant post-modern comment on the sticky state of cinematic terror. Certainly fans will feel cheated if they go in thinking that Morgan is making his own genre-redefining joke. Black Christmas does occasionally feel like a spoof that forgot to be funny, or better yet, a surefire schlock shocker that occasionally meanders over into satire. It’s this uneasy tone that tends to throw your typical fear aficionado. With the recent J-Horror fad, overloaded with tradition and superstition, and the current violence porn paradigm that prioritizes cruelty over cleverness, cinematic terror supposedly must contain a laser-like, singular focus.
But Black Christmas isn’t interested in a mere one note dynamic. Morgan intends for his film to be as much a character study as an extravaganza in evil. By making his Billy – now given the last name of Lenz – a wholly rounded work of perverted parenting, by giving him a disturbing yellow jaundiced pallor and a tendency toward incest and cannibalism, the typical motion picture murder ideal is definitely in place. But Morgan wants to argue that only monsters begat monsters, and he provides his freakish fiend with a mother so heinous that even Norman Bates would holler, “Damn!”. During the flashback portions of the film, Morgan finds the proper balance between disturbing personality tweaking and fudged up familial fright. Once we leave that scenario, our patience rewarded with a wonderful Grand Guignol joke, the slasher material can seem a little underwhelming.
But for anyone alive when names like Voorhees and Myers jammed the pop culture zeitgeist, Black Christmas will be like the return of a slightly insane best friend. Though the girls featured as victim fodder are given a few more post-modern dilemmas vs. their early ‘80s slut and slaughter counterparts, Morgan is more concerned about the stalk and the stab than the starting point. Even adults Andrea Martin (the only member of the original Christmas cast returning here) and Cloke are kept at arms length, reduced to being the bearers of constant warning when things start getting dangerous. There are some sensational kills here – icicles through the eye, glass unicorns through the head (a nice homage to the first film) - and a real sense of atmosphere. As he describes his efforts in the DVD EPKs, production designer Mark Freeborn strove to make the sorority house it’s own creepy character. Thanks to the way it was situated and shot, he managed that near impossible feat rather well.
All of which begs the question of why Black Christmas was met with such harsh condemnation come holiday season 2006. Granted, there were better horror films during the year, landmark movies like Silent Hill and Hostel. In addition, the timing for such a release seemed a bit off. Bob Clark’s version had just been given a stellar new release on the digital format, so many people were just learning about the film, and were perhaps unprepared for it to be so quickly ‘remade’. But the best answer is obviously the simplest. Like Willard, Morgan clearly made a movie that only a certain selective sector of fans could really appreciate. Mainstream reviewers, who more or less avoided the movie because of the clear horror bias that exists within the critical community, would have you believe that Morgan is the second coming of Ed Wood with this effort. They tore it apart in ways that seem too severe to merit real analytic concern.
Of course, this must make Morgan feel twice as bad. For someone who takes every artistic effort he makes as seriously as possible, such sweeping dismissal is hard. And let’s get one thing straight – this Black Christmas is not the original. As one of the actresses says in the DVD bonus material, this is more a movie “based on” Bob Clark’s creepfest, not an exact duplicate. With its jaunty retro vibe, ample arterial spray and aggressive narrative drive, this update acts as a perfect complement to the ambiguous thrills provided by its namesake. It’s not a flawless film, and one could argue that its more fun than frightening, but it is not the full bore flop the rest of the world would have you believe it is. Instead, it’s a statement of one man’s desire to take terror in a decidedly different direction. If he has to suffer for such a stance, so be it. After all, nearly all creative types endure the pain of production for their art, don’t they?
Baudrillard’s death made it clear how far postmodernist theory has sunk in the estimation of those paid to write about such things for a general audience, with most writers dismissing him as a charlatan, and his ideas as performative, self-aggrandizing sophistry. This, naturally, seems to reinforce one of his great themes, how the ability to convincingly reproduce the real (i.e., the conditions of “truth”) has become increasingly difficult, or rather increasingly easy to simulate. A superfluity of information, kept in motion by proliferating media and accelerating technological developments, makes us simultaneously overinformed and helplessly confused. We can’t assimilate information, so we come to treasure novelty for its own sake, as a sensation rather than a building block for the edifice of our understanding of the world.
Philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition seems to have been a fairly prescient book—published in 1979, it accurately predicted much of the change brought by the internet, which he anticipates as a massive interactive database, brings to society, making information ubiquitous and those who can best manage that information into a new strata of movers and shakers. Technology has made information’s usefulness more accessible, and this usefulness has been commercialized, making what information can produce its most important quality over whether its true in some idealized sense. Easily accessible information allows for the manufacture of what Lyotard calls “proof” for use in “language games” that reproduce legitimacy—what gives society’s basic institutions their authority and enables them to renew it. He paraphrases systems theorist Niklas Luhmann, claiming that “in postindustrial societies the normativity of laws is replaced by the performativity of procedures.” Efficiency produces its own truth and colors the truths we find elsewhere; efficiency (which is the profit motive in operation) suddenly becomes indistingioshable from common sense—we do things the fast way, not the way our elders did, etc. Lyotard goes further to suggest we see that which is efficient as what is truly real, what remains when the layers of mediated illusions are stripped away (and not itself an effect of media saturation).
So possibly as information becomes easier to obtain and process and turn into productivity, we begin to translate our sensations and desires into similar information to be processed, to be made useful and productive—we assess our own feelings for their efficiency, though we think of this not in managerial terms, as a way to get more out of our natural states, but in terms of personal ease, convenience. As society makes ubiquitous instrumentalized information the basis for its institutions, a similar process takes place at the personal level, as we make convenience an overriding value, an end in its own sake, as it seems to bring us closer to what’s real (what’s most efficient). And the sensations we can’t figure out what to do with, the ones we don’t know how to make use of, become unreal to us, nightmares, surreal delusions. A substantial portion of our consciousness becomes incomprehensible to us, even as we are processing more external information than at any other time in the history of the human race.
There are two important stories surrounding the 1985 Stuart Gordon film Re-Animator (or if you go for the full blown ballyhoo treatment – H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator). The first one is the narrative up on the screen, a balls-to-the-wall horror comedy which redefined both the gore film, and the outsider cult classic. But the second, and equally endearing tale, is the one involving a Chicago theatrical director, his decision to make movies, and the uphill battle he faced bringing his vision to the silver screen. In the days before DVD, this latter saga would have been saved for an extensive print interview, or a several article series in which various members of the cast and crew were interviewed to get their side of the story. Now, thanks to the digital revolution, we don’t need endless column inches to learn how junior mad scientist Herbert West became a genre icon. We just need to wait for the eventual merchandising concept called the ‘special edition’.
Re-Animator definitely remains a doorway film. It argued that horror and comedy could coincide effortlessly, and that the nastiness of gore could easily be sidestepped by keeping one’s vivisected tongue firmly in cheek. The outrageous and frequently over the top narrative, centering around medical school students (and lovers) Dan Cain and Megan Halsey and the terrors they experience at the hands of haunted newcomer Herbert West, was bloated with unbelievable moments of sheer cinematic audacity. Yet thanks to fresh faces Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, and Jeffrey Combs, director Gordon managed to balance the insane with the scientific rather well. He also tried to keep things as physiologically realistic as possible. When you consider that the main storyline centers on using an experimental formula to revive the dead – and the zombie zaniness that eventually occurs, - there are also a lot of super schlock theatrics as well. Pouring every ounce of his energies into pushing the limits of acceptable arterial spray, Gordon gave bloodhounds voluminous vein juice the likes of which they hadn’t seen before.
And it is indeed these moments of corpse grinding that maintain Re-Animator‘s current mythical status. From exploding eyeballs to carved up cats and a finale with more naked members of the living dead than in any alt-porn title, Gordon explored every parameter of his anarchic autopsy based atrocities. One sequence in particular still gives geek show fans the giggles. While describing it in mixed company would be quite unfair (as well as spoiling one of the film’s best ‘gags’), let’s just say that a headless ghoul with a co-ed crush tries to get busy with a certain decapitated body part. It’s sexual splatter at its tastiest. Yet there are those who find the claret and comic asides much ado about nothing - new. In fact, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 would eventually trump Re-Animator in most film fans minds. The narrative weight and cinematic invention of Raimi’s gonzo gorefest surpasses anything this Lovecraftian lunacy has to offer. There are even those who prefer Gordon’s far more serious take on the author, his follow-up film From Beyond.
But that’s the beauty of a film like Re-Animator – and a perfect illustration of the value of DVD. In a format that proposes the possibility of contextualizing each release, to supplement and complement any film with a wealth of additional information, even those who are only slightly smitten with a particular motion picture can find reasons to rejoice. In the case of this latest Anchor Bay version of the title – there have been at least two other repackagings previously – the must-own moment is a brand new documentary, a talking head retrospective that finds almost all involved back to discuss their participation in what has become a fervent cult phenomenon. Indeed, the great thing about Re-Animator Resurrectus is that the entire cast is present, including all three leads - and that’s a real rarity in the world of digital distribution. Most reviews you read make a point of noting who decided not to participate in a bonus feature reunion. But in the case of this latest home video reincarnation, all are present and accounted for.
So is Gordon, and his big burly teddy bear appearance belies a past overflowing with hubris and misguided principles. All throughout the interview, we hear a man remembering his overblown conceits, his desire to use the experimental theater he ran in Chicago as a stepping off point for this new kind of horror experience. Wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon is on hand to keep things in perspective, explaining the reactions people had to her husband’s ideas, and making sure to note when Gordon got a little out of control. For balance, the cast then comes along and argues for the filmmaker’s fascinating connection to the material. They praise his care and concern, his desire for rehearsal time and his mischievous personality on set. It’s a delicious dichotomy, and one that enhances what many would still consider to be a standard, if slightly unhinged, horror film experience.
In fact, what most DVD manufacturers fail to understand is that, aside from an ardent fanbase desperate for a specific title, newcomers to something like Re-Animator will base their interest level solely on the extras and bonuses provided. Even with its regal reputation and obsessive devotees spouting its magnificence all over the web, with messageboard debates heating up and taking sides, when it comes to spending that hard earned green stuff, most people react with their head first, and their gut second. So if they really aren’t interested in a whacked out comedy centering on a group of doctors experimenting with corpses, you’ve got to give them some kind of value for their fiscal confidence.
And nothing cements a shill more successfully than getting two tales for the price of one – in this case, the film itself, and the story behind it. Certainly, those in the know will argue that reissuing a movie several times – also known as the notorious industry practice of ‘double dipping’ – lessens the overall worth to a targeted audience. But with new fans flocking to the medium every year, choice keeps a title alive and viable for anyone unfamiliar with its entertainment elements.
The same could be said for Re-Animator‘s enduring qualities. People love it because it defies expectations, tweaks the standards we except in a horror film, and puts the living dead into scenarios only the sickest of fans have ever dreamed of. It barrels backwards into its terror commitments and uses slapstick and satire to lessen the blow of its unbelievable gruesome extravagances. In a time when the MPAA was asking movies to moderate their levels of violence, Re-Animator went whole hog (and unrated), filling the screen with more body parts and killer intestines (???) than a dozen of the more derivative slasher epics. Love it, loathe it, like it, or merely shrug your shoulders and wonder what the big bloodletting deal is, but there is do denying that as a symbol of why some films endure while others quietly fade away, Re-Animator has a couple of significant stories to tell. And thanks to the dimensions of DVD, we now have access to both fascinating tales.