Royal Bangs must be sitting on top of the world right now. They just supported The Black Keys on the Akron duo’s biggest tour to date and released an album on the band’s label earlier this year. Their CMJ performance wasn’t dead on, but it didn’t need to be. Their chops were great, their energy was great, and the audience from front to back was paying attention, and that’s more than you can ask out of any CMJ experience, especially at midnight on the very last evening (we were all just about dead by then). Their name is out there, now they just have to get their sound out there—and frankly, they are doing a damn good job at that.
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In the world of horror, you either “get” Lucio Fulci or you don’t. After starting his career in Italian cinema as a genre jack-of-all-trades (moving from comedies to westerns to musicals), he found himself hated by his homeland when he made the scathingly anti-Catholic Don’t Torture a Duckling (which hinted at the whole “priest-pedophile” issue years before it made headlines). It took almost a decade before Zombi 2 (or as we here in the States know it, Zombie) refurbished his box office clout, turning Lucio into one of the most recognizable international brand names for excessive gore epics.
Zombie was followed by The City of the Living Dead (AKA Gates of Hell), a notorious bloodbath featuring young women vomiting up their guts and a man getting an industrial drill thrust through his head (all witnessed in loving close-up). Toward the end of his career, he was accused of repeating himself (The House by the Cemetery) or creating low budget, incoherent junk (House of Clocks, Cat in the Brain). Right in the middle of it all was the film that many consider to be his masterpiece, the often misunderstood and named The Beyond (or The Seven Doors of Death or And You Will Live in Terror: The Afterlife). It combined the guts and grue of Fulci’s newfound fondness for flesh rendering with a hyper-stylized visual flair and somber, sullied southern overtones.
In the film, Liza Merrill inherits a dilapidated hotel in Louisiana from a distant relative and moves from the big city to the Big Easy to start anew. When one of the workmen helping to refurbish the place has a horrible accident, it seems to portend terrible things to come. A plumber named Joe is attacked and killed in the basement, and a long dead corpse is discovered. Joe’s wife dies of an accidental acid bath to the face. Then Liza runs into a blind girl named Emily who warns her about the inn’s haunted past. More gory accidents occur.
Soon it is learned that sixty years before, a warlock named Schweick lived in the lodge and occupied room 36. The hotel was apparently built over one of the seven gateways to hell, and the strange sorcerer was either working to keep it closed…or trying to find a way of opening it. With the help of a local doctor and an ancient book, Liza must discover the truth about the “doors of death” and face down evil before the dead walk the Earth and plunge the planet into a nightmare world of malevolence.
Over the twenty or so years since its release, The Beyond has developed a loyal and loud cult following that champions this film and voices its frustration at the horrible hack job it is usually available in. For a long time, the only way to see this Fulci flick was to rent or buy an abysmal, pan and scan full screen edit job with the strangely suggestive title The Seven Doors of Death. Minus most of its slaughter, a good five minutes of mood setting prologue, and rendering the already jumbled film even more disjointed with random cuts, Seven Doors was the stupid remnant rabid Fulci fans had to dig his or her claws into. Now thanks to Grindhouse Releasing, who provide the film a new DVD package, a whole new generation of horror mavens can discover what so many have pined over for so long.
The Beyond is indeed brilliant. It is also an incoherent, messy combination of Italian terror and monster movie grave robbing that is saved by its bleak, atmospheric ending. It is a wretched gore fest sprinkled with wonderfully evocative gothic touches. It has more potential than dozens of past and present Hollywood horror films, getting better with multiple viewings as familiarity lessens the startling goofiness of some of the dialogue and dubbing. It is a film that is far more effective in recollection than it is as an actual viewing experience.
As with all pathways to a Roman roundelay, all Italian horror roads lead to zombies: slow, dull witted, seemingly nonchalant members of the living dead who are more sedate than scary. Indeed, Fulci is not out to make his flesh eaters visions of cannibalistic evil. In some ways, the reanimated corpses in The Beyond are like plot point speed bumps, ambulatory path blockers that mandate the characters maneuver around or circumvent them in order to advance the storyline. They are never menacing, never seen munching on arms or even breaking a sweat.
The ocular obsession of Italian filmmakers are another issue altogether. Speaking of peepers, Fulci does have his own unique fixations, fear fetishes if you will, that get overplayed and exaggerated in The Beyond. He must have had some blunt trauma to the eyeball at some point in his life, or a desire to deliver said, since he is absolutely obsessed with removing the gooey sight orbs from out their slushy sockets. Ghouls poke them out, spiders chew them up, and random acts of fire burn and blind them.
And then there’s the gore. If there is a chance to feature the inner workings of the human body in all their claret giving grisliness, Fulci will provide untold moments of chests bursting open, guts flowing like Vesuvius, and wounds gaping like waterless goldfish. A gash is not just a cut; it’s an open pipeline to the human circulatory system. When something bites or bashes someone, it causes untold internal hemorrhaging that always finds some way to spray out and spill all over the surfaces.
As part of this new DVD set, Grindhouse gives us insight into the entire production. Those who own the previous Anchor Bay-distributed edition may recognize a couple of these intriguing added features, since it was Grindhouse who handled the original restoration and pulled together the ample bonuses. There is an anecdotal commentary track featuring stars Catriona MacColl (Liza) and David Warbeck. They loved their experience on the film and working with each other and Fulci (apparently, not all actors have the same response) and their narrative is filled with jokes, insights, and honest reactions to the movie. There is also a rare onset interview with Fulci (engaging), a lost German pre-credit sequence shown in full color (nasty!) and liner notes from horror journalist Chas. Balun. They provide a plump set of supplements, especially for those new to the film.
In truth, all The Beyond wants to do is wallow in lurid disgust until the organs offend you with their over-the-top gore and then add a scene or two of inspired visual poetry to offset the smell. Fulci is going to beat you over the head with the clots and sideswipe you with the sinew. Fellow foreigner Dario Argento creates dream imagery we can relate to, attaching the nightmares of childhood into the real world reality of adults to disturb and unarm us. His hallucinations may seem as intangible as Lucio’s, but somehow he manages to fuse tone and texture together to create a truly unnerving experience. Fulci is all about the fester, the feel and pong of rotting flesh. Once you’ve sampled The Beyond‘s repulsive stew, he kicks back and regroups until it’s time to serve another heaping helping. Of course, Fulci and his fans are always sated.
Part of the inherent struggle for games to be taken seriously stems from the fact that they often don’t discuss anything serious themselves. Much of Call of Duty 4’s success comes from the fact that the topics it discusses are all relevant today: terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, and modern warfare. These are all images and themes that are important to people today, as opposed to escapist fantasy or glorification of wars that ended long ago. Even going all the way back to Missile Command, which invoked the fears of the Cold War and Russia, the idea of making a relevant video game was being explored. People experience a much more profound connection with a game whose subject matter represents something that could spill over into the real world. What places and topics could games go into, particularly given their current FPS trigger happy state, that would be relevant and topical?
Let’s not beat around the bush, I’m talking about using violent video games to raise awareness of horrible real-life situations. So let’s start with the most popular genre: shooters. One of the tricky necessities of an FPS or basic action game is that you need a situation that involves a lot of combatants. Borrowing from action movies for a moment, what about Myanmar? Rambo 4 takes place in this country and also features the highest body count for the entire series by depicting over 260 people being shot or maimed. The radical oppression of the Karen people by the military is certainly a topic that can be addressed in a variety of ways. Indeed, outside of basic principles against violence, few seemed bothered by Rambo using a .50 caliber assault cannon to mow down dozens of soldiers. We’re not looking for an enemy that’s morally justifiable to shoot, we’re looking for one that’s morally repugnant to defend. At the very least we could teach people history by having them participate in wars and learn about atrocities that they otherwise would know little about. The Croatian War would be another interesting subject and indeed many games have begun to take place in Yugoslavia-like countries without making specific reference. Stepping away from the tasteless goal of simply finding excuses to shoot people for a moment, keep in mind that the game design could also involve more humane activities. A game set in Rwanda could be about saving refugees, a game set in Mogadishu could be about acting as a peacekeeper.
Yet setting a videogame in a modern setting is still going to raise the issue of tastelessness. Proper writing, mature mission themes, and engaging in conduct that isn’t wanton destruction are all going to be necessary. If you’re going to talk about mature topics, you have to handle them maturely and hope that resonates with the audience. Another issue raised is simply why bother at all? Why set a video game in a modern global conflict or historical moment that could be a blatant glorification of violence in some atrocious setting? Because raising awareness alone is a laudable goal. Going back to Rambo 4 for a moment, the movie managed to accomplish several amazing things despite its incredible violence. It raised awareness of the Myanmar situation so that aid and care were given to an otherwise ignored problem. Karen rebels received an incredible morale boost from the film and even use one of the quotes as a battle cry. A less action-based example, Hotel Rwanda came out ten years after the event but its success forced people to learn about an atrocity that was otherwise ignored. How many teens, how many potential activists, could be informed and contacted by playing a video game about an event? No matter what they’re doing in the game, how you frame and discuss the events they interact with will still control their impressions. Yes, there is potential for abuse here, but there is also great potential for good.
As always with the indie world, many games have begun to do this with varying results. Super Columbine Massacre RPG handles its subject matter in a very interesting way: it works like a documentary. The first half of the game is just a recreation of those events using actual documents and recordings from the tragedy. It’s disturbing yet it gives you an intense window into the events that whether or not welcome, is definitely insightful. The second half breaks from this and becomes problematic as the two characters fight through zombies in Hell…which is either very clever if you look at from a Divine Comedy perspective or just offensively celebratory. The United Nations have created a flash game about being a refugee fleeing a repressive country and trying to gain citizenship in a new one. It’s fairly basic and mostly dialog, but it’s also very informative and even provides links to other sites for those interested by what they see. Nor do these games even need to involve violence or conflict, I’m just conforming to the popular genres. Countless games explore things such as teaching people how electricity is distributed in a city, economic simulators, or basic philosophy. A great place to find them, along with countless other indie titles, is at Play This Thing!.
There are just so many topics video games could go into. Whether you acquiesce to the popular shooters of today or the RPG formulas of yesterday, the subject matter of these games is always open to change. Why not set a Grand Theft Auto-style game set in New Orleans during Katrina? Players could see the city before and after the hurricane, learn about the FEMA response, and be more politically aware of circumstances when such an event happens again. There is already a flash game on the topic. Perhaps even more compellingly, they may be inspired to go to a disaster zone and volunteer themselves. A child with ADHD who can scarcely pay attention for thirty minutes could learn a great deal about Katrina in 8 hours of game time. There will always be the protests and complaints from the media, whether to jump on the bandwagon of blaming society’s problems on video games or bemoan people profiting off the suffering of others. I would heartily recommend any game about a disaster be willing to donate a significant amount of the proceeds to aiding the cause it represents. Publishers and developers interested in creating such a game will have to be motivated by the hope of improving their public image and the image of video games themselves when creating such a title. Which was, after all, the point in the first place.
University of Texas Press
September 2008, 152 pages, $45.00
Eugene Richards, a documentary photographer, joined forces with Mental Disability Rights International to create this disturbing book of photographs. Traveling to Mexico, Armenia, Paraguay, Hungary, Kosovo, and Argentina, Richards and the group wormed their way into mental hospitals, where Richards photographed the unremittingly grim conditions.
The black and white photos make less attempt at composition than at the documentarian action of seeking to capture the moment. The result makes Diane Arbus’ late work look like snaps from a child’s birthday party: a naked teenager huddled in a cage barely large enough for him to squat in, a Mexican girl who spends her waking hours straitjacketed: when unbound, she chews her hands, which are scarred and infected. An elderly woman huddled in a wheelchair, wild-eyed, and emaciated. A cold, bare room filled with men in various stages of undress, the concrete floor pooled with urine. Men shrieking in filthy showers as attendants wash them with buckets of icy water. Men, women, and children bound to beds, underweight and dirty.
Given the dearth of mental health services available in our (still) comparatively wealthy nation, the marginalized, even brutal treatment of the mentally impaired elsewhere in the world comes as no surprise. Yet I admit I looked at the photographs and watched the accompanying DVD (really, the book’s images set to Richards’ narration, which appears at the back of the text) with some frustration. Richards’ work is heartfelt and noble, but of limited appeal. At $45.00, A Procession of Them isn’t likely to find a wide readership. Rather, it will reach mental health professionals, academics, and aficionados of photography.
I admit some of my frustration arises from compassion fatigue. Living as I do in the San Francisco Bay Area, I see a procession of mentally ill, homeless people daily. Until her unit went into foreclosure, I endured the screaming of a mentally ill upstairs neighbor who heard voices. I complained to my husband about A Procession. I said I felt it was a misguided attempt. No, he said. Just because there are problems here doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to suffering elsewhere.
I committed the jackass foul of cutting the around-the-block line to get into They Might Be Giants’ show. But the length of the line maxed out precisely when the rain was most dramatic, so I felt it was ok. Once inside I joined the also long queue of alt-rock nerds, eagerly awaiting the performance of the duo’s 1990 album Flood in its entirety. As the self-described “hardest working band in Brooklyn that still takes the L train” put it, the nights show would feature a bifurcated set, “that’s a fancy way of saying we’re playing two sets with a fifteen-minute break so the bar can sell drinks.” The duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell has developed a strong reputation for their live shows in their 26-year career. And they were chatty and hilarious throughout their two and half hour set, mocking weary CMJ photographers (“That ringing you hear when you finally lay down your head on a pillow is not going away”), their sometimes discombobulated endings (“Don’t let the song get in the way of your first place finish”), cheap weed (“I just got high from some terrible second-hand weed smoke”), and Flood’s original two-star rating in Rolling Stone (“They were right about Hendrix and they were right about us”). The second half of their set featured classic They Might Be Giants anthems, new and old alike, such as “Mink Car”, “Dinner Bell”, “Seven”, “Older”, and “James K. Polk”. That they played two encores by popular demand only cemented the night’s stellar vaudevillian-like set, closing with the educational “Alphabet of Nations” and crowd-favorite, “Fingertips.”