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Sunday, Oct 1, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, the critical, clinical terror of Wes Craven



While many acknowledge his contributions to the horror film, few actually consider the influence Wes Craven has had on the genre. A viable name in all things frightening, Craven is either an original, or an opportunist, depending on the overriding scare scholarship. True, during the home video explosion of the ‘80s, Craven’s canon suffered from sloppy ideas and even more slipshod execution. Between the robot ridiculousness of Deadly Friend to the serial killer as TV signal silliness of Shocker, many thought the macabre master had lost his way. But had they been paying attention, most would have realized that Craven’s clinical look at terror required a certain social or situational element to succeed. Without a contextual base in which to function, his movies frequently appeared out of step with the rest of the mainstream movie mandates.


Yet no one can deny that, every time the genre seems stuck in a ridiculous or repetitive rut, Craven comes along and substantially shakes things up.  If one goes back to his first formative smash, 1972’s seminal Last House on the Left, it is clear that this is one director who longs to play by his own unique set of rules. Using Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring as a starting point, and inserting a critical comment on the idle youth of the post-‘60s era, this repugnant rape/revenge fantasy was in direct contradiction of the fear factors infiltrating the industry. Between Hammer’s Victorian vampire epics and the creature feature based drive-in fare, horror really had no legitimate link to the real world. Last House changed all that. Along with its individually memorable tag line (“to avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘it’s only a movie…it’s only a movie…”) it hinted that fright could come in any iconic setting – including the seemingly sedate suburban home.


Thanks to its huge cultural impact, Last House legitimized the real world approach to dread, a concept that would be embraced by both conventional (The Exorcist, The Omen) and independent (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) entertainment elements. No longer was a supernatural situation required. All you needed were the realities of life amplified through the thriller/chiller ideal and – BANG! – instant homegrown horror. It was a fresh faced facet that even Craven himself would revisit later on in the decade. Focusing again on family (a favorite thematic course) and the disintegration of the American Dream, The Hills Have Eyes pushed the notion of normalized apprehension to its limits. With its contradictory clans – one civilized, one cannibalized – and snuff like approach to onscreen killing, he anticipated the growing desire for gore years before the red riot would overwhelm scare cinema.


When the ‘80s arrived, Craven again was seen as a step behind the movie macabre trends. Halloween and Friday the 13th had made the serial killing splatter fiend a new terror icon, and while studios were busy pumping out as many slasher entries as they could, Craven was going American Gothic. Deadly Blessing, his 1981 take on religion and hypocrisy barely registered among filmgoers. It was seen as too subtle, and too old fashioned, to play to a post-modern mindset. After a stab at comic book character action (1982’s underrated Swamp Thing), Craven was at a crossroads. Either he would give up genre efforts and try his hand at the typical Tinsel Town ideal or simply stop making movies all together.


But with the razor finger scraping heard round the world in 1984, Craven created what is, perhaps, the single most recognizable horror idol since the days when Universal ruled the theaters. Not only was A Nightmare on Elm Street the practical polar opposite of the slice and dice derivativeness that plagued the ‘80s creepshow, but it was a considered social observation centered around the nation’s newfound focus on the preservation of children. Not many people remember Freddy Krueger’s original origins. He was a pervert, a child molester and murderer who used his pedophilic ploys to lure the innocent to their death. His ravaged body was the result of a populace in vigilante mode, a group of parents setting him on fire to set the scales of justice back in balance. Now a vengeful spirit, Krueger created a dream world where he was the master. Utilizing the sleep of his killer’s young ones, Freddy found a way to enact his own afterlife payback on those who he deemed undeserving.


This concept of constant uncertainty, this dichotomy between threatened kids and disaffected parents was, again, part of a realism based paradigm for Craven. Sure, the situation allowed him to play with all manner of dream imagery and fantasy fears, but the heart of A Nightmare on Elm Street was a “how could it happen here” view of the sanctity of the suburbs. Nancy and the rest of her victimized pals are seen as something sacred, the precious commodity of a community that would resort to murder to protect them. Freddy’s fiendish ploys, complete with all their ‘bad touch’ connotations, were seen as the last legitimate threat in an otherwise hermetically sealed circumstance. By trading on this newfound fear, as well as the significant social shift it represented, Craven made macabre quantifiable and successfully saved the horror film from becoming an irrelevant exercise in tacky teen mass murder. Once again, he opened up the real world for possible terror interpretation.


The many cloying comic sequels to come almost undermined everything that Nightmare‘s novelty contributed. It would also cause Craven to coast for the rest of the decade. He would revisit the horror of Hills for Part 2, take on the fact-based facets of voodoo with The Serpent and the Rainbow, and deliver that problematic pair of Deadly Friend and Shocker. By the time his political allegory The People Under the Stairs was released (1991) many saw Craven as an artifact of the past, a filmmaker more or less responsible for horror’s hackneyed elements. Part of the problem was that Freddy Krueger had transformed from a killer into a comedian, a one liner spewing specter that was no longer scary. In fact, he had become so subverted as a character of terror that merchandising made specifically for tweens was flooding the market.


While many see Scream as Craven next saving salvo in the battle to preserve the motion picture macabre, it was actually his attempt at saving his Freddy franchise, New Nightmare, that set up the self-referential concepts that the later 1996 shocker would solidify. New Nightmare tried to be a kind of of the eerie, a clever combination of fear and fear filmmaking meant to comment on the effect that Freddy and his knife fingers had on those involved with his legacy. Starring Craven, actors Robert Englund (Freddy) and Heather Langenkamp (Nancy) and a hyper literate script, it was clear that most fright aficionados weren’t ready for an experimental dissection of what made the Krueger canon so compelling – and corrupt. Instead, it was Kevin Williamson’s joke-riddled irony that captured the fan base.


Many saw Scream as the final nail in the post-modern macabre’s creaking coffin. Craven had so successfully complemented Williamson’s wacky homage to horror’s past that it seemed like no future film could top its tricky terrors. And for a while, they were right. Even as the inevitable revamps came along – each one less effective in their self-styled satirical conceits - forces outside the mainstream were giving dread a much needed make over. Thanks to advances in technology, and the relative ease of DVD distribution, every film freak worth his or her scare salt decided to stop whining and make their own damn movie. The result was a real revolution, a resurgence in horror’s hipness that left many, including Craven, scrambling in the background.


Thankfully, instead of choosing to compete, Craven just continued on. The post-millennial phase of his career has seen a sloppy werewolf flop (Cursed), a few more of his patented name-attached production gigs, and the 2005 hit Red Eye. None however, had the cultural impact of his ‘70s through ‘90s efforts. While many may now feel the time to write him off has finally arrived, Craven might just have a few more shocks up his sleeves. Besides, it’s impossible to discount a filmmaker who resurrected the horror genre more times than others have successfully applied it. Without Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street and New Nightmare/Scream, terror may not have lasted into the year 2000. Wes Craven saved the cinematic category from its desire to endlessly emulate itself. And one thing is definitely for certain – this is one filmmaker who’s not through messing with the macabre. Perhaps he’s just waiting for another creative crisis to arrive


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Sunday, Oct 1, 2006

After shelling out 50 bucks for nosebleed seats to see the Who (hey, it was half the price of the Stones), a few things struck me about the show at Madison Square Garden.  Zak Starkey (aka Ringo’s son) is a hell of a drummer.  Daltrey still has a good strong voice though I’ve heard reports of it going on at later shows.  Pete T’s new material sounded pretty good and though he’s recycling some of his old themes, he’s still a helluva thoughtful and intelligent guy.  But most of all, I felt kind of bad for their opening act and kind of admired the fact that they were chosen at all.


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Saturday, Sep 30, 2006


It was meant to be the sword and sorcery equivalent of Star Wars (Jedi was about to break and finalize the trilogy), an epic fantasy that was part space opera, part Renaissance fair, and all speculative spectacle. What it ended up being was a massively hyped flop that saw more merchandising then moviegoers over the course of its limited box office run. Oddly enough, the most lasting element of this otherwise forgettable battle between good, evil and a strange circular weapon (called a “glaive”) was a video game that stormed arcades for months after the movie was more or less forgotten. Still, over the years, Krull has developed a determined following, devotees able to overlook the narrative’s nonsensical elements (Laser spears? A less than convincing Cyclops?) to enjoy the average adventure at hand. In the hands of the prolific Peter Yates (responsible for such ‘70s classics as Bullitt and Breaking Away) what should have been an epic entertainment stumbled under Lucas like expectations, poorly realized effects, and performances that seemed pitched just a tad too high for the relatively low brow material.


Featuring a “dark” beast who lives in a constantly movie fortress of blackness, a prince with the power to control “the elements”, an apprentice wizard with a reckless habit of ill-timed shapeshifting, a dainty damsel in distress, and a band of compassionate criminals lead by Liam Neeson and featuring Robbie Coltrane, Krull‘s confusing mythology left many an intended audience member scratching their adolescent head. Main characters died for relatively dopey reasons, plot points got lost inside all manner of interstellar/medieval malarkey, and the polished level of visuals that fans were used to (thanks to American companies like ILM) was all but absent in this bungled British production. Still, in its own awkward way, Krull creates a kind of amusement amalgamation, a formula for fun that argues it attributes in the following fashion: if you don’t like one particular character or circumstance, just wait - something completely different is just around the corner. Today, such an all encompassing approach is part of cinematic sensibility. But back in the early ‘80s, film wasn’t supposed to be so fractured.


As a result, Krull is the perfect pick up film – a movie you can catch in snatches while it plays on some pay cable channel. No matter what point you come in on the story, no matter what sort of scene is playing out before you, the lack of continuity and context actually allows you to take pleasure in the individual moment, and if so inclined, to stick around for another exciting sample in just a few minutes. Things do sort of come together at the end, especially when the prince and princess jointly use their love – or some other manner of emotion – to provide power to smite the beast. As the monolithic castle implodes upward, moving shard by shard into the stratosphere, we are overcome by a feeling of ridiculous resolve. Evil has been defeated, virtue has triumphed, and miniature pieces of a movie set are flying off into space. If that doesn’t sum up a typical Greed era entertainment, what does?


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Friday, Sep 29, 2006


Sean Penn is a terrific actor, but is that all it really takes to become a memorable film director?


Yes and no. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Penn has a rabid appreciation for craft, in addition to working with some of the most acclaimed thespians the world over. His understanding of the skill involved in great film acting (both his own and that of the people he directs) borders on the preternatural.


Penn’s 1995 tension filled-drama The Crossing Guard falls into some amateurish territory at times (with bizarrely maudlin and faux-artsy camera work), but when it comes to generously giving his company their respective moments, Penn excels. Each actor appearing here is able to register fully with the viewer, even when his or her screen time is brief. Case in point is Priscilla Barnes (who, at one point in her career replaced Suzanne Somers on Three’s Company), playing the emotionally bruised stripper pal of a central character. She has maybe two scenes but conveys a lifetime of hurt within them. The same goes for veteran character actors Piper Laurie and Richard Bradford, who also really pop out in their cameos. Penn, with even the slightest performance, clearly defines the role for the viewer. It is an apparent generosity that undermines his gruff, outspoken reputation and his penchant for lurid, pulpy material.


The story is simple: a man (David Morse) kills the young daughter of a jeweler and his wife in a drinking and driving accident. He goes to jail and is let out after five years. Played by former paramours Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, (who has only four scenes in the entire film, but remains a constant, strong presence. When paired against her longtime real-life love, after a huge personal scandal, her hurt and bitterness seem even more poignant), the couple goes their separate ways: she tries to better her life while he just disintegrates. He is hell bent on killing the man who killed his little girl. The actors fully explore the dark corners of guilt and rage and are able to show quite clearly all of the fractures a trauma can cause to anyone connected. I really liked that Penn chose to explore all of the possible paths that grief can lead to and how it affects everyone in such a radically different way. The parallels to Penn’s other 1995 work, Dead Man Walking, where he played a murderer on Death Row, are evident: the films have a similar tone that don’t come off preachy despite their explosive subject matter. Each film is courageous enough to let whoever watches them to make up their own mind.


In the past, I have not been the biggest fan of Nicholson’s work, which for many film lovers borders on sacrilege. I find him slightly overrated, with a few bright exceptions (Ironweed and Penn’s follow-up to The Crossing Guard, The Pledge, being two of my favorites). His hostility towards his ex-wife, himself and Morse’s character are intense and wholly realized. He packs such nuance into the most ordinary gestures here and in scenes of extreme cliché he stays grounded. I felt like this was something deeply personal for the actor to do. His range, along with the sheer truth of this emotion is staggering. What is fascinating about Nicholson, in his later career stage, is watching the actor eagerly shed his own outrageous persona and going into completely foreign territory as a performer. Like him or not, Nicholson must be given credit for his ability to make risky choices.


My favorite of the cast, by far, was Morse. When I first saw this film, I wasn’t sure how the story would work (after all, we are expected to sympathize with a very unlikable situation and man) but Morse plays everything so subtly (which is something he has done again and again as a performer, perfecting the type most notably in 2000’s Dancer in the Dark). He is so wounded by his actions and his guilt that it cripples him. For such an imposing man, he manages to cut right to the heart of this character that made a terrible error in judgment and will pay for it for the rest of his life. It’s a brilliantly thought-out, incredibly detailed performance that defines the old line “you can’t judge a book by its cover” as Morse turns in one surprise after the next.


While the cast was really shockingly good and the story serviceable, ultimately Penn as a director falls flat, as he did with his first effort The Indian Runner. He has the ability to wrest interesting performances from not only his principles but also his ancillary cast and does a really good job exploring the bare bones of the script through character; but ultimately his visual style meanders and is sort of blasé. No matter, there will always be a line at his door when he begins casting on a new movie. If all else fails, he can always fall back on his career of being a great actor himself.


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Friday, Sep 29, 2006

In my post about aggressive driving, I mentioned that particular species of economic reasoning that holds you are less safe if you wear seat belts, because you will drive more recklessly—you diminish your incentive to be careful by having taken safety procautions earlier. Steven Landsburg makes that classic case in the first chapter of The Armchair Economist. Mark Thoma has another example here, where he links to a study that reveals “Cyclists who wear helmets are more likely to be knocked off their bicycles than those who do not, according to research. Motorists give helmeted cyclists less leeway than bare-headed riders because they assume that they are more proficient. They give a wider berth to those they think do not look like ‘proper’ cyclists, including women, than to kitted-out ‘lycra-clad warriors.’ ” Tyler Cowen takes the opportunity to remind readers of the Tullock Effect, which argues that the most important safety device one could add to a car is a spike mounted on the steering wheel pointed at the driver’s heart.


This is precisely the sort of economic thinking that non-economists find baffling, if not repellant, because it seems smugly contrarian, mimicking the perversity tropes that Alfred Hirschman has identified as the hallmarks of reactionary rhetoric. Not only do helmets not make you safer, they put you at greater risk. When you make your silly little attempts at affecting what will happen to you, you actually undermine yourself. But economists aren’t typically reactionaries. They seem to prefer to see themselves as radical truth-tellers, burning away clouds of rationalization and demogoguery to reveal the consequences of incentives at work. But I wonder if there isn’t some kind of risk compensation going on for economists themselves, snug in the safety of their own mathematical models, protecting from the ambiguities in the world that they have rendered invisible.


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