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Sunday, Oct 29, 2006


Gut Level


Slither simultaneously symbolizes everything that’s right and wrong with the current trends in post-modern horror. On the positive side, this minor masterpiece’s deconstruction of the entire ‘80s idea of terror is so flawlessly fashioned and perfectly executed that writer/director James Gunn ought to be celebrated (or in some fright fans minds, shot) for how accurately he skewers the era’s many mediocre monster movies. The film frequently feels like a fanboy’s final exam. In addition, Gunn gives gorehounds a real reason to rejoice. Unlike the current concept of over the top bloodletting that thinks the sequence is more important than the sluice, this inspired auteur gets his groovy grue just right. As he piles on the pus and unleashes the organs, those of us longing for this kind of craven creature feature can’t help but smile from ear to ear.

The setup is deceptively simple. After a meteor crashes outside the small town of Wesley, South Carolina, one of the local bigwigs, a rich jerk named Grant Grant, gets infected by a space spore. Seeking someone to help him hatch his slug like servants, Grant kidnaps a former fling, kills several head of livestock and dozens of neighborhood pets, and sets up his brooder outside the city limits. Before you know it, Wesley is overrun by killer creepy crawlies, all looking for orifices to invade. Worming their way into their victim’s brains, the townsfolk are soon resurrected as living dead members of Grant’s growing invasion force. It will take a nice guy sheriff, a suddenly orphaned teen, and Grant’s wife Starla to hopefully save the day. Unfortunately, killing these ‘critters’ will be a lot harder than everyone thinks.


So where’s the negative, you ask? What could possibly be wrong with a movie so easily praised and smashingly entertaining? Well, for one thing, it was a flop. For reasons only a macabre Mensa scholar could understand, the demographic preferred such alternative terror offerings as Eli Roth’s Hostel (good) and the recent Omen remake (bad…very, very bad) to Gunn’s goofball gross out. Second, and far more troubling, people were actually put off by the notion – created as kind of a critical shortcut for the genre addled element of the press – that this was some kind of mainstream Troma movie. Instead of embracing the name of the world’s leading Indie icon as a badge of dynamite dishonor, audiences actually responded by purposefully avoiding the film. If they didn’t like what Lloyd Kaufman and his ilk were doing before, why would they enjoy a big budget version of the same?


Well, for one thing, Slither is not a Troma film. The connection between the two stops at Gunn’s previous career as a company executive and scriptwriter (he was responsible for the equally engaging and enigmatic Tromeo and Juliet). The fact is, for anyone looking for logical links between past and present efforts, films like Night of the Creeps, Robot Holocaust and Bad Taste provide far more credible creative starting points. Slither is obviously the effort of someone who’s studied horror, looking at everything from the bad, the bumbling, and the brazen as inspiration for his ideas. Many similarly styled flicks with familiar titles like The Deadly Spawn, Killer Klowns from Outer Space and Critters use the invasion idea to turn normal society sinisterly askew. What Gunn adds is his own mythology (gotta love the mind-meld moment were a CGI creature goes on an intergalactic killing spree) and a child-like glee when it comes to glop. 


Similar to the sensational Shaun of the Dead, Slither also understands that humor goes a long way toward preparing the foundation for your outrageous frights. A legion of devotees, raised on Freddy’s wounded wise-cracks, the Leprechaun’s lame one-liners, and the inherent hilarity in seeing Jason do away with clueless copulators, don’t really like their terror straight up. They want some moments of merriment, a little boo breather, so to speak, before heading out into flesh-eating zombie territory. With a keen comic sense that shows through in almost everything he does (a perfect example of which is his collaboration with wife Jenna Fisher on her fabulous mock doc Lollilove), Gunn gives Slither the kind of wink and a nod irony that should have made this movie an unqualified youth culture hit. Sadly, the current craze for ‘violence porn’, best exemplified by the Saw series and Roth’s tainted travelogue, apparently provides no room for something both funny and frightening.


And yet, Gunn doesn’t stop there. This is a movie loaded with in-jokes, nods to famous horror heroes, and constant references to films past and present. Almost everyone in the cast is named after a celebrated genre writer, director, producer or actor, and locations like ‘Henelotters’ act as less than subtle cinematic shout outs. Certainly Slither can seem insular at times, trying too be a tad too cute for its own limited means, but that doesn’t begin to destroy the amazing work done here by Gunn and company. From the impressive cast (including former serial killer Henry – a.k.a. Michael Rooker - as Grant) to the refreshing use of physical as well as computer generated effects, the filmmaking is first rate. Yet unlike previous attempts to make a purposefully bad b-movie, Slither is too smart to be so easily dismissed. Instead, it radiates a pure love of horror language, and never stumbles along the way toward its silly scares.


Still, one is shocked by the poor box office performance. That’s not to say that every film like Slither steals away multiple megabucks from their time at the Cineplex (Shaun of the Dead and John Carpenter’s The Thing were both less than boffo upon initial release), but when nothing else out there comes close to this movie’s invention and charm, ignoring it seems downright dumb. Here’s predicting that a few years from now, once the latest fear fad fades from view, joining J-Horror and Blair Witch rip-offs on the Island of Misfit Movie Ideas, Gunn will be vindicated and Slither will soar in popularity. The obsessives will discover every obscurity, the devoted will pen numerous weblog entries on the film’s sexual themes and obvious inspirations (everyone from Spielberg to Cronenberg will be cited). But none of this will make-up for the fact that, when they had the chance to champion the first truly great horror film of 2006, they waited instead to celebrate a bunch of spelunking dames and their run-in with some underground albinos.


Slither will survive. But there’s a bigger issue at play. Gunn probably used up all his blockbuster clout delivering his deliciously fun film to the big screen, and it’s probably a safe bet that a major studio won’t be bankrolling his next low-budget laughathon anytime soon. And that’s a shame. For all its tricks and gimmicks, it’s easily recognizable references and excessive use of entrails, Gunn actually makes a great bit of schlock. It reminds us of a time when terror could encompass any and all ideas, when it didn’t have to be micromanaged down to a recognizable trend or taken apart and rearranged to earn an easy PG-13. Now more than ever the suffering category of scares needs jaded jesters like James Gunn. Slither is the perfect cure for such cinematic stagnancy.


 


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Saturday, Oct 28, 2006


Before its release in 1988, Dead Heat was a hotly anticipated horror title. Written up numerous times in Fangoria magazine and rumored about by knowledgeable fans eager to see what sick, twisted special effects makeup artist Steve Johnson would come up with, it seemed like a can’t miss prospect. Johnson was a young gun of prosthetics who had quickly become a fright flick favorite with such spectacle-filled titles under his belt as Videodrome, Big Trouble in Little China, and The Howling II. And the premise was ripe for a few quickie sequels, the continued stories of the living-dead law enforcement friends. It seemed as though the scene was set for another potential hit terror title. Then Dead Heat knocked into theaters and flopped, vanishing to video shelves everywhere. It became a forgotten film, a mere blip on the radar of well-regarded scary movies from the 1980s.


And that’s too bad, because Dead Heat is an inventive, inviting horror comedy that avoids formulas while it deconstructs clichés to make what has to be the first action-adventure-living-dead comedy ever conceived. Utilizing a wonderful idea and presenting it with all the creativity a barebones budget would allow, director Mark Goldblatt perverted the buddy cop prescription into a zombified geek show of bloodletting, corpses, and plenty of jocularity. Toss in the graphic (for its time) snuff stuff and some self-deprecating wit, and what you have is something very special; a movie that should have been a creepy crawly contender. Instead, it’s just a fond memory for those who discovered it initially, and a “What the heck is this?” moment for a few formerly famous faces.


Treat Williams is wonderful here, tossing aside all his gruff, anxious high drama seriousness and letting loose with a cool, collected performance. He brings the right amount of anarchic authority to the film, helping to sell the over-the-top foundation. When he becomes a walking corpse cop, you can see Williams relishing the renegade antics of his character the more he decays and rots. Joe Piscopo, occasionally appearing as nothing more than an ad for anabolic alteration, does manage to get in a couple of zesty zingers before it’s time to flex his non-hilarious pythons again. Frankly, this is one of the few times where the ex-SNLer’s bulking routine actually fits his character. Detective Bigelow seems a couple of protein shakes away from a health regime, and Piscopo’s radically altered physique logically illustrates this pumped-up personality choice.


Such cult icons as Vincent Price (still spry and sinister in one of his last roles), Darren McGavin (giving his criminal coroner a real peppy persona), and Keye Luke (actually playing a cutthroat villain) bring another level of star polish to the independent terror tale. Indeed, between the acting and direction, a solid little scarefest is created. But Johnson’s novel—and unnerving—special effects work is the film’s most memorable asset. From reanimated corpses in various “stitched together” configurations to the set-piece gross-out in the Chinese butcher shop (where cuts of meat and other “processed” animals come back to life to get revenge), this effects wiz really excels here. Lindsay Frost undergoes one of the best onscreen makeup meltdowns ever. It’s because of the glorious grue that Dead Heat, even with all its help, rises above other routine terrors from the MTV decade.


Frankly, it’s surprising that in the rush to remake any old horror film, no one has thought about giving this tantalizing tale a little redux action. One can easily see a successful mainstream movie of the macabre being fashioned out of the successful shell of this stellar work. Jazz up the effects, increase the blood, and infuse the story with lots of A-name star power, and boffo box office is some studio’s for the taking. Bigger than life on a Cineplex screen or loaded onto your home theater setup, Dead Heat can and does work. It’s mainly because scriptwriter Terry Black (brother of Lethal Weapon‘s Shane Black) has crafted a well-conceived film. Dead Heat never lets its premise get so out of hand as to destroy the dimensions of dread, and all the comic elements help to magnify, not minimize, the shocks and slaughter. Zombies are always good for some gore and terrorizing, but here they are walking, talking, thinking ex-humans with a capacity for immortality (unlike typical living dead gospel, they seem near-impossible to kill).


Limiting the craven creeps to a chosen few and giving them distinct visual personalities (the two-faced fiend, the walking-dead weasel, etc) helps us handle the more implausible elements. Black also gives the typical cop team-up dialogue a little added vitality by making Roger a dull, drone-like officer with a penchant for interpersonal insincerity. This gives Williams’s scenes with both Frost and Clare Kirkconnell as morgue assistant Rebecca Smythers a kind of human emotional resonance that many monster movies lack. Black’s script, combined with Mark Goldblatt’s crackerjack direction and sense of tension, enables Dead Heat to surpass its small-time trappings and become a big-idea film in a petite independent package.


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Friday, Oct 27, 2006


Three friends—a failed medical student named Bill Johnson, a geeky mathematician named Max Giggs, and a discredited ex-wrestling champion named John West—suddenly learn that zombies are overrunning their small Argentinean suburb. These are not your typical living dead, however. They are smarter, cleverer, and apparently controlled by forces beyond an inherent urge to kill and eat flesh. Hoping to escape, they discover that the FBI has quarantined the city, locking them in with the uncontrollable undead. While battling for their lives and looking for a means out of harm’s way, they run into an injured agent with a secret map. If they can decode the floppy disk and learn the route, they are saved. But it will take more than computing skills to win the day. Our pals are smack dab in the heart of the Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone, and in this terrifying domain, it’s kill or be killed.


Here it is, all you home-movie hopefuls—100 percent proof positive that epic entertainment can be crafted out of a camcorder, a cast and crew of friends, and a great deal of cinematic creativity. This bravado brainchild of Argentinean auteurs Pablo Parés and Hernán Sáez is like watching Peter Jackson’s private personal video experiments, or Sam Raimi’s first forays into Evil Dead-based fright. Consisting of two installments in a proposed trilogy, Plaga Zombie (“Zombie Plague”) and its sensational sequel, Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone, these movies represent the height of auspicious outsider moviemaking. Within a total combined running time of nearly three hours, we are introduced to a sensational selection of instantly memorable characters, transported into a completely believable parallel universe where zombies rule the streets, and witness to filmmaking expertise so skillful and wise that you’d never imagine it was the effort of able-bodied amateurs.


In a pair of films loaded with amazing moments, there are several that shine above others. Our fallen hero, wrestler John West, shows off his insane collection of self-promotion memorabilia (including a catchy sing-along theme) that predates the similarly styled Toy Story II sequence. Zombies pretend to be ninjas, rappers, and players in a pretty mean game of Texas Hold-em. Max rips the arm off a corpse and uses it like a martial arts weapon, while Bill employs a long strand of intestines—complete with perfunctory farting noises—to keep his adversaries at bay. There are swipes from Back to the Future, The Matrix, and even the post-9/11 war on terror. And then there are the fight scenes—one remarkably well done, expertly choreographed, and stunningly filmed/edited sequence after another of friend vs. fiend fisticuffs that challenge, and even surpass, the efforts of bigger budgeted films. One of the major problems homemade movies have, especially when it comes to action, is the creation of credible controlled chaos. The usual result of an amateur stunt sequence is underdeveloped, static motion that looks like obese octogenarians swing dancing. But here, a combination of filmmaking joy and dogged determination results in a truly blazon battle royale. You can actually feel your pulse start to race the minute John, Bill, and Max step up to take on another unruly horde of the living dead.


Gore hounds will also get their red stuff rocks off over and over again during this dizzying display of no-budget effects. Heads split, guts spill, limbs crack open and ooze, and buckets of blood battle with barrels of bile for slime supremacy. There are more decapitations, eviscerations, and discombobulations in this film than in a dozen direct-to-video vomitoriums. The closest comparison to the claret carnage and pus pandemonium included here is the similar stage grue grandstanding in Peter Jackson’s non-hobbit epics Bad Taste and Dead Alive. Certainly, some of the effects are substandard and look like they were conceived and created on the spot with poster paint and bird feces, but when inserted into this amalgamation of action, sci-fi, and slapstick, the result is a completely entertaining flesh feast, a film that becomes its own mythos and its own legitimate horror legacy. Like watching how Sam Raimi reinvented the demonic possession film to conform to his own inner aesthetic of excitement and originality, the gang at FASCA Producciones have taken the undead genre and removed all the social commentary and realistic validation. Instead, Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone (along with the original film) becomes a new manner of monster movie, a showcase of fright film forged out of fandom, devotion, and a true fascination with the motion picture macabre that came before.


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Friday, Oct 27, 2006

Business Week magazine has a sobering article about why web statistic tracking isn’t an exact science and that’s not good news for a lot of already-struggling publications.


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Friday, Oct 27, 2006

Via BPS Digest (and Marginal Revolution) comes this report that claims reading novels will make a person more empathetic. In the test the researchers conducted, “The more authors of fiction that a participant recognised, the higher they tended to score on measures of social awareness and tests of empathy – for example being able to recognise a person’s emotions from a picture showing their eyes only, or being able to take another person’s perspective. Recognising more non-fiction authors showed the opposite association.”


The BPS Digest also notes of the study: “However, a weakness of the study is that the direction of causation has not been established – it might simply be that more-empathic people prefer reading novels.” Having recently turned away from fiction to read nonfiction almost exclusively, I wonder if this means I’ve become more callous, and my disgruntlement with fiction is indicative of empathy fatigue or something—novels are a means to try to experience empathy on an artificial, preplanned basis. Or perhaps my turn to nonfiction, if I really thought about it, is a potentially pathological means to blunt emotional connection I’m subconsciously trying to ward off. Maybe I’m using the arid world of facts—the dry, detatched prose of The Economist, for instance—as a buffer from the warmth of human contact, which, frankly, can often seem like a hassle and a threat and a call to action when I’m much more comfortable planted on my couch reading.


That’s not a good thing. So as a therapeutic measure, I’ve stayed planted on the couch, and started to read The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells. Something Walter Benn Michaels wrote about it in The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism stuck with me—something about how Howells is trying to figure a return to a precapitalist mode of relationships and how the novel delineates zero-sum social status games. (Even when I’m picking novels, I need some hyperpragmatic reason to read them.) I’m about halfway through it, and I can’t say I feel any more empathic, but I’m trying to pay special attention to how the novelist wants to keep my attention focused on minute shiftings of his characters’ attitude, and the means he uses to describe them. What novels do obviously—the raison d’etre, probably for the study—is teach readers ways to think the emotion of others, put it into words that can serve as a comprehensible substitute for something we can never access directly. Our own emotion is often inarticulate, too immediate, and we often don’t bother to analyze it and think it rather than experience it. One of the reasons novels of past centuries continue to be read is that they provide tools for verbalizing emotion and for modelling its recognition. This line of thinking would seem to run counter to the evolutionary psychologists’ beliefs that apprehension of emotion is inborn and immediate (a la Darwin’s study of facial expressions, for instance). From this point of view emotional comprehensioin is hard-wired and verges on instinct—one psychologist even argues that changing your expression can change your mood to suit it. But what novels want to do is slow down the instantaneous instinctual process of reaction to others’ emotional expressions and make it a subject for gratifying intellectual mastery. We derive a grammar of emotion and learn to experience tracing its fine movements as a species of pleasure. We are encouraged to become connoisseurs in emotion—the way Sterne’s narrator is in A Sentimental Journey.


Does this then objectify emotion, trivialize it, or commodify it? Is it wrong to perceive the feelings of others as a kind of delicacy, like a rare cheese or bottle of port? Is being overly concerned with the emotions others are experiencing simply a way of consuming other people? Novels serve to commercialize otherwise intangible emotional experiences; in the process they likely make empathy into something more akin to a shopper’s discernment.


The question of whether altruism exists comes into play in this as well—what motives are ultimately served in our efforts to feel another’s pain? It seems a pertinent question to ask, because perhaps a deeper empathy can be achieved once the more self-serving level is interrogated a bit. Ultimately, I guess I would need to know more about how the study measure empathy to know whether there might be differences between that kind of empathy and some other preferable kind that isn’t instrumentalized through entertainment product. Until then I’ll keep reading Howells and hope things work out for “sly” Penelope.


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