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Wednesday, Nov 15, 2006


They say time heals all wounds. They also argue that vengeance simmers like a stone in the soul. Combining to two should result in an exercise in forced forgiveness, a chance to let the calendar calm the pain and the distance of decades to erode away the desire for payback. But sometimes, the opposite happens, especially when the reason for the ache is ambiguous, and the manner in which it was administered unnecessary. There are those occasions where an individual’s own guilt is so strong, their life path so strewn with evil and amoral choices, that no amount of time could solve their rage. Instead, the need for retribution burns like a furnace, charring everything around it in a swath of sadness and madness.


This is what happens to two interconnected souls – unimportant businessman Dae-su Oh and wealthy playboy Woo-jin Lee. One has a misguided vendetta against the other. Said victim has a clear grudge against the man who he believes imprisoned him unnecessarily for 15 years. As complicated a game of cat and mouse as the cinema has ever seen, Chan-wook Park’s OldBoy stands as a monument to the Nu-Asia genre of film, and South Korea’s domination of the category in general. As part of his brilliant Vengeance Trilogy (including Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance) Park’s middle act marries Western ideas of violence as vindicator with Eastern elements of honor, status and cruelty. It is safe to say that both protagonist and antagonist here are equally guilty of transgressions against the other. What isn’t so clear is what payback will gain them, if anything.


This was part of Park’s design all along. In a stunning new three disc tin box collector’s set from Tartan Video, the process behind this provocative motion picture is laid bare, with the director divulging as many behind the scenes processes as possible to amplify the theme of his movie. In essence, OldBoy is part thriller, part primer on the horrors of hate. Park professes to purposefully making his characters blank and unemotional, channeling all their inner emotion into their meticulous plans for reprisal. In Dae-su Oh’s case (brilliantly essayed by actor Min-sik Choi) the years of isolation, brainwashing, hypnotism and torture have left him literally empty inside, except for a festering need to find out who kidnapped him after that late night of drinking, as well as why he’s been stashed away from the rest of the world for a decade and a half.


In the case of Woo-jin Lee, the stakes are slightly more obscure. A dandy on the outside, but unmentionably dark on the inside, actor Ji-tae Yu turns the enigmatic catalyst for all of Dae-su Oh’s problems into a formidable foe, a man building his entire life’s desire onto one easily collapsible plan of payback. In the film’s narrative Woo-jin’s house of corrupt cards can fall at any moment. Dae-su can give up his quest. The mobsters he’s working with can decide to double cross him. The use of unscientific notions like hypnosis could collide with happenstance, and truth could be unveiled without the commiserate comeuppance the man is looking for. From his palatial penthouse (purposefully designed by Park to reflect an individual making existence more complicated than it has to be), to the overly intricate plan that’s supposed to satisfy his hurt, Woo-jin is the worst kind of bad guy – focused, yet formless. With him, anything can happen…and almost always does. 


That is indeed the point of OldBoy. Park’s participation in a series of commentary tracks for this new release highlight how he carefully crafted his plot to leave questions in the audience’s mind about who’s the hero and who’s the heavy. Clearly, when considered side by side, Dae-su has the most understandable need for revenge. He’s been imprisoned, and as a result, lost to the world (including his family) for more than one complete generation. Though his life is loaded with misdeeds, he can’t fathom the crime he committed to require such an unexpected and uncompromising sentence. Still, Park wants to make sure that Dae-su is not considered completely innocent. As a matter of fact, the moments of animalistic violence used as steps toward the final denouement are meant to highlight the character’s clear proclivity toward such anti-social behavior.


It is these amazing moments, like the stunning hallway/hammer fight completed in one magnificent take (with a little technical tweaking here and there) that takes up most of the second DVD’s documentary run time. Park is a proficient director, completely capable of improvising on the spot and screwing with the cinematic paradigm to foster a furtherance of his occasionally lofty goals. All throughout the box set, we see moments where experiments are attempted, diversions are crafted, and input from the cast and crew are taken, each moving the film into differing dynamic directions. Similarly, Park professes to having a homage-heavy style, and its interesting to hear about how certain sequences – like the high school foot chase through time - were inspired by other directors (Brian DePalma) and their efforts (Dressed to Kill).


Even more intriguing, Park used varying subliminal visual cues throughout OldBoy, hoping to affect the perception of what is happening while dropping hints along the way of the connections between the characters. For example, Woo-jin Lee is represented by the color purple (which in many Asian cultures symbolized death), while Dae-su is surrounded by browns and greens (with their obvious overtures toward decay and rot). In some of the supplemental material, we see how the art direction was purposefully fashioned to exploit this ideal as well as set up secret warnings that only the most observant viewer would possible pick up. Other times, Park uses particular filmmaking styles – a documentary approach for the opening, an obvious artsy method during the incarceration and isolation material. In fact, it is safe to say that OldBoy represents a masterful competition between acuity vs. actuality. What we see on the screen can sometimes be much more important than what is actually happening between the characters. 


But because of the mannerisms he employs overall, like staging a car crash with the vehicles poised at Los Angeles and New York, respectively, part of OldBoy‘s brilliance is the way in which it gets to that final confrontation. Even more amazing, Park purposefully pulls back during the all important showdown, using unusual aesthetic choices to challenge the viewer’s preconceived notions of what should occur. Fights flourish behind low, ambient music. Confrontations are lax, left unknown by choices in camera angle and framing. This is all part of the plan, a choice made by Park to prepare the audience for anything and everything. One of the more magical elements of OldBoy is that, even if you can predict everything that’s going to happen, Park is already several steps ahead, ready to thwart your most considered expectations with his mesmerizing tricks.


Oddly, the two individuals most responsible for the issues between the men - Woo-jin’s sister Lee Soo-ah and Dae-su’s gal pal, Mi-do – are more or less left on the outskirts of the story, their identity far more important than the part they play in each character’s current situation. Park argues that this was not a determined slight, one that should warrant criticism from women’s groups arguing about the downplaying of the female facets of the film. Instead, it’s all part of a bigger symbol being shuttled back and forth – the notion that anger and the need for revenge can blind people to the truth laying right before their eyes. Both actresses here are excellent, giving brave performances that require them to simulate some often scandalous situations. But neither comes across as completely compelling, either. OldBoy makes it clear that, in the realm of defending honor and seeking justice, men make all the decisions – for bad and for good.


That so much meaning can be buried inside what many might view as a Tarantino-esque excuse to overload the screen with brutality and blood argues for the artistic prowess of South Korean cinema, something that Tartan’s new box set sells very well. The third DVD in the set provides a production diary that gives us a day-by-day breakdown of OldBoy‘s filming, and it’s an eye-opener. Gone are the Hollywood mandates for superstar treatment and specialized crewmembers. Missing are the moments when personal and professional desires clash. In their place, we see plenty of hard work, long nights and intense collaborations.  Though presented without clear context or explanatory voiceover narration, this footage argues for an unseen maxim in the Asian movie business. Many fans feel that most films are fashioned out of luck, talent, and a sprinkling of magic. The truth is that experiences as exemplary as OldBoy are not the result of some wizard’s spell. They result from a coming together of creative minds all willing to work hard to forge something special.


In OldBoy‘s case, the finished product remains one of the new millennium’s best movies. And when you consider that Park produced companion pieces of equal power as both cinema and stylistic statements, his importance as a creative force cannot be undermined. One of the best things about the DVD format is that it allows for a window into a world – filmmaking – that many of us outside the business would never have an opportunity to experience. With this new three disc release (which includes an English translation of the Japanese Manga “comic” used as the foundation for the storyline), we witness the process that made this film so magnificent. While the final scene of the film may be open to interpretation, Park’s intensions are very clear. OldBoy is indeed a movie about the passage of time. But instead of healing all wounds, or lifting the stone from one’s soul, all that’s created is a path toward personal and metaphysical destruction. It’s as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun.



Tartan Video‘s Three Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition version of OldBoy was released on 14 November, 2006. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here



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Wednesday, Oct 25, 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, how Italian horror maestro Dario Argento made his name in two competing concepts of fear.


Dark and mysterious are the twin paths Italian director Dario Argento travels on. It’s a duality that has come to define, and in some cases, confine, one of macabre’s most meaningful artisans. Down one road lies the realm of the human soul, a place easily perverted by the notion of man as the most monstrous, destructive force in all the world. It is here where his giallo efforts exist, films based on the famous Italian pulp paperbacks known for their yellow – or ‘giallo’ – covers. From the animal trilogy The Bird with Crystal Plummage, Cat O’ Nine Tales and Four Flies on Flies on Grey Velvet to efforts like Tenebre, The Stendhal Syndrome and The Card Player, these reality-based thrillers have used the cat and mouse game of killer and cop to completely reinvent the notion of crime and punishment. His cinematic specifics have gone on to influence filmmakers the world over. 


Down the other trail, however, is a place even more enigmatic and disturbing. It is here where you will find the surreal supernatural efforts that have come to form the foundation of Argento’s sizable legend. While there are those who swear by his crackerjack murder mysteries, citing their power as both inventive narratives and examples of nuanced craftsmanship, it is his jarring juxtaposition of light and dark, real and unreal, good and evil that has had the true lasting effect for the filmmaker. Using the central theme of Thomas DeQuincey’s Three Mothers (Tears, Sighs, and Darkness) and mixing elements both actual and avant-garde, Argento strove to give horror a vibrant, visual representation. He didn’t just want knives and blood to be the basis for all fear. No, along this motion picture pathway, the recognizable and the dreamlike exist in a near incestual bond, unholy and slathered in sin.


Discounting his efforts for Italian television, it is amazing to note that the ratio between Argento’s tripwire whodunits and his paranormal pictures is almost three to one. He has only made three wholly supernatural cinematic statements – Suspira, Inferno and Phenomena (released in the US as Creepers) while the rest of this oeuvre is overwhelmed with death, dismemberment and detectives. When fans and scholars discuss his films, they too diverge along predisposed conduits, some certain that its his giallos that will live on long after his spook shows have faded, while others champion the challenges raised by the auteur’s otherworldly epics. To the fans of films like Inferno or Phenomena, Argento represents a real leap in style incorporating substance. He manages to make the macabre both beautiful and baneful, luring in audiences with his gorgeous visuals while simultaneously scaring them to their very core. It also helps that, with only three real examples to go on, the horror hits far outweigh the murder mystery missteps.


Indeed, when viewed linearly, Argento has gone from exciting to erratic when it comes to his signature serial killer sagas. Recent efforts like The Card Player and Sleepless have been considered inconsistent among critics and fans alike, and many feel the need to go back as far as Tenebre to find a pure examples of his hyperstylized human horror show. This, unfortunately, leaves out one of the director’s best efforts – 1987’s Opera. Using the majesty of the classical music format as an amazing backdrop for his slasher like leanings, this story of a cursed production, and the murderer enforcing the fear, is seen by many as Argento’s last legitimate stab at giallo excellence. Everything that’s come since – his American thriller Trauma, his Black Cat part of the Poe piece Two Evil Eyes, even the sensationally sick and somewhat sloppy Stendhal Syndrome – is viewed as lesser examples of his one-time artistic acumen.


But perhaps the most telling argument against his later works is the abject brilliance of the movies he made in the past. It is usually difficult for a trendsetter to stay ahead of the fad or frenzy they have created. The most popular superstar or commercially viable format only need to overstay its cultural welcome a month or two too long and it’s a trip into oblivion or outright hatred. Many artists faced with this dilemma simply give up, or revisit the circuit of golden oldies, recycling their greatest successes until there is no longer a paying audience. Reinvention, sometimes viewed as the key to continued longevity, can help, unless your experimentation is so wild and uncharacteristic that you lose the core audience who followed you up until this point.


Such was the case with Argento in 1975. He had created one of the most successful strings of films in the history of Italian cinema: the unintentional Animal Trilogy. With achievement came the deluge of copycats and imitators, each taking Argento’s use of the camera and convention breaking to try to repeat his success. His career sat at a crossroads, in more ways than one. An attempt at a comic western (The Five Days of Milan) had failed, leaving the reigning king in a dangerous state of audience languor. He needed something both to challenge his skills and to regain his crown as the king of the thriller.


As usual, it was a dream—about a medium reading the mind of a psychopath—that brought about the idea for another terror tale. But this would be a crime story like none other before or after, a gruesome saga of a disturbed mind on a murderous spree to cover up the past. The screen would be filled with blood, deep red rivers of gore. Style would be heightened and the experimentation with angles, techniques, color, and sound would be as important as the emphasis on story and acting. This would be the birth of a new style of giallo, one filled with artistic as well as criminal elements. And it would mean the reawakening of Argento, not just as a commercial director, but as an important cinematic visionary. In reality, the film did indeed mark a turning point for the director. It bridged the gap between previous real world based movies and began the ascent into the realm of the fantastic and the frantic. Profondo Rosso, otherwise known as Deep Red, would mark the true origins of his style and the sense of horror that would herald and haunt Argento the rest of his career.


Frankly, there is no better Italian thriller, giallo, detective, horror, or slasher style film than Deep Red. It resonates with all the visual excesses and subliminal undercurrents that Argento would later explore to their maximum capacity. It is a tour de force of camera, composition, and film craft skills. It is such a benchmark of smart, passionate film construction that it surpasses expectations and thwarts potential imitations. In his rethinking of the psycho killer genre, he focuses less on the slayer and more on the climate of fear. He wants the threat to come from the unknown, not some clear-cut origin. Because Argento is one of only a handful of horror directors who appreciates and uses the apprehension of the unfamiliar to provide mood for his movies and motivation for audience dread, his films are viewed as disturbing and uncomfortable. But this does not mean they are unsuccessful. Indeed, Deep Red is a terrific thriller, and finally confirmed Argento’s genius to those outside the foreign film market.


Success drove the director to push even further. He had even greater ambitions. Since he first read about them in a collection of essays entitled Suspiria De Profundis, Dario Argento had been fascinated with the Three Mothers, the imaginary rulers over the dominion of pain and suffering. Conceived as a complement to the entire Graces/Furies/Muses notion of mystical, powerful women, their origins do not derive from some ancient teachings or cultural folklore, but from the hallucinatory mind of an opium addict. Seeking inspiration and a chance to move away from the genre that made him a superstar, Argento took the tale of the Maters Suspiriorum, Tenebrarum, and Lachrymarum as the logical components to a trilogy. Each film would deal with a different Sorrow. Each would focus on a different location. Inferno, Argento’s equally artistic and brilliantly confusing 1980 follow-up to Suspiria, focused on Death herself, the Mother of Darkness. But with the success and acceptance of his experimentation within the conventional mystery drama of Deep Red, Argento wanted to branch out and tackle true supernatural horror. Suspiria is that startling starting point.

Understand this is Dario Argento’s version of the supernatural we are discussing, one rooted deep in European manners and superstition. In Argento’s world, ghosts do not kill people, knives do. As he views the paranormal, it manifests itself in everyday, mundane brutality. Possession may lead to illness, or even death, but more times than not a victim will be cut, or hung, as a means of quenching paranormal bloodlust. Suspiria is a horror film unlike any other in that it ventures far away from the standard “old dark house” or “living creature” notions of terror to invent a world where setting, style, and sound are more frightening than the bloody victim on the floor. In Dario’s realm, death is a release, an explosion of bound tension and a surrender of will. His work is the natural link between classical, gothic horror and the existential terror of post-modern cinema. Argento is truly one of Italy’s best, most misunderstood, and underappreciated directors. His influence on American horror is evident. Just look at any film by John Carpenter, for example, and you will see the trademark frequencies found in Argento’s cinematic stockpile.


It’s more than his avant-garde style that confuses and angers people. He is not willing to play fair and is more interested in how a film makes you feel than how it resolves its plotline. Something can be beautiful, and confusing as hell, but as long as you see the grace in its presentation, the meaning is unimportant. Argento confounds the fan looking for cold-blooded killing (though he does provide many sequences of graphic mutilation) or expecting the conventions of a standard horror ideal. Suspiria is the best example of this conundrum. While it is a film about witches, we hardly see any of their activities or rituals until the end. While it is a film about the power of black magic, the death is all common and realistic (except for a demonically inspired animal attack). Indeed, Suspiria is its own self-contained universe, a place where palatial settings mask hordes of meat-rotting maggots, or beautiful stained glass becomes a deadly pointed weapon of destruction. Viewed as a trip in to Argento’s private realm, it is easy to see why many call it a masterpiece. Suspiria takes convention and tosses it into a room filled with barbed wire fencing, letting it struggle to survive the oncoming visual and aural onslaught.


With this one two punch, Argento cemented his moviemaking mythos, and forged the dueling avenues that his erratic career has had to maneuver. Every proceeding film now had a major tour de force benchmark to be held up against. Whenever he tried another crime thriller, Deep Red became the critical focus of the comments. If he branched back out again into pure horror, the hallucinatory genius of Suspiria cast a shadow over the entire enterprise. Interesting enough, said film would also follow any giallo effort, arguing that Argento should stop wasting his time with such procedural parlor tricks and get back to finalizing the Mothers Trilogy (fans will be happy to know that he has plans to make the third and final film, hopefully for a 2007 release). Like the burden that any artist carries when they are compared with their past, Italy’s premiere fright master has been both lauded and lamented for his choices, unable to escape the opinions of fans, and fellow filmmakers, when it comes to his often confusing career moves


So now that our corridors have names, now that Via Suspiria and Via Profundo Rosso are labeled and legitimized by the numerous viewers who’ve traveled down their complicated and occasionally confusing logistics, it is safe to say that Dario Argento remains a true motion picture enigma. He is one of the few remaining filmmakers from decades gone by that can still rely on their reputation to sell a story. He is one of the few directors who still gets fans in a frenzy when a new project is announced, providing them with instant recall of journeys both grand and grating on the twin roads of his aesthetic’s twofold directions. Though his track record has been anything but flawless, he does have more classic cobblestones and masterpiece mortar than many creators can claim in several lifetimes.


Perhaps this is why we are willing to accept his bifurcated approach to the art of cinema and leave it at that. Though he hasn’t always definitively delivered, he’s proof that the voyage is sometimes as important, and more interesting, than the final destination. It’s what makes Argento stand out in an arena filled with pure motion picture pretenders. It’s what keeps him vital, and viable, in the ever changing world of fear. And with two distinct ways in which to achieve his ends, it’s clear why he remains so important. While said dualism may be disturbing to those looking to easily classify their creative icons, it sets Argento apart from his Italian brethren. It’s what makes him the true maestro he has managed to become today.


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Sunday, Oct 22, 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, how Tobe Hooper, one of post-modern horror’s most promising filmmakers, became a monster movie pariah.


How did it happen? Where did he go wrong? In a perfect world, Tobe Hooper wouldn’t be a fright film pariah. He’d be considering his next creative decision, mulling over dozens of derivative Hollywood scripts in a coy cat and mouse game that he, naturally would end up winning. He would have taken the success of his amazing 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and parlayed it into a non-stop stream of genre defining and redefining efforts. There’d be no question about who directed Poltergeist (screw a certain Steven S.), and past films like The Funhouse and Eaten Alive would be seen as minor missteps instead of the last likeable efforts from one of the medium’s most misbegotten masters. Sadly, this is not a perfect world, and as anyone who’s tried to sit through many of Hooper’s more recent efforts, he is definitely not a perfect filmmaker.


So how did it happen, actually? Where indeed did Tobe Hooper go wrong? There are some rather ardent supporters who still believe in his ability to scare people, holding out hope that he’ll eventually right his derailed directorial canon. They will overlook outright junk like Spontaneous Combustion, Night Terrors, Crocodile, The Mangler, and his most recent reject, Mortuary and still claim that prior to becoming a Hollywood hack for hire, Hooper was still a vital filmmaker. They may have a point. Looking over the films he’s made in the 12 years between the two signature Saw films argues for an artist still trying to be viable in a filmic category that was slowly swallowing its own soul. As the Devil gave way to the slasher, Hooper helmed unique and uncompromising movies that said more about who he was as an idealistic individual than the current state of macabre.


No one could have predicted that a little slapdash exploitation film made to grind some bucks out of the still viable drive-in demographic, based loosely on the life of Wisconsin’s notorious Ed Gein mythos, would end up being one of terror’s tent pole experiences. Through a combination of inspiration, invention and outright karmic happenstance, what could have been a minor monster movie became an unsettling work of art. Take away all of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s violence and brutality – the final shot of Leatherface dancing in the rising sun of a new day is one of the most compelling images ever captured on celluloid. It made Hooper an instant icon, and secured his place as one of the pioneers of terror. It also opened doors for the former college professor and documentary cameraman that perhaps he shouldn’t have passed through.


There were also signs early on that all was not well in Hooperville. Right after his killer alligator epic Eaten Alive, the filmmaker was hired to helm The Dark, an oddball extraterrestrial invasion film that looked and felt like an attempt to jump on the about to be hot Alien bandwagon. At some point in the production, Hooper went head to head with the producers, and was fired. John Cardos was brought in to finish the project. It wouldn’t be the last time that Hooper was removed from a movie. Aside from the rumors surrounding Poltergeist, he quit the British snake thriller Venom, sighting “creative differences” with the main moneymen. Among the many reasons a filmmaker can fall in the tripwire town of Tinsel, failing at the box office is creative crime number one. But standing right besides said fiscal flopping is the “difficult reputation”. Whether or not his reasons for rejection were viable, Hooper had been labeled. And after his next three films, he’d more or less cemented his professional unacceptability.


After that notorious suburban spook show hit, Hooper was handed a number of possible projects. Unfortunately, he fell in with the infamous meddlers Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan of Canon Films. While they promised financial support, they delivered no guarantees when it came to final cut, or eventual distribution. Three years came and went before Hooper’s adaptation of Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires arrived in theaters, minus 15 of its original 116 minute running time, and with the lamentable title change to Lifeforce. More sci-fi than scary, and missing much of its internal logic thanks to the editing, the film was viewed as a failure by even the most ardent Chainsaw supporter. Even those who came to appreciate the movie in later years were mainly responding to the recovered “director’s cut”. It was a stunning blow for a man that, up until this UK jive, was considered a fabulous fright master.


His next step didn’t endear himself to anyone. Hooper had always loved 1953’s Invaders from Mars, and wanted to modernize the cheesy matinee classic. Unfortunately, while the situation looked new, the effects were as retro as a trip back to the Eisenhower era. The decision to maintain the look and limits of the old b-movie style of monster made this intended update more funny than fresh, and fans just didn’t get the rationale behind revisiting what appeared to be a standard shoddy creature feature from the past. Lost for a novel next step, Hooper appeared to become desperate. His next move would baffle even his heretofore strongest followers.


Depending on who you listen to, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 is either a wonderful cinematic satire, on par with the scathing social commentary found in George Romero’s work or the last bullet in the creative gun that helped Hooper commit career suicide. There’s no meaningful middle ground on the project – fright film mavens either love it or LOATHE it. Purposefully the polar opposite of everything he did in the 1974 original (tense atmosphere, documentary stylizing, maintenance of an air of authenticity) this full blown farce had our antihero Leatherface as a hyped up horndog. It presented the previous sinister Cook as a non-stop one liner dropping Bleak chorus. It even introduced a new clan member into the mix, the metal plate sporting Chop Top, whose sole purpose seemed to be egging on his power tool wielding brother while dropping deranged pop culture references.


Time has definitely treated this instantly dismissed title rather well. Even disparate elements like Dennis Hopper’s Method acting madness, or the entire Vietnam-based abandoned amusement park now seem like part of one artistic madman’s personal cinematic purgative. A great deal of the time, Chain Saw 2 plays like Hooper’s final statement on the entire Massacre phenomenon. He kids himself, and his fans, even adding a scene where Drive-In critic Joe Bob Briggs comments on the manner in which Leatherface slaughters some random babes. Golan and Globus had wanted another dark, disgusting exercise in dread. What they got was an aggressive, Airplane! like lampoon where the only thing taken seriously was Tom Savini’s autopsy-quality F/X.


It was apparently the straw that finally broke the fear fans’ benevolent back. The original movie is considered by most to be one of the best ever made. The revamp came and went without anyone much mentioning it afterward. Canon closed shop, leaving Hooper to wander through a few tame television efforts before trying his hand again at the big screen. Spontaneous Combustion was certifiable proof that his outright genre rejection shown in Chain Saw 2 was not just some one-time Hooper experiment. A stupid story involving nuclear weapons, genetic defects, and one man’s ability to immolate people made absolutely no sense when it finally found its direct to video home, and the disdain and contempt for the audience was obvious. Hooper no longer wanted to connect with viewers. He was merely going to give them what he saw fit. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take his fright.


It has been all downhill from there. When the best thing you can say about a recent Hooper effort is that it had some pretty good gore effects (the only interesting element in his otherwise pointless Toolbox Murders remake), you know you’re dredging the bottom of the boo barrel. Having long since given up on this journeyman turned joke, most fans find his current canon to be as laughable as it is lamentable. His production credit on the two new Chainsaw updates also causes the faithful to cringe, again considering the status the first film has in the annals of the genre. And yet, none of this really explains why he’s now such a non-entity. Scholars could compile as much research as possible and still not be able to figure out how or why Hooper finally fell.


It’s possible that, like Chain Saw 2, or Eaten Alive, the movies that many consider to be horrid examples of Hooper’s oeuvre will find solid support upon future reevaluation. After all, his masterpiece was considered quite the abomination at the time of its release. It is conceivable that something like Night Terrors will be hailed as a classic, or Invaders from Mars seen as something of a sci-fi highlight decades from now. His career could also be a clear case of the almost unavoidable horror one hit wonder paradigm. Maybe Hooper only had one good movie in him, and the original Black and Decker epic was it. It could also be that Hooper was stereotyped by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Perhaps he saw himself as a far more varied filmmaker, capable of dabbling in any and all cinematic categories. Unlike Sam Raimi who found a way out, Hooper got stuck being a terror titan – and it effected everything he did thereafter.


Of course, one can’t discount the Poltergeist factor. The 1982 film was such a huge hit that individuals on both sides of the situation obviously understood the power of being linked to such a box office behemoth. The power play against Hooper – the persistent if still unproven rumors that, once again, he had been replaced and that the end result was more a Spielberg style scare film – hounds him to this very day. It leaves people with questions, allowing them to think that there is more truth than professional sour grapes behind the undying creative control gossip. And maybe it became too much. Maybe playing the Hollywood game and getting your otherwise appreciated name dragged through the meaningless motion picture mud has scarred Hooper forever.


It sure does appear that, after the Poltergeist poisoning and his inability thereafter to reproduce it’s success, Hooper simply gave up. Nothing post-Chain Saw 2 has had the pure horror chutzpah of the movies he made in the ‘70s. Even his TV miniseries version of Salem’s Lot and the carnival as killing floor fiendishness of The Funhouse can’t find a comparative contemporary equivalent. It’s as if this director just stopped trying once 1986 ended, and the last 20 years have been an endless ramble toward complete cinematic insignificance. It’s already working. Many younger film fans think the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a meek, mild effort when compared to Marcus Nispel’s balls to the wall reimagining, That a true horror milestone can be made unimportant reflects very poorly on the man who made it. If he’s not careful, Tobe Hooper may discover that it’s too late to save his already addled legacy. And that’s more terrifying than anything he’s done in decades. 


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Wednesday, Oct 18, 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 biology-based terror of David Cronenberg, Canada’s premier horror maestro.


For many, sex and sexuality is an issue best left private. It involves so many idiosyncratic and deeply personal aspects that it can cause considerable individual angst. But in the mind of Canadian macabre maestro David Cronenberg, the physical act of intercourse, and the ancillary essentials that make up eros, can be more terrifying than any monster, more horrific than any visit from a violent slasher. It all has to do with the body – as a temple and temptation, a place easily violated and poisoned by facets from without and within. In a career that has spanned three decades, several sensational films, and a genre-defying approach to narrative, Cronenberg has managed to locate the fear inside the most fundamental aspect of existence – life itself – and as a result he created a canon where being human is the most potentially precarious thing a person can do.


For some, he is a difficult auteur. His work is overloaded with ideas, plagued by invention that both amplifies and occasionally addles, his efforts. Because of his background – Cronenberg studied both science and literature in college, taking a degree in the latter from the University of Toronto before dabbling in film – his themes usually clash, creating cinematic chaos before coming together at the end. After several strange and unique independent efforts (and more than a couple of TV films for Canadian broadcasting) in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Cronenberg was desperate to explore the unnatural ideas rolling around in his head. He finally got the chance in 1975 with Shivers (released in the US and better known as They Came From Within).


With a narrative that would come to exemplify much of the director’s works – a parasite overruns an apartment building, turning the residents into lust-crazed maniacs whose goal is to infect each other – Shivers started Cronenberg’s career long march toward discovering the mysteries of sex. Acknowledging that for many, the physical act of love (or without emotion, pure carnal copulation) can be a daunting, even devastating act, the director designed his cinema to symbolize such an internal struggle via brash external means. In the case of Shivers, it was the loss of intimacy as represented by a small, squishy slug that brings on uncontrolled desire. Seen by many today as an AIDS metaphor as well as a comment on the disease spreading revolution that marked most of the Me Decade, the movie was an auspicious start to a soon to be impressive career. 


Next up was Rabid, which took the whole pornography of fear (and visa versa) element one step further by featuring real life adult film star Marilyn Chambers in the lead role. She played a woman whose botched plastic surgery leads to an insatiable desire for blood, and a small penis-like appendage jutting from her armpit. Never one to shy away from the more graphic aspects of imagery, many fright fans were repulsed by the decidedly disturbing nature of Cronenberg’s visuals. Still, Rabid was well received and after the one-off car cult action pic Fast Company, Cronenberg was back in biological territory. Using children as the source of all evil, he fashioned The Brood. Noted for taking the concept of psychosomatic illnesses to an all new, literary level, the director dissected birth, and the legacy of procreation, and inserted them into the closest thing to a condemnation of offspring this side of David Lynch’s Eraserhead.


Though he was now a considered cult filmmaker, Cronenberg had yet to matter to the mainstream. All of that would change with his next effort, 1980’s Scanners. Completing a kind of queer quadrilogy that followed terror from creation, to birth, to a kind of mutated maturity, the filmmaker established the perfect way of meshing physicality with fear, while also tapping into areas revolving around power and purpose. In this popular hit (which used the explosion of a man’s head from the film’s first act as a decided gore selling point), two adult ‘scanners’ battle for a kind of metaphysical supremacy, one arguing that the telekinetic skills he was genetically engineered with are a curse. The other, of course, sees nothing but superiority. Thanks to the bloodletting and special effects which accented Cronenberg’s complex screenplay, what could have been a geek show turned into a brave, bravura statement.


But he wasn’t done manipulating both mind and body. In his minor masterpiece Videodrome, Cronenberg considered the meddlesome effects of the media on human nature, and personal physicality, all with devastating results. Predating many of the symptoms post-modern punditry would imply were destroying the human race (TV, violence, sex, cults, religion) the director melded technology, terror and temptation to produce a kind of arch acid flashback, compete with living televisions, torso vaginas, and guns that were an actual extension of one’s anatomy. Some consider the last act where star James Woods has become a bio-sexual assassin (all thanks to a brainwashing signal implanted in a pirate satellite transmission) to be a meandering mess that looses much of what Cronenberg was commenting on. While definitely gruesome, the finale is a flawless wrap up to a story that’s surrealism sets up all the symbolism to come.


At this point, Cronenberg had arrived and was presented with his choice of projects. Scanners was a hit, and Videodrome proved he could match wits with even the wildest industry innovators. His next step threw the fanbase a substantial cinematic curve when he agreed to film an adaptation of Stephen King’s paranormal political thriller The Dead Zone. Antithetical to his whole corporeal creep show concepts, he still delivered a searing socio-political drama that resonates as realistically today as it did three decades before. It so impressed the individuals holding the option for a remake of the ‘50s insect schlock The Fly that Cronenberg was given the job of bringing the troubled project to the screen. Perhaps the perfect match of material and maker, the resulting effort would become one of horror cinema’s greatest achievements.


The Fly functions on many magnificent levels – love story, splatterfest, acting tutorial, monster movie – that to try and narrow its success to one or the other is futile. With a remarkable Jeff Goldblum giving life to one of the most difficult roles in all of fright filmmaking (man turning into a creature) and effects that added emphasis to the horror this human was experiencing, the sci-fi aspects of the narrative function perfectly as an analogy to how love impacts and changes a person. Before his relationship with Veronica, Goldblum’s character Seth Brundle was an insular and introverted man. Passion, and physical love transform the sullen scientist into a man eager to explore the possibilities of the world. Sadly one said adventure involved his teleportation device, an errant insect, and a gradual transformation into something quite grotesque.


An unquestionable achievement, Cronenberg’s creation touched a substantial genre nerve. Fright fans found it almost impossible to ignore the depth of emotion that existed between the characters, and saw the ending, a Grand Guignol spectacle of violence and loss, as one of Cronenberg’s most powerful. Few thought he could do better, but again, he baffled his devotees by delivering another amazing movie, the dualistic thriller Dead Ringers. It was a narrative that brought all his obsessions full circle. More psychological than physiological and using the almost telepathic connection between twins to tell a tale of obsession and possession, the narrative seemed like a response to all the critics who commented on the director’s own fascination with the human body and all its amniotic aspects.


At this point, Cronenberg could have merely coasted. Numerous projects came his way, many of which were Hollywood’s way of “rewarding” him for years of outsider excellence. But instead of bowing to blockbuster pressures, the filmmaker followed his heart, and attempted the near impossible – an adaptation of William Burrough’s notorious novel Naked Lunch. Instead of coming to terms with the demented descriptions in the author’s stream of consciousness screed of drugs and their use/abuse, Cronenberg fused a fictional Burroughs’ biopic with an interpretation of how such haunting, harrowing passages were prepared, and created a kind of mental Molotov cocktail. Fans hoping for a quixotic slice of pure Burroughs felt betrayed. Others argued that there were vast, varied differences between Croneberg’s Lunch and the ersatz story on the page. While celebrated today, Naked Lunch was lamented at the time of its initial release, considered disappointing in both cinematic and literary camps. 


It didn’t stop the auteur from continuing to court controversy. He brought the Broadway hit M. Butterfly to the silver screen, amplifying the homosexual angle of an already scandalous story of a French diplomat who fell in love and lived with an Asian transvestite. Next, he pushed the acceptability envelope even further by retrofitting J. G. Ballard’s brave book, Crash to fit his filmmaking ideals. So scandalous that it barely got released, the story of sexual deviants who get physical thrills from accident scenes and injury, put a preemptive halt to the director’s ascent into universal adoration. Arguably one of his best films, Crash can also be seen as penance for all the peculiarity Cronenberg placed upon his audiences.


Instead of a retreat, however, the filmmaker merely pressed on. His next big screen effort, eXistenZ was a weird, wooly trip into virtual reality, and proved a professional disappointment. Viewers apparently weren’t ready to see a motion picture mindfuck that actually was mindfucking itself. Then came the criminally underrated Spider with Ralph Fiennes delivering a devastating turn as a mentally unhinged man whose past and present seem to coexist simultaneously. In 2005, Cronenberg stunned everyone, from film critic to fervent supporter, with his Oscar caliber comment on the brutal nature of the human race, A History of Violence.


For a filmmaker used to accolades, the love this masterpiece received was outrageous. Nominated for numerous awards, and high on almost all film critic’s year end ‘best of’ lists, the story of small town America shaken by murder, and mistrust violates almost every single aspect of the filmmaker’s venereal style. Gone are the multiple references to the human form – in there place are stellar statements about the nature of evil, and how a loved one can hide their true self from even those they profess to care about. In fact, many reviewers responded favorably to the film for the very reason that Cronenberg appeared to be giving up his biological fascinations once and for all.


In fact, when looking at his upcoming projects (including a comedy -??? – and another graphic novel adaptation ala Violence) it does indeed look like he has abandoned his genre roots for good. While it wouldn’t be surprising if he never made another horror movie, fans of the creature feature art form would have a real reason to be upset. When he was part of post-modern macabre’s making, there was no one better than this crafty Canadian. The cinematic category surely misses his cruel, considered tone as well as his outstanding ‘body’ of work. 


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Sunday, Oct 15, 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 Good vs. Evil aesthetic of Brazil’s Jose Mojica Marins.


There probably isn’t a more unique filmmaker in the genre of horror than Jose Mojica Marins. This Brazilian eccentric, a true multimedia giant in his homeland, crosses all boundaries with his films, his television work, his books, and his comics. Over the course of his nearly five decades in the limelight, he has directed dozens of movies, acting in several more, and has turned his unique approach to terror into a solid cottage industry. He’s even dabbled in art, costume and set design, special effects, and has composed the music for his films. Having created a national sensation with his first horror effort (the first true horror film in Brazil’s cinematic legacy) and its seminal character Zé Do Caixão (or as he is called in America, Coffin Joe), Marins has made Zé and his ideology into the closest thing to a god that South American cinema has ever seen.


He is either loved or hated in his mother country, viewed as a truly gifted artist or merely the man-incarnation of the onscreen demon he portrays. Theologians attack his anti-religion stance and the heretical simply don’t buy his pagan leanings. In retrospect, Marins has devised a kind of career self-fulfilling prophecy, a character so associated with him that, through osmosis or karma, he has literally become Coffin Joe. He even has taken to wearing the outrageously long and sharpened fingernails of the fictional entity and styling his beard, hair, and eyebrows after same.


True, living in a country divided by conservative censorship (the likes of which kept Awakening of the Beast from ever being shown in theaters) and intense sexuality (nude beaches, Carnivale, the obsession with plastic surgery and beauty) makes for a truly schizophrenic sensibility. And Coffin Joe is so successful because he rides the balance between both brilliantly. This is especially true in the few films we in the West have been able to view. All throughout At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964), This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (1967) The Strange World of Coffin Joe (1968) Awakening of the Beast (1970) The Black Exorcism of Coffin Joe (1974) and Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind (1978), Marins weaves his distinct ideas about dread into a magnificent phantasm of fear and faith. 


While he may be many things—philosopher, writer, scholar—Marins is first and foremost a filmmaker, one who draws inspiration directly from the history of the macabre. Marins does not work in the usual terror trademarks of monsters and the supernatural, nor is he only interested in death and dismemberment. His thematic palette revolves around ethical and religious principles, in the universal rhetoric of absolute good versus true evil. In the world of Marin’s Coffin Joe, there is only God and Satan. Ghosts and demons are a manifestation of the will of either or both. Man is the only corruptible being; there are no zombie blood drinkers or human wolves, and all slaughter is based in the sacred or the sacrilegious.


Taken at its fundamentalist foundation, Marins then develops an entire element, in this case the alter ego of Coffin Joe, who flaunts wickedness in the name of good and the desire to perfect man’s place in the hierarchy between heaven and hell. Coffin Joe terrorizes people because he confronts their belief system, challenges the powerful entity of the church, and dares to undermine conformity with his self-absorbed, autonomous mindset. Yes, he does relish the devil and his works of earthly pleasure, but the ultimate goal for Joe is man’s superiority over both God and Satan: the creation of a superbeing whose immortality will challenge the authority of the spirits. We don’t just get blood and guts, killings, or deformed beasts. We get theological discussion and battles between the primal forces of morality and sin. In fact, this is the main narrative theme that connects almost every movie this maverick has ever made. It is a testament to Marins’ ability behind the camera, as well as the bravura performance he gives before it, that these treatises somehow turn into terrifying works of horror.


Marins is also a maverick cinematic visionary, one of the few pure film artists working in the realm of the supernatural. Unencumbered by the world of films in Brazil and admittedly a complete student of the Hollywood/American motion picture ideal, Marins implicitly understands the camera’s ability to tell a story. He is obsessed with the visuals’ important place in the creation of dread and suspense. From the handwritten animated credit sequences that seem to suggest the calligraphy of a long banned book of evil, to the old-fashioned gothic garb Coffin Joe wears as an undertaker, we have striking images that immediately suggest the sinister and unnatural. Then include the fever dream depictions of hell and hallucinations (brought to broad life in vivid, virulent color), the sinister set pieces, the wild juxtaposition of metaphors, and you have a singular, specific voice - an over-the-top talent that rivals Fellini or Joderowsky.


Marins’ visual surrealism also creates breathtaking images, powerful pictures that his camera holds on until they resonate fully with the audience. Sound too is important. His movies usually contain a cacophonous chorus of music, voices, effects, screams, and dialogue to recreate the chaos when one confronts the very forces of nature and the underworld firsthand. Marins isn’t afraid to experiment, to glue glitter around ghostly images to give them an otherworldly effect, or treat his negative chemically to affect its appearance. While monochrome and color switch off within the vast majority of the visual palette offered in his films, there is also plenty of eye candy craziness. Marins knows it’s all well and good to discuss the terrors of the human heart. It is much better to see them directly, however, to understand their visceral power.


Marins also creates a truly lasting horror icon with Joe. Like Freddy Krueger, he is a three-dimensional character with a detailed backstory and plenty of individualized distinctions to make him work even outside the realm of a motion picture. Coffin Joe, Zé Do Caixão, is a complete package, a man who wears his beliefs firmly on his vest and lives them in every action/reaction to things around him. Unlike Wes Craven’s creation of the dream world boogeyman, Joe has never degenerated into a slapstick spoof spook, a stand-up comedian of cruelty. Joe is deadly serious in his beliefs and in his ways, and his abuses are all the more startling because of it. As Freddy’s deaths became more and more based around the one-liner, Zé is merely ruthless and heartless, killing for the great cause of his intellectual and moral superiority. Murder is all in the advancement of his humanistic theories. Torture is a test, not only of physical stamina, but also of character and emotional/spiritual strength.


There is also no trepidation in Coffin Joe’s actions. He is the one who inspires menace. However, deep within his mind is a subconscious cowardice, a fear of being undone by forces beyond his control. And while the movies that surround his persona can either be straightforward narratives about procreation or psychedelic dissertations on the status of society in a more permissive time, Jose Mojica Marins and his grave digging demon stand at the center, cursing God and spitting at the Devil. For Coffin Joe there is only one true ruler of the world: man. In his mind, there is only one truly superior man: himself, Zé Do Caixão.


This is why Zé is such a superior image of dread. The great theological battles are all built on the philosophical foundations of ethics. Wars between man, nature, God, and Satan make up the system under which so much of our religious morality is defined. For eons, those who challenged these belief codas were considered criminal, profane beings that didn’t understand the need for an afterlife-based dogma. After all, to admit that this world is all there is would doom everyone to a finalized death that’s really worth fearing. But if there was a greater reward on the other side, some manner of continued creation where we all go to spend our infinite soul days, then let’s protect that notion at all costs and condemn those who dare challenge it.


Jose Mojica Marins is one such deviant. He dares to look death in the face and spit on its limits. Through his character of Zé Do Caixão, or Coffin Joe, he has taken on the old-fashioned pious value ideals and argued around and against them. In man, Zé argues, is the ultimate power over nature. There is no God. Satan is a buffoon. The only true force of will in the world is the individual. Neatly wrapped up in outstanding fright films of visual magnificence and intellectual stimulation, the work of Marins proves that one of the best ways to defeat the fear of death is to challenge it head on, to tackle its twisted mysticism and to try and determine one’s own spiritual fate. The truth is, in the end, we all will pass from this realm and into something else, be it emptiness or the glowing love/hate of God’s/Satan’s grace/damnation. While his films may not save your mortal soul, they will heal and lighten your entertainment essence. That is why Jose Mojica Marins is an unheralded genius.


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