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Sunday, Oct 8, 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, George A. Romero’s redefinition of the zombie movie.


He didn’t invent the zombie movie, but his entries in the genre have clearly defined and mythologized it. Some would even say that he is the only undead auteur that understands the cinematic category. As important to horror as any filmmaker before or since, advertising executive turned director George Romero single-handled lifted the living dead film from its voodoo roots and reconfigured it as a stunning social comment on the shifting state of America. From 1968 until now, the Pittsburgh icon has forged a unique career, mixing styles and subject matter to touch on almost every aspect of the macabre. He’s taken on vampirism (Martin), madness (The Crazies)  - even a tribute to one of the founding facets of post-modern horror, EC Comics (Creepshow).


Yet it’s his regular return to the flesh eater film that remains a constant in the mind of his followers. Such substantive acclaim – all four Dead films have met with varying degrees of adoration – makes Romero that rarity in the realm of the reanimated human. Naturally, this begs the question, what is it about his approach to the cannibal corpse that makes it so powerful, and why can’t others match his legitimate legacy as a formidable fright filmmaker? It’s a quandary that has sparked hundreds of overheated debates.


It was clear from his first installment of what is now a quartet of quintessential efforts that Romero wasn’t using the classic concept of horror to formulate the fear in Night of the Living Dead. Classic terror, usually defined around the Universal ideal of Gothic monster movies made during the ‘30s and ‘40s, argued against a clear reality as the backdrop to fear. Instead, everything was hyperstylized, from the setting and situations to the players taking part in the terror. From Romero’s point of view, the growing aesthetic advances made during the ‘50s and ‘60s, from the medium mutating French New Wave to the cinema vérité documentaries sweeping the circuit, allowed the introduction of truth and authenticity into motion picture macabre.


Night‘s story was deceptively simple. A brother and sister, visiting a relatives grave, are attacked by what appears to be a madman. It soon turns out that the dead have come back to life, and are killing and consuming the living. Finding a seemingly abandoned farmhouse to hide in, Barbara soon meets up with Ben, a fellow refugee that just so happens to be black. As they try to secure their position, they discover a family in the basement, along with a teenage couple. All are hiding and less than excited about helping. Soon, everyone is working together to battle the growing menace outside. News reports witnessed over the television indicate a situation slowly winding out of control. Even though the reports seem positive, there’s a growing sense that all is lost. All these people can do is hope for the best, and fight to survive.


With this one monochrome masterwork, Romero reconfigured the elements of fright, using recognizable individual types and understandable circumstances to elevate his shocking supernatural splatter. Night invested the scary movie with a new sense of immediacy, its narrative almost unrelenting in the way it paces its zombie attacks. Just enough time passes for the television to deliver another set of sinister warnings before the next deluge of the dead occurs. This then gave the terror that much more relevancy to an audience used to the hustle and bustle of life. The situation therefore didn’t require such a massive suspension of disbelief.


All pointed political grousing aside (each one of his films have a sound social stance at their center), the real advance Romero championed was indeed to connect horror to the everyday life of the audience. Few were familiar with haunted castles, grave robbing, and blood drinking Counts. But show them a mob of viscous, mindless killers pounding at the door, looking for flesh to consume, and suddenly the security of existence seems a little shaky. Toss in a touch of racism, matricide, and a lot of unanswered questions about human foibles and frailties, and you have a major shift in the fright film language.


It continued on a decade later with Romero’s return to the series, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. Now capable of tapping into elements unavailable to him at the time of Night‘s creation (color film, advanced F/X and make-up work) and using a far more recognizable space as his frame of everyday reference – the shopping mall – this filmmaker fashioned his new slaughter spectacle as an apocalyptic look at the disintegration of infrastructure and the completely plausible ‘us vs. them’ mentality that arrives whenever an unfathomable act of evil confronts our sensibilities. In this case, a group of professionals (two TV reporters, two government soldiers) hole up in a local shopping center, clearing out the zombies and protecting themselves from the monstrous mob outside to try and recreate their once semi-privileged lives.


All throughout the course of the film’s opening act, we see the foursome battle to reach their consumer sanctuary, fending off all manner of undead obstacles. Once safely inside, they begin to plot. Zombies are destroyed, doors blocked off. A perfect asylum from the atrocities around them allows the group to gorge on the many materialistic pleasures available. We see our heroes hording food, glutting themselves on fancy meals and overindulging in items of extravagance. By the time some like-minded outsiders arrive – in the guise of marauding bikers – our clique has become covetous of their self-made retreat. By contrasting the death of one social structure with the attempted birth of another, Romero made all his points about class and equality. But buried in the heart of the political science was really just an examination of the human desire for comfort and security.


In many ways, Dawn represented the end of the reality-based Romero horror film. His next two efforts in the Dead series would remove most of the recognizable pragmatic aspects of the situation (real world places, interpersonal human interaction) with outrageous scenarios and even odder zombie circumstances. As a result, the director continued to polish his approach, picking and choosing the aspects he really wanted to explore. His follow up, 1986’s Day of the Dead - considered by many to be the lesser of all four films (it’s a highly debatable delineation) - argues from the beginning that the real world is long dead. In a stellar opening setpiece, a lone band of governmental scientists and soldiers try to drum up anything “living” in what appears to be an abandoned town. The minute their presence is known, however, hordes of ravenous zombies begin literally crawling out of the woodwork. As the streets fill with thousands of flesh craving fiends, we see the end of human civilization, reconfigured in the stammering, shuffling walk of a reanimated corpse.


This doesn’t mean that Romero totally avoids reality in this glorious cinematic gross out. Instead of focusing on the social, or the political, the director focuses his attention on personality. We see the simmering divides between people, the hatred the military has for the scientists and visa versa. Both are forced to live and interact with each other, but with their individual purposes being crossed and contradictory, they can literally never see eye to eye on anything. This means the real horror is personal, not apocalyptic. As the world decays outside, humanity’s lost hope are arguing in a bunker over sexual favors, the rounding up of additional zombies for experimentation, and what they will do should the need arise to escape from their underground bunker.


This makes Day a very dark film indeed, the kind of exploration of the fragile human soul that many don’t imagine they’ll ever want to witness. Unrelenting in its horror, featuring the perfect contextual juxtaposition of Tom Savini’s ultra realistic autopsy like effects, it remains a movie arguing that the only way to recapture the purity of existence is a kind of total rejection of the past. Toward the end, when things are going decidedly deranged, the Jamaican helicopter pilot argues for everyone to simply drop their duty and fly off to a deserted island somewhere. There, some manner of life can be restarted, one without the constant threat of the living dead causing chaos and the amplification of human faults. The idea is not so much rejected as reconfigured by many of the things we see later. When a “trained” zombie named Bub proves that he can respond with thought, no matter how simplistic, ‘it’ dooms everything around it. The notion that these “things” can actually reason refutes the feeling that they’re just obstacles to overcome. Instead, they become opponents in a battle for the rest of the planet. 


With such a solid third installment, it’s odd then that it took 20 years for Romero to revisit his zombie mythos. He has been quoted as saying that the failure to fully realize his ideas for Day of the Dead (his original script featured zombie armies, trained by the government, waging all out war against their fellow flesheaters in massive battle scenes) plus the rather uninteresting political landscape left him lost for a way back into his series. Oddly enough, when Land of the Dead finally arrived, it was amazingly well received. Considered a return to form and a furthering of his agenda-based fright facets, the truth is far more complex. In essence, Land is a distillation of all three previous Dead films. It offers Night‘s home as hospice, Dawn‘s man-made oasis, and Day‘s military inspired sense of security. It also illustrates the corruptibility of all three, how each one is a fool’s paradise built on bricks and the backs of those dumb enough to try and fend for themselves.


In Land, years have passed, and zombies now live in quasi-communal packs, easily preyed upon by scavengers looking for goods to barter with in the new quarantined city of Fiddler’s Green. This sectioned off society has a typical structure – fat cats at the top, middle class barely making ends meet, underclass doing all the grunt work – and it reflects the way in which the living dead also organize themselves. When they finally decide to attack the humans, they place the lesser corpses up front, fodder for protecting the so-called “smarter” ones following up behind. The purpose is simple – confront the living on their own terms. The concept is clear – as a repressed majority, they will no longer sit by and let the Establishment minority ignore their existence.


Again, the political ramifications are intense. The zombie leader is a big, beefy black man who was obviously once a gas station attendant. Similarly, the humans capable of defending the Green are all members of the mitigated lower class. Together, they form a conspiratorial element that is destined to topple any arrogant hierarchy. But the main theme of Land of the Dead is the shredding and selling of hope. In a world which seems sorely lacking in any kind of recognizable trust, Romero reiterates that belief in something beyond oneself is only fated to fail. By using the individual instinct to survive, and marrying that with the intelligence to find an escape, the results are either prophetic or predetermined. Land ends on a note of vigilante vindication as well as a possibility of survival. It has de-evolved the genre into a simple screed on Darwin’s ‘only the completely capable endure’ ideal.


Romero will always be remembered for reinstating terror back into the horror movie mix. Where once outrageousness and the fear of the unknown seemed like reason enough to keep the macabre minions at bay, he amplified the angst by directly linking his dread to the things in life that people can instantly identify with. They say that the number one and two fears that most individuals have are their own death, and the death of a loved one. Romero rewired this trepidation into a meditation on mortality, an argument against an afterlife and an easily recognizable relationship between living humans and undead corpses. Keeping the connection physical – via eating – was the final major masterstroke. It gave his Dead films a visceral edge that most fright films just couldn’t compete with. It’s why these four films remain classics of the creature feature genre. It’s why George Romero’s legacy as a fright icon is already secured.


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Wednesday, Oct 4, 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 genre-saving stylizing of Sam Raimi


Though he’s mostly known as a genre icon, his creative canon is limited to only four true examples of motion picture macabre. As a matter of fact, many may now consider him the founding father of the truly great comic book hero adaptation rather than the man who first introduced pizzazz to the previously static scary movie. But from the very first frames of his very first film, Sam Raimi brought horror up to date, signaling a stylistic renaissance that continues today. His impact was so immediate, and his influence so important that it’s no wonder he’s become the benchmark for postmodern horror.


Like Quentin Tarantino in the ‘90s, Raimi reinvented the fright film in the ‘80s, adding elements both esoteric and experimental to the tried and true facets of fear. Without his Evil Dead trilogy, or his first attempted epic Darkman, we wouldn’t have the current creative concept of mixing genres and substance shuffling that helped make dread a full fledged fan obsession. By utilizing approaches both serious and slapstick, satiric and spectacular, Raimi proved that a fright flick could be anything it wanted to be, as long as the director stayed true to his vision, and understood the ramifications of messing with the genre.


Like most influential filmmakers, Raimi was practically born making movies. Along with friend Bruce Campbell (who would later star as Ash in the Dead trilogy), he would create Super-8 ‘experiments’, usually centering around his two favorite cinematic categories – horror and slapstick comedy. Raimi and his friends were particularly taken with The Three Stooges, and modeled a great deal of their amateur actions on the trio’s well choreographed and over the top physical humor. Once bitten by the celluloid bug, Raimi was determined to have a career as a filmmaker. By 1978 he cobbled together a 32 minute short/resume reel entitled Within the Woods and shopped it around to various businesses and merchants. Raimi was hoping to finance a full blown version of this seemingly straightforward story. Sure enough, he and his partners raised just enough cash to start his first feature film - the soon to be classic The Evil Dead.


For many, this single setting exploration of demonic possession and human bloodletting was the most vicious, violent and unrelenting work of shock cinema created to date. Raimi, realizing that he probably only had one shot at sustaining a career from this initial foray into film, pulled out all the stops to deliver what is still considered to be the first really great post-modern macabre classic. The narrative is deceptively simple – a group of friends venture to a cabin in the woods. There, they unwittingly unleash some dark demonic forces, determined to possess their bodies and swallow their souls. As a premise, there was nothing really new or novel. But once Raimi got beyond the basics of his platform plot, his visual acumen argued for a new, novel sense of filmic style.


The key to any Raimi film is the view from the lens. As a filmmaker, he is very aware, almost compulsively focused on what the camera ‘sees’. Unlike other directors who determine the action, and then place their frame in the best position to capture it, Raimi makes the compositions a part of the process. Take the opening shot of Evil Dead. As the friends drive up to the cabin, something slowly moves across the forest floor. As we cut between the car and the “creature”, Raimi keeps the movement fluid (or as fluid as possible with his camera rigged to a 2x4) and hints at some eventual collision between the two. As the discussion in the car heats up, the movements in the woods become more swift and definitive. We just know something bad is about to happen. As the images hurtle forward, preparing us for something shocking, we are totally locked into Raimi’s reality. Thanks to how he uses his lens, we are lost within his own personal paradigm of horror.


But there was more to his genre-shattering style than just a collection of camera angles. Raimi realized that, like an artist, all artforms are made up of potential possibilities as well as tried and true technical procedures. By embracing them all, and juxtaposing or jerryrigging as many as he would or could, he’d create something unusual and unique. When the demons first possess Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), her eerie overdubbed dialogue and strange body movements are the result of age old optical and aural tricks. To achieve the jagged motion, footage of Sandweiss’ “backwards acting” was shot, then reversed. Similarly, vocal effects were used to tweak her voice into something truly terrifying.


This kitchen sink approach would become his trademark – and the initial criticism of Raimi’s cinematic style. Many wondered why he would employ so many visual cues (animation, rear projection, homemade steadicam) when most horror hacks could barely settle on one. The answer of course lies in what exactly a movie macabre is supposed to be. Fear is an emotion, just like happiness or sadness. It is easy for ‘straight’ films to achieve those said sentiments since words can be just as powerful as images, perhaps even more so. Unfortunately, unless you’re filming a series of campfire tales with expert spinners of ghost stories in the bunch, you can’t really achieve terror with talking. No, true fright is an involuntary response, a real time reaction to what you perceive as a threat, or can’t quite understand. Yes, the unknown is probably the biggest fright factor in the whole horror catalog. To achieve that on film requires skill, and more importantly, style.


Raimi proved this when he went back and revisited The Evil Dead for its sequel – Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. In truth, it was more of a remake than an actual follow-up, with the events of the first film playing out in a prologue before the new material kicked in. In addition, Raimi was also ready to include more of his own idiosyncratic ideas into the story this time around. After all, he had already established his creepy credentials. With Evil Dead 2, he was prepared to push the limits of the genre as far as they would go. For many, this distinction between pure terror and the kind of monster mash-up that he was after was not unlike the difference between original Hitchcock and John Carpenter’s Halloween. Many people couldn’t fathom the use of humor or homage in horror. Both concepts seem antithetical to the concept of “the unknown”.


The proof was in the popularity, however. Even critics who typically dismissed Raimi came out to praise Evil Dead 2. Some cited the obvious references to those beloved Stooges, the Grand Guignol level of gore, and the terrifically trippy camerawork. But what Evil Dead 2 was most responsible for was barely even mentioned. Like the fright films of the ‘50s that relied on tacky monsters and bad filmmaking as a means to achieve their drive-in movie end, Raimi reintroduced pure fun back into the genre. Instead of the super serious efforts of the ‘70s, or the toneless slasher films that started the decade, this director determined that anything could be clever. A detached hand would become a brilliant comic foil, a room full of furnishing could magically come to life. Heck, even an eyeball got its own action sequence. Between the slicing and dicing, demonic dancing, chainsaw fu and rampant visual invention, Evil Dead 2 became a total tour de force. Had he done nothing else ever in his entire creative career, this sensational sequel would stand as one of horror’s shiniest, silliest moments.


Unfortunately, such a standard would be hard to beat, and try as he might, Raimi just couldn’t recapture the freaked-out fun of Evil Dead 2 in its inevitable follow-up, Army of Darkness. Financed by the notoriously intrusive Dino De Laurentis, and formulated around another favored film type – the stop motion animation adventures of Ray Harryhausen – Army added its own special spice to the series, but by the time of its release (1992) funny and frightening had been long established motion picture playmates. What once seemed cutting edge was now commonplace, and many of the movie’s more amazing sequences (the windmill attack, the final battle) drew more heavily on other genres – sword and sorcery, full blown fantasy – than actual horror. Still, the industry praised Raimi for consistently elevating his level of originality and daring. Along with the underrated comic creation Darkman, Raimi was ready for the non-genre big time.


And he’s been there ever since. From smart, solid thrillers (The Gift, A Simple Plan) to a hyperstylized Western (The Quick and the Dead) and a straightforward sports drama (For the Love of the Game) Raimi wandered the filmic landscape, looking for a place to reestablish his personal creative acumen. While he continued to influence horror through his numerous production credits (including adapting the J-Horror classic Ju-On for the big screen), what Raimi really wanted was a broad creative canvas upon which to unleash his own insane cinematic Id. The opportunity came when he was handed Spider-Man. A longtime dream for this funny book fan, Raimi realized that, finally, here was a chance to truly reinvent the genre. With all the money he needed to back up his aesthetically overreaching ideas, there was no way he could fail.


He was right. Spider-Man and its even better sequel, Spider-Man 2 totally changed the look and feel of the barely breathing comic book movie. Everything he did three decades before, all the invention and innovation he brought to horror easily transferred over to the big budget action blockbuster. Suddenly, what once seemed like a last ditch effort by studios to shore up some easily available material became one of the most successful motion pictures of all time. Raimi’s talented twist was all about style with substance, the mixing and matching of cinematic categories to achieve the perfect combination of craftsmanship and chutzpah. Without his efforts, terror would still be a great big Gothic goof. Raimi realized its potential, and with it came the true birth of postmodern dread.


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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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Wednesday, Sep 27, 2006


Vision is hard to come by in films. It takes more than a keen eye for imagery or an imagination doped up on daydreams to fulfill the peculiar promise of cinema. People go to the movies to be transported to places they’ve never been before, to see and experience things that only exist in the most magical regions of the mind’s eye. What they don’t want to see is the same old slop, reprocessed and repackaged to resemble what came down the pipe just a few months ago. Yet over and over again, those talentless titans of Tinsel Town deliver derivative goods, groan inducing retreads of ideas and images that didn’t really work the first time through the viewfinder. Sure, banking on originality is a gamble. But the payoff can be sweeter than sweating out the criticism.


The classic examples all prove the point. Hitchcock may have been the Master of Suspense, but audiences flocked to his films because of their iconic style, not their clockwork plotting. David Lunch sets his world in the unpredictable plain of dreams, and then slowly lets the nightmare limits of the locale seep into the slumber. Quentin Tarantino takes every trick he’s learned from three decades in front of the screen – big or small – and amplifies it through his own engorged ego into something sublime and special. In the Hollywood hierarchy, it would be nice to see a Burton for every Bay, a Gilliam for every glorified video director. But the commonplace commands commerce, and as long as the derivative is driving dollars into the BO coffers, no one is going to be calling for creativity.


It’s the same even in exploitation. The outsider arena of moviemaking did have its prophets, those inspired thinkers who moved beyond the T&A tendencies of the medium to expose the raincoat crowd to something freaky – and not necessarily deaky. But they were the rarity in a business more concerned with the bodkin than the beatific. Though true geniuses like Doris Wishman reinvented the filmic language while staying set inside a certain type of tale (in her case, the nudist and/or roughie realm) others had to seek solace in less trodden paths. Whether it was the gore film, the drug scene, the dippy hippy power of flower or the sexual revolution, these visionaries tried to find a way to get their thoughts and metaphors on screen. Many failed. But those who succeeded have a tasty Technicolor testament to be remembered by.


Fredric Hobbs was such a motion picture maverick. After helming the musical mindfuck called Roseland (about a mystical place where lust and dreams run wild…or maybe it was really a psychiatric institute sex farce) Hobbs wanted to champion environmentalism and government corruption in a showcase that would send a strong message to the Establishment. What he decided to use as his messenger however can only be called “different”. Taking a leaflet out of the “nature run amok” school of schlock and plopping it directly into one of the most offbeat settings ever conceived for a monster mash, (one of those recreationist societies that preserve everything the way it was 100/200 years ago) Godmonster of Indian Flats was born.


The film’s plot is loaded with symbolism, counterculture ideology and some of the oddest ducks this side of an irradiated game preserve. A local mine, once the home of a “legendary” creature, starts leaking a foul smelling gas. Naturally, a pregnant sheep gets a whiff, and before you can say “genetic mutation”, a bloody bulbous fetus makes a fantasy sequence appearance. That’s right, a drunken shepherd, rolled for his money by the denizens of the local dive bar, has a vision with bones and a golden light. One case of the DTs later, and our mangled mutton is born. The resident scientist, who works at the local college cum powerplant ruins, takes the sickly sweater makings back to his lab, where he nurses it back to health with a combination of chemicals and over the top tirades.


Oh course, the local big wig Mayor Silverdale (played by Russ Meyer stalwart Stuart Lancaster in a mannerism so clipped you’re liable to cut yourself on his dialogue) wants to know what’s going on in the rundown wreck of a university. He soon has his own problems to contend with, however. A high-minded businessman from “back East” is in town trying to buy up all the indigenous mining rights. Seems Silverdale wants those little leases for himself. As the two industrialists battle it out for smelting supremacy, the baby beastie grows and gets angry. He breaks out of his flimsy cage and starts stalking the landscape. When Silverdale and his gang can’t kill the creature, they decide to capture it. How else do you expect to charge the public two bits a gander to see this notorious nuclear ewe?


There is absolutely nothing normal about this movie…NOTHING! Don’t let the corporate dealings and entrepreneurial underpinnings fool you – Godmonster of Indian Flats is the strangest, most surreal exploitation movie ever made. It offers up a Six Gun Territory theme park as a township without batting an eye, has its characters dressed like rejects from Disney World’s Diamond Horseshoe Review and infiltrates the insanity with an eight foot, carpet covered sinister sheep that enjoys moonlit dances with the neighborhood Earth mother. Honestly, Hobbs has crafted a certified jaw-dropper here, a film that fails to make a lick of narrative sense but keeps us spellbound in other, less plot-oriented ways. Lancaster is in classic form, playing Silverdale as a laidback loon, a madman too lethargic to go yokel on the locals. And he is surrounded by actors who all believe that this is their Method moment. There is lots of hammy thespianism here, and as the old saying goes; it’s never good to mix your meats.


Indeed, the Godmonster itself is what really sells this silliness. In one classic scene, it slowly ambles up to a group of children playing. As it takes its time attacking, the kids keep looking directly at the camera, waiting for their cue to react. A few screams, a couple of close-ups, a scattering of bratlings and a classic work of crackpot cinema is born. Godmonster of Indian Flats is one of those clichés in the pantheon of pathetic films – it really does need to be seen to be believed. From Silverdale’s elite squad of enforcers that appear like black dressed dandies from a gay rodeo, to the mindbending finale which resolves nothing and seems to infer victory for the villains, Hobbs’ hobbled hoot is hilarious. Disturbing and demented, but uproarious and original nonetheless. Besides, its films like this that prove once and for all that, when you’ve got your own style, substance will only hold you back.



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Wednesday, Sep 20, 2006


More than ten years after a civil war that ravaged its country, Bosnia finds itself in a delicate condition. Like much of the Balkans, recovering from the wrath of Slobodan Milosevic’s reign of ethnic cleansing, Bosnia is hedged between strict cultural and economic limitations that particularly impair the prospects and desires for self-actualization of the nation’s women. Emerging Bosnian filmmaker Danijela Majstorovic addresses this crisis of women’s lives—and the troubling lack of choices—in two films which premiered at the Bosnia and Herzegovina Film Festival in New York City.


Counterpoint for Her (2004) is a short documentary that powerfully acknowledges the tragedy of sex slavery in Bosnia.  In 2003, a US House committee discovered Bosnia to be the first depot for trafficked women across Southeastern Europe, and a highly publicized investigation proved UN Peacekeepers were regular clients, committing torture and rape on girls below the age of fifteen, even purchasing women and selling them outright. The film follows the story a woman who was tricked into slavery after pursuing a job offer from a duplicitous family friend, and emphasizes how trafficking women is a seven billion dollar industry in Europe alone.  Counterpoint for Her explains the difference between prostitution and sex slavery, in which the women have no rights and make absolutely no money while being repeatedly sold to new owners at bars and brothels across Eastern and Western Europe.


In the priceless feature-length documentary A Dream Job (2005), Majstorovic approaches the world of Balkan pop-stardom with a raised eye and a tongue-in-cheek. The film pays particular attention to turbofolk music, the wildly popular musical revolution that emerged during the Milosevic ‘90s, which relies upon using women as objects, but presents a vague economic opportunity in its search for starlets.  Turbofolk, as opposed to novocomp or sevdah (also explored), revels in hypersexual aesthetics and elevates “the fast life” of wealth and conspicuous consumption. The film follows a rather un-fazed young woman from Republika Srpska as she becomes a scantily clad, lip-synching background musician in order to achieve financial freedom from her impoverished family.  A Dream Job features honest testimony from superstars Lepa Brena and Hanka Paldum, plus other luminaries and unknowns of the Balkan entertainment industry.


Bosnian documentary film has emerged as a tool to challenge and deconstruct the recent past––as well as the present and future.  At this year’s third annual Bosnia and Herzegovina Film Festival, documentaries are in no shortage, ranging from sad to sadder, and sometimes funny, such as Majstrorovic’s A Dream Job. I am thankful for the opportunity to speak with the tenacious director, whose influences include Fred Wiseman, Dusan Makavejev, Trin T. Minha-ha, about Bosnian filmmaking, her passion, and her work.


Where were you trained, or, where did you learn filmmaking?
A former English major, I got an MA in telecommunications (2001/2003) and took film classes at Ohio University. I also worked for Channel 13 PBS WNET in New York and MTV, I audited some directing classes with Milcho Manchevski, a well-known Macedonian film director, in 2002.  I also did some smaller stuff like Spinners: A San Francisco Drum ‘n’ Bass Story and some commercial video.


In your opinion, has Bosnian film developed its own aesthetic? Where is it going?
I think Bosnian filmmaking was really progressive during the early Kusturica period. [Emir Kusturica is a celebrated director of Bosnian independent cinema, b. 1954. –ed.] Now after the war, you can help it but having it all postwar-esque. Meaning, there are many stereotypes concerning the way stories are told and marketed abroad. I think it’s because foreign audience digests such stories more easily.


I am more into the society and culture, power relations that are not so visible at first, and not about finger-pointing and saying “oh my tragedy was bigger than yours.”  What I try to make is a socio-cultural critical documentary that talks about subtleties, small stories, because you can’t do grand narratives at this day and age. So, the stuff that I make is not very polished, maybe it is even more TV-like than I would want. As for now, there are many good stories that deserve to be told and that’s enough, well that’s been enough for me at the beginning.

If you want your stuff to look real good that’s going to cost you a little bit more than you can normally hope for in Bosnia, unless you are established and mainstream. Talking about a developed aesthetic would be far-fetched. I don’t really like most new Bosnian blockbusters that are now trendy. There are a lot of stereotypes in these new films and a lot of politics. Deliberate politics, and not politics in the sense that “personal is political” as I’d prefer.  But it is good that filmmaking is developing in Bosnia, and Sarajevo Film Festival is a great thing. A lot of it is in Sarajevo, and not in Mostar or Banja Luka, so the voices coming from Sarajevo are ideologically very similar because of the great tragedy that happened there. Other voices, more minor voices are not given a chance and there are many tragedies that deserve to be made into films, and you can find them on all sides. It’s a bit complicated here in the Balkans. I don’t think you can go on exploiting tragedy forever, but it seems to be working in the West.


Did you meet resistance making (or financing) Counterpoint for Her?
Financing came through a State department grant as I am a Ron Brown alumnus, a fellowship given to scholars and professionals from Central and Eastern Europe, but this ended this year.  I applied for it together with 3 other people.  We started shooting in November 2003 and finished it in April 2004.  It was difficult to find the woman who was trafficked, but after extensive search, we did it.

My initial idea was to shoot it as an ethnographic film, I wanted to cook or clean for a shelter and then meet trafficked women through getting real close to them, but at the moment there were none of them at any of the shelters I had access to. The very idea came as I went to have my hair cut some time in 1997 and the hairdresser refused to cut hair of two women who were clearly from the former SSSR because she thought they were prostitutes.  I developed the idea when I was an intern in NY, but the final outcome differed a lot from what I wanted to get. But that’s always like that. People told me I shouldn’t get more deeply involved and I am a paranoid person, but I guess that’s how you combat your own paranoia; and if such filmmaking makes you feel like you are going to change a tiny bit of the society for the better, then there you are. You keep doing it.


A Dream Job really reflects the universality of pop culture and entertainment industries.  In the film you express that a place such as Bosnia may hunger for pop and entertainment more than other places. It’s almost a morale booster. Can you comment on this?
I would not say it’s a pop starvation in the sense that it is in the West. I see it as a lack of other options especially for women. Ilinka says she could either work in a grocery store, betshop or a bar. It’s not only stars like Brena, who you have seen that are now filthy rich. It’s more like getting shitty jobs for $150 a month, and no real gratification to sing or dance, but just to hold the guitar and be a part of the decor. You just have to expose your body pretty much, and nothing else is expected from you. That’s common in Bosnia, the lack of opportunities. And the owner of the TV station in the documentary is not violating any laws.  There is no public criticism in Bosnia so it almost hurts. I mean you can say it’s all very postmodern, but it tragic. It’s where your minds are at.  I thought it would be good to explore the pop culture because it’s where you can really see the patriarchy, and corruption and women almost desperate to make the most in such a deviant society. You have seen the scene with the wings and the pacifier, when he talks about the “new night show for which the script is being worked on.”  I don’t know how well the translation worked but there are so many subtleties just in the language that’s used in Dream Job.


Both films show how easily women can be oppressed by a mix of opportunism, ignorance, malice and sometimes even good intentions. You definitely create both a local, individualized human picture and a larger global one; both films tie economics and geopolitics to self-realization.
Thanks for such an observation; you’ve summed it up here pretty much. I see that what all these women have in common is to express themselves, to be somebody, to have money and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s just the more global relations that make it a risky endeavor, and if resorting to hooking or singing or fake singing are the only options, and that nobody gives a damn about it, then, wow, where do you start mending this society?


I recall the moment in Counterpoint for Her when an older woman basically states, “Some women want to be prostitutes. If it makes them happy, that’s their business and it’s up to them.”  It’s very hands-off. Is there still a lack of understanding about sex slavery in Bosnian communities?
Sex slavery supposedly finished in 2003 when [bar owner and kingpin Milorad] Milakovic and some of the bigger bosses were arrested. It’s still going on but it’s less visible, I guess; it’s more underground than it used to be. In the film, I tried to stress the difference between prostitution and sex slavery, and yet now I can see it’s a thin line. I mean how can a woman just decide one day she wants to be a prostitute? I don’t think she does, ever, it is the circumstances, and from there, it’s very, very easy to become a sex slave.


Criminal structures are closely tied with the political ones in Bosnia. You cannot really tell who is corrupted and who is not. But the public is soooo lethargic, and public opinion doesn’t exist. The most politically active group in Bosnia is the pensioners, and it’s because they have nothing to lose. They are true grassroot activists. A lot of brain drain happened, a lot of people left for whatever reason, I don’t know. I teach at University and it’s impossible that my students are more conservative than me. It’s just not possible because you would expect them to be rebellious, well read, well-traveled, progressive, and to fight for their rights. None of this happens on a larger scale because everyone is so poor and screwed by the system.


Do you plan to continue exploring women’s issues through your films?
It happened so with these two but any topic that fits into the “philosophy” of the Center for Social and Cultural Repair (and hammer is our logo) that I have established with a couple of friends is worth exploring and developing. We want to make docs for the marginalized groups and we want to at least provoke the society. Next time it can be Roma or even corrupt politicians, or gays and lesbians who are still unacceptable in Bosnia and God knows what would happen, if two guys kissed on the street.


How have your films been received in Bosnia?
I am a minor director in Bosnia, alternative if you want.  Several festivals and TV broadcasts and that’s it.


Ms. Majstorovic is currently based in the city of Banja Luka of Republika Srpska, Bosnia.


Filmography

SPINNERS: A SAN FRANCISCO DRUM ‘N’ BASS STORY (2002)
KONTRAPUNKT ZA NJU / Counterpoint for Her (2004)
POSAO SNOVA / The Dream Job (2005-work in progress)


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