Too much cake (or watching “Pacific Rim” 2013)

pacific rimAnnie indulged me by accompanying me to see “Pacific Rim” (the film by Guillermo Del Toro) at the theater the other night. Why I wanted to see Pacific Rim was simple:  dinosaurs fighting robots. But when the film was over, I left the theater feeling overstuffed — as if I had eaten too much cake. Sometimes you get exactly what you think you want and you end up feeling kind of sick at the end.

Pacific Rim is a film by Guillermo Del Toro where giant monsters (known as ‘Kaiju’) periodically crawl up out of a fissure/portal to another world in the bottom of the pacific ocean and attack coastal cities, much like Godzilla did in 1954. In order to defend themselves, the humans construct giant robots called ‘Jaegers’ which are piloted by pairs of humans who need to establish some kind of ‘mind bond’ with one another. The humans discover that the kaiju are being sent by aliens who are intent on taking over the earth. The pace and ferocity of the kaiju attacks increase and a smaller number of robots and robot pilot teams have to fight harder than ever to stem the tide. Idras Elba (Stringer Bell from The Wire), Ron Perleman (from just about anything) and that good looking guy who plays “Jacks” on Sons of Anarchy are in this movie along with a lot of other people.

Everything in ‘Pacific Rim’ is huge and loud and colorful and complicated. Hong Kong (where much of the action takes place) looks like the city from ‘Blade Runner’ with flashing billboards, lots of umbrellas and Asian people crowding around street vendors in narrow, dangerous streets. When the kaiju battle the robots, cargo ships get used as baseball bats, they knock over buildings like drunken men in a bar fight might knock over tables and chairs and the humans just need to scramble to get out of the way and hope the robot kills the kaiju before the city is completely destroyed. It is Greco-Roman wrestling and martial arts on a grand scale — each second of battle is accompanied by noisy, anarchic, glorious destruction.

I wanted to like it; I really did. I grew up on shows like ‘Ultraman’ and ‘Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot.’ I loved the ‘Kaiju’ movies where actors in rubber dinosaur suits stomped on cars, knocked over buildings, waded through the ocean like it was a kiddy pool and swatted planes out of the sky. So why was I underwhelmed by ‘Pacific Rim’?

I suspect the biggest part of the problem is that I am no longer 9 years old. As a young sprat, I probably had an inexhaustible appetite for seeing cities get destroyed and screaming commuters running away in fear as the army, once again tasked with the impossible job of fighting Godzilla, rolls in to get squashed and stomped on until the monster gets bored and wades off into the ocean to sleep beneath the waves for another couple of years. The ‘kaiju’ movies of the fifties, sixties and seventies did not benefit from modern digital imaging; everything was done with models. You could usually see the fishing line that the toy airplanes were strung from as they buzzed around Godzilla’s head like mosquitoes.  The ‘tanks’ which fired countless artillery shells at the monsters were clearly toy models. When Godzilla grabbed a commuter train in his mouth like bulldog grabbing a string of sausages, you could see that it was a model train. They would then cut to a crowd of Japanese salary men and housewives shrieking in terror and running for their lives. Like many children, I had a fascination with things that were very large and very small. Much of my fascination with Godzilla was probably based on the fact that I knew exactly how the illusion was created, and, dammit, it looked like a lot of fun. What kid wouldn’t like a movie that looked like the adults had made it with toys, fireworks and elaborate models of tall buildings? As an adult, I can imagine that I might watch Godzilla movies with a certain amount of nostalgia, but I doubt I could muster up the same level of enthusiasm if I had been an adult when I first saw those films on TV so many years ago.

In ‘Pacific Rim,’ on the other hand, the elaborate (and often visually overwhelming) effects didn’t make me think that the film makers were playing with scale as much. If memory serves, when Ishiro Honda made ‘Godzilla’ in 1954, he frequently placed the camera at a low angle… the camera was down there with the toy tanks as they rolled up to fire at Godzilla. The camera then switched to Godzilla’s point of view where he looked down at these tiny, annoying vehicles that were shooting at him.   Godzilla, like King Kong, was sometimes seen looking through windows at the tiny humans hiding inside. The director was always reminding us of the size of the monster. In ‘Pacific Rim,’ thanks to modern technology, the camera circles the action like a fly buzzing around the room. A lot is gained (the ship that one of the robots uses as a club really looks like a ship — it doesn’t look like a 1/72 scale model ship) and stuff is always exploding, flying around, shattering or getting squashed, but something in the experience of watching a film about a very large monster that makes humans insignificantly small and weak is lost — when the kaiju and the robots of ‘Pacific Rim’  wrestle and punch each other, the crumbling buildings and squishing cars seem much more incidental, like the furniture in a room that gets knocked around while two normal sized humans are fighting. Although ‘Pacific Rim’ has better special effects, I didn’t find myself as aware of the scale of the monsters and robots, perhaps because our vantage point is not moored to the human scale that Honda attempted to covey in his much less technically sophisticated 1954 film.

The ‘story’ isn’t much. The human robot pilots have conflicts with one another. Indifferent government bureaucrats have cut robot funding in order to funnel all of the money into some government contractor’s ‘Kaiju wall’ bamboozle project (and we see a Kaiju promptly burst through the wall in Sydney, Australia — clearly walls are not going to keep the Kaiju out). Idras Elba/Stringer Bell is slowly dieing because he was the pilot of one of the earliest Jaeger robots and was exposed to too much radiation. ‘Jacks’ from “Sons of Anarchy” (I don’t remember his real or his Pacific Rim name) redeems himself and falls in love with an Asian woman who helps him pilot one of the robots to victory. There is some badly explained and not entirely clear sub-plot where a scientist geek discovers that he can ‘mind meld’ with the brains of the kaiju much like the robot pilots ‘mind meld’ with each other in order to control their giant machines. Ron Perleman steals the show as a blackmarket dealer in kaiju body parts who dresses like a 19th century pimp with golden armored shoes and has a fondness for butterfly knives. Even though these actors were entertaining, none of the human part of the movie was interesting enough to make me want to care.

Everyone and his brother/sister has probably seen this already. If you haven’t, it is worth seeing on the big screen simply because, well, it is such a goddamn spectacle that would probably lose too much if viewed on the small screen at home. Del Toro spent a gajillion dollars making this thing; if you want the full effect of all that CGI, you will probably have to go to the theater. If you go, bring a child along; they will enjoy it much more than you will and perhaps you can catch a ‘contact high’ off of that child’s enthusiasm.

Hell (2011)

OK, last night I watched a movie that was so unforgivably bad (The Dark Night Rises (2012)), that, like mouthwash after eating something bad, I needed another film to get the incoherent mess of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ from my brain. Netflix served up ‘Hell’ (2011); which is a good mix of movies like Frontiers and The Road served up in an understated form; the perfect antidote to that bloated Batman mess; thanks very much to Director Roland Emmerich for this one; do yourself a favor and watch it.

‘Hell’ is a German post-apocalypse film that is set in a Europe of the not-too-distant future… even though I know a bit of German, I assumed that the title, ‘Hell,’ was a reference to ‘Hell’ as in where the devil lives; as I was watching, it hadn’t occurred to me that ‘hell’ is also the German word for ‘light’ or ‘bright.’* In this dystopian future, solar flares and/or atmospheric decay have caused the sun to become so bright that the trees and grass have died, the ecosystem has collapsed and a few survivors scavenge precious commodities like gasoline, food and water.  ‘Hell’ is a film with a very small scope; we see the desolation through the eyes of Maria as she accompanies her younger sister Leonie and Phillip across a desiccated and sun-drenched Europe, trying to get Phillip’s dying Volvo station wagon (armored across the windows with bits of chain link and protected from the sun with paper taped over the windows) to the mountains, where, it is rumored, there might still be water.

The interiors of the car and the buildings that the characters shelter in are dark, dry and dusty; when the actors step outside, it is so bright they have to wrap themselves like bedouins for protection from the intense sun.  They can hardly see and the film image is massively overexposed. This simple narrative device is surprisingly effective; ‘Hell’ is one of those movies that works because of what it doesn’t show you rather than what it does. The film is brutal and violent but not gory; most of the violence takes place off screen. What makes the film effectively disturbing is the psychological distress that the characters are experiencing which is never stated outright, only hinted at. Young Leonie teases Maria over her sexual relationship with Phillip. Maria clearly wishes Phillip were a bit more emotionally stable, but it looks like sex is one of the few bargaining chips she has left; the car and most of the things in it obviously belong to him. Phillip, meanwhile, is clearly ready to snap and the more psychologically strong Maria is trying to get him to hold it together because his car and protection are the best hope that she and her sister have. The three stop at an abandoned gas station where they encounter another man, Tom, who is initially hostile, but Tom offers gasoline, mechanical expertise and the impression of being slightly less unbalanced than Phillip.  Tom makes a deal to help keep the car running in exchange for passage, food and water. The characters are constantly at odds with one another; they look and act like they are down to their last physically and psychologically.

Our little band of survivors are attacked; the car is stolen and Leonie is abducted. Maria and Phillip manage to get the car back, but the ‘fight’ with the bandits is extremely chaotic and they lose track of Tom in the process. ‘Hell’ is an interesting film because of what it doesn’t show us… during their raid on the bandit’s camp, we spend the whole time with Maria in the car as she tries to start it. All we see are brief glimpses of action occurring outside the car’s masked windows — we are as uninformed of the status of current events as Maria is. Suddenly Phillip leaps into the back seat and shouts that she needs to start driving, NOW.  As they pull away, one of the bandits attempts to drag Phillip from the car. Phillip manages to fight him off, but his ankle is broken as the car door gets slammed shut by a tree as they drive away. Maria wants to go back for Leonie and Tom; Phillip wants to just drive on, pointing out that they have no other realistic options. The strength of this film is that although as watchers we want them to go back and succeed at a daring rescue, within the realm described by the film itself, that does seem like suicide. Earlier in the film, as Tom and Phillip are a short distance away siphoning gasoline out of a crashed car, Leonie urges Maria to just get in the car and drive away. After those words are said, we can see Maria is thinking about it.  The drama of Hell isn’t in choreographed fight scenes or special effects — it’s in Maria attempting to make difficult choices and all about asking things like, “What should someone in a hopeless situation do to survive?” and “When loyalty and empathy decrease your chances for survival, should you discard them?”

Maria does manage to rescue at least some of her comrades from the ‘bandits’ (who are actually another group of survivors with very different plans), but the film’s resolution is ambiguous and anything but hopeful. I think the interesting (if bleak) story that the film makers told with very limited means, especially in an age of unbelieveably expensive films that are incoherent, boring and stupid (ahem – “The Dark Night Rises” – cough), make this worth watching — and the woman who plays Maria, especially, does a great job. I give it five out of five severed heads — I know that’s a high rating, but seeing it within hours of “The Dark Knight Rises” felt like ‘Hell’ was a film maker’s lesson in the ‘right way to do it.’

*This is not the only foreign film whose name has a double meaning in English; there is also a Bollywood film involving sex, money, jealousy and murder called ‘Jism‘ leading to the obviously ribald jokes (‘Jism’ apparently means ‘the body’ in Hindi).

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Danger: 75% of people will probably hate this movie. I learned the hard way, when I took a date to see Gilliam’s “Brazil” and I sat enraptured throughout the film while she sat there hating it, that some people just don’t like the movies I like. Read my review and agree or disagree if you like, but if you plop down the cash to see ‘Cloud Atlas’ and hate it, don’t come crying to me.
Top row: 3 different roles for Halle Berry.  Bottom row: 3 different roles for Tom Hanks.

I think that the fact that I am still thinking about the movie, ‘Cloud Atlas’ almost two weeks after I went to see it is a good sign. The film is (apparently loosely) based on the controversial novel by David Mitchell (how it compares to the novel I can’t say; I haven’t read it) which wraps the threads of six different stories around each other.  These threads range from the story of an 18th century clerk/lawyer coming to the realization that slavery is immoral to a reporter in the 1970s who thinks that all is not right at a nuclear power facility, onwards to the life of a clone/slave in future Korea becoming self aware to a dystopian future in which primitives and  a representative of a technologically advanced minority speak in nearly incomprehensible pidgin-English that makes Burgess’ “Nadsat” from Clockwork Orange seem transparent in comparison.

“Cloud Atlas” is a 3 ½ hour long film that is so big it needed 3 directors; Lana and Adam Wachowski (The Matrix, etc.) and Tom Twika (Run Lola Run). And not all of it is good. But the good far outweighs the bad and I found myself wanting to talk with Annie about what the film meant after we left the theatre rather than just talking about how expensive it was or if it would do well at the box office. The author of the book upon which ‘Cloud Atlas’ was based said that as he was writing the book, he felt a little sad because, in his opinion, the book he was writing would be ‘impossible’ to translate into a film. The six different stories of the novel are told using six different literary forms. Adam Ewing, the 18th century clerk, tells his story in the form of a diary; Frobisher, the composer of ‘Cloud Atlas’, tells his story in a series of letters, another part of the book is written in the style of a genre detective novel, etc., and the author plays these different literary forms off of each other; the same characters appear in different parts of the different stories in different ways. The investigative reporter listens to a recording of ‘Cloud Atlas’ even as she is trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of Sixsmith, a physicist who was lovers with Frobisher (the composer of Cloud Atlas). Frobisher is reading the travelogue of Adam Ewing, the clerk whose story started the film.  There are other cross references within the film (both visual and narrative) that Annie tells me were a part of the novel.

One of the nice things about ‘Cloud Atlas’ is that it seems to be a novel that flirts with the concept of reincarnation without getting excessively maudlin or new-age/mystical about it.  There are just threads that follow from one story to another, allowing the viewer to draw the connections from one story to the next rather than forcing them. And the film uses the same actors to play different characters in the different stories without ever making an attempt to explain this — Tom Hanks plays the sinister doctor who is slowly poisoning Adam Ewing in the 18th century and the primitive goatherd who befriends a researcher from a more advanced group of survivors in dystopian future earth later in the film. No direct link is made other than we, as viewers, know that both parts are played by Hanks. There was a recurring birthmark shaped vaguely like a shooting star that appears and reappears on some of the characters (I thought this was heavy handed and don’t know if it appeared in the book or not), but, for the most part, the directors used a pretty light hand, implying the connection between the different characters and stories rather than stating them outright.

There were some things that didn’t work. The makeup job on Hugh Grant, in which they used prosthetic cheeks and a nose to try to make him look like a jowly old man, resulted in something that didn’t look human (he looked more like Gollum’s cousin who had just crawled out from under a rock and put on some Cabana wear). The dialogue in the latter part of the film, where Hanks and Berry converse in a futuristic pidgin English, is just too hard to understand; Annie said the meaning was easier to infer when you saw it on the page. And there were a few bits that were just a little too sentimental for my taste. But I think the director’s choice to transform the same actors into different characters made this otherwise impossible movie work. I think the parallels of experience by different people in different situations and different times which the film makers managed to evoke by using the same actors throughout the film made perfect sense to me when the film was over, even though there does not seem to be any way to describe it without making it sound contrived or gimmicky.

World War Z (part 2)

Do zombies have ‘swarm consciousness’ like ants or bees?

The other day I posted a bit about the World War Z movie and how much I was looking forward to it.  Since posting, I’ve seen a lot of negative comments about the movie from people who think its going to suck, which made me wonder if a) do I have really crappy taste or b) did we all see the same preview?

A lot of the negative comments about the movie focus on the fact that it doesn’t resemble the book that much.  People really liked the book and thought that the movie should be more like it… but I just can’t see a series of vignettes of different people talking about the zombie-pocalypse like a Ken Burns documentary really working as a Hollywood movie.  I think that using the ‘World War Z’ book title is misleading, but I didn’t like the book that much (I liked Brook’s tongue-in-cheek “Zombie Survival Guide” much more). If I had been a bigger fan of the book, I would be more upset about the World War Z movie bearing only a superficial resemblance to the World War Z book.

One of the things I didn’t like about the book was that many of the characters from different parts of the world who were all relating how they spent the ‘Zombie Wars’ didn’t seem ‘different’ enough in voice in the book. It just kept me from buying the premise. Maybe writing a book from 100 different points of view is an impossible task — I don’t know if another writer could have carried it off, either, and I certainly like the concept, but Brooks’ prose just didn’t work for me.  I also found some of the characters were too close to stereotype for me to buy them.. the Japanese otaku who, faced with the end of the world, becomes a master of the samurai sword, for example. It just didn’t ring true for me. I don’t know if that is a failure of imagination by me as a reader or a result of failure by Brooks as a writer. I loved “Zombie Survival Guide.” I just found portions of “World War Z” a bit flat and melodramatic.  I seem to be in the minority in that opinion (my friend Jon C., whose opinion on all things writing I respect, loved Brooks’ WWZ book, so there you go).

I’ve mentioned it before, but if I had to recommend only one book of zombie genre fiction, it would have to be ‘Zone One’ by Colson Whitehead. I haven’t read anything else by Whitehead (although, based on how much I enjoyed Zone One, I plan to), but Whitehead’s novel was more effective because he kept the scope pretty narrow. Everything is told from a single protagonist’s point of view, even though he is just one man with PTSD in the army of ‘zombie clean-up crews’ that have been formed since the zombie apocalypse. As opposed to World War Z, Whitehead shows the emotions in his characters rather than tells — an important distinction that made it a lot more enjoyable for me to read.

It’s been a couple years since I read World War Z, so I probably don’t remember the book well enough to write an in-depth review, but I do remember parts where some of the different narrators described the zombies just moving forward relentlessly, in a swarm.  There was one battle described in (I think) India where the military retreated across a deep ravine and blew up the bridge behind them, and then just watched in horror as the zombies just started to pour over the cliff like a waterfall, slowly filling up the ravine, which was one image from the book I really found effective… and that’s what the exploding swarms of bodies in the preview made me recall. A similar ‘zombie surge’ figures prominently in the end of Whitehead’s “Zone One.”  Zombie surges are perhaps becoming all the rage in the genre. Maybe that’s what helps make zombies scary again… by this point, everyone knows you can defeat them by shooting them in the head and evade them by closing the gate of a chain link fence, but what if there are so many of the living dead, swarming like ants, that you know you can’t kill them fast enough to keep yourself safe and they will press and pile up against any barrier until they knock it down through sheer numbers? Maybe it’s the idea of all of these humans having lost their humanity that fascinates us — people are starting to say that the zombie genre is played out; I think it still has some mileage left in it yet.

Horror on the Hill!

Look: It’s in Japanese!

Avast! Spoilers for “Horror on the Hill” lurk below!

I saw that Grognardia wrote about ‘Horror on the Hill’ theother day. I tried to comment there, but he uses some kind of funky comment thing called ‘Disqus’ that won’t let me comment unless I update my browser or something — I don’t know, I haven’t figured it out (“Disqus?” I think that’s what it is — it is supposed to look/sound like ‘discuss’ but it makes me thing of ‘disgust’). But I LIKE “Horror on the Hill” and wanted to say so, so I figured I would make my own comments on my own blog.

I didn’t own a copy of this back in the day. I don’t know when ‘Horror on the Hill’ was published, but I think by the time it came out I had probably thought of myself as having moved ‘beyond’ the basic set… or maybe I had stopped playing D&D altogether (as I did for a long while). I think I finally got a copy years later; the first and only time I ran it was in 2003.

You’ve probably already read James’ description, but, to re-iterate, Horror on the Hill is a low level ‘introductory’ adventure. James compares it to “Keep on the Borderlands.” I think it’s probably better than Gygax’s “Keep on the Borderlands” because it doesn’t feel so thrown together. The adventure starts with players arriving at a small town called “Guido’s Fort.” Here, the players hear rumors of an ancient, ruined monastery across the river at the top of a hill. If the players cross the river and climb the hill (possibly encountering Neanderthals, a hut with witches, etc., on the way), they can explore the monastery (which, as I recall, had some zombies, spiders, etc.). Underneath the monastery are tunnels with goblins and hobgoblins. Underneath THAT is a maze that the players can get trapped in before finally finding another exit( assuming they survive). As written, it is silly-difficult. There are loads of hobgoblins in the upper levels that will likely overwhelm the low level player characters it is intended for, especially if the goblins use any tactics like ambushing or encircling the characters… if they defeat the hobgoblins, they will probably then fall down a one-way pit trap into a maze of tunnels where they are likely to have their numbers further reduced by savage humans and other wandering monsters.  The players can’t go back up the way they fell in, so they need to find the other way out.  This includes navigating the maze and then fighting their way past a tribe of troglodytes  (or are they lizard men?  I don’t remember), and, if they survive THAT, then they need to fight their way past a red dragon to get to the exit. If fighting a red dragon were not hard enough when supplies (and probably hit points) are depleted, in order to get to the dragon they need to work their way down a narrow tunnel, single file, that is likely to become a player character incinerator if the dragon is alert and breathes fire at the right moment.

One of the things that is, in my opinion, ‘nice’ about this adventure is that once the players are in the tunnels below the hobgoblin hideout, they can’t leave back the way they came and they need to forge ahead to survive. A somewhat frustrating aspect of low level play in D&D is that it can, at times, take on a surreally slow pace of exploration where players are constantly running back to ‘civilization’ to rest, heal and regain spells every time they get scratched by a kobold’s spear or nipped by a giant rat.  So players will enter room 1 of the dungeon, defeat the monster, then run back to town to rest and heal for a week, return, and, assuming some new monster hasn’t occupied room 1, enter room 2, defeat the monster, run back to town to rest, etc., rinse and repeat.  At early levels, before access to healing spells, most adventuring parties rarely put in an 8 hour day’s worth of exploring since they are constantly dashing back to town to heal and buy more lamp oil. “Horror on the Hill” short circuits that process by dropping the players down into the maze so they can’t go back the way they got in and need to explore the rest of the place to get out. Although the trap that lands the players in hot water doesn’t make much logical sense (why would the ruler of the goblins want to drop players down into a pit AFTER they have killed him and left his throne room? Wouldn’t even the stupidest goblin king want to drop the players down the pit BEFORE they reach his throne room and slit his throat?), I think the overall effect (it forces the players to go forward) is worth it. The pit-trap makes the adventure into a “railroad” that forces the player characters along a single path with a series of obstacles to overcome, but there is enough logic to it, as well as a series of ‘mini-dungeons’ (the monastery ruins, the goblin caves, the maze, the troglodyte warrens, etc.), that seem to be incidentally hooked together to create a larger dungeon… so even though it IS a railroad, at least it doesn’t feel like one while you are in it (although the forced encounter with the dragon at the end is probably a bit much).

If I recall correctly, I made a few modifications before I ran this adventure.  I didn’t use ‘Guido’s Fort,’ but instead put the ruined monastery a few miles from a village in my campaign world.  This village was under increasing attacks by goblins (the rationale was that the monastery was a rest/resupply center for the goblins). I made the monastery into a ruined temple/monastery for an evil god and the goblins had some NPC cultists for allies. I replaced all of the hobgoblins with regular goblins. I added several NPCs as prisoners that could join as helpers/replacement characters (these were player characters that had previously been captured by the forces of evil). I got rid of the dragon. According to my notes, I ran this adventure about 9 (!) years ago, but from what I remember, we had a lot of fun… although some of my players tired of the ‘dungeon bashing’ aspect by the end.

PS: Shout out to Kevin S. who based a whole campaign on “Horror on the Hill,” with toilets!

Death by Thesaurus

This Finlay I nabbed from ‘The Land of Nod’ blog kicks all kinds of asses.

I have a confession. I begin to tire of Lovecraft.  There were times, in my dissolute youth, where, after smoking too much pot, I would suddenly get too stoned to be able to stand being around people, so I would retreat to my room to read Lovecraft and I would find myself chuckling at jokes that were not there and write notes to myself that would make no sense in the morning. I hope my saying that I am less than enchanted with his work than I once was does not make you think I am a bad person… I just don’t think that Lovecraft is a very good writer — great ideas, but his prose is more funny to me than impressive.  I think the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ is brilliant and fan-fucking-tastic, but when he piles adjective upon adjective and the verb at the end of the phrase frequently he puts… well, his prose is really kind of a mess. That said, he’s a far better writer than I would ever hope to be… and he has certainly inspired a lot of good writers (like Ligotti), but, sheesh, sometimes he just goes on and on about how something is ‘soul-blasting’ or so horrific that it cannot be described, yet HPL plows on, stitching those run away phrases and dangling verbs together while trying, doggedly, to describe things that are too “horrific” to put words to. I know I’m going to be pilloried for this, but I actually think that both Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith write better ‘Lovecraft’ than HPL himself, simply because the two of them are capable of producing romantic prose in the tradition of Dunsany or Poe without such ridiculously ponderous sentences.

There are people who say that his prose is ‘terrifying’ and the ‘essence of horror.’ Maybe it failed to terrify me because I don’t believe in the elder gods — or maybe it fails to terrify me because the people in it seem so flat.  Even when I was really stoned and paranoid and ready to swear on a stack of bibles that the dude at the pizza take-out place was a narc who could tell I was stoned and was sending the cops to my apartment (in my defense, I was stoned)— even then I didn’t find Cthulhu terrifying.

None of this is to claim that I don’t find Lovecraft entertaining… I find him extraordinarily entertaining.  But he just doesn’t scare me the way Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ or Orwell’s ‘1984’ or Burgess’s ‘Clockwork Orange’ or Mcarthy’s ‘The Road’ scared me when I read them.  Maybe it was the excessively baroque language that I think old HPL couldn’t quite carry off. Maybe it was because his characters didn’t seem to have lives beyond the page. Maybe it was just that there were too many stock characters sprinkled about his prose with regular predictability like raisins in oatmeal; everyone was either a ‘disgusting specimen of a mongrel’ or a ‘great, wholesome Irishman’ or a ‘Yankee of respectable stock’ that his stories start to feel like episodes of “Law and Order” where the same character actors return again and again in different seasons to play different victims, perpetrators or witnessses and you, as a watcher, begin to think, “Wait a minute… we’ve seen this dude before! He played the reluctant witness who didn’t come forward in last week’s episode, now he’s a dirty cop who was involved in a cover up and next week he’ll be playing the arrogant assistant DA…” Their faces and mannerisms remain the same, but their names and wardrobes change making it harder for me to enter into the TV world imaginatively much like having the rubber nose fall off in mid sentence would make the spook-house witch less scary.  I suspect that HPL wasn’t interested enough in people (or, being a recluse, didn’t know enough about them) to be able to write effective characters.

One of the things that throws my Lovecraft dilemna into sharper focus is that Annie and I finally got around to watching Joss Whedon’s “The Cabin in the Woods” this weekend (Good flick! I rate it 4 1/2 out of 5 severed heads!). Annie hates horror movies because when someone leaps out of the closet with a machete, it frightens her and she screams… whereas I find horror movies funny and chuckle to myself when the inevitable blonde goes, like clockwork into the woods/basement/dark house to look for her missing (and probably already dead) boyfriend and tells him to “Quit screwing around!” when the monster is creeping up on her. Annie hates that stuff, but she likes Whedon so she was willing to sit through “Cabin in the Woods.”  We had to watch it at home, however, so she could pause the video to calm down periodically. And Whedon’s movie was full of Cthulhu references (OK, no spoilers), but the references were also funny (to me) because they were nestled cheek-and-jowl with references to just about every modern horror movie ever made.  Which, I guess, is how I like my Lovecraft. I’m not afraid of elder gods or sea creatures or the unknown or witch craft — I’m more afraid of my fellow human beings. I don’t find the fungi from Yuggoth or the fish-people of Innsmouth or Azathoth scary; I find them entertaining. To be honest, I’m more afraid of people with road rage or the hillbillies from Deliverance. So when people try to tell me how scary Lovecraft is, I just don’t get why they are so scared.

The Thing (2011) SPOILERS

OK, so I have very fond memories of the 1982 version of ‘The Thing’ by John Carpenter. It scared the piss out of me when I first saw it.  So you can understand that I was a bit skeptical in 2011 when I heard they had remade ‘The Thing.’ I know that movie nerds are going to tell me that complaining about remakes is lame but since I’m old enough to have seen the original ‘The Thing’ in the theater and loved every blood soaked, chest-bursting, eye popping minute of it, the fact that I bitch, bitch, bitch about remakes should come as no surprise.  Yes, this old person is old. Now go stick your dick in a pencil sharpener and let me complain.

That is some fucked up shit!

I was a bit less annoyed when I heard that rather being a remake of the original, the new ‘The Thing’ was going to be a prequel.  In the 1982 movie, it starts during just another day at a US arctic research facility. Some Norwegians show up, trying to kill a dog that is running across the snow and the Norwegians end up dead (one in a hand-grenade accident, the other is shot when he accidentally wounds one of the Americans while he is trying to kill the dog). The Americans think that the Norwegians have just gone insane and stick the dog in the kennel. Kurt Russel flies his helicopter back to the ruins of the Norwegian station where they find everything destroyed and a very strange burned body and clues that something happened after the Norwegians found something in the ice. Unfortunately, that something is now disguised as the dog (the ‘thing’ is an alien organism that can duplicate and replace other creatures) and it starts killing off the rest of the Americans one by one.

So, I though, OK, it will be dealing with what happened at the Norwegian station BEFORE the “thing”got to the US station.  OK. Cool.  I can deal with that.  And it did.  But it was otherwise almost the same movie. Which kind of made me wonder, “Well, what was so wrong with the original that we had to have the same movie made again?” It wasn’t exactly the same, but it was ‘same enough’ to feel redundant — people find weird thing in the ice, thie weird thing ‘infects the humans and duplicates members and then tries to turn them against one another, the humans are cut off from the outside world and are trying to kill the thing and the more altruistic decide that ‘the thing’ must never leave antarctica since it will wreak havoc on humanity if it does, so freeze the thing and roll the credits.

One of the interesting things about ‘The Thing’ (1982) is that the film is filled with people being ripped apart and transforming into all sorts of slimy, rubbery, grotesque tube-filled critters that are then burned. Despite all this death and dismemberment, the scene that always made me wince the most is when some of the survivors start instigating a test to see if someone is infected, they use a scalpel to slice the thumbs of the others to check whether they were ‘dopplegangers’ or not. Maybe the rest of the bloodshed seemed so over the top and the slicing of the thumb seemed so specific that I was able to dismiss the way out mutations on fire as ‘special effects’ whereas slitting your thumb open was a pain I could relate to.

I don’t know. I think I’ll just stick with the 1982 version. I suppose if the 2011 version was the first one I saw, I wouldn’t be so ‘meh’ about the remake. And the original story concept is so good that it would be hard to get away from — I just wish they had found a way to make the plot substantially different from the last one.  Give it 2 out of 5 severed heads (and that’s a gift).

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (2011 and 1973)

From the 1973 version: Little teddy bears with coneheads.

I’ve written before of my love for a 1973 horror movie (made for television) called “Don’t be Afraid if the Dark,” mentioning that I suspect that the critters in it were the inspiration for Gygax’s ‘Jermlaine.’  I saw that movie when I was just a kid and it scared the Bejeezus out of me. Unfortunately, one apparently can’t rent the original version of the film — I’d love to see it again.
Recently I finally sat down to watch the 2011 version of this film on Netflix (produced by Guillermo Del Toro, so, despite my kneejerk distate for remakes, I had high hopes). If I hadn’t seen the 1973 movie when I was just a little kid, I might have enjoyed the 2011 version more… although I’m sure the 1973 version would seem pretty crude by today’s standards if I could compare them.

SPOILERS follow:

1973: These little bastards scared the piss out of me

The original films’ synopsis: A young professional couple move into a creepy old house that they are renovating. There is a grumpy old man who worked for the house’s previous owner who refuses to remove the iron cover that has been bolted over a fireplace in an abandoned room that the wife wants to use, muttering vague warnings about ‘things better left alone.’ The wife unbolts the iron cover and then strange things start to happen — little scuttling figures, like rats, are continuously trying to scare her or hurt her, stealing knives and scissors, etc. Since the husband is a workaholic, he thinks his wife is losing her mind. The little critters are always whispering things like, “Let’s get her now…no, wait till it’s dark…we get her when its dark…”, etc., in these creepy, whispery little voices that only the wife can hear and they murder her ‘interior decorator’ (and, yes, being that this is 1973, the interior decorator is some flaming queen dude).  We see more of the little creatures as the film progresses — they look like tiny people with wrinkled, pointy heads and they hate the light. When the film ends, she has disappeared (I don’t remember how) and the iron grate has been placed back over the fireplace.  We can hear the woman’s voice has joined the ‘whisperers’ and it is obvious that they are waiting for the day when some new, ignorant rehabber removes the iron grating from the fireplace and sets them free again.

From the 2011 version: Howler Monkey?

The 2011 version: This is a big-budget, Hollywood film with famous actors and big money production values (the 1973 version was a ‘made for television’ movie). The ‘old house’ is a giant turn-of-the-century mansion being restored by an architect and his interior designer girlfriend in the hopes that they can ‘flip’ it and make a bundle. The architect is obsessed with getting his rehab job on the cover of some architectural magazine and spends most of the movie worrying about whether or not the snooty magazine editor is going to come to a dinner party he is hosting at the house. The architect’s daughter from a previous marriage, who is depressed because both of her parents are too self absorbed to pay attention to her, is shipped to the mansion to live with her architect dad and his designer girlfriend (played by Katie Holmes).  The part of the wife in the first movie has been split up between the girlfriend and the little girl — she is the one who sees them and no one else believes her, but the girlfriend eventually comes to believe that the girl is telling the truth.  There is also an old handyman who gets fucked up royally by the little goblins, but this is passed off as an ‘accident’ (how he ‘accidentally’ stabbed himself a dozen times with every single sharp item in his own toolbox while alone in the basement does not seem suspicious to the architect or the police).

Interestingly, the authors of the new version do some ‘Appendix N’ style* name dropping; a librarian at the local library mentions Arthur Machen in connection to legends of malevolent little people and shows the architect’s girlfriend some of the unusual drawings of ‘monsters’ that the previous owner of the house had made. The more recent version also tries to put the little creatures into context by telling us the story of the previous owner of the house, a famous artist, who was driven mad when his son was abducted by the little fiends.  When the girlfriend notices how much the drawings by the former owner resemble the drawings by the little girl, she begins to believe. And the girlfriend gives the little girl her Polaroid camera with flash-bar to help her defend herself from the little monsters (they hate the light).  The prescence of the Polaroid camera in this film set in the digital age is, perhaps, a nod to the 1973 roots of the original when Polaroid cameras were all the shiznit (do they even sell Polaroid film anymore?).  Of course, in the movies, revolvers usually hold about 20 bullets rather than 5 or 6 and Polaroid Cameras can take about 100 pictures on one pack of film rather than 12… but since the movie is about evil tiny critters that live in a pit under the fireplace, I guess I shouldn’t quibble too much.

Unfortunately, the girlfriend doesn’t manage to get everyone out of the house in time and she gets pulled into the fireplace while rescuing the little girl from that same fate.  The movie ends like the original; a new iron grating has been installed over the fireplace and the house has been forclosed on and is back on the market.  We can hear the girlfriend has now joined the whispering voices, telling them that eventually someone will open the grate again.

There is a lot of CGI in the new version, and, on my TV it looked pretty good, but one of the things that was fascinating about the old version is that the tiny creatures were played by actors in suits and masks on sets made to look like a partion of the set that the actors portaying humans would use, but with the furnishings and details blown up to enormous size, and, by cutting scene back and forth between actors playing humans on a normal set and actors in suits playing tiny monsters on a giant set, it gave the impression that the little people were crawling out of the cupboards to attack.

The new one is pretty good, I guess, but I’m less enthused because, well, it’s a remake.  My memories of the 1973 version are pretty colored by how much it scared me (in a good way) when I was just a youngster, and, like most horror flicks where a child is shoehorned in, the new one can get a little saccharine at times (although if I could watch the original I’m sure it would look pretty cheap and dated).

Here is the trailer for the 1973 version:

Here is the trailer for the 2011 version:

*It has been brought to my attention that Machen is, apparently, not in appendix N.  Mea culpa.  He should be.

This thing’s gone international

There is a positive review of me from someone in (I think) Spain right here.  My Espanglish est muy malo and Babelfish makes it into clumsy, stilted and somewhat silly English but I am happy all the same.  I see from his Facebook page that the author, La Marca del Este, works at Pinkerton’s Detective Agency and studied at Miskatonic U., so he is clearly good people!

Life is good, then.

Are “bad books” good for young brains?

I put the poster from the movie in here because, unless I miss my guess, over half the kids assigned to read the book will have watched the DVD instead.

There is a big flap here in Michigan about whether or not high school students in advanced placement English in the Plymouth/Cantor School district should be allowed to read books like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”  Apparently some members of the local Tea Party in Plymouth have seized upon the issue as emblematic of “what is wrong with America” and want Morrison’s “Beloved” out of the schools.  “Beloved” apparently has some salty language and some racy scenes, including rape, incest, bestiality, etc., but it is apparently set in the time when Americans owned slaves so I would argue that it can’t all be rainbows and unicorns or “Gone with the Wind.”

The controversy got me thinking about some of the books I read in high school that really interested me and helped turn me into a life-long reader.  I was in an ‘advanced’ reading group in high school and many of the books I remember best were ones that challenged me in terms of the content.  I made a list of some of my favorites from high school that I am now promising myself I will pick up again.  I think if I still remember a book so many years after having read it, it is probably worth reading again.

Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: This book blew my mind, not only due to all the sex and violence (of which there was plenty), but also because of the ‘Nadsat’ language (look it up).  Yes, there was rape, lots of drug use, lots and lots of violence, etc., but there was a point to all of that ‘bad’ content and even as a teenager I understood that Burgess wasn’t really encouraging us to want to be like Alex and his ‘droogies.’ I was told that when the movie version was released in 1971, it was given an X rating.

The Tenants by Bernard Malmud: Racism, violence, sex and mutually assured destruction follow when two very different writers (one, a liberal educated Jew, the other a militant and angry black nationalist) become friends after they discover that they are neighbors in this story. I remember that the level of hate that the two principle characters developed for the other was the most frightening thing of the book.  The two men are both sleeping with the same woman and there is lots of ‘hate speech,’ sex, bad language, drug use, drinking, etc.  It ends with one of the principles getting castrated and the other one getting killed.  I just found out that it was made into a film starring Snoop Dogg, but the film was only screened once.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: Yeah, I don’t think it should be controversial either, but there is (if I remember right) some sex and betrayal, drug use and suicide.  Plus the the main character in the book, eventually rejects everything that his society stands for and becomes a traitor and an outcast.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut: Sex, violence, insanity, more violence, more sex, sex while aliens are watching, masturbation, pornography, infidelity, a picture of a woman fucking a pony, lust, etc., are all in this book so I guess it belongs on the moral majority’s “this ought to be banned” list. It was one weird (and interesting) book — the film does not do it justice (but gets good marks for effort IMO). Definitely in my “Books you MUST read.”

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: I still can’t believe we read this book in high school.  Yes, it is a book about a child molester that tells the story from his point of view (put it in the ‘disturbing but meant to be that way’ category).  The book has great literary merit and reading it will not turn you into a child molester. Goes on the ‘Must read’ list.

Johnny got his Gun by Dalton Trumbo: The main character is a deaf, dumb and blind quadruple amputee war veteran without a face who survived an exploding artillery shell and now lays in his hospital bed thinking about the events that led to his current condition.  When a nurse finally figures out that the amputee is attempting to communicate by tapping his head against his pillow, his communication with the world outside his own skull is briefly re-established.  The patient wants to be allowed to die, but when the doctors don’t allow that, he asks to be shown to the public so they can see the true horrors of war.  It was written between the two World Wars and is perhaps the most disturbing book of fiction I have ever read.