Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Best Albums Of 2007

The Best Records Of The Year! Well, the best ones I heard. I can only really vouch 100% for the top three choices. The rest are there for the world to decide. Oh, and the reason In Rainbows is left off is because none of us has heard the whole thing and to include it would be awfully presumptuous of me, wouldn't it? Not that I doubt it will be their best yet. So, on to the records we can listen to in their entirety. I've only chosen 20, so that I know i'm not grasping at straws (I learned my lesson when I tried for 100 in 2004. Yikes).

Bloc Party - A Weekend In The City

A friend told me at the start of this year that bands were going for a bombastic, 80s, Echo & The Bunnymen type sound, using this as an example. He was absolutely right, as every one of these 20 records are big, loud, a little pretentious, and warm. Bloc Party's sophomore is a little harder edged than their debut, but it catches on just as quick. If Silent Alarm was Hammer Studios, Weekend is Tigon; with songs about Witches & Religion, the metaphor works doubly. While Weekend reaches much higher volume than Silent Alarm, it also has their first out-and-out pop tune in I Still Remember, which is needless to say a little lazier than the rest of the CD, but their new found fondness for synthesized sound works twice as hard to pick up the slack.

The New Pornographers - Challengers

Is that all? Challengers went by too quickly for my liking. It's the best record the group has ever done and they knew enough not to let it hang around long enough to disinterest listeners, a mistake they've made with their past three records. This time, pop bliss in 12 songs. Unexpected arrangements and some really interesting combinations of A.C. Newman's normal glamourous retro tunes and Dan Bejar's slow burners that make this record so fascinating. And just as you think it's time for the record to wear out it's welcome, it's finished and made you want more. They've excised all the flab and left in nothing but good things, and if the B-sides are any indication, they had plenty more in them.

Feist - The Reminder

Yeah, ok, whatever. I really think in a year's time it'll be difficult for me to recall a time when I actually respected Feist. It seems only yesterday I was silently bragging about having discovered her. All the things that most of her critics have pointed out about her are more true than ever before on The Reminder - too put-on, faux-jazzy and zealous to invite real admiration. The good things don't exactly outweigh the poor show of character she's been up to (Ipod commercial? You must be joking. At least Rogue Wave needed money for an operation.) Those aforementioned good things happen to be the first half of the album. I'm Sorry is as simple and ageless as a Shakespeare sonnet and My Moon My Man is really a gem (I'd drive to the ends of the earth for that piano sound.)

Múm - Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy

Yes, even Múm has decided to augment their sound and their band and it turned out to be an incredibly smart move. Go Go is their most pop-driven record (in that now one can say they have one that sounds like a pop record) and it may have to do with the fact that they've now got seven members pulling (and strumming) the strings. Still weird? Absolutely. Still filled with blips and scratches? Definitely! still meandering and Icelandic? Well...not so much. Direction has taken something of the mystique from this band, as has it's use of English language lyrics, but, it proves that they're trying to hang around longer than the Valtýsdóttirs, their recently departed founders. I recognize that Múm is Múm in name only, the spirit is still there, they just need to stick it out.

Peter Bjorn & John - Writer's Block

Purists will tell me that this came out in 2006 and they're right, but I didn't get my hands on a US copy until early this year, so I'm going to give them the benefit of a delayed release. Writer's Block is as simple as pop music has ever gotten and ten times as sweet as it normally gets. Peter Moren's voice begs for love to come true and his guitar drips out after it. The Object Of My Affections, Paris 2004, Roll The Credits, Start To Melt are all pitch-perfect pop tunes, and their extended lengths really help them stay in the brain.

Handsome Furs - Plague Park

I wish that I'd been the first to compare this to early Cure, but Britt Daniel from Spoon did it first. Mood aside, Handsome Furs' debut is minimalist and seething, swaggering almost as drunkenly as Dan Boeckner's Wolf Parade co-conspriator Spencer Krug's effort this year (more on this later). His guitar and lyrics let the world know exactly what it is he brings to Wolf Parade, and his contributions are evidently invaluable. He and his bride Alexei Perry combine programmed drums, a touch of synth and Boeckner's unmistakable tones to become something akin to Canada's White Stripes.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Is Is

Show Your Bones may have been the biggest letdown of 2006. Karen O and company decided to make a cock rock album and boy did it make me furious. How did they go about redeeming themselves? Making a killer EP with five songs crossing Siouxsie & The Banshees, Early Pretenders, Depeche Mode and all the glam-goth you can find. Karen O is up to her old tricks again and Nick Zinner has found an uglier guitar tone than Jack White, even, adding synth (like everyone else in the game) to set the scene and then stomping about with his recovered sleaze. This is a band at the top of it's game. Why is it so low on the list? Cause I want more dammit!

Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam

One of these days I'm going to have recommend my friend Meghan O'Donnell for a job discovering musical acts. Icy Demons, Architecture in Helsinki, Modest Mouse, all of them blew up months after she's explained everything good about them to me before music critics could pretend they thought of it first. Animal Collective is one such band. Meg knew that they were unlike anyone else, and here they've done what Meg knew they were capable of: the best and brightest music in their career, spun in a way unlike any other band in the business. Shouting, electronics, poly-rhythms, all present and accounted for and it's beautiful.

Broken Social Scene Presents Kevin Drew - Spirit If...

Granted this is more Shoegazer than Post-rock, but what kind of indie rock hound would I be to discount any Broken Social Scene related output in a year-end summation. I could do without all the DInosaur Jr. that makes its way onto Drew's record, but he's been star-struck ever since the Verizon festival and I suppose if I ever met Kevin Drew, i'd sure as shit make an album that sounded like BSS. What he does here is augment the BSS sound by making it full and melodious in ways the band hasn't been able to yet. The magic of Broken Social Scene is all the influences making a record that works in spite of itself. With Drew at the helm completely, it's one long experiment in pop sounds rising from static, and with help from Do Make Say Think members Charles Spearin and Ohad Benchetrit doing their share, the record works 99% of the time.

LCD Soundsystem - Sound Of Silver

The reason I don't put this higher on my list is because James Murphy seems to have saved all the high energy for their live shows and left his record a little wanting of that crazy-guy shtick he's gotten down to a science. It's kooky alright, but it stays grounded, which I wasn't expecting after his debut, which gave enough evidence that he was going to go all out next time. What does work here is the return to the routes of dance music, the old percussion sounds, the tremendous use of ancient synth, Murphy's signature falsetto, the picked bass, like the bastard son of Marshall Grant's fingers. These guys are tight, but they need some volume and a little more fight next time around. I know they've got it in them because the best song on the album (All My Friends) is the perfect example of letting their feet leave the ground. Instrument upon Instrument is added and Murphy screams and screams in vein about how he will never be young again, but he doesn't seem to realize he's creating a lasting testament to his many years with this song.

The Most Serene Republic - Populations

Just as I was sure I'd found the best Canadian collective album in Spirit If... This found it's way to my ears. It doesn't quite have the personality Broken Social Scene does, but they use static and all 7 of its members to the greatest of efficiency. The melodies and songs are noticeably different from their peers (at least to the disciplined ear) and sound alternately cold and distant at the right moments. The sound is varied and endlessly intriguing. Listening to the songs meld together is something that makes every scene much more pleasant.

Do Make Say Think - You, You're A History In Rust

Just how much do I love Canadians. Well, 9/20 of the albums here were made by them and probably aren't nearly as good as I make them out to be. Do Make Say Think really are as good as all this however. Before History, they'd made records I enjoy, but none have been so acerbically ingenious as this one. Their instrumental compositions range from boisterous post-rock to stripped down rovers and each stop is as unique and lovable as the next. These boys know have the feel of a band that know each other like they do every inch of their instruments. They've honed their craft into something dangerously self-aware and have put their contemporaries in a tough spot. How can Silver Mt. Zion or Explosions in the Sky possibly keep up with a band that keeps evolving in new directions?

Rogue Wave - Asleep At Heaven's Gate

Descended Like Vultures, Rogue Wave's second CD was really beautiful and was for the most part the work of principle songwriter Zach Rogue. Asleep is another matter entirely. How does a band prove they are more than one man's songs? They get loud. The first song, Harmonium is a pretty stellar example of full-band Rogue Wave at it's best. Drums like the pistons of a train, guitar that shimmers and screams in turn, bass that fits around the whole mess like a pair of velvet gloves, endless Piano guiding the song along. Critics hate this record which has led me to call this their Porcupine, a record brimming with new sounds and directions that will entertain for years to come but will never be given the credit it deserves.

The Nels Cline Singers - Draw Breath

Nels Cline picked something up playing with Thurston Moore and Wilco all these years. Namely, how to make the most ballsy Jazz records in 30 years. I'd say he's the best guitar player in the world but I've never witnessed a duel between him and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, one that I'm sure would end in fire and destruction should it ever be undertaken. This is a record that shifts between gorgeous twelve-string compositions accompanied by Contrabass and perfect percussion, to rockers driven by Cline's athletic fingering, to the all-out chaos he's made a name for himself with. This is a record that starts and ends on notes of lightness and sensitivity, but the middle is one of destruction, noise and brilliance. Which works better? I'll let you decide.

Dungen - Tio Bitar

As testament to this album's staying power, I think i've only listened to it once or twice all the way through, but I'll put it next to any rock album this year with confidence it'll psych them all into oblivion. The Swede's know how to rock out and this time they do a little more as a full band than just Gustav Ejstes pet project. Of course, Ejstses still does the lion's share of the work, but they sound much tighter here and the irony is that they are actually louder and rambunctious than ever before.

Sunset Rubdown - Random Spirit Lover

Spencer Krug is unlike any other songwriter in his game. Random Spirit Lover is like the score to a movie that was too bizarre and expensive to have ever been made - one with pirates, jungle cats, swashbuckling and the end of the world. His songs change as many as three times before the finish and make use of Jordan Robson-Cramer's guitar, the technique and sound of which i can only liken to some kind of serpent made of fire, not a bad description of Sunset Rubdown, come to think of it. Krug's endearing screams and keyboard-driven song-writing would make a decent foundation for any band, but as he's found a band that knows how to turn strange songs into untouchable genius.

Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog

If anyone's looking for the definition of maturity, listen to The Sea & The Rhythm and then The Shepherd's Dog. Sam Beam isn't as depressed as he sounds. We all knew he could write the best songs one man can write, but, did anyone expect him to keep the magic with a full band? I was a little nervous when I heard Boy With A Coin, but he put all those worries to bed with Pagan Angel & The Borrowed Car, a song that makes use of every instrument present in as unpretentious a way as possible. I give Sam Beam permission to jump genres as he pleases as he's gone from one kind of bluesman to another with near-perfect results.

Apostle Of Hustle - The National Anthem Of Nowhere

Andrew Whiteman is probably the most underrated musician in Canada. No one has ever mentioned his virtuosic guitar playing as one of the gears that turns the Broken Social Machine or his fondness for Latin arrangements or his remarkable sense of composition. Whiteman's solo project has been all but ignored this year and it's a crime, as it's the big guitar record i've been waiting for. Whiteman and bassist Julian Brown trade monumental riffs over the icy fire of each song; they somehow recall both Summer and high Autumn. The music moves about like the body of a dancer and is equally as elegant and unpredictable.

Sondre Lerche - Phantom Punch

Sondre Lerche is brilliant; this record goes from Jazz to rock effortlessly and he did it a matter of months after his last record, which was one of complex arrangements and playing. How does he follow up his tribute to Elvis Costello, Burt Baccarach and Cole Porter? He pays tribute to Gang Of Four. This record rocks hard whenver it wants to, but never loses Lerche's nice-guy humane touch, never leaves the ground or reverts to screaming. No, the only screaming done here is by Kato Ådland's guitar and it sounds like it's been dying to break out these licks. Sondre Lerche is an entertainer on the level of his hero Elvis Costello and can balance hard and soft better than Elvis ever learned how to. Absolutely Sensational.

Arcade Fire - Neon Bible

I don't know if they're afraid of sounding predictable or if they are just unenlightened, but Rolling Stone, Spin, Paste and every other music rag has FAILED to notice what this is. Neon Bible is the greatest album made during my lifetime and when men twice my age concur, I can't help but reinforce this point. This is the album that every indie band in the world has been trying to make, but has so far fallen short of. Their music is as organic as possible; the song-writing team are lovers, their band can and frequently do play anything, their talents are all utilized perfectly. On Funeral, it was clear that some songs were weaker than others, however, here, there is no weak spot. It is an unrelentingly powerful work that has the same fire and passion that Mozart, Rachmaninov & Brahms work all brimmed with, except their work doesn't take so long to come to the point. This is honest music that will be as good at the end of the world as it is now. If you claim not to like this album or claim that someone has written a better record this year, you are either very foolish, a republican or very possibly the devil himself. This is music, and it may never get better than these 11 songs in a row. I've tried in vein to pick a favorite, but everyone is as glorious as the next. I have to believe it's some kind of ruse or dare when magazines choose The Boxer by The National or New Wave by Against Me as the best record this year. There is no question or competition. When Funeral, the Arcade Fire's debut came out at the tail end of 2004, it took only one listen for it to be the best record of that year. There second record was more or less destined to be the most powerful, divine work of modern music and the planets aligned and the Arcade Fire gave birth to the most urgent, criminally beautiful album they could have given. Why am I so insistent that this is the best record of all time? Someone's got to be and if the media is too fucking obtuse not to notice what this is, an unrivaled masterwork, than at least I won't be accused of rehashing old ideas. I've seen them live twice now and I've never felt more like I was part of some kind of religious experience.

Monday, December 17, 2007

I Am Disappointed

First off, I Am Legend was much better than it had any right to be. Let's be honest, the odds weren't exactly in its favor: The guys who did Constantine see a much better movie and decide to dig up a Richard Matheson story to one up that movie with cartoonish special effects and Will Smith. Seriously? That sounds like a buddy picture at best. Most men buy cars when they have this kind of a mid-life crisisy, wild hair up their ass, not producers Akiva Goldsman and Erwin Stoff. They celebrated their midlife crises by making a Will Smith movie. Ok, let's start with the good.

I Am Legend
by Francis Lawrence

A lone scientist prowls New York like a chic Trader Horn. There's no one alive but him and his dog, wild animals roam the street, his house is fitted with military-grade defence mechanisms, and he keeps performing experiments in his basement on rats. What happened? And what about the pale guys that keep trying to kill him?

Will Smith here is the best he's been since Ali (granted I didn't see Hitch, but...) and I put this up there as one of his two or three best dramatic roles. He's reigned in, which really, REALLY helps him out. And it helps that he's supposed to be a little crazy. If I can buy the Fresh Prince as a scientist, then the film cannot really be called a failure. His few emotional scenes and the prologue flashbacks are very well done on Smith's part. It took some getting used to, especially because they show him interacting with manaquins before they ask him to be a concerned father. I knew that was really acting when his dog Sam runs into a dark building where he knows he's likely to encounter the vampire guys. His frantic whispers and muttering was believable and he reminded me of many, many other performances I similarly believed. It was enough to say "ok, Will Smith isn't the problem, so...what is?" How's that for a parallel universe kinda situation. So, now we move on to the bad.

Remember that dark building scene I just described, well it's really effective until they show you what it is he's so scared of. CGI, that's what!!!! The creatures here are about as lame as they come and I blame Goldsman and Stoff fully for this. In an interview they essentially admitted to seeing 28 Days Later and saying "Hey, we can do that." But they had to make theirs different enough not to get sued. What do they do? They go back to some of that Constantine magic and make what should be super frightening half-zombies and make them look like video game characters. I'm sorry, these are just pathetic. To me, if you're dealing with CG villains, it's a little like working with the undefeatable serial killer. What the hell does it matter what happens, they can do anything and so there's no tension whatsoever. What's scary about CG things climbing the face of a brownstone in a few seconds. That's not frightening, that's just silly (what's the difference between that and watching Hulk?). You had so much potential here, why couldn't you have just used people? Name one other movie that uses CG zombies! NONE! Every bad, inane, obtuse, obscene, violent, derivative zombie movie ever made has used REAL PEOPLE as their zombies. Sure they live and die by their make-up and gore effects, but goddamit that's the risk you take with a movie like this. By using CG you are being the biggest coward that a producer knows how to be. How could you possibly get a decent performance out of Will Smith and THEN drop the ball. It's irresponsible. Movies made 20 years before this have better effects. Dragonslayer, Aliens, Day Of The Dead, all of them have better effects and they managed to actually get scary once in a while.

Minor annoyance: This is a corporate production and as such had a decent amount of product placement. This is a ford movie. Mustangs, Explorers and the like are seen throughout. He also uses some big shit computer equipment for keeping records of things, which in the end get destroyed anyway. That's the other thing I don't get. The climax was almost as defeatist as the decision to use CG effects. First of all, it points to many glaring inconsitancies in the creature behavior. Strong enough to break steel, but not glass? Why didn't they break through if they had the strength to all along? Smith's character reports fairly early on that they've no human characteristics left, but then falls into an incredibly elaborate trap involving a pulley system, manaquins, attack dogs and sunlight. Are they zombies or are they centurions? Make up your mind, you lazy prats. Don't just make shit up. This is an end of the world movie, you make the rules. Don't write them and break them in the same breath, jag off! Nothing is so frustrating as seeing a decent film fall apart because the producers got impatient.
What should have been next to get the old heave-ho: The Script. Everything seems fine, save for the inconsistencies with the monster behavior, until we meet the only other two survivors Smith encounters. They show up, eat his food, impose themselves on him, insist he leave with them and leads the creatures to his safe house where they eventually destroy everything, and you know why? God. Yup, that's right, God told them to. And the film paints these two as the heroes in the end. Couldn't it for once, just be people dealing with shit? Were they afraid that their film would be attacked for leaving Christianity out of it completely? Are you really that scared that your epic Will Smith vehicle is going to do poorly because you DIDN'T mention god? Also, that shit about Bob Marley? Everyone on this planet with access to a radio or a lot of stoner friends knows who Bob Marley. A brazilian who listens to Damien Marley is going to know who Bob Marley is, there's no point in suggesting the opposite. It insults even the most uninvolved music fan to even consider that a possibility.
This movie came close a few times, but with each new element it introduced, it undid whatever it had previously established. The CG, the second characters, the trap setting, the climax, the denouement; all irritating and unneccesary. This is a film that could have used that bleak ending Frank Darabont gave to The Mist. Now there's a religious message I can get behind. I Am Legend is good for all the wrong reasons and bad for all the wrong reasons which makes its failure all the more upsetting. There has yet to be a last-survivor movie i've been pleased with. 28 Days Later remains the stand-out and if this film is any indication of its competition, I think it's position is safe and sound. 

Sunday, December 2, 2007

What Could Have Been....- Volume 1

Directors Who Should Have Made Horror Films

As the internet gives me the power to say whatever I want to from the virtual rooftops, I’m going to share with you something that’s been on my mind for a while. In watching a hundred years worth of foreign and arthouse cinema, you tend to notice who has talent and who doesn’t. And as a disciple and scholar on the subject of Zombies I also tend to notice when someone should have taken a break from being gorgeous and tried scaring their audience. So, I went to my ledger and found some people who, I believe could have made some truly terrifying films if they had set their minds (and wallets) to it. Look at all the times it’s worked in the favor of an auteur to turn to fright, even if only once. Roman Polanski started his career out with horror films and made some of the best in the 20th century (his most recent return to the genre The Ninth Gate, though velvety and intriguing, left something to be desired, and before that the last time he ever tried flat out scaring someone was with the Tenant, which I believe caused a lot more scratched scalps than wet drawers). Ingmar Bergman only made one flat-out fright picture as far as I know, the cerebral Hour Of The Wolf, which I have yet to track down in English. Masaki Kobyashi made only one horror film, the ghost story to end all ghost stories Kwaidan. Michael Powell and Georges Franju only made one horror film a piece, and if you can name them I’ll give you a dime. Both were wholly unique and stand up next to anything Eli Roth feels he needs to rub in our eyes for an hour and a half. So, here are some names to noodle next time your feeling like a hypothetical.

Akira Kurosawa – Not one you’d think of immediately, but considering the amount of freedom and respect he got while still at Toho, he could have made something spectacular. This notion came to me when I was watching The Hidden Fortress some time ago. I remember thinking during the opening scenes of the masses being slaughtered and the aftermath of the prison break, you know if he had just used the same sets, actors, props & costumes and just made a zombie movie, he’d have gone down in history. All Kurosawa’s movies flirt with darkness pretty heavily; High & Low, The Bad Sleep Well, Throne Of Blood, Kagemusha, Ran; these are all but a skip and a jump from being horror films. Each story has an arc that happens to take you down as far as he thought an audience was willing to follow him; the skag buying in High & Low, the ghost aspects of both Bad Sleep Well & Kagemusha (not to mention the outlandish dreams in the latter), the siege of the castle at the start of Ran’s second act, Throne Of Blood looks, feels, and even acts like a horror movie; the forest moving, the queen’s behavior and posture are pretty ghastly, as is Mifune’s final scene, the appearance of the ghost at the banquet. (I suppose much of it’s feel has to do with it’s source material, but I’ve seen Macbeth done much less spooky than this). Kurosawa could have done something so outlandish the world would not have known what to do with it.

Mike Leigh – Mike Leigh is no stranger to grime & ugliness. His movies all have a similar claustrophobic feel; his camera an unflinching probe into the world of England’s heinous underside, never once stopping for a breath of air. Naked could have been a horror movie if either male character had just stepped up their actions a little more brutally. Vera Drake, though admittedly not the easiest two hours you’ll ever encounter had an amazing look to it, and Leigh’s style of direction made something tremendous out of what could have been a crashing, burning failure in a less capable pair of hands. I just think about all of his movies and imagining if they had given them to Mike Newell or Richard Curtis or Adrian Lyne how badly these could have turned out. If the seething anger and passion that lingers like a hungry tiger beneath the surface of every one of Leigh’s films came to a boil, it might just make up for Topsy Turvy. His films are too calculated, too honest, too dirty to be anything but frightening.

Alfonso Cuaron – Anyone who doubts this can see two movies that prove my point exactly. The first is Children of Men, which is essentially a political horror film, or anyway it’s scarier than most mainstream horror. The second is his student film Quartet For The End Of Time. This is some disquieting, misanthropic stuff, most filmmakers won’t ever make such a film. I believe that he and cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki could follow in his peers Danny Boyle’s and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s footsteps and make an artistic horror picture (although I’d obviously like it to be a little more Boyle and a little less Jeunet. No offense, but I’d take 28 Days Later over Alien: Resurrection any day). I mention Jeunet simply because his one horror picture would have been completely unwatchable were it not for the fact that Jeunet directed it (blame the script). Cuaron has an equally distinct style and if he could take the stunning visuals from Little Princess or Y Tu Mama Tambien or even Harry Potter 3, for crying out loud, and make like del toro and conjur up a ghost film or a real-apocalypse film (as opposed to the mid-apocalypse he's already covered), the man could die a legend.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Japanese Screams Volume 4

And now friends we come to what may be the last in this series (at least until next Halloween) of horror movies from the land of the rising sun. This time we have a truly cruel look at society through the eyes of someone whose eyes are the only thing left intact on his face. It features a performance from one of my favorite actors of all time and it has a great look, one that rivals all 60s freak-outs (and it helps that it's done with a straight-face and doesn't once mention drugs or hippies).

The Face Of Another
by Hiroshi Teshigahara
This film owes a significant debt to another black-and-white psychological horror film; Georges Franju’s The Face Of Another. Those of you who’ve seen it should know then the subject matter dealt with in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s artistic tale of loss and alienation causing the mind to turn stale is not exactly groundbreaking, but it was still effective, especially in the context of post-war Japan. The story, based on a novel by Kobo Abe, someone director Teshigahara had an informal partnership with for the first ten years of his career, follows two people affected by cosmetic disorder. The first, a man called Okuyama (a particularly crazy Tatsuya Nakadai) has been disfigured by an industrial accident and now has a bandage covering his entire face (the implication seems to be that it is permanent). The second, far less developed story follows a woman with a radiation burn on one half of her otherwise beautiful face. These stories, in case you couldn’t tell, are really about Hiroshima and the loss of identity that followed. Okuyama, who we will primarily concern ourselves with is one sick dude. He purposely bugs his wife because he knows that he repulses her and makes a point of unnerving everyone he comes in contact with (talk about self-pity). The answer to his problems (or the beginning, depending on how you look at it) comes when he meets a nameless psychologist who moonlights as a plastic surgeon. Together they come up with a plan – mold a mask for Okuyama out of someone else’s likeness and give the scarred man a new face. Now the psychiatrist, understands just how dangerous such a procedure is (“it’s like a drug that turns you invisible”) and knows Okuyama is probably going to do some truly ghastly things with his new face, but he’s too tittilated by the prospect of studying him to say no. So, against his and his nurse/mistress’ better judgment, they craft a face for Okuyama, and unsurprisingly Okuyama becomes unrecognizable, physically and mentally, to everyone with two exceptions: the mentally handicapped daughter of a hotel manager and someone I won’t mention, as it would ruin the film for you. I will say this, both act as Okuyama’s undoing as the real reason he decided to adopt the new visage was to try and seduce his wife to teach her a lesson, but that doesn’t exactly pan out. The second story, of the girl with the hideous burn on her face could be in any Italian modernist film of the 1960s in its minimalist intensity. She moves from location to location, experience-varying degrees of mistreatment, deciding ultimately that she was not meant for the world – such a world where a war could start at any moment. It isn’t exactly linear logic, but it uses pretty effective imagery.

This is the least scary and most meditative of all the films reviewed here (and Kwaidan is pretty meditative), but that’s because it was the only one made by a card carrying new waver. Hiroshi Teshigahara made precious few films in his lifetime, but those that he did were designed to burn bridges and break hearts. The Face of Another or Tanin No Gao has very few scares in it – and the ones in there mostly derive from just how upsetting it is to see Okuyama probing the depths of personal space. The strange shape of his bandaged head makes every movement a nerve wracking one. This film is incredibly interesting because of the bizarre mixture of elements and influences – The similarities between Okuyama’s appearance and that of The Invisible Man, The bizarre design of the plastic surgeon’s office (which really has to be seen, it’s amazing), the appearance of projected images on doors and windows, the nod to Chris Marker’s La Jetee at the end of the girl’s story, the symmetry that exists between Okuyama’s life and that of his new face, the very perplexing issues brought up by the surgeon as he watches someone with no redeeming qualities live with no boundaries and the extent to which he is willing to help in order to live vicariously through Okuyama – it really is a provocative film. The design and cinematography and execution are pure 60s art house, but the subject matter and imagery are of another school altogether, one I’m not sure I can place. The film’s main purpose is to show just dark it gets inside the soul when the thing that everyone sees, the face, is purposely ignored. Take that humanity!
I’d like to take a moment to discuss Tatsuya Nakadai, the star of half of the above entries. As this movie has an operation that significantly changes the psyche of its main character, discussion of a mad scientist is inevitable. The surgeon in this movie however is not him. No, the mad scientist behavior belongs to Okuyama, who only lacks any real scientific knowledge. His mannerisms, inflection, behavior and logic all seem to belong to Dr. Frankenstein or Pretorius or some such mad genius. Nakadai was about as versatile an actor as you could find in the 60s and doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves (not that a mention on a blog concerned with Zombie movies is going to give it to him). It’s because Nakadai was such a strong actor that his character far outweighs everyone around him and even though he is an unsympathetic bastard, you can’t help but wish him to succeed. Nadakai’s first real acting job came in Kobayashi’s aforementioned Human Condition trilogy, extraordinary films that don’t feel their length. Many have heralded them as the best films ever made and they certainly deserve all the praise they receive (any film with pacing decent enough to make 9 hours seem justifiable deserves all the acclaim it can get). There are two exceptional things about these movies. The first is that they are not, like Musashi Miyamoto or most other Japanese epics, based on a sprawling prose-filled novel, they’re based (loosely) on Kobayashi’s life. Second is that he is such an eloquent and skilled storyteller. The second goes a long way toward explaining the absolutely gorgeous Kwaidan. The other thing that makes these films remarkable is that they are carried by Tatsuya Nakadai, who not four years ago had been an extra in Seven Samurai. It takes real talent to move up that quickly in the film world, and Nakadai could have built a house with his. Watch him in his two early Okamoto films the Sword Of Doom and Kill! He goes from being the very definition of evil to perfectly deadpanning his funniest role in a satire of the samurai films that have made him a star. 

He did everything – comedy, drama, horror, sword play – nothing was too much for Nakadai, and beneath those hollow eyes was someone who could make you believe he was suffering for all of humanity or chillingly making all of humanity suffer. Though Toshiro Mifune gets most of the credit (though I surmise this has more to do with him being older and getting an early start with Rashamon and Seven Samurai. Not that he isn’t terrific…) as Japan’s leading man, I’d almost always prefer Nakadai, who with ten times the subtlety of his grumbling peer gave just as splendid a performance.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Japanese Screams Volume 3

And so it's time to return once again to Doylestown's first and only in depth, online look at Japanese art-horror from the 1960s. The way i see it is that as long as it is the world's only something, it's special, but if I have to settle for something smaller, then so be it. Anyway, we're not here to sell something, we're here to give my favorite Japanese horror films their due, as no one else has the sense to. Today's entry is perhaps the most original ghost story ever put on film.

by Masaki Kobayashi

Masaki Kobayashi knew hardship more than most; though he despised violence, he was sent to the frontlines of World War II and refused promotion because he didn’t want to compromise his beliefs and for his troubles he was taken prisoner (something he supposed to kill himself before he allowed to happen, but if he wasn’t going to take a promotion you can bet he wasn’t taken a sword to the gut either). When he returned he became a film director; a hired gun making pretty dull sounding dramatic pieces. It wasn’t until the late 50s that he made the film he wanted to make, a three piece, nine-hour plus epic called The Human Condition, a dramatization of his experiences in the war. It was lofty, to be sure, but what it proved to everyone was how exquisite a storyteller Kobayashi really was. After making the universally revered Harakiri or Seppuku with his Human Condition leading man Tatsuya Nadakai, he and his team made their first color film, one of the most spectacular, haunting films ever made. I’ve seen more horror films than I know how to sort through, and Kwaidan (which means ghost story) is without competition. Based on stories by Lacfadio Hearn, globetrotting collector of folk tales, Kwaidan is a rarity in Japan’s cinematic legacy: a three hour horror anthology with little to no dialogue, shot in feverish color, where the existence of ghosts is an unspoken truth and in which each story has an identical story arc. Before I being I’d like to say that every visual and sound in this film is perfect. Every last one.

Now, don’t take any of those qualities to mean this is anything short of stunning. The first story The Black Hair shows a samurai who leaves his wife to find fortune, only to realize that he was happier as a married pauper than he is dealing with the squabbles of the rich. He returns several years later and finds his wife right where he left her, exactly the same, except for one small detail. The second story The Snow Woman features Kobayashi’s frequent lead Tatsuya Nadakai as Minokichi an 18-year-old pilgrim (just three years after he played a sexagenarian in Harakiri) and his master who are caught in a blizzard. They seek refuge from the snow in a hut by a river, but the small building doesn’t do much to keep the cold out, or a tall ghastly woman who breathes on the old man, killing him instantly. The woman makes to do the same to Minokichi, but stops, inspecting his youthful countenance and liking what she sees. She tells him that she will let him live as long as he never tells anyone about the events of that evening. Understandably he agrees and it seems Minokichi’s luck has turned around; he meets a beautiful girl who bears him three children and the two of them lead a prosperous life. One night, the light hits his bride’s face just right and it reminds him of something he never told anyone… 

The third story Hoichi The Earless has an image I have never seen bested anywhere. The story unfolds after a battle at sea between the Heike and Genji clans ends with in the death of all involved (the battle scene is unbelievable). Because the site of the battle is supposed to be haunted, a Buddhist temple was built near the site of both the battle and the cemetery where the collected bodies were buried. Hoichi, a blind attendant at the temple is left by himself one night and uses the time to play his biwa, a four-stringed instrument, and sing about the epic battle his bosses were placed to pray over. Well, before too long Hoichi gains an audience of one, after a giant armored man appears from the mist and request Hoichi play for his master, a man of real prestige. Not wanting to offend this powerful man, Hoichi obliges again and again, each time becoming weaker and weaker. Well, before long the head priest (Takashi Shimura, who was in just about every Kurosawa film ever made) is alerted to the ritual, he and his partner can think of only one solution (those of you who’ve seen this picture know what I’m talking about). They paint him from head to toe in a scripture designed to make him invisible to evil spirits, but because nothing horrific has happened yet, we know some grave misfortune is about to befall poor Hoichi; ghosts don’t take no for an answer. The fourth and final story In A Cup Of Tea is both a ghost story and a comment about Japanese literature. An author is cataloging old folk tales (not unlike the ones we’re being told) and stumbles upon one that is only half finished. It concerns a samurai who while on duty makes to drink a cup of tea, but, much to his displeasure, he sees a pale, maniacally smiling face in the reflection of the beverage. Try as this man does, he can’t get rid of the face. Not knowing what else to do, the samurai drinks the tea and the face inside it. That night while on guard duty someone pays him a return visit, and he’s not alone. Before the story closes, we are brought back to the author telling this story, who has a guest of his own. When his landlady can’t find him, she just about has a heart attack when she looks in the old man’s teapot.

Kwaidan, an extension of the prose with which Kobayashi presented the inner conflicts of man and his struggle with societal pressure, is different from any other project he would ever involve himself with. The only horror film he ever attempted, Kwaidan (pronounced Kai-dan) is like a filmic version of one of the songs Hoichi plays on his biwa. Indescribably terrible things happen but their beauty (at least, to a lot of dead Japanese sailors) prevents us from diverting our attention for even a minute. The score here (all nerve-wracking percussion, from the clanking during the Black Hair to the aforementioned Biwa) deserves an oscar for it’s ability to instill fear independent of the images (one of many this film earned but never saw). Interestingly (to me, anyway) the stories Kobayashi chose to film weren’t meant strictly to scare. Two of the tales taken from Hearn’s many volumes on Japanese lore, the Snow Woman and The Black Hair are almost identical to two stories used as fuel for another Japanese filmic masterpiece, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu. Mizoguchi took two parables from Japanese history (as well as one French short story) and tweaked them to craft a broader narrative, which became Ugetsu. The first, The House In The Thicket by Akinari Ueda is about a young man who leaves his wife behind, believing her to have died when samurai besieged their town. When he returns many years later, she is there, just as he left her, but by morning is gone again. Now, granted Kobayashi’s version doesn’t end with an elegy trading between the husband and a neighborhood monk, but the stories are basically the same. The other, A Serpent’s Lust has much in common with the Snow Woman. Japanese films have a history of reinterpretation almost as notorious as American films (Kihachi Okamoto’s Kill! Is a retelling of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, itself a filmic version of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest; the 47 Ronin have had as many films made about them, etc.), and so it’s interesting to see that the same stories can give birth to retellings and inspired tales so wildly different in Japan that it puts the best American remakes to shame.
Before I go I have to speak about the best image this movie has to offer; that of Hoichi covered in the Japanese characters. It is arrestingly beautiful and terrifying in its own right. This image would be haunting in any movie but with the wonderful scene composition Kobayashi provides – the impending horror, the scary music – the image is made thousands of times more urgent. And when Hoichi is called to move about when he is jostled around by the warrior’s ghost, he looks unreal, like a computer generated image, making the scene even more dreamlike and stunning. And no, you don’t get a picture from me, go find the movie and see it for yourself, to see it before hand is to do cheat.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Japanese Screams Volume 2

Welcome back to my look at the underappreciated, beautiful world of Japanese horror films in the 1960s. This time around we have a captivating number from a director whose work is completely unavailable in the US with one exception (well two if you count his documentary on Kenji Mizoguchi, but that thing is so long and meandering it feels more like someone's home movies than it does a documentary).

by Kaneto Shindo
Onibaba (Demon, to us westerners, again, short and to-the-point) begin in 16th century Japan and is proof that anything watched alone and at night is worlds more frightening than the alternatives. The whole country is in crisis and men are fleeing from their positions with their armor still tied to them. It is because of these cowardly acts that two women have managed to survive in their small hut surrounded by miles of tall grass. Their sustenance comes from trading in pilfered goods from weakened samurai to a disgusting entrepreneur who lives in a cave. Samurai hobble in to the grass; the women see to it they don’t hobble out, strip them of their possessions and turn their gear in for food, dumping their bodies in a deep hole in the ground. In the 16th century anywhere, I’m fairly certain this was considered an honest living, and to be fair the women only do this, stay together, because they are bound by the fact that the older of the two women’s son is the younger woman’s fiancée and right now they’re both waiting for him to return from the same war that keeps these alive. Things change irrevocably for the would-be family when Hachi, their deadbeat neighbor with whom their mutual relation joined up with returns without money or company. Clearly, through some fault of Hachi’s, the young man was killed, leaving both women vulnerable. The older woman is content to keep robbing (and making) corpses as if nothing had happened, but the younger woman has more than food on her mind. It isn’t too long before she and Hachi begin making love behind the old woman’s back. Naturally the old woman fears for herself as it would mean having to kill men twice her size without help. Well, the ultimate test of her forced independence comes when one such injured samurai happens upon her hut one night bearing an unlikely gift.

The plot of this film is based on an old Buddhist folktale, one that has essentially the same plot as the Christian hymn that Ulla Isaksson used when writing The Virgin Spring for Ingmar Bergman. Both are cautionary tales that serve to remind women what happens when you don't go to church. Well feminism’s loss was art cinema’s gain. Onibaba is unlike most Japanese movies at the time in nearly every way; the theme, for once, has nothing to do with honor, and doesn’t have as much to do with family as it does the destruction of family (and in a really intriguing way, one that stabs tradition in the gut). The cinematography by Kiyoma Kuroda is perfect; the simultaneously endless and claustrophobic feel has much to do with his camera. The tall grass that surrounds their home hems in the action and it makes for some of the most arresting photography of a decade filled with arresting photography. Kaneto Shindo must have dreamt this film for months before he made it because every image works perfectly; the two women sleeping night after night with their breasts exposed on the straw floor of their hut; the deep hole in the ground that serves as both livelihood and undoing; the young woman’s lustful flight through the grass to Hachi’s hut hundreds of yards away while the remarkable score matches her every step; the entrance of the titular demon; everything is nightmarish while keeping with verisimilitude. If Sheldon Dick or Walker Evans had photographed medieval Japan it would have looked like Onibaba. The music adds to the feel of desperation that haunts the characters; minimalist drum and vocal music that underscores the chase scenes, making something already primal and erotic downright animalistic. I give this film my deepest admiration because though the odds were stacked against it as a horror film (a shock film with but one shock) managed not only to stop my heart when it needed to, but is a wholly unique entry into world cinema. When has a social critique been so completely bare, honest, lush and infinite; so much said with so few words.
Oh and to seek out any plot information or additional photos before seeing this (or any of these films) is to be really mean to yourself. If you don't go into these films with a blank slate you are doing yourself an injustice you will always regret.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Japanese Screams - Volume 1

Though this post doesn’t deal in the living dead, it is of vital importance to anyone who considers themselves an aficionado of the horror film as an art. One of the tenets of horror appreciation is looking to the past to see what light it can shed on the present. For every Hostel or Captivity, there are 10 Twitch of the Death Nerves and Bird with the Crystal Plumages. Sound silly? Of course it is. You’ve been looking at the wrong country. Friends, the true genius of horror films doesn’t come from Italy, so stop looking. All too often is the contribution of one country’s horror output completely overlooked in favor of the naïve and stage charm of ‘Classic’ American Horror (Universal, RKO, AIP, etc.) and the grizzly professionalism of British Horror (Tigon, Hammer, etc.). That isn’t to say there’s nothing to find in either of the two (a casual glance will yield such gems as Cat People, Curse of the Demon, Scream of Fear, Peeping Tom & assorted other beauties), but to me, nobody has given Japan its due in the pre-70s horror genre. There are a number of reasons why Japans contributions have been passed over by the filthy snobs over here in Americatown. To name but three
1. Japan’s sci-fi/Kaiju films
2. Japan’s jazz culture
3. Japan’s cultural output in the last 20 years (pretty sick, no?)
Admittedly, these aren’t glowing recommendations (well, I like the Noise rock the Japanese make: Guitar Wolf, Boris, brilliant!), but back in the 60s, the Japanese knew a thing or two about scaring the bejesus out of you. I’ve spoken briefly of a few of these films, but today, they get special attention. In honor of Halloween (the only holiday that prompts nerds to watch The Ring, Pulse, Takashi Miike films and the like) we’re going to have a look at some films that work not just as fodder for screams, but the fodder of dreams, readers. These movies aren’t just terrifying, their fascinating, which is more than I can say for 30 Days Of Night. I’ve tried to stick to films that not many other B-horror sites have touched on. As far as I can tell, I must be the only one who’s tried Onibaba and the recent rerelease of The Face Of Another means I’m breaking something like new ground.

by Nabuo Nakagawa
At the dawn of the 60s, Japan kicked off the horror decade with Jigoku (literally Hell, already on the right foot), a film whose narrative logic wouldn’t be rivaled until Jacob’s Ladder some 30 years later. What begins as an angel/devil on the shoulder coming of age story about a boy, Shiro falling in love for the first time takes some kind of fucking turn when his friend (Tamura, the devil on his shoulder) runs a guy over. We first meet Tamura when Shiro is at his girlfriend Yukiko’s house eating dinner. We know this guy’s evil because he has dirt on the whole family, somehow. Well Tamura convinces Shiro to just forget about the hit and run, as the man they killed was just a drunk with no family, but he doesn’t forget so easy. Yukiko helps him muster the gumption to turn himself in, but in doing so gets into a car accident that kills Yukiko, who, it turns out was more than a few months pregnant with Shiro’s child. Well, if that that didn’t want to make him kill himself, a visit to his parent’s current residence surely will. Mom and Dad are both in a resting home for lecherous artists, waiting for Death’s cold embrace (Mom will actually depart within a few days of Shiro’s arrival) and Dad’s attempting to have an affair with a woman who looks shockingly like Yukiko, who Shiro has also taken a shine to (slow down there, didn’t your girlfriend die like three weeks ago?). Well, everything comes to a head in about the biggest way ever put on film. 1. The drifter Shiro and Tamura killed turns out to have a family (a wife and mother, both crooked, violent whores bent on avenging their chief bread winner) they come looking for a fight. 2. A big festival is being prepared at the nursing home (the introduction to which is like something from a Wes Anderson film), for which the planning committee caught a boat-load of poisoned fish. 3. Tamura shows up to point out everybody’s faults, and they’ve been drinking. 4. Shiro accidentally throws both Tamura and the dead drifter’s girlfriend off the same bridge. 5. Yukiko’s parents show up. One by one the elements begin stacking up until you couldn’t possibly accept another coincidence…and that’s about when everyone eats the poisoned fish and Tamura’s ghost shows up.

Wow, that’s a handful. Well, would you believe me if I said everything except the death of Yukiko was completely irrelevant? Of course not, that’s ridiculous. Well, everyone dies from the poison and we spend part III in Hell where Enma, King of Hell assigns everyone the punishment they deserve. The following nightmare world may have influenced everyone from Takashi Miike to Lucio Fulci to George A. Romero to the makers of Japanese cinema for the next 47 years to every graphic novelist born after 1980. I say maybe because I have no proof that Jigoku was seen by another living soul following its premiere. Its criterion release a few years ago marks the first time it became available to the English speaking world. Either way the images we see are enough to inspire a lifetime of horror. We see a river of blood, teeth forked out, eyes gouged out, heads pulled from bodies, legs from torsos, a sea of blind people, rows of heads buried in dirt, disembodied limbs grabbing at nothing, and all manner of spiny demons and giant hoary puppets doling out fiery torture. The blood and maiming depicted (In shocking supersaturated Eastmancolor) was as graphic as it had ever been in films up till then (and for a few years afterwards). This, as El Santo from 1000 Misspent Hours pointed out to me, beat Blood Feast to the punch in terms of sheer gore by about three years. The same year Herschell Gordon Lewis aimed for Drive-in audiences, Hitchcock released The Birds, which showed similarly gouged out eyes to a markedly larger audience. Jigoku observes the rich Japanese tradition of introducing many more plot threads than one can keep track of, something Nikkatsu maverick Seijun Suzuki would perfect in the coming years. The ending, which is what really makes you rethink your life, features Shiro trying to rescue his unborn/redead crying baby from a spinning fiery wheel. It’s jarring enough considering a lifetime in what the Japanese consider Hell, but worse when you realize the terrifying struggle Shiro had to put up with in the first acts doesn’t compare to the misery that awaits him afterwards. What makes this feel so positively evil is that Shiro doesn’t really do anything to incur an eternity of having his head gnawed on by goblins. He’s just a meak high school student with the worst luck in the history of film (or at least until Audition). And all this from the director of The Vampire Moth. Jigoku was remade officially 3 times and ripped off more times than one can count. Someone had to break the barrier.
The highest compliment I think I can pay to Jigoku is that I used to have recurring nightmares as a child that look like this movie. No joke; river of blood, big monster that resembles Enma pretty closely, scary infinity complex. Maybe that's why this got to me the way that it did...and why I don't think I'll be seeking it out for a second viewing anytime soon.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Happy Birthday Nick/Arcade Fire!

This past weekend the congregation made a visit to Randall's Island to watch our biggest influence and communal favorite band The Arcade Fire, a band with as many as 11 people at a given time, most of them Canadians. I don't want to brag about how much fun we had, but look carefully at the screaming head beneath Will's arms and you may get an idea.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Killing Yourself To Live, and Also Just To Die.

Don Sharp started his career making bad movies, some of them Hammer films, some of them sub-Hammer. He made some of the new Fu-Manchu films with Christopher Lee in the 60s and ended his career making bad horror films in the 80s with Dr. Who-esque make-up effects. Bad All Around. Had I bothered looking into this I may have been able to convince myself not to watch Psychomania or as I call it, the reason George Sanders killed himself. Luckily, I have the internet, which means that I can watch terrible Zombie films free of charge. So, for this reason I would like to thank Liketelevision.com, a pretty damn good source for free movies, and if you don’t mind sacrificing quality you can feast on everything from terrible B-horror, to public domain Kurosawa. Anyway, finding Liketelevision.com was what led me to finally pull this one off of my Netflix queue and give it a once-over. This movie completely exceeded my expectation of silly, made-up rituals; this films features rites and ceremonies the stupidity of which rivals even the most contrived voodoo movies. It went a little something like this:

by Don Sharp

Some kids in a gang called The Living Dead (with matching biker outfits with embroidered names) cruise around the director’s backyard in between stone formations meant to look like Stone Hedge in Curse of the Demon. Anyway, the leader’s name is Tom and his mom is a psychic. She and her butler/servant/lover(?) Shadwell (George Sanders, far and away the only name and possibly the palest actor in this film's awfully pale roster) run a non-profit seer ring out of her home and belong to a cult that worships frogs that only live in cemeteries (we’ll be seeing a lot of this frog before the end, too much). Anyway, Tom lets us in on the plot by asking, quite out of the blue, some unmotivated questions. “What happened to my father? What’s the secret of the living dead? Why don’t you ever seem to age, Shadwell?” Well, glad we’re not fucking around anymore, oh wait, yes we are. The whole film is an exercise in fucking around. Tom goes into a room and almost dies (???) and the only thing that saves him is the frog medallion that Shadwell gives him. Anyway, his mom tells him that as long as you want to come back, you could die and come back and live forever. That’s an awfully thin criteria for eternal existence. With this in mind, Tom sets a plan into action, a plan that will allow him to fuck around forever. The next we see Tom and the Living Dead, they’re fucking around downtown, scaring women with babies and performing other important services for the community when Tom kills himself by driving off a bridge. Tom’s girlfriend Abby persuades his mom to lend them the body so they can bury it in their own way, which by the way means singing a pre-recorded folk song while they bury Tom sitting up right on his motorcycle (we’ll revisit this, I assure you). So, Tom wills himself back to life and the position he was buried him allows him to come riding out of the ground and then start his revolution. He soon convinces the other members of the gang to do likewise and we are treated to a goofy montage of the gang killing themselves in incredibly elaborate ways while Tom watches from the wings. Then they start fucking around again, messing up a grocery store, confounding authorities with their undead antics. The only hitch is that Abby isn’t dead, nor does she want to be. So, the gang gives her an ultimatum just as Mom has second thoughts about giving her son the secret to eternal high-jinx. A race against time? Well, no, not really. Oh and the frog makes a bunch more appearances.

Ok, given the tepid pace, the goofy overtones, the pale skin, the bad prog soundtrack, the nature of the hooliganry on display, this movie feels more like a British biker film than a zombie film. Maybe because the only Zombies are actually just the same bratty malcontents we’ve been dealing with all along. Their behavior is childish at best and doesn’t change at all when they discover the secret to eternal life. It’s a pretty big deal, eternity, but these guys choose to ignore it completely and just do their normal jackass routine. Also, not a second of this film takes place at night and none of it is the least bit menacing. Everything, from the frog imagery to the mass suicide of six bikers is treated with the utmost nonchalance that only a true halfwit could have produced this kind of torpid radge.

Now lets go to my favorite part of the movie; Tom’s funeral. I believe it was at this point that George Sanders took a long draught from his hipflask and thought “I worked with Hitchcock. I was in Picture of Dorian Gray! What the hell happened to my career?” You can practically see him planning it all in his head as he drops off a frog medallion to a group of pasty bikers in a second rate youth-gone-wild film. Anyway, in the scene Abby and the gang adorn Tom’s body with flowers slowly and thoughtfully, all of them dressed in street clothes. All the while one of the members of the gang strums a guitar and sings, but the song we hear has very obviously been recorded in a studio with reverb added to it. The song is clearly supposed to be about Tom, but it had more to do with trying to be like Easy Rider than it did with the movie. The lyrics sound like this “He really got it on, he rode that sweet machine just like a bomb” All the while Tom’s body is sticking out of a hole in the ground with his helmet and uniform on like he’s been taxidermed. It’s like something from Strangers With Candy.

What this film ultimately proves to me is that as you begin to close in on the last of a genre’s offerings, you find films that have little to nothing to do with that genre or any of its conventions. For every Night Of The Living Dead, a film that takes a genre and turns it on it’s head in a revolutionary kind of way, there is a Psychomania, a film that takes an approach found in another genre and attempts to squeeze blood from an idea so dead it invites a funeral more ludicrous than Toms.

Horror Express
by Eugenio Martin

This movie, another sub-Hammer vessel about a yeti who controls minds, is an absurdly stupid picture with one inspired effect and one scene that approaches being scary. One might get the impression that this is a Hammer film what with the presence of both Christopher Lee & Peter Cushing, but look around at all the Italian and Spanish names in front of and behind the camera and suddenly everything becomes much clearer. Another tip-off should have been the heedless cruelty, rivalry and positively absurd scientific deductions made by Lee and Cushing.

Are story starts humbly enough with the archeological find of the 20th century. It’s 1919 Siberia and Christopher Lee has just found a frozen yeti and believes it’s the missing link. He takes the frozen monkey on a train bound for civilization. On the train, quite by coincidence, is his friend Dr. Peter Cushing, also a count, a countess, a psychotic monk, and an armed detective. Anyway, some folks begin dying almost right away, their bodies found with bleeding white eyes. Cushing suspects something and pays a porter to check the big crate marked “not an eye-eating yeti” and in doing so becomes missing-link food, but this has served to release the thing from it’s crate and start what will be some dynamite scientific thinking. Anyway, the monk figures this thing’s gotta be satan, so he finds it and offers his body as a host and the thing graciously agrees. Soon after the detective shoots the hairy creature and all is well. That is until our men of science decide that the source of evil was the creature’s glowing red eyes (the films one decent effect, even if they are obviously just LEDs). Upon examining the eyes they (SOMEHOW) are able to look at the images stored in the eyeballs memory. First we see matte painting of a dinosaur, then a matte painting of outer space. Now if it were me, this information leads to only one conclusion, that they’ve discovered the fabled space ape, but our boys aren’t as easily satisfied as I am. They decide that this is actually just an alien that took over this apeman and survives by sucking brains (hence the bleeding white eyes of the victims). Before they have time to think about finding out which passenger has been taken as a host, some Cossack soldiers board the train in the hopes of hijacking it, I think, or maybe just to rob it, who knows. What’s important is that the hardened captain of these Russians is a very not-Russian Telly Savalas*. They board the train but before they can do any damage or scare anyone they start battling the alien. It wins. It kills all the soldiers in a dark room and sucks their brains, turning them into red-eyed zombies who want more brains.
Ok, well, it could have been a lot worse, I guess. Apparently Cushing almost didn’t do this film, not because he opposed to the laughable plot or subject matter, but because his wife had died recently. Christopher Lee, seeing what an undeniable blockbuster this was going to be, sat him down and said “Come on, Pete, remember House That Dripped Blood? Remember Satanic Rites of Dracula? We have an obligation to our fans. And besides this one seems special. Did you hear they got Kojak to be a commie?”

*Telly Savalas as a russian? Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu was pretty atrocious, but seriously? They didn’t even bother trying make-up or a real accent or anything; they had their star and didn’t give a good goddamn about anything else. If you were making a film today that called for a Russian and Keannu Reeves had signed on, I guess you wouldn’t care either. Or maybe it’s because the budget was $300,000 and they spent all their money getting names on the marquee and it didn’t matter what they did. Maybe they did what Roger Vadim and Raoul Levy did when they hired Curd Jürgens to be in …And God Created Women, they just took 8 hours and rewrote the script to include a juicy part for an old german so he wouldn’t say “Fuck You” and take his famous ass elsewhere.
And between these two films we have the only reason that Arnaud d'Usseau will be remembered for anything

Monday, September 3, 2007

R.I.P. Terry Gilliam

This isn't about zombies, but I feel so utterly alone that I felt it was important enough to give the film I just watched a write-up. The plot of Terry Gilliam's Tideland is one you can find on Wikipedia, so, I'll just skip it. The point of this post is that I am rarely confronted by feelings so strong as to confuse my senses and stifle my reaction so heavily. When Tideland ended I didn't know how to feel. I was sad, yes. I was angry, a little. I was pleased, perversely, but only slightly. Few films have elicited this kind of reaction from me (Jigoku is the strongest example I can think of. The Dreamers, Day of Wrath, I Spit On Your Grave and Funny Games came very close. I anticipate this response from Salo, if I ever find the damn thing). Bottom line: I've felt like this few times in my life. But look at that list. They are either obscure foreign genre pictures or new school art-house grime with some kind of pornographic message about the absence of purity in the world. And more importantly, they have all been just about forgotten save by the Criterion Collection and a handful of diehards, myself included. Why? My theory, as I'm sure there are dozens, is called the Death of the American Intellectual.

This is a theory that I've slowly been refining in an effort to make sure that it makes sense. Tideland was given a good, hard kick in the face by American critics and audiences alike and will now live on as a small scale Munchausen to put on Terry Gilliam's shelf of failures next to Death of Don Quixote. Let's take the side of the critic for a minute. Why would I, as an intellectual who is paid to watch films and sees quite a few watch a two hour film about a little girl who helps her parents shoot smack, then watch them die, befriend a retarded man and his deranged sister who have taxidermed their loved ones and do the same to the girl's dad, while reality slowly peels away, she hears the voices of her dolls' heads, she begins a courtship with the handicapped man, bleeds inexplicably and is saved only when a train crashes nearby, killing unseen passengers. Put all of these things in Gilliam's signature jaunty, all-too-close lens and you have an incredibly confrontational head trip that gives you no choice but to consider things your mind would never have subjected you to, even in your nightmares. Ok, so, like Owen Gleiberman from Entertainment Weekly, we give the film an F, shall we? It has no merit and the disgust I'm feeling is explained by the horrible things I just watched, end of story.

Now, let's take my point of view. When something disgusts, scares, upsets or makes you feel unpleasant, isn't it half the fun of being a human being to ask why? Spiders drive me insane. Why? The movement of their many legs perhaps. The quickness with which many of them scuttle across surfaces of clashing color. The alien shape of their bodies. Why did they haunt my childhood dreams? Why do I jump at the sight of them? Why do I seek out movies that feature them prominently? I've slowly gotten to a certain level of understanding of their existence to not be as terrified of them as I once was. What was all that about? If sitting through Tideland only made you think about how much you hated the movie, you're not thinking at all.

This is not an ordinary movie, nor is it one that anyone should really enjoy (In a Fear & Loathing kind of way), but it is mesmerizing. A movie that covers so many forbidden topics is not out to repulse you (well, some of you), but to make you think; to show you something you've never seen or even considered before. Any film that can make me feel so completely uncomfortable exists for a reason. It wasn't a squemish sort of discomfort, but something else entirely. My mind was being attacked by the possibility of these things ever happening. The story, though told by someone with a vivid imagination, is grounded in reality, and this scares me in a way very little else does. This could have been the hellish American Pan's Labyrinth it's been made out to be by some (God knows Gilliam would have been capable of making it), but he didn't just make a special effects movie or a simple horror movie. He made a movie that shook me to my very core. I had to repress the urge to say, "How can you do this?" many, many times while watching Tideland. If while watching this movie, you're only thought was "How much longer till the end?" you ought to be ashamed of yourself. America, its attention span, its appreciation for art, and its tolerance are vanishing quickly. Killed off by commercial films, advertisements and the lightning quick rate of production of things like cell phones and pop music. Exhibit A: Ingmar Bergman is dead and I can't find a soul in my film class who's even heard of him. Exhibit B: Tideland's approval rating. Some journalist compared it to Malpertius recently, in that in 30 years, it will have found its niche. 30 years? Find me someone under 20 who's seen the Seventh Seal, and then we'll go looking for the guy who's seen Malpertius. The reason we are so quick to forget about Tideland is because it was in danger of making us think. Isn't it strange that someone who has made such commercially and artistically successful films as Brazil and Meaning of Life would out of the blue try and gross you out with a story involving a kid cooking heroin for Jeff Bridges. NO! Doesn't anyone else think he's trying to tell us something by refusing to make movies people approve of? America doesn't like thinking anymore, especially about things that distress us. Case in point: The War! If something isn't both commercially appealing and pleasant to think about, America could give a rat's ass about the message it's sending. Sure, it's got one of the strongest performances ever given by a child, beautiful photography, an inspired, touching musical score, and is unconventional in every sense of the word, but where are the tits and gay jokes? I'm not dreaming this right? Tideland occupies one space at Blockbuster, but I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry is grossing 400 million dollars as we live and breathe. The Death of the American Intellectual is a very real thing and it's being carried out by a number of perpetrators: Joel Silver, Jerry Bruckheimer, Adam Sandler, MTV, Youtube, Fox and anything or anyone else that keeps attention spans short, expectations high and standards low. Read a book, watch an Antonioni film, find a Georgia O'Keefe exhibit (even if it's online), whatever you do, don't settle for flash, and don't stop because it makes you think.

They say this is what's going to kill Terry Gilliam's career. I say it's already started killing something intangible and Gilliam's career is just one casualty. Though, that doesn't mean that if he were never to find backing for a film again I wouldn't stage a sit-in at the closest movie theatre. Our greatest artists are dying everyday, and we are watching them go without any recognition of the bright light they brought to the earth in their short time here. Let's not cut short the careers of the few artists still breathing.

Saturday, September 1, 2007


Here are pictures of the desert treats we enjoyed at Zombie Night 2007. Thank you to bakers Rachel, Lina and Maggie. Lina, i'm not sure what happened to your desert, but it was delicious

Severed Leg Cake

Finger Cookies

Announcement Cupcakes

Zombie Head Cake (I like to think it's the lead from Zombie Lake)

Disembodied Hand Cake

Tombstone Brownies (complete with epitaph for tasteful zombie movies)