Thursday, October 30, 2014
      ( 6:26 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Now here's an example of just how a bomb ticking under the table is more effective than the explosion--1957's The Abominable Snowman, which features very little of that titular creature. Which is the right idea because instead of a man in a suit, the movie menaces us with ominous atmosphere and anxious characters.

Released two years before the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, the movie begins with a group of three English scientists staying in a monastery in the Himalayas ostensibly to study local plant life. Though one of them, Dr. Rollason (Peter Cushing), is also secretly motivated by a lifelong interest in discovering a yeti.

This is one of the best roles of Cushing's career. He's the central character and we see things from his point of view in almost every scene. It's a Hammer film but the screenplay by Nigel Kneale, creator of The Quatermass Experiment (and to whom John Carpenter made numerous references in Prince of Darkness), gives Cushing a character more complex than Hammer's version of Van Helsing and more solidly written than Hammer's version of Dr. Frankenstein. The Lama (Arnold Marle) warns Rollason that the search for the yeti is really a dangerous path towards confrontation with himself--something that Rollason doesn't understand since, of course, the statement doesn't make a lot of sense on the surface. But the Lama doesn't warn him emphatically like the villagers in Dracula. The more hands off approach of the Buddhist monk to free will nonetheless assists in creating a sense of spiritual danger.

For physical danger, there's Rollason's wife, Helen (Maureen Connell), who begs her husband not to accompany a small American expedition that shows up, intent on tracking down the yeti in the winter snows when the creature is forced to come to lower altitudes for food. Although Rollason's an experienced climber, his wife is worried because of an injury he'd sustained on a previous expedition and she feels great hostility towards her husband's obsession with the yeti legend. When he agrees to join the Americans, it feels like he's betraying her. Added to the disapproval of the local spiritual authority, and the fact that the Americans seem like a rather untrustworthy bunch, there's already a heavy weight of wrongness about Rollason's quest.

Cushing's the perfect actor for it, too, coming off as both sensitive and vulnerable but steely.

Shot in black and white, the Himalayas rendered with indoor sets, matte paintings, and some location shots not featuring the actors nonetheless come together effectively creating the sense of treacherous mountains and people. There's a sense that the yeti, or the act of pursuing the yeti, may be influencing the situation in some way beyond human comprehension, an almost Lovecraftian dread not unlike that portrayed in At the Mountains of Madness as a scientific expedition confronts the snows of Antarctica.

Everyone, Cushing in particular, works so well we only need a little bit from the yeti to seal the deal on this movie and that little bit is impressive. A shining example of minimalist special effects and creating impressions through characters describing things to other characters and then having those impressions influence partly obscured shots of the creatures themselves. A really nice movie.

Well, to-morrow's Halloween and I have eighteen more movies to watch. I may do a marathon to-morrow, blogging reviews in between each movie. I could think of worse ways to spend Halloween.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014
      ( 3:28 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

William S. Burroughs famously said there's one mark you can't beat, the mark inside. Perhaps he also ought to have included hellbeasts and horror writers whose books alter reality. A canny insurance investigator played by Sam Neill in 1995's In the Mouth of Madness finds himself up against just such an opponent and his years sniffing out dubious insurance claims are of no help. The third and final film in John Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy, it's the most superficially Lovecraftian though it doesn't as effectively tap Lovecraftian horror as the first film in the trilogy, The Thing. In the Mouth of Madness is the weakest of the trilogy but it is not without charms.

We're introduced to Sam Neill's John Trent in an asylum where he's locked away, raving, getting a lot of mileage out of one black crayon, before David Warner shows up to interview him. Trent tells his story and he's introduced again, decimating a phoney insurance claim. He seems like he's modelled a bit on Walter Neff in Double Indemnity and the oddly 1940s hairstyles of some of the women in the film and some of the banter he has with Styles (Julie Carmen) pleasantly recall classic films noir, an interesting shift in tone from the first two films of the trilogy.

Styles is an editor for Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) who publishes the works of author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). Cane seems to be a cross between Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, his books about tentacle monsters and Old Ones being obvious Lovecraft references but he has the vast commercial success and celebrity of a Stephen King.

Trent is brought in apparently to track down Cane, who's gone missing. Harglow is submitting an insurance claim worth millions of dollars to recoup costs from merchandising and sold overseas rights to a book Cane didn't deliver before disappearing. Trent thinks he smells a rat, he thinks it's a publicity stunt, though I'm not sure why he thinks a major publisher would commit such obvious insurance fraud for a publicity stunt.

He eventually realises there's a map of New Hampshire hidden in the covers of Cane's books leading to his frequently used and perhaps not so fictional town, Hobb's End. Harglow sends Styles with him to investigate.

Hobb's End, with its variety of weirdness, feels actually more like Stephen King's Castle Rock than any of Lovecraft's towns but there are several clear references to Lovecraft, including a hotel called Pickman with a painting inside. And there's a church somewhat resembling the one from "The Haunter of the Dark".

I rather wish the film had played around more with Trent's cleverness, playing up the Walter Neff inspiration and have his schemes and insights deployed throughout the story but once the supernatural stuff is set in motion he doesn't have much to do except insist he doesn't believe in the supernatural and no-one pulls his strings.

But the real flaw in this movie is that Cane's writing seems to be coming to life. I almost always find this kind of story a bit tedious and redundant. So the story within a story just turns out to be a story. It's all still fiction to me. Though it wouldn't be so bad if the concept were a springboard for something. I think this device is one of the weaker points of the Doctor Who serial The Mind Robber but at least that story uses it as fodder for something else. In In the Mouth of Madness, it basically takes away Trent's distinguishing characteristics and brings everything to a stop except the running around, which feels pretty pointless once we realise Trent is dealing with omnipotent forces.

It's true, Lovecraft's work very effectively uses some godlike beings, but even Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep are bound by rules that give a main character a chance for escape, even if those boundaries happen only to be disinterest or distance. Like Alfred Hitchcock said, it's the bomb ticking under the table that puts the audience on edge, not the actual explosion.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014
      ( 4:37 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

One of the biggest mistakes made by religious people who attack or deny science is to treat science as another religion, like a belief system. Horror fiction about scientists who "lose their faith" when confronted with evidence of God or the Devil suggests this point of view. Though, in reality, science is more methodology than belief system and if the existence of God were confirmed by evidence there would be nothing unscientific about it, very much the opposite. John Carpenter's 1987 film Prince of Darkness seems half aware of this. The second in Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy, which began with The Thing, is much more muddled than the first instalment which was a clear tale of extraterrestrial menace. I found Prince of Darkness to be an enjoyable film but its story about a Satan of perhaps extraterrestrial origin slides a little more into the camp camp than its brilliant predecessor.

Donald Pleasence, who plays "the priest", gets top billing and he's the best actor in the film but most of the screen time goes to the very cheesy Brian (Jameson Parker).

Not exactly Kurt Russell, is he? Before things get rolling, we witness him wooing the female lead, Catherine (Lisa Blount) who is offended by a sexist joke he tells before he apologises, ask that they start over, and there's a jump cut to them waking up in bed together, a period of impressive charisma on his part apparently being taken as read.

In bed, Catherine stops him from saying something, perhaps "I love you." "How do you know what I'm going to say?" he asks and she says, "If you're not going to say it, I don't want to know." This references back to a discussion she'd had with another student about Schrodinger's Cat and the movie begins with a lot of discussion of realities that occur because they are witnessed, discussions of quantum physics where observing the data actually influences it.

Some credit ought to go to Carpenter perhaps for bringing this up well before 1990s and 2000s New Age gurus bogarted the concept. It's a shame it's not used to summon Satan more often.

I'm not sure if any real connexion is made between quantum physics and the main story about Pleasence keeping a mysterious, swirling green cloud in a capsule in a church basement and taking the time to keep a whole lot of candles lit around it.

Victor Wong plays Professor Black who teaches at the university attended by Brian and Catherine. Black is old friends with the Priest who begs his assistance. Black gathers a bunch of students of a variety of specialities to sleep over in the church and analyse the capsule.

Black is the secular authority counterpart to the Priest and over the course of the movie both are forced to admit that what they believed was wrong and that a sinister truth somewhere in the middle is the reality. Black postulates that we all really live in a sort of antimatter universe, that while God may be real, he exists in another universe. The influence of Lovecraft's Old Ones is apparent in the film as Black and the Priest realise that all knowledge of God and Satan originated from an extraterrestrial source.

There is something effectively frightening, and Lovecraftian, in the sense of a universe without order or benevolent influence.

And homeless people outside, including Alice Cooper, get possessed, so do some of the students, there are a lot of unexplained insects and worms and murder and general mayhem. And some of it really is effectively creepy. I had two favourite bits:

One student who's possessed seems horrified by her altered appearance glimpsed in a mirror but then reaches through the mirror calling "Father!".

My other favourite thing was a dream everyone has that seems to be a transmission from the future bearing some ominous warning but is always gets cut off. It's left largely unexplained and something about the ambiguity is really effectively scary.

Mostly the conceptual ambiguity of the film renders it an inferior version of The Thing. But it's not bad.

Twitter Sonnet #680

The luminous liquorice house sees all.
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Monday, October 27, 2014
      ( 4:28 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

On an island filled with animals altered through brutal surgery to walk upright and speak like human beings, a perfectly ordinary human being is the monster. Well, "perfectly ordinary" isn't accurate, Charles Laughton in 1932's Island of Lost Souls as Dr. Moreau is absolutely extraordinary. The epitome of men who value their own ingenuity above compassion, simultaneously evocative of a very common sort of man as well as the Nazi and the big game hunter. The first American adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, it diverges significantly from the source material in some ways but is, largely for Laughton and for Kathleen Burke as "the Panther Woman", a surprising and enjoyable film.

Burke is unnamed in the opening, credited as just "the Panther Woman" as though the filmmakers had actually cast a woman who was half woman, half panther. An amusing piece of carnival mentality influencing the production. Burke does do a nice job of capturing something essentially panther like in her movements and in her face. Certainly the makeup helps.

Lantern jawed Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) rebuffs her when he notices she still has panther claws. I don't think that would have stopped most sane people in the audience watching the film. She really is great.

Bela Lugosi is in the film as well, barely recognisable under thick facial hair, but Laughton, as I've said, is the main event. He gives a remarkably naturalistic performance for 1932, lounging about his fortress like home and "House of Pain" laboratory. His believe in his absolute control over the island is so great, though, he readily hands Parker his gun just to put his mind at ease.

All he needs, he believes, to hold back the "natives" is a whip and gong. And he seems to be right.

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Sunday, October 26, 2014
      ( 5:45 PM ) posted by Setsuled  
Really hungover to-day. Halloween candy and whisky last night. I don't even normally like candy but I get a sweet tooth every year at around this time. I got a big bag full of little Hershey bars, pumpkin shaped Reese's Peanut Butter things, pumpkin shaped York Peppermint Patties, and Mr. Goodbars. Chocolate and whisky, it kind of worked.

Still watching the horror movies. I have a pretty big pile now and people keep giving me more recommendations. Last night's really wasn't remarkable enough for a whole entry--1973's Theatre of Blood starring Vincent Price as a stage actor taking bloody revenge on all the critics who called his acting over the top. Which turns out to have been quite a few critics and judging from the broad way Price delivers all his many Shakespearean quotes in the film his character really earned the bad reviews.

The movie has a rather impressive cast, including Diana Rigg as Price's daughter and accomplice. They kill off the critics one by one in ways imitating Shakespeare plays and it's all mild, campy fun.

Diana Dors has a small role as the wife of one of the critics whom Price gives the Othello treatment. He pretends to be a masseuse and gives Dors massages until her husband is tipped off to show up at a strategic time one day. It's nice to see she was allowed to be kind of sexy in the brief part.

The night before last, I watched Three . . . Extremes, an anthology film featuring three stories, the first by Chinese director Fruit Chan, the second by South Korean director Park Chan-wook, and the third by Japanese director Takashi Miike. Miike's is the only one that's really any good, though Chan-wook's has some cool visuals, set mostly in this room;

I would love to live in this room and blue is my least favourite colour. Just look at those chess knight statues;

Fruit Chan's film had Bai Ling and was about a woman who cooks aborted foetuses into dumplings for women who eat them in an effort to preserve or resurrect their youthful looks. This is the concept, I think--each story had to be "extreme." The macabre humour at play isn't dissimilar to Theatre of Blood though I wonder if Vincent Price wouldn't baulk at a story about eating human foetuses. I can take just about anything in fiction form but I think a lot of people would find it in unbearably bad taste especially since it serves only a very superficial story. Chan-wook's short is also pretty thin, being a Saw style thought exercise about a madman holding captives who have to decide whether they're willing to kill each other to live. And like Saw, it's not half as profound as it thinks it is. I've seen a few of Chan-wook's films and so far Oldboy is the only one that really succeeds and it is strikingly different from the others. Largely because of its sense of humour which I don't think is necessary to humanise characters and make them appreciably complex but that's exactly what it does in Oldboy's case. His other films in his "Vengeance Trilogy" feel sort of one note and puerile in comparison, the humour and action in Oldboy are the ingredients needed to make the grimness of Chan-wook's ideas really work.

Anyway, Miike's short film, "Box", works from within its characters rather than forcing the characters awkwardly into some thought exercise. One feels a sense of relief just from its opening shots of a man burying something in the snow next to an enormous tree.

We don't know what he's burying or why but we're soon after introduced to Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa), the main character, and the short film consists of her jumbled memories and dreams of a twin sister with whom she performed as a child in a magic show.

The short film ends up being a sort of mysterious and beautiful rumination on how connexions work between people, guilt and resentment and the way the two feelings can never be properly answered with logic.

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Saturday, October 25, 2014
      ( 4:34 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

To-day's Doctor Who episode was written by the guy who wrote the screenplay to 2002's 24 Hour Party People, Frank Cottrell Boyce. I haven't seen the movie in a long time but I remember finding it somewhat informative though not brilliant. It's hard to believe the guy who wrote about the success and death of Ian Curtis wrote the series of pulled punches that was to-day's Doctor Who, "In the Forest of the Night", a title that comes from the William Blake poem that ponders the existence of irredeemably destructive forces in the world. But the episode, particularly the absolutely wretched final moment (which I won't spoil), seems to argue that everything, everywhere, is actually fine.

Apart from this, there were a few things I liked about the episode. I thought Capaldi was particularly good in this one. There were a few lines I really liked--the little girl not asking why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside because, she explained, she just thought it was supposed to be. I liked the Doctor's line about how people who have lost something are able to hear things others can't because they're listening harder, unable to give up hope.

The bottomless pit of solid dull that is Danny Pink has gotten to be sort of fascinating. He ought to be called Danny Monochrome. The absolute lack of life in his performance is so apparent it's only slightly less strange than if an inert Bob's Big Boy statue were cast in the role and everyone acted like it was talking. He's got to be some . . . dream or something, some blank spot on everyone's memory that explains why they didn't notice a Cybermen invasion in the finale. Something like that. Like the Silence who can't be remembered when you're not looking at them, no-one notices the guy who plays Danny Pink can't act.

All of a sudden the characters were talking about the Doctor being the last of his species again. Didn't the anniversary special establish pretty definitively this wasn't the case? Where does he think his extra regenerations came from in the Christmas special? Watching "The Fires of Pompeii" recently reminded me how much the Last of His Species thing used to be part of the show. Maybe Cottrell Boyce wrote this script a long time ago.

Speaking of things that were written a while ago, I read the new Sirenia Digest this morning which includes "The Rest of the Wrong Thing", a short story Caitlin wrote with Billy Martin in 2001. It was a good story about a mysterious object and a quest to return it to the place of death and destruction it came from, the value in the story coming mainly from descriptions of feelings inspired by the weird object, something Caitlin has always been good at. The story being from 2001 allows one to reflect on just how long Caitlin has been finding fresh ways of doing this. At the same time, I recognise some aspects of her older work that aren't quite as prevalent now, like the fact that her stories now aren't quite as filled with intensely insecure, constantly bickering young characters. I'm pretty confident which parts of the story were written by Martin for this reason. It'd been quite a while since I've read any of Billy Martin's work and it's a shame he seems to have retired from writing. "The Rest of the Wrong Thing" exhibits some of his remarkable, concise, clear eyed style. I tend to associate Martin's style with Harlan Ellison for some reason, maybe because when I first picked up one of Martin's books I read a blurb by Ellison on the back (when Martin was still writing as Poppy Z. Brite). There's a confidant volatility I perceive more in Ellison's voice but there's something similar about how nicely both authors seem to step out of the way of their subjects. Which of course, they aren't really doing because they're creating the subject--this stepping away is a brilliant illusion and helps to lend a sense of reality to their fictional worlds.

Twitter Sonnet #679

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Friday, October 24, 2014
      ( 2:33 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

Some people survived the beat generation, some people survived 1960s counter culture, and some vampires survived centuries. According to Jim Jarmusch's 2014 film Only Lovers Left Alive, that last group has a lot in common with the first two. It's a film a with a perfect cast, gorgeous production design and costumes, and is overall a dreamy ramble through yet another permutation of vampire fiction.

Vampires Adam and Eve (probably not the biblical characters) are a married couple played incomparably by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. According to Wikipedia, Michael Fassbender was originally cast as Adam but I'd say Hiddleston works equally well and maybe it's not a bad idea to ease off on the Fassbender saturation a little, as good as he is.

The two live separately, Adam in Detroit, Eve in Tangiers.

The film opens with slowly spiralling, slowly pulling in shots from the ceilings of each vampire's apartment, dissolving back and forth with a spinning record in between.

The dissolves, along with highly amplified electric guitar distortion, become the aesthetic bedrock of the film, the softly rippling surface on which everything else floats. As usual, the vampires are unfathomably wealthy and like artists of the counter-cultural movements seem to feel a mixture of profound empathy for and alienation from society.

Swinton's reunited with her Snowpiercer co-star John Hurt who plays Christopher Marlowe, also living in Tangiers. We learn he secretly authored most of Shakespeare's plays and seems to be the movie's analogue for William S. Burroughs who also lived in Tangiers and was a sort of high priest in the beat generation, being the oldest, the most self possessed, and having had perhaps the most profoundly painful experiences. He's able to acquire the "good stuff"--blood, in this world, apparently being threatened world wide by contamination, reminiscent of sexually transmitted diseases that checked 1960s free love culture.

Mia Wasikowska shows up at Adam's place as Ava, Eve's sister, though not "by blood". Despite the fact that Eve shares Adam's misgivings about Ava's destructive behaviour, Eve is still motivated by an ideal of faith in love that had initially compelled her to adopt Ava has a sister in some bygone, more hedonistic time. It's not hard to guess what happens when Adam and Eve go to bed and Adam sternly tells Ava to let his friend Ian (Anton Yelchin) go home in just a little while, in this case the movie almost works as a parody of typical movies about drug fuelled artistic subculture.

The argument the movie seems to be making with its allegory is that drugs, for all their drawbacks, are necessary. Adam scores blood from a nearby hospital but in one way or another, even he and Eve are forced to prey on others for what they need, though not as luridly as Ava. The trade-off is centuries of artistic achievement Adam has secretly contributed to the world.

But the argument's not as simplistic as that--Eve apparently is more muse than artist herself. She comes to Detroit to chide Adam out of a depression though, in the very contemporary, realistic portrayal of Detroit, Adam has plenty of reasons to be depressed. He shows Eve a car factory that has long ago shut down and a gorgeous theatre that has now become a parking lot.

It's a contradiction that Anne Rice first explored in her books, the vampire as both the bottom feeder and the extraordinarily illuminating lens for humanity's higher sensibilities.

And they play chess. This morning I analysed the game Adam and Eve play in one scene and I was delighted to see they were playing from a legitimate position that reflected the interaction between the two characters. I had a hard time transposing the position because the pieces they use look rather similar to one another but I finally managed it and reconstructed it:

It's such a perfect reflection of the characters--Adam, playing black, has essentially sacrificed most of his pieces in favour of one powerful piece, his queen. Just as he believes in larger gestures and has a more dramatic and final impression of the world while Eve sees value in taking in a variety of media without making huge strides herself. So at the beginning of the scene, she takes his queen with her bishop at b6. She maintains calm while he agonises and finally moves his rook in an attempt to trade with her rook at d7--but she's able to take his rook with her bishop without losing any pieces herself. She's lain a groundwork with her bishops, knight, and rook and Adam's fate is inevitable. It's a good thing she's on his side.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014
      ( 4:54 PM ) posted by Setsuled  

What if the monsters lurking in the distant shadow in shaky camera footage, wandering unexpectedly into focus in green hues of night vision, were the bulbous nosed, oofish trolls of an old children's book? A familiar creature of folklore and fairy tales. 2010's Trollhunter portrays a modern Norway where various forms of trolls inhabit the countryside. Not Internet trolls, but big hairy beasts, some with three heads, who live in caves and under bridges, eat rocks, and might turn to stone in sunlight. It's a good movie, part good hearted parody of the found footage genre and part sincere fantasy horror adventure.

The film consists entirely of footage taken by a small group of university students who began shooting a documentary on bear poaching but find themselves accompanying a state employed Trollhunter named Hans played by Otto Jespersen.

Apparently Jespersen is a well known comedian in Norway but he plays Hans completely straight, a world-weary man who denies being a hero because what he does is "too dirty", a man with a deep voice who towers over the young students.

The government wants to keep the existence of trolls a secret but Hans brings the kids along despite the protests of Finn (Hans Morten Hansen), head of the Norwegian Wildlife Board, who we see stamping fake bear prints into the ground around Hans' latest kills.

Hans is tired of keeping the secret--he tells the kids he's rebelling because his pay sucks and he never gets any vacation but we later sense Hans is a little sick of playing exterminator. He recounts a period decades earlier when he had to slaughter young trolls to make way for land development.

But the movie thankfully never provides any sympathetic "good" troll and just as thankfully never becomes sappy.

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