Monday, December 10, 2012

Diminishing Returns.

The economy is a harsh mistress. Just the other day, I read an article ranking the most overpaid actors in Hollywood. If anyone ever needed a measure to gauge how far we've come from the salad days of $20 million-dollar paychecks, it's an article in which the takeaway isn't what we're reading on the page; it's what we aren't reading between the lines—that Hollywood is counting what's left in the swear jar and finding that it's empty due to years of no one giving a shit.

Who has money for the cinema anymore? I yabba-dabba don't.
So good for you, Suits—we're all skint, except I'm guessing that for you, it means you'll have to move your mistresses into apartment homes and buy your wives' jewelry from Jared. For the rest of us—and I'm talking about horror fans specifically—this means we can't just ease on down the road to the local cineplex and splash out on a small, watered-down $5 Coke and an equally sized and priced bag of burnt popcorn just to sit through 20 minutes of mediocre trailers and a 90-minute stinker that was previously a mediocre trailer.

Subsequently, I haven't been to the cinema in ages. There really hasn't been any reason to do so when I can just wait a few months more to watch the same mediocre film on my own big screen, with better food and no obnoxious children kicking my couch. I can also do things on my couch during a mediocre film that I can't do at the cinema without getting arrested. Or uploaded on YouTube.

And so it was with a bit more excitement than usual that my husband and I settled in last night for Ti West's 2011 outing, The Innkeepers. Now, while I don't actively set out to slate a film (I subscribe to the "those who can't do" philosophy and leave the filmmaking to my husband and others), I have to be honest. I didn't like it. I really, really wanted to, because I loved its predecessor, The House of the Devil (2009). I think Ti West is the best of the new horror guard, because his output reflects a purity of purpose, a true love for the genre that is homegrown and authentic, and not ever poseurish and packaged for social media and hipster pandering.

Having said that, we've got two hipster poseurs in a homegrown haunted house tale that is authentic, yet has no purpose. I won't say more because this isn't a review of the film so much as it's an example that underscores (for me, at least) how economy transcends actors' paychecks and infiltrates right down to the film itself. Everything in a film must have intrinsic value. You cannot have red herrings and jump starts and this and that without any of it meaning something. Even the dumbest tittyfest can be economical if its purpose is: a) to be dumb, and b) to be a fest of titties. You have those things, and you've fulfilled the film's obligations wholly. Good intentions are the IOU of film; ultimately, some kind of currency must be offered up to complete the transaction.

I'll use another film as an example: Cabin Fever (2002). Just about everyone thinks that film is genius. I think about 75 percent of it is a good departure from the last vestiges of the Scream-esque ensemble bullshit that had been passing for horror since the mid-1990s. But the end completely kills any goodwill I have for that 75 percent, because it simply has no point to it. Okay, so the seemingly-racist convenience store owner is really a wanksta? Whaa? The faa? Dude, what does this have to do with anything? It's just so stupid. Either that, or I'm just not with it, and in that case, I'm happy to stay here on the fringe and listen to Bread.

Alrighty then, so will I see V/H/S (2012)? I'm sure I'll get around to it. I still really like Ti West, I'm a fan of anthologies, and a few of my friends on Twitter have given the film good notices. We're not bound to ever see another Cronenberg again in this lifetime, so I might as well scooch down and get comfortable.

David Cronenberg is my favorite director of all time. He is the master of economy in film. George Romero (director of my favorite film, Dawn of the Dead) is a master of interpreting the times (and with zombies!), but Cronenberg is second to none in creating films in which everything—right down to the Howard Shore collabo—is deliberate. Just watch any of his films, and you can see that nothing is wasted. You probably already know this.

In time, I think the cream will rise to the top, and to the occasion, and we'll see films that are not just vanity projects, but thoughtful messengers that carry the agenda through to the final scare. I just can't quite put my money on it yet.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Nasty Boys.

"What you are about to see ... is a REAL THING!"

I think of Divine's line from John Waters' 1972 cult classic Pink Flamingos whenever I know I'm about to either: a) mock something that is being sold to me as real that I know is most likely not (Faces of Death. Cinematic breasts after 1990. Honest politicians), or b) see something that is actually real—like when Divine really ate something she really should've just picked up with a napkin and put in a plastic bag. Really.

I also think of that line whenever the topic that fascinates me more than any other topic in cinematic history comes up—Video Nasties. The Fahrenheit 451 chapter in the Great Big Book of World History was not written at the rise of the Iron Curtain in 1945 Russia, but right at the dusk of the sex-fueled Me Decade, in post-punk Great Britain. The wellspring from which some of the world's most masterful envelope-pushing films (Peeping Tom. The Wicker Man. A Clockwork Orange!) were made just a decade or so prior.

But it could have very well happened to us here in the Home of the Free. You only need to look back in the not-so-distant past, in early 2004, following Janet Jackson's bit of tit at the Super Bowl and all the hell that the FCC unleashed shortly thereafter. The mood in America after 2001 was already one of propriety, where the Moral Majority movement that lost steam in the late 1980s saw hints of resurgence as people clung hard to patriotism, and even harder to their faith. Add Janet's floppy booby to the mix, and the result could've well been a shitty police state cake covered in rhetorical frosting. Yum.

The DPP and Britain's resident Marie Antoinette, Mary Whitehouse, made a lot of my friends eat cake in the early 1980s, when they were all just working-class young adults wanting to come home to a cold one and some Cannibal Holocaust. Or, at the very least, some Evil Dead. Meanwhile, across the pond, I was a tiny 9-year-old space cadet carrying home stacks of horror VHS, spindly arms overflowing with The Last House on the Left. Dead and Buried.Visiting Hours. All films banned in the United Kingdom by the Department of Public Prosecutions under the Video Recordings Act. And yet little ol' me in sunny Southern California didn't have to fear anyone coming into my home to confiscate my things and put me under suspension. I already had a mother who was doing that.

And so I come to the topic of Video Nasties as a hungry (hardly casual but humbly unqualified) American observer, and it looks like I'm not alone, as evidenced by Cinefamily's all-October tribute to the films that comprise that notorious list. The showings commence with the 2010 film Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape, and quite frankly, I'm most interested in watching that film over all of the others. Another excellent primer (and my favorite) for learning about this dark time for film is the brilliant Video Nasties: A Definitive Guide (2010).

I'm glad that we're shedding light on the Video Nasties era in this country. Because while I'd like to think that we're all a bit older, wiser and more progressive now in the West, I see my Essex-born husband watching and re-watching my old horror flicks to see what he missed growing up. And I get it. It makes me want to try harder to not take my perceived American liberties for granted. While I still have them.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Getting Hammered.

We make terrible films here in the United States. Fortunately, they’re almost all remakes now, which is why I don’t feel too bad in making such a sweeping statement on the mess that comprises our current cinematic output. Ignoring promising independent talent in favor of producing quickly-produced seat fillers and buy-products leave our legacy in a sad state of disconnect. We are, however, capable of making very, very good films, and of course you need only look at American Cinematheque’s monthly offerings, or Cinespia’s summer schedule, or even your local TCM listings to see them. And therein lies my point: why feel bad looking forward when looking back feels so much better?

That said, I have a certain list of old reliables that I turn to for looking back—blaxploitation, giallos, slashers from 1961 to 1981, zombie flicks with good OST and/or bad dubbing, video nasties, most things with John Saxon, anything with Michael Ironside, Sixties sex romps, Seventies Exorcist ripoffs, Eighties films where I can root for the hot jerk (Zabka, Spader), all films made in 1980, Troma, killer tomatoes, dolls, klowns and yogurt, killer animals, films that look like Kate Bush videos (Return to Oz, Labyrinth, The Company of Wolves), horror films set in hospitals, films with rides in them (Goonies, Explorers, Temple of Doom), films culminating in a disco competition, Cronenberg and Spinal Tap, i.e., The Rutles, i.e., All You Need is Cash (1978), a.k.a. one of my favorite films of all time.  

But I’ve left my Most Favorite Thing Ever off of my list because it’s the one thing I want to focus in on for this rant: Hammer. As in, Hammer Films, as in, the famed horror institution that is often imitated (Tigon) but never duplicated (Amicus). Sure, Tigon made Witchfinder General (1968), which I love and still rate as one of the most disturbing, genuinely creepy films I have ever seen (Vincent Price’s best work, IMO), and Amicus featured Hammer’s dynamic duo of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in several films, but everyone knows that Lee-Cushing did their best work for Hammer. As did most everyone who cut their teeth in the company. Terence Fisher, who directed many of my favorite Hammer films, including The Devil Rides Out (1968) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). Ingrid Pitt, the most beautiful and alluring of Hammer women—which is saying a lot, considering that just about every woman in every Hammer film is poster-perfect. Raquel Welch in a fur bikini, anyone?

Why do I keep returning to Hammer horror? Because no other film studio has managed to make blood look so beautiful, its villains appear so effortlessly enchanting and menacing. You want Christopher Lee’s Dracula to suck your neck, and for Peter Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein to survive the fire. Or, at least, I do. And Hammer still delivers, literally and figuratively. Sir Christopher, bewitching in the Hammer films of his youth, continues to enthrall us with the Hammer film of his prime (The Resident, 2011).  And his career continues to have bite. Perhaps we’ll see another Hammer in his future—now that is truly something to look forward to.