Thursday, October 25, 2012

Horror Movies Are Made To Be Snuck Into

Horror movies have changed a lot since I was a kid. Or at least, the way they're marketed and sold to their target audience has. When I was young, the perfect rating for a horror movie was 'R'; kids knew that any horror movie that had a 'PG' (or later, 'PG-13') had skimped out on the real scares. We all knew somewhere that didn't check IDs, or someone older who would buy us a ticket, and if that failed, we could always find some independent video store that would rent without looking too closely at who was renting. (I was ten years old when I watched 'Return of the Living Dead' for the first time. I rewatched it as a grown-up, and commented to a friend that I was surprised at how vividly I remembered the film. He looked at the screen, where a naked punk played by Linnea Quigley was being eaten alive by a horde of ghouls. I looked back at him and said, "Yeeeahh...we, um...we weren't very well supervised.") We were always able to get access to the 'R'-rated movies, and movie studios knew it. They amped up the scares as hard as they could, even releasing some movies unrated when the MPAA squawked. 'Evil Dead 2' and 'Dawn of the Dead', two of the most iconic horror movies ever, were unrated.

But all that changed because, in the immortal words of Helen Lovejoy, "Won't someone please think of the children?!" Independent movie theaters and video stores were driven out of business by the big chains, who proved to be more susceptible to pressure from parents' groups. Those groups forced theaters and video stores (notably Blockbuster, who began their upswing slowly but inexorably in the late 80s and early 90s) to start enforcing the 17-and-up part of the 'R' rating...which drove profitability for 'R' movies way down. The producers responded by slowly, but inexorably weakening their product to qualify for the teen-friendly 'PG-13'...but therein lies a little twist.

Because this is also the point at which first home laserdiscs, then DVDs really started to take off. The era, if you will, of the 'Director's Cut'. More specifically for horror movies, the 'Unrated Director's Cut'. Because you can make it hard on kids to go into a theater, or to rent a horror flick for the night...but once you're selling these things, then anyone can get them. Even when Wal-Mart started enforcing the ratings and refusing to sell unrated films to kids under 17, it was about as meaningful a restriction as putting a chain-link fence up to stop a river. The theatrical product became nothing more than a loss leader, a suggestion of the truly scary stuff that was to come on DVD.

And, to some extent, that's as it should be. Because when I was a thirteen-year-old, I was the perfect audience for a horror movie ostensibly aimed at seventeen-year-olds. That age between thirteen and seventeen is an age where you're starting to edge out into the deeper waters of adulthood, and you don't always get to choose where and when you start dealing with things that are intended for children. Your body is changing (sort of like in 'The Fly'), you're starting to think about sex and it's a little bit scary (like in 'Shivers'), and you're having to deal with a whole new world that you're not ready for.

Just about every really good horror movie out there is, in some allegorical way, about this mystical, alchemical transformation from childhood to adulthood...and on an emotional level, it makes sense that you should have to access it through a means forbidden to you by adults. Because adults forbid these things to children because they're only intended for grown-ups. They only let the "safe" things be seen by children, and part of growing up is learning that sometimes the unsafe things fall into your lap whether you want them to or not. The forbidden knowledge is the knowledge you need, usually before adults are willing to accept you need it. If you don't have to sneak into the movie, it's not telling you about the things you really need to know.

Does this mean I'm going to let my daughter watch and/or read whatever she wants to? No. (Especially not now--she's not even seven yet.) But I'm aware that part of the ritual of growing up is me telling her, "You don't want to watch that movie. It's too scary for kids..." And the other part of the ritual is that she'll watch it when I'm not around. Because as sad as it makes me, she's going to stop being a kid before I'm ready for her to stop being a kid.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

My Found Footage Sequel

'The Blair Witch Project' really is, in some ways, the mother of all "found footage" films. I remember when they announced a sequel, the ill-fated and poorly-received 'Book of Shadows', thinking that they were making a mistake by simply returning to the woods and doing more spooky stuff. I wanted to see them think well outside the box--actually outside the "found footage" box entirely. I wanted to see a movie about the people who found the "found footage", and actually do more with the "true story" psyche-out that the original played so well (for all that it did a lot of other things so badly.) My film idea started like this:

We open with the ending of the last movie. The two remaining characters are racing to the house, into it and through it. There are screams, the camera is shaking wildly. The whole thing is designed to evoke that creepy memory...and then suddenly the action pauses. The whole screen just stops dead, in a crystal-clear freeze-frame. A hand reaches in to point to one of the characters. "There. Do you see that?"

We pull out, to see a police station. Three homicide detectives are watching the footage on a DVD player in a conference room. "Look at the clothing." She rewinds the footage, and points to the same character a minute earlier. "Look at the shape of the head." She hits 'play'. "Now watch again." The footage runs forward a bit. "See the jump cut? That's where they inserted the footage of the actors." She lets the film play again as she talks to her fellow officers. "Sanchez and Myrick murdered those three kids. They hired actors to play them, and released the snuff film to all of America to watch. We're dealing with the sickest psychos we've ever tracked, and they are covering those tracks even now. If we want to catch them, we're going to have to act fast."

The movie itself would be a taut police procedural, with the directors of the last film appearing as characters in this one. The plot would revolve around an attempt to prove that they're actually serial killers who are taunting the police by "remixing" the footage of their crimes with fake footage so that they can produce actors on cue who will admit to shooting those scenes as part of a film. Possibly there'd be some sort of supernatural twist at the end, a "real" Blair Witch who's making them kill, but I think it'd be better if you just took the "it was all real" element to its logical conclusion. Assuming Sanchez and Myrick had a good sense of humor about it all, I think it could be fun.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

My Thoughts On 'Cabin In the Woods'

Spoilers abound, so for those of you who don't want to know, well...this'd be a good place to stop reading.

This would also be a good place to point out that the ad campaign for the movie was actually really bad about that. Not just in the sense of, "Gee, the absolute best ad for this movie would be a big black screen and a voice saying, 'We'd love to tell you more about 'Cabin in the Woods', but if we told you, we'd have to kill you.' Then a rapid flash cut of screaming people and zombies and a shot of the titular cabin, all going by almost too fast for the eye to follow, and then back to the black screen and the voiceover saying, 'Kind of like that.'"

But even by the standards of this movie, which delivers its biggest, most high-concept twist right at the beginning so that you can't possibly show anything from the film without spoiling it, the trailer offers huge spoilers. Marty, the stoner character, is "killed" halfway through the movie, but the trailer had several sequences of him in the secret base with Dana, and we hadn't seen those bits when he died. So the big reveal that he survived was deflated. Likewise, scenes that hinted at the true explanation behind it all were shown in the trailer, which was kind of a mistake.

But it's hard for me to complain too much about the trailer giving away all the spoilers when the movie is essentially a spoiler-factory. The more I think back over this film, the more effective I think it would have been if it had never shown us anything that the characters didn't already know. The scenes inside the facility are funny, don't get me wrong. They're a wonderful set of inside jokes for those of us who've grown up on a lifetime of horror movies. But to me, it feels like they traded $100 million in drama for a cool ten grand in humor. All of the reveals to the characters--the mysterious whispering voices, the wire in the lamp, the force-field that kills Curt, the hidden elevator in the grave, and finally the revelation of the endless rooms of monsters--every single one would have been more powerful and more gripping if we hadn't already known about it for an hour. (The most egregious one is the hawk flying into the force field. That scene is such a small pay-off, and it absolutely wrecks the big money shot of Curt doing the same thing later on.)

This isn't to say that the scenes in the lab aren't worth keeping. Ten grand in comedy is still a lot of money, and some of the film's best gags (the big board, the betting pool, "Am I on speakerphone?") involve the office workers. Honestly, I'd really like to see a version of this on DVD that has a few extra scenes shot or reshot to provide coverage for the gaps, and that lets you watch it with or without the office scenes, because I think that's what would make this movie the strongest. For it to really work its best, you need to see this fragile, scared group of human beings getting killed off one by one, and then finding out along with them that the whole thing is staged with the dedication and elaboration of a ritual...and then go back and watch it from the point of view of those who staged that ritual, and find out that to them, the whole thing is as banal and repetitive as a typical day in the workplace. You can get that in your imagination, of course, but it lacks the visceral impact I think you'd get if you weren't being shown what's going on behind the scenes.

(And, I have to say, even in the movie as shot, we could do with a bit less behind-the-scenes, or a bit more variation to it. There were too many scenes of Wendy reminding everyone how important it was not to screw up, and Truman standing around looking scowling and disapproving in what had to be the movie's most thankless role. "OK, Brian, your job is to stand there and frown at people, occasionally interjecting a line about how serious this all is!" "And in the climax, I--" "Die horribly without any lines, yeah. Ready?" These made the office scenes seem a lot more like filler than they actually were.)

But as so many people have pointed out, the action climax at the end is truly spectacular, and Sigourney Weaver steals her surprise cameo because she's Sigourney Weaver and she is awesome. That said, I'd be lying if I didn't have a huge gripe here, too. The whole point of the movie, plot-wise at least, is that the reason people in horror movies behave stupidly and unrealistically and follow movie cliches and always do the dumbest thing possible and always fail to get any breaks... (and how did we not get a scene of the motor home not starting on the first try? The ultimate horror movie cliche, the car not starting when you need it to even though it's in perfect working condition, and we didn't even get one "rrr-rr-rrrr"?) ...isn't because of fate or chance or character flaws, it's because someone is actively stage-managing things behind the scenes to make sure the outcome is pre-ordained. Nobody really would be dumb enough to split up like that. Nobody really would go out for a walk in the woods in the middle of the night. Nobody really would read the Latin out loud.

So why, oh for cryingoutloud why do the bad guys actually have a Big Red Button whose only basic function is "Kill everyone in the base"? Real people do not do this. Real technicians generally don't install a button whose only conceivable function is to cause the death of the user and everyone in the same building as them, even in buildings that don't expect to get unfriendly visitors and even if you have to flip a little switch before pressing it. The Big Red Button is nothing but a lazy action movie cliche, without logical explanations, in a movie whose whole function is to suggest that there is a logical explanation for all those cliches. The only way this makes sense is if the sequel is a bunch of Ancient-Ones-cultists standing around their secret monitors, commenting on all the ways they're manipulating the guys who manipulate the other guys. (Which, okay, would actually be pretty awesome. But I don't think it was planned like that.)

Probably this makes me sound a lot grumpier than I am about the movie. I did like it, and it was a fun experience. But I think that a lot more could be done with this idea. I feel like Whedon and Goddard didn't really swing for the fences, that they were so happy with a movie that got their big high-concept horror movie idea out there that they didn't really work at taking it as far as they could go. I can understand that to some extent; it is a great high-concept idea, and they do some pretty audacious stuff with it (again, complaints about the Big Red Button aside, the climax to the film is about as good as the ending to a movie could possibly be. And the very end was ballsy in a way you don't see very often, even in horror movies.) But I hold these two to incredibly high standards, and I think they could have made this movie even better. Still good, but could have been better.

These are my thoughts on 'Cabin In the Woods'.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review: Moon Over Soho

Figures. I mention, in my review of 'Midnight Riot', that I went straight from that book to the next...then I misplace the bloody thing for a few months. Way of the world, I suppose.

But I did find it, and I did finish it, and I have to tell you that it's also magnificent. It's the second in Ben Aaronovitch's series of police procedurals set in a London where magic is (dimly) understood and (barely) tolerated by the Met, and in which a young policeman named Peter Grant realizes that the same qualities that have hindered him so far in his fledgling career are actually assets in his role as supernatural detective and wizard's apprentice. This one focuses on two interlocking plots, one involving the wizarding world and the gradually-dawning realization that magic isn't quite as dead as Peter's mentor once assumed, and the other involving the deaths of several up-and-coming jazz musicians in a manner that involves black magic. The plots work as stories in their own right, which is nice, but they also help to establish tantalizing hints of a world and a backstory that can serve as a backdrop to countless other stories. Aaronovitch is building a series with legs, which is always nice.

If I had a complaint, it would be that the ending does leave some untidy loose ends in a way that 'Midnight Riot' didn't...without spoiling things too much, we get hints of a lurking storm on the horizon involving sinister and unethical wizards (beautifully, the mixed-race lead character strongly objects to "black magic" and prefers "ethically challenged magical practicioners".) This means some of the threads aren't wrapped up quite as tightly as they were in the first book. That said, this is a lot more forgivable now that the third book is out and I'm reading it.

But it's once again filled with awesome prose (my favorite bit has to be when Peter and Nightingale are discussing the relative power of magic vs. modern weapons, and Peter finds out that Nightingale's "tiger hunting" with fireballs refers not to the animal but the German tank) and crisp plotting and fun characters and yes, I know, I say this about Ben Aaronovitch all the time. But trust me, this one is great.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Should We Celebrate a Saints Win?

Does anyone else have a little problem with the reporting on the New Orleans Saints win? I mean, the basic thrust of the narrative is that the team struggled during their four-game losing streak, but they pulled together and they overcame adversity and they finally got that win they'd been working so hard to achieve. Go teamwork! Yay for overcoming adversity! Hurrah for working hard!

...but I will admit, I'd like at least one person over at ESPN to point out that the "adversity" they overcame was entirely self-inflicted, that it was a punishment for cheating their way to a Superbowl win (and not just any kind of cheating, but the dirtiest cheating imaginable in any sport, deliberately injuring your opponent to prevent them from being able to compete against you) and that frankly, the fact that it was hard for them to win games means that the punishment is working exactly as intended. If anything, the way they reacted to winning tells me it wasn't enough of a punishment--if they're seeing it as a triumph that the NFL's disciplinary actions weren't enough to stop them from winning games, then they're clearly not engaging in the kind of introspection that should come to you after finding out that your teammates were out there trying very hard to inflict permanent injury on people because a trophy was more important to them than a living human being's health.

If I was Drew Brees, I don't know that I'd want my coach to be there for my big day. I'd be profoundly ambivalent about putting on a Saints uniform after the way it was tarnished by the actions of Gregg Williams and the Saints defense. I don't know that I'd go so far as to apologize for winning, but I wouldn't be comfortable portraying it as some sort of great triumph of the human spirit, either. The Saints were 0-4 because they deserved to be 0-4, not just through the quality of their play but due to the quality of their character as an organization, and I'm a little surprised that this is being so quickly forgotten in the rush to celebrate their achievements.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

My Thoughts On the Debate

Or at least, the debate until I switched it off because frankly, Mitt Romney makes every sane human being in America want to punch him every time he opens his mouth. Seriously, I'd worry about him getting us into wars not because he's hired a bunch of belligerent neocon Bush rejects as his foreign policy advisors, but because Mother Teresa would haul off and slap that man silly if she was stuck in an elevator with him for five minutes. (And yes, I'm aware Mother Teresa is dead. This does not change my opinion.)

Basically, I think that the news media is saying that Romney won the debate because they have to say Romney won the debate. The alternative is, "Gee, Mitt really seemed like a transparent liar and a jackass, and failed to defend any of his policies coherently while throwing out the same tired attacks that have failed to stick against Obama this entire campaign. Let's face it, he's toast. Wanna spend the next five weeks talking about this fall's hot movies?" Everyone in the news media, left or right, has a vested interest in selling the narrative that this is a tense, exciting race and you should remain riveted to (INSERT CHANNEL HERE) for up-to-the-minute news and analysis. If Romney's dead in the water, it's not exciting.

That said, the overall narrative of the pundits is correct. Obama didn't really blow up on Mitt. Why? Because it's not what he does. Barack Obama is not a fiery tongue-lasher of a politician who "lets the other guy have it". I know that's what a lot of liberals wanted. Because I'm a liberal, and like many other liberals, I'd really like to see someone ask Mitt how he can stand up there lying, day in and day out, shifting positions with the wind, saying whatever he thinks people want to hear while secretly holding almost half the nation in utter contempt, and not at any point feel shame in it all. But Obama doesn't do that. Obama is all about remaining calm, letting the other guy lose his cool, and then demolishing him with the facts.

And that's what he did. The narrative today, in the papers and on the news, is that Romney might have seemed tough and pressed the attack, but that he lied openly and blatantly and frequently. (He was clocked at one provable falsehood every 1:40.) That's what people are going to remember, not anything specific. Well, maybe the bit about Mitt Romney wanting to kill Big Bird, but other than that, they're just going to remember that Mitt Romney lied. That Mitt Romney can't help but lie. And that when he wasn't lying, he was saying things like, "I don't have time to get into the specifics. Just trust me." Which would work better if he didn't, you know, lie every two minutes. LITERALLY.

The narrative is that Mitt Romney won the debate, because it's the only narrative that fits the media's desire for a close race. But I can't imagine that people watched that debate and came out of it thinking better of Romney. And I suspect that in a few days, the polls will bear me out on that.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Two Big Mistakes 'Revolution' Made

(Caveat and Disclaimer: I haven't really watched the series. Everything I've seen and heard about it has made it look like it was pretty aggressively mismanaged, and frankly I'm three to five seasons behind on the shows I actually like. (One of the few upsides of the impending closure of 'City of Heroes' is that I will finally catch up on leisure activities that don't involve Paragon City, RI, or the islands just three miles off the coast thereof in international waters.) Frankly, if a series looks lousy and sounds lousy and everyone says it's lousy, I'm not about to go watch it just so that I can verify it's lousy. So if you want to complain that I hate a show I haven't even seen yet, you're absolutely right. By the same token, I'm pretty sure that stove is cool. Go put your hand on it to be sure, though.)

So what are the two mistakes that 'Revolution' made? Well, everyone's agreed on what seems to be the big one, which actually isn't the big one relative to the truly huge mistake they made but is, on an empirical level, a pretty big mistake. They didn't define how the "no technology works" rule works. Not the rationale for it--let's face it, most science fiction relies on a fairy-chess style, "Well, what if someone could invent a faster-than-light drive?" or "What if you made a drug that stopped the aging process?" type of question. The actual physics of "What if electricity stopped powering electrical devices?" is never going to make sense.

But they needed to create an internally consistent set of rules for it. As it is, everyone's running around with crossbows except for the people who have black-powder guns and things have reverted to a medieval level of technology despite the fact that the 19th century worked pretty well electricity-free and and and...there needed to be a, "This is what the effect is and what it does, and that rules out A, B, and C but not D, E, and F." Because human beings are tremendously freaking inventive rules lawyers, and one of the first things we do when we find out something doesn't do what we want it to is we start engineering ways around it. Fifteen years of "no electricity" would lead to some pretty ingenious solutions, but we don't see those. Everyone's just given up and started using swords and bows instead of steam and clockwork.

And that's the second, much bigger sin. They jumped ahead fifteen years. The most important event to happen to the human race in a century at minimum, and they said, "Nah, let's just skip past that so everything can look all overgrown and people can run around with swords in the ruins, looking for the Lost Secret that will bring back The World That Was." Which is the plot of every goddamn post-apocalypse story out there ever. The loss of electricity has been reduced from "a fascinating change in human society" to "this story's MacGuffin to explain why humanity is reduced to a pre-industrial dystopia where heroes fight evil tyrants while looking for the lost secret that will restore the old order." This is the freaking plot of 'Warrior of the Lost World', 'Robot Holocaust', and 'Teenage Caveman'. It should not be the plot of your big-budget prime-time TV series.

The story should start the night the power went out...and stay there. It should follow characters who are trying to restore communications between cities in the absence of telegraphs and telephones, characters who are trying to keep food safe to store without refridgerators. It should follow the government's attempts to keep order without any way of broadcasting to the nation, and people who are re-learning how to light with gas and heat with steam. It should be about the tension of not knowing who will succeed, those who are trying to rebuild the world or those who are taking advantage of its collapse. It should be something we've never seen before, not 'The Postman' with the serial numbers filed off.

Ultimately, I think this explains the tepid response to the series better than the absurdity of its premise alone. It's bad enough that it has an absurd premise, but making a show with a premise that absurd only to utterly ignore it in favor of the pseudo-Hunger Games aesthetic you're more interested in writing is criminally annoying.