Crash (and Burn)

Why is it that the film Crash is now widely ridiculed as a horrible Best Picture winner but the real embarrassment of its win is almost never mentioned? Crash was a film purported to be anti-racist but was, in fact, quite the opposite. The people being discriminated against were entirely passive, right down to the conclusions drawn at the end. Racist bitch Sandra Bullock learned something. Scumbag racist sexual assaulting cop Matt Dillon learned something. The guy who woulda murdered some people of a racial persuasion he didn’t care for in cold blood had his daughter not secretly switched his regular bullets for Taster’s Choice learned something. The bigots exercised all the personal agency in the film, right down to their respective “enlightenments” at the end. The human beings who were discriminated against were props.

Crash is an extraordinarily racist movie. And it only won Best Picture because a sizable number of voters used its fake “racism is bad” cred as cover for not wanting to give the award to a movie about two gay cowboys. Crash isn’t an embarrassment because it’s a lousy movie. The embarrassment is the fact that it’s win is the direct result of precisely the kind of bigotry it pretends to decry. Not acknowledging why it won gives the bigoted assholes responsible for its victory cover they don’t deserve.

Those homophobic Academy voters also learned something here. They learned that in our society, the appearance of being against bigotry is more important than actually not being a bigot. And thus far, no one has corrected them.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Published in: on August 25, 2014 at 8:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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Sharing stifles creativity? Why this guy is just flat-out wrong

So I read this article today with this guy whining about piracy, file sharing and the music business and I’m compelled to make a few points. No sense in beating around the bush, let’s get started at the beginning, with the headline.

“How a generation’s freeloading has starved creativity”

Starved creativity? The last I checked, there is more music being produced today from a wider range of artists with a more diverse sound than ever before, and that’s expanding. There’s more books being written and available by a wider range of authors with more diverse styles than ever before, and that’s expanding. Creativity hasn’t been stifled at all. It’s been unleashed in a major way. The studio system (and the traditional publishing industry among others) is what stifled creativity. If you want to argue that the changes have stifled these old school media conglomerates’ ability to dominate their respective industries, I can get behind that. But it has in no way stifled creativity. Just the opposite, in fact. It’s generally a bad sign when the headline of your piece kicks off with unsubstantiated bullshit. You’re basing your argument on a false assumption right off the bat, and an easily refuted one at that.

“Things changed for me when I got a job in a Brooklyn café in the late 2000s. Many of the most respected and critically-praised bands of the day were customers there, but my excitement at getting to know them was dimmed when I realized that rather than enjoying the fruits of their success, they were, well, just as broke as I was.”

And if you’d gotten that job in the pre – Internet ’90s, they’d still be just as broke as you were. Same goes for the ’80s, ’70s, ’60s etc, etc. Conflating that with the coincidental emergence of file sharing is a mistake. He goes on:

“Apologists for digital piracy advanced one fantastic new rationalization after another—that artists would actually be helped by their rights getting trampled; that old-timey models like touring and merchandise would magically become a cash cow; that you could solve the whole problem by just letting fans “pay what they want.”

If you retain control of your rights, you have the choice to allow sharing of your music or not. Unless you’re signed on with a big label, in which case you have no choice in how you’re music is distributed or shared. That’s evidenced by this guy, the musician Kaskade, who is directly opposed to his label suing for copyright infringement but he has no legal right to stop them or to determine what he considers an acceptable use of his own music. In that sense, you’re correct that artists’ rights are being trampled, by their own labels.

Touring and merchandise are old timey? How much do you know about the music industry? Touring and merchandise were where artists made their money in the past. The labels made their money from album sales (whatever format) with contracts structured so that even some of the most successful bands ended up owing money to the label when all was said and done. If touring and merchandising aren’t cash cows, then why are record company contracts increasingly demanding large cuts of any revenue bands earn from both of those areas? Bands are broke because of the labels and their exploitative advance structure, their accounting practices and increasingly grabbing revenue from touring and merchandise that bands themselves generally controlled in the past. These aren’t problems the internet or file sharing created, this is the result of the standard operating procedure of the labels.

The book industry isn’t quite as exploitative as music, but they’re not far behind. They, too, use an advance system and accounting practices that virtually guarantee the majority of books never get to the point of earning royalties above the advance (and not because advances are high or because the books themselves aren’t largely profitable). They, too, try to lock up other rights so authors can’t generate any other income streams on the material, even when they have no intention of exploiting them.

Did you see the recent UK report that showed writers’ incomes shrinking? Most of those writers were longtime traditional writers. Publishers have been establishing a low rate for ebook royalties that pay them more but authors less than on a regular print edition. They focus their sales efforts on ebooks and high discount print books, both of which cut authors’ compensation per book dramatically. The internet isn’t causing these authors’ incomes to shrink, their own publishers’ actions are. And not coincidentally, the publishers are reaping sometimes record profits.

And fans have always paid what they want. If they want it new, they’ll buy it. If they don’t, they’ll get a copy from someone or they’ll buy a used cd for a few dollars. Today, they may download it. They used to record it from the radio or television. But if you only offer one full price option, and somehow magically eliminate any possibility of obtaining any other copy, you won’t see more sales. You’ll see significantly fewer. Not to mention a whole lot of pissed off people with money in their pocket that might have decided to spend it with you now and in the future.

“The people who fought against copyright in this battle would have to confront the fact that they were never carrying the flag for freedom or “openness”, but for aggression, entitlement and selfishness.”

Like it or not, we live in an increasingly on demand world. You can call it entitled and selfish all you want. It’s not going to change it. The people you’re trying to sell to want what they want when they want it. The technology exists to give them exactly that. And everybody knows damn well digital distribution is far cheaper than physical, so prices must reflect that. There’s a huge stream of people looking for music and books 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Not providing what they’re looking for in the price range they’re looking for, that they can access in the way they want to is their failing, not the internet.

Even then, people will still seek out free alternatives. I downloaded my first song in 1998 on AOL dialup. I had been a huge music collector for a full decade prior to that. At no point in those 10 years pre-internet, was I ever not able to get a copy of any damn thing I wanted for free. The internet didn’t invent this behavior, it’s been with us for a long, long time. What happened to the music industry as technology proliferated to allow people to make and acquire copies of music on their own? It grew exponentially. When did it shrink? At the precise time they chose a strategy that openly attacked the sharing of music. That’s not a coincidence.

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking the torrent-indexing websites that popped up in my search results are just rambunctious, boundary-challenging adolescents swapping files with their friends, as Napster disingenuously spun themselves.”

That’s precisely what most of the people using Napster (and later Limewire) were. The music and film industry stomped on them, leading to the development of torrents that let little pieces of files be downloaded to and from multiple sources so no one except the few souls who seed ever actually made a full file available for download. It drove them from their own communities into the arms of the profiteers like Megaupload. The persecution of which, by the way, regardless of what you think of them, is a disgusting abuse of law and power. Read up on it.

It’s a bit like the gateway drug problem, I think. These sites make millions precisely because the actions of industry drove sharing amongst individuals underground. Without those acts, people would be openly sharing within their own communities now instead of enriching parasites. If there’s any gateway effect to marijuana ( and I don’t think there is) it’s caused by the prohibition. The only place you can get pot is from that sketchy guy on the corner who’s also got meth, heroin and some blow. Take out the prohibition and exposure to genuine bad elements drops dramatically if not altogether.

Black markets come about when there’s a gap between what a sizable portion of the public wants and what’s available to them. Drive off the safe alternatives and you’re left creating many more problems than you solve. I don’t get down with media companies decrying the black market when their own actions created the problem and made it exponentially worse.

“The big question is: how would things look if the illegal free option weren’t as convenient? Would Hollywood not be quite as dependent upon comic book blockbusters and take a few more chances on new stories? With stable promotional budgets for record labels and studios, a few more daring artistic voices might find an audience, and charge their way onto the pop culture radar, and even change the way some of us think about the world.”

Hahaha! No. I’ll tell you what it will look like, exactly like it looked in the late ’80s, stagnant and repetitive. The only time new voices got through was after an independent movement somewhere built the momentum for it. And then, the labels would descend, sign up every band that remotely sounded like the new in-thing, saturate the world and squeeze every last dollar out of it before moving on to the next hot movement (see: Seattle in the ’90s).

On top of that, with increasing digital sales yet no free option, discoverability, which largely happens word of mouth from sharing, would take a huge hit. Sales of all but the biggest names would plummet and we’d be left with far fewer risks being taken and far less unique voices ever getting a chance. You know, precisely what was happening before the internet came along.

“Forging an internet that takes individual rights (including privacy), cultural diversity and sustainable progress seriously also requires that consumers get on board.”

Ah, yes. Please pay considerably higher prices so we don’t actually have to adapt or alter our ridiculously outdated and inefficient corporate structure, or even pay lip service to giving you what you actually want for those higher prices. Get on board, already!

“We are all entitled to fair compensation for our work.”

I see, customers are entitled in a bad way for wanting what they want for their money (or not) but labels and artists are entitled in a good way for wanting what they want for your money. Nobody is entitled to make one red cent. You have to convince people to want to pay you willingly. That means convenience, price, format, restrictions on use; everything must be done to appeal to the guy holding a credit card and deciding if he wants to use it. “Hey you! You’re gonna pay more and we’re gonna tell you what you’re allowed to do with it and you’re gonna thank us for it” is a bad strategy.

I do agree in one way with being entitled to fair compensation. But that argument isn’t directed at the internet or consumers. It goes to the media companies. Stop ripping off your artists! You think artists aren’t being paid fairly? Changing conditions so media companies make more money isn’t going to change that. It’s just another version of trickle down nonsense. The labels make more money and those musicians in your coffee shop, they’ll still be just as broke. The copyright argument with file sharing has nothing to do with rewarding artists, it’s all about further enriching large media conglomerates.

“Just as US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr said of taxes, consider it ‘the price we pay for civilization.'”

The price consumers pay, you mean, in high prices that have no bearing on production costs or market value? Or the price artists pay in exploitative contracts and shriveling compensation from their corporate “partners”? The media conglomerates here don’t pay any price, for civilization or otherwise. They simply reap the rewards of squeezing the only two irreplaceable cogs in the industry machine, consumers and creators.

Why should we as artists have to accept pittance payouts? Why should consumers have to pay more for less? Why shouldn’t these corporations have to alter their business models, ones that developed in a different time and a different set of conditions, to meet the new realities? Why should we have to severely restrict the conduct of people that has far pre-dated the internet and file sharing?

You are conflating the business difficulties of large, once dominant corporations that are becoming increasingly obsolete with a decline in the industry and creativity itself. That’s a mistake. We don’t need record labels. We don’t need publishers. Before much longer, we won’t need film studios either. What we need are artists willing and able to create and customers willing and able to buy. Restrictions and higher price points to support corporate bottom lines achieve neither of those ends.

Piracy and file sharing isn’t the problem. The old industry titans who choose to stand in the way of what artists want, what consumers want and what civilization in general wants; they’re the problem. Advocating for a system that enriches them by taking money out of the pockets of both artists and consumers achieves nothing.

As a final point, there seems to be a thread to the piece that assumes people getting music for free is not good for commerce. Well, take a look at The Live Music Archive. There are over 6,000 bands and 130,000 separate concerts available for download or streaming absolutely free and totally legal. Concerts range from 40 years or more ago right up to yesterday. Many of the artists in here are very well known, many are unheard of independents. But they all allow fans to bring equipment, record their live shows and freely distribute them however they choose. In fact, the one thing they are prohibited from doing is selling them. And the community itself polices that kind of conduct very nicely. There’s a huge sub-industry in music totally outside of the major label system that not only encourages the free sharing of their music, but thrives on it. The most famous band to take this track is the Grateful Dead, who pioneered much of this and parlayed the touring and merchandising you dismiss into being one the highest grossing bands of all time, almost totally outside the label system. Their big label studio albums were almost an afterthought to their career accomplishments.

And as for bit torrent, which you sited as a particularly egregious tool for piracy, look at this. Etree.org has a huge, ever changing list of torrent files for concerts totally free and legally available for download. Bit torrent is far from simply an elicit tool for piracy. It’s used here to great effect to freely distribute music from bands who aren’t cowering in fear of consumers or sharing, bands that are building careers one fan at a time, without so much as a dime of support from the label system. I’ll guarantee you’ll find a wider array of music styles and talent here than any label-driven alternative. Giant media companies, as more of us are learning every day, aren’t the only way to pursue a career in the arts. They’re likely not even the best way.

There are problems with the internet, legitimate problems with piracy, too. But what you advocate benefits a portion of the industry, who also happen to be the richest, most entrenched, afraid to adapt element of it and does nothing to further anyone’s ends but theirs. Take a wider view of things. Track the problems you site deeper than simply, “Oh, Napster caused this” and you may find issues like artist compensation and stifled creativity far predate the internet itself. And who was running the show back then? These same giant media conglomerates. Huh.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Happy Endings Suck

The other day, I read this piece in The Guardian about literary fiction writers feeling somewhat pressed to avoid unambiguously happy endings to their stories. There’s a lot of hand-wringing included in the piece at the bleak endings which are often pervasive, and references to the happied-up ending to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations as proof that happy endings can be good.

I find the Dickens reference particularly telling because I’ve always felt the changed ending of his classic of unrequited love is totally out of character with the rest of the book. All things being equal, in reality, Pip would have zero chance of getting what he wanted from Estella. In fact, anyone who would throw himself back into that emotional thresher years later has to be one of the dumbest men walking. Even implying the possibility of a happily ever after ending there simply doesn’t mesh with anything else in the entire damn story. I could buy that Pip may convince himself what he wants is within reach, but anyone out here who’ve experienced a real live Estella knows without doubt that he’s lying to himself and, when he goes through that gate, his hand in her’s, he’s taking his first steps toward future rack and ruin.

That is the main reason why I have a general contempt for happy endings in fiction; they’re usually contrived to the point you can practically see the writer straining to ignore the psychology of the characters established throughout the work to make an ending where everyone goes home happy fit on the page. Certainly, depending on what you’re seeking as a reader or what level of escapism you’re willing to accept, I can see how someone might find an ending like that hopeful or fitting to the tale. I, myself, found that ending far too unrealistic to the characters as I knew them to maintain my suspension of disbelief.

I’m not the only person with a predisposition to disliking happy endings. Not by a long shot or there wouldn’t be articles like the one linked to above decrying their dearth. I think, for me, I expect more than a happily ever after in my fiction choices because, in near 40 years, I’ve found endings in real life to very rarely be happy and, quite often, miserable and scarring. I, and many others apparently, are attracted to tragic endings in stories because it’s an aspect of life familiar to most. We have trouble relating to happy endings because so few of us experience them on any kind of regular basis.

Then there’s the issue of whether the happy ending actually makes us feel happy. Personally, I tend to have a visceral negative emotional response to a happy ending, particularly one that doesn’t ring true to life. Dark or tragic endings can reinforce that your woes aren’t as bad as you think. Happy endings, however, can often feel like you’ve been slapped in the face with your failures. I do it with films, too. I see a sad movie and I walk away feeling my problems aren’t so bad. Happy movies, though, just serve to amplify my troubles. That doesn’t mean I think all endings need to be soul-crushingly horrific. I’m more apt to buy into an ending that’s dark but hopeful than an overtly rosy fairytale. Emotional lottery winners are far more rare than the monetary kind. Besides, I’ve always found tragedy and loss far more fertile ground to explore creatively. Happiness can be boring, and more than a little annoying, to those lacking or not directly involved in it.

Romances are the worst offenders at this, too. Despite what Ryan Reynolds might say, the friend-zoned dude doesn’t ever win the girl. All he gets is to cry himself to sleep, alone and drunk, after her wedding to someone else. I’ve always liked the ending of St. Elmo’s Fire because of that. Andrew McCarthy pined for Ally Sheedy for years and years before he finally got to have her but she only hooked up with him because she was distraught over the guy she really wanted. McCarthy was totally getting ditched shortly thereafter. On the surface, if you don’t look too deeply, it appears true love and perseverance won out but the clear implication of the movie’s ending was that his heart was going to end up broken far worse than if he’d just walked away.

If that ending had been of the fairytale variety, it would’ve, one, rubbed salt in the wounds or, two, provided false hope to untold numbers of folks who have found themselves in that exact situation. I think that ending is just about perfect, a subtle reminder that, sometimes, getting what we want most in the world can be the worst thing that can happen.

Happy endings can work, if they grow organically from the characters and don’t press. I’m of the opinion that truly good fiction passes on some wisdom in the process and shouldn’t fall too far into the realm of wish fulfillment. Overly contrived happy endings are nothing if not pure wish fulfillment, both for ourselves and the characters we’ve grown to care for.

All this being said, it still comes down to your particular tastes as a reader. To me, the unhappy ending and how characters deal with that is what attracts me. Do they respond with nobility and integrity or do they drop into rage and frustration-created depression? There’s value in those endings, of the kind we can use when we inevitably face the plethora of unhappy endings in our own lives. The Disney-esque, everything works out and they all lived happily ever after endings bring nothing to the table in that regard. There are no lessons to be learned when everything ties up into a neat little bow of unrealistic happiness.

It’s a popcorn ending, one that doesn’t call for too much considerstion, that invites us not to think too hard about it. I, and many others, enjoy seeking lessons I can adapt to my own life from what I choose to read or watch. Happy endings, especially contrived ones, steal those moments of contemplation and learning from us. Stay true to the story and the characters you’ve created and your endings will ring true even if they end up seemingly bleak. Slap a giant smiley face on them, and your happy ending will end up having the exact opposite effect on a wide swath of your readership.

Happiness isn’t as simple at getting everything you think you want. Fictional endings that perpetuate that meme do us all; writers, readers and the characters they’ve created and/or loved; a great disservice.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Riddick’s Latest Chronicle Should Have Gone Unrecorded

*Spoiler Alert! Actually, I’m not sure there’s anything I can say that could possibly spoil this movie any worse than watching it. It’s terrible. But I may inadvertently give details of things you don’t want to know if you’re planning on still wasting your money seeing it. Little tip: set your money on fire instead. You’ll get a brief few seconds of warmth from it which is more than you’ll get in two hours at the theater.

Beware long awaited sequels to cult-following type movies. Lest we forget, there’s the damage done to Indiana Jones by the horrible Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or the sheer reputation-destroying wall of schlock thrown up by George Lucas in his second set of Star Wars movies to remind us. Sometimes it’s best to just leave well enough alone. Of course, both of those terrible affronts to iconic characters banked enough coin to encourage talk of an Indy 5 and spur Disney to drop the price of a small country to land the rights to produce the next series of cash-printing Star Wars films. But that’s the way of Hollywood these days; squeeze that franchise for every dime regardless of quality. And you don’t have to worry about killing the golden goose because you just hire new folks and reboot every decade or so. Great for the accountants but not so hot for continuity, coherence or character.

At least with those films, you have a solid bankable asset still in play with a large fan base’s fond memories of past success. That’s not the case with Vin Diesel’s labor of artistic love, Richard B. Riddick. A character, by the way, who only even has a first name or middle initial to prop up an offhanded joke near the beginning of Pitch Black, the first film in this now-trilogy. Riddick is a character so thin on nuance that even giving him a full name seems superfluous. But that was okay to me because the Riddick introduced in Pitch Black was mysterious, silently threatening and sneaky-clever beneath the veneer of a muscle bound dullard. In that way, Diesel fit his character, his performance naturally seamless from his personality and acting style.

Despite the money, accolades and string of Fast and Furious driven hits, Diesel is not a very good actor. He has one speed, and it works if the character he’s playing is firmly in that wheelhouse. Dominic Toretto is one of those, and the big difference that separates the B-movie, direct to video feel of the Fast films without him from the A-list blockbusters the one’s with him have become. Riddick, at least in the first two incarnations, was another, albeit sans the massive box office.

Pitch Black was released in 2000 to little fanfare. It was an atmospheric low-budget ($23 million) sci fi/horror movie, more in common with Alien than any kind of space opera. At its simplest, Pitch Black works well. Cold anti hero finds that little spark of humanity left within him, the crash survivors picked off “Ten Little Indians” style by the seemingly inevitable crush of the darkness-loving monsters. The movie hints at a larger universe, but keeps things vague enough that your imagination fills in the details of the world they exist in and allows the story to focus wholly on the man vs man/man vs monster battles for survival.

The second film, The Chronicles of Riddick, was much different. In place of the simple survival against long odds story was an overly-ambitious sweeping space epic. The budget for the film ballooned to nearly $120 million, and with it, expectations of box office success it just wasn’t capable of meeting. Despite the far expanded scope of the film, the Riddick character was essentially the same steely badass taking each fight as it comes from the first movie. He was given a sometimes incoherent backstory about his Furyan heritage and a prophecy he may have been born to fulfill but, much like his full name in Pitch Black, it felt like pointless exposition to set up the next scene of Riddick coolly wreaking carnage. And I was okay with that. Movies are what they are and this, in particular, was one not to get too hung up on the details or occasional dangling plot points.

After the relative box office bomb that Chronicles became, it looked like the accountants would do what all the space monsters, Mercs and Necromongers couldn’t and kill Riddick. The movie actually wasn’t a bomb in the epic sense. When all was said and done, and the International box office was counted up, Chronicles was dangerously close to break even. But for $120 million in 2004 dollars, break even was light-years away from good enough to green light any more chronicles.

After that, as part of the deal that brought Vin Diesel back to the Fast and Furious franchise, he swapped a cameo for the film rights to Riddick, a decision that now looks like it might be a very astute, and very profitable one. I waited anxiously for the nine years after Chronicles, sucking up every little piece of internet gossip I could find, hoping beyond good fiscal reason that a third movie would find its way to theaters. Hell, I’d have been happy with a direct to video. As imperfect as Chronicles was, and its imperfections are easily as epic as its scope, I wanted to see more. There were questions I wanted answered. And that sly little smile curling up on Riddick’s lips at the end of Chronicles as he realizes the implications of “you keep what you kill” was a supreme tease. This man was hard enough to handle on his own, what special kind of hell would he bring forth in charge of the entire Necromonger fleet? I wanted to see it.

When I finally saw the trailer for the long-awaited third film, simply named Riddick, earlier this year, I was so happy, I wouldn’t let my concerns about the film surface. This was gonna be awesome! How could it not be? All the years, all that work from Diesel to keep this dream alive? You don’t see people put that kind of effort in without good reason. Or so I told myself. When I bought my ticket and perched myself into that theater seat, I was so excited for what was to come. Then, as the film’s near-two hour runtime spooled out before me, I slowly realized there was one major problem here; the movie itself really sucks.

It isn’t bad in the same way Chronicles was bad, failing because their vision outpaced their grasp. It’s bad in the way Hollywood sometimes ham-handles series reboots. Riddick is part Pitch Black only without the atmosphere, tension or claustrophobic feel. And it’s also part Chronicles without the scope and even more incoherent backstory. Why the strong desire to go home for a man self described as born in a liquor store trashbin with an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck? Relive the good times?

Riddick is a movie that feels put together by audience survey. Riddick fighting monsters tested really well? Here’s 45 minutes of Riddick fighting monsters to open the film. Riddick fighting Mercs also tested well? Then we’ll double down with two competing Merc crews to battle. Riddick winning over the space cat from Chronicles tested well? Have 20 minutes of Riddick raising a vicious brindle space dog from a puppy. The Necromongers didn’t come off so hot? Well, we’ll wrap that plot point up with five minutes of flashback exposition. The end result is a clunky film that seems familiar, mostly because we’ve already seen everything in it done better in the earlier movies.

None of the characters are even slightly compelling. Even Riddick himself seemed less than before. His banter with Katee Sackhoff was blunt and crude, none of the sly allusions of earlier films. The Riddick of Pitch Black or Chronicles wouldn’t have used the phrase “balls deep”. Too coarse, too obvious. Too sexualized. The shot of Riddick’s bed full of naked Necromonger hotties was a stark contrast to the stoic feel of before. It was an attempt to add sex to the character that didn’t need to be. Before, it was subtle and implied. This was ugly and obvious.

The Mercs were hollow shells of their counterparts from the previous movies. Johns in Pitch Black was a far more interesting character, eliciting far more of a response than his father, the elder Johns who appears in Riddick searching for answers about the death of his son. Santana had none of the humor or presence of Toombs from Chronicles. Their respective crews were just to pad the eventual bodycount.

All except for Sackhoff, that is, who had the pleasure of playing the lone female character in the movie, with the exception of the aforementioned naked bed of Necros. This was perhaps the most disappointing part of this. There was an obligatory topless shower scene for Sackhoff, of course, being the only woman in a sci fi movie, that I’m sure the Battlestar Galactica fanboys will enjoy. But overall, she’s a stock character like the rest. Even worse, we’re expected to believe Riddick’s raw animal magnetism gets the lesbian to switch sides. People talk about sexism in sci fi, and this movie’s sure not doing anything to put the lie to that.

It’s particularly disappointing in that both of the earlier films had strong and/or interesting female characters. Pitch Black had Radha Mitchell as the docking pilot who grew into the role of Captain after the crash and Claudia Black’s take-charge prospector. Chronicles had Judi Dench, for god’s sake, an an envoy from a race called Elementals who oversee balance for the entire universe and Thandie Newton as the scheming, Lady Macbeth-type Dame Vacco, wife to the heir apparent to the Necro throne. And then there’s Jack/Kyra, who grew from the cowering girl dressing up as a boy in Pitch Black to the fully grown, ass kicking woman in Chronicles. Riddick’s universe went from strong female characters to a token woman who exists solely for Riddick to make lewd comments to. That, in this case, it happened to be a woman who did such a good job with a strong woman character in Battlestar Galactica makes it all the more disheartening.

Somehow, this film is actually being received fairly well. Rotten Tomatoes is showing a critics’ rating of 58, which isn’t gangbusters but is much better than this deserved. The viewers’ rating is even higher, at 73! Riddick was produced more in line with Pitch Black. It had a low budget, around $38 million. In just five days since the movie opened in the U.S., it’s already earned back close to $30 million. I think it’s safe to say, when all the receipts are in, the international box office added, and the inevitable video game tie-in or two, Diesel is going to have a nice pile of money for his troubles. That also means we’re very likely to see Riddick 4 and probably Riddick 5 over the next few years.

Back in 2004, after Chronicles bombed, I remember being disappointed knowing that, barring a miracle, there’d probably not be any more Riddick movies. Now, after seeing the new one and knowing with near certainty that there will be more, I find myself disappointed yet again. There’s millions of dollars to be made, after all, so these movies will exist, but by the time the money dries up, will anyone still remember why we watched the Riddick movies in the first place? Be careful what you wish for.

Published in: on September 11, 2013 at 9:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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Live Movie Review: Cabin in the Woods

I always wanted to try something like this. I was sitting around the house this evening, feeling pretty bored, and I had rented Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods earlier in the day, so I thought, what the hell. The following is my unvarnished opinions on the film, posted as I watched it.

(Note: there will be spoilers. Of course, this movie’s like a year old, so if you haven’t seen it by now, you probably don’t really care anyway, but I thought warning you would be the polite thing to do. Unless you actually wanted the surprise of finding out if there’s spoilers in here, in which case, I’m sorry for spoiling that.)

1:04

What the hell was that? Ominous generic horror movie music and credits opening to, what, public domain Dante’s Inferno artwork with blood dripping on it? Is this an allegory or a horror movie? God, I hope its a horror movie and not some attempt by Joss Whedon to make a point. By the way, how pissed do you think the dude who did the original artwork for The Divine Comedy is that he wasn’t born in a time with copyright? That guy’d be a billionaire by now on residuals from third rate horror flicks alone.

2:58

Ok, so generic male receding hairline corporate dude was entirely too confident blowing off the concerns of the hot scientist babe. Something tells me dire consequences lie in wait. Something like, oh, I don’t know, every horror movie ever made.

4:08

A conversation between a smoking hot blonde in a skimpy sundress and a smoking hot redhead in her panties in the film’s first five minutes? Bravo, Mr. Whedon! He certainly knows his audience.

5:05

Hey, is that Thor? Yes, yes it is. I bet he uses a hammer at some point. Chris Hemsworth has brandished a hammer at some point in every film he’s ever been in. Seriously, Thor, The Avengers, Snow White and the Huntsman…or was that an axe? Actually, I don’t know if that’s true…Thor!

7:07

Holy shit! Did they do any merchandising for this film? Because I’m pretty sure that two-foot bong that collapses into a to-go coffee mug is the single most brilliant invention in the history of civilization! These things should be available in a store near everyone! Strategically placed between the Maxwell House and the Doritos, naturally.

12:19

So we’ve got the stock crew for a horror movie–the jock, the slutty blonde, the black guy, the stoner and the survivor girl–in the stock situation of having a party weekend at some relative’s isolated cabin. They’ve even had the stock ominous warnings of the backwards country dude on the way. This is pretty much Horror 101 so far. So either Joss Whedon just needed a paycheck and mailed it in, or he’s trying to be clever.

13:19

WTF! Did that bird just fly into a forcefield? Yup, clever it is.

21:21

Uhhh…ok. That was just a gag scene, right out of a Scary Movie spoof with the Harbinger. A speaker phone gag, at that. What is going on? We’ve got a serious cliched horror film being controlled and directed by two guys straight out of Airplane? Dammit! Whedon’s being clever. I’m not going to say this has totally gone off the rails, but it’s teetering right on the edge.

24:27

Alright, Whedon brought it back a bit with that scene. These corporate lookin’ guys are controlling things but only to a point. “If they don’t transgress, they can’t be punished.” That sounds like all kinda bad news for Scooby and the gang. But still, bad, bad choice to go with that speaker phone gag.

27:53

Oh, poor Dana! Talk about awful timing. After steeling herself up and taking the dare when Thor called her a pussy, probably thinking she’d have to make out with the wolf head like the blonde did or flash her tits or something, bam! The mysterious cellar door flies open for no reason and that becomes the obvious dare. Sucks for her! She’ll be alright, though. She’s the survivor girl.

33:39

See, this is good kinda clever. The basement filled with creepy ass stuff, I’m presuming all of it cursed. Sort of like a choose your own adventure, but with a horrifying death at the end of each option.

38:19

So not only are the corporate dudes running the show and spying on their every move, they’re making them act even more stereotypical that they already are. I’m not really sure what’s happening again. They’re answering to what or who exactly? And since when do creatures like that want their sacrifices delivered up as horror movies? Zombie redneck torture family? What happens if they fail? Can I put any more questions in this paragraph? Is that microwave popcorn done yet?

44:00

Alright, now we’re getting down to brass tacks! But, honestly, almost 45 minutes before someone gets brutally murdered in a horror movie? Slacking, Whedon. I love the bear trap on a chain, though. That’s got a place in my “shit I really hope to god I never encounter in real life” list.

51:00

Oh, paranoid nihilist stoner dude, we hardly knew ya. I had a momentary hope that super coffee cup bong was gonna save the day, but that damn redneck zombie just took it in stride. And right after he noticed the hidden cameras, too. At least he died knowing there really was someone watching him. Go gentle into that good night, paranoid nihilist stoner dude.

54:40

That bear trap on a chain makes a reappearance! It’s climbing up my list of horrific items I never wanna see with a bullet! And for an instant there, I thought Thor grabbed a hammer, but it was just a 2 x 4. He’ll get one before this is over and done though, just you wait…

56:12

The Japanese dropped the ball and now Kiko’s spirit will live on in the happy frog. Sounds nice.

1:01:18

He’s not going to do what I think he is? No, no, no! Thor…no! He did. Well, you could say he “hammer”-ed that force field. With his face. I get it! It’s a metaphysical sort of thing. Hemsworth didn’t wield a hammer in this film, he became the hammer. Streak saved. (Again, I don’t really know if he had a streak.)

1:02:56

And then there was one…survivor girl. Good to know that the death of the virgin is optional, though. I’ll keep that stored away in case I ever need to appease some ancient diety. I’m really not digging the puppet master corporate types side of this movie. The tone is off. Either the horror movie side is took heavy or the puppet master side is too light. They’re clashing in an unenjoyable way.

1:06:58

Damn right! Paranoid nihilist stoner dude lives! And he saved survivor girl by finally overcoming that horribly frightening bear trap on a chain! The corporate folks do seem a bit disturbed by this development, however.

1:18:06

This is awesome! Just total chaos, every horror movie monster you can imagine and then some just running totally amok! They evidently had a sizable line item for fake blood in the budget of this film. This totally makes up for making me wait half the movie to see somebody offed.

1:19:00

A murderous unicorn? Really? Eh…

1:23:23

Ladies and gentlemen, Sigourney Weaver! Conveniently here to explain everything they couldn’t be bothered to present through actual narrative storytelling. Hoo-rah!

1:30:33

Giant evil gods. Huh. Has anyone checked on Joss Whedon lately? How’s he doin’? Maybe somebody oughta give him a call just to say hello or send him a cookie bouquet. Jesus, that was a cynical ending! Fuck it, humanity deserves to die so let’s just fire up a joint and watch the world burn. Man, I thought I had a low opinion of the state of things, but that movie was just…dark. And not in a good way. That’s the kinda shit where I wouldn’t be totally shocked to find out whoever wrote it offed themselves later.

Overall, not a good movie. The main plot device was too clever for its own good, and Whedon setting two different tones (horror and almost comedy) between the two halves of the film just didn’t work. And that ending, wow. I’ve seen and enjoyed unhappy endings where the heroes fail and the world crumbles but that’s the first time I’ve ever seen the protagonists, the good guys of the film, just decide to let the world end even when they easily could have stopped it. It’s just too callous of a disregard of basic humanity. The choice was he can die or he can die and cause every soul on the planet’s death, too. Cardboard as they were, and even with stoner dude’s obvious nihilism (which, in and of itself, was pretty unrealistic) I just don’t believe either one of those characters as established would have made that choice.

This whole movie felt forced. The different tones were forced together, the horror movie within a horror movie element came off as a smug, look-how-clever-I-am device. The over-the-top humor seemed awkward and out of place for the most part, and I don’t buy the ending at all.

So, that’s it. Even though the movie sucked, this was kinda fun. And I actually made it all the way through without getting bored and bailing to go get some nachos.

Final Conclusion: Stay away. Stay far away.

Published in: on February 11, 2013 at 7:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The 13 Days of Halloween: Psycho Killers

I watch a lot of horror movies, even bad ones.  Sometimes, especially bad ones because I’ve found that even a terrible horror movie is still more entertaining than a good romantic comedy.  Nothing frightens me more than the prospect of sitting through another Jennifer Aniston Rom-com or pretty much anything with Julia Roberts, for that matter.  Terrifying!

Over the years, I’ve consumed hundreds, if not thousands, of horror movies.  Even the bad ones can offer something unique or interesting to take away.  Much like Hamlet’s line, “The play’s the thing…”, in horror, the killer’s the thing. Without an interesting killer, your movie is ultimately doomed.

I have watched some horrible films over the years that have interesting or unique killers, and I find that I’ll watch them again just for that element, despite the fact that I know the movie itself, frankly, sucks.  It’s sorta like listening to an album with two or three good songs but sitting through the lesser 10 anyway just because the good tunes are worth it.

So, here are seven of my favorite horror movie killers from over the years.  Some of the films they were featured in were pretty good, but some were admittedly lousy.  It doesn’t really matter, though, because, as I said, the killer’s the thing.

Jigsaw

Yeah, I know, everybody’s sick of the Saw franchise, myself included.  Besides, the guy died, like, four movies ago.  But think back to the original, do you remember that it was actually a very good film, and unique for its time?  I know sequels can sap the life out of a movie, especially a horror movie, but let’s not forget how cool the original concept was.

How can you not love a killer who turns people’s weaknesses on themselves but gives them a possible chance at redemption and survival, albeit with sometimes horrifying sacrifices?  Jigsaw wasn’t so much a mass murderer as he was a psychologist.  But rather than simply having his patients drone on endlessly about their problems hoping to stumble onto an epiphany, Jigsaw gives you 60 seconds to cut the key out from behind your eye before the apparatus strapped to your face tears your head in half.  Now that’s what I call therapy!

John Doe

What’s in the box?  Can anyone ever forget the immortal words of Brad Pitt in Seven when first suspecting that his wife has become a victim of a nameless, religious minded serial killer acting out the seven deadly sins to “turn each sin upon the sinner”?  John Doe was somewhat like Jigsaw in that respect, with one key difference:  there was no redemption in Doe’s machinations, even for himself.

Kevin Spacey played the role to perfection, and the intricately plotted out series of killings was as impressive for their inter-connectedness as for their sheer brutality.  The best part is, he won in the end.  Doe led the police by the nose throughout the entire film, and his plan worked out precisely the way he wanted it, down to the very minute.  And how can you not love a guy who gave Gwynneth Paltrow the most emotionally affecting moment of her career, as a head in a box?

Victor Crowley

Unlike the first two killers on this list who were obsessive and intricate planners of elaborate, meaningful deaths, Victor Crowley was a straight-up force of nature.  The movie Hatchet wasn’t a great film, but it was an awesome horror movie.  Crowley reportedly died as a deformed boy when he  accidentally took a hatchet to the face from his father when he was desperately trying to save Victor from a house fire.  Now he’s back, living in the family home in the secluded Louisiana swamps, and woe be unto anyone who crosses his path.

Crowley wasn’t creative or thoughtful with his prey.  He pretty much just tore people apart with his bare hands, ripping off limbs, snapping necks, breaking people in half across trees, all while groaning and growling indecipherable sounds from his horribly deformed face.  Yeah, it’s not great acting work, but it was certainly entertaining.

Jason’s Mom

The original Friday the 13th movie didn’t have Jason as the undead, unkillable monster as protagonist, it was his mom.  An otherwise sweet looking older woman, dressed in a nice sweater, stalking Camp Crystal Lake slaughtering the teen-age counselors to get revenge for a group of horny teenagers letting her son drown at camp years earlier because they were too busy drinking, smoking weed and hooking up to pay attention. 
This woman was flat-out nuts, going around spouting “kill her mommy” in her best squeaky five-year-old-boy voice.  This movie was truly great, combining horror with murder mystery.  It was like a psychopathic version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.  Not to mention a very young Kevin Bacon getting skewered through the throat with an arrow.  In the end, Jason’s mom lost her head, quite literally, unleashing a 30 year rampage of Jason’s vengeance that took him to Manhattan, Hell, outer space and back again.  Talk about influencial!

Anton Phibes

The Abominable Dr. Phibes was a Vincent Price take on the intricately planned revenge murder sequence.  Phibes was in a horrible car accident that disfigured him and killed his beloved wife.  Years later, Phibes comes back to kill everyone involved in allowing his wife to die on the operating table.

What makes this great is that Phibes didn’t just kill them, he planned each death to correspond to one of the biblical plagues on Egypt.  Brilliant!  To wrap it up, he created a very Jigsaw-like challenge for the lead surgeon to remove a key from near the heart to free his son before having his face eaten off by acid.  Phibes definitely had style.

Pazuzu

Pazuzu was the demon who took up residence in sweet little Reagan in The Exorcist.  Not only did he twist people’s heads around and toss them out windows, but he turned a nice little girl into a drunken, foul-mouthed sailor, and made projectile vomiting cool.

Pazuzu really came into his own in the Exorcist III, though, when he possessed a patient in an asylum.  During that film, he bounced from patient to patient, sending them out to lop off people’s heads with those giant, stainless steel clipper things morticians sometimes use.  Has anyone ever invented a perfectly legitimate tool that looks more like something from a homicidal maniac’s Christmas list than those things?  They’re spring-loaded hedge clippers from pruning people’s limbs.  Totally creepy!

Death

Death is the ultimate psycho killer.  And if you’ve seen any of the Final Destination movies, you know that he also sports a creative side for taking out his victims.  Death doesn’t just toss a little cancer at you, he creates a freaky chain of events, sort of like a gory version of the game Mousetrap, that culminated in his intended victim being disembowled, crushed, exploded, impaled or otherwise dismembered in new and interesting ways.  Has there ever been a series of films with more moments where viewers have to turn their heads suddenly and shout “whoa!” at the sudden carnage than these movies?

You also can’t beat death, no matter how hard you try.  In all these movies, the group of survivors desperately try to defeat death’s plan, but everyone ultimately ends up dead anyway.  It’s the ultimate exercise in futility.  And say what you want about Saving Private Ryan, but I’ll take the opening car crash scene in Final Destination 2 as the pinnacle in awesome movie-opening carnage and mayhem.  Death is a total bad-ass killer, and he definitely has his plans in order.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween concludes…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

The 13 Days of Halloween: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Alfred Hitchcock is one of those Hollywood folks whose films can be associated with various types of creative work.  Thrillers are probably what he’s best known for as, over the years, Hitch cranked out many excellent films with espionage, murder and other general all-around mayhem as the main component to their plots.  Hitchcock even frequently discussed his use of the MacGuffin, put simply, whatever it was the protagonists were fighting over, be that secret plans or, typically in his films, some vague, unspecified crucial thing that sets up all the thriller elements.

While I do seriously enjoy Hitch’s various array of thrillers, I’ve always been more of a fan of his horror films.  While many of his most famous works straddled the line between multiple genres, there are a few that I feel fall squarely into the horror category, and I believe they include some of the very cream of his cinematic efforts.

Before I get into my list, though, I want to give a specific shout out to four of his films, in particular, that simply straddled that line too far on the thriller side to be considered horror.  I also very briefly considered The Lodger, which is definitely in the horror genre as it’s based on Jack The Ripper, but ruled it out immediately.  It was Hitch’s first film, a silent one at that, and simply doesn’t hold up to the standards set by the other movies listed here.

I really wanted to have Vertigo on this list, mostly because it’s my single favorite Hitchcock film.  Jimmy Stewart gives simply an awesome performance as the troubled and almost creepy-obsessive main character.  And the plot, with its hints at ghosts, dopplegangers and an all around unhappy ending really had me struggling to overcome what I knew was true.  Vertigo is a sublime example of a richly textured psychological thriller, not a horror film.  It pained me to do so, but Vertigo is out.

Speaking of great performances from Jimmy Stewart, I had nearly a carbon copy internal conflict over the fantastic Rear Window.  Stewart was again wonderful, this time as a curious but helpless man stranded in his apartment, only able to watch a murderous plot unfold through his telescope, powerless to do anything about it.  In the end, though, even more than Vertigo, Rear Window was just too clearly a psychological thriller to make it on this list.

Another film I was compelled to leave out despite myself was Grace Kelly’s fabulous turn in Dial M For Murder.  A husband’s ruthless plot to have his wife murdered in a fake robbery goes awry when she manages to kill her would-be assailant.  Unfortunately for Kelly, she herself ends up being arrested for murder.  This is truly a great film, but after her arrest, the movie plays much more like a murder mystery than a horror film.  Despite my initial consideration, deciding to leave this one off was actually easier than either Vertigo or Rear Window.

The fourth film I seriously considered was Strangers On A Train.  In this one, Guy meets a mysterious man on a train trip who offers a bizarre bargain: he’d kill Guy’s wife in exchange for Guy doing away with the man’s father, thereby solving both of their problems.  Guy says no, but the man carries out his end anyway soon thereafter, by killing his wife.  While the setup has some elements of horror, this movie ultimately becomes a thriller/blackmail film.

So, which of Hitchcock’s films did make the cut?  Here are what I consider to be his five best actual horror films:

Psycho

Ok, so this one is obvious.  Psycho may well be the best horror movie ever made, and if not, it’s on an extremely short list.  Written by horror great Robert Bloch, Psycho set the standard for quiet, unassuming nice guy cum serial killer stories.  There’s a creepy old house, a creepy rundown motel, split personalities, cross dressing, desicated corpses and more.  Do I even need to mention the shower scene, quite possibly the single most famous scene in cinema history?  This is a totally creepy masterpiece of horror, no doubt about it.

The Birds

Like Psycho, there is simply no question that this is first, foremost and completely a horror film.  What starts as a seemingly innocent romantic flirtation turns downright frightening as a small coastal California town becomes ground zero for an all-out war on mankind by the area’s bird population.  Made well before the current environmental “green” movement, Mother Nature is pissed in this horror classic and she’s not gonna take it anymore.  Has there ever been a creepier scene than the end of this film, where the birds perched on every available surface magnanimously provide a brief reprieve from their all-out assault to give the few remaining people an opportunity to give up and get out?  If there is, I haven’t seen it.

Rope

Some may say that this film is a thriller, but I disagree.  It is very much a horror story.  Two college friends decide to kill a third friend before a graduation party just to see what it’s like to murder someone.  They then proceed to stuff the body into a trunk, put a table cloth over it and serve the party guests refreshments on it.  If that’s not horror, then I don’t know what is.  The cold, calculated manner of the killing, and the way in which the stronger of the two friends totally relished every moment of the tension during the lead up to and throughout the party was just simply psychopathic.  Besides, I already ruled out two great Jimmy Stewart Hitchcock films, no way I was leaving off a third.

This film may actually be more famous for the way it was filmed, presented in real-time, cleverly masking cuts to make it appear as one long continuous shot.  Those elements helped to build up the tension right from the start, opening as it did with the last gasp of the dying man, strangled by the title character, the rope.  Murder, madness and unfeeling evil sounds a lot like a horror movie to me.

Shadow of a Doubt

What many people, including the man himself, consider to be Hitchcock’s finest film, this is another thriller that I believe totally fits the bill as a horror movie.  Joseph Cotten is charming Uncle Charlie, come to pay a visit to his namesake niece in California.  What the young girl doesn’t know is that sweet Uncle Charlie is also the Merry Widow Killer, seducing and killing a series of wealthy widows, and part of his visit is motivated by a need to flee one of his recent bloody conquests. 

During his visit, young Charlie begins to suspect and finally confirms her Uncle’s murderous ugly side, and has to survive an attempt on her life, leading him to a gruesome face-first meeting with an on-coming train.  Serial killer, beautiful young girl marked for death, and a brutal comeuppance for the killer at the end.  Yup, this is a horror movie.

Frenzy

Hitchcock’s final film and one of his most horrifying.  The Necktie Killer is stalking London, strangling unsuspecting woman with, you guessed it, a necktie.  This film features one of the most disturbing scenes of rape and murder ever put on film, at least up until 1972, when this movie was released. 

Frenzy follows the killer as he plies his deadly trade all over town, and even leads police to pursue and arrest an innocent man for his crimes.  The murder scene alone, and I mean alone as it was so effective that it was the only actual murder shown in the film, rates this as a definite horror movie.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

The 13 Days of Halloween: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Perhaps as much as any genre out there, horror caters to the short story format.  In fact, I would argue that horror actually does the short story format better than most.  Given that is the way it is in print, then it is no surprise that their equivalent will show up in the movies and on TV.

I love horror anthologies.  I have shelves full of them in book form in my dining room.  I have copious anthology films on dvd, and even entire tv series on dvd, and some older ones on VHS, if you can believe that.  The horror story has always had the capacity to get its point across concisely and effectively, be that in a dozen pages, a half hour episode or a 45 minute 1/3 of a movie.

So, here are a few of my favorite anthology series and films.  I had a difficult time whittling this list down.  Who knew there were so many to choose from?

Tales From The Crypt

Beginning in the late 1980s and running seven seasons, Tales From The Crypt may well be the best horror series ever.  Based on the pulp horror comic of the same name from the ’50s, this show seamlessly blended scares, sometimes extreme gore and dark humor in a way that I just couldn’t get enough of.  It got to be so popular that name actors were lining up to get their turn at an episode. 

I’ve been sitting here for an hour trying to figure out what my favorite episode is, but I simply can’t.  Over the years, so many of them stick in my mind that I just can’t narrow it down.  The Christmas episode with the escaped lunatic dressed as Santa, the lumberjack episode where they literally split the only woman in camp down the middle, the struggling cafe that finds success serving a unique new menu item, the conjoined twin ice cream salesman where one twin gets killed in a robbery attempt, the escaped killer who kills the cop handcuffed to him and gets stalked across the desert by a hungry vulture, the salesman/con man who gets caught up with the most repugnant woman ever when Tim Curry played the whole backwards family, the haunted house episode with Morton Downey Jr. as an exploitation journalist, the one where Jon Lovitz wants to be a Shakespearean actor and wins a key role as Yorick’s skull in Hamlet–I could go on forever. And if I don’t stop, I will.

Creepshow

This may be my favorite anthology movie.  The cast was loaded with big names–Ed Harris, Ted Danson, Leslie Nielson among many, and told a variety of tales.  Father’s Day where a murdered wealthy patriarch returns from the grave for some cake, The Lonesome Death of Jordy Ferrill where an alien weed consumes everything in its path, including Stephen King, They’re Creeping Up On You where eccentric germaphobe E.G. Marshall gets overrun by bloodthirsty cockroaches, and The Crate where Hal Holbrook and friend find a unique way to dispose of his unbearable shrew of a wife.

But my favorite of the bunch is Something To Tide You Over.  Ted Danson is screwing around with Leslie Neilson’s wife, so to get even, Neilson buried them both up to their neck on the beach and watches via closed circuit tv as the tide comes in.  Needless to say, things take a horrible turn for Nielson, and he ends up the one buried neck deep in the sand.  I will simply never forget the end scene when the waves started to lap over Nielson’s head, with him cackling insanely, “I can hold my breath for a long time!”

There were two lesser sequels to this movie, but other than a brief high point or two–The Raft, for instance, from Creepshow 2 where the creepy oil slick in the secluded lake ate the stock group of horny, stoned, drunken teenagers–but neither film came close to the original.

Tales From The Darkside

This show from the early 1980s followed on in a tradition established by Rod Serling’s
excellent work with the Twilight Zone and later Night Gallery, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the Outer Limits and preceded
The Ray Bradbury Theater and the harsher, more graphic Tales From the Crypt that I referenced earlier.

Episodes were written by a plethora of great writers, including Robert Bloch, George
Romero and Stephen King. One of King’s episodes, in particular, based on a short story of his, The Word Processor of the Gods, had a unique impact on me. Good horror tales are always morality fables, and this one was no different.  What would you do if you had a word processor that would make whatever you typed come true?
Would you use that power for good or let it destroy you? It was that kind of ethical quandary and commentary that brought me to horror fiction. In fantastic situations, would people stay grounded or would they get drunk on the new-found abilities?

Later on, they also made a Tales From The Darkside film that ranks among my favorite anthology movies, as well.  An all star cast that included Christian Slater and Steve Buscemi told three tales wrapped around a more modern take on the old witch in the gingerbread house, capturing small children and fattening them up for supper.

Watching David Johansen as a high end hitman struggling to put down a small black cat or Rae Dawn Chong as a tormented gargoyle were great, but Lot 249 was my favorite.  Based on an Arthur Conan Doyle story, of all things, what could be better than watching Steve Buscemi reanimating an ancient Egyptian mummy and having him act out the mummification ritual on unsuspecting victims?

The House That Dripped Blood

In the late ’60s to early ’70s, a British film company called Amicus cranked out an array of horror anthology films, many featuring Peter Cushing, loosely based on the horror comics of the ’50s.  Some even sported the titles of the comics, like Tales From The Crypt and Vault of Horror.  Most of them were surprisingly good, but my personal favorite is The House That Dripped Blood.

This film is a collection of four stories, all written by the great Robert Bloch, wrapped around the gruesome history of one particular house.  Starring Cushing and horror film great Christopher Lee, this movie has one of the better wrap-around stories in horror anthology film history.  Including tales about a muderous fictional character come to life, a creepy wax museum, some voodoo and a haunted cloak, The House That Dripped Blood isn’t just a movie with a very cool-sounding title, it backs it up in terrifying substance.

Masters of Horror

This series, which appeared on Showtime in 2005, took the Tales From The Crypt precedent a few steps further.  Running for two seasons, Masters of Horror featured individual episodes directed by some of the biggest names in horror cinema.  Admittedly, the episodes were a little uneven at times–the one where dead soldiers came back from the grave to vote stands out as particularly awful–but overall, there was more good than bad here.

Jennifer was a particularly creepy episode about a smoking hot girl with a demonic face who enchanted men to look over her and had a taste for fresh meat.  The Fair Haired Child told of a boy’s parents who engaged in an intricate ritual to bring their deceased son back to life.  The child itself, crawling around all herky-jerky still gives me the shivers.  Pelts with Meatloaf as a fur coat maker taken in by some enchanted raccoon pelts has a particularly gruesome ending.  And Pick Me Up is a great mano-y-mano duel between two serial killers.

My favorite episode, though, is The Black Cat with Jeffrey Combs as Edgar Allan Poe struggling to stay atop his sanity with no money, a fatally ill wife and a heavy drinking habit.   Combs descends into a surreal madness before emerging with one of the most famous tales ever written.  This series may have been short-lived, but well worth the time.

Friday the 13th: The Series

This series, from the later part of the ’80s, has always been among my fondest memories of childhood tv. The Friday the 13th television series (no, it’s not about Jason) was an entire show based on the morality play.  The main characters had to go around hunting down cursed objects from their deceased uncle’s antique store, objects with the power to grant the owner their inner-most desires, at the cost of their souls.  Every week, we’d see the consequences of giving in to temptation.

The show was really very 1980′s, big hair and all. On one episode about a scarecrow who beheaded its owners’ enemies, there was even a macrame owl hanging on a bedroom door. I haven’t seen one of those
since, well, since 1987.  I think my favorite episode was about a woodchipper that would spit out cash depending on how much the person stuffed in the business end was worth.  Drop in a rich heiress and oodles of money came flying out.  But in the end, the guy who used it was sucked in himself, and all that came out was ground up gardener.  The episode was so cool, it never occurred to me to ask why the hell an antique store was selling a woodchipper in the first place.

Cat’s Eye

This is a 1985 film based on some short stories by Stephen King.  The title comes from a cat that serves as a unifying character, appearing in all three separate stories.  Previously, I mentioned how much I enjoyed King’s early short stories, and this film is made up of two of those. 

In The Ledge, a former tennis pro is made to traverse the thin ledge around a mobsters penthouse apartment after being caught screwing around with his wife.  The cat plays a tangental role, helping the tennis pro and working against the mobster.  Then, in Quitters Inc., James Woods signs up for a smoking cessation program only to discover that the primary motivation to quit is the threat that his wife and child would be brutally tortured if he continued to partake.  To hell with the patch and nicotine gum, cutting off one of your wife’s fingers every time you puff is a plan for people very serious about laying off the smokes.  The cat appears only briefly in this one, just long enough to have some electro shock demonstrated on him.

Finally, the cat plays a lead role in The General, battling it out with a soul-stealing troll to protect a young Drew Barrymore.  In the end, the cat wins and finds a permanent home as Barrymore’s guardian.  This isn’t the best movie ever made, but I definitely have a soft spot for it in my memory.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

The 13 Days of Halloween: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Earlier, I wrote a tribute/lament about the late, great Vincent Price and how there hasn’t been a true horror movie icon since his passing in 1993 and doesn’t appear to be one coming any time soon.  Well, in honor of my favorite scary movie actor in this, my favorite time of year, here are a few of my all-time favorite Vincent Price films.  I don’t pretend to be all-encompassing–he did so many films during his 50+ year acting career, that would be next to impossible.  But when I’m looking for a Price-fix, as it were, these films come to mind more often than not.

House of Wax (1953)

Professor Henry Jarrod was a genius in wax.  He lovingly created some of history’s most famous people in unbelievably lifelike detail.  That is, until his business partner torches the wax museum for the insurance money with Jarrod and all his creations inside.  Somehow, he managed to survive but is horribly disfigured and unable to resume his work.  Jarrod, with the help of two apprentices, eventually makes a comeback with a new house of wax and a decidedly darker approach.

This one, along with House on Haunted Hill, later were ignominiously given horrid Hollywood remakes, somehow managing to miss the point of both original films completely.  Stay far away from those, unless you want to be horrified in a totally unenjoyable way.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Anton Phibes was a brilliant organist, scientist and equally brilliant muderous mastermind.  A group of nine doctors and nurses presided over the death of Phibes’ wife after a car accident that disfigured Phibes himself.  The good doctor executes an elaborate sequence of hideously clever murders based on the ancient plagues of Egypt, knocking off those Phibes blamed for the death of his wife one at a time, leading up to a grand finale the jigsaw killer would be proud of. 

This film earned a sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, which falls well short of the original, and another similar film, Theatre of Blood.  In that one, Price is an actor bent of destroying his critics in elaborately themed Shakespearean ways.  It’s not as well-done as Phibes, but still pretty entertaining.

The House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Frederick Loren is an unhappily married millionaire hosting a party for his wife, Annabelle, in a presumably haunted house.  The guests of honor at this ostensibly supernatural shindig are five strangers who each have been offered $10,000 if they can just make it through the night in the house.  Betrayal and death ensues, leading to an unexpected twist ending.  Are there really restless spirits at work in the creepy house or fiendish motives of a more earthly sort?

Like House of Wax, this one suffered a terrible remake that played up the supernatural at the expense of the whole point of the original film.  Where this version was about deception and all-too-human greed and aspirations, the newer model traded much of that for special effects and many haunted house cliches.  It was just sad.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)

Roderick Usher is a man resigned to his fate.  He lives in the crumbling estate of his family, a fitting mausoleum for the quickly approaching end of the Usher line.  His sister, Madeline, is torn between a desire to marry and flee from her past and the belief instilled in her by her brother that she, like all the Ushers, is cursed and will meet a foul end sooner than later.  When his sister appears to have died, the whole tenuous foundations holding up the Usher family, and the house itself, come crumbling down.

This is one of several adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe tales, and I believe the best of the bunch. Some of the better films in Price’s Poe series include The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, Tomb of Ligeia and a couple mentioned further down this list.  In Usher, Price expertly presents a man’s descent into madness, dragging his sister with him in the process.  He even sports some unique violin stylings that are among the creepiest things I’ve ever heard.

Tales of Terror (1962)

This film presents a series of three stories also adapted from the works of Poe.  Morella is a story of a father and his estranged daughter’s reunion that blurs the line between life and death.  In The Curious Case of M. Valdemar, Price plays a man on his deathbed who agrees to be hypnotized at the moment of death as part of an experiment to try and stave off death itself but soon finds his soul held hostage by the hypnotist.  In the Black Cat, Price plays a wealthy socialite whose taste for fine wine turns to a taste for the wife of an unemployed drunkard with fatal consequences.  This one is a mix of the title story and The Casque of Amontillado, and includes a fantastic performance by Peter Lorre.

Lorre also appeared in the adaptation of The Raven, along with Price and a superstar cast including Boris Karloff and a very young Jack Nicholson. The Raven is more comedy than genuine horror, but it is still an overall enjoyable film.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

The 13 Days of Halloween: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Where have all our heroes gone?  Horror fans have always had their iconic anti-heroes of the silver screen. From Lon Chaney to Bela Lugosi to Boris Karloff, the golden age of American cinema produced some of the most recognizable, and frightening, on-screen personas ever. 

Following in their footsteps was Vincent Price, who crafted a 50 year career out of the terrifying and the atmospherically creepy, with his long, lanky body and his general ability to set a viewer at unease without saying a word.  Price had more acting talent in his eyebrows than most of today’s movie stars possess in total. And then, when he spoke!  Price has a voice that, much like Karloff before him, defined horror for generations of fans.  Whenever you heard that unmistakable sound of his speech, you just knew something altogether horrible was about to happen.

But since his death in 1993, and to be honest, his on-screen death in 1990’s Edward Scissorhands, his last significant role, no one has stepped in to fill his ample shoes.  Where are the great horror icons of today?  Who are the great actors who personify the very genre just by speaking a few words?  Sadly, there are none.

Sure, we have actors like Robert Englund of Freddy Kreuger fame who seems to be making the rounds of low-budget horror circuit with cameos in many films.  But Englund doesn’t transcend the genre into mainstream consciousness the way Price had.  And his claim to fame, Kreuger, now has a new actor under the makeup.

So who else do we have?  Tony Todd of Candyman and Final Destination fame?  He certainly has the voice for it, at least following that bit of Price’s legacy.  But his principle films haven’t had the impact that Price’s body of work held and, like Englund, has been reduced to almost a caricature of himself through a series of bit parts in mediocre movies.

Anybody else?  I can’t think of any.  No, our horror icons today aren’t the actors who play the roles, they’re the characters themselves, often hidden behind grungy masks and layers of prosthetics.  Freddy Kreuger is far more famous than Englund.  Jason Vorhees is infinitely more well-known than anyone who’s ever played him.  Same for Michael Myers.  Hell, more people know that Myers’ mask was of William Shatner than could tell you the name of anyone who’s worn it on screen.

The great icons among horror actors are dead.  Vincent Price was truly the last of his kind.  Maybe someone will rise up to claim that mantle in the future, but in the 18 years since he shuffled off this mortal coil, I’ve seen no evidence that one is forth coming.  The ghost-face mask in Scream is more identifiable than anyone who’s been in those movies.  And so is the creepy puppet thing on the tricycle from the Saw franchise.

The other day, I watched the 1972 made-for-tv special An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe.  For an hour, Price, alone on stage, performed a series of the most famous and madness-inducing Poe tales in almost Shakespeareian fashion.  This wasn’t watered down, simplified for the masses material, but all the eloquence, complexity and sheer terror of Poe’s words transformed into life through Price’s unique acting talents.  It’s difficult to imagine any iconic horror actor of today pulling off that feat.  Horror may be more prolific than ever, but watching Price channel Poe’s tales of insanity and darkness, I couldn’t help but realize what we’ve lost.

Around the time of his death, the American Movie Classics cable channel ran a Vincent Price movie marathon.  I, in my excitement, filled two VHS tapes with some of the best of his film work.  This was still in the days before DVDs became the norm.  For years after, I pulled out those tapes every October and held my own little Price movie festival.  I watched The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Tomb of Ligeia, Tales of Terror, The Raven, House of Wax and The Conqueror Worm over and over.  It became an annual tradition in my household.

Since then, I’ve built quite the collection of Vincent Price movies, and I still make it a point to spend each October ensnared in his work.  While we may not have icons like Price anymore, we do have his many great films and best performances preserved for eternity.  So I don’t weep for the loss of the great horror icons.  Price, and others like him, will live on well beyond the grave, perhaps as it should be.

Here is a list of some of my favorite film works of Vincent Price.  Maybe you can spend a day this Halloween season emersed in the terror and madness he brought to each role.  I know I will.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

Published in: on October 20, 2011 at 10:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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