Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vampire Hunter at the Office

The Insatiable is another recent B-horror flick with a solid B-lead. The basic plot is simple and draws on traditional vampire lore, mixing in elements of the modern workplace comedy. A serial killer is terrorizing the town, ripping off the heads of its the victims. One night, a lonely office drone doofus (Sean Patrick Flanery) sees the "Head Ripper" at work; she's a vampire (Charlotte Ayanna) who puts the bite on her victims then rips their heads off to hide her tracks. Flanery does some online research and finds out that a paraplegic vampire hunter (Michael Biehn) lives in his apartment building; with his help, Flanery tracks her down but she's so beautiful, he can't bring himself to stake her, so instead he traps her in a steel cage in the basement of his building. He brings her rabbits to feed on, but she insists she needs human blood or she'll wither away and die. What's a lovestruck doofus to do?

Most of the vampire elements are all here: she sleeps in the day and has to be staked in the heart, though this one can be seen in mirrors (in a goofy scene involving a side view mirror which actually says "Vampires in the mirror are closer than they appear"). Ayanna is fine, the main requirement of the role being that she be sexy and exotic-looking. Flanery, who is in virtually every scene, carries the movie and does a nice job as a lonely loser, all twitches and grimaces with flinching looks at practically everyone he comes in contact with. The character feels quirky and real, and Flanery is rather brave in not making himself any more likable than he has to be; we have sympathy for him but he never becomes cuddly or cute, even though Flanery himself is both.

The scenes of Flanery at his flange manufacturing office are comic, sometimes painfully so, with Jon Huertas (one of the cops on TV's Castle) as a total jackass bully who rides Flanery about his wimpishness, his lack of a sex life, and even his name (Harry Balbo). We know he's going to come to no good end, and his exit from the film near the end is a great gory scene. Josh Hopkins (the ex-neighbor from Swingtown) is an office nice guy, and Boyd Kestner is a cop on the trail of the Head Ripper. The low budget hurts a bit, with the few CGI effects being rather disappointing, but the first scene of Ayanna feeding on a victim is very effective. The ending is predictable but satisfying.

BTW, we saw Paranormal Activity today. I'll write a full entry on it next week, but for now suffice to say that it's no Blair Witch Project. It has it moments, but it's a letdown.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Two evil bankers for Halloween

I'll wrap up October here with a couple of Halloween-style scary flicks of recent vintage, both, in a nice touch for these tough times, involving bad-guy bankers. Drag Me to Hell got good reviews and has an old-fashioned horror movie plot: someone falls under a curse that will supposedly send her to Hell, and she has three days to break the curse. Alison Lohman plays a banker who evicts an old gypsy woman for not making her house payments. The gypsy (pictured) puts her under the aforementioned curse and horrible things start happening, though many of them wind up being in her mind. Her boyfriend (Justin Long) and an expert in the occult (Dileep Rao) try to help her, leading to what should be a climactic seance scene, but as with current Hollywood movies, there is at least one ending too many, and here, a final predictable "Carrie"-style twist that looks good but isn't very scary and doesn't really fit. I didn't like Lohman at all--there is no way her character shows enough backbone at any point in the film to be up for an important promotion at the bank--but the scare scenes work well enough, and the I did like the seance, especially the surprise appearance by a goat.

I seem to have developed a fondness for recent B-movie thrillers, both the kind that wind up going directly to video (see Night Train) and the kind that wind up on cable (see Kaw). Messengers 2: The Scarecrow sounds like a late-night Sci-Fi Channel offering (I'm boycotting the "SyFy" spelling for now), but it's actually a prequel to a theatrical horror film from a few years back. However, you don't need to know anything about that earlier film to enjoy this one. A struggling farmer (Norman Reedus) is about at the end of his rope and almost ready to consider giving up and selling the farm when he finds an old scarecrow in the barn. A neighbor encourages him to put it up, and sure enough, next day, the crows have all fallen dead and his corn is healthy. As his fortunes rise, people who stand in his way (including a banker about to foreclose) wind up dead. Reedus starts drinking, upsetting his good Christian wife, and it turns out, in a kind of "Wicker Man" twist, that the helpful neighbor and his young, slutty wife are pagans, and Reedus begins to realize that scarecrow may require a blood sacrifice to keep him and his farm going.

Reedus (at right), who I liked a lot in a small role in Cadillac Records and a bigger role in John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns in Showtime's Masters of Horror series, is a perfect B-lead, reminding me of someone like Tom Neal, star of the classic 40's B-noir Detour; handsome in a quirky way, soft-spoken, intense, and capable of giving resonance to a character, but also someone you know will never get to tackle a mainstream Hollywood lead role. He's good here, if maybe a little too low-key at times, considering what his character goes through. The mood is well sustained and the scarecrow manages to be creepy without looking ridiculous. I'd recommend this one as a Netflix rental, if not necessarily a purchase.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Baghead is a hard film to put in a slot: the one thing it's not is what it was marketed as: a horror film, though it does play with those conventions. It's kind of a romantic comedy, indie style and with very few laughs, and a meta-movie, or a movie about the making of movies. It's not quite a satire--that would cut too close to the filmmakers' skin--and according to Roger Ebert, it belongs to the genre known as "mumblecore," which is defined by Wikipedia as a film with "ultra-low budget production, focus on personal relationships between twenty-somethings, improvised scripts, and non-professional actors."

Four actors (2 guys and 2 gals) decide to get serious and make their own movie, so they go off to the woods for a weekend to isolate themselves and come up with a script. First they plan a romance movie, based perhaps on their own tangled romantic pasts, but eventually a startling vision of a man standing outside the cabin in the dark with a bag over his head gets stuck in their minds and they decide to use that as the basis for a horror film, Blair Witch style. The next day, however, the bagman vision seems to have become real and as tensions build (related not just to the mysterious figure but also to their personal relationships), they barricade themselves in the cabin that night, afraid that they have somehow conjured up a supernatural killer.

For a time, this works nicely, but it's clear all the way through that this will wind up not a horror movie, but a story about romantic relationships (and artistic creativity). The problem is that none of the four are particularly admirable; yes, I guess it's nice to have a movie with flawed characters rather than artificially nice and plastic people, but that leaves us no one to attach ourselves to or to care much about. The actors are fine: Ross Partridge (pictured) is the handsome guy with the girlfriend, as opposed to his buddy--Steve Zissis--the chunky guy desperate for a girlfriend. Elise Muller is the girl with whom Ross has had an on-again, off-again thing for some time, and Greta Gerwig is the woman who wants Ross but might settle for Steve. Many critics call this a spoof or parody, but it doesn't seem like that to me. Certainly the beginning and end feel like a string of in-jokes (poking fun at the indie film circuit) that I don't quite get, but as far as a Blair Witch spoof, while it uses that film as inspiration, it's never really making sport of it. Watchable and interesting, with at least a couple of creepy moments for an October night.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Great-Grandnephew of Dracula

In addition to my traditional October dips into Lovecraft, Bradbury, and the Hammer and Universal horror movie classics, I have consumed a handful of newer horror specimens. First up is Dracula: The Un-Dead, a quasi-official sequel to the granddaddy of vampire tales, Bran Stoker's Dracula. It's co-written by Stoker's great-grandnephew, Dacre (pictured; not even a direct grandson: bad sign #1), who has no previous writing experience (bad sign #2), and Ian Holt, who claims to be a "screenwriter," (bad sign #3) though his only credit is a direct-to-video horror movie called Dr. Chopper (bad sign #4) with Costas Mandylor and a star-free supporting cast (bad sign #5).

There is some promise as we begin by picking up the stories of the main characters from the first book (Jonathan and Mina Harker, Dr. Seward, Van Helsing) several years later, 1912 to be exact, but by page 150, Dracula is still nowhere to be found (bad sign #6), and the main villain is Elizabeth Bathory, a historical figure who supposedly murdered hundreds of virgin girls and bathed in their blood to stay young. There have been books and movies with her as the lead, but when you're expecting THE Count Dracula, substitutions, even a strong, sexy, bloody lesbian, just won't do. The writing is incredibly pedestrian; Holt and Stoker don't even try to replicate Stoker's style (and let me just say I think the original book is on the boring side, but it does have atmosphere to burn). Instead they substitute Multiplex Movie Rollercoaster style instead, clearly aiming for a big screen adaptation--apparently Holt based his part of the book on an unfinished screenplay.

I read the book all the way through and it doesn't get better. They manage to bring in Jack the Ripper in a moderately clever way, beginning with a cop who is sure that Van Helsing is the Ripper because of how he chopped up the vampire Lucy, and a plotline about Mina Harker's past relationship with Dracula is interesting, but everything else is pretty sad sack or worse: 1) the writing remains terrible; 2) Dracula does indeed crop up under a different name, but he not only isn't the star of the book, he's turned into a good guy; in other words, just another boring brooding conflicted post-Anne Rice vampire; 3) almost everyone of interest dies, and not in interesting ways; 4) the last sentences of the book are a laugh-out-loud punch line, but I don't the authors intended them to be funny.

Don't bother. Wait for the inevitable over-budgeted, over-CGI'd piece of crap movie in a couple of years from now, more like the horrible Van Helsing movie with Hugh Jackman than Lugosi or Langella.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My rant on the death of bookstores

A news story about the closing of the B. Dalton bookstore chain triggered varied emotions in me. Throughout the 80's, I worked in bookstores as a clerk, a buyer, and a manager, and later when I was in graduate school I continued clerking part-time through the mid-90's. Most of that time was spent in local independent stores, but for a few years, I worked for Pickwick Books, a discount chain which was a division of Dalton's, and when they went under, our store was transformed into a B. Dalton. Like most people who gravitate to working in bookstores, I loved books and reading, and at times, especially early on, it felt like I was getting paid to hang out in a place where I would be anyway and chat with regular customers who wanted my recommendations.

But like everything else, retail bookselling changed. For years, local stores co-existed with chains like Dalton's and Walden's, but when the megastores (Borders and Barnes & Noble) moved in, the landscape changed. Even while I was working part-time at a local indie, I would visit Borders frequently because they had so much stuff: the bestsellers of course, but also mid-range literary titles, small press and university press titles, and deep backlist. But soon and other online sellers began offering such a huge selection, even a big store like Borders was finding it hard to compete.

I tried for years to be loyal to my brick-and-mortar stores, but even the biggest stores now rarely have what I'm looking for, and I don't necessarily mean odd, esoteric titles either. Borders is the worst; there's a huge Borders near me and I can rarely find what I'm looking for, even when it's a relatively big title which has been featured in the New York Times Book Review. When their computers tell you they have the title, and even narrow in on the shelf it's supposed to be on, but I (a former bookstore clerk) can't find it, and then a clerk (often a sneering, hipper-than-thou type, which frankly I would have loved to have been back in my youth) can't find it, there's something wrong. This happened to me so often, I've finally skipped Borders almost altogether. Barnes & Noble is a little better, but I refuse to pay for their discount card and I get irritated when the clerks keep pressing me to get one.

I guess what I'm saying is that, except for specialty stores (mystery, SF, academic), maybe it's time to kiss the physical bookstore goodbye. Online is the way to go. Yes, I miss the activity of looking through books to find serendipitous surprises, and that's something that online bookselling will never be good at, but I'm always happy with my shopping experiences at Amazon. They have what I'm looking for, it's almost always discounted at least a bit off of the list price, and there are no clerks to sneer at me or babble at me about their discount card.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A wave chicane; or, the authority of the lyric sheet

Back in the days of vinyl, one of the great joys of listening to an album was to read along with the lyric sheet. On the radio, the chorus to CCR's "Down on the Corner" might sound like "Well, Napoleon and the baby," but with the album's lyrics in front of you, it suddenly became clear that John Fogarty was singing, "Willy and the Poorboys are playin'." It wasn't always a physical "sheet"; sometimes they were printed on the actual record liner (a paper or plastic jacket in which the record was placed so the cardboard jacket wouldn't scratch it) or on the outside jacket. The fanciest albums might have a whole separate booklet with words and photos and, in the case of some Pink Floyd records, posters or decals. Nowadays, lyric booklets, if they exist, are small and the typeset even smaller, and I wonder how many of the dwindling number of consumers of the physical artifact that is the CD bother to read them anymore.

At any rate, the lyric sheet always seemed to be the ultimate authority for figuring out the words and perhaps figuring out what the song meant--not to mention knowing who played what, as band members and session musicians were often listed song by song with the lyrics. It never dawned on me to question the lyric sheet; after all, wasn't it official, right from the horse's mouth via the record company? On Sunday, "Can't Get It Out Of My Head" by Electric Light Orchestra came on my iPod for the upteenth time. It was their first top 40 hit, back in 1975, and though it doesn't get as much oldies airplay as songs like "Mr. Blue Sky" or "Don't Bring Me Down," it's still one of my favorites.

The first lines in the song, according to the lyric sheet that comes with the album Eldorado, are as follows: "Midnight on the water/I saw the ocean's daughter/Walking on a wave chicane/Staring as she called my name." I remember as a teenager wondering, what the hell is a '"wave chicane"? I looked it up in several dictionaries and never found it. I decided that it was some part of a wave and let it go--what else could it be, since the lyric sheet must be right. Plus, it kinda sounded mysteriously cool. On Sunday, however, I realized I was singing, "Walking on a wave she came..." That makes more sense, and "came" is a more precise rhyme for "name." But still, the official lyric sheet says, "chicane." Would the InterTubes be able to solve this dilemma for me?

The short answer is, no. Almost every day of my life lately, I am moved to mutter to myself, "Geez, I love the Internet." But it hasn't been much help here. Typically, the Internet is a wonderful place to find song lyrics, but one must always be on the watch for sloppy transcriptions, typos, or just plain wrong guesses that are posted as authoritative lyrics. Some sites say "wave chicane"; some say "on a wave she came"; one site says "wave's chicane." An entry about the song at the Jeff Lynne Song Database makes the dubious claim that a chicane is "the frothy tip of a cresting wave," which is kinda what I had decided when I was 18, but as I did some surface digging, I found no other source, authoritative or otherwise, that gives this definition. The most common meaning of the word ties it to "chicanery," which is "deception by artful subterfuge." I'm sure Lynne (pictured) didn't mean that the wave was being sneaky.

So where does that leave me? My universe is slipping its moorings; I can no longer automatically trust in the Lyric Sheet, and the Internet has let me down (though it is thanks to the Net that I know I'm not the only person in the world who has wondered about this lyric fragment). I suspect that Lynne is singing "on a wave she came," but part of me would like to believe that there is some strange arcanity to that line that will never be be made clear.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


The New York Times Arts Beat blog ran a post on the 50th anniversary of The Twilight Zone, a show that was a seminal part of my mass media background. It was one of the first prime-time shows that wasn't for kids or wasn't a sitcom that I remember watching regularly. At the time (early to mid 60's, before my adolescence) it seemed part and parcel of my interest in scary movies, and I'm sure it had an influence on my developing reading tastes, which ran toward sci-fi and horror short stories. In college, my girlfriend and I bonded over a shared memory of the climactic line of dialogue from "To Serve Man," a line which has since become a cliche (though I won't spoil it here, just in case) but at the time, when we both recited it simultaneously, we screamed in mock fear and in joy at finding someone who knew such an arcane reference.

The blog post author, Dave Itzkoff, categorizes the episodes into three types: 1) The Classic Switcheroo, which is basically the surprise ending; 2) The Total Apocalypse, which is about the end of the world--and I would argue could include a common variation in which characters are in a world they don't understand, basically experiencing the end of the world they lived in before, as in "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" or "Stopover in a Quiet Town"; 3) The Inexplicably Supernatural, as in the famous Billy Mumy episode "It's a Good Life." Itzkoff includes a fourth category, shows which featured stars before they got famous (Robert Redford, William Shatner), but that's not a genre category--though certainly the ability to see such celebs is a plus for retrospective viewing.

What Itzkoff doesn't mention are the (what were at the time) mainstream liberal humanistic views which were usually expressed in a moral at the end of the story, sometimes quite explicitly, by the shows' creator, host, and writer Rod Serling. Messages about justice, tolerance and race relations were the most obvious ones; my favorite "message" show is probably "I Am the Night, Color Me Black," in which the sun does not come up in places where hatred or injustice seem to have gotten the upper hand (Dallas--mere months after JFK's assassination--and Vietnam are specifically mentioned). But it's not the feel-bad moral that makes the show memorable, it's the creepiness of the event (or non-event) itself, and usually the messages were well couched in such bizarre, supernatural tones that you didn't feel too much like you were being lectured at.

The very phrase "Twilight Zone" has become a pop culture marker; it's used in speeches, songs by Golden Earring, Manhattan Transfer, and 2 Unlimited reference it, and indeed the first few notes of the show's theme (dee-dee-dee-DEE-DEE-dee-dee-dee) have become pop culture shorthand for anything strange and creepy. Some shows were funny, and some were lackluster, but all were strange or at least a little off-kilter and usually the supernatural event in the show was not explained away rationally. After Twilight Zone came The Outer Limits, Night Gallery (also from Serling), Tales of the Unexpected, et al., but I think nothing has ever captured the public's imagination like the original. (Certainly a case could be made that Twilight Zone was heavily influenced by the earlier anthology show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but the Hitchcock stories, creepy as they were, were always about the real world).

The blog asked for people's favorite episodes, and I came up with a Top 10 which I'll buzz through here. The top 3 are ranked, but the rest are mostly equal:

1) "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" (pictured above) in which a neighborhood tears itself apart when it fears it is under attack from space aliens.

2) "Stopover in a Quiet Town" in which a hungover couple (below) wake up Sunday morning in a strangely quiet small town.

3) "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up" which features a busful of travelers stuck in a diner; they soon come to believe that one of their number might be a Martian.

All three of these basically rely on a surprise ending, but the getting there is so fun, they can be watched over and over again. My other favorites:

"The After Hours" with Anne Francis as a shopper who discovers some strange goings-on on an abandoned floor in a department store.

"Eye of the Beholder" in which a deformed woman undergoes experimental surgery so she'll look like everyone else.

"Living Doll" with Telly Savalas as an abusive husband and father who gets his comeuppance from a talking doll--very creepy episode; just say "My name is Talky Tina..." to anyone who knows this episode and they'll get a chill (Tina is pictured above).

"Night of the Meek," a gentle Christmas fantasy with Art Carney as an alcoholic department store Santa who finds a magical gift bag.

"It's a Good Life" has a great performance by 7-year-old Billy Mumy as a kid with the power to get rid of troublesome people with a glance, by putting them "in the cornfield."

"The Fear" (pictured at left) is set at an isolated cabin where a woman and a sheriff are menaced by what might be a gigantic space monster.

I have to split my 10th place among 2, the aforementioned "I Am the Night, Color Me Black" and "To Serve Man."

Twilight Zone is the only TV series, aside from Friends (and, when Fox gets around to releasing the rest, The Mary Tyler Moore Show), that I own the entirety of on DVD, and it's worth it. I'm not sure what the younger generations feel about the show now, but I suspect many of the episodes would still work on a current audience. They certainly still work on me.