Monthly Archives: December 2016

Highways of Horror – Day III

He had the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold…

Bela Lugosi – Extraordinary Tales

Forgive my writing. By the time I get to these posts my brain is jelly, which means writing weaknesses shine through as I pounce on the keys. I know I’m mixing tenses, and I’m sure Grammar Nazis cringe with each read. There simply isn’t time to edit and revise. And I’m not sure if Edgar Allan Poe were alive he’d care, for writing, grammar, or a trip away from the east coast he had clung to, but Poe may have enjoyed how his story, The Tell-Tale Heart found its way into the day’s ride…

Nescafe is not coffee, much like Hershey is not chocolate. So I moved beyond the chemical laden crap the hotel called breakfast and ventured outside. A typical winter sky of blue gray hovered above me, but the eleven-degree wind chill (-11.7 Celsius) caught my attention and I huddled up. Then, thunder rocked my ears to the point where they buzzed, much like a singer hitting a high note the speakers couldn’t handle. But the thunder kept on coming. I looked to the clouds above but failed to find what I knew was an F-16 Fighting Falcon. The brutal cold let its roar resonate to the point where the fighter seemed only inches above me, though I couldn’t see the damn thing. I finally caught it low on the horizon about a half-mile away near Traux Field that the Air National Guard 115th Fighter Wing calls home.

That was the best part of the day.

Though the drive to Sioux Falls is only six hours, once I passed some cool terrain thanks to glaciers, it was as if I was riding through Pennsylvania farmland again. A decent break came near Dexter, Wisconsin, a town of under 400 people, that showcased a wind farm far larger than Van Wert. Hell, there may have been one mill for each person in Dexter.

The odd thing is that Google Maps always launches a “Welcome to…” when I cross a state border, but failed to do so with Minnesota and its endless Groundhog Day like highways. Every time I rounded a bend, it appeared to be the same stretch of road I had just left. Still on 90 West, I rolled by the city of Blue Earth yet failed to see their sixty-foot statue of the Green Giant. (Yes, I even welcomed product placement as a distraction at this point.)

Thankfully, Ben Howard kept me awake, at least his Rivers in Your Mouth song, which I must have replayed fifty times. Like Don Riemer, I love Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent), who may be the strongest and most innovative female in music, but her studio albums lack the verve and energy she brings to her live performances, so I had to put her CD to bed. I started to fade fast, until I cranked Ultraspank, the metal/industrial band Kim McDonald, Melanie McCurdie, Amber Shaw, and even Jonny Numb, may find worthy. The day before, I had indulged in Joy Division’s “Still” recording and thought much about Ian Curtis, his all too short life, and the film Control. Then I revved up X’s fantastic “Under the Big Black Sun,” which critics bypassed for “Los Angeles.”

But there’s something to say about alternative music from the frozen doldrums of Minnesota. If Nirvana helped put the “Seattle Sound” of Grunge on the map, and if the fathers are The Melvins, then the grandfathers must be The Replacements and Husker Du. Why Grunge isn’t called the “Minnesota Sound” or “Minnesota Music” for alliteration purposes, never ceases to amaze me.

Besides the music, I was haunted by a different kind of eye than the narrator in Poe’s classic tale. Mine was the sun as it set over the farmlands of Minnesota. The eye shone bright and blinding, and sent waves of gold, aquamarine, red, purple, and pink through low clouds for what seemed like hours as I drove into it to be swallowed up. The eye stared down the road and fought to combat the rotation of the Earth so as not to go gently into that good night…

With an hour to go, I stopped in the Blue Line Café in Worthington, Minnesota, just minutes from the South Dakota border. The gas was cheaper than most, and I had wanted to visit some sort of a diner, so I walked into the place. Besides a restaurant, there was a small café and gift shop, and a 7-11 like store with a plethora of Confederate Flag decals intermixed with anti-Obama propaganda – though no Trump signs were in sight. I ordered salmon and steamed vegetables (green beans from a fucking can), and saw the first Latina (a busgirl) since I had left Easton. The day before, in Madison, I had seen a black person for the first time since Pennsylvania. I immediately wondered: What if I wasn’t a bald guy sporting a Misfits shirt at a local dive, but a black man? Would the patrons give me looks? I don’t have a clue, but when I asked the waitress if they served ice cream, she said, “Only vanilla.”

Route 90 West was black as Hell, though another windmill farm to my right freaked me out. I couldn’t see the mills, but their red warning lights to low flying aircraft faded in and out in unison like some Cylon army out of “Battlestar Galactica”. And it wasn’t hard to imagine multiple copies of Jody the Pig’s eyes staring back at James Brolin in The Amityville Horror. The movie may be bad, but that scene from the dock blew my mind. And if Poe’s mad narrator hadn’t heard the heartbeat in his head, but saw the Old Man’s eye multiplied by one-hundred, he wouldn’t have confessed to the murder, he would have died from cardiac arrest.

Oddly enough, the talented and engaging Vicki Speegle invited me to co-write a short run series for cable television based on Poe’s stories. Rest assured, her concept’s fantastic and the end result will be something far removed from a modern regurgitation of Poe’s tales. Today’s motif, combined with Raul Garcia’s 2013 animated analogy gave me some great ideas. In Extraordinary Tales, Garcia uses Bela Lugosi’s narration of the story from most likely 1946. Lugosi’s agent may have used the audio as a calling card to gain the Dracula star some roles in his waning years.

Soon, the dark highway gave way to low lights on the horizon – Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s largest city of roughly 165,000.

I’m in the hotel with no desire to engage in any night life. The goal is to get to bed early and drive out to the Badlands before the sun sets and stares me down once again.

And although Google didn’t welcome me to South Dakota either, I’m at the halfway point to reuniting with Ally Bishop in Seattle.

Highways of Horror – Day II

A closed mind is the worst defense against the supernatural… If it happens to you, you’re liable to have that shut door in your mind ripped right off its hinges!

Dr. John Markway – The Haunting

Rolling from Mansfield, Ohio to Madison, Wisconsin. The sky is low. Oppressive. Immediately conjuring the horrors of films like 1963’s The Haunting or The Haunting of Hell House. For it’s not just the inner walls of a claustrophobic house closing in, but the sky above that weighs down as if it too will fall and crush those in the throes of the supernatural.

I head west on Route 30, a small highway, that transforms into a country road and back again, that took me from Ohio to a slice of Indiana. The area reminded me of the towns out and about Kutztown, Pennsylvania as well as Sussex and Warren counties in New Jersey: clusters of homes and more farms than people – and too damn quiet. The only difference is there are no rolling hills. The Appalachians have clearly given way to what will become the flat lands of the country I will witness until the young, majestic Rockies rise before me, and where weather will play its most vital role (more when I get there).

Wind streams through this section of Indiana in massive gusts, but since the sun has burst through like a teaser in the second act of a gloomy horror, offering characters’ false hope that all will be well (just ask Nell in The Haunting), the rays shine off flattened corn stalks and other crop leftovers. They radiate as if gold, but the twenty-degree temperatures clearly announce all is not pleasant.

But like Tornado Alley south of me, this must be a consistent bowling alley for wind to throw strike after strike because large, towering windmills and their sweeping white arms have stretched for miles. I first noticed them in Van Wert, Ohio, taking residence and holding firm as if the latest additions to a science fiction film where the modern age contrasts with farming of old.

Van Wert stood out because of its name. Ms. Carol Van Wart had been my English and Creative Writing teacher at Kearny High School. A great supporter of those who embraced the written word, her positive energy and reinforcement proved to be contagious and inspiring. Although I was still a student of craft and realize now how little I knew about writing in general, her encouragement and guidance propelled me forward. She was kind enough to tell my parents during conferences that, “He should publish everything, right now.” That was overly kind. I was the Feature Editor of the Hi-Kearnian school newspaper, and wrote the worst poetry – ever. You’ve read it before: the sad sack “why doesn’t anyone understand and love me shit” that’s simply a woeful cry and completely devoid of any poetic structure, wit, or grace. Godawful stuff.

I had rediscovered that bad poetry, some of which had been published in shady anthologies, and small press books and even smaller magazines. The bulk is dreadful, but “The Vampire and the Rose” about a prostitute dreaming of a trip to India’s Taj Mahal right before she was attacked and killed by a New York City vampire, seemed to garner much attention, and even led to my first public reading. Yes, the prosititute didn’t make it, but neither did the vampire. She had AIDS, he drank it all down, and within minutes his eternal life of preying on others had been cut way short. That piece had won “Best Long Poem” and was published by Tri-Quarterly Press – right before they went under.

“The Circle” was another poem that wound up being published in many venues, maybe because it tried to tie everything in existence into one neat little package. I found that in a “Bill’s Writing” box along with the aforementioned, where material, good or absolutely horrid, mixed together as a sort of historical record of my writing. Yes, I found decent lines within some of the poems and short stories, but any intriguing concepts eventually died convoluted deaths at the hands of bad storytelling, including three horrendous novel writing attempts that reinforced the idea of giving up the craft altogether, and I did so for three years (a story for another time). Even so, the one poem I did like ended up in the back of 1983’s “The Lamp Post,” the yearbook for my graduating class, with art from my friend and Dungeon’s and Dragon Dungeon Master, Kevin Kirst. I definitely rolled a “natural twenty” on that one, and I am honored that it helped represent my graduating class of 426, which included wonderful friends I’m still very much in touch with and love for many reasons, even if we haven’t spent a lot of time together over the years: Christine Lynn, Debbie Valenta, Stacy Wolff, Joe Loughman, Joe Vala, Steve Mager, Stephen Richardson, Dan Price, Steven Keller, Gordon MacAvoy, Russ Murray, Fernando Semiao, and Barbara Gordon, and many more. I’ve known several since Kindergarten through eighth grade as well, thanks to Franklin School, but it was in third grade that I chased poor Barbara Gordon around – and caught her from behind. When she yelled, “Let me go!” I did so, and she fell face first to the ground. She came up crying as blood poured from her chin. Shellshocked from harming her, I cried too. Our wonderful teacher, Ms. Huhn, knew it was not deliberate, and Barbara became my girlfriend. Today, she’s an amazing mother and a phenomenal soul, but I think she still has a little scar on her chin thanks to me not thinking ahead.

But I’m thinking ahead now. My body aches for a break, but the sun has been undercut by formidable clouds. The Malibu flashes an “ice warning,” and flurries abound. Thoughts of the time when I took one of Ms. Van Wart’s writing prompts about ice cream, and wrote of the “Dolly Parton”: two large scoops of vanilla, with small rings of strawberry sauce, topped by two cherries – and didn’t get in trouble for writing so, quickly escape my mind. I ride through more tiny towns, and since I want to circumvent the underbelly of the great city of Chicago before rush hour, I continue at 80 miles an hour, and pay too much for tolls as if I’m heading down the Jersey Shore. Snow whips around but fails to cling to the road, and everyone’s moving along 90 West as planes come into O’Hare. By 6:30, I’m safely in Madison, Wisconsin before snow does indeed stick to the surface.

The third act had its challenges today, but staying ahead of stormy weather is the name of the game. Nell (Julie Harris) couldn’t do it in The Haunting and succumbed to the oppression of the house, her frightened mind, and the heavy sky that weighed upon her, which only introduced more isolation and even more fear. In effect, Nell was pressed to death. She had felt a supernatural presence, first created by the talented Shirley Jackson of “The Lottery” fame, and brought to the screen by director Robert Wise, and went all in until she underwent an internal collapse. Yet Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) kept his mind open to the world around him and reigned supreme. I like to think I pulled a “Dr. Markway” today and pressed on in the wake of ice and snow while respecting Mother Nature’s warnings.

Tomorrow will undoubtedly be the same as I slip on a Misfits “Legacy of Brutality” T-shirt and ride further west to Sioux Falls, South Dakota – though I wish they’d change the name to Siouxsie Sioux Falls. See, the teenage writer in me still comes to the fore and makes me look ridiculous. Dammit. But every rotation of the tires gets me that much closer to my beloved Ally Bishop.

Riding on…

Highways of Horror – Day I

If there was a storm coming right now, a big storm, from behind those mountains, would it matter? Would it change anything?

Arash – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

In the rearview there’s nothing. No horizon. No distinction between the road and the sky. Nothing but black on black.

This can easily indicate that the past is dead and gone, and that turning back is a ludicrous option. Though not well lit, looking out the windshield certainly delivers a sense of future possibilities. But the most important – the now – me in the driver’s seat fighting fatigue, isn’t very promising.

The morning had started well enough. Up at 7:20 I rushed to get a few things ready on Wednesday, December 28 because this was the day I’d finally begin my excursion to the west coast to reconnect with my wife, Ally Bishop in Seattle, Washington – our new home. Although I had only gained five hours sleep, meeting the great Bill Hartin at Tracy’s Café in Easton was well worth waking up for. Bill had co-created FIFO (Fade In, Fade Out), a film consortium in the Lehigh Valley, and without him as executive producer, my short film, Tigers In the Soup never would have been made. We enjoyed a good breakfast and better conversation before heading back to the house Ally and I shared at 827 Wilbur Street in the “poor side” of the College Hill section. Soon, the truck that would carry forty plus boxes, a chest of drawers, Ally’s hand-painted file cabinet, and other assorted items arrived. With that, great souls materialized to help Bill and I load the freighter: Angela Mozeko and John McPoyle, from FIFO as well, and the man with a smile that never fades, Ryan Kramer. And man, did Ryan rock me with an ultra-cool Billy Crash T-shirt in a Misfits font no less! Damn!

This special gang of four really saved me. Since Ally left with Patricia Eddy and our puppies for the west coast on the day after Thanksgiving, the silence of our now old homestead became so loud it hurt. I was left with George, the Beta fighting fish, and we bonded as I cleaned, repaired, painted, and packed, as I sorted through belongings to sell on eBay, to Craig’s List, and to friends, and as I stuffed bag after bag with Goodwill donations, and sent tons of material for recycling or the landfill. The work finally caught up with me on Christmas. I woke up tired, visited my sister Elissa, brother-in-law Pete, and their nearly seventeen-year-old puppy, Max, for a few hours, and fell asleep for a bit. By the time I got home in the late afternoon, I was exhausted – but I knew sleep would have to wait. I cleaned the entire basement, and left a mountain of garbage and recycling items for the morning, and made a final run to the Goodwill donation boxes. During this time, I almost fell asleep on my feet, and lost my footing on the top steps of the basement stairs. Thankfully, I caught myself in time.

That isn’t to get a “poor Bill” out of anyone, but juggling so much for so long takes its toll as it would on any person. I hadn’t felt that exhausted since boot camp, where my entire body just wanted to quit. Angela, Bill, John, and Ryan, saved me from moving everything myself, which allowed me to store some energy for the first leg of the drive to Washington state.

After the load was secure, Angela and Ryan stayed a little longer to help me clean up the house. And once I picked up a few things for the trip, I finally hit the road at about 5:30 PM – three-and-half-hours behind schedule. To be honest, I was scared. Everything was a blur, and I doubted I could drive an hour, if at all. I then remembered a documentary of a scientific study where they showed that drowsy drivers may be far more dangerous than drunk ones.

Chocolate snapped me out of it, but a moonless night and starless sky thanks to black clouds didn’t help. I drove through an abyss so thick, only my headlights could make out the trees on occasion along Interstate 80. I had taken this trek many times from 1993 to 1994 when I attended Slippery Rock University to earn my masters in English. I had joked that one viewed the same tree over and over on the highway, but I would have welcomed the sight of any tree, or the curved edges of the worn Appalachians.

Blasting Ramone’s Mania compilation helped as I sang along with Joey, and the psychedelic folk rock of Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter kept my head bobbing. But this wasn’t the five-hour drive Ally had planned. Unbeknownst to her and me, this would be a six-hour and forty-minute venture to the center of Ohio.

I rebounded by cranking Sisters of Mercy, “A Slight Case of Overbombing” of their first greatest hits. Here, the iconic Goth god, Andrew Eldritch remixed the originals, and when it came to mundane songs from his ill-fated “Vision Thing” recording, he enticed Terri Nunn of Berlin fame to totally rock some of that albums tracks. The music filled the Chevy Malibu, and stunned some deer outside the merlot ride, and kept me awake as I entered the Buckeye State.

I thought of Drew Carey, Chrissie Hynde, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (where they supposedly keep an alien body from the Roswell incident, as well as the Kecksburg UFO), and my permanently snake-bitten Cleveland Browns. And then I saw the oddest thing, a truck with a light rack that sent out beams of green. What the Hell was that? Many know construction vehicles by their yellow flashing lights, but in Ohio, they mix it up with green and white.

Most important, and as I suspected, where I hadn’t noticed one Pennsylvania State Trooper from Easton to the border, Ohio’s finest was out in force. Just like the early 90s when I’d see suped up pursuit cruisers on the roadside. One even had “Interceptor” across the back trunk as if it had survived the original Mad Max film.

I did the speed limit as best I could, but with a half-hour remaining, I hit the gas a little harder even within a snow squall and amongst the pings of frozen rain. I passed two salt trucks, forgot about the Road Nazis, and watched the arrow on my Google Maps get closer to my destination.

When I got to La Quinta in Mansfield at roughly 1 AM, I contacted Ally to let her know I was safe, and walked across the street to a Steak and Shake and had dinner. My first meal since that breakfast with Bill. The waitress forgot to add my dark chocolate shake to the tab, and when I told her, she waved it off. Now, that’s one great Ohio welcome.

Back in my hotel room, the building weaved and bobbed as I stood in the shower. But it wasn’t an “erosion quake” as a lighter part of the Appalachian mountains rose a millimeter or two to meet the sky – it was me. I almost fell in the shower as brain and body begged for sleep. I stumbled to the bed and the last thing I remember is letting out an arena-sized sigh.

I awoke from a seven-hour slumber, far better than my normal five, ate a protein bar, and moved west towards Madison, Wisconsin before the next storm rolled in…

But in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Arash (Arash Marandi) knew. As he drove with the Girl (Sheila Vand) by his side in their attempt to escape Bad City, storms didn’t matter. No obstacle mattered. Whether the city represents purgatory or Hell in Lily Amirpour’s intriguing vampire horror, escaping such darkness is the point of the movie. However, the answer is simple: Of course they can. Where there is love, respect, admiration, and passion, as well as a desire to go beyond selfishness, what can’t be defeated? Both had paid their ways in full. The Girl, serving like one of Mother Nature’s wolves, cleaned the streets. However, she never preyed on the weak, the sick, or the wounded, but those who used and abused, and made life worse for others. Arash did what he could to rise above the apathy and negativity, and that desire was his ticket out of that colorless void.

I’d like to think Ally and I had earned the same right to pick up and move elsewhere. We just took separate cars.

Many thanks to Airworthy’s Don Riemer, a fellow member of the phenomenal New Jersey Screenwriter’s Group, for encouraging me to keep a travel blog, and for the incomparable Jonny Numb for exclaiming “Hell, yeah” when I asked if I should post it at Crash Palace.

(Billy Crash T-shirt photo from Billy Crash.)

Before You Buy the DVD: BLAIR WITCH (2016) by Jonny Numb

[89 minutes. R. Director: Adam Wingard]

Summer, 2016. I took my seat in the theater and furrowed my brow at a trailer that seemed familiar. Kids in the woods. Handheld POV. Oops, someone dropped the camera! Blurbs from high-profile horror sites superimposed over panoramic aerial views of dense forests. Ominous, droning music.

The title? The Woods. Hmmm.

The connection to The Blair Witch Project was so transparent that part of me wouldn’t have been surprised had it been the type of De Palma-style homage that’s been all the rage with the horror kids these days. When it turned out to be a “surprise” sequel to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s 1999 original (under the more succinct Blair Witch), it somehow lacked the cleverness of the grassroots campaign those filmmakers committed themselves to in the early days of the Internet, fooling a good chunk of the public in the process.

So, is Blair Witch an actual sequel? As handled by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (whose erratic genre track record consists of A Horrible Way to Die, You’re Next, and The Guest), the seeds are there, but the setup is merely an excuse to poorly reconstruct the beats of the original.

But hey: at least the technology’s been upgraded (and will look outdated in 5 years)! And there’s plenty of unnatural-seeming shaky-cam! So, yay! By the way…bitchin’ drone, man!

I’ve said it before, but 2016 has been a year of films pushing the horror genre forward. Granted, even the best efforts have borrowed parts, but are smart in how they reconfigure them into fluid fear generators. Go figure that the critically adored Wingard and the reliable Rob Zombie have delivered two of the biggest disappointments of the year, for the express reason that they so cynically fall back on “what worked before” in the very wrongheaded assumption that horror fans won’t care.

Oh, we care. And we also hope your bid for mainstream success has a Plan B, since based on the evidence here, I would say fans of Asian cinema have valid reason to fear for your remakes of I Saw the Devil and Death Note.

So let’s go there: Blair Witch is the most blatantly cynical remake since that retread of The Omen (which seemed to exist solely for its stupid 6-6-06 release date). It truly is one of those films that does nothing but update technology and make explicit things that were scarier when implied, with predictably underwhelming results. There is nothing contained within its 89 taxing, all-too-familiar minutes that justifies its existence in the slightest.

Gone is the naturalistic feel of the 1999 film. Everything in this new version is calculated and staged within an inch of its life, and our unlikable campers – even the trailer-park yokels (one of whom you’ll recognize from TV’s The Following) – look like they’d rather be modeling underwear. Are they worth mentioning by name? As Wingard and Barrett give us no reason to care, the answer is a resounding NO.

The plot is a lot of “just because” nonsense. James (James Allen McCune), little brother to The Blair Witch Project’s Heather Donahue, decides to follow in his sister’s footsteps and make a film documenting his attempt to find her in the woods of Burkittsville. His friends go along because, duh, they’re his friends. As well as Lisa (Callie Hernandez), a cinematographer/producer/I-don’t-know whose primary function seems to be keeping people sane by acting as ineffectual as possible. There is potential here: what if Heather, had she survived, reverted to a feral state in the woods, and established an alternative, primitive existence for herself – or, maybe better, reappeared as a conduit for the witch? Such development would’ve increased the emotional stakes, strengthened the character arcs, and given Blair Witch a desperately needed sense of purpose.

But that would suggest a film interested in matters of innovation and artistic integrity. (Just because it’s a remake or sequel doesn’t mean it has to be shit, but that is of no concern to Wingard and Barrett.)

The duo’s worst film, A Horrible Way to Die, ironically shows the most interest in character and setup, because it’s a perpetual wind-up device in service to a disappointing climactic payoff. In You’re Next and The Guest, the characters are hastily introduced and given flimsy pretexts for their actions, ignoring logic and reason. (We’re expected to follow along for no reason other than the promise of something “badass” occurring later down the line.) Wingard and Barrett are enemies of subtlety, and outside of some throwaway moments, nobody stops to question James’s thinking, or the legitimacy of the yokels who guide them into the woods. Characters wander off alone and are separated and inexplicably reappear and eventually die; there is nothing new here.

But remember to get some footage as you’re walking away from the vehicles, because that might foreshadow something.

On the technical side, Blair Witch is a mess. Cameras shake and fall; cutting is abrupt during action scenes; and sound effects are amplified in the name of desperate jump-scares. In other words, it reverts to the same lame tricks most mainstream horror films utilize to make lots of money these days. What’s it saying that the original still holds up – despite the countless imitators produced in its wake – and Blair Witch feels like the type of processed, shat-out imitation that most will see right through? By the time we reach a familiar (Blum)house at the climax, it’s a CGI affair punctuated by a perfectly-timed rainstorm, complete with lightning flashing through windows.

Seriously?

There were a few things I appreciated in Blair Witch: first is a unique death that, while lacking any sort of narrative logic, provides an unexpected jolt. Second is a sequence wherein a character finds herself in a tunnel beneath the house, pushing her way through an increasingly narrow space; this thrives off a sense of claustrophobia and the terror of something unknown waiting on the other side, and the minimal lighting – reminiscent of The Descent – adds to the dread. And when the aforementioned drone initially takes flight, it’s a genuinely vertiginous, majestic moment; too bad the filmmakers felt the need to repeat it two more times.

But if the worthwhile moments total under 5 minutes, you’ve failed pretty badly. To the horror sites that kept the (rather lame) “secret” of the new Blair Witch while praising all the good it would do for the genre, I hope the bump in traffic helped compensate for that weak sauce you so willingly sucked down.

1 out of 5 stars

(Deaditor’s Note: Blair Witch release date from Lionsgate is January 3, 2017.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) talks about horror movies at New Year’s parties and misses the countdown. His reviews also appear at loudgreenbird.com, and he judges other things via antisocial media @JonnyNumb (Twitter and Letterboxd), and co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast with @crashpalace.

(Blair Witch photo from IndieWire.)

THE LAST KNOCK presents: 2016’s Worst Horror Films

The Last Knock

With the best comes the worst, and 2016 definitely had its clunkers and over-rated horror films. Consider this our “naughty, but not in a good way list” and enjoy our ride down “Why the Hell did we watch that?” lane.

What horror films did you throw coal at this year?

This episodes SCREAM OUTS from Twitter:

@aicforever @machinemeannow @nicolemalonso @OklahomaWard @RealJillyG @RonGizmo @palkodesigns @MelanieMcCurdie @AFiendOnFilm @Earthunderglass @RSBrzoska @Talk2Cleo @pedroluque and Nancy LaShure

Don’t forget to weigh in with your comments. Billy and Jonny love to respond because they don’t get out much – unless it’s keeping the zombie hordes at bay, or Michael Bay, or BAE. Whatever.

HOLIDAYS (2016) – Seasonal Anthology Affective Disorder by Jonny Numb

[105 minutes. Unrated. Director: Various.]

Today’s horror anthologies have an enthusiasm in approach, but a laziness in execution. A common notion among fiction-writers is that short stories are more difficult than novels because of the compressed format. The same applies to short films; the fact that expectations are tempered to 10 – 15 minutes requires the beats of character, story, and impact to be achieved not only in a shorter timeframe, but with as few tonal and narrative missteps as possible.

Watching something like The ABCs of Death, with 26 different directors given 26 opportunities for greatness, is an exercise in frustration, with few consecutive segments maintaining the same quality standard, leading to a schizophrenic experience as frustrating as watching an uneven narrative film.

Holidays follows the same format as ABCs: a collection of tales highlighting various celebratory times of year (or, at the very least, excuses for Hallmark to bleed a few bucks from the American consumer). With no wraparound story, it lives and dies on the strength of its individual parts, which are not created equal.

Outside of blatantly paying homage to some iconic images, I was hard-pressed to derive any sort of point from the Excision– and Carrie-lite “Give Me Your Heart” (directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, the duo behind for Starry Eyes). With exposition-laden dialog and a lack of continuity (Creepy Girl doesn’t want to jump into pool; has daydream about gym coach; all of a sudden, Pretty Girl is shoving her off the diving board…huh?!), this recalls the aforementioned teen-angst films, only the payoff is flat and predictable.

Elsewhere, the goofy Ben Wheatley wannabe “St. Patrick’s Day” (written and directed by Gary Shore) blends comedy, irony, pregnancy, and cults so badly it’s like the Wicker Man remake without the laughs. It tosses out flip nods to Rosemary’s Baby and even The Beyond (impish little red-haired girl) but has no idea how to synthesize them into something beyond a lame visual punchline of cultists carrying a ginormous snake around the countryside.

I will give “Easter” credit for distilling the holiday lore into an odd hybrid: writer-director Nicholas McCarthy seems properly baffled at how an anthropomorphic rabbit and Jesus correlate. Despite clunky opening dialogue between a mother and her inquisitive daughter, which muddies the seas of confusion, and an ending that’s disappointingly anticlimactic, the midsection delivers some intriguing, Clive Barker-esque imagery and some existential food for thought.

Holidays gains momentum once it delves into the days that recognize parents and their influence, with “Mother’s Day” (written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith) an appropriately female-centric take on one young woman’s desperate attempt to cease her overt fertility (“I get pregnant every time I have sex”), though her decision to seek help via a New Age cult proves questionable. Smith creates an uneasy atmosphere, and a sense of isolation pervades, even if the ending is a disappointing bundle of “what the fuck.” Anthony Scott Brown’s “Father’s Day” is the highlight of the film, generating drama and suspense through a simple premise: a woman (House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue), transitioning to a new locale, finds a tape player and cassette in a box of paternal mementoes; the contents of the recording – a message from her estranged father (voiced by Michael Gross) – leads her on an unpredictable (and unexpectedly moving) pathway to reunion. Working better as a drama told in pale shades of gray and green, the segment is anchored by Donahue’s performance, which exudes skepticism and vulnerability; while the final reveal may be something of a letdown, the minimalist power of this tale (including clever attention to how a grownup’s words can take on a different meaning when a child listens to them many years later) makes it especially insightful and mature amid Holidays’ more underwhelming offerings.

At this juncture, what can be said of Kevin Smith? The most well-known directorial inclusion in Holidays may have shifted genre gears when he swapped endearingly vulgar rom-coms for the provocative protest of Red State and the creature-feature horror of Tusk. His segment, “Halloween,” would seem a continuation of these thematic sensibilities, and it crackles with his nattering, hypercaffeinated dialog. It’s a low-rent affair, wherein a trio of Internet cam-girls turn the tables on their abusive boss. While a supernatural element is floated, “Halloween” is essentially Smith’s entry into the torture-porn ring, replete with dark humor and an over-the-top feminist slant (though one might argue that the women come across just as unfavorably as the men here). As with Tusk, the filmmaker dashes the potential impact of his premise with a frustrating, cheap-joke ending.

Of all the segments, Scott Stewart’s “Christmas” comes closest to the darkly jovial tone that informed the more lighthearted episodes of “The Twilight Zone” (unfortunately, it isn’t polished enough to approach their quality). After a faux promotion for a Strange Days-styled headset (“your imagination come to life!” the ad proclaims), it settles into the story of an emasculated father (Seth Green) who gets the high-tech toy for his kid…under unscrupulous circumstances. Its clichés are legion (the unsympathetic bitch of a wife; on-the-nose S&M fantasies), and the conclusion is an unfortunate muddle. Green, however, uses all of his comedic strength to make it at least watchable.

In a weird sort of ellipsis, “New Year’s” returns to the predictability of “Give Me Your Heart,” with a serial killer (Andrew Bowen) desperately trying to connect with someone via online dating. He seems to have found his match in Jean (Lorenza Izzo), but she has other ideas. While this segment (directed by Some Kind of Hate’s Adam Egypt Mortimer, and written by the Starry Eyes guys) breaks no new ground in terms of premise, the attention to character detail is good, and the use of the ten-second countdown to frame the climax is moderately exciting.

Overall, though, Holidays does little to raise the profile of the millennial horror anthology. With few exceptions (especially “Father’s Day”), it is only slightly better overall than the subgenre’s most underwhelming offerings (The ABCs of Death 2; V/H/S). Maybe the biggest flaw is the premise itself: while using holidays as backdrops for tales of terror could open this film up to franchise potential, most of these already have pretty definitive feature-length counterparts – My Bloody Valentine (1981; 2009); Mother’s Day (1980; 2010); Astron-6’s Father’s Day (2011); New Year’s Evil (1980); and any number of Christmas-set horrors.

 

Segment Ratings

“Give Me Your Heart”: 1.5 out of 5 stars

“St. Patrick’s Day”: 1 out of 5 stars

“Happy Easter”: 2.5 out of 5 stars

“Mother’s Day”: 2.5 out of 5 stars

“Father’s Day”: 3.5 out of 5 stars

“Halloween”: 2.5 out of 5 stars

“Christmas”: 2 out of 5 stars

“New Year’s”: 2.5 out of 5 stars

 

Overall Rating

2 out of 5 stars

 

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) is a cheap bastard, which is why he gives the gift of movie reviews instead of physical items. Ho, ho, ho! His reviews also appear at loudgreenbird.com. He judges other things via antisocial media @JonnyNumb (Twitter and Letterboxd), and co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast with @crashpalace.

(Holidays photo from Horror Freak News.)

THE LAST KNOCK presents: 2016’s Best Horror Films

The Last Knock

2016 was a pretty damn good year for horror – the movie variety, of course – and we’re happy to take a look at all those films that made the genre great. In fact, we’ll give you a reverse order countdown to the very best after we look at honorable mentions. Sure, we can wail about neon-colored witches hiding in rundown bars or something, but we won’t.

Is your favorite on the list?

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Don’t forget to weigh in with your comments, Billy and Jonny love to respond because they don’t get out much – unless it’s keeping the zombie hordes at bay…

In My Skin by Bill Meeker

In a previous post, I wrote about Ozon’s See the Sea as an example of the cinéma du corps of the early New French Extremity. By contrast, a later film of this movement, In My Skin (Dans ma peau, 2002), is both more transgressive and more preoccupied with formal considerations. Written and directed by Marina de Van (who plays Tatiana in Ozon’s film), it focuses on the character of Esther (de Van), an ambitious young female professional whose psyche unravels after she receives a disfiguring wound in an accident at a work-related house party.

Wandering alone in the backyard of the recently renovated house, she trips over some building supplies and falls, tearing her pant leg. At first, unaware that she has injured herself, she returns to the house, where she gossips with her friend and co-worker Sandrine (Lea Drucker). It is not until she goes to the bathroom that she realizes that she has a bloody gash in her right lower leg. Even so, she leaves the party to go out for drinks with friends. Later that night, she goes to a hospital, where the on-call intern (Adrian de Van) asks her why she did not seek medical help after she realized that she had hurt herself. She replies that she did not feel any pain until much later. The intern then jokingly asks her, “Are you sure it’s your leg?”

Although she has everything that a young bourgeois Parisian woman could want, including a challenging career in business and a young, urban, professional boyfriend, Vincent (Laurent Lucas), a morbid fascination with her disfigured leg begins to distract her from work and other people. Soon she starts having spells in which she engages in destructive acts of self-mutilation. She begins with cutting the surgical sutures in her leg wound. For the spectator, the scenes in which Esther harms herself are difficult to watch. Her cutting and gouging moves from her leg to an arm, then to her entire body, including her face. Although Esther continues to try to pursue her career ambitions (snubbing Sandrine in the process) and her relationship with Vincent (who becomes increasingly upset by her bizarre behavior), the urge towards self-destruction becomes irresistible. Every social challenge in her life triggers an urge to engage in self-mutilation. The urge to hurt herself quickly takes over her life, interfering with both love and work and ultimately leading her to a paroxysm of self-harm while alone in a cheap hotel room.

Before her accident, Esther’s bourgeois existence hardens her to sensation and emotion, as shown by her initial inability to feel the pain of her leg wound. Bound within the structure of the Lacanian Symbolic, she has repressed her emotions (coded by patriarchy as feminine) so that she can have a chance at success in the “man’s world” of business. Thus, she creates a hard, protective, psychological shell comprised of ego defense mechanisms with which she insulates herself from authentic interpersonal relationships and their potential for emotional response. After the accident, the disintegration of this shell leads to the gradual fragmentation of her ego, as demonstrated by her decreasing ability to function in the world of the Symbolic. This event, with its irruption of the abject in the form of a bloody gash in Esther’s skin, stands for an intrusion of the Lacanian Real into her conscious life. Per Wright and Wright:

The Real is that which is both inside and outside the subject, resisting the Symbolic’s endeavours to contain it. In the imaginary mirror-play of illusion a consistency obtains which leaves no gaps for the Real to manifest itself. The Real shows only in the structured effects it produces in mundane reality, and has no existence from the perspective of the symbolic system, the big Other. The fantasy of the Lacanian objet a conceals the gap, itself proof of the Real that lies outside the illusion of consistency. (3)

Esther’s objet a is the knife, which generalizes to any tool with which she can cut herself. For Žižek, the objet a is the “sublime object of ideology”:

…at its simplest, it is that which we most ardently desire, imagining it to be in the possession of the Other. This object, beyond all else, is what is unconsciously believed will fill the void at the core of being. The void is the effect of the constitution of the subject in language out of the Real of the body with all its undirected drives, which language vainly tries to bring entirely within its laws. (3)

Esther’s original injury exposes the void within herself, namely the lack of fulfillment of her basic drives caused by repression of her capacity to feel in the service of trying to succeed in the Parisian bourgeois environment by conforming to its patriarchal capitalistic standards. Thus, each subsequent appearance of a knife-like object (her objet a) in the narrative leads Esther to engage in further physical self-harm in a bizarre attempt to reach the Real within her body (“in her skin”). Unfortunately, the lack she desperately desires to fill “arises from the ultimate incompatibility of the Symbolic and the Real” (5). Thus, the ultimate mental result of Esther’s self-mutilatory behaviors is psychosis.

De Van presents this psychological break in a scene in which Esther attends a high-stakes business dinner. Despite her efforts to impress a high-profile, female client who has accompanied the (male) senior partner in her firm, she cannot resist focusing on her dinner companions’ plates when they carve meat with their forks and knives. She has a delusional experience in which she believes that her left arm, from which she can feel no sensations, has taken on an independent existence. Eventually, she hallucinates this arm as amputated and lying on the table in full view of her business associates, who do not notice it.

She retrieves the arm, reattaches it to her body, then begins cutting it under the table with her steak knife. Her ability to participate in the Symbolic discourse of business rapidly deteriorates, creating an atmosphere of social awkwardness at the table. She decamps in a panic to the restaurant’s wine cellar, where she hides behind racks of wine bottles in a regressed state. There, she realizes the effects of her behavior on the world of the Symbolic when a wine steward discovers her bloody knife on the floor. Shocked out of her psychotic state, she returns to the dinner party, which has concluded. The senior partner is clearly furious with her.

In the closing sequence of In My Skin, de Van (as both writer-director and actress) signifies the “collapse of ideology” with the image of Esther’s complete mental breakdown and physical self-destruction under the stress of her pursuit of bourgeois socioeconomic values. Thanatos, the Freudian death drive, overcomes Eros, the life drive, through an overwhelming return of the repressed – in this case, all the emotions against which Esther had been so heavily defended (and which for Lacan represent the jouissance that is “prohibited in language” [Žižek, Wright, & Wright 12]) in her single-minded pursuit of a bourgeois lifestyle. Although this final sequence is open to interpretation, it appears to imply that her morbid obsession has caused her death.

In its cinematography, this sequence is also emblematic of the “high art” formal aesthetic within which de Van deploys her “low art” narrative. It begins with Esther awakening the morning in her cheap hotel room. After dressing, she admires a piece of her skin that she has tanned by treating with chemicals (on the advice of a bewildered pharmacist in a previous scene). It has hardened, shriveled and turned black. With a mixture of sadness and affection, she places it inside her bra and leaves the room. But then a subsequent shot, which begins with an extreme close-up of Esther’s face as she stares vacantly into the camera, tracks out to reveal that she is lying motionless on the bed. This shot repeats once before fading to black. In My Skin’s high-art cinematography is also evident in the use of a split screen in the sequence that depicts Esther’s final paroxysm of self-harm in a series of disorientingly paired close-ups. The use of this technique is foreshadowed by using this technique in the film’s opening credits, over which are shown a series of establishing shots as pairs of positive and negative color images.

The film’s avant-garde form also appears in the its sound design and musical score. The spectator is cued to the onset of Esther’s episodes of self-mutilation, triggered the appearance of her objet a, by extradiegetic sounds of heavy breathing and a shift to dissonance in the musical score. Žižek uses Chion’s concept of rendu to explain how such sounds can be “a way of representing reality distinct from the Imaginary and the Symbolic modes”.  Such a representation is achieved “typically through the sound-track, which now takes over as dominant indicator of the narrative reality, while the visual images become a secondary montage”. Thus, this inversion of sound and vision, an “arbitrary stylistic prohibition” on the part of the filmmaker, signifies a psychosis by “making uncannily palpable the tension between Real and Symbolic” (Žižek, Wright, & Wright 13).

Arthouse sound and visuals of an increasingly avant-garde nature, transgressive narratives with increasingly “extreme features: these changing characteristics show the rapid development of the cinéma du corps over the turn of the millennium. This movement would later spread to greater Europe and beyond, producing many more movies that test the spectator’s ability to tolerate the grotesque and abject while delighting the lover of innovation in filmmaking technique.

Works Cited

In My Skin (Dans Ma Peau). Dir. Marina De Van. Perf. Marina De Van and Laurent Lucas. Wellspring Media, 2003. DVD.

Wright, Elizabeth, and Edmond Wright. “Introduction.” The Žižek Reader. By Slavoj Žižek. Ed. Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. 1-8. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj, Elizabeth Wright, and Edmond Wright. “The Undergrowth of Enjoyment: How Popular Culture Can Serve as an Introduction to Lacan.” The Žižek Reader. Ed. Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. 11-36. Print.

(Photo of In My Skin writer, director, and star, Marina de Van from Blumhouse.)

Crash Palace Support Team

The man behind Loud Green Bird (LGB), “a website devoted to cinema and literature. LGB covers all genres but has a predilection for horror and science fiction. LGB also supports indie film by reviewing the work of indie filmmakers,” Bill Meeker teaches by day, and is a film television critical/cultural studies graduate student. Besides following LGB on Twitter, you can also find more of this driven cinephile at Frisco Kid TX and on Twitter.

 

THE LAST KNOCK presents: Macabre Milestone: The Blair Witch Project

The Last Knock

Many dark moons ago, in 1999, a phenomenal word-of-mouth campaign brought moviegoers to the theatre to indulge in The Blair Witch Project. We take a look at the original film’s success, the subsequent sequel, and the latest movie many seemed to think was a remake. We’ll also see where the filmmakers and stars of the original are today, and how the first film changed independent filmmaking, and made found footage a legitimate horror sub-genre.

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THE LAST KNOCK presents: The Neon Demon and The Wailing

The Last KnockThe Neon Demon and The Wailing, two of 2016’s most talked about horror films, would make for one bizarre double feature. Nicolas Winding Refn delivers an odd, off-kilter tale of modeling, jealousy, and abuse, while Hong-jin Na brings audiences an epic mystery. But do they work and will horror fans embrace them?

We take an in depth look at both works, from story to plot, and from music to cinematography. Join us – because we’re falling apart…

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