Halloween Classics: Generations

It's Halloween, kids!  The day we've all been waiting for!  In culmination of this writing project (whew!), it's time to stop messing around with Dum-Dums and get into some Milky Ways -- 3 classics from 3 generations, each viewed in a different context.


Poltergeist - 1982
Written by Steven Spielberg  Michael Grais & Mark Victor
Directed by Tobe Hooper

I don't think I'd seen Poltergeist since I was a kid, but it's pretty ubiquitous when it comes to lists of best haunting & ghost stories, so I thought it was time to take a look at it again.

In brief; "typical" white American suburban family complete with 2.5 kids and dog is living the dream of the 80s in a homogenous Southern California housing development.  Actually, it's the same homogenous Southern California housing development used for Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (filmed concurrently), which I think makes an interesting statement about homogenous American suburbs in itself.  One suburb is all suburbs and all suburbs are the same.  It's even more telling that these are desirable places from which to escape difference.  Scary.

So much for "in brief," but as I was saying, white-bread family in indistinct house (the film even points this out, so I don't think I'm totally off-base here) starts to experience strange and unusual occurrences, largely centered around youngest daughter Carol Anne.  First she's talking to the TV (more on this later), then chairs are moving around the kitchen, then -- BAM! -- the creepy tree is devouring son Robbie, seemingly as a distraction for sucking Carol Anne into a closet vortex.  It really seemed to escalate rather quickly then settle into a much slower arc of investigation and exposition before unleashing even bigger spooky effects.

Now, even as a kid, I remember being a little skeptical about the effects.  There are a few big ones that just don't make sense to me from a haunting perspective, and don't hold up from a technical standpoint.  For example, I don't see the point of a big, giant zombie head popping out of the closet, and it just looks like a big ol' model to me.  There's a spectral door guardian late in the movie about which I feel much the same only more so, and it uses a film layering technique that I never found convincing.  that being said, there are still a lot of practical effects that hold up better than the optical effects, and there's even one particular optical effect that I still find particularly chilling.

While I may see the effects as uneven and outdated in places, I was really surprised by how well the story itself holds up, outside of certain pacing issues.  Like I said, it seems to escalate rather quickly, then drag in the middle before jamming on the gas again toward the end.  I think it would be much creepier building slowly, going as far as to suggest that the para-psychologist and crew might be brought in BEFORE Carol Anne's disappearance and shuffling a couple of the other spooky set-pieces.  There are times after her disappearance where the family seems to forget to be as upset as they should be.  Nevertheless, it's a very solid haunting tale that plays strongly on parental fears and concerns about the kinds of worries about home and hearth that drive people to the suburbs in the first place.

Indeed, subtext was what I found most fascinating as an adult viewer with little chance of being surprised by a familiar story.  Where director Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre could be seen as a metaphor for America's culture wars, Poltergeist very strongly depicts an environment in which the counter-culture has surrendered to raise them up a passel o' young'uns.  Mom still likes a toke before bed, but Dad can't be bothered to roll a joint anymore, he's so engrossed in TV and a Reagan biography.  This is the same Dad who discovers that he's been selling a community built on top of a field of graves.

Consumerism is a strong, but passively expressed theme.  The product is all.  The dead of the past and the children of the future are both subject to consumption.  Pave over the dead, and bury children in commercialism.  Son Robbie is surrounded by Star Wars merchandise and the commercial ephemera of other pop cultural media.  Carol Anne is consumed by the pre-fab house, her voice trapped inside the television.  The final image in the film is not merely funny, but telling, as Dad pushes the television out of the hotel room.  It's not merely ironic, but symbolic of the control from which he's freeing himself and his family.

Poltergeist didn't work for me in all the same ways that it did when I was a kid, but much to my surprise, it worked for me in some brand new ways.  I understand that they're remaking it next year (heedless consumption of the past again), and it's my default setting to be skeptical of such things, but there's definitely a core there that could certainly be relevant again, and depending on the creative choices made, potentially better executed.  With a little reining in and refocusing, it could be a crisp and haunting tale.

Rosemary's Baby - 1968
Written & Directed by Roman Polanski
from the Novel by Ira Levin

This was my first time watching what many consider one of the scariest movies ever.  I guess it makes a difference when you see it.  Yeah, this is one that's going to get me banned from the clubhouse.

In brief (I promise this time), Rosemary & Guy, a young couple (Mia Farrow & John Cassavetes) move into a new apartment in New York.  The building has long been connected with brutal and scandalous rumors.  Shortly after moving in, they hear spooky chanting from the apartment next door.  The first neighbor they meet is a young woman recovering from drug addiction with the help of the elderly couple next door.  She's soon dead of an apparent suicide, but Rosemary's not so sure.  After that, Minnie & Roman (Ruth Gordon & Sidney Blackmer) the friendly-to-the-point-of-overbearing neighbor couple begins to ingratiate and insinuate themselves into Rosemary & Guy's lives.  Guy, an actor, gets a plum role when the man cast suddenly goes blind.  Rosemary gets pregnant and Minnie takes over her life, sending her to her doctor friend and feeding her drinks with homegrown herbs.  The pregnancy progresses with difficulty, and Rosemary's fear and paranoia grows.  When her friend Hutch falls suddenly ill, eventually dying and leaving her a book about witchcraft, her fears find a name.

The thing that struck me most upon watching the film was seeing where so many other films had come from, like The Exorcist or The Bible.  Like those, its pace drags, it's poorly aged in the context of later works and you kind of have to ignore a lot to be all that scared by it.  Also like The Bible, its gender attitudes should offend the modern viewer.

It doesn't help that the characters are unbearable.  Most of them have an excuse for it what with the Satan worship and all, but even our protagonist, Rosemary, is weak and pathetic even when she's fighting for her life (or rather, her baby's life, and there's the rub).  Maybe it's just the helpless paranoia, maybe it's the era's ideas of women, or maybe it's just that Mia Farrow whines so consistently that intergalactically notorious cry-baby Luke Skywalker starts to look like Dirty Harry.  Nah, it's not just that.  The end felt like a tremendous letdown after all her previous efforts and while I absolutely wanted to go open the jugulars of every one of the Satanists, they were about as menacing as canasta night down at the senior center.

And that's my biggest issue here.  I just didn't find it that scary, or really that engaging.  There's the structure of a tense thriller, but the tedious pace allows the tension to dissolve before our very eyes.  Like I mentioned up front, I think it depends on when in one's life one first sees the movie.  By this stage in my life I've simply seen too many movies.  I've learned how they're built from film makers who learned from Polanski.  I've seen the ways that subsequent movies have developed and expanded upon its elements.  Maybe it's similar to the way that hard bop makes it hard for me to appreciate the more predictable structures of ragtime.

Whatever it is, the time for Rosemary's Baby has passed for me, in more ways than one.

The Descent - 2005
Written & Directed by Neil Marshall

British film, The Descent is hands-down one of the best horror movies of the modern era.  To a certain extent, it's almost two great horror movies.  The full measure of its greatness, however, is subject to which version of the film you see, and whether you prefer an earned outcome or an obligatory horror twist.  More about THAT at the end.

The Descent distinguishes itself among horror films in a number of ways.  First of all, the core cast is entirely women, and not any candy-ass prom queen women either.  These six women are adventure sports enthusiasts and know how how adrenaline feels.  The first scene shows several of them on a white water rafting expedition, with central figure Sarah's (Shauna McDonald) husband and daughter meeting them at the end.  These girls rule.

Moments later, Sarah and her family are in a terrible accident on the road with Sarah the only survivor.

A year later, she's still recovering from the loss, but determined to forge ahead so they get the band back together (with a new addition) and the six women head off for a bit of spelunking in the Appalachians. Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, their self-involved limit-pushing friend Juno (the one who previously shared meaningful glances/averted gazes with Sarah's late husband) has led them not to the well-known intermediate cave to which they believed they were going, but to a completely uncharted cave.

The first half of the film is like its own movie.  Once the women descend into the cave, the only way out is through.  The exploration and natural dangers of their situation are remarkably tense, with the question of what will happen when the rest of the group realizes Juno's selfish folly weighing foremost in our minds.  Claustrophobia reigns as they crawl through narrow passages.  We feel the weight of the earth threatening to crush them.  Once the gain a fuller grasp of their situation, the tension ratchets higher.  A deep crevasse must be traversed.  Even as we feel their sinews stretched and muscles strained, we're captured by the mystery of "If this cave is undiscovered, where did that funky old piton come from?"  I could have totally watched an entire movie about them just struggling to survive this dangerous cave amid growing character tension.

Then it gets worse... so much worse.  They discover a chamber filled with ancient paintings a la Lascaux, depicting wild beasts and a mountain with two exits, so there's hope... until the creatures attack.

The second half of the movie turns the survival horror up to eleven.  Like many things in The Descent, it skips the exposition and allows us to figure out what's really going on, and evidently what is going on is that an evolutionary spur of subhumans have developed in this cavern; savage, sightless creatures.  Panic splinters the team and each individual or cluster is responsible for their own survival.

This part of the movie is deeply frightening and highly brutal.  There is gore, but not for gore's sake.  At all bloody junctures, my thought was "Well yeah, of course that's how it would be."  The sensation of fear is so electric that, when one of the most shocking deaths I've ever seen in a horror movie occurs, it makes perfect sense.  In fact, all of the deaths are completely reasonable in the context of the story, not merely a variety of ways that the creators thought up to devastate a human body for the amusement of blood-thirsty viewers.

Throughout this, Sarah demonstrates a thoughtful and powerful commitment to survival.  I mention this because it's highly relevant to the meaning of the alternate endings.

The Descent is original, well acted, cleverly written and freakin' beautifully shot.  Marshall has packed it with iconic frames, which, as others have pointed out, are cribbed from other imagery in such way as to indicate that he has learned his lesson and knows what he's doing.  The element of fear here is virtually unparalleled.  It's like a "Best of" compilation of different sense of primal fear, all assembled into one magnificent package.  It's tense, mistrustful, creepy, startling, shocking, horrific, gruesome, thrilling, terrifying and more.  It's damn near perfect.

...unless you see the wrong ending.

There are two versions of The Descent, and as far as I'm aware the only difference is the end.  One is the American Theatrical Release (AKA the R-rated version) and the other is alternately referenced as the British, Director's Cut or Unrated version.  I personally believe that the Theatrical version is "correct" and rescued the film from a foolish impulse on Marshall's part which completely undermines the story and betrays its entire meaning.  I will discuss this in greater detail below, but I don't recommend that discussion for people who haven't seen the movie.  I already feel badly enough for how much I've already said.  In his (rave) review of The Descent, Roger Ebert implored viewers not to let anyone talk to them about the movie until they'd seen it for themselves.  Bear in mind, it was the Theatrical release he was reviewing.


Seriously, don't read this unless you've seen the movie.  No, not even if you can't help your compulsive little self.  Just walk away.  You have been warned.  You're only ruining it for yourself.

Last warning.  Do not enter.


In the American Theatrical Release, Sarah escapes from the cave, makes her way to the trucks and races away from there like a bat out of a fairly literal Hell.  Fade to black.  Credits.

In the British Release, she races away from there like a bat out of a fairly literal Hell, then pulls over to cry, gets startled by a passing semi truck, vomits... and suddenly sees Juno next to her in the truck.  Screaming, she awakens back in the cave and imagines her daughter there with a birthday cake as the creatures close in on her from all sides.  This is some bullshit.

First of all, the American version is very clearly edited in a slap-dash way and loses some nice moments.  Where she pulls over to cry and vomit; those are earned moments.  The first time I saw The Descent, I saw the Unrated or Director's Cut, and I was bawling.  When she vomited, I spoke back to the television in sympathy.  But once Juno appears and she wakes up in the cave -- again, some bullshit.

And here's why.

Sarah EARNED that escape.  We see how hard she fights every step of the way.  There is NO indication that she has any "lay down and die" in her.  Yes, once or twice she does imagine her daughter prior to the bullshit ending, but those visions occur at times when she needs to be spurred on, when she needs that little extra help to bring her focus back to moving forward and surviving.  It's COMPLETELY contradictory for her to fight as hard as she did only to up and decide to be a crazy quitter in the end.  Moreover, and perhaps most significantly, if her true desire was to lay down and die to rejoin her daughter, I don't believe that it's literarily or psychologically realistic that she would dream/hallucinate such a thorough escape.  She survived the loss, she survived the cave, she was reborn from the earth as a force unto herself.

The other ending simply doesn't add up.  It has the stink of obligatory "gotcha" all over it.  There's a common attitude among horror fans and evidently among directors that "happy" endings are inherently invalid, that they somehow diminish the film's commitment to horror if you don't walk away from it feeling completely hopeless.  Now, I'm certainly someone who likes a happy ending, but what I like most is an earned and appropriate ending that faithfully concludes the narrative arc with a sense of closure that is consistent with story and character.  The daughter-with-a-birthday-cake ending doesn't do that.  The Cake is a Lie.

It's been suggested by some individuals (clearly desperate to validate this cheap, bullshit ending) that Sarah was hallucinating a lot sooner, and that she may have even been the one who killed her friends and imagined the creatures.  Yeah; no.  The film just doesn't make the case for that, even if the director is willing to allow for it.  You don't just get to pull "It was all in her head" out of your ass without supporting it.  By that logic, you could slap 30 seconds onto the end of ANY movie to change its meaning.  SHRIEK!  And then Leia wakes up and she's still in that cell on the Death Star and she's really just a prostitute.  SHRIEK!  And then Rose has a flash of consciousness as she sinks beneath the waves and realizes that she steered the ship into the iceberg and Jack was just a passenger who pushed her into the water in the name of justice.  SHRIEK!  And then Anne Frank wakes up at home in Canton, Ohio and realizes there wasn't a war, she's not even Jewish, and Hitler is just the name of the neighbor's mean old Rottweiler.

Sarah lives.  The End.

Gimme Those Funky Horns


Horns - 2014
Written by Keith Bunin
from the Book by Joe Hill
Directed by Alexandre Aja

Horns is bound to anger the internet rage-nerds (but then what isn't?) with its resistance to simple classification and expectation-defying insistence on being completely itself.  The core structure is that of a murder mystery, but in its greater context it's also a love story and a dark parable that steps outside naturalistic conventions.  While I had some doubts about whether its primary conceit was strictly "horror," the final scene convinced me that, while it was certainly horror, why should it need to be strict about it?

The rage-nerds love to throw out the debate between Siskel & Ebert over Full Metal Jacket and Benji the Hunted as an attempt to discredit Roger Ebert, but it really only demonstrates that the rage-nerds don't understand art.  Ebert gave thumbs down to FMJ and up to Benji in the same episode, and Siskel tried to shame him with the specious suggestion that he was saying Benji was better than FMJ.  What's often omitted from this example, however, is that Roger called Gene out for his false equivalency, explaining (as Siskel damned well should have known) that the rating of a single movie is not inherently a comparison to all other movies, but an indication of how successfully that movie achieves its own purpose.  Art is not a sport, and the pathetic need to score it for so many emotionally and intellectually undeveloped males per their demands and expectations is deeply unhealthy for the art form.  In Ebert's opinion, FMJ was not entirely successful as a war movie, or an anti-war war movie, or a Kubrick movie, and I can see his point without necessarily having strong feelings about it one way or another.  Separately, he saw Benji the Hunted as a very successfully executed Benji movie.  While having no personal interest IN a Benji movie, I can see how one might be well made per its own intentions.  While you and/or I may feel that he misjudged FMJ, Benji had absolutely nothing to do with it.  In other words, they're not in competition with each other -- not one human soul went to the theater in 1987 and said, "Hm, do I feel like seeing a bleak vision of the Vietnam War, or a cute children's story about a fluffy dog?!" -- they're in competition with themselves.  I bring this up because A) I consider Ebert to have been pretty much as good as it gets when it comes to film review, and 2) the absolute failure of the majority of internet loudmouths to grasp this concept has become toxic to the media arts.

Approaching Horns as a film that is what it means to be, it's a complete success.  Approaching it as a film with tho obligation of meeting the expectations of angry young boy-men, it's a magnet for scorn.  And the moral of this story (like so many stories) is "Don't read Comments on the Internet."

But I digress...

Horns stars Daniel Radcliffe in what I believe is his best performance to date.  Radcliffe plays Ig Perrish, a young radio DJ from near Seattle who is accused of murder.  The murder of which he is accused is of the love of his life, Merrin (the ethereal Juno Temple), his girlfriend since childhood.  The whole town hates Ig and wants him to burn.  Even his parents' phrasings betray their own doubts about his innocence.  Universally despised, but legally bound not to leave, Ig is in a living Hell.

So maybe it shouldn't be entirely surprising when he starts to sprout horns from his forehead.  Devil's horns.  People react very differently to Ig's new appearance.  Some see it as representative of what they already think he is.  Others don't see them as anything terribly unusual, and some don't see them at all.  This becomes part of the mystery.  Along with the new fashion statement, Ig's other statements take on a new gravity as well.  People immediately start sharing their shameful secrets, asking him whether they should go ahead and act on them.  We all have our hidden impulses, but we like having the Devil around to blame.

Initially horrified, Ig comes to embrace these changes almost like super powers, enabling him to uncover layers of the mysteries surrounding him.

Well, I just enjoyed the hell out of this film.  What was more-or-less a mystery gained all kinds of richness through its characters and their secrets, and through the utterly surreal story device of Ig's horns and abilities.  It's filled with genuine humor, never resorting to cheap jokes, and darkness that never resorts to bleakness.  The way the story reveals personal histories creates characters worth caring about and hoping for  Even when a plot point came up that hinted pretty strongly at the mystery's solution, I was still fascinated to find out how it all fit together.  This is just plain good storytelling, in the true spirit of fable craft.



Constantine: Pilot Episode - 2014
based on the Hellblazer comics by first written by Jamie Delano,
based on the John Constantine character originally created by Alan Moore

I don't know if John Constantine has actually become "wildly popular" over the years since I walked away from comics, or if that's merely the hyperbole of the lazy and triflin' entertainment press.  The movie with Keanu Reeves was... okay ...but felt wrong, primarily because the character known to readers is a smart-mouthed demon fighter from the north of England and Keanu Reeves is, well, Keanu Reeves.  It was with extreme skepticism that I approached the new NBC series.  It just didn't (and I'm still skeptical about this) seem possible that a network TV show could have the brutal darkness and grit of the comic books I knew.  It was announced that Constantine wouldn't be shown smoking, which is not only a defining character affectation but a MAJOR plot point.  And the actor, Matt Ryan, still doesn't look quite right -- his clothes look too fresh and his dye job or wig still strikes me as costumey.

So it came as a significant surprise to me that I was intrigued and entertained for the entire pilot episode.

The story was instantly familiar to a reader of the original series like me, even if it's been transposed from England to the United States.  At least Constantine is English, as he always should have been.  The character was created by Alan Moore during his run on the Swamp Thing, and always had the quality of bringing that gloomy, rainy, Jack-the-Rippery steak-and-kidney flavor of the macabre to DC Comics' supernatural world.  Alan would probably get his ire up for me saying this (then again Alan hardly needs an excuse anymore), but I always took John Constantine to be the character most like Alan himself (prior to Promethea anyway), albeit wrapped in Sting's body.  Constantine is something of a paranormal investigator, magician (the real stuff) and "Master of the Dark Arts" towing doom in his wake.

The series opens with him in a mental hospital (per his choosing) trying to leave behind the idea that demons and ghosts and whatnot are real.  This is a man with a past of which he wishes to be unburdened, and it's not going to be as simple as disbelieving it away.

The first episode was actually a lot more fun than I remembered the comics to be, but it's hard to complain about that when you're having fun.  The episode did a fantastic job of establishing the series as well as completing a single-episode story.  It was overflowing with tone and texture, hinting at things to come without being overburdened by them, and sneaking in one hell of a tease without dwelling on all the "Guess who THIS is! Guess who THAT is!" that we got from Gotham.

You can seldom know for sure what you're going to get in the long run based on a pilot episode, but in terms of promise, Constantine's got it in spades.  Let's just hope he doesn't let us down like all those dead people he used to know.

Bridge Over Troubled Daughters


Maria, Leonora, Theresa - 2014
Written by Keiko Aquino
Directed by Wenn V Deramas

I doubt I'd ever think to call myself a "foreign movie buff" because I don't feel that the preconceptions of what that means necessarily apply to me, but I do greatly enjoy experiencing other cultures through their pop culture.  There's just a whole layer of textures that you can't possibly get through travel and cooking shows, no matter how well-intended.  On that note, I'm happy to have added the Philippines to my United Nations of cinematic experiences with Maria, Leonora Theresa.

I was pretty nervous as the scene was being established.  It seemed might bright and manic at first as it established the characters of the three young schoolgirls (see title) and the families that loved them.  Then a ghost boy starts popping up, similar to a lot of Asian horror... and then the girls all die in a bus crash.  It's fair to say that things get a lot darker after that.

The girls' families are all in abject mourning, each coping in their own ways, some more poorly than others.  That's when a psychologist working on an experiment in loss shows up with a life-size doll of each girl, promoting the theory that these items will decrease the sense of loss.  Maria and Theresa's mothers are mortified at first, but when they see how it's helped Leonora's father (he's gay and has no other family) to feel less alone, they gradually decide to give it a try.  Now, this definitely takes a certain suspension of disbelief because it's obviously A HORRIBLE IDEA.  Nevermind how creepy the dolls are; it's just completely terrible psychology and the absolute opposite direction from the real path to healing, but okay, just hold on to that discomfiting creep factor, because there's good cause for it.

At first, the mothers and father start to feel better; comforted and more aware of the presence of their late beloveds.  But others around them are (appropriately) creeped the eff out.  The dolls start popping up in areas of their houses other than where they were left and so on.  It's not long before those who threaten them start turning up dead.  The process of figuring out what's going on, and accepting who, or what is responsible takes a little longer than it should, and in the meantime, the psychologist who was so keen to do this "experiment" is nowhere to be seen.  This all leads into the third act uncovering of the greater mystery and what it has to do with the ghost boy from the beginning.

I ended up really liking the story, balks at the psychological explanations notwithstanding.  Sure, the production values are middling and the performances aren't particularly naturalistic, but that's some of that cultural texture that you pretty much have to accept at the buy-in level.  Despite its senselessness, the doll conceit works to serve the story's recurring themes of managing loss.  Also the creepy.  SO creepy.

Maria, Leonora, Theresa combines elements that are familiar to horror with aspects unique to Philippine spiritual beliefs, thus adding some completely fresh ingredients to a favorite recipe.  Yum!

Orphan - 2009
Written by David Johnson & Alex Mace
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

The family in Orphan is also dealing with loss.  In their case, they lost their daughter before she was born through miscarriage.  Determined to share that love, they decide to adopt another daughter to bring into the fold that already includes a son and daughter.

Going into this movie, I initially expected to be offended by the taint that it would put on the concept of adoption, which I hold to be a value.  Kids need loving parents, and there just don't seem to be enough to go around.  Fortunately, Orphan distances itself so completely from reality with such a far-fetched club sandwich of improbabilities that anyone it might discourage from adopting probably isn't mentally cut out for it in the first place.

When John & Kate head on down to the good ol' fashioned Catholic orphanage (do they even make those anymore?), naturally they skip right past all the jolly and sociable young girls clambering for attention and head right for the "different" girl who prefers to hide up in the classroom painting.  In less than five minutes they've made up their minds and begin the process of adopting the clever little girl from Russia, Esther.

Esther is intelligent and creative, displaying a facility for learning, a wisdom beyond her years and her own peculiar style preferences with include a dollish fashion sense and ubiquitous ribbons around her wrists and neck.  She's really rather charming and I'd probably adopt her myself, in the early stages.  But it's not long after they get her home that she starts to reveal some odd tendencies.  She's a bit of a lurker, not terribly forthcoming about her past, and soon demonstrates a matchstick temper and a cold pragmatism toward life and death.

When another little girl's leg is broken in a playground incident (Esther's doing, but not provable), Kate snaps into suspicion and accusation mode rather quickly.  She's given plenty of fuel for her suspicions, and Esther is rather quick to escalate matters.  Things ramp up with increasing rapidity, but John is unwilling or unable to see it, and the other kids have been intimidated into silence.  So just what IS Esther's deal and will Kate be able to uncover it before it's too late?

A thriller called "Orphan" really doesn't leave a lot of mystery about who the bad guy is going to be and in which direction the mysteries lay.  I didn't find it terribly surprising, although there's a twist or... nah, there's just the one twist that others may not see coming.  Nevertheless, the film packs considerable tension, even if it's just to find out who's going to survive it all.  Isabelle Fuhrman, the girl who plays Esther is extraordinary in the role and really sells the entire premise.  She's both charming and alarming, with stops in between.