Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Please to eat you!

So here's my train of thought.

Hypothesis #1 - We don't want to get eaten . . .
There are lots of horror films where people get eaten. It is somehow so much worse than just getting shot. For the most part, you’d argue, the results are the same. You’re dead either way. Why should you care what happens to your body?

It says interesting things about how we conceptualise our bodies. It's also probably why newspapers emphasise details about the mutilation of bodies during conflicts (ie: Iraq). It's something we still have a horror of. Mistreatment of the body, however dead, somehow worsens the atrocity for us. It also harks back to themes from good old Conrad's Heart of Darkness - where the suggestion behind the text as I read it, is that the most 'unspeakable act' of all is cannibalism.

Hypothesis #2 . . . but getting eaten by a lion is surprisingly okay

Cinematic 'animals gone mad' fit into one of the following categories:

Category #1: cold blooded / reptilian monsters / insects / spiders
(films I've seen:)
Lake Placid (Crocodile - giant, unusual)
Pirahna (Pirahnas, scary)
Pirahna II: The Spawning (pirahnas, genetically mutated by army 'intelligence', flying)
Anaconda (Snake, very big)
Jaws (Shark, very big)
Deep Blue Sea (Sharks, very big, genetically mutated for 'scientific research')
Arachaphobia (Spiders, many, some very big)
(Films I haven't seen, but am guessing about:)
Crocodile (1981) (Tagline: From The Slimy Depths Of The Ocean... Nature Explodes With Savage Fury!)
Komodo (Komodo dragon. Haven't seen it, but I think they were 'mutated')
Eight Legged Freaks (Spiders, lots, very big. I think there's a 'mutation' plot here).
(Film I HAVE to see!!!)
Frogs. Killer frogs. Heavy handed subplot about conservation. God, I hope this is still available.

Category #2: warm blooded animals
Ghost and the Darkness (Lions. Scary for some specific reason, other than killing people, but I can't remember what it is).
Congo (Gorillas, mutant / diseased?)
King Kong (Gorilla, giant)
Bats (Bats. Lou Diamond Philips sadly involved)
Cujo (Dog, rabid, possible Indian burial ground)
The Birds (Birds, crazy)

Sure these lists are just my lists, pulled together in a relatively short time. There's a lot more out there. Regardless, I contend that if you tally up films you've seen, category #1 will almost certainly outnumber category #2 by quite a big margin.

Cateogory #1 monsters all have a reptilian, cold-blooded, creepy crawly kind of demeanor. People are just more scared of sharks / crocs et.al than of lions. Two theories here. One is that our DNA is hardwired to find this kind of stuff scary (that involuntary shudder reaction which you don't get from a picture of a lion looking all fangy). The second is that people in the western world are more likely to face up to a spider, a snake, or a crocodile / alligator than to a lion. (find either of these theories convincing?)

As for category #2 - the theme that comes out of at least three of the films in category #2 is betrayal. You're getting killed by something that shouldn't be trying to kill you. Lions aren't as scary. You know to watch your back when you're with a lion. It's when man's best friend or a cute little sparrow starts trying to get to your jugular that it's kind of creepy.

As always with horror, what we're scared of says a lot more about us, than it does the 'monster' doing the scaring.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Not dead, just really busy.

Work is full on at the moment. Which is good. I started this site when work was depressingly slow and unchallenging. Now it's better.

In the absence of a better post, I offer you a list I started in my head on the bus two days ago.

Films in which lions eat people / major protagonists
1. The Ghost and the Darkness
2. The Lion King

Really weird films I found out about when searching for other lion films:
1. Gun Crazy - one mountain lion, but no lion related deaths. Sadly, I want want to see this film. It sounds terrible.
2. The Lost Boys of Sudan - scary menacing by lions. In a weird coincidence, I just read about this story in an excerpt from a soon to be published Dave Eggers non-fiction book.
3. Cry of the Snow Lion - lions possibly just metaphorical.

Friday, May 14, 2004

The Soul of a Man
A film directed by Wim Wenders, part of The Blues series by Martin Scorsese

“If you already know the blues, then maybe these selections will give you a reason to go back to it. And if you’ve never heard the blues, and you’re coming across it for the first time, I can promise you this: your life is about to change for the better.” - Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese has produced a series of films titled The Blues. The concept – a bunch of different directors each making a feature about Blues music, taking on different performers, sub-genres, or movements. Each film is in part a documentary, in part a musical journey – all of them mix up the blues greats together with performances by modern artists taking on blues classics. The series is currently showing in Sydney (minus Clint Eastwood's film, for some reason), at the Chauvel and Valhalla cinemas.

Last night I saw The Soul of a Man by Wim Wenders. The first thing I did arriving at work this morning was an internet search on each of the three main artists to see how much of their stuff is available. After lunch, I went straight down to Mojo Music to buy the film soundtrack. I looked for CDs by the main artists featured in the film - Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James, and JB Lenoir – but the store has already sold out of everything they’ve got. I’m certain that Wenders wanted to achieve exactly this – a kind of filmic musical evangelism for a couple of blues singers he’s loved his whole life.

Wenders' earlier effort, Buena Vista Social Club, was a phenomenly successful documentary, also reviving the fortunes of a genre of music and a bunch of performers. The difference here is that instead of discovering still-living legends, the men he depicts are all long dead, and not much (if any) footage of them survives. To compensate, Wenders plays with the documentary format, using surviving footage where it exists, and getting a bit creative where it doesn’t. There’s a few scenes where he films scenes with actors depicting his major players from the 30s. Rather than strict recreations, Wenders plays with the look and feel of the sequences (which really capture shaky 30s film reels), and uses sound and other little tricks to both mimic and “quote” the mood of early cinema.

Much of the film is performance focused – we hear from the source, then we see a modern performer (or two, or three) taking on the same song. The most impressive modern performances for me were those from Beck, Bonnie Raitt, Nick Cave, Lucinda Williams and John Mayall. Every performance makes you realise how great the songs themselves are – they are impressive in their original form, yet elastic enough to adapt to different styles and settings.

Generally, Wenders' whole approach is idiosyncratic to the point of being almost obscurely personal. One example: it’s a film about blues, and the opening sequence is about outer space. There is a link, but I’m sure Wenders revels in the audience wondering where the hell he’s going with it. Lawrence Fishburne’s narration also has a twist. Some of these quirks really work. Some don’t. But all of them make you aware that you’re seeing a Wim Wenders film – which is about slant, about infatuation with a couple of singers, about mood. An objective historical account was never on the cards.

But who cares? I've got the blues in my head, a smile on my face, and a brand new obsession. Now that's a good cinematic experience!

Postscript: standing at the crossroads

When I was bought my CD, I ended up chatting with the guys who ran the specialty blues/folk music store. Blues singers just get up to way more interesting shit than everyone else, we all agreed, discussing the really amazing story of Skip Jones which is told in the film. I mentioned my favourite story – Robert Johnson, the guy who sold his soul at a crossroads to the devil in exchange for the ability to play guitar like nobody else. Guy 1 behind the counter leaned forward.

"I’ve got a theory about that", he said.

Naturally, I wanted to hear it.

"So he sells his soul to the devil, right?" Guy 1 says, his voice lowered. "Well, that means that the devil owns the copyright to all the music Robert Johnson created. In particular, the song ‘Cross Road Blues’. Who’s covered that song? [insert singer name]! – Dead! [insert another singer name]! – Dead! Eric Clapton – his kid died when he fell out of a balcony!"

[impressive pause].

"I’m not sure", said Guy 2 – cautiously – "if that’s brilliant reasoning, or insane."


An article about Wim Wenders, which points out that his career is also at a bit of a crossroads.

My favourite Australian blues band, The Backsliders. Buy their stuff. They rock.

The Soul of a Man website.

You should totally buy the CD. It rocks. There's also a short essay in the CD booklet from Wenders about putting the film and compilation together. "Nick and his Bad Seeds rocked so hard on J.B's I Feel So Good, it felt as if we had to tie down the instruments."

The story about the guitarist at the crossroads was one of many appropriations made by O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s what I like about my world. No matter how weird or crazy my obsessions get, everything always comes back to the Coen Brothers.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Part Two: Time to make another chair
The Exorcist and Exorcist: The Beginning (x2)

This is part II of my look at the Exorcist franchise. Part one concerned the original, and was actually more of a film review. This part two follows the sordid tale of disagreements and catfights over the new prequel, currently in post-production. Even if you have no interest in The Exorcist or any horror film thereof, this is a fascinating little problem. I’m really keen to see how the various protagonists play it out.

The original Exorcist spawned a franchise comprising two sequels: Exorcist II: The Heretic described as ‘possibly the worst film ever made, and surely the worst sequel ever made’. Then there’s Exorcist III – which got better reviews, and apparently has at least one really effective scary moment. Confession: I haven’t seen either. I’m marginally interested in Exorcist III, and will one day check it out. Neither film set the box office on fire, and it looked like the franchise had had its day.

Then, two things happened. First, the 25th anniversary of the original Exorcist sees the film re-released with new footage. Cue resurgence of interest! Second, the success of other horror retreads like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Freddy v Jason means that a lot of film companies are pulling out the old horror franchises they still own, dusting them off, and having a think about whether they could try a new entry. The possibility of another Exorcist film has apparently been around for a while, but it really gained momentum in the last two years. Due to the messy sequels, Warner Brothers’ take was to try a prequel – and look at the life of Father Merrin (the exorcist himself) before the events of the original film. I’m invariably suspicious about re-tread films, but when I heard about this, I was intrigued in a ‘hopefully they won’t screw it up’ kind of way.

Exorcist: The Beginning

Now this is where it gets a little complicated. Warner Brothers was apparently keen to make a film which isn’t about spinning heads and green vomit. The word seems to be that they want a thinking, creepy horror movie. To this end, they hire a director entirely out of left field – a guy called Paul Schrader. Schrader has had an impressive, varied career, and ‘horror’ as such isn’t on his resume. Starting out as a writer, his efforts include Taxi Driver and the screenplays of Last Temptation of Christ and The Mosquito Coast. As a director, he ranges from the weird – Cat People – to the recent and more impressive Auto Focus. To generalise, he seems really engaged with characters in adversity, and his protagonists aren’t always blameless. Many of his films involve characters who have lost perspective on their lives, they don’t live proportionately. There are no heroes and villains in his films. Again: an interesting choice to direct a horror film about facing a devil.

Paul Schrader makes his film on a budget of about $US 35 million (not modest, but certainly affordable). He cuts it. He shows it to the studio. According to this article “Schrader has made a picture that combines colonial-era action and adventure with personal introspection (on the part of Father Merrin) and deeper psychological horror.”

This is where I would say – break out the popcorn, and show me where to cower. But Warner Brothers felt quite differently. Apparently, they didn’t check the script, and planned to rush it into cinemas. When they sat down and watched the (almost) finished product, they decided that they didn’t want what Schrader was selling.

The production company then made several unprecedented moves. They fired Schrader. They hired a new director – Renny Harlin, renowned for cinematic gems such as Deep Blue Sea. At first, the changes were rumoured to be few – re-editing, and an additional few weeks shooting for some new scenes. Now, it seems that they’ve only retained a few scenes from footage taken from Schrader, background establishing shots of castles, and the like. The entire film has been remade with a different script. Major parts have been recast, and characters have been cut with new ones scribbled in. The rumour goes that this film is far more about the green projectile vomit than the psychological drama. The Harlin prequel cost US$55 million, and is due for US release in August, with Australia soon afterwards.

Insert pause to reflect on a few bizarre issues this situation has raised here.

What really stands out to me is the precarious nature of any individual’s contribution to a film. Unlike other creative mediums which are creator/artist driven (like painting or writing), you are only part of the whole. The best performance of a lifetime can be edited out of a film if the director so chooses. Further, the whole endeavour literally ‘belongs’ to the studio. If the studio which owns the picture decides they won’t release the picture – what can you do? It’s as if creative work can be negatived. A fascinating insight into the melting pot of art, ownership and money in Hollywood.

The story also offers a brief yet bizarre glimpse into the workings of major studios. If they are being honest about the problems they have with the film, those problems would have been apparent if someone at the studio had bothered to read the script. If I was a backer, I’d be furious that my money was spent on a film, where the script was approved sight unseen. It’s an extraordinary thing for the studio to have to admit.

The ‘laws’ of economics mean there’s every chance that the Schrader prequel will find a release. The studio spent a lot of money on it, and if it sits there, it’s just a complete loss. My bet would be that it won’t be at cinemas, but straight to DVD, possibly in an expensive box set aimed at the enthusiast market.

Finally, it seems Schrader at least, is quite philosophical about the whole thing.

“They paid me for the movie, so they own the movie. It's like if you made this chair and I buy it from you. You want me to sit on the chair, and I want to put it in my fireplace. What are you gonna do?" He grins. "Time to go off and make another chair."


This article appears to be the most recent take on where things stand.

This interview of Schrader is very interesting reading.

Money: adding Schrader’s $35mil to Harlin’s $55mil, it needs to make $90mil to break even, not counting costs of publicity (probably another $15 - $20 mil). Last year, the most successful horror films were budgeted at around Schrader’s flick, and made a very respectable $60 - $70mil at the US box office to make a healthy profit (and they didn’t have to contend with the kind of poisonous word of mouth that’s already started in fan circles of the treatment of Schrader). My guess - the Exorcist prequel will be desperately relying on overseas and DVD sales to get anywhere near breaking even.


Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Exorcising the beast
Part One: The original 1973 Exorcist.

(coming tomorrow: my thoughts on the upcoming Exorcist “prequel”)

Why is The Exorcist still so highly regarded? The film was a smash hit, and is loved by critics and horror enthusiasts to this day. But this success was far from a foregone conclusion. It’s hard to look at the story elements and think – ‘box office potential’. The premise, for those with shorter term memories, is as follows. A young girl (Regan) exhibits certain types of odd behaviour. Her parents call around for experts, both medical and spiritual. As Regan’s behaviour becomes more bizarre and violent, those around her start to believe that she is possessed by the/a devil. Cue exorcism.

There are so many ways this film could have failed. The film relies heavily on symbols, rites and religious mysticism relating to Christianity, and requires the audience to find these powerful on some level. How scary or relevant is it to a post-Christian audience? – once you stop believing in God or the power of priests, does the film lose its impact? Second, once the film has made the ‘revelation’ that the girl is possessed, you know for sure that’s it’s a devil and no delusion or insanity. Isn’t that less interesting, more ridiculous? Finally, the evil thing / innocent child dichotomy is hardly new. Maybe the revelation is still a bit jarring, but can we really still be shocked by a child gone bad in cinema?

For my money, despite these potential problems, the film succeeds on all counts and is intensely unsettling throughout. The major props for this have to go to the writer. For every shocking thing I could think of that a devil inhabiting a young girl might do, the film comes up with ten more, in quick succession. Regan’s entire demeanor in this film is not just unpredictable, it’s inhuman. Explanations for what happens in the film are few. You see a collection of symptoms, you see the adults trying to cope with it, rationalise it. In the end, the film has a kind of primal logic which leads up to its conclusion. In any other genre or film, you’d be laughing. But in this one, you just sit there aghast, nod, and think – ‘yeah, that’s what they have to do.’

Even more interesting is the second interwoven narrative thread – the priest is fighting his own personal demons. The choices he makes are all clearly motivated by very personal feelings of guilt and responsibility. The film does not fill in all the blanks for the audience, all we have is an emotional connection. We don’t understand why he feels the way he does – but understanding something of his motivations, we understand his actions. This not only makes him three dimensional, it makes him compelling, because we never know as much of his story as we’d like.

The film also engages (or wrestles?) with female sexuality. There's no question that many of Regan’s taunts to the priests are sexualised. It’s disturbing because it’s a young girl, and there’s also a general revulsion/fascination about sex - female sexual organs, prepubuscents, the works - being played with at the subconscious level. The 'innocent' girl seeming sexually aware provoking Catholic priests as part of the works of the devil? don't tell me there's nothing going on here. It's quite similar to the way that the aliens of the Alien films clearly express discomfort / fear with motherhood or childbirth. (In my view the original Alien does this consciously whilst Exorcist isn't intentionally exploring this theme – but the results are still just as fascinating).

There are jarring scares – which are still very effective, more than twenty five years later – but the freakiest parts aren’t sudden ‘boo!’ style shocks – although there’s quite a few of those. The scares happen slowly, and awfully, building as your mind starts to grasp what’s going on. The film also engages with the deeper intellectual and theological implications. What kind of god allows this in the world? How do you save a soul? If we accept the presence of demons, how can we divide the psychological from the supernatural?

Anyway, I buy it. Hands down, greatest horror film ever made.

Father Karras
Why this girl? It makes no sense?

Father Merrin
I think the point is to make us despair... To see ourselves as... animal and ugly. To reject the possibility that God could love us.


The film's 'smash hit' status: when you adjust ticket prices for inflation, The Exorcist ranks as the ninth highest grossing film ever at the US domestic box office, ahead of The Empire Strikes Back, Ben Hur, Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The Exorcist acted out by bunnies.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Dear Stephen . . .
A film review of Van Helsing disguised as a (patronising) letter to Stephen Sommers

Dear Mr Sommers,

I know a lot of people hate you. That must hurt. It must hurt right up until you realise that you have the opiate of the masses – your coffers are full, your opening weekends replete with riches. And you are a director with a really, really big budget who likes blowing things up.

You blow up a lot of things in Van Helsing – a windmill, a carriage, a house or two, a castle, a house again, another castle. So it goes. You are, it seems, very good with things that explode, and you manage to do this even though we’re in medieval times and no one’s running on petrol. That’s quite an achievement, and I salute you for it.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way. The black and white stylised homage / opening scene is fantastic. Worth admission price for that alone. The next sequence? also great.

The rest of the film after this point? Well Stephen. Let me run you through a few issues.

1. Admit it: when you wrote this film, you had in mind a series of individual scenes that would Look Really Cool. Carriage chase! Werewolf fight! These moments are well paced, well executed, and are freaking good. Then, there’s the rest of the film. A banal plot which links together the set pieces. Van Helsing is not a film. It’s a highlights episode with filler.

2. Your scriptwriting is amazingly repetitive. Dracula tries to use electricity siphoned from brains (brains!) to raise his undead army of children . . . twice. Said undead army is raised . . . twice. Big fight with werewolf ends with werewolf in a moat . . . twice. Van Helsing fights Dracula . . . twice. They’ve gotta fight someone who’s turned into a werewolf but trying to hang onto their own nature for the forces of good . . . twice. I think the reason you did this was so that in the test run, the audience would learn the rules about Midget Vampires or How Werewolves Act, or What’s With The Brains – so that when it happens the second (more important) time, we’ve got all the information we need to run with it. But Stephen, I’ve got news for you. Good films don’t do this. Good films have events that only happen once, that the audience manages to digest. Do you know why? Because good films don’t have such ridiculously convoluted evil plans that need a trial run just so the audience Gets It. (See also: Pirates of the Carribbean).

3. There’s no reason to care about what happens to Van Helsing, the man. He’s tough. He’s taciturn. He’s broody. He doesn’t remember his past. He’s a brilliant fighter. He’s a cipher. Sure, absolutely. But why should we care if he dies? I guess he’s less bad than the bad guys, but the film doesn’t really give us a character arc, or a redemption arc, or a self-discovery thing, or any angle where we could think it matters. You’re expected to side with him because the narrative does, because he’s Hugh Jackman, and he’s meant to be the hero. When in fact, I think I liked Dracula more than Van Helsing. (Damn that sinister attraction!)

4. There are frequent moments where characters make leaps of logic for no real reason. Characters pass on important bits of information at times of crisis. Very useful, seeing as the Clock is Ticking and There Isn’t Much Time. The approach to problem solving by the forces of good seems to be just hang five, because as soon as the pressure’s on, someone will just come up with the solution, requiring no real effort on the part of the characters. If only submitting my essays at university worked like this.

5. For a film which has Dracula and the Wolfman and (Frankenstein’s) Monster, it was way, way, way too serious. This film had B-film glory written all over it. Kate Beckinsale spends the entire film in flowing locks with a corset covered with handy scabbards for various throwing weapons, with the name ‘Anna Valorious’. And we’re not – not once – meant to laugh at her or find her slightly ridiculous. Nor is there anyone in the film who gets to snicker, just a little, even when delivering lines like: “Nothing goes faster than Transylvanian horses. Not even a werewolf.”

6. You made David Wenham look ugly.

7. Don’t mess with the classics! The Monster is not called Frankenstein. Van Helsing’s name is Abraham. Vampires can’t go into houses unless they’re invited. Sure, I got a bit confused as to whether that last rule was broken (are you passing over the threshold uninvited if you get thrown through a wall?) But you want to play with the monsters Stephen? You got to treat them right.

Overall, I'm not complaining. This film mostly delivers on what it says it's going to be (ie: nonstop action thrillride). But Stephen, what makes me sad, is that the first ten minutes are just so very good. Next time, your whole film should be like that. You can still blow things up, but you should aim higher. Then blow them up.

Yours very sincerely,



Friday, May 07, 2004

So this isn't about film, exactly . . .

. . . but I've been ranting with Beth, over here. Warning: references to Miranda Devine.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

My favourite scene from a horror movie
A short homage to Ridley Scott's Alien

Horror movies have such predictable ways of raising blood pressure. Stock standards include raising tension is raised through use of ‘monster cam’ – long tracking shots where you realise the camera is the point of view of the killer. Another is false alarms. The door slams! it’s just a neighbour. Something falls over! it’s just a cat. The floor creaks! The teenager decides that because the last two were fake outs, they shouldn’t get that worried. But it’s the killer! Stabbed through the eyeball, the teenager realises that the ‘boy who cried wolf’ approach to false alarms is a terrible idea when you’re in a horror film.

Anyway, my favourite scene ever from a horror film is like nothing I’ve seen before or since. It happens in the original Alien, a film full of great moments. The alien has burst out of Kane’s stomach and skittered away. The rest of the crew decides they should track it down using the movement scanners. But they realise that the Jonesy the cat is out, and will waste their time if it keeps showing up on the scanner. Realise that at this point, the crew thinks they’re dealing with something small. Sure it burst out of someone’s stomach, it’s weird and nasty, and they don’t want it around; but it’s only about thirty centimetres high, right? This is pest control rather than self-defence.

So Brett goes off on his own to find the cat. I’d love to know the length of the next couple of minutes of footage. It feels like forever. Brett walks around a series of interiors. It’s an old spaceship, it looks run down, like a series of warehouses in disrepair. Jonesy! he calls quietly a few times. There’s no music to give you a cue. No pace. No rising crescendo. No false alarms. The director does so little, and yet you're on the edge of your seat far more than you would be if you'd been given abundant cues that death is nigh.

Brett eventually gets to a room with a really high ceiling. The ceiling is kind of open, there’s water falling through the gap. We hear the sound it makes as it hits him on the cap he’s wearing, it feels really loud which makes you realise how quiet this whole scene is. He takes off his cap, holds his face up to the stream, and rubs it across his face and eyes. There are chains hanging up in the background, we hear them clinking softly.

You don’t even realise you’re seeing the alien still it starts to move. You can’t even see it properly, it’s just a movement you see over Brett’s shoulder, like a hand unclenching. Something is preparing. Something has moved to strike. It’s big. It has parts you can’t identify as arms or legs – tentacles? spines? – you’re not sure, and that somehow makes it worse.

Brett hears or senses something. He turns around. End scene.

John Hurt’s stomach busting moment earlier in the film is probably THE scene of this film, but the 'alien birth' scene has aged, and kind of results in revolted giggles every time I’ve seen this film lately. There are many other scenes in horror movies that are memorable – the two little girls in The Shining, That Scene from the Japanese Ring, half a dozen moments from The Exorcist. But this extended, almost leisurely scene is remarkable. The sound of the chains. The drip of the water on the thick material visor of the cap. And that dark fist, unfurling.


Monday, May 03, 2004

Don't talk to me about Quentin Tarantino right now
or, wallowing in self-pity


I mean, whatever. He has time for a guest appearance on American Idol, but not to be interviewed in the Opera House by Margaret Pomeranz? Priorities, Quentin. I was relatively disappointed by Kill Bill Vol 2, although I want to see it again before I come up with any major criticisms. But now? I think I'm going to be looking for shit I didn't like.

I also had tickets to the Melbourne Radiohead gig that was cancelled. And no, I'm not talking about that either.

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