Sunday, June 20, 2010

DOCTOR WHO: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Good:
Matt Smith popping out of a big cake. Scientific fact: Matt Smith is a bazillion times better than David Tennant.

Christopher Eccleston verbally abusing a Dalek.

Tom Baker's eyeballs.

The part in "Day of the Daleks" when Jon Pertwee delivers a heinous, Captain Kirk-level back chop to a thug from the future without spilling his drink.

Patrick Troughton's facial reactions to monsters and/or foam.

William Hartnell in general. The OG (Original Gallifreyan)

The Zygons: half fetus, half octopus...ALL TERROR. Still Doctor Who's greatest monster? (Yes.)

Leela's cavegirl from the future costume.

Roger Delgado as the Master. That's a widow's peak that means business (and evil).

Doctor Who being canceled in 1989. A mercy killing if there ever was one.

The Bad:
In the mid-1980's it was decided that Doctor Who's level of resemblance to a rodeo clown was dangerously low.

The time when Doctor Who got life advice from Geoffrey the butler.

Doctor Who celebrating its triumphant return to the airwaves by stealing jokes from Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

The Doctor mawkishly manufacturing a doofy doppelganger to bone the buxom and big-lipped Billie Piper.

Timothy Dalton and his stupid power glove.

The Ugly:

Tip for aspiring writers: do the opposite of whatever this book says about plot and you'll be fine.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Achtung Zombi: 5 Undead National Socialists

After 65 years, the world is still collectively squeamish at the thought of the heart of Western Civilization committing spiritual and intellectual suicide. The Nazis still loom in our memory. Low brow media like horror movies and comic books do not shy away from poking a stick into our fear of National Socialism rising from the dead. They do it, however, with the language they know. The language of monsters. This fear (that happens to be, unfortunately, based in reality) of Nazi ideas and beliefs being figuratively undead is embodied by Nazis who are literally undead. These five ghastly goose-steppers are some of the most memorable.

(FUNF) Von Klempt from Mike Mignola's Hellboy
Mignola is not the master of the undead comic book Nazi. That title will always belong to Jack Kirby (see below) but Mignola's Hellboy is rotten with them. In a bit of historical retconning he made Rasputin, the horny pet monk of Czarina Alexandra, a Nazi collaborator and immortal wizard. There was also Kronen, a scientist who always wore gas mask, whom was turned into a badass ninja cyborg by Guillermo del Toro in the first Hellboy movie. Von Klempt makes the list because not only he was an undead disembodied Nazi head (more on that later) but also because he controlled an army of cybernetic gorillas. Poland never had a chance.

(VIER) Aqua-Nazi-zombies from Shock Waves
I was excited about watching Shock Waves. I remember the VHS box as a kid. It's about zombies who are not only Nazis (Nazbies? Zomzis?) but they live underwater. It's the Creature from the Black Lagoon + George Romero + Mein Kampf. How could this not be amazing? What a surprise when someone replaced my fresh-from-Amazon DVD of this cult classic with a chronically dull and ineptly made snoozefest. Besides being terrible, Shock Waves shows that movie zombies are scary because they're your next door neighbors. They're your family who now want to eat you. Nazis were always brainwashed villainous a-holes so Nazi zombies are not that much of a stretch from reality.

(DREI) cursed Nazis from Dead Snow
These zombies look great. The movie has some cool gore. It also has a fat guy in a Peter Jackson's Braindead t-shirt spouting clever dialogue like "This is just like Evil Dead" and other annoying nerd references. Dead Snow is too precious for its own good and it attempts to mask the fact that it is extremely derivative by being insufferably arch and referential. The zombies themselves are pretty cool though. If you want something creepy and Nordic read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or watch Mamma Mia.

(ZWEI) Adolf Hitler
I was toying with the idea of watching They Saved Hitler's Brain for this post but life is too short. All I know is that part of the movie was filmed in the early 60's and parts were filmed in the late 60's. This means that one of the leads looks like Don Draper while the other looks like a bargain basement porn star. I did watch a clip that shows a disembodied Hitler head hooked up to a machine featuring a lot of dials and switches. As an added bonus, this Hitler-machine has a handle making the Fuhrer's head completely portable. Talk about convenience!

Probably the best undead Hitler story is "He's Alive" from The Twilight Zone. Like all of Rod Serling's best scripts, its twist is almost laughably meaningful but hearfelt. The late Dennis Hopper gives one of his best early performances as a Neo-Nazi who finds out that his mysterious benefactor is Hitler's ghost.

(EINS) Three way tie: Hate Monger, The Red Skull, and Armin Zola
It's logical that the greatest creator of monster Nazis would be a Jewish World War II veteran. Jack Kirby was the master of comic book krauts. If they weren't actively deformed like the three winners, they looked like Neanderthals with monocles. The Hate Monger (the guy in the purple KKK outfit) should technically be listed under #2 since the Fantastic Four revealed that (SPOILER WARNING) he was actually Hitler with ray gun. The Red Skull (soon to be played by the suitably bulbous-headed Hugo Weaving) has cheated death on several occasions. Once he came back in a body cloned from Captain America by this guy:

Armin Zola, continuing with the theme of Nazi heads where no Nazi heads should be, downloaded his mind into a robotic body. His face is projected on a computer screen in his chest. The image of the perfect master-race living on as a bunch of malformed goons is the irony at the heart of Nazi horror. Zola and the others on this list show that even death will not interfere with the lust for lebensraum. If your original genes were Aryan it doesn't matter if you are currently a robot, a zombie, or a head in a jar.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

GO SEE SPLICE! “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

In a nut-shell....
This good:
This bad:
Splice is one of those rare contemporary horror films that is not based solely around the oh-no-it's-a-scary-surprise formula. There are no haunted houses. There are only haunted people. There is a monster but she is not a demon from the world of the Dark Ages. She has at least one three-toed foot in 2010. Yet Dren (the chimera at the heart of Splice) also speaks to something more primitive and universal than any spirit or phantom. Bioengineering could bring us a frightening world where monsters are real or it could take us into the golden age of humanity where pestilence and famine are endangered species. Splice is a little more coy about that question than most mad science movies. I would argue that the real act of bioengineering criticized by the film is the world's oldest: parenthood. This is where the film subverts a primal urge and takes movie goers to places that are uncomfortable. Serious questions about the roles of family are raised and elements of developmental psychology are dissected without slowing down the monster thriller at the film's core. Essentially Splice never forgets that it is a horror film with a ridiculous monster but it chooses to go for disturbing otherness than the "jump-out." To break it down even simpler: Splice is about something.

The inexplicable hit Paranormal Activity brought a lot of attention to itself and the horror genre. Some of it deservedly so. Most of it not. It's tricks are somewhat amusing. The film's homemade quality a welcome change from two hundred million dollar tent pole movies. It's attempts to make candles and Ouija boards and wires spooky are toothless but refreshing after a decade of CGI ectoplasm. My real issue with PA is that it's about being scared and nothing more. No characters to speak of really. No plot to speak of really. Nothing to say except "boo!"

I also have an issue with PA's monster: the demonic force tormenting the painfully uninteresting heroine. I do not find demons frightening or disturbing. Same with ghosts. I don't think about them. They're myths--relics from a time when we didn't know any better. I appreciate the craft of something like The Haunting or the religious force of The Omen or The Exorcist but they are about issues that just do not apply to the world of 2010. Ghosts aren't real and demons aren't either. Not that Miss Dren is any more realistic than a demon or ghost. The difference is that genetic engineering does in fact exist. Parenting brings with it many moral dilemmas. Splice is fantastic and unrealistic but its problems represent our world. It's the real world in an unreal movie. One day I might have to struggle with the ethical implications of a new being's moral education. I will never, however, have to worry about summoning an oogly boogly with a board game.

Splice not only demonstrates that horror does not have to be concerned solely with scariness but it also demonstrates that it can also be a good movie. The grainy night vision of Paranormal Activity is a good gimmick but aesthetically lacking. Splice is expertly filmed with atmosphere and movement. Director Natali creates compositions that rank among the most memorable in modern horror. PA's characters were non-entities performed by believable if not exactly engaging actors. Splice features three wonderful central performances. Sarah Polley is now one of the great movie mad scientists. Delphine Chanéac delivers the greatest mute monster performance since Boris Karloff.

Splice is not a perfect movie buy any stretch (for a review that gets it right read Annalee Newitz's review on io9) but it does demonstrate something often woefully ignored. Horror movies do not have to be empty. They can be about more than being afraid of the dark. Their goals can be loftier than scaring the bejesus out of an audience. They can have those goals without forgetting that people paid money to be creeped out. If you want creative, intelligent horror movies go see Splice. If you want to see some tired meaningless nonsense about the devil wait for the Eli Roth produced The Last Exorcism. If you want quality, then watch Adrien Brody do weird things with a bald, dinosaur-legged Frenchwoman.