The Liminal Case of Monster Movies

As I review my library for films to view during my Halloween Horror festival the issue of categorization moves to the front of my thoughts. Horror is a slippery thing to define and precisely what counts as a horror movie varies from person to person. Is The Silence of the Lambs the first horror film to win Best Picture, or was it a thriller? More to the point of my personal film festival is the classification of the sub-genre of horror, the monster movie.

There is no doubt that some monster movies are also horror movies; Frankenstein in most of it variations is a horror movie, Alien is an SF, Horror, and a monster movie that spawned an entire cycle of imitators. I think the original Godzilla/Gojira is a horror film the enormous monster a stand in for the horrors of war and atomic weaponry. However not all monster movies are horror films.

If we examine the Godzilla franchise it is clear that to me that at some point it stopped attempting to horrify and instead sough to thrill instead. Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster does not seek the make the viewer feel dread from the monster’s impending but excites the audience with a massive battle of giant monsters while making just enough commentary about pollution to have some social relevance.

I think that horror is always personal and by that I do not mean that it is merely individual taste but also that the subject of the dread and terror is experienced on a level that is subjective and intimate. In Gojira there are plenty of scenes where we are masterfully introduced to minor characters that are sketched quickly and competently so we empathize with them as they face the unimaginable horror of a giant radioactive monster. This gives us the horror of the movie and not the man wearing a rubber suit stomping a miniature city.

 

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Halloween Horror Film #6 Coherence

Sunday afternoon my sweetie-wife and I went out for a San Diego Film Geeks presentation of the 1972 Italian crime movie What Have You Done to Solange? That was enjoyable and salacious but it left me wanting a shorter movie for my later night Sunday Night Movies feature. Most of the shorter horror films in my library are of the classic Universal period and were ones I have watched recently but I wanted something newer. Browsing the selection on Shudder I stumbled about this low-budget SF/thriller Coherence. Decent rotten tomatoes score (88%) and it looked interesting

Coherence is the story of a dinner party, the friends collected for the evening all have tensions pulling at them but seem gamely dedicated to having a good time. Strange events being occurring, cell phones shattering in their hands, power-outages and more, as a comet is passing overhead. When they notice that there is one house that seems to have power and lights while the entire neighborhood is blacked-out, pair of the men venture to it in hopes of contacting relatives. This is when the SF aspect takes over and this film becomes the stuff of a Twilight Zone episode. That perhaps is the best point of reference for this movie, as being very low budget (IMDB reports $50,000) this story is driven by the characters and not special effect or cinematography. Frankly I was surprised by the quality of the story. This movie worked very well and I am not going to discuss its details because this is one best watched, like hobbits returned to Isengard, unspoiled.

There are two flaws that bothered me in the movie. First off, I understand the need to keep the camera work simple, but the focus going in and out from an ‘auto-focus’ mirroring effect became quite annoying, and secondly a comet is terrible explanation for the events. Comets are nothing more than dirty snowballs in space. With just five minutes though I devised a better rationale that would have changed nothing in the actual production.

Those flaws aside, Coherence, was a good film, taunt and tense, with properly dark turns. If you have access to the streaming site Shudder, give it a view.

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Halloween Horror Movie #5: The Thing from Another World

Saturday night a friend, who gets into the season as I do, after our early evening games and funs, watched The Thing from Another World (1951) TTFAW and often referred to as simply The Thing, though that can lead to confusion with John Carpenter’s excellent remake 1982’s The Thing.

TTFAWE is a true classic of the SF/Horror genre. An Air force supply plane is sent to a remote artic base that has made an incredible discovery, a crashed flying saucer. An attempt to salvage the spacecraft goes awry but the team is able to recover an alien corpse for study. Naturally the course turns out to be seriously less dead than expected. Complicating matters a sudden and severe artic storm not only cuts all radio communication but also with the artic temperatures even lower, traps the team inside the base’s shelters. What follows is a game of hunted and hunter with both side trading off in those roles. Armed with a Geiger counter the human have limited ability to track or sense the alien threat. The atmospheric and plot similarities to Alien (1979) are unmistakable but that is not to say that Alien is a mere copy, rather this is the idea expressed decades apart by very different filmmakers and very different cultural contexts. To the best of my knowledge this movie also sports the first full-body burn stunt. That had to make audience jumped back in 1951.

In 1982 when John Carpenter released his remake the world had changed so much that the heroic vision of both scientists and military men had degraded so far that the new story became drenched in cynicism. Again that is not in itself a bad thing; it reelects the mood of the culture that birthed the remake. I own copies of both movies and enjoy both. It is fascinating to watch them as distorted mirrors of the times and the people.

TTFAW is a movie I simply do not watch enough and this weekend’s rematch brought back all my happy feels for such a well-crafted film.

 

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Halloween Horror Movie # 4

I remember seeing this film on its original theatrical run back in 1981. In those days I was still a sailor in the United States Navy and was fairly new to San Diego. Downtown, which was much grittier back in those days, held a number of run down grind-house movie theaters and one was the Balboa. (The Balboa is still there, though now it has been renovated into a nice venue and this month I will be there to see Eddie Izzard live.) I do not recall ever seeing a preview for this film, but the poster with the declaration ‘from the creator Alien” seduced me into the theater.

Dead & Buried is a curious horror film. Produced after Alien and Halloween it has both a creepy atmospheric style coupled with explicit gruesome on-screen ‘kills.’ In addition to two elements it also has a very 70s sensibility presented in a drenched in paranoia and coated in cynicism. It even ends the film on a freeze-frame, a device that was very popular in the cinema of the 70s but along with split framing, very quickly fell out of favor in the glassy fast paced 80s.

The story is about a small town cop, Dan Gillis, whose has returned to his home town of Potter’s Bluff along with his wife Janet. Tourists and other people just passing through the coastal Rhode Island community are waylaid by the locals and brutally murdered. During the horrific acts of violence the townsfolk display no emotion and record everything with still and motion photography. With corpses piling up and vanishing Dan quickly finds himself working a mystery that soon extends beyond the natural as people reports seeing the murder victims now walking around the Potters Bluff. Increasingly Dan suspects that his wife is involved and with the assistance of Dobbs, the town’s undertaker and coroner, he attempts to discover the horrific truth behind the small scenic town.

I really like Dead & Buried. The film has only a few jump scares relying principally upon tone, mystery, and the brutal attacks to create it sense of dread. (Though it must be said that the first jump scare is one of cinema’s best and I shall not spoil it by describing it to you. If you have seen you know exactly what I am referring to and if you have not you are in for a startle.) The films was a modest budgeted affair but boasted talent, among the actors you have James Farention as Dan Gillis, Jack Albertson as the quirky undertaker Dobbs, and a pre-Nightmare on Elm Street Robert England in a small supporting role. Behind the scenes you have Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon, the authors of Alien, writing the screenplay, and legendary effects wizard Stan Winston producing the make-up and special effects.

Not a movie for everyone, particularly if on-screen violence and murders much like a slasher film is not for you, Dead & Buried is an underappreciated horror movie that straddles the interest cinema of the 70s and the 80s.

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The Limits of The Enlightenment

Our modern world is a marvel. By any measure of the ancient world we live lives that are simply miraculous. Our social structures, our technological triumphs, our incredible knowledge are built upon the foundations laid by the Enlightenment. With that revolution in thought we, for the most part, abandoned a world view dominated supernatural forces and acted the truth that the universe was governed by rationality and could be understood through reason alone.

The base assumption is that not only can causes be understood but that everything has a causal force. For the natural sciences this has been a tremendously successful assumption but it begins to break down when applied to the fairly fuzzy field of human action.

This need for causality was applied to the Leopold and Loeb murders, using the nature of the their backgrounds and lifestyles to explain but not excuse their murder of the 14 year old boy Robert Franks. Charles Darrow’s explanation for their hideous deed is often seen as the reason that they were not sentenced to death and the start of the processes where we search for why someone does the evil that they do.

I will admit that there is often a causal link between a person’s environment and their nature. It is noted that no known serial killer has ever come from a functional extended family and all suffered forms of abuse when they were younger. So there is a great deal of truth to Hannibal Lector’s line that Billy was not born a monster but made one by years of systematic abuse.

And yet we look at Paddock, the man who with greater care and planning than Leopold and Loeb, strafed a crowd of strangers and we can find no cause. Desperately we need a cause. we need a reason, even one cloaked in the vague generalization ‘insane,’ but we can’t seem to find it. So far nothing in his life comes within light-years of explaining such a monstrous and cowardly action. He was rich, he was successful, he lived a life of leisure, he apparently wanted for nothing except the blood of his fellow human beings. What can possibly explain that?

Have we reached the limits of The Enlightenment? Are we forced back to a supernatural assumption.

In our rational world is there room for evil?

Or will find a brain tumor like with Charles Whitman and call that the cause?

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The Physics of Prose

An intuitive sense I get from writing is that prose possesses both inertia and momentum. When a project is conceived, even with a well defined and through outline I have hesitancy in actually starting the piece. Applying butt to chair and fingers to keyboard is always work it seems that the barriers at the start are high and steeper than later in the creation process.

Mind you this applies not just to the me getting started but also to the speed of the writing itself. Particularly with large works like novels at the start the words and scene do not come easily. It is as if the project is large, heavy, and I am trying to push it up a hill. As I get deeper into a project the words come faster and inertia seems to lessen, though it never goes away entirely.

The idea that writing has momentum is related but slightly different. In physics momentum has a vector, that is momentum describe both how much (usually velocity) something is moving and in which direction. Something with a large amount of momentum can be light but moving very fast or very large and moving slowly. Momentum measures how ‘resistant’ a moving object is to changing that vector.

When I near the start of a story for which I have an outline I will refer to that outline often the outline gives me the direction that the story needs to travel. But as I get deeper and deeper into the story I check the outline less and less. At this point the story is moving in its direction, the vector has been set and it fights a change in that. I find it fascinating that the shape of the story tends to confirm with what I laid out in the outline but now instead of checking that document for the next scene that outlines scene simply falls into place organically.

In the end I land where I had predicted, the story wraps up the way I expected and then I have start the process all over again for the next tale.

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Thoughts of Prohibition

Now, I do not mean specifically the 18th amendment and the USA’s disastrous experiment with alcohol prohibition, though that does factor into my thoughts. I want to expound on the nature of prohibiting the possession of items through the power of the state. Naturally that would encompass the events around the 18th amendment but the discussion is not restricted to just that terrible idea.

In general society engaged in prohibition when the misuse of an item or substance appears to carry such a heavy communal cost that the state bans the ownership in an attempt to curtail those societal burdens. This was the case with alcohol; the rampant drunkenness throughout the country empowered the temperance movement. It is also the argument, not persuasive in my book, on other drugs and of course on firearms.

Prohibitions perpetual problem is that by its nature it is trying to prevent an occurrence rather than render judgment for one that has already taken place. That means it must ensnare individuals who were never going to incur a societal cost in hopes of preventing those who may. People who drank responsibly and in moderation were equally impacted by the 18th amendment as the drunkards who squandered wages and impoverished families.

Think about it this way; you have two people, John and Bill. John will miss use a particular item or substance but Bill will not. Before you enact prohibition you can only bring the legal system to bear on john after he has inflected his damage, whatever that might be, and as you can never undo the damage, there will always be a cost.

After enacting prohibition you can now bring the legal system down upon John before he does his damage, but you also bring it down upon Bill who has never caused harm and would not have. Bill must face fines, courts, and imprisonment solely because John may present a danger at a later date. Or Bill must surrender his interest in the item or substance simply because John cannot be responsible.

Bill is a real cost created by prohibition. The cost of enforcing it against both is real, the cost to the people ensnared in the legal system is real, and cost to society, particularly if the prohibition, like the one against alcohol or drugs, is routinely flaunted by the populace, is real. This isn’t even the practical enforcement of a prohibition. With the coming revolution of 3D printing soon prohibition will also have to entail forbidding even the knowledge, i.e. the computer files, for making the banned item or substance.

When you advocate for prohibitions think not only about John and the damages he cause, but also about the Bills and ask yourself if it is worth sending him to prison over this?

It might be, the answer is by far not always no, but that is a very real consequence and one too often ignored when people say ‘there ought to be a law.’

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The Weekend’s Rampage

I will not call it a tragedy for that removes the sense of an actor with agency that performed this senseless murdering. I also will not go deep into the gun control debate, on that front both sides present few minds left to persuade. There is one prediction I will make, but without a time line, and that is unless things change the forces of gun control will eventually have their way. To me the logic is simple and inevitable, people, mainly men, will keep doing this, people will keep dying, and only one party in our two party system will keep advancing a solution. Eventually that solution, regardless of its efficacy, will be implemented. The conservative offers nothing to prevent such murders except platitudes and resistance to change, that is a holding action and given a limitless number of incidents it is a holding action that must fail. Lots of people will be murdered and I doubt that the GOP will ever break out of their siege tactics.

One thing I do want to address is the charge that is being thrown about that the NRA has bought the GOP politicians and that ‘follow the money’ explains their lack of action. This gets the cause and effect back to front. The NRA gives these politicians money because they already support the sort of things the NRA wants.

To put it in counter example; how much money would it take to get Diane Feinstein to vote the NRA way? Or how much to get Elizabeth Warren to push legislation in favor of big business and banks? You can’t buy those votes; it would destroy the politicians’ credibility with their constituents and their conscience.

The charge that the politicians are bought on a subject so emotional and so important to their voters is really just a charge that the politicians are bad people and your politicians are noble following principals over lucre. By the way that works perfectly in reverse as well, the conservative change that the Democratic Party is own by the trail lawyers is a way to avoiding the idea that the Liberals might be in favor of civil actions as a manner equalizing the power between individuals and corporations. The Democrats are ‘bought’ by the trial lawyer and the Republicans aren’t ‘bought’ by the NRA, both are political actors serving the interests, however much you may not agree with those interests, of their constituents.

The de-legitimization of the opposition is virus killing our democracy.

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Halloween Horror Film #3

Sunday night movies, keeping in line with my plan for nothing but horror films between now and Halloween, was the Swedish ghost story Alena.

I was fortunate enough to see this movie at 2016’s Horrible Imaginings Film Festival where it struck me as one of the best movies in a festival filled with fantastic films. It was also at the Festival where I learned about the streaming service Shudder, which is dedicated to Horror cinema and has a better selection for that genre than any other streaming site. I had not seen Alena in the time between last year’s festival and this weekend and I had a few concerns that perhaps it was not as well made as my memory insisted.

Those concerns were misplaced.

Alena is the story of a low-class girl, Alena, who following a personal tragedy transfers to an all-girl upper-class private school. Poor and a new comer Alena is quickly targeted for bullying by leader of the in clique, Fillipa, while also picking a new friend and potential romantic entanglement with Fabienne. Complicating matters is a friend from the wrong side of the tracks, Josefin who acts as Alena’s personal protector and confidant. Things get out of hand and soon girls are being attacked and terrible tragic secrets surface.

Alena is based on a graphic move but I have not read the source material so I cannot speak to the quality as far as adaptation goes but this film is stylish and well crafted. You would do far worse for seasonal viewing. The most serious flaw in the films productions deals entirely with the foreign edition. As I mentioned the movie is from Sweden and it is presented in Swedish with English subtitles. However, whoever performed the subtitling was not fully fluent in English. There are word choices and grammar constructions what come of at the very least as clunky and in some cases are simply wrong. Do not let the occasional translator failing distract you from this terrific movie.

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Literary Saboteur

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