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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Halloween Movies 1 & 2

So in the spirit of the season I plan to watch a lot of horror film between not and Halloween culminating in a big screen presentation of the 4K restored Night of the Living Dead supervised by George Romero before he passed away,

Saturday I watched two horror films.

First The Norliss Tapes:

This was a made for TV movie from 1973. A published is concerned with one of his authors, Norliss, who had been investigation and debunking the supernatural goes missing. At the author’s home he finds a series of tapes and the film to the story recorded on those audiocassettes.

Written by the talented William F Nolen this film just did not work for me. I will not hold Nolan too responsible, working for a network is an exercise in notes, meddling, and uncredited re-writes. This movie is about Norliss uncovering a mystery and the truth behind the story. Sadly they filmmakers never cracked the essential trouble in making a mystery, how to handled the tons of exposition. This film was 70% people telling each other things and very little dramatic conflict or narrative. I think that this project exists solely to attempt to cash in on 1972s TV movies The Night Stalker. That TYV film generated tremendous ratings spawned a sequel and a series. The Norliss Tapes, with the particular style of voice-over narration and its central monster of a reanimated corpse draining pretty women of their blood, feels like a rush copy of 72s monster success. Thankfully it was short, 72 min.

The Second movie was Split

It is a shocking twist that M. Night Shyamalan can still make really good movies. Split is the story of three teenage girls kidnapped by a man and held captive in some underground industrial center. Making their predicament worse their captive has multiple personalities and a vague unmet personality ‘The Beast’ has terrible plans for them. James McAvoy plays the kidnapper and the trio of girls is lead by Anna Taylor-Joy from The Witch and Morgan. This movie is taunt, tight, and tense. The actors play their parts well, the script works without major holes, and the direction is sure footed, building suspense and tension in scene after scene. This one is worth watching, get the blu-ray and pop it in.

 

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A New Nickname is Required

Since 1888 the Republican Party has carried the nickname ‘Grand Old Party’ often reduced down to simply GOP. I think that this affirming nickname no longer adequately describes the party as it lives and breathes today.

This week we witnessed the election of Judge Roy Moore as the GOP candidate for Senator from the state of Alabama. Moore explicitly stands for Christianism over all; he believes that in application of governance his interpretation of Christian faith supersedes constitutional law. This is not a matter of my opinion; twice he has defied federal court orders that that he felt violated ‘God’s law.’ And he has been removed from the bench for those actions and yet the majority of Republicans in Alabama have chosen him as the standard for their party. There were plenty of conservative Republicans to choose from and they were passed over for this theocrat.

Is it clear that there is nothing ‘Grand’ left in this old party but luckily we can still retain the initials GOP, as it is clear that the new nickname needs to be ‘God’s Own Party.

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Real vs. Hypothetical People

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

That quote is often attributed to Soviet dictator and mass murderer Stalin, though it should be noted that the concept vastly predates him and there is scarce documentation that he ever actually said it. Setting aside the question of attribution there is an undeniable truth to the sentiment and it has important relevance to those who craft fiction.

I would argue that the reason the one death is a tragedy and the million are emotionally neutral is not because the numbers involved make it impossible to grasp but because one person we can know, one person can be real to us while a million will always occupy that void space as hypothetical people. People we meet are more real than one we only her about second hand and crowds are less real as people than individuals. So how does this apply to fiction?

You may have a character or characters that you would like the reader or audience to have sympathy for, even if they have done utterly reprehensible things. If they have murdered or abused people you can preserve that ability for the reader to still have sympathy and empathy but keeping their victims in a hypothetical state.

Consider Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Many readers find Gollum’s condition tragic and the character himself quite pitiable even after watching him murder his own cousin for the One Ring, they still can find a great well of sympathy for the twisted, tortured character. However when Gandalf is recounting Gollum’s story to Frodo one detail he mentions slides past many a person, refusing to stick in their memory. Gollum stole infants from cribs and ate them. All is his meals exist as hypothetical babies. We never see him raid the cribs, we never see him bash out their brains as he does with his fish, and we never actually see him feeding. I think if we had there would be very few who could muster sympathy for the evil beast.

Consider also the fugitive replicants in Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Blade Runner. Their plight is one that is engineered to create sympathy. They are genetically created slaves, labor, combat, and sexual slavery being their only reason for existence and to make that life ever more tragic it is short, just four years and then death. Of course we want to feel for them when they make a break for freedom and confront the man who forced this terrible life up on in hopes of winning at least a few more years, but again we are comforted by the fact that their escape takes place off-screen and their victims are also safely hypothetical. In the briefing Deckard receives from Bryant we are told that the six ‘jumped a shuttled and killed twenty-three people.’ No more details than that but think about that, six people killed twenty-three. They will not pull that off if the 23 are armed and combatant, but they can if they are civilians on a shuttle flight. Imagine watching the scene as the six replicating slaughter the civilians, perhaps shoving some out the airlock to die of exposure to vacuum. After watching such an emotionally traumatizing scene how much harder would it have been to have sympathy for the replicants?

Let me close this out with a counter example.

For many people it was impossible to get past Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book of the Stephen R. Donaldson’s fantasy trilogy about Thomas Covenant. In the series Covenant is a man suffering leprosy who is magically transported to a fantasy setting know as The Land, and while there is disease is gone, as if he never contracted it. Overpowered by the return of his sexual ability he rapes a woman who had befriended him. (Let’s set aside the whole notion of violent rape as an act driven by sexual desire, that’s another kettle of fish.) Many readers, quite understandably, stopped reading and never returned. Why? The woman was a real character, she was someone we had met, had known, had seen her inherit goodness, and then we rode along in the head of her rapist as she was attacked. In fictional terms she was not hypothetical at all. Had the same events occurred off-screen -not possible with the single POV Donaldson employed – then I think fewer readers would have been turned away. (There are always some who will see past the ‘telling and not showing’ and be repulsed by the recounted events. I have never finished the first book in that series and never viewed Gollum as sympathetic.)

Real versus hypothetical people I think is a very important thing to consider when crafting your narrative.

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Sunday Night Movie: A Cure for Wellness

Kicking off the Halloween season with my home video habits over two nights I watched the horror film A Cure for Wellness. (Sunday night proved to be so exhausting that even though I was thoroughly into the film I simply could not muster the endurance to complete it in a single night.)

Directed by Gore Verbinski, who also brought us The Ring (US version), Wellness is about a young ambitious and morality challenged young man, Lockhart (Dane DeHann) who has been dispatched to a mysterious sanatorium in the Swiss Alps to retrieve an financial; executive because someone in the company has to take the fall and it is either the executive of Lockhart. The sanatorium is run my the smoothly menacing Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) and caters to a rich clientele that never seems to have any desire to leave this place, its amazing waters, and of course ‘The Cure.’ Lockhart becomes a prisoner/patient of the sanatorium and falls into a world of hallucinations, mystery, and body horror.

A Cure for Wellness has Verbinski’s distinctive sense of style. Unlike many who have worked in the horror genre, Verbinski understands that the most effective horror is powered by mood not by gore or a sudden jump scare. As Lockhart’s world crumbles and the mystery deepens the horror grows, bubbling up organically from strange and unsettling characters, the disturbing visual, and just the right amount of body horror. Like many a good horror story, curehas a mystery at its heart and the unwinding of those threads form the core of the plot. This is not a film build around ‘kills’ but around the omni-present threat and the terror of not understanding what is happing to you or what it all means.

Sadly, this film is flawed and flawed enough that the style and the visual ultimately are not enough to carry it across as satisfactory finish line. The story has structure problems, Lockhart escaping twice from the sanatorium is one escape too many, giving the movie a repeated beat that weakens the raising stakes. The third act’s mystery is a good one but in order to have Lockhart resolve it requires the character to have a strength of self that is not well established. The climatic fight between Lockhart and the films ultimate threat breaks what had been up until that point a very well established sense of physical realism, but during the combat falls that would break bones and leave a person unit for further resistance become mere set-backs undercutting a film that had been working.

I am glad I watched A Cure for Wellness but it will not be added to my collection and when I need horror from Verbinski I will turn to The Ring.

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Literary Saboteur

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