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Posts tagged “2008

Fright Fest: Diary of the Dead (2008)

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Where will you be when the world ends? When it comes to apocalyptic movies, the beginning has always been my favorite part. Sure, its fun to see the aftermath, what the world looks like when the dust settles, but what I find absolutely intriguing is what happens in those defining moments when normalcy if flipped on its head. This is a huge reason why I’ve always enjoyed George A. Romero’s films. Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead (arguably) are about how the world ends in the moment. Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead are films about how people are doing after-the-fact. Good movies, but they’re missing that special punch. The defining factor which begs the question: What will you do when the world ends?  Continue Reading

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Creature Features in Review: Cloverfield (2008)

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Note: The below is written based on the assumption that you’ve seen Cloverfield. If you haven’t yet, go and see Cloverfield. Or be both spoiled and confused. Your choice.

I tried to resist the obvious pun. I really did. But I can’t do it. So, with apologies…

Cloverfield is a very odd beast.

Sorry.

But it is.

I mean, on the one hand, it isn’t, at all. Giant monsters have destroyed Manhattan Island since forever, after all. Like London, New York is one of those rare cities whose ‘centre of the universe’ mentality is actually somewhat borne out by reality (Tokyo is the other one that immediately jumps to mind, and oh, look…). So, I mean, of course, the aliens and monsters are going to start there. Why wouldn’t they? It’s where, as they say, the action is.

In that regard, Cloverfield is part of a long established tradition – none more trad, arguably, in the giant creature feature genre.

Similarly, found footage? It’s rare as a horror fan you’ll go through a month without someone complaining either on your Facebook feed or in a blog post about the ubiquity of the found footage movie and it’s disastrous impact on the genre – such complaints are almost a sub-genre themselves, at this point. Ever since the not-universally-popular-but-at-least-successful-and-then-somewhat-original Blair Witch Project rattled our tents and planted in our ears 17 years ago (yes, you’re old, get over it), seems like every indie wannabe superstar has been chasing that found footage Bigfoot, trying to recreate the magic. In musical terms, it reminds me of the rap/metal explosion that followed Rage Against The Machine – people trying to combine the same mechanical elements (hip-hop singer with a metal band) without the slightest clue as to what made Rage so damn special in the first place. Gifting the world Limp Bizkit and a million behind them that were even worse. Thanks, recording industry.

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But hang on, though, because we may just have stumbled over the point, there, while getting on our self-righteous nu-metal-bashing hobbyhorse (yeah, you were up here with me, don’t deny it). Because prior to Rage, there had been both Hip Hop and Metal (obviously), and both movements were, by ‘91, well established enough to have had mainstream successes, even while remaining musical subcultures as a whole. But aside from one-off songs like Aerosmith/Run D.M.C’s Walk This Way, nobody had thought to combine the elements – and certainly not in a fully functioning band unit, where neither style held obvious supremacy.

So, to finally get on topic, found footage movies weren’t unusual. Neither were giant creature features.

But a found footage giant creature feature?

That’s new.

And we might as well get this out of the way; one of the principle reasons it’s new is because it’s also an insane idea. If you’re making a giant creature feature in 2008 and wreaking Manhattan in the process, you’re doing it largely with CGI. However, if you’re making a found footage movie, especially with an in-fiction non-professional camera operator (as you are in Cloverfield) then you’re talking strictly handheld.

And to be fair, for your indie horror filmmaker, that’s an enormous plus, for the obvious reason that it’s dirt cheap. Slap cheap digital cameras into the hands of your actors, and then let loose the mayhem, and hilarity and awards ensue, right? And all the auto-focus fails, and blurry shots of the maybe-thing-maybe-person stalking or whatever, that all just adds to the atmosphere, right?

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Except, now, with Cloverfield, your shaky-cam is filming a skyscraper exploding, or your shutter speed is blurring the head of the Statue Of Liberty as it bounces down the street, or the autofocus is failing to decide which piece of the 200-foot monster to focus on.

And, of course, none of those things actually exist, outside of some computer whizzes laptop.

.That is what, frankly, blows my mind about Cloverfield, and why I wanted to write about it.

Because I do sometimes find myself wondering (outside of the total movie geek circles I am proud to inhabit) how many people really understand just what a staggering achievement this movie represents. I wonder if the average movie goer, benumbed as they must be by massive digital spectacles, fully appreciates how complex, how difficult, and how special Cloverfield is, in terms of what it achieves. How tough it is to integrate digital effects with handheld footage in such a way that the unreal appears so naturalistic that the only reason you know the creature isn’t really there is because it would be impossible to build.

It is, in the parlance of our times, fucking awe inspiring.

Of course, director Matt Reaves pulls every trick in the book to make it work. In 1975, a malfunctioning robot shark inadvertently forced Spielberg to the genius realisation that having the monster mostly be off camera made it WAY scarier, and while Reaves in a found footage format doesn’t have the luxury of cutting to the monster’s POV, accompanied by a John Williams score, we do see far more of the creature’s handiwork than we do the creature itself, in the scarred streets and skyline of the city. There’s also a return of the good old ground tremors from Jurassic Park, and a ton of similar tricks employed throughout to both build tension and, by happy coincidence, save money (another brilliant example is when the creature passes by the store our protagonists are cowering in – before it passes, the air outside becomes so full of brick dust and ash from a collapsing building that the monster itself is only heard and felt, not seen).

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It’s smart, savvy filmmaking, selling us on the scale and power of this thing without providing even a glimpse. Similar brilliance announces itself elsewhere in the storytelling. One of the central strengths of found footage is also its central weakness – you’re stuck with one perspective, one window on the world. This is compounded in Cloverfield by also ostensibly being unedited footage, the only cuts being when the camera operator turns the device off for some reason (during which segments we’re treated to bleed-through from the previous recording that is being overwritten – a cute device for delivering back story, albeit not one I’m convinced makes sense in a digital age – sure, a videotape would work this way, but digital files?).

Horror fans and writers will immediately grok to the appeal and strength of such an approach, but it can cause problems, not least when trying to transmit a sense of scale, or hints at a wider world response to events. There’s a superb moment where Rob, desperate to restore his mobile phone charge, runs into an electronics store that’s in the process of being looted. Our camera man follows him in, huffing and puffing (one of the funniest lines in the movie is his exclamation early on that ‘I don’t really do this running stuff!’) only to be pulled up short by the TV coverage. Via his camera pointing at the TV, we get a glimpse of how the news coverage is panning out, at least until he’s pulled away by his friends and off into the next part of the story.

Similar brilliant flourishes abound, from the camera perspective on the Brooklyn bridge as a tentacle (actually tail, we later learn) smashes into it, knocking the cameraman off his feet, to flickering or emergency lighting creating a dramatic, nightmarish strobe effect, to a brilliant sequence in the subway in which first the camera torch is employed, and later the night vision, in what is for my money one of the best jump scares of the last ten years – without cheating with some dramatic score or jump cut.

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And then there’s the creature.

The beast itself is on camera rarely – I’d bet less than five minutes of the total running time feature any glimpse of it, and most of that is exactly glimpses – a tale, an arm, and a stunning in motion underneath shot as our heroes plunge into the subway and the army engages in a fierce firefight. Even seen on the news footage or from the evacuation chopper, it’s partially obscured by buildings, or smoke, or just the trembling of the camera man. But in the closing minutes of the film, we’re finally treated to a full, uninterrupted view, and it’s just glorious – huge, organic, monstrous both in size and features, raining grotesque parasites – it really is brilliantly realized, the stuff of nightmares.

So, yeah, there’s a lot to recommend Cloverfield, and I think it’s a brilliant movie – or at least, near brilliant. There are some elements that don’t quite hang together, for me. There’s the technical stuff – I’ve already mentioned in passing how the ‘bleed-through’ of the old video footage only really makes sense in the analog age and given that mobile phone networks were disconnected across New York throughout 9/11, Rob’s suspiciously functioning mobile is, well, suspicious.

And as we’ve brought it up.. So, there’s the 9/11 thing.

Because prior to 2001, there were a lot of movies that indulged in disaster porn and specifically blowing up New York. And let’s be honest – it felt like good clean fun at the time. I vividly remember being utterly thrilled at the destruction of the Empire State Building and The White House in Independence Day when it came out – not even slightly in a ‘fuck America’ way, to be crystal clear, but in a totally generic ‘wow, big badda-BOOM!’ way.

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And I similarly vividly remember watching ID4 for the first time post-9/11. And it felt different. A lot less fun. Kind of a bummer, actually.

But, you know, historical artifact, innit? Like any seismic historical and cultural moment, there’s just a pre and post-9/11 divide in art, and you can’t judge one by the standard of the other.

Except then, there’s Cloverfield.

And it kind of explicitly plays with the imagery and atmosphere of that day. When the attacks first start, and all people can see is explosions, one of the voices at the party says ‘Is it another attack?’. The police evacuating people in the street, clearly well drilled in massive disaster response. The moment I talked about earlier, with the group hiding out in the store as the smoke and dust rolls past – that could almost be footage from the day.

Now, I’m pretty much a free speech absolutist, to be clear. This isn’t about what people should or shouldn’t be allowed to say or write or film. At the end of the day, the same rights that protect your right (hypothetically speaking) to be a racist fuckhole are the rights that protect me calling you out on your racist fuckhollery and telling others about it. That’s how it works, and, IMO, the only way it CAN work. Social change powers political change, not the other way around. So be the change you want to see in the world and all that.

So I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t make a piece of popcorn entertainment in 2008 that evokes the imagery of 9/11. Of course, you can. Equally, though, as Dr. Malcolm might say, it might be worth thinking about whether or not you should.

Not just because 9/11 was an event of global trauma, the repercussions of which are still shaping lives and getting people killed – though it is. But because… well, look – you can make a movie like World Trade Centre, which is a pretty straight telling of the events of the day. That’s one thing. But to take imagery and iconography from the day and chuck them into your, let’s face it, popcorn monster movie… well, it is, at least, a little uncomfortable, and at worst smacks of being tasteless, even exploitative.

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Again, to be clear, I’m not saying the movie shouldn’t have been made, or anything like that. And I can even sympathize with the filmmakers in some ways – with the found footage vibe, it’s all about verisimilitude, after all. And damn, now we’ve got real footage of what a demolished Manhattan skyline looks like at street level – how could you not use that information?  At the same time, as much as I like Cloverfield (and I do, a great deal) this aspect of the film always leaves me feeling a little queasy.

And you know what, that’s okay. It’s okay – healthy, even – to have ambiguous or conflicted reactions to art. It’s okay to like or even love a movie (or album, or book) even as it’s flawed make you sad, or angry, or uneasy. To climb back on the free speech soapbox one more time, that’s almost the point. Conversation, discussion, argument – that’s how we improve our understanding, refine our opinions, and yes, sometimes, learn something new that changes how we see the world or a facet of it.

Cloverfield is a very good movie, that for me edges on greatness (and in a technical sense, it is unambiguously great, I think). Far from flawless (aside from the above, the plot that drives the characters is as hack and obvious as it’s possible to be, and the actors, while solid, don’t quite manage to elevate that into something more), but the things it does well it does SO damn well that, especially first time through, it’s a total thrill ride of a movie, a classic popcorn rollercoaster.

And yeah, it’s a brilliant giant creature feature. Maybe even the best post-2000 one, what with the intelligent and expertly realized use of the found footage format and a brand new monster that looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

And if parts of it make me uncomfortable… well, how bad is that, in the final analysis?

After all, beats the shit out of being boring.

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Kit Power is no stranger to Machine Mean. He was reviewed for us both The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and the forever classic Monster Mash Pinball Game. And participated during Fright Fest with a review on Parents. Mr. Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary. In his secret alter ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as the frontman (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo. He is the published author of such works as,GodBomb!, Lifeline, and has contributed to numerous anthologies, including The Black Room Manuscripts, Widowmakers, and upcoming Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers. You can read Kit’s review of Bride here.

You can get Breaking Point, Kit Power’s newest release, for $2.99 on Amazon!

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BREAKING POINT – THE LIFELINE TRILOGY

A Cyclist is knocked unconscious on his way home and wakes up in a nightmare…
A devoted husband begins to suspect all is not well with his marriage…
A desperate family man, running out of time and options, turns to an old schoolmate from the wrong side of the tracks – looking for work – any work…
A young man’s world is thrown into chaos as his father is abducted…
Four tales of people pushed to BREAKING POINT.

For ‘The Loving Husband’ – “Gripping, compelling and utterly nerve-wracking.” – DLS Reviews.

For ‘Lifeline’ – “More savage than Rottweiler on meths with its nads caught in barbed wire.” – zombiekebab, Amazon reviewer.

“One of the best novellas I’ve had the pleasure to read.” – Duncan Ralston – Author of Salvage.

“a sliver of sheer brutality and nastiness that is unbridled.” John Boden, author of DOMINOES.

“Power gets splatterpunk in a way that few do.” – Bracken MacLeod, author of Stranded and Mountain.

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FIGHT THE FUTURE: X-Files in review

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With all the hoopla going on, in anticipation of the return of Dana Skully and Fox Mulder in the 6 episode event starting up in January 2016, I though it’d be a good idea to revisit not just the television show, but also the movies. Here, I want to focus more or less on Fight the Future, the 1998 cinematic debut of the X-Files from boob-tube to movie theaters. Personally speaking, and I’m sure many of you will agree, the X-Files defined my 1990s television experience, introducing ideas in a compelling narrative about two FBI agents who couldn’t be further apart, but are yet drawn together through circumstance, all-the-while, the outside world seems to be encroaching upon them, where friends are rare and trust is precarious.

As the show airs in 1993, we are guided into the dark and deary basement office of one Fox Mulder who has been, more or less, red flagged for his strange and unorthodox methodology and theories. Fox, in his own words, believes he is “the key figure in an ongoing government charade, the plot to conceal the truth about the existence of extraterrestrials. It’s a global conspiracy, actually, with key players in the highest levels of power, that reaches down into the lives of every man, woman, and child on this planet, so, of course, no one believes me. I’m an annoyance to my superiors, a joke to my peers. They call me Spooky. Spooky Mulder, whose sister was abducted by aliens when he was just a kid and who now chases after little green men with a badge and a gun, shouting to the heavens or to anyone who will listen that the fix is in, that the sky is falling and when it hits it’s gonna be the shit-storm of all time” (Fight the Future, 1998). Dana Skully acts as his counterpart, the yin and yang so to speak, of the duo. She’s the rationalist, balancing the supernatural and keeping Mulder rooted. As Fox says regarding the relationship, “But you saved me. As difficult and frustrating as it’s been sometimes, your God-damned strict rationalism and science have saved me a thousand times over. You kept me honest. You made me a whole person. I owe you everything, and you owe me nothing. I don’t know if I want to do this alone. I don’t even know if I can” (Fight the Future, 1998). And as we can extrapolate from his tone in the 1998 movie, their relationship develops over time. Dana started out as an outside perspective, brought in by the higher-ups to report back on Agent Mulder’s case files, aka the X-Files, to basically debunk his work. But through the course of their investigations, she caught glimpses of things she (or science for that matter) could not explain. And let me say right here and now, Fight the Future and the show has some of the best scriptwriting I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching play out on screen . So, now that the players have been set up, lets talk a little about the movie and where it fits in the lexicon.

Fight the Future was released in 1998, fitting between the end of season five and six. The show aired by in 1993 with some of the more darker episodes and best creature features. With the show, we’re given a central story arc mixed with “filler” episodes, episodes which typically have nothing to do with the main story. While the main story plots are intriguing, for the X-Files, I’m more of a fan of the fillers, the go-betweens. In these episodes, you’ll find more of the scares, the darker stories intermingled in the global conspiracy ones. Some of the best in this category include: Home, Squeeze, Jose Chung’s From Outer Space, Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, The Host, Die Hand Die Verletzt, Folie à Deux, etc etc, just to name a few (and these few are some of my favorite episodes). If you have a Facebook account, you can follow the day to day episodes on the official X-Files page. They’ve also included some very unique fan made mondo posters to par with each episode. Between “filler” and “central story,” Fight the Future was part of the main story arc. Its counterpart, I want to Believe, released in 2008, was the filler equivalent to the shows, which doesn’t mean it was bad because of it, though I don’t think it found much footing with fans in 2008. Maybe they were hoping for something more to the central lexicon than a filler, but as I said before…

Looking at Fight the Future as a stand alone would be confusing, I think. To watch this movie and understand what’s going on, you’d have to be a fan of the show. Though, Carter did throw in some clues here and there. Still though, I still think if I watched Fight the Future without ever having watched the shows, I’d feel as if I was missing some insider joke. I’m a really happy they did it that way, while not leaving a newbie out of the loop entirely, the movie was made for fans of the show. Consider Serenity, the movie based on the cult-loved Firefly. They made that movie so that anyone can walk in off the street and understand everything going on. Sure, they might miss a few relationship side jokes, but overall, the movie was a restart on the show. I feel it would have been better, had they ignored the noobs and made the damn movie for the fans. Does that make sense, or am I going crazy? Sure, maybe Josh what’s his name was just trying to finish his show knowing Firefly would never return to television and the story he came up with was the best he could do…

Back to the X-Files…

Fight the Future is a fast paced movie; which is rare, to be a 2 hour movie based on a television show which airs for roughly 45 mins. From the very start, we’re drawn in to this global event, from the Ice Age opening credits to the black blood virus to team Fox and Dana working the bomb threat in Dallas, all the way to the conclusion and those sinister bestial aliens the story whips us and keeps us glued to the set. There is a small lag near the middle, but even so, there you’ll find some damn fine writing, my favorite is with Mulder at the bar, as part of the quote above with him describing himself to the bartender and why he’s drinking so much. And then there’s the moment between Skully and Fox in the hallway when Fox tells Dana how he feels and they ALMOST kiss, an adolescent teen-girl expectation, I know, but one that had been built up over time…had someone walked in on the movie at that moment without ever knowing the events in the show, it would have seemed silly. But for those in the know, the romance between the two has been a slow and methodical build up, finally realized towards the end of the show and actually acknowledged in I Want to Believe.

If you haven’t seen Fight the Future, even if you’ve never seen the show, I think its a safe bet to assume there are enough clues for you to understand what’s going on. And if you’re a long time fan and haven’t seen this movie…well, I’m not sure what to say to you… FOR SHAME!!!

My Review: 5/5