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Creature Features in Review: Alien (1979)

By now we must have realized, this subgenre, this oddly obscure realm we call “creature features,” that blends science fiction and horror together, is fantastically intelligent as it is perspicacious, understanding the needs of the times, the questions that demand to be (not necessarily answered) dragged out into the light. Questions of ecology, science, naturalism, humanism, and even biology, questions of our own innate taxonomy. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Which ultimately brings us to the chef d’œuvre question of all humanistic endeavor, what else is out there? Today’s movie up for review on Creature Features in Review is one of those rare gems that combined thrilling storytelling and special effects and atmosphere to have the most impact in raising those eerily human questions. While the sequel, Aliens, may have been the bigger blockbuster, some of the thrills had been lost, the question had already been answered. In Aliens, we knew what was out there. In Alien, storyteller Dan O’Bannon, and director Ridley Scott, not only forced us to question our place in the cosmos but also in the cosmos of our own flesh.

Alien: You’ll Get Whatever’s Coming to You…

by William D. Prystauk

In 1979, after much print-based-hype, especially if one was a fan of science fiction and read “Starlog” on a regular basis, Ridley Scott’s ALIEN hit screens that summer. It wasn’t hard for sci-fi and horror geeks to get worked up because many publications ran some of H. R. Giger’s conceptual art, which rocked many readers. Other conceptual drawings, from the look of the Nostromo, to space suits, and even land vehicles, kept those readers intrigued about what was to come.

The late, great Dan O’Bannon penned the script from a story he developed with Ron Shusett. Written with a budget in mind, he never expected the screenplay to get A-list support from 20th Century Fox – but they were hungry. After the unexpected blockbuster success of 1977’s STAR WARS, they wanted something else in a galaxy far, far away. And as the story goes, when O’Bannon said ALIEN was “JAWS in space,” that sealed the deal (O’Callaghan).

Originally entitled STAR BEAST (thank the stars they changed it), the story features the crew of the Nostromo (Italian for “shipmate”), a barge in space hauling megatons of ore across the cosmos, who are in hibernation as they await orders from “Mother,” their onboard computer, to wake them up once they get closer to Earth. Mother picks up a supposed distress signal, and the crew’s awakened prematurely to check it out. Landing on a cold dwarf planet, three members of the seven-person team head out to find the vessel to see if they can save any souls. Instead, they return with an infected crew member, and in short order, their souls need saving.

Although Dan O’Bannon said, “I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!” the film stands as an original (Macek). Many have made comparisons to PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES and even THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, but ALIEN brought audiences many new elements they had never seen before in a science fiction horror.

Here’s why ALIEN (including material from the 1979 theatrical release and 2003’s director’s cut) is one of the greatest films of all time…

A Stellar Cast, an Out of this World Director

It’s hard to find films in any genre where every cast member is a standout. Other than David Mamet’s remarkable GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, ALIEN ranks at the top: Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, and Sigourney Weaver. (Helen Horton gave us the firm and foreboding, yet oddly seductive voice of Mother, and Bolaji Badejo, in his only film role, became Giger’s alien entity). Cartwright, Holm, Skerritt, and Stanton had been building their reputations on the small and silver screen since the fifties, Hurt and Kotto since the sixties, and after a couple of lesser roles, ALIEN proved to be Weaver’s breakout role as Lieutenant Ripley.

This acting foundation alone said much about the script’s value as well as 20th Century Fox’s commitment to the production. Some may say they were taking a chance with Scott, who only had his feature directorial debut two years before with THE DUELLISTS, but the film had received critical acclaim in short order – and all this after Scott had taken an eight-year hiatus from directing television episodes.

Galactic Feminism

If STAR WARS were one of the first science fantasy films to feature a woman who didn’t scream, hide behind a manly-man, or faint thanks to Carrie Fisher’s strong-willed and determined Princess Leia, ALIEN’s Lieutenant Ripley took the liberation to a whole new level.

Third officer Ripley and Cartwright’s Lambert are the only female team members, and they are simply a part of the crew. Lambert’s the co-pilot/navigator, and Ripley’s a communication’s officer, and the third in charge after Captain Dallas (Skerritt) and Kane (Hurt). The women are on equal terrain and respected, other than an innuendo from Parker (Kotto) because he may have been in space without a partner for too damn long.

Although Lambert may come undone in the film, this is because of her character and the traumas she’s experienced, not because she’s a woman. After all, even Parker’s waylaid by the death of his friend Brett (Stanton), and his strong exterior waivers on a couple of occasions regardless of his anger and determination.

Ripley, on the other hand, has several facets to her character: She’s logical and pragmatic, and respects command, even with her role in the officer food chain. When that rank is challenged by Ash, the science officer, she visits him in his lab for a private meeting to lay down the law. Though that turns out to be a wash, Ripley stands her ground and left nothing to the imagination. Later, when the issue of quarantine comes up again, Ripley’s passive-aggressive comment is her version of an “I told you so.” To make certain Parker and Brett are working on ship repairs, she once again walks into that crew member’s domain to make certain she’s heard and understood. When Lambert slaps Ripley for wanting to keep her, Dallas, and Kane in quarantine for 24-hours, Ripley goes to war, and Parker and Brett must break up the pair.

Even with all the hell from an attacked crew member to the whereabouts of the face-hugger, when Ripley’s freaked out, she pulls herself together in short order. When she finally takes command, instead of trying to define her role with a new idea to destroy the alien, her logic and pragmatism shine through. Since Dallas’ plan is a viable one, Ripley goes with it. However, as a leader, she’s comfortable enough to ask if there are any other suggestions. If anyone thinks this represents a lack of confidence on her part, Ripley’s quick and loud in drowning out an overly frustrated Parker, and she has no problem telling Ash that he hasn’t been doing a damn thing to help. (If she hadn’t asked Ash earlier for suggestions about capturing or killing the alien, he may not have done anything at all.)

Ultimately, Ripley has to be her own savior and to do so, she must overcome her fear of an unyielding enemy while under the strictest of deadlines, and even with that pressure and need for self-preservation she has enough humanity to try and save the Nostromo mascot, Jonesy the cat.

Atmosphere

Nothing works like isolation in a horror film. ALIEN features a small crew packed into the heart of a smaller ship, which is equivalent to a tug boat. And if that tugboat starts to capsize, there’s a small escape ship – a life raft – that can only fit three.

Even worse, the Nostromo is akin to being lost at sea. Due to the early wake up from Mother, they’re 70 million miles from the Milky Way and would have to go back to the old “freezerinos” for another ten-month sleep. There are no other ships in their part of the void. They are as alone as a group of people can get. And to add an exclamation point to the Nostromo crew’s predicament, ALIEN’s tagline says it all: “In space no one can hear you scream.”

Right from the beginning, from Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Derek Vanlint’s cinematography, as well as Ian Whittaker’s set decoration, it’s clear the Nostromo is an all work and no play environment. Seating’s cramped at the front of the ship. And everything’s cold and dark. There may be light and white in the dining and sleeping quarters, but the remainder of the ship is either cavernous, though still encroaching, and the passageways are reminiscent of catacombs. Due to the small crew and the workload, the Nostromo is far from ship-shape. The equivalent of equipment based debris seems to appear at every turn, the lighting’s questionable in spots, and the nether regions of the vessel are cold and dank.

The only time we truly have any sense of peace and hope is at the very beginning and at the very end. Before ALIEN’s story gets underway, the hibernation area is all white with a center cylinder with each crew member extending from that “stem” to form the petals of a flower that blooms once they awaken. They each wear white undergarments, and they arise as if newborns from the bassinet of a hospital’s maternity ward. And they are born anew on a journey they never saw coming.

At the end, Ripley hibernates with Jonesy. A white glow emanates from her protective pod, another womb to nurture her, and we have the sense that she will awake as a new, stronger, and virtually fearless person. To add an exclamation to Ripley’s rebirth: Upon the annihilation of the Nostromo at her own hand, she bears witness to her own “Big Bang” and recreates herself. She becomes her own mother and gives birth to her new self as both creator, destroyer, and preserver, much like the Hindu goddess, Kali Ma. Once transformed, she not only overrides her fear in strong fashion but quickly forms a solid plan to vanquish her foe.

Space Relations

The status quo continues in ALIEN. Providing a dim look of the future, the white and blue collar mix of the crew remains stuck in the doldrums of working for “the company.” Regardless of the manual Ripley tries to cling onto, Captain Dallas is quick to point out that one does what the company tells one to do. This also means the object of fairness doesn’t hold up either. Both Parker and Brett signed on, but with their contracts, especially when it comes to “the bonus situation,” the pair won’t receive full shares.

Better still to make certain the Nostromo crew checks out that distress beacon, the fine print in their contract has a “full forfeiture of shares” clause if they decide to skip the alarm and head back home. (Mother, acting like Big Brother, would undoubtedly show through report tracking that the crew never left the vessel to check for survivors.)

We understand that as the crew is screwed by their employer, most of us have similar stories where the company that gives us a check every two weeks undermined us in some way, shape, or form. And when it comes to a cafeteria, and according to Parker, the only good thing on the ship is the coffee.

Parker wants to get home and party, but as team leader, Dallas has had it. At different times, he tells both Lambert and Parker to “knock it off” because as middle management, he’s just done. As he sits in the escape ship and tries to relax to classical music, we can imagine him trying to determine how the hell he’s going to write a report about this mess. But he has nothing to fear because a mole is amongst the crew who will help fulfill a different set of obligations for the company.

By not giving “the company” a name, it can be any entity we may work for on our little blue ball. Plus, with Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, we see the trouble of putting sponsors’ names on video phones and space ships, because Pan Am and The Bell System are long gone – though Hilton could build a space station in the next century.

Due to these items, and the wearing of many hats – those mining vehicles aren’t going to move themselves – the crews’ dissatisfaction may mirror our own.

Intercosmic Dialogue

Before ALIEN, most science fiction films were built on the backs of conservative, military-like communication full of boring conversation or scientific mumbo-jumbo or stiff reporting full of salutes. Right from the beginning, we can relate to the crew as “regular people” due to the dialogue and their exchanges. They curse, they rub each other the wrong way like children – “That’s not our system,” says Ripley, and Lambert almost sings her response as if a kid who doesn’t want to be bested, “I know that” – and Parker wants to get back home, with bonus in hand, and “party.”

However, the film goes one step further to make the dialogue and exchanges ring true. When the dead facehugger falls to the lab floor, Ash asks if it came from the overhead. Traumatized by the experience in his own way, Dallas peers down at their deceased guest and says in an annoyed fashion, “It was up there somewhere.”

When four crew members remain, a stressed out and now in command Ripley lays down the plan, which is a continuation of the old one. Parker’s also stressed and angered, and says, “Let’s hear it” as Ripley tries to speak, causing her to raise her voice and yell at Parker. Anxiety and frustration take their toll:

Ripley (to Parker): …We’ll move in pairs. We’ll go step by step and cut off every bulkhead and every vent until we have it cornered, and then we’ll blow it the fuck out into space. Is that acceptable to you?

Parker: If it means killing it then it’s acceptable to me.

Ripley: Obviously it means killing it.

Having characters joke, speak over each other, and go from being ticked off to being accepting, serves as one of the best reflections of genuine dialogue and speaking patterns. This realness allows the audience to better connect with the characters due to this relatable and grounded communication. The crew may reside in the future, may live on a space vessel, but the audience knows exactly where they’re coming from.

The Universal Other

Like John Carpenter’s THE THING, ALIEN not only introduces “the Other,” the alien that must be assimilated or destroyed, but the Nostromo crew is “the Other” as well. Humans are not natural to space and the dwarf planet they land on is as alien to them as it is to the alien. Neither belong. But what Ash calls, “the perfect organism,” the creature’s as fearless as a honey badger and there’s no negotiation or assimilation. It’s kill or be killed. At no point does Parker try to sit down with the monster in a weak attempt to get the alien to help with the bonus situation.

No other monster from another planet in all the early science fiction fair has a life cycle like this one: From a leathery egg comes a spider-like facehugger that unleashes another egg through the mouth and down the throat of a host. Serving its purpose, and after the internal egg is protected and ready to hatch, the facehugger dies. Soon after, the young creature bursts from its host, killing the animal it leaves behind in the process and takes off on its own. In short order, the little monster that bleeds acid becomes a bipedal giant ready to kill, consume, and get the cycle up and running again. This means the Nostromo crew is left to fight an extraterrestrial endoparasitoid, which is an alien parasite that lives inside another creature and kills it. Wow.

Macrocosmos of Mysteries

ALIEN certainly has its mysteries. This doesn’t mean O’Bannon’s writing had flaws or that Scott overlooked things, but what follows are points to consider.

“Better break out the weapons”

Before heading outside to check on the distress beacon, Dallas uses that line before the away party suits up. Inside the Space Jockey’s vessel, Kane holds up a gun-like weapon right before the facehugger greets him with a kiss. The company supplied weapons are never mentioned again, and only primitive ones make from scratch are used. Why? Maybe the weapons were garbage, or more logically since the alien bleeds acid, which could burn through the hull, forcing it into the airlock with a flame thrower to send it into outer space is probably the best solution.

First Contact

If the company sent up a robot to protect the alien and bring it back to Earth, how did it know about the creature in the first place? Maybe another expedition came along, and unlike Kane, those miners in space suits decided not to break that layer of mist and get up close to those eggs. Then again, maybe they did. Maybe they lost a crew member (or two or three), but won in the end and made it home to give a full report. That report became the catalyst to send out another crew in that general area to unwittingly bring the creature home.

Ancient Computers

Often forgiven by fans and critics since the movie was made in pre-personal computer 1979, Mother, her special “Eyes Only” room, and the computer graphics raise questions. In 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, regardless of space flight, HAL 2000, and major technological advances, the astronauts still had to use clipboards as they sail towards Jupiter. When it comes to predicting what the hell we might have or create in a future world can prove daunting (follow the haircuts and clothing styles, as well as social interactions to help date films even more). Maybe the best reason one can use is that the Nostromo is an absolute worker bee of a ship, which means it doesn’t have state of the art anything. However, maybe as an homage to Kubrick, Scott created Mother and her room in HAL-esque style. Too bad the crew couldn’t speak to Mother, and she never even sang them a song.

The Signal

Why would Dallas and company venture out into the unknown when Mother hadn’t deciphered the beacon? If they had waited another hour or two, they would have had a better clue about what was awaiting them. The answer may be Dallas’ grumpiness, which on some level mimicked Parker’s, as well as that old favorite feeling that can bring fortune or failure: curiosity. And maybe due to their ho-hum mining drudgery, no one puts the breaks on the “rescue mission.”

“Why don’t you just freeze him?!”

Curiosity also reigns supreme when Kane and facehugger come on board. Parker says the “freeze him” line on several occasions, but Dallas and Ash take no heed or pay him no mind. The nature of discovery has taken them over.

Locked Up

How did Jonesy end up in that closed locker? Since this is the first time we see the Nostromo mascot, and Brett, Parker, and Ripley certainly didn’t expect to find him there, one of the others must have put him in there, which would have been cruel. Or, he could have been accidentally locked in when someone was working or getting some supplies by the locker.

How old are you now?

Interstellar space travel will either leave aging astronauts to die aboard ship with the next generation to take over the journey, or some sort of hibernation will exist. After returning from the dwarf planet, a ten-month journey remains for the crew. We don’t know how long they’ve been out there or how long their mining assignment has taken, but that had better be some pretty expensive or rare ore to send a crew so far out into the cosmos. Does this mean their families are in hibernation as well? If not, their spouses, partners, and children, if they have any, of course, are going to age every time they head out to gather some ore. Check out “The Long Morrow” from “The Twilight Zone” to see what will happen if you don’t get it right.

Space Rape

This thematic dynamic may not be the reason ALIEN is at the top of the science fiction horror list, but it’s quite notable. In an interview, O’Bannon made this frightening comment:

“One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex… I said ‘That’s how I’m going to attack the audience; I’m going to attack them sexually. And I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number’” (Dietle).

And O’Bannon does just that. Not only does the facehugger do the above, but the adult alien sports a phallic like head and behind its silvery, dripping teeth exists a phallic juggernaut of a secondary mouth that juts out in erect fashion to tear apart flesh and bone as it penetrates the heads of both Brett and Parker. Its phallic-esque tale rips into Lambert.

When searching for the facehugger, Ash and Dallas do so with long-lighted prods. As Ripley looks about, Ash tells her not to do so without “one of these,” and holds up his prod. Ripley doesn’t grasp one.

But the crew fights phallus with phallus from the cattle prods to give the creature “incentive,” to the pointed motion detector, to the flame throwers, and to the gun and its respective grappling hook. (Both Ripley and Lambert wield the phallic detectors – Ripley does this with ease, but Lambert has issues.)

Feminine imagery exists as well. Dallas, Kane, and Lambert enter the Space Jockey’s ship through a hole. And the Jockey has a hole in its chest, as Kane will soon have. Dallas enters the duct system with his flamethrower, and the round hatches shut him off as he enters the hollow shafts within the ship. Finally, when Ripley squares off against the creature, she uses that phallic grappling hook to propel her foe through the open hatch of her escape craft, and when the creature tries to enter through one of the open engine exhausts, Ripley turns on the afterburners and blows him away once and for all.

Celestial Conclusion

The story, acting, direction, music, dialogue, set and setting, make ALIEN a film to be reckoned with. Due to the realism of the characters, their emotions and reactions, Scott’s film transcends genre labels. In this sense, O’Bannon, Shusett, and company created a remarkable tale to capture the imagination – and fear – of any audience.

Sources
Dietle, David. “Alien: A Film Franchise Based Entirely on Rape.” Cracked. Cracked, 02 Jan 2011. Web. 06 May 2017.
Macek, J. C., III. “Deconstructing the Star Beast: How the ‘Alien’ Saga Went
Wrong.” PopMatters. PopMatters.com, 04 May 2015. Web. 06 May 2017.
O’Callaghan, Paul. “Ridley Scott: Five Essential Films.” BFI. British Film Institute, 28 Nov 2014. Web. 06 May 2017.

William D. Prystauk (aka Billy Crash) cohosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes and at http://crashpalaceproductions.com. He’s in pre-production of a dramatic science fiction feature film he’ll shoot in Seattle with his company, Crash Palace Productions. When he’s not listening to punk rock and leaving no sushi behind, he indulges in the food group better known as chocolate. Follow him on Twitter as @crashpalace, and look for him under his real name at LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, Behance, and at http://williamdprystauk.com.

You DO NOT want to miss a single episode of his award-winning podcast, The Last Knock!

 

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Creature Features in Review: King Kong (1933)

I am going to assume you’ve seen this film so spoilers will abound. If you haven’t, for the love of God, go. Go now.

Well, now. Here we are again.

Last time, it was Bride of Frankenstein (check out THAT review here). Sure, Thomas, I’ll cover Bride’, thinking quick watch through of Frankenstein and the sequel, then 1500 words, bish bash bosh, job done. Then that sinking feeling, as I realized how ludicrously good Bride was, how much I’d have to say, would want to say, just how big the world of existing essays, books and criticism must already be.

You might have thought I’d have learned something from that.

Yeah.

Apparently not.

So, King Kong. In my defense, I had seen it before, and more in my defense, it had been well over a decade. So, my memory was simply that it was bloody brilliant, absurdly good for a movie made in 1933, a cracking, action packed monster movie with some bonus pathos and what have you.

And, you know, that wasn’t wrong, per se. Watching it again for this, I was forcibly struck by how sophisticated so much of the effects work was. The combination of stop frame and huge model work, for example, is incredibly impressive, as are the moments where the stop frame interacts with filmed actors at certain points (even if with modern eyes it’s painfully clear when the actor becomes a stop frame version of themselves, there’s still a certain not-quite-sure-how-they-did-that thrill to the transitions). Kong himself is glorious, especially in mid shot, fighting a T-Rex or giant snake. The giant model face isn’t quite as expressive or mobile as the stop frame equivalent, but it’s for the most part intelligently used for short close ups and is especially brilliant when he has some poor islander or explorer being used as a chew toy.

Similarly, Skull Island is as spectacular as I remembered. Bathed in the ethereal, slightly hazy black and white glow (my DVD copy of the movie was clearly a straight lift from the film stock, preserving even the cue marks signaling the need to swap reels), the island really does feel like a visitation to The Past. The giant wall, the extensive, gorgeous hand painted backgrounds, the cunning use of rear projection to show dinosaurs and explorers on camera together and the mighty, thunderous score, all combine to brilliant effect, creating a viewing experience that is utterly captivating. King Kong is a class act all the way.

Similarly, the acting is superb throughout, with special props going to the indefatigable Fay Wray, who has the absolutely thankless task of screaming in peril from basically the 30-minute mark to the close, with little pause for breath, but who nonetheless brings incredible depth, humanity, and interiority to her character. Her acting in her first big scene, when filmmaker Denham makes his pitch, is especially brilliant, her desperation and hunger warring with common sense and fear, her vulnerability genuinely heartbreaking. It packs an extra wallop when you consider that the Great Depression was both a current and ongoing event at the time the film was made, with many young actresses no doubt facing real world choices every bit as stark as Ann Darrow’s dilemma.

That’s a layer of sophistication the movie exhibits that had completely passed me by on prior viewings, actually. I’m so used to movie depictions of The Great Depression (The Sting being the example that immediately springs to mind, a movie I love unconditionally) that the contemporaneous nature of the film passed me by. And yet King Kong is, in part, a pretty pointed social commentary on the economics of that time – how people sought to escape from the crushing misery of the day to day by visiting movie theaters and getting blissed out on Hollywood. When you think about the essential amorality of filmmaker Carl Denham in King Kong, and the ultimate fate of the theatregoers eager to see the ‘8th wonder of the world’… well, let’s just say there was a to-me entirely unexpected level of anxiety and self-criticism from Hollywood that was both pointed and kind of thrilling. I mean, I was expecting – eagerly anticipating, even – the fifty-foot gorilla going ape. A movie displaying insecurity about the role of mass entertainment in the midsts of financial upheaval and social misery? That was a welcome and crunchy surprise.

There were other surprises that were less welcome. And here, I am going to wimp out by simply observing the painfully obvious; namely, that a movie that was made in the 1930’s and that depicts an island of ‘natives’ with brown skin contains racial politics that could charitably be described as ‘problematic’. I am both acknowledging and skipping that not because I don’t think it matters, or doesn’t deserve discussion, but because minds far superior to mine have already engaged with the subject with far more knowledge and insight than I could hope to bring, and you should go to Pop Matters and READ their article, and then read Angry Bitch Blog on the subject, and then Inverse’s take,  and don’t forget this bit of commentary. All I will say here is obvious; it’s there, and it’s ugly. And if you feel a discussion of Kong that doesn’t engage with the racial politics of the movie is woefully incomplete, you’re right, and I’m sorry, but I also know when a subject is too big for me, both in terms of concepts and word counts.

I think it’s worth taking just a quick look at the Kong-as-boy thing, though.

And let’s just start by observing that Kong clearly is male. It’s not just the name – though there is that – but his performative chest-beating displays are lifted directly from the behavior of the male silverbacks he’s modeled on. And let us further observe that this fifty-foot ape is, therefore, genetically speaking, a very close relative indeed.

Again, in full awareness that I’m dislocating my hip in order to sidestep the huuuuuuuge racial implications and encoding of the giant ape falling for a white woman, having previously eaten all the brown women he was offered (because, fucking yuck, let’s not), what we have here, therefore, is a love story. A violent, inarticulate, hugely powerful male is drawn to kidnap, then preserve and protect a small, vulnerable beautiful female from a hostile world.

Now, the movie itself draws an explicit parallel here between this situation and the story of Beauty and the Beast – indeed, it makes what looks suspiciously like a post-modern joke to that effect on the boat, with Denham fully saying out loud, apparently to himself ‘Say! I’m developing a theme here!’. But the film that I found myself going back to was Bride Of Frankenstein.

Because Kong, like The Monster, is, well, a monster. Powerful. Inarticulate. Angry. Violence-prone. Strong, yet vulnerable. Lonely.

Innocent.

That’s the real kicker, for me – the factor that gives both such amazing cinematic power and resonance. The innocence. Kong is innocent. Not good, you understand: he kidnaps women, seems to enjoy a spot of mortal combat rather too much, and certainly chews people to death, even if he doesn’t eat them. Like the other Monster, his anger is swift to rise and terrible to behold.

At the same time, he’s still innocent. In Kong’s case, he’s unarguably a product of his environment. In an ecosystem as hostile and violent as Skull Island, only the most ruthless and strong can possibly survive. Kong’s aggression and violence may be terrifying, but they are also understandable necessary survival mechanisms. He may have that considerable ape intelligence, but he’s still, as we’d understand it, a ‘dumb animal’.

Like the monster, we are invited to both fear Kong, but also pity him – perhaps even love him. It’s fundamentally Not His Fault, after all – he’s taken from a place where he belongs to a world he cannot hope to understand. Again, sidestepping the imagery of the chains (not enough yuck in the world, there), we’ve got the same notion seen in ‘Bride..’ of ‘civilisation’ colliding with a more primal force.

And this is where, I think, things get fundamentally fucked up. Because Kong is a monster. He kills indiscriminately, his obsession with Ann Darrow is the worst kind of stalker/woman as object behavior, and he appears to enjoy destruction and violence for its own sake. These are monstrous behaviors. Add in the whole fifty feet tall thing, and, well…

None of us would remotely dig having Kong in our town, and if he was coming down the street, the vast majority of us wouldn’t want the RSPCA (or ASPCA for my transatlantic friends). No, we’d want the army and a fucking bazooka.

But he’s not on our street. He’s on the screen. And there, knowing what we know about his history, safe in the knowledge that we’re not going to become Kong popcorn, we can feel for him. We can empathize with his pain. We can rationalize his obsession, forgive his violence. He’s a dumb animal. He doesn’t know any better. He’s been hurt and he’s lashing out. It’s the only behavior he understands.

And when the planes finally take him down, some of us may even weep.

I usually do.

And, you know, that’s okay, because he is an animal. If we take the fiction seriously, it’s not surprising to feel that way. But it is, also, undeniably unsettling. Kong’s behavior, his effect, is terrible, terrifying, horrendous. Yet he is innocent. As with that other monster, it’s the tension between those two facts that elicits such strong emotions, such powerful pathos.

Still, I can’t help feel like there’s a parable here, albeit not the one intended by the filmmakers. Because looked at as a list of traits, Kong is pretty much textbook toxic masculinity (yes, I know he’s an ape). And you can feel the racist barely-subtext tugging again if you note that the message seems to be that these traits are innate, a product of environment, and that ‘civilisation’ is ultimately to blame for transforming the environment to such an extent that these natural instincts no longer have relevance, have become destructive.

And, you know, fuck that, basically.

I think by far the more interesting read is to note that, yes, Kong has these horrible traits, but we as an audience can see them and still empathize with him, still feel sadness at his treatment and his passing. In the same way as we do for the Universal Monster, and interestingly, in a way that far fewer of us can for the real life, human monsters that share these traits.

Because, of course, Kong is innocent.

That’s the aspect of the movie that still gnaws away at my mind, the dichotomy that elevates this from merely brilliant period popcorn to something… ah, hell, we’ve come this far. Let us just call it art, shall we?

Kit 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 front man (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.

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Creature Features in Review: Nightbreed (1990)

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I’ve always had a soft spot for Nightbreed.

I think I responded mostly to what it was trying to accomplish, to make monsters into sympathetic characters and humans the villains, rather than what it lacked. Even as a kid, I knew there was something fundamentally flawed about it but I held firm to my love for Boone and the monsters of Midian and—maybe more so—to the coldblooded serial killer Dr. Decker. I’d often found myself fumbling to defend the movie I knew it could have been, not the film they’d given us.

Later interviews revealed Barker’s bickering with studio heads who had liked Hellraiser (or at least the money it made them) but felt audiences wouldn’t “get” a movie with monsters as the heroes. They thought it would be too confusing.

The finished film suffered greatly for their tampering. To Barker’s fans, the studio had entirely missed the point. Barker himself said of the theatrical cut, “The movie that was released in 1990 was not the movie I wanted to make philosophically or artistically.”

Still, Barker’s monsters shone through despite the deeply flawed theatrical cut. Barker has not only created some of the most iconic creatures in cinema history (Hellraiser‘s Cenobites, for example, or Candyman), but also the most complex. Barker’s script based on his own novel doesn’t paint these monsters as either wholly evil or tragic victims of an oppressive society. There are shades of gray here. You understand the “monsters” and even sympathize with them.

The first citizens Boone meets in Midian (“where the monsters live,” according to several characters) are Peloquin and Kinski. Peloquin merely sees the human interloper as “meat for the beast,” but his friend reminds him of Midian’s laws.

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In essence, Midian is a fully functioning society of “monsters” with all the flaws, culture, history and beliefs of any civilization—the only real difference is they must live out of sight for fear of human judgment and terrorism. Because of how they look. Because of how they live. And it’s not an irrational fear, as events prove in the latter half of the film.

Visionary director Alejandro Jodorowsky called Nightbreed “the first truly gay horror fantasy epic.” There are people who want the monsters of Midian hunted down and exterminated. Think about that. This movie was made and released during the tail end of America’s AIDS epidemic when many people erroneously believed it could be passed along simply by touching someone, and some still considered it a “gay disease.” Magic Johnson had yet to reveal his diagnosis, which some saw as a turning point in the AIDS scare, putting a human face (a very famous human face) on the tragedy.

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I can’t say whether or not Barker had this subtext in mind while making the film or if Jodorowsky was reaching, but it does add an interesting layer that makes Nightbreed transcend its flaws and the trappings of the “Creature Feature” subgenre. Another intended philosophy, that humans are the true monsters. Another that our fascination with monsters leads some to wish to be monsters and live among them. Barker spoke about this in a 2014 interview: “Why would you not want to change into an animal? Why would you not want to fly? Why would you not want to live forever? These are the things that monsters do.”

This adds layers to the Creature Feature aspect of the movie not found in many others. In addition to the “normal” monsters, we have Boone (do I need to say “spoilers”?) who is psychic-driven by his psychiatrist, played wonderfully icily by David Cronenberg, into believing he’s a serial killer. When he hides out in Midian he is bitten and transforms into the monster he thinks he is.

We have a man Boone meets in the hospital who so eager to become a monster that his cuts off pieces of his own face to join them in Midian. He seems to be accepted into their group without question, and later we see several more humanlike “monsters” below the cemetery where Midian lies.

We have the most heinous monster of them all Cronenberg’s psychiatrist, who kills families under the guise of his “buttonface” mask.

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We see glimpses of Midian’s citizens through the eyes of Boone’s partner Lori as she travels the underground city in search of Boone. Small lizard-like creatures feast on carrion. A sabre-toothed woman drums out a beat on a wall for some unknown reason. Monsters wash the penile humanoid head of a lumpy creature whose body resembles the Kool-Aid Man. A bulbous, greasy Jacob Marley lookalike limps around on a cane scaring people for fun. Another monster feeds his own blood to a jar of live eels. (The music that plays under this scene is phenomenal by the way, quintessential Danny Elfman. Watch the scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-T11WcS64_M.)

Later we encounter their religious leader Dirk Lylesberg, played by Doug Bradley (Hellraiser‘s Pinhead). They even have their own god, Baphomet: a giant living statue far below the earth.

Other monsters have been imprisoned in the bowels of Midian, called the “Berserkers.” These slimy behemoths with football player padding are never explained. They could be criminals or protectors or both. Whichever they are they are let out to charge the intruders, easily overpowering them.

Title: NIGHTBREED ¥ Year: 1990 ¥ Dir: BARKER, CLIVE ¥ Ref: NIG096AO ¥ Credit: [ 20TH CENTURY FOX/MORGAN CREEK / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

In its creature creation, Nightbreed is difficult to top. The sheer amount of thought put into this world and its inhabitants are a creature designer’s wet dream. Lori’s descent into Midian in particular calls to mind the cantina scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, one of the most iconic establishing scenes in movie history.

Nightbreed definitely has its flaws (the Director’s Cut fixed most of them while adding others), but as a Creature Feature, I’d list it among my favorites.

Bonus Review of Nightbreed: Director’s Cut for interested parties.

If you’re thinking of diving into Nightbreed for the first time I would suggest checking out the Director’s Cut instead. Critics pointed to the uneven direction and lack of characterization to the 1990 release. Little did they know 40 minutes of Barker’s original film had been cut. Until very recently it was thought this footage was lost.

The story of how Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut came to be started in 2008 when Mark Miller, co-head of Barker’s production company Seraphim Films, began to hunt down the extra footage. It was clear from the get-go the heads at Morgan Creek weren’t eager to help. When they finally relented Miller was left with a box full of VHS tapes. All the film they’d shot, according to Morgan Creek bigwigs, had vanished.

But the Monsters of Midian have a cult following. After a lucky group of fans saw the extra footage at something called the “Mad Monster Party” in 2010, the “Occupy Midian” campaign was born. That was the last I’d heard of it from Clive Barker’s Lost Souls website, aside from the occasional brief this-is-what-you’re-missing review from someone who’d seen the cut with the VHS footage inserted.

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Then in 2012 Morgan Creek officials miraculously “found” the originally filmed footage after seeing the potential audience (ie. dollar signs). From there, Shout! Factory put together the Blu-ray and DVD version with new interviews and featurettes and released it in 2014.

Fans asked for it and we got it.

I bought the Blu-ray on the day of release and popped it in the PS3 as soon as it arrived. For the most part, the additions work. It’s definitely closer thematically to what Clive Barker—and all of us diehard Cabal fans—had envisioned. There’s no doubt the monsters are the good guys here and there’s a massive amount of sympathy generated for them throughout, despite the few “lawbreakers” like Peloquin who just wants to eat the “Naturals” (humans).

The main villain as in the original cut is Dr. Decker (aka Button Face). He’s a maniac on par with some of the best, though he gets precious little screen time. I’d love to see a prequel movie about him and his murders, his adoption of the mask—which is pretty goddamned creepy—and if he’d blamed any of his previous murders on other patients, attempting to “psychic drive” them into taking the blame as he does to Boone. It doesn’t feel as though his part was beefed up at all from the Theatrical cut but it doesn’t feel like they’ve cut anything from his storyline.

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Many of the additions focus on the relationship between Boone and Lori; some work and some don’t. The scene where Dr. Decker has drugged Boone and Boone is hallucinating in his apartment, watching himself from outside his body having sex with Lori (who for some reason wears white lingerie, likely to symbolize her purity or “Natural”-ness), works much better in the original cut. In that cut, he takes the pills and suddenly he’s tripping balls, walking down the highway. We’ve seen all we need to. What they’ve added here doesn’t work, does nothing for the story and harms the film’s pace, front-loading it.

This sequence also features Lori singing to a sold-out crowd in a country bar. The song is “Johnny Get Angry,” whose lyrics suggest she wants a “real man,” but also that Boone could very well be a little abusive. The song itself works fine and has a very ‘90s feel, reminding me of those scenes in Twin Peaks with Julee Cruise—but it’s overlong. They play the entire song. During it, Boone, still tripping, wanders in and becomes confused and frightened. He stumbles off and that’s when we rejoin the theatrical cut where he’s about to be hit by a truck. I think it works well to establish Lori as a character, but it could have been pared down.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD:

The biggest changes are in the big final battle which is more of a bloodbath than anything since the Nightbreed barely get any shots in. This is The ATF Storms the Koresh Compound times a thousand. The police here act like paramilitary, lock-and-loading a plethora of automatic weapons (a Twitter friend remarked on the inordinate amount of guns in Canada since it’s meant to take place in Alberta). The scene in which the cops beat Ohnaka to death, a little man with his little dog, seems just about as traumatizing as in the original film.

Shot in slow motion this Rodney King-style beating during which the victim, dragged out into the sun and beaten, turns to dust, sets the stage for the slaughter to follow.

As Midian explodes it actually seems like a BIG thing, unlike in the theatrical cut where it felt and sounded like a Hollywood soundstage. We hear babies screaming, mothers crying. The earth cracks underfoot with huge, Surround Sound rumbles. By the time Boone finally unleashes the Berserkers we’re rooting for them to take out the human invaders—and they do, in classic monster-rampage style. Another good addition adds clarity to the scene where Boone inherits the spirit of Baphomet, the Nightbreed’s version of God, and becomes the living god “Cabal.”

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In the end, when Lori asks Boone to bite him so she can become Nightbreed and stay with Boone, the decision makes much more sense as their relationship is solidly established. Boone refuses, still the good guy even now he’s a full-on monster, and in her desperation Lori stabs herself, forcing him to bite her so she’ll live forever. Hidden in a barn, the surviving Nightbreed speak of Boone/Cabal returning “on the next wind.”  “Johnny Get Angry” plays us out into the credits.

If you’re a fan of the original cut you owe it to yourself to watch Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut. If you’re a horror fan who’s never seen it it’s worth a look. This is the movie that inspired Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs, and in my opinion, it’s a far better film. For creature fans, the Director’s Cut has many more monsters to satisfy your deviant pleasure. All in all, the new cut is a more cohesive story with a lot more focus on Boone and Lori’s relationship and much more sympathy for the Nightbreed themselves.

If it had been released this way originally, it might have spawned its planned sequel instead of just a cult following, a comic series, and a terrible video game.

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Duncan Ralston was born in Toronto and spent his teens in small-town Canada. As a “grown up,” Duncan lives with his partner and their dog in Toronto, where he writes dark fiction about the things that disturb him. In addition to his twisted short stories found in GRISTLE & BONE, the anthologies EASTER EGGS & BUNNY BOILERS, WHAT GOES AROUND, DEATH BY CHOCOLATE, FLASH FEAR, and the charity anthologies BURGER VAN, BAH! HUMBUG!, VS: US vs UK HORROR, and THE BLACK ROOM MANUSCRIPTS Vol. 1, he is the author of the novels SALVAGE, EVERY PART OF THE ANIMAL, and WOOM, an extreme horror Black Cover book from Matt Shaw Publications.

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How far would you go for revenge? When a six-year-old girl is abused and left for dead by a pedophile known only as the “Rabbit Man” due to the claw marks left on her body, police follow every lead but reach only dead ends.Hungry for justice, her grieving father abandons wife and child on a harrowing journey deep undercover into Miami’s sex offender colony under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. His purpose is simple: to find the “Rabbit Man” among them, and put him in the ground. Months later, with no one to trust and the pedophiles he lives among growing suspicious of his actions, he learns nothing is simple where the monsters live.

Get YOUR copy of WHERE THE MONSTERS LIVE on Amazon for $1.39!!!

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Drag me to Hell: movie in review

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I just watched Drag me to Hell last night. Not my first screening, but the first since it was released back in 2009. And you know what, the movie is still entertaining. But with almost any movie, there’s a line between those who love it and those who hate it and there are moderates who thought the movie was…”uh, okay.” I’m not entirely sure how trustworthy Rotten Tomatoes is anymore with movie reviews, however, I still often jump over before writing my own review and was surprised to see the rating difference between critics and audiences for Drag me to Hell. Typically, when it comes to horror, audiences will on average adore the film while critics bash it to a pulp with a sledge hammer. Horror has never been a respectable genre of storytelling. When horror has been deemed worthy, the powers that be typically label the work as thriller or even…(gasp!) drama. Consider one of the most highly decorated horror film, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which has sense been cast into the realm as “crime drama…” Seriously…a movie about a guy who eats people helping catch a guy who skins people in order to make a woman-suit is considered a “crime-drama,” a gene that includes all the Godfather movies, Heat, The Usual Suspects, Fargo, The Departed, The Dark Knight, Furious 7, Casino and just about every other gangsta movie? I think my point has been made.

And of course I’ve gotten waaaaay of track here.

Back to the critics verses audience reactions.

According to Rotten Tomatoes (carefully placed trust), the critics adored Drag me to Hell, giving the movie a whopping 92% “fresh” rating, while audiences seemed more ho-hum with a 61% “fresh” rating. Despite the movie review website’s precarious standing with most movie nerds, I’d say they pretty much nailed Drag me to Hell. Critics, for the most part, watched the movie for as it was, just another Sam Raimi flick with a smart story surrounding mortgage and recession and selling all your belongings and still not being able to afford to repay the debt. They saw Drag me to Hell as both entertaining and a bit tongue-in-cheek on the social commentary. Audiences were less enthusiastic. Based on some of the review and statements I’ve read, most of everyone had expected a return to form for Raimi, the genius who gave us the eternally awesome Evil Dead trilogy (The Evil Dead I & II, and Army of Darkness). According to on average audience repose, what they got instead of the expected “Evil Dead-” esk movie, was something more messy and less funny as Army of Darkness. Many believed the acting was cheesy, particularly with the casting of Justin Long. There was also more than desired amounts of CGI and pointless jump scares. My assumption with what disappointed audiences was the odd mixture of comedy and horror, for many the film failed to capture the classic formula of Raimi’s early romps.

Here’s a quick fire synopsis:

Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) has a loving boyfriend (Justin Long) and a great job at a Los Angeles bank. But her heavenly life becomes hellish when, in an effort to impress her boss, she denies an old woman’s request for an extension on her home loan. In retaliation, the crone places a curse on Christine, threatening her soul with eternal damnation. Christine seeks a psychic’s help to break the curse, but the price to save her soul may be more than she can pay.

Pretty much cut and dry. Nothing complicated, and considering the era of recession and people all over the United States losing their homes in the 2008-2010 mortgage crisis, pretty much on point with the troubles of the day and age. And when we stop and think about it, isn’t that what horror is supposed to do? To look outward at society and then bring those questions into the plane of fictionalized storytelling in order for us to embed those questions, to see them from another perspective? Well…I think its understandable why critics loved the movie. However, I’m still confused on why audiences were less enthused. For me, yes, the movie can be faulted on a few glaring issues. The ringer for me was the use of CGI. Thankfully, the use of CGI was limited to a few scenes, however, one of those sequences could have been wonderfully done with practical effects. The part when the gypsy is attacking Christine in the shed and the heroine drops an anvil on the old woman’s head. How much more wonderful had the scene been done with real practical effects… Personally, that is one of my few laments with Drag me to Hell. Otherwise, the movie, I thought, was fantastic. The opening scene is chilling. Demonic movies typically get under my skin, and not only watching this young boy, but listening to him being dragged to hell…well, I’m sure you can imagine. As for the comedy, Raimi has an interesting taste of balance. Though admittedly, there seemed to be far few laughs in this one then in his previous horror movies. And maybe we’ve discovered why most of the audiences felt the pacing was off, maybe they’d ventured out to the theater hoping to see the same gag level as Army of Darkness. But that’s not what Drag me to Hell was about, it wasn’t a spoof or even a satire. In fact, if we could gauge Raimi’s most beloved horror movies on a scale of satire, with The Evil Dead (1981) as a (at least) semi-serious film, all the way up to Army of Darkness (1992, and by-the-way, is labeled as fantasy…see! Just saying, horror gets not respect!), with The Evil Dead II (1987) somewhere in the middle, I’d say Drag me to Hell is just a tad below The Evil Dead II on a scale of comedy verses horror balance. There were some silly and over-the-top sequences, but the horror trumped the laughs.

This is of course just my opinion. If you haven’t seen this one, I’d definitely add it to the list of must watch Raimi pictures. Drag me to Hell was creepy, fun, gross, and socially imaginative.

My Review: 5/5