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A Compendium of Evil.

Over at The Playlist today, a well-executed 12-minute supercut by Diego Carrera on the history of horror, from 1895 (The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots) to the present (The VVitch).

The Bayou of Madness, Pt. II.

“Much has been made of the connections between True Detective and the cosmic-horror tradition…and rightly so. But what’s largely been missed is that the cosmic-horror genre — rooted, as it is, in humankind’s subprime position in the pecking order of the universe — is deeply entwined with the character of Louisiana’s physical and cultural landscape.”

In Slate, Adrian Van Young delineates True Detective — and Lovecraft’s — debt to Louisiana, one of the cultural crossroads and borderlands where shadows linger and tricksters thrive. “Lost cities, liminal realms, and cosmic fear come more or less naturally to Louisiana…The chief-most horrors of the show are not voodoo curses or tentacled monsters or consciousness-destroying plays, but environmental slippage, religious perversion, badly mangled family trees. True Detective wears the cosmic-horror genre and its lineage, in other words, not unlike the Mardi Gras masks being worn today all over its native state. The mask is scary, sure enough, but what’s underneath can be even more frightening: one place in the U.S. where anything, it seems, can happen.'”

Also, for a more prosaic take on HBO’s current hit, see the credits for Law & Order: True Detective, below.

Brevity Ate the Soul of Wit.

“My daughter won’t stop crying and screaming in the middle of the night. I visit her grave and ask her to stop, but it doesn’t help.”

By way of sententiae et clamores, some terrifying tales for the time-deprived: twenty two-sentence horror stories. “I can’t move, breathe, speak or hear and it’s so dark all the time. If I knew it would be this lonely, I would have been cremated instead.”

When Things Go Bump in the Night.

A less shakicam-ish Blair Witch Project for the Oughts, writer-director Oren Peli’s reasonably unnerving if somewhat longish Paranormal Activity looks like a million bucks — which is impressive, given that it actually only cost 15 large. (And it’s already the most profitable film of all time, pulling in a 434,000% return and counting.) So, if nothing else, HD cameras have come a long way in the past ten years.

And Paranormal Activity is…decently unsettling, I suppose. I give props to any scary flick that goes the J-horror route over Saw-style serial killer torture porn, which is a tired, boring, and lazy subgenre at this point. And I admired the film’s narrative economy and inventiveness — With nothing much happening most of the time, Paranormal Activity has we, the audience, doing almost all of the heavy lifting for it by sitting around, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and scaring ourselves. Paranormal Activity is basically Hitchcock’s ticking-time-bomb (or, to take a more recent application of the principle, Don’s-mistress-sitting-in-the-car on Mad Men) for 90 minutes. And I give it definite points for cleverness.

That being said, I also found the original Blair Witch — lost in the deep dark primordial woods, and unable to escape supernatural forces — to be a more fundamentally frightening experience than this film, which involves hanging around a San Diego split-level, and doing really dumb things to provoke supernatural forces. (For that matter, the similarly-premised Drag Me To Hell earlier this year was a good deal more fun.) And the movie has a bit of a Cloverfield problem, in that the main characters grow increasingly unsympathetic — particularly you-know-who — to the point where I stopped caring after awhile if bad things happened to them. Nonetheless, I could see this being a very creepy rental, under perfect (re: at home by yourself at 3am) conditions.

After a brief thank you to the families involved and the San Diego police department (wink, wink), Paranormal Activity begins with a young day trader named Micah (Micah Sloat) noodling around with his brand-new video camera. After showing us around the house, he goes to pester his live-in girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston), just arriving home, with his new acquisition. It seems Micah is a bit of a tech-geek (and has control issues — more on that later), and he’s procured this top-end video equipment to catch some paranormal activity — namely, the same weird happenings that Katie has been complaining about since the age of 8 — on tape. And that’s about it, really — Katie, Micah, and the video camera, hanging around the house, trying to make sense of the increasingly obvious encroachment of a Malevolent Force from Beyond.

This is all fine and well, although maybe a bit repetitive after awhile. (Katie and Micah do enlist a kindly, New Agey, certifiably So-Cal psychic (Mark Frederichs) at one point, and the funniest moment in the movie is him showing up to make everything seem so much worse.) But the real problem with Activity isn’t the repetition or the lack of events, but the blatantly stupid behavior by our two principals here. Y’see, Micah apparently is a firm believer that his home is his Castle. And, when presented with more and more evidence that what he and Katie are dealing with is out of human control, he tend to double down and become more belligerent about the situation (“Is that all you got, demon?”), to the point where it’s hard to take either of them seriously as characters anymore.

I don’t want to give the game away, but at a certain point an old photograph is found in the attic which has absolutely, positively no business being there. If they hadn’t done so already, this is pretty much the moment when 99.9998% of the population would say, “Uh, ok, we really need to enlist some outside experts on this. Ghostbusters stat!” But, no, Micah gets weird and territorial again, and there’s more interminable wrangling over whether or not to call a demonologist. Wrong answer.

Not coincidentally, this is about the point where I finally checked out of Paranormal Activity for good and started rooting for the Thing from the Nether Realms. As in any horror flick, once folks have gone above and beyond the call of stupid in order to stay in harm’s way, it’s hard to take the supernatural threats to their person all that seriously. Still, aside from making mad bank and injecting a little extra fear into those creaky stairs and hissing pipes late at night, Peli’s Activity does make one thing emphatically clear: Women haunted by demons from an early age should probably try to stay out of relationships with Type-A control freaks, and vice versa.

Despair Under the Elms.

Growing ever more disaffected and anti-social, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) trades in the inkblot mask for a stripey sweater (he’s kept the fedora, tho’) in the new teaser for Platinum Dune’s forthcoming Nightmare on Elm Street remake.

The original Nightmare was one of the cornerstone scary movies of my youth, but I’m not seeing much to recommend this one yet. And I definitely wish they’d gone more dream-surreal with it and skipped over the goofy Hannibal Rising-style backstory.

Lord of the Flies.

“The project would represent a chance for Cronenberg to return to a film that helped establish his career, but to do so in the effects age, using techniques that weren’t possible nearly a quarter-century ago.” Um, ok. Apparently caught in a feedback loop of some kind (I blame those pesky transporters), David Cronenberg looks to remake his remake of The Fly. No word on whether Jeff Goldblum or Geena Davis will be involved…Frankly, I’m not seeing the point.

Down, Up, and Over.

Since I’m behind on my movie reviews, as ever, I’m hitting up the past few summer flicks I’ve witnessed in bulk. So, in brief:

A loving throwback to the director’s Evil Dead days, and an audience film if there ever was one, Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell delivers a solidly entertaining two hours of low-budge comic mayhem, if you’re in the mood for it. It doesn’t really aspire to be anything more than what it is — a B-movie carnival funhouse. But taken as such, Drag Me to Hell offers thrills, chills, and (gross-out) spills with plenty of Raimi’s old-school tongue-in-cheek. I enjoyed myself quite a bit at a virtually empty screening, and would think this movie would kill with a packed Saturday night crowd. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

If you haven’t seen the previews, Christine Brown (Alison Lohman, quite appealing) is an ex-farm-girl trying to shake off her country roots and jump ahead a few social strata in the City of Angels, and she’s doing everything she can to be (or at least seem) upwardly mobile — she’s listening to pronunciation tapes to lose her accent, she’s foregoing sweets to keep her (newly thin) figure, she’s eyeing a promotion to assistant manager at the bank she works at, she has wildly overpaid for a trendy Mac laptop, etc. Then again, the last decision was probably forced on her, as Christine is currently dating Mac Guy (Justin Long), here Clay, a new psychology professor whose wealthy, elitist parents radiate condescension towards poor Christine. (By the way, fellow gradual students: if the kid being dragged to Hell before the opening credits didn’t tip you off that this is fantasy, the sight of Long starting a new academic job, complete with spiffy office, should do the trick. Riiiiight.)

At any rate, in her halfhearted attempts to seem ruthless enough for her bank promotion, Christine one day refuses the pleas of a sickly (re: gross) old woman (Lorna Raver) and signs off on the foreclosure of her home. Huge mistake, as this grotesque crone is actually of the gypsy persuasion — Yes, this movie is gonna make massive bank in Kazakhstan. Soon enough, after a comic brawl that involves stapled eyes and a lot of gummings, said gypsy dooms Christine to Hell. Hades. The Bad Place. And so, poor Ms. Brown only has three days — days which she will spend tormented by the lamia, a shadowy goat demon from the nefarious netherrealms — to save her soul. And, if you factor in LA ‘s infernal traffic, that’s really only two days…

One of the running jokes in Drag Me to Hell is that pretty much everybody around Christine — her boss (David Paymer), her co-worker (Reggie Lee), her gypsy nemesis, Clay’s parents, even Clay, whose warmth and sincere fondness for Christine is infused with noblesse oblige — is probably more deserving of her dire straits than she. Raimi’s film is positively Victorian in its punishing of Christine for trying to transgress class boundaries — apparently, there is no sin worse in LA than social striving. Still, pondering Drag Me to Hell‘s socioeconomic implications for any length of time is missing the point. Best to just sit back and let the blood, maggots, and embalming fluid flow. And if the elderly woman a few seats over won’t stop hacking, coughing, or chattering during the film — trust me, you’ll want to just let her do her thing.

Soon after bounding out of Drag Me to Hell, I caught Pixar’s Up in 3D. And, yes, like every other Pixar movie you can name (with the possible exception of Cars), it’s an impressive, eye-popping, first-rate entertainment, with both colorful craziness for the kids and a haunting resonance for adults. My go-to-Pixar films remain Toy Story 2 and The Incredibles, but I’m sure this’ll make a few people’s favorites list as well, even if most of the film actually comes off as somewhat anti-climactic.

Up begins with a meet-cute between nerdy Carl (eventually, Ed Asner) and adventurous Elie (Elizabeth Docter), two youngsters who share an inordinate fondness for explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) and his Spirit of Adventure, the zeppelin he piloted to faraway Paradise Falls, never to return. These two kids enter a pact that they will one day follow in the footsteps of their hero…but, after love, puberty, marriage, and a life well-lived, they never quite make it. By ten minutes in, Elie has passed on, Carl is now an old and curmudgeonly retiree, and their longtime house is about to be torn down by ne’er-do-well corporate developers. Knowing no gypsies, Carl takes drastic action of a different kind — he attaches several hundred helium balloons to the premises and simply floats away. And, with an inadvertent stowaway in tow — That would be Russell (Jordan Nagai), the would-be Wilderness Scout who just wants to “assist the elderly” and procure his final badge — Carl finally has that long-awaited Paradise Falls adventure, which includes but is not limited to an ill-fated reunion with Muntz, a giant bird named Kevin, and a gaggle of roaming, Bowlingual-enhanced dogs…Squirrel!

Much hilarity and occasional melancholy ensues, of course, as per the norm. But for all the film’s many strengths, I thought Up suffered from a grievous structural flaw that knocks it out of the top tier of Pixar offerings. Remember how the first forty minutes of WALL-E just overpowered the broader and more whimsical “starship fatties” half of the movie? Well, Up feels even more frontloaded. The first ten minutes or so of the film, encompassing Carl and Elie’s many decades together, is so concise and elegantly told that it just put me out of the mood for the colorful birds and talking dog hijinx that follows. Ever see the ST:TNG episode where, due to that particular week’s encounter with a cosmic energy force, Picard ends up living out an entire lifetime — marriage, kids, grandkids, and all — while only forty-five minutes passes on the Enterprise? How was he supposed to go back to the usual random shuttling back-and-forth across the Alpha Quadrant after an experience like that? Well, Up felt for me much the same. It basically peaks in the first ten minutes, as it tells the story of a lifetime, and everything thereafter — tho’ kids will probably feel different — is just a slow leaking of air.

I’ve noticed in my conversations with movie people that there seems to be a distinct generation of men — say, five to ten years younger than me — who think of Todd Phillips’ Old School as a certifiable comedy classic, the Stripes or Revenge of the Nerds of its era. (FWIW, I thought Old School was terrible, and remember very little about it except Will Ferrell honing his naked-guy schtick.) Well, I’m guessing a lot of those folks thought more of Todd Phillips’ The Hangover than I did. It’s not a bad movie or anything — in fact, I would call it intermittently funny. But i didn’t find it anywhere near as uproarious as some reviews would suggest, and I feel I could’ve just as easily caught this flick on cable in a few months and not lost anything. If this is really the comedy event of the summer, then just keep drinking — we’re in for another year to forget.

The premise of The Hangover may be the funniest thing about it. Four friends — ok, three friends and Alan, a weird deadbeat soon-to-be brother-in-law (Zack Galifianakis) — descend upon Vegas to paint the town red for a blowout bachelor party. Cut to the next day, and things have clearly gotten out of hand. Doug the groom (Justin Bartha) is nowhere to be found. Phil the lothario schoolteacher (Bradley Cooper) has a monster headache and a hospital band around his wrist. Stu the henpecked, cuckolded dentist (Ed Helms) has lost a tooth and gained a wife. And Alan can’t find his pants or his man-satchel…but has found a tiger in the bathroom and a toddler in the closet. So what the eff happened? The remaining three musketeers try to piece together clues of their Big Night and find their lost friend before zero hour in California, when Bridezilla awakens. Can they save the day in time?

The Hangover works best if you think that absolutely anything could’ve happened the night before. As it turns out, tho, most of what happened is constrained by what you’ve seen in the previews (or, barring that, the promotional materials all over the theater I was in — Heather Graham, check. Mike Tyson, check. Mike Epps, check.) And so what you’re mostly left with is a few hours of waiting for these haggard guys to tick off the next few boxes and get up to speed with the trailer. In the meantime, their company is, well, mildly entertaining, I guess, although (as in Old School) these dudes — and the sense of humor — are all a bit too mook for my taste. (If you find bare asses funny on their own terms, tho’, have at it.) A lot of the jokes revolves around Zack Galifianakis’s Alan, who’s…not quite right in the head. But, frankly, he just seems like a collection of comedy writing tics than a full-fledged character like, say, Walter Sobchak in Lebowski. What can I say? Humor is a delicate thing, and it differs for different people. But, aside from a line here or there (like the “Holocaust ring” one in the trailer), I just didn’t find The Hangover all that funny. Your mileage may vary.

Besides, on my first wild weekend in Vegas, Dubya started an unnecessary, multibillion-dollar war. Beat that for crazy.


Going into the late-night showing of Frank Darabont’s version of Stephen King’s The Mist this evening, I was at best hoping for a good, scary B-movie — Prince of Darkness, The Thing — with perhaps a bit of choice sociopolitical grist (the Romero Deads, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, They Live) thrown in for good measure. (After all, the ominous poster and tagline of the film (“Fear changes everything”) pretty much announces there’ll be some post-9/11 commentary lurking amid the monsters.) Alas, The Mist fails on both fronts. Despite a good cast that do what they can with some woefully scripted material, the film is rarely very frightening — mostly because so many of the characters are so one-note that it’s hard to get all that concerned about their well-being. (The cheap FX don’t help.) Worse, Darabont’s attempts at allegory here come across as ponderous, ham-handed, and facile. The film aims to suggest that people in the grip of unyielding terror will do and fall for anything, which of course is a scary thought — one that not only resonates with our current political predicament, but permeates tons of horror movies from Night of the Living Dead to 28 Weeks Later. But, in its shrill, one-note portraits of religion and of “average” people (re: Red Staters), The Mist feels as elitist, hyperbolic, and echo chamber-y as a bad dKos talkback.

Set somewhere in Maine, as per King’s usual m.o., The Mist opens with several nods to what Darabont (probably correctly) assumed would be his core audience: the fanboy nation. For it turns out our protagonist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) is a movie poster artist a la Drew Struzan, and the first moments of the film feature him working in his studio on what’s obviously a poster of Roland the Gunslinger of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. (The one-sheet from John Carpenter’s The Thing is also featured on the wall, and Drayton makes a quip early on about the standard two-face movie poster, pitched right at the AICN crowd.)

At any rate, after a particularly virulent storm, David, his son (the obligatory cute kid of the story), and his next-door neighbor, a hotshot lawyer from New York (Andre Braugher), all venture into town to get supplies. But, unfortunately for them, strange things are afoot at the Circle K: Very soon, an unnatural, unholy fog rolls in, and it becomes clear relatively quickly that staying exposed to it will get you killed in horrific fashion by large tentacles, winged insects, or other unspeakable Lovecraftian creatures from out of nowhere. And so the people at the supermarket hunker down for a long haul, but divisions quickly emerge among the ranks of the terrified. In the manner of horror films, Braugher’s lawyer character won’t believe anything that’s going on, and he and other denizens (Bill Sadler’s working-class stiff, for example) begin to take umbrage at imagined slights. Even more problematically, we have a true believer in our midst, the Bible-thumping spinster Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), and as the terror mounts and the Rapture looks nigh, she begins to relish her assigned role as Old Testament prophet, right down to the human sacrifices…

It’s been over fifteen years since my big King phase, so I barely remember the novella at all. (Of the Skeleton Crew stories, the ones that made the most impression on me were “The Jaunt” and “Survivor Type.”) But I presume some –probably even most — of the blame resides with King for Mrs. Carmody. (The End of Days psycho-Christian definitely seems in his wheelhouse.) Nevertheless, as written here, she’s way too over the top to be taken seriously, especially after Darabont starts layering on the post-9/11 stuff like a paste. (There’s a meeting held among the saner folk where they break down her appeal for the scared, in case you somehow missed the allegory thus far.) Worse, most of the people in the supermarket who fall under her spell — exemplified by Sadler’s malleable redneck — are so cardboard cut-out they might as well be carrying torches and pitchforks from the opening reel. You’d think given a apocalyptic situation like the one faced in The Mist that faith and religion might pop up in many forms. But there’s no nuance or depth at all to Darabont’s presentation, just evil religionists and their dupe followers.

Then again, to be fair, none of the other characters are multi-dimensional either, and so I found myself rooting for actors instead. Thomas Jane is always a likable presence (he and Serenity‘s Nathan Fillion seem to be fighting it out for the mantle of the new Michael Biehn), and he’s solid enough here. Toby Jones (of the “other” Capote movie) is also stuck with a flat role — he’s Dignity Under Pressure — but makes an impression regardless. And it’s good to see Frances Sternhagen (a.k.a. the doctor from Outland) flitting about as a senior citizen not unwilling to smite false prophets with cans of peas. But, try as they might, they can’t raise the stakes here.

I’ll admit to liking a few brief flourishes in The Mist. At one point, a low-budget CGI tentacle hungrily crushes a bag of dog food, which is exactly the type of horrific-meets-the-mundane moment that King writes so well. Late in the game, the survivors of the tale to that point witness a truly Cthuhulian nightmare, all hooves and tentacles, one that’s nearly impossible to comprehend. And then there’s the ending…which I expect will be remembered for much longer than the rest of the film. I won’t give it away here, but I will say that, while admirable in its own way, it also felt like a Twilight Zone gimmick that came out of nowhere, felt unearned, and didn’t really hold up with the story to that point. (I can see an argument that ties it in to the rest of the film, but it’s a stretch.) Ultimately, The Mist isn’t as godawful as, say, Dreamcatcher, but it is yet another drab and mediocre King adaptation in a world full of them. If I were you, I’d wait for The Mist to clear.

Anarchy in the U.K.

So I’m still catching up on movie reviews of flicks I saw a few weeks ago, and, while I don’t really care about letting Pirates 3 languish without comment for a fortnight, I do wish I’d written something faster about Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s surprisingly excellent 28 Weeks Later. I thought Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later was a so-so enterprise, a very chilling and effective first forty-five minutes undone by the poor decision-making and Col. Kurtzian tangents which comprise the second and third acts. But this outing holds together much better, I thought, and remains intelligent and fearless from frightening beginning to inexorable end. As my brother aptly noted, this installment is the Aliens of the franchise — everything’s been taken up a notch, and the military training of some of our heroes and heroines this time around is, as per Cameron’s flick, only intermittently useful. And, if you like your zombie films awash with social commentary, as they’ve tended to be from Night of the Living Dead to They Live to even Shaun of the Dead, there’s plenty of grist for the mill here, no matter what your political persuasion. If it’s still playing in your neighborhood, run to catch it if you can…just watch out for the fellow sitting next to you.

If you didn’t catch 28 Days Later, no worries: The eerie prologue of this film, which takes place back in the early days of the “Rage Virus” outbreak, will give you the basic gist. We begin with a couple (Robert Carlyle of Trainspotting, Catherine McCormack of Braveheart) holed up in an English cottage somewhere in the countryside, counting their canned goods and waiting, with a handful of other survivors, for the storm to pass. But, pass it doesn’t, and soon enough the virus, which turns one almost instantly from well-meaning human to ferocious, bloodthirsty monster (Think the Black Smurfs. Gnap!), is extant in the cottage, and tough split-second decisions must be made. Flash-forward to 28 weeks later, as this couple’s two children (Mackintosh Muggleton, Imogen Poots) — thankfully at summer camp in Spain during the outbreak — are returned to the “Green Zone” of a nearly-empty London. England’s capital, as it turns out, is now being run and reconstructed by the United States Military, under the auspices of a no-nonsense Gen. Stone (Idris Elba, a.k.a. Stringer Bell. No Slim Charles around, tho’, which is too bad for everyone else.) Life proceeds somewhat normally in the Emerald City, thanks to the watchful eyes of army snipers such as the Cpl. Hicks-ish Doyle (Jeremy Renner of Dahmer) and savvy military doctors such as Scarlett (Rose Byrne of Troy.) But, partly due to an ill-advised expedition by the children to their old home — you just knew somebody was going to do something stupid — the Rage Virus breaks loose in London again, and the American military presence finds that really drastic actions may be necessary to win the worldwide war on zombies…

Reconstruction, an American occupation gone horribly wrong, Green Zones irrevocably infected by viral terror from the surrounding areas…I don’t really need to draw a map, do I? Still, one of the strengths of Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later, like BSG and the best in sci-fi social commentary, is that it doesn’t really align to any easy 1-1 reading of current events. When the US army stops distinguishing between zombie and civilian and shoots at will, or firebombs the city in an attempt to stem the outbreak (not a huge spoiler — it’s a major selling point in the trailer), it’s hard not to grimace ruefully and think of other occupations-gone-bad in our recent history. Yet, things aren’t so simple here: One of the things I admired most about this very dark film is its sheer remorselessness. From its opening moments and throughout, it instills a visceral fight-or-flight dread in the audience and refuses to let us off the hook, inviting us less to tsk-tsk about the hubris of American military overreaching and more to ponder what measures — moral, immoral, amoral — we might take to ensure our own survival in this nightmarish universe. Time and time again in 28 Weeks Later, compassion is absolutely the wrong answer to the problem at hand, and — though there’s less of this as the characters crystallize into horror-movie stereotypes over the course of the film — people surprise you with the decisions they choose to make with their backs to the wall. Maybe the scariest thing about Fresnadillo’s film — and the zombies are at times pretty damn scary — is its dark take on human nature, and what it ultimately suggests about the usefulness of good intentions under extreme pressure. To wit, they’re not very useful at all — if anything, they’re the road to Hell on Earth. So before you offer that helping hand, the relentlessly grim 28 Weeks Later suggests, buy some good running shoes.

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