Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


TWIN PEAKS is happening again; Agent Cooper has returned in different places as different selves; DANGER 5 is no longer on Netflix, but THE LOVE WITCH is. Things from the past come back yet nothing from the moment leaves--the selection is so vast picking something is impossible. So we go back in time to when--if we wanted to see weird shit, sex or gore--we had to go the R-rated movie, or... rent it. At the video store we were limited by what wasn't checked out, and by circumstance. Now we miss that simplicity, the narrowness of options. So we make movies that evoke those golden years of limited selection. If you want to make a movie that looks and feels like it was made 20 years ago then you might be a retro-metatextual, but I won't judge you. I'd have to pick a version of me to do that, and I'll leave that to the professionals serenely rooted in space and time.

What's important is that the acclaim for STRANGER THINGS and IT FOLLOWS helped kickstart a batch of filmmakers into making stuff they wanted to see back in the day, their child's mind thrilling to the lurid covers at the store, ominous Carpenter synths dancing in their heads. From the recently discussed SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL to as far back as GRINDHOUSE, a kind of borderline nostalgia future-past melancholy has been washing over things to free us all from the terrible burden of the slick but washed-out HD CGI present --wherein STAR WARS films look like video games and video games look like neorealist crime dramas.

Neither feature film discussed below is specifically great (which is why I added a short at the end that is). In fact I'd love to sit them down with each other and have them compare notes. Each has what the other lacks: THE VOID lacks patience, tick-tocaklity and focus; BEYOND THE GATES lacks daring, action and the strength of convictions. One needs the willingness to crank it to eleven rather than constantly dialing back like a repressed schoolmarm resisting temptation, the other needs to dial it down to four and take a deep breath.

(2017) Dir. Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski

An art director and make-up artist teamed up for this, their directorial co-debut that serves a nice showcase for their specific sets of skills: great analog/latex effects and a bizarre Lovecraftian mythos (replete with an transdimensional world of floating black pyramids) liven up an 'all in a single weird night' tale of an understaffed hospital (in the midst of closing) deep in the meth belt that gets hit with a very weird outbreak of... tentacles and cultists. Aaron Poole stars as the shaky sheriff who lets you know how rattled he is by brining a gunshot wound case into the hospital, then shooting him in the head for the crime of weirding him out. Soon other guys arrive to hold everyone hostage, and then the hospital is surrounded by a cadre of cultists in white robes with black triangles on the hoods. All Hell breaks loose, literally, and quickly and badly edited. There's way too much shouting and waving guns to even notice the four different Clive Barker and John Carpenter movie borrowings melting together in the hallway. Elements of THE THING and ASSAULT PRECINCT 13 merge together and then goes IN(to) THE MOUTH OF MADNESS with the PRINCE OF DARKNESS, up to the attics of Clive Barker's HELLRAISER, then out to Stuart Gordon's FROM BEYOND and the Solaris-from-Hell space ship in EVENT HORIZON, there's probably others.

That may sound great, I know it did to me. But Gillespie and Kostanski clearly have a lot to learn about what makes those films 'good', like when to use dialogue and when not to, how much dialogue is too much, where to put the camera, when to cut, and how to set up an ominous mood or make effective use of a  synth drone score. They go for a Carpenter vibe but don't have the patience for Hawksian cool or the slow-building relentless dread that are amongst Carpenter's best auteur traits. Instead there are way too many balls in the air at once. Screaming "c-c-calm down!" in a room full of over-acting under-directed actors for minutes on end doesn't count as plot development. When the film quiets itself long enough to focus on just one or two characters at a time, sun of a gun if it doesn't almost work, but the drawbacks of the 'more-is-less' approach escape the VOID. It's as if all the elaborate monster tableaux are lined up offstage like a make-up artist reel-cum-fashion show and, if they don't keep slithering out, they'll get so backed up the film will end before they can all get their moment.

That's not to say it's all that bad. As one of the nurses--Kathleen Munroe (above right) is a real stand-out: a gorgeous blue-cat-eyed creature in the Famke Janssen x Franka Poetente mold who stole a lot of pieces of my heart as a wild Irish lassie equestrian zombie in Romero's unjustly ignored SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (see my comparison of it with PET SEMETERY + the RNC National Convention). Here --all coy in her green scrubs--she reminded me of the cute nurses who gave me Ativan and Librium when I was flipping out this past Feb. Exuding actorly grace and sultry depth, she might have saved the movie had the writers allowed her to be a cool Hawksian heroine in the vein of Laurie Zimmer in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. But that would perhaps take cigarettes and balls and low 'indoor voice' talking. Gillespie and Kostanski prefer yelling and hamming. And, worse, after the first chunk of film is over, and all the tableaux in place, she's whisked down the rabbit hole to wait out a few reels before becoming just another imperiled Pauline for our trusty rattled sheriff to rescue. And his lame attempt proves way less engaging than the sight of Munroe prowling the empty, quiet hall in search of drugs for a pain-wracked pregnant lady. (They also shoehorn a kind of tired 'mourning a dead child' subplot [the grief broke her marriage with the sheriff], i.e. the kind of lazy screenwriter's shorthand for 'character development' that Carpenter studiously avoids).

Another thing missing that would have helped here is a 'gateway' drug for all the craziness: meth is name-checked but there's no evidence of it. The source of all this strangeness turns out to be bizarre rituals carried out in some lonesome meth lab cabin.

But where is the meth, damn it?

I don't have much experience with it, but it seems to me meth would make a great key to Lovecraftian horror evocation. Gillespie and Kostanski would be better prepared to explore this aspect if they'd done meth --write what you know, bro (sniffle) - betcha Carpenter wouldn't be afraid of a little meth time and again. I bet that cult leader doctor could get his hands on some wonderful drugs - why would he bother with cheap ass meth? Imagine if he had synthesized some new drug - a kind of meth-DMT combo that shattered the fourth dimensional wall? I would have loved to see all sorts of directions that could have gone (and it would have, no doubt, if Stuart Gordon, Carpenter, or maybe Matthew Bright were involved).

Another drug-relevant angle: fostering the connection between drug withdrawal and the hell dimension. The high of variation of meth opening their pineal glands the way FROM BEYOND's tuning forks do or my own Salvia Divinorum + Robitussin + light-sound machine + Mingus "Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" journey to Balloon machine elf time-space mandible-weaving adventures back in the day (circa 2004-07). Or the anguish of suddenly losing all connection to that bliss as the inevitable pay-back recovery shows us that Hell is as easily accessible as Heaven and that, indeed, one may seldom experience on extreme without inevitably spending time in the other.

These caveats aside, Gillespie and Kostanski do offer some superb sequences near the climax, and it's inspiring that they demonstrate the chops to create their tentacled visions in real analog latex. But--once again--the problem is perhaps real life experience. The blurry frenzy of action in THE VOID has the air of fear and doubt, like an insecure painter who just throws all his paint on the canvas and runs out of the room, hoping it passes as art. So, while a huge tentacled thing erupting out of a dead man's stomach would be plenty great on its own, here it's got to go down with a flickering overhead light gone to strobe, crazy camera movements, cross-cuts to a screaming pregnant woman about to get a C-section with no anesthesia in the other room, and a hysterical over-acting pre-med intern refusing to help cuz it's too gross, and around ten people yelling at the top of their lungs as people shoot and swing axes at the tentacles. The camera seems half in the way of the action instead of chronicling it. None of these elements helps the action or mood, making Carpenter's genius for getting out of his own way all the more remarkable and precious.

Like Hawks, Carpenter took his time to make sure we got properly creeped out by the slow evolution of the THE THING. It was creepy because it was a legitimately fucked-up movie trying to pass as 'everything's cool' normal. At the end of, say, the intense autopsy arm-chomping scene, for example, there's a kind of a joke (the king crab eye stalks and legs sprouting out of the head of the dead man) and Kurt's exclamation 'Jesus Fucking Christ." It's funny and all the more terrifying for keeping it 'real' like that. Carpenter knows horror takes time, suspense must be built (the time when the eyes and legs grow out, the head is under the table unseen, we're not sure if it will get away undetected).

It's like when making out with a girl for the first time: the slow build, the teasing push and pull, ebb and flow, is just as important as the actual kissing. If you just lunge at the person with tongue extended and don't give them a second to breathe, well, honey, it's called 'suffocation' and maybe it's called THE VOID.

That's the deal here, with so much going on, nothing ever has time to happen. Carpenter's movies seduce you into bed, VOID just runs up and starts humping your leg. 

Further detriments: a good deep droning retro-analog synth score (as in STRANGER THINGS or IT FOLLOWS) would have helped immeasurably, instead, we get twangy guitar and the usual orchestral pointlessness. There's four different composers used and none can hold a candle to Disasterpiece or Umberto. Next time, boys, instead of just emulating John Carpenter movies, watch the movies he emulates. Watch RIO BRAVO, EL DORADO and THE 1951 version of THING. Stumpy, don't make me tell you again. Give Kathleen Munroe a cigarette and a match and punch the first pisher who squawks.

(2016) Dir. Jackson Stewart

BEYOND THE GATES' musical score on the other hand is a blast --an effective melange of Goblin-esqe synths by retro-analog heavyweight Wojciech Golczewski. Like VOID, BEYOND is not set in the 80s so much as set within a universe clearly indebted to, haunted by, and styled after Videos The Director/s Rented as Impressionable Kid/s. Here however, it's not the Carpenter movies of youth but a video board game, NIGHTMARE. I'd never heard these kinds of things even existed before this film! Now I learn they had real commercials in the early 80s, and everything! Must have been a regional thing because I would have remembered. I'm the type.

And it's because I am the type that I hoped this story would resonate more than it did. The tale of a pair of semi-estranged "adult" brothers who reunite at their old homestead after their video rental store owner father vanishes, there to mull through his old shit (the store is out of business but still right where they left it - as the real estate clearly isn't booming in their small town) and maybe find out where he went. The 'dead' video store is a great location for a horror film but it's not utilized nearly as effectively as in the Blockbuster/Shining episode of SOUTH PARK. It's barely even used at all, except as a means to put the brothers in contact with the last thing dad was watching (the videotape portion of the 'video board game'  ---hosted by Barbara Crampton in new wave hair and eye liner, easily stealing the show). Instead, most of the film occurs in dad's suburban tract home, where things get scary but nowhere near as scary as a dead video store (what it tells us about ourselves is maybe something some of us aren't ready to hear).

Missed opportunities aside, at least--unlike THE VOID-- Stewart's film has a compulsive watchability, due perhaps to taking time to develop the characters, and establishing a mood wherein some dreadful thing seems always waiting around the next corner (not easy to do in a tract home).

Too bad then, that the pair of brothers at the center of the story don't make too much sense - they seem to have nothing in common, not even antagonism; they seem to share no common memories at all and --though they both supposedly worked at the store-- and despite of all the time they must have spent in and around it -- they never mention or reference a single film, customer, event, ex girlfriend, or anything. Also, though one brother is coded as kind of cool, it's a bit odd that they're both such pussies that they have to stop playing the game the moment it gets the least bit spooooky. When Crampton mentions they need to find their father, the first thing they do is call their cop friend, like there's anything he can do about an old 80s board game. Would they call the cops if they found a stash of weed back in dad's office too?

Nothing's worse than a kid who looks and acts cool who turns out to be just another narc.

Also, if any movie seemed to invite some SCREAM-style meta commentary it would be this one. Dealing with two brothers who grew up working at a video store, one would presume they've seen a film or two in their day. They haven't. Similarly, one is supposed to be sober, but there's ne'er a discussion of their past drinking binges. Son, I'm sober and that's all my brother and I ever talk about! It's a way to connect across our gravitational reverse polarity, but here there's no connection or even a shared joke here (the sort of thing that some improvisation or rehearsal might have brought forth), nor is there family resemblance and there's no real understanding why one brother--the sober anal nerd--seems to have inherited the house and store and the other (Chase Williamson, so good in JOHN DIES AT THE END) just stays a kind of stumblebum, except to add a kind of EAST OF EDEN foreground to its JUMANJI-ish basement backdrop.

You da man, Chase

My main issue with the film, however, is the worminess of the square brother (Graham Skipper -intentionally unpictured), a fella so intrinsically unlikeable it makes it impossible to tell why anyone would want anything to do with him (imagining him fooling around with his girlfriend is singularly unsavory). I wanted to smack the glasses off his head and make him do whiskey shots, but instead he's supposed to be sober and that's another thing, man, I didn't like about this film. There are always one or two dorks in a given AA meeting who are just tourists. They go on one binge or get busted by their parents and whisked off to a rehab boarding school the minute mom finds a bag of weed in their room; or they just like AA because there everyone has to be their friend. So while it was heartening at the big climax to see this square finally get around to killing and stabbing alongside his cooler brother, there needed to be more of a character change to believably get there -- a kind of change a slug of whiskey would have brought out, like Popeye's spinach or like Nick Frost's two-fisted relapse in THE WORLD'S END. Now that's a reunion movie.

Instead, what does this pisher Graham do? When cleaning up the house, he finds and then pours his dad's liquor down the sink, to make sure his brother or a guest or his girlfriend can't have any just because he's so righteous and smarmy--and there's still a whole film to go. I may be back to being sober, but my thought was still to kill him! KILL! In AA we hate hearing about people who commit that kind of drink wasting just to feel smug in judgment of their drunken fathers. Give it away to some needy friend, like that tweaker at the local pub (go-to dirtbag Justin Welborn), who--incidentally--is right to want to deck you and steal your horny girlfriend (Bea Grant). Urgh.

I wish these girls (from the NIGHTMARE-esque viral trailer
actually were in the movie, they'd have made it a lot better,
but the filmmakers think we'd rather see a
pale buster like Graham Skipper pour liquor down sinks.
Still, much more so than THE VOID, GATES managed to hold my and my co-viewer's attention all the way through, and is helped no end by Barbara Cramtpon as the master of" the game." She looks terrific and seems to be having a pretty good time --more so than anyone else. Brian Sowell's elegant low-budget video cinematography finds new roads within GATES' suburban 70s track house milieu and purple/red/blue video game weird color scheme (it's like an Easter Sunday afternoon SUSPIRIA); Golczewski's synth score keeps burbling, throbbing and buzzing; and seeing the brothers bonding by hacking away and stabbing undead demon versions of their slain parents and foes is--in the end--quite heartening.

Also, Chase has a fucking beer once in awhile, thank fucking god.
and speaking of God....
(2014) Dir. L. Gabriel Gonda

If you want to see something funny after these self-serious retro yarns, check out DARK DUNGEONS a 40-minute straight-faced adaptation of Jack Chick's infamous Christian tract denouncing Dungeons and Dragons (as well as books like  Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings) as gateways to Satanism and witchcraft. Come along then as two cute young freshmen girls are lured to the dark side during a LARP (Live Action Role Play) session during 'club' rush week during their freshmen year of college. One of the girls, Debbie (Alyssa Kay), turns out to be a natural spellcaster (with real magic) rising under Mistress Frost's (Tracy Hyland) dark red tutelage to a 'level-eight' sorceress; her budding bestie/possibly experimental lesbian crush, Marcie (Anastassia Higham), on the other hand, hangs herself because she's left behind at level-seven. Marcie's suicide, and being sent on a mission into the tunnels to other dimensions, combine to make Debbie realize her soul is in jeopardy. Will God's love find her in time?

Shot off the cuff, DD has a great zero budget gonzo spirit, a deadpan reverence for the Chick source material, a mostly-female, funny, and very cute cast, and a great deadpan "Embrace me, Jesus!" ending. If you've even been out on a deep end-limb in your rowdy days, and prayed the 'no atheists in a foxhole' prayer (ala AA) then you'll relate and maybe even mist up. I don't know the extent to which the ending is meant satirically or not, and I don't ever want to know. It's funnier not knowing and I respect that the spiritual solution is at least treated with some modicum of respect and real love. I don't think Jesus would be offended either way. The filmmaking team behind this crowdfunded (but which crowd?) little miracle are perhaps the Ron and Suzy Ormond of their time! Speaking of, know what else can now be found on Prime? MESA OF LOST WOMEN!

See original tract here

PS: Let me also point you towards the following retro-chic gems, all of whom get my personal, higher recommendations:


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