Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

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... in the 80s, we had to rent it, and 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 a smaller group of options. 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 days of standing in front of shelves filled with empty clamshell boxes, child's mind thrilling to the lurid covers. From the recently discussed SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL to as far back as GRINDHOUSE, a kind of borderline nostalgia future-past melancholy washes 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 for each has what the other lacks: for THE VOID, it lacks patience, tick-tocaklity and focus; BEYOND THE GATES action and surprise, the strength of convictions --willingness to crank it to eleven rather than constantly dialing back like a repressed schoolmarm resisting temptation.

(2017) Dir. Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski

The bashed-in brainchild of an art director and make-up artist in their directorial co-debut, VOID offers a nice showcase of analog/latex effects harnessed to a long-weird-night tale of an understaffed hospital (in the midst of closing) deep in the meth belt, wherein people start to give birth to or change into tentacled behemoths thanks to some creepy chemist's Cthulhu cult. Aaron Poole stars as the shaky sheriff who lets you know how rattled he is when he shoots a patient in the head after bringing in a (different) twitchy, shot freak from the woods. The guys shooting at him arrive, 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: everyone shouting and waving guns, and about four different Clive Barker and John Carpenter movies come crashing together as THE THING and ASSAULT PRECINCT 13 merge together and then goes IN(to) THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, the church in Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the attics of Clive Barker's HELLRAISER, and 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 a good horror film, like when to use dialogue and when not to, where to put the camera, and how to set up an ominous mood. 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 doesn't count as plot development. When the film focuses on just one or two characters and allows itself to get quiet, it almost works. But the more is less approach eludes this VOID, as if all the elaborate monster tableaux are lined up offstage like a fashion show and, if they don't keep slithering out, they'll get so congested the film will burst.

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. She exudes actorly grace and sultry depth and strength and indeed 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, which Gillespie and Kostanski don't want. They prefer yelling and hamming. And worse, after the first chunk she's whisked down the rabbit hole to become just another imperiled Pauline and our trusty rattled sheriff's rescue attempt proves way less engaging than the sight of Munroe prowling the empty, quiet hall in search of drugs (They also shoehorn a kind of tired '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 this lonesome meth lab cabin. But where is the meth, damn it? Seems to me the meth is the key to Lovecraftian horror evocation and Gillespie and Kostanski would be better prepared to explore this aspect if they'd done meth --write what you know, bro. (sniffle) I bet that cult leader doctor could get his hands on some wonderful drugs. 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), fostering the connection between drug withdrawal and this hell dimension, for example. 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.

Gillespie and Kostanski, all these caveats aside, 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 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 screen at once and runs away 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, and a hysterical over-acting pre-med intern refusing to help, and around ten people yelling at the top of their lungs as people shoot and swing axes. The camera seems half in the way of the action instead of chronicling it, like a nervous spectator with one eye on the door, not helping, getting in the way, making Carpenter's genius 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 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 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. It's like making out with someone the first time, the going in for more kissing, and coming back out, the teasing and languor of leaning in and teasing vs. tongue; 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' or maybe 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. ASSAULT gained suspense from the camaraderie between the cops and outlaws in the face of a common enemy and the cool Hawksian focus of Zimmer; the quiet omnipresence of the nonspeaking gang members. Instead of the eerie silence of the gangs or the croaking THING incarnations, here we're forced to listen to the head bad guys' overly theatrical 'stage-voiced' dissertation on the 'new flesh' through what sounds like the PA system for way too many minutes. The bulk of the characters are all annoyingly one-note, between the screaming pre-med intern who panics and lets the pregnant woman almost die while she hams it up like a little brat, and the two rough townies (the good one's mute, the bad one never shuts up), there's so much negative energy that well, I had to go back to ASSAULT afterwards and be reminded Hawksian cool exists. The recent SUICIDE SQUAD also is an example of  a similar film that knows how to pace itself (that great bar interlude) and create some genuine rapport.

As for the score, a good deep droning retro-analog synth score (as in STRANGER THINGS or IT FOLLOWS) would have helped immeasurably. Another missed opportunity. 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 THING. Stumpy, don't make me tell you again. Give Kathleen Munroe a cigarette and a match and punch the first pisher who squawks about the ban.

(2016) Dir. Jackson Stewart

BEYOND THE GATES' musical score on the other hand is an effective melange of Goblin-esqe synths by retro-analog heavyweight Wojciech Golczewski. Like VOID, it's 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 movies but a video board game, NIGHTMARE,
which I'd never heard even existed before this film but had real commercials and everything! The story has a pair of semi-estranged "adult" brothers reuniting after their video rental store owner father vanishes, to mull through his old shit and maybe find out where he went. The 'dead' video store is a great location for a horror film but it's not utilized, really, at all, here half as well as it was in SOUTH PARK. Seen only in the first reel and even then only to put the brothers in contact with the last thing dad was watching (the videotape in the 'video board game' hosted by Barbara Crampton in new wave hair and eye liner, easily stealing the show). The bulk 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 - I know it fills me with a wearying sense of my life as one vain effort to outrun the universe's inescapable boredom, and thus is fit not just for horror and its return of the repressed, but for Antonioni at his most unsparing)

Missed opportunities aside, at least--unlike THE VOID-- Stewart's film has a compulsive watchability due to taking time with its characters and always making us think some dreadful thing is waiting around the next corner. That said, the pair of brothers at the center of the story don't make too much sense - they clearly never met before the movie began - and have nothing in common, not even antagonism. I can understand that they're opposites in style and temperament, that's common bro shit, but they seem to share no common memories and though they both supposedly worked at the store, and despite of all the time they must have spent in and around this video store, 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 every two seconds--the moment it gets the least bit spooooky, and 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. Fucking narcs, man. Would they call the cops if they found a stash of weed back in dad's office too?

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, where one would presume they've seen a few films. They haven't. Similarly, one is supposed to be sober, but there's ne'er a discussion of their past drinking binges. Son, 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, nor is there family resemblance and there's no real understanding why one brother seems to have inherited the house and store and the other just stays a kind of stumblebum (Chase Williamson, so good in JOHN DIES AT THE END), like some kind of EAST OF EDEN meets JUMANJI.

You da man, Chase

My main issue with the film, however, is the worminess of the square brother (Graham Skipper -intentionally unpictured), an actor-character combination 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's always dorks in AA who are just tourists and morons, not drunks. They go on one binge or get busted by their parents and sent to rehab boarding school after an RA finds a bag of weed in their room, or they just like AA because there everyone has to be their friend and hang out with them, no matter how skeevy they are. So while it was heartening 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 to that kind of drink wasting just to feel smug in judgment of their drunken fathers. Give it away to some needy friend off the wagon, 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 whine and 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, 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.

(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 Satanic/witchcraft cult-joining. Here two cute young freshmen girls are lured to the dark side during a LARP (Live Action Role Play) club rush; 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, while her budding bestie/possibly experimental lesbian crush, Marcie (Anastassia Higham), hangs herself because she's left behind at level-seven (she can't seem to take it seriously enough). 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 on 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 Jesus" ending. If you've even been out on a deep limb end and prayed the 'no atheists in a foxhole' prayer (ala AA) then you'll relate. 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 decorum and real love. Jesus wouldn't 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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