Archive for October 31, 2003

Where the Monsters Go: Day of the Dead

October 31, 2003


Go out and try to do something scary and eat something sweet. This holiday rules.

If you’re in the mood for some good scary reads to go with your tricking and treating and such, go visit Blogcritics’ Halloween Madness feature. They’re featuring tons of Halloween- and horror-related posts done by most everyone who ever posts at the site. (Practically all the reviews I’ve done this month are up there as well.) Glut your soul!

Where the Monsters Go: A poem

October 31, 2003

I walked by the sea, and there came to me,

as a star-beam on the wet sand,

a white shell like a sea-bell;

trembling it lay in my wet hand.

In my fingers shaken I heard waken

a ding within, by a harbour bar

a buoy swinging, a call ringing

over endless seas, faint now and far.

Then I saw a boat silently float

on the night-tide, empty and grey.

‘It is later than late! Why do we wait?’

I leapt in and cried: ‘Bear me away!’

It bore me away, wetted with spray,

wrapped in a mist, wound in a sleep,

to a forgotten strand in a strange land.

In the twilight beyond the deep

I heard a sea-bell swing in the swell,

dinging, dinging, and the breakers roar

on the hidden teeth of a perilous reef;

and at last I came to a long shore.

White it glimmered, and the sea simmered

with star-mirrors in a silver net;

cliffs of stone pale as ruel-bone

in the moon-foam were gleaming wet.

Glittering sand slid through my hand,

dust of pearl and jewel-grist,

trumpets of opal, roses of coral,

flutes of green and amethyst.

But under cliff-eaves there were glooming caves,

weed-curtained, dark and grey;

a cold air stirred in my hair,

and the light waned, as I hurried away.

Down from a hill ran a green rill;

its water I drank to my heart’s ease.

Up its fountain-stair to a country fair

of ever-eve I came, far from the seas,

climbing into meadows of fluttering shadows:

flowers lay there like fallen stars,

and on a blue pool, glassy and cool,

like floating moons the nenuphars.

Alders were sleeping, and willows weeping

by a slow river of rippling weeds;

gladdon-swords guarded the fords,

and green spears, and arrow-reeds.

There was echo of song all the evening long

down in the valley; many a thing

running to and fro: hares white as snow,

voles out of holes; moths on the wing

with lantern-eyes; in quiet surprise

brocks were staring out of dark doors.

I heard dancing there, music in the air,

feet going quick on the green floors.

But whenever I came it was ever the same:

the feet fled, and all was still;

never a greeting, only the fleeting

pipes, voices, horns on the hill.

Of river-leaves and the rush-sheaves

I made me a mantle of jewel-green,

a tall wand to hold, and a flag of gold;

my eyes shone like the star-sheen.

With flowers crowned I stood on a mound,

and shrill as a call at cock-crow

proudly I cried: ‘Why do you hide?

Why do none speak, wherever I go?

Here now I stand, king of this land,

with gladdon-sword and reed-mace.

Answer my call! Come forth all!

Speak to me words! Show me a face!’

Black came a cloud as a night-shroud.

Like a dark mole groping I went,

to the ground falling, on my hands crawling

with eyes blind and my back bent.

I crept to a wood: silent it stood

in its dead leaves, bare were its boughs.

There must I sit, wandering in wit,

while owls snored in their hollow house.

For a year and a day there must I stay:

beetles were tapping in the rotten trees,

spiders were weaving, in the mould heaving

puffballs loomed about my knees.

At last there came light in my long night,

and I saw my hair hanging grey.

‘Bent though I be, I must find the sea!

I have lost myself, and I know not the way,

but let me be gone!’ Then I stumbled on;

like a hunting bat shadow was over me;

in my ears dinned a withering wind,

and with ragged briars I tried to cover me.

My hands were torn and my knees worn,

and years were heavy upon my back,

when the rain in my face took a salt taste,

and I smelled the smell of sea-wrack.

Birds came sailing, mewing, wailing;

I heard voices in cold caves,

seals barking, and rocks snarling,

and in spout-holes the gulping of waves.

Winter came fast; into a mist I passed,

to land’s end my years I bore;

snow was in the air, ice in my hair,

darkness was lying on the last shore.

There still afloat waited the boat,

in the tide lifting, its prow tossing.

Weary I lay, as it bore me away,

the waves climbing, the seas crossing,

passing old hulls clustered with gulls

and great ships laden with light,

coming to haven, dark as a raven,

silent as snow, deep in the night.

Houses were shuttered, wind round them muttered,

roads were empty. I sat by a door,

and where drizzling rain poured down a drain

I cast away all that I bore:

in my clutching hand some grains of sand,

and a sea-shell silent and dead.

Never will my ear that bell hear,

never my feet that shore tread

Never again, as in sad lane,

in blind alley and in long street

ragged I walk. To myself I talk;

for still they speak not, men that I meet.

–J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Sea-Bell, or Frodo’s Dreme”

Where the Monsters Go: “What music they make!” 1

October 31, 2003

And through the life force and there goes her friend

On her Nishiki it

Where the Monsters Go: “Help!”

October 31, 2003

The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 13

1. The Blair Witch Project dir. Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez

the scariest movie I’ve ever seen

Well, here we are: Blair Witch. Let me say right off the bat that I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind here. This is a movie for which the phrase “you either love it or hate it” was invented. I remember seeing it on opening night in a theatre: Half the audience booed and yelled at the screen as the closing credits rolled, while the other half looked as though they’d just been eyewitnesses to a plane crash. With most films you can argue that people just didn’t “get it,” but it’s different with this movie: It gets you. Or it doesn’t. A lot depends on where you first see it, how you’d heard about it, the kind of mood you were in, and (I think) the kind of mood you allowed yourself to be in. So yeah, this movie gets you, or it doesn’t.

Good God, did it ever get me.

Opening night, August 1999, was not the first time I saw Blair Witch. That was actually back in June of that same summer. At the time I was working for Troma Studios, progenitors of the Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, and various other rubber-masked individuals you see at the San Diego Comic-Con or on E! Entertainment Television. The Troma Team had just gotten back from their yearly expedition to the Cannes Film Festival, which took place just before I began interning at the company. Along with the usual tales of living 20 people to a room and having your picture snapped by hundreds of paparazzi while dressed as a man-eating condom, my coworkers had brought back a videotape. It was given to them by the makers of The Blair Witch Project, who, it turns out, were enormous Troma fans. (I guess Troma is an inspiration for anyone who wants to make a movie for less than no money, although clearly the Blair Witch people emphasized Troma’s can-do spirit and not so much their fondness for exploding heads.) They gave them a copy of their movie, which was just beginning to garner some attention during its screenings at the festival, as a gift. Needless to say the Troma folks were quite excited: Horror-film true-believers to a man (and woman), they were up for anything, as long as it was frightening. Before long copies were making the rounds of the whole staff, and I remember being quite excited when I finally got mine. There was no hype, no stories in Newsweek or Time proclaiming this the scariest film in history and touting its micro-budget blockbuster status, no appearances on late-night and early-morning talk shows to publicize it, no endless parodies consisting of people talking into videocameras. All I knew when I took my copy home was that it was a mockumentary, and that it was scary.

That weekend I dutifully summoned my buddy Dave G. (the cartoonist currently known as Davey Oil), the guy who forces me to call myself the second biggest horror fan I know. By the time Dave and I got around to putting the thing into the VCR, it was late–I think around 11 o’clock or so. The house was quiet, and it was dark outside. We sat back and began to watch.

I’m not sure at what point it began to dawn on me that I had never, literally never, been so scared in my entire life. I think it might have been when the three student filmmakers woke up to find someone had constructed little rock monuments around their tent that Dave and I began saying “oh, shit” compulsively. I remember that around the third nightfall or so, when the tent was shaken, that my heart was pounding so hard it was actually uncomfortable and my stomach had that feeling it gets when you narrowly avoid a car accident. People, we were completely terrified. There wasn’t a single level on which this film didn’t work for us–the realistically pointless vulgarity of the kids’ speech, the endless grays and browns of the video-taped forest, the way in which the lights from the camera illuminated just this much of the night, leaving so much of it ripe for possession by something… other. Even the fact that the Troma copies were the rough-sound edit enhanced the experience: though we couldn’t hear what the characters could when noises awoke them during the night, we wanted to, and we sat on the edge of our seats and strained our ears and damned if our minds didn’t provide a soundtrack that more than adequately scared the wits out of us.

And then–and then–the final scene. This time the yelling in the distance we could hear, and I still wish, when I hear it again, that I couldn’t. The panicky running of Mike & Heather, that house looming up out of nowhere–my God, I was shaking, shaking hard. And then they went inside–no, please don’t! I still vividly remember thinking to myself, almost in an abstract fashion, that if an old woman’s smiling face were to appear in one of those (many, goddamn it) windows I would literally collapse in fear. Then up to the top floor, then yelling that “I hear him downstairs!”, then running into that basement, turning a corner– Heather following, screaming over and over again, past the handprints and scrawled gibberish on the walls, down the stairs, around the corner– oh my God, what is he doing? WHAT IS HE DOING IN THE CORNER?

The End.

Dave and I sat for a moment, staring at the credits as they rolled by. Then slowly, we turned to each other. Our eyes widened. “Holy shit,” we said, almost in unison, “what a scary fucking movie.” There is almost no way in which I could exaggerate how horrified we were by that film that night. Despite the fact that at this point I had to urinate so badly it was painful, I think it took us 45 minutes to actually work up enough nerve to get out of our chairs and move to another part of the house to go to the bathroom. Since the bathroom was one of those deals where the fan comes on automatically with the light, thus making it difficult to hear what’s going on the other side of the door if it’s closed, I forced Dave to walk with me to the bathroom, stand outside, and continuously talk to me as loudly as possible while I peed, just so I could be sure that he was still there and hadn’t disappeared. At some point we realized it was late and I had to drive him back to his house on the other side of town. This was a genuinely harrowing ordeal. We were scared of the distance from my door to the car. During the car ride, we were scared of the back of the car itself, which was way too dark for us to be able to handle it. We were scared of the way the headlights illuminated the night–way, way too much like those camera lights for comfort. When we finally got to Dave’s house, it took us another 15 minutes to build up the courage to actually allow Dave to exit the car, walk the 20 feet or whatever to the back door, and go inside. Then I had to drive back to the house alone, making the back of the car even more frightening and making every dark street I passed by a goddamn nightmare. Then I had to navigate the space between the car and the house myself, then walk through the entire dark, empty, silent ground floor–past the freaking television where the freaking movie was just playing, for the love of God!–by myself, walk up those creaky stairs (stairs!) by myself, and turn the light on in my room without having a heart attack from thinking that something would be in there waiting for me. I say it again: this was the most scared I’ve ever been in my life.

A few weeks later, I brought the movie with me on a trip with some friends to a cabin in the woods upstate. At this point I was still terrified by the movie, but enjoyed the experience enough to subject others to it. And they were outraged by how scared they got. One girl called it “emotional porn” and was furious at the filmmakers for having made something so completely harrowing (and she’s no anti-horror puritan–she was just scared half to death).

And then a few weeks after that was the premiere in theatres. This was a very different experience–better in some ways (watching a crowd of strangers have the bloody bejesus scared out of them was fun; some of the more grating lines of dialogue, ones that didn’t ring true, were cut; and of course the sounds from around the tent were now fully audible), worse in others (the disappointed/pissed off moviegoers who booed; the fact that the movie really does work better as an unlabeled nth-generation bootleg than as a big-screen projection).

The main difference, though, involved the ending. This is a spoiler, so far as it goes: The final image consists of Mike standing in a corner. In the version I originally saw, no explanation was ever given for what the hell was going on here. None. So either he’s dead, and something has propped him up, or he’s alive, and—uuhhhhhh GOD I don’t even want to think about it. However, in the theatrical version, a man-on-the-street interview was added to the collection of such snippets at the film’s beginning, in which a local claims that the serial killer once inspired/possessed by the Witch would take kids into the basement two at a time, and make one face the corner while he killed the other. So we switch from a nameless horror that I’m still trying to scrape out of my brain to a “hey lookout she’s over there!!!” kinda moment. It’s a lousy tradeoff, as even the actress Heather Donahue seemed to notice–though she didn’t specify what she was talking about, she feistily pointed out on Leno that week that she and the other two actors had shot everything in the film themselves “except one thing.” She wasn’t happy about that one thing, let me tell you. Neither was I, but so what? I’d done without it, to my everlasting horror and delight.

Are there movies that are, as a whole, scarier than this one? Yes, I’d probably have to say so. The Shining, and probably The Exorcist, and maybe even Texas Chain Saw and The Ring are packed wall-to-wall with terrifying images and relentless ante-upping horror. Blair Witch has sticks and stones. But it relies on the strength of its stars–three humans, and their collective fear. If you see it in the right way, at the right time, with the right people, that fear overtakes you. And you’re there in the basement, standing in the corner.

Where the Monsters Go: “What music they make!” 2

October 31, 2003

Setting sun can’t shine, now you’re gone

Inside sleeping, my heart beating

You know that you tried to hide it

Couldn’t you have said what you meant?

Time heals, time congeals around us

Endless hours of wasted moments

Understanding’s not demanding

Your eyes tell what you feel inside

Setting sun can’t shine, now you’re gone

Inside sleeping, my heart beating

You know that you tried to hide it

Shouldn’t you have said what you meant?

You lied

–Tool, “You Lied” (originally by Peach)

Where the Monsters Go: “What music they make!” 4

October 31, 2003

perfect little dream the kind that hurts the most

forgot how it feels well almost

no one to blame always the same

open my eyes wake up in flames

it took you to make me realize

it took you to make me realize

it took you to make me realize

it took you to make me see the light

smashed up my my sanity

smashed up integrity

smashed up what i believed in

smashed up what’s left of me

smashed up my everything

smashed up all that was true

gonna smash myself to pieces

i don’t know what else to do

covered in hope and vaseline

still cannot fix this broken machine

watching the hole it used to be mine

just watching it burn in my steady systematic decline

of the trust i will betray

give it to me i throw it away

after everything i’ve done i hate myself for what i’ve become

i tried

i gave up

throw it away

–nine inch nails, “gave up”

Where the Monsters Go: “What music they make!” 3

October 31, 2003

Close the door, put out the light

You know they won’t be home tonight

The snow falls hard and don’t you know

The winds of Thor are blowing cold

They’re wearing steel that’s bright and true

They carry news that must get through

They choose the path where no-one goes

They hold no quarter,

They ask no quarter.

Walking side by side with death

The devil mocks their every step

The snow drives back that the foot that’s slow

The dogs of doom are howling more

They carry news that must get through

To build a dream for me and you

They choose the path where no-one goes

They hold no quarter, they ask no quarter.

–Led Zeppelin, “No Quarter”

Where the Monsters Go: “You’ve had your whole fucking life to think things over”

October 30, 2003

The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 12

2. The Shining, dir. Stanley Kubrick

the second scariest movie I’ve ever seen

Look at this.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

And hey, while you’re at it, look at this, and this.

I’ll admit it: Even in broad daylight, sitting in my goofy romper-room of an office, with people talking and music playing and all manner of distractingly normal goings-on going on, those pictures beat me. I actually cannot look at them for long without quickly scrolling past, or giggling nervously, or simply looking away. And now, as I type this in our darkened apartment, I’m afraid to look over my shoulder at the doorway to our bedroom. I am a grown man, and three little images, two of which aren’t even of anything inherently frightening, all of which I’ve seen a million times before, have scared me to the point of irrationality.

This is how Stanely Kubrick’s horror masterpiece–and I swear to you those are not words I use lightly–The Shining operates. This film is not content to spook you from behind shadows or gross you out with kayro-syruped viscera. This film wants to scare the living shit out of you, over and over again, and not really for any particular reason. This film is a bully. This is arrogant horror.

“Arrogant”–I struggled for a long time to find a word to describe the mentality of the horror in this movie (yes, we’re ascribing mentality to an intangible quality–why not? this is a movie about an evil hotel, right?). The critical blurb on the cover says “epic,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. This is certainly horror on a grand scale, but I think that word was chosen simply because this wasn’t a skeevy little movie made on the cheap like most horror tended to be throughout film history, whether we’re talking about the Universal classics or the creature-features of the 50s or the new wave of Romero, Hooper, Carpenter, Craven et al. Also, I think “epic” connotes some sort of struggle between mighty opponents–the type of thing we see in The Exorcist. The Shining‘s Dick Halloran is many things, but Father Lancaster Merrin he isn’t.

I stumbled across “arrogant,” finally, when looking at the performance of Jack Nicholson as the deteriorating patriarch of the Torrance family with the same first name. I don’t often focus on this aspect of the movie, transfixed as I am by the imagery seen above. But it’s this aspect that many fans of the film’s source novel, its author not least among them, blamed for what they considered a failed movie. They believe the film doesn’t work because we never feel sympathy or empathy for Jack Torrance–it’s clear from the moment he opens his mouth that he’s about five minutes away from Richard Speck territory. Nicholson, who studied the larger-than-life performance techniques of Grand Guignol actors to prepare for the role, does not exactly attempt to capture the inner torment of a man losing a struggle with his own demons. He plays it like a schtick, grunting and gesticulating, staring and grinning, and most importantly, mocking and sneering. His is an evil that drips with condescension and contempt for everything good. It’s present as early as when he sarcastically echoes his wife Wendy’s assertion that writing is just a matter of getting back into the habit, but it explodes into the forefront during the long pas de deux from the typewriter to the stairs. Jack transparently feigns concern for their son Danny’s health and patronizingly asks Wendy her opinion on what should be done. He mimics her high-pitched weepy voice. In the midst of threatening to bash her brains in, he comically reprimands her for not allowing him to complete his sentences. He sticks his tongue out and makes a goofy voice like a taunting child as he tells her to hand over her baseball bat. When he’s finally put out of comission for the time being, he fakes contriteness and injury so badly that there’s no chance of his wife believing him, so badly that the only possible purpose is to display the extent to which he believes Wendy is a total fucking moron. He’s not just crazy, and he’s not just evil–he’s an asshole.

This is what is terrifying about The Shining. Not just Nicholson’s performance, but those horrendous visions–textbook monumental horror-images one and all–it all mocks our desire for solid ground to stand on. We want a main character with a tragic arc, but we get a smirking prick on a straight shot into lunacy; we want one who fights to stay human, but we get one whose essential inhumanity appears to have been there all along waiting for its chance to escape. We want an evil we can define, in a form we can recognize, with a cause we can identify and a cure we can affect; but we get random, almost arbitrary snippets of nightmare, ranging from a river of blood and a reanimated corpse to a couple of kids and goddamn spectral “furry,” interlaced with a dry drunk who falls off the wagon thanks to the help of a phantom bartender, all of which ostensibly will continue to plague visitors to the hotel site “forever and ever and ever,” and all of which is “explained” in a throwaway line about Indian burial grounds that paradoxically highlights just how arbitrary the entire “explanation” is to begin with. (Actually, there’s a fascinating interpretation of the film which argues that the whole thing is a metaphor for the Euro-American genocide against the American Indians–you can read all about it here. Watch the movie with this in mind and you’ll see it’s all there. Was this intentional and serious, or intentional and a gag, or just the equivalent of playing Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz? I think the film feels we don’t deserve to know for sure.) Perhaps this is best encapsulated by the arbitrary changes to facts established earlier in the film when they’re brought up later on: Wendy tells Danny’s doctor that Jack dislocated Danny’s shoulder five months ago, but a month later, when Jack is pouring his heart out to Lloyd the bartender, it’s become two years; the hotel manager tells Jack that the former caretaker who ran amok was named Charles Grady, but when Jack speaks with Grady later on, the man calls himself Delbert. Given Kubrick’s well-deserved reputation for perfectionism, I think we can safely assume this wasn’t the result of the script girl having the day off–it seems to be just another way for the film to demonstrate that it’s making its own rules, and the rules will always be to the detriment of normality and sanity.

This movie may be Grand Guignol imbued with the Theater of the Absurd, but it’s lower-case-“a” absurd, too. It has a wickedly black sense of humor that, for once, heightens the horror, not deflates it. I still laugh when the music builds to a crescendo only to have the chords crash frighteningly upon the appearance of the word “TUESDAY”–scariest Tuesday ever!; the cut to Danny’s horrified doctor as Wendy tells the story of Danny’s injury is just priceless; you’ve got to think that even Wendy and Danny noticed the, ahem, appropriateness of the Road Runner cartoon they watch; and what can we say about Dick Halloran’s interior decorating? That last bit is, I think, particularly telling: Kubrick takes one of Stephen King’s great everyman heroes (I actually am quite fond of them) and turns him into both a dirty old man and a blaxploitation parody. It’s very funny, and very mean. It’s a kick in the teeth of the notion that anything in this movie will be capable of heroism, capable of creating sense, capable of defeating evil. This evil knows our hopes and, to paraphrase Lou Reed, pisses on them. It’s the proverbial boot stamping on the human face. It’s a dead man with a bleeding head saying “Great party, isn’t it?” It’s wrong.

I truly had to debate with myself as to where to rank this film in my countdown. For years, this was the scariest movie I’d ever seen, no question; The Exorcist came close, but the horrible purposeleness of this movie, as well as the unparalleled terror of those images, kept The Shining in a class by itself–the class of movies that can still keep me up at night, afraid. Eventually, I saw a movie that beat it. I saw that movie under just the right circumstances, though, and I don’t know if it’s worth arguing whether it really is “scarier” than this one. All I know is that any time I think of those two little girls, I believe that pound for pound, scene for scene, horror–arrogant, arbitrary, absurd, cruel, evil horror–comes no more horrifying than this.

Except, perhaps, for…

(to be concluded)


Postscript: I did a lot of writing about The Shining back in my film studies days. Kubrick films hold up under close reading better than those of any other director, in my opinion, so it should come as no surprise that I actually manged to pull off two separate close readings, separated by three years. The first was a study of the film’s employment of duality, and especially mirrors and mirroring–you can download it here, and I truly do think you’ll be surprised to see just how much thought went into every shot in the film, as evidenced by just this one trope.

The second took place in the context of my senior essay on the monumental horror-image, this time focusing on the countless appearances of such images in the film. You can access the whole senior essay by clicking here, but once again I’m reprinting the relevant part in an effort to offset all the waxing poetic I did up above with some hardcore textual analysis. Again, it’s simply astounding how rational was the planning of this, a film about the complete failure of rationality. Enjoy.


Analyses of The Shining often focus on its psychological horror, in particular the madness of Jack Torrance, its central character. This detracts from the painstaking manner in which Kubrick sets up monumental horror-images (particularly those of the first type) so as to overpower characters and audience alike with the horror of the

Comix and match

October 29, 2003

“So much to do and so little time.”–Harry Chapin, “Sniper”

Mark Millar is going to be doing a Spider-Man book with the Dodsons. It’s going to be tough to shake that Trouble stigma, but I do like the sound of where he’s planning on going with this. I also like that Marvel is doing Marvel Knights (read: slightly more sophisticated, slightly less continuity-wonky, usually better) versions of its big characters (The Fantastic Four will also be wandering into MK territory, and of course The Incredible Hulk and New X-Men are basically MK-style books already.

John Jakala offers an admirably comprehensive defense of Watchmen, Alan Moore’s seminal revisionist-superhero saga. I’ve noticed lately that this seems to be the book winning Most Likely To Be Kicked Around By People Trying To Prove They’re Not Suckers For Everything Comics Fans Have Labelled “A Classic,” which is ridiculous, because this book really is that good. Eve Tushnet agrees, by the way, and eloquently.

Bryan Miller points out how annoying the Greg Horn-painted Emma Frost banner-ads are on comics site Comic Book Resources. As I and many others have said, they’re even more annoying in their original form as covers on the Emma Frost series. The book itself is a good one, a relatively sensitive tale of a young girl trying to make it in an asshole-male’s world, and the covers look like ads for Flashdancers. It’s so wrong for the demographic the book is intended for–manga-buying teenage girls–that it can only be the result of a decision made by comics professionals.

Franklin Harris goes Deliverance on Jeph Loeb’s Superman/Batman. Poor Jeph is rapidly becoming the comicsphere’s own personal Ned Beatty. Well, at least there’s Graeme McMillan, who in a shocking lapse of judgement appears to say that Loeb is on the same level as Grant Morrison because, like, a ton of stuff happens in their books. (Your blog is fun, so we’ll let that one slide for now, Graeme.)

Where the Monsters Go: Later, again

October 29, 2003

Maybe the most horrific aspect of my movie-review marathon is that I only allowed myself to put 13 of them into the big countdown proper. That means that a whole lot of my favorites (I’ve got a lot of favorite horror films, you see) missed the cut. One such movie is 28 Days Later, but fortunately I blogged about it back when I actually saw it in theatres. (I love that I’ve been blogging long enough to say things like that.) Here’s what I said back then, only very mildly edited for coherence. Blood-vomiting goodness awaits you!

Where the Monsters Go: When there’s no more room in Hell

October 29, 2003

Call me radiation from Venus, because the whole scariest-movie-ever thing is spreading like zombification in the Dead movies.

Alan David Doane submits 28 Days Later for your consideration, though he qualifies it by saying the fright comes in large part from shock tactics as opposed to true lasting horror. I’ve wondered about this myself, and am looking forward to checking the film out again to see how it holds up (though God knows which ending I’ll prefer–they’ve got like 12 of them now).

Eve Tushnet nominates Carnival of Souls. This one I haven’t seen, and from the sound of it that’s my loss.

David Fiore‘s candidates are Martin Scorses’s After Hours and David Salle’s Search and Destroy, two movies I also haven’t seen. Part of the fun of this whole thing has been adding to my list of films to see.

Jason Adams becomes one of the first people I’ve ever heard of who prefers the original, Japanese version of The Ring (Ringu) to its American remake. He makes some solid points, though, as always, including something I hadn’t thought of about the surprise climax (yes, there’s spoilers of the hardcore kind in there).

Bill Sherman has created a lovely post on the very ugly EC horror-comics of yore. A pleasure to read and to look at.

RetroCrush’s 100 Scariest Movie Scenes countdown is finished, and I’ve got to say, they did a tremendous job. They included almost all the truly great moments, and ranked them respectably as well, though of course I have some big disagreements as anyone would. (Relapsed Catholic points out, rightly, that the best scenes from The Silence of the Lambs–the ones everybody really talked about, as I can remember even though I was young and didn’t see it back then–are missing.) So far, I think this is the best Halloween-related anything of the year.

Finally, though this isn’t strictly horror-related, both Eve and David have taken me to task for thinking Grosse Pointe Blank is immoral. But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Yes yes, John Cusack’s character stops killing people and settles down at the end, but is he ever punished in any way for the awful way he led his life? Other than the inconvenience of having Minnie Driver be mildly irritated with him for a few hours, that is? I think his change of heart at the end of the film is as perfunctory as could be. Moreover, are we ever supposed to find him awful, even when he is still killing? I submit that no, we’re not–we’re supposed to think “Oh hey, this is Lloyd Dobbler from Say Anything–isn’t he charming? Isn’t he cute? And listen to his taste in music–it’s almost as cool as Lloyd’s was! So what if he’s killing people all the time for money–Nobody’s perfect! Actually, on second thought, that makes him even cooler–he’s adorable AND a bad-ass!” Bleccch. This movie left a really bad taste in my mouth. (I also don’t handle Lethal Weapon/Bad Boys/Jerry Bruckheimer shoot-em-ups very well–I don’t think violence is particularly funny if it’s never really shown to have consequences too. This is not to say that I don’t like action movies–I do. Just wait until I start talking about Kill Bill.)

Where the Monsters Go: “There is only one”

October 29, 2003

The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 11

3. The Exorcist, dir. William Friedkin

the third scariest film I’ve ever seen

“Allahu akbar…”

These are the first words we hear. So we’re in foreign territory, then, and territory presided over by a very great God, one who demands–and receives–worshipful obedience. To dust off an almost forgotten cliche: ‘In light of recent events,’ it might be tempting to believe that we are to understand the events that follow as a product of this devotion to the potentially murderous mysteries of faith. It is equally tempting to fume about Orientalism and misrepresentation of the Other. Interesting ideas indeed, but here I’m going to opt to ignore the forest and focus on one of the trees: This movie begins in Iraq, an appropriate instance of synchronicity given that The Exorcist, the film widely considered to be the greatest horror film of all time, is actually a war movie.

Of course I’m not referring to a war between countries, or even between civilizations, although there are certainly hints of the latter in the rapid-fire juxtaposition of Islam, paganism, Christianity, and modern atheism that begin the film. I am referring to that most unfashionable war, that of good versus evil. But it even trumps the unfashionable rhetoric of today, which when it uses those four letter words does so as codes for democracy and totalitarianism. This is not a philosophical war, or even a religious one. It’s a spiritual one–literally, a war between spirits. The field of battle is humankind, the weapons are lethal in the highest degree, and the horror of the conflict, in which neither side answers to man and law, is total.

I can’t think of another horror film that’s as… majestic as The Exorcist. The horrific images it employs are not just frightening, they’re mind-blowingly so, and deliberately at that. This is a film intended to scare the living daylights right out of you for hours after you leave the theatre or turn the TV off. It’s the cinematic equivalent of shock and awe, and its makers are virtuosos to rival any four-star general. And it’s all harnessed (quite explicitly, in the oft-stated words of its director) to force the audience to confront the idea not just that we are not alone in our world, but that this world is not ours at all.

The demon is first shown as a tiny statue, with the noise of insects buzzing incongruously as it is discovered. Friedkin is already establishing that this thing is royalty–it is the Lord of the Flies. We see it stop a clock. We seem to hear its influence in the cacaphony of the town–the clanging of hammers on anvils, the thunderous stampeding of carriage hoofs as a wild-eyed woman (not the last one we’ll see, oh no) is pulled past, mouth agape as if in some silent scream. We see the potential of the little statue realized in a massive monument–monkeylike head, insect wings, snakelike phallus, blank eyes. The noise swells and buzzes and screeches and growls and screams. That kind of intensity is unmistakeable: War has been declared.

The battleground is a body, that of Regan McNeil, a young girl from Washington, D.C. (and that is surely no coincidence). Here, actually, is where many critics stall: This must be a film about male anxiety over female sexuality! Well, yes, it is that–if Regan’s curiosity about her mother’s love life didn’t tip you off, and the displaced menstrual imagery of urination and surgical blood spurts didn’t either, and dozens of male doctors penetrating her with all manner of needles and tubes still left you guessing, surely “Fuck me!” and “Let Jesus fuck you!” and “Lick me!” and “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell, Karras!” weren’t insufficiently obvious. But it isn’t any more about just that than, say, Apocalypse Now is just a critique of U.S. foreign policy in Indochina. Human sexuality–human female sexuality–the onset of human female sexuality–these are just weapons in the war, accessible by either side. What better way to erode the resistance of the humans who comprise both the battlefield and the frontline troops than to force them to focus on areas they see as private and personal, if not shameful and animal?

As in many wars, at first the wrong kinds of troops are deployed. We’re supposed to be comforted by the clinical whites of modern medicine, even when they’re stained red. But it becomes rapidly apparent that as much guesswork and dead-ending and thinly veiled savagery is present here as in the work of the “witch doctors” such disciplines believe themselves to have supplanted. The boundaries are blurred further by the sideline professions of the witch doctors themselves. Our very first glimpses of Father Lancaster Merrin show him to be an archaeologist, apparently of some reknown; he simply seems to have brought along, in addition to intellectual curiosity about the old gods, fear of them as well. But our protagonist witch-doctor, Father Damien Karras, does not have the regal, professorial carriage of Father Merrin. What he has is a massively sympathetic face with eyes that seem to pour forth emotion like faucets, a degree in psychology as valid as that held by any of the condescending experts, and the frightening knowledge that his faith is failing him. This modern witch doctor, who has been the latter half of his split personality, is about to see his belief in the former shaken to its foundations as well.

The primary method of assault is visual. (It tends to be, in the great horror films: As Mr. Morgan puts it in The Ring, “My God, the things she’d show you”; or as the Hitchhiker puts in in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, “You like this face?”) The demon (the filmmakers) show them (us) an escalating onslaught of horrors. Regan’s face is wounded and made monstrous. The lights flicker in and out. Regan’s head twists around like an owl’s, and her tongue extends like a snake’s. She levitates the bed, then she levitates herself. She flashes the face of a demon (the first apperance of which, in Father Karras’s dream (we’re talking about the original version of the film here; I think its earlier appearance in the special edition loses much of its power, though to be sure I’d need to ask someone who saw it for the first time that way) is in my opinion the second scariest image ever put on film). The demon statue appears behind her. And most horrifyingly–for it almost succeeds–she transforms into Father Karras’s mother. As voiced by actor Jason Miller in one of the all-time great performances, the anguished cry Karras responds with–“You’re not my mother!”–is like some pathetic inversion of the final words of many a dying soldier.

The assault is aural, too. The demon’s voice emanates incongrously from the little girl’s body, as does at one point or another the voice of a homeless man and a dead English film director and a dead mother of a priest. The demon’s language is obviously an assault on the ears. The otherworldy growls, screams, buzzing and screeching crescendo repeatedly. And we musn’t forget the extradiegetic music, any more than we’d forget the terrific splendor of Father Merrin’s spotlit arrival at the McNeil household while Regan’s demon eyes stare expectantly outward. Harsh, dissonant strings, tinkling bells, ambient tones–evil has a power of beauty just as does good.

And good’s power is cruel just as is evil’s. Good relies on strength, and on the projection of that strength. The priests shout and yell. They wrestle and restrain. They strike. They dress in uniforms, like soldiers. They wield weapons of God. They chant like the repeat of artillery: “The power of Christ compels you,” over and over again, sending chills up and down the spine, over and over again until that power’s compulsion is at last affected. It’s a magesterial moment: At last, good is bringing out weapons big enough and hard enough to fight those that evil has used throughout.

War is death, and there is death here, brutal, human death–heart attacks and defenestration are sufficient to feed the fires of this battle. And it’s the sacrifice of soldiers, make no mistake about it. They submit themselves for sacrifice not because they don’t fear death–clearly they do, evidenced by the fervor with which Father Karras tells Regan’s mother Chris that Regan will not die–but because they do fear it, and because that fear gives them basis for comparison against the superior fear of the evil such sacrifices are meant to combat. Good (at first I accidentally typed God, but I suppose it wasn’t much of an accident) demands such sacrifices without compunction. After all, this is war.

My point is that, in a sense, this movie lacks that awful certainty I tend to look for in horror. There is evil, which his a horrifying notion, but there is also good, which is… leavening, if not comforting. But still I say only “in a sense,” because even though evil has an opponent, we are still caught in the crossfire. At any moment we may be asked to believe the unbelievable in order to fight the unspeakable. It may cost us our faith. It may cost us our sanity. It may cost us our lives. How we rank those losses is the film’s central question. And the realiztion that there are forces whose intrusion could cause that ranking to change, forever, is the horror at the movie’s heart.


Postscript: It should come as no surprise to you that in a war waged in and by a horror film, the monumental horror image is what I view to be the most lethal weapon in the arsenal. In my senior essay I did a close reading of The Exorcist, detailing the use of the monumental horror images throughout the film and the profound, “cosmic” fear they engender. Below you can find reprinted the relevant portion; to read the whole essay, click here and find out how.


The inspiration of cosmic fear

That’s a rather personal question, sir

October 29, 2003

Looooong posts ahead. Please don’t let that stop you from scrolling down to see what else is around!

Where the Monsters Go: “There’s just some things you have to do. Don’t mean you have to like it.”

October 28, 2003

The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 10

4. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, dir. Tobe Hooper

Back in college I lived with the same six other guys for three years. All of us had different interests, almost all of us had different majors (I think there were two history guys, but one of those was also a musician, and the rest of us were involved in film studies, architecture, art, economics, and pre-med stuff), but one thing we all had in common is that any time I brought home a movie, everyone was up for watching it. It pretty much didn

More music

October 28, 2003

You call this an R.E.M. best-of? Even if you agree with their dubious decision to make this a Warner Bros/1990s-only compilation, this isn’t even all the best of that period. In the above link, D. Emerson Eddy runs down some of the songs that are missing. And the notion that anyone should buy an R.E.M. retrospective that includes nothing–nothing–from Document or anything before it is just as goofy as hell. It’s not like the casual fan will care about the need to make this a 1988-2003-only comp: They’ll just wonder where “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and “Fall On Me” and “The One I Love” and “Radio Free Europe” went, and try to figure out how they got half a greatest-hits set. U2 and David Bowie have both managed to produce greatest-hits sets recently that are both comprehensive and entertaining–to say nothing of Elvis and the Beatles. What’s going on here, anyway?

Journalists love, perform Strokes

October 28, 2003

I don’t know whether Guy Cimbalo of likes the new Strokes record or not, but boy howdy has he humiliated everyone else who’s written about it. He’s assembled a hugely entertaining list of the rock-journo cliches employed by reviewers of the album. Vicious! (That Lou Reed reference is just to get you in the mood.)

Comix and match

October 27, 2003

Thanks to all this horror stuff I’ve been a bit behind on the comics beat, I know. Why don’t let’s play catch-up?

First of all, I’d like to call everyone’s attention to the current Dave Gibbons/Lee Weeks Captain America run, which is just as entertaining as hell. While the stolid, cramped continuity-wonking of 1602 gets tons and tons of attention, this little unheralded storyline sticks the various Marvel Universe heroes in an alternate-timeline donnybrook about a billion times more entertainingly and convincingly. Plus, they fight Nazis. Plus, it’s called “Cap Lives.” It’s good, is what I’m saying.

The Pulse brings us a characteristically grumpy-sounding interview with Erik Larsen, creator of the improbably long-running superhero series Savage Dragon. I think there’s been something of a slump in quality in this series recently, but generally this is one of the most entertaining, unpredictable superbooks out there. Paradoxically, it’s also one of the most reverent AND most iconoclastic regarding the conventions of superherodom. I think it’s fantastic that Image has planned to get trades of the entire series in print, because it’s really best read from the beginning, preferably in during a Lost Weekend of junk food and booze.

Dirk Deppey has been sparring with some retailers lately regarding his theories about manga, graphic novels, and the bookstore market, and seems to have done pretty well for himself for the tussling. He and Graeme McMillan (permalink pending) have also been trying to wrap their heads around Marvel’s apparent decision to make collections of some of their manga-ish Tsunami series available only to bookstores–Dirk blames peevish vindictiveness against the Direct Market, Graeme credits a Machiavellian plot to drive up Marvel’s bookstore-market share. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a little of both, and in both cases I’m having a hard time getting upset. This kind of move isn’t likely to sink Marvel, the DM, or even the books themselves–what it amounts to is a relatively inconsequential but totally unmistakable kick in the nuts of the DM, an entity that needs its nuts kicked hella bad. Meanwhile, Shawn Fumo reports that the bookstore-only collections might not materialize at all. Frankly I’d trust Publisher’s Weekly before some dude on a messboard, but u-decide.

Speaking of message boards, J.W. Hastings seconds my emotion regarding the comparative utility of messboards and blogs, and is even tougher than I am on the silliness that goes down at the Comics Journal’s board.

But in the interest of even-handedness, if you’re looking for the best superhero comics to read, you could do worse than to follow the suggestions on this thread on the subject. The discussion is staying almost unbelievably civil so far.

Back on the J.W. Hastings front, the blogger commonly known as Forager pits Frank Miller against Alan Moore in a superheroes-for-grownups grudge match. Looks like Moore will win, in J.W.’s eyes, but for me it’s all Miller. Miller’s work is one thing I will probably never be able to write intelligently about, because I love his stuff so much that it’s pretty much inarticulatable for me.

D. Emerson Eddy offers a mixed verdict on the debut issue of the Azzarello/Risso Batman story. I’m of two minds on this myself: Risso draws Batman as well as anyone who isn’t named Frank Miller, and Azzarello is smart enough to show him beating the snot out of a criminal for his opening scene, thus eschewing the fall-back position for Batman writers of just making the caped crusader suffer all the time. (I’m tired of watching Batman being hunted. He’s Batman, not the fucking Fugitive.) On the other hand, the noirish narration just doesn’t fit with the operatic character himself, and even taken as noirish narration the constant Clever Turns Of Phrase wear incredibly thin after a while. I noticed this tendency of Azzarello’s in 100 Bullets recently, which is why i stopped buying its monthly installments–everyone talks like they stayed up all night writing down clever things to say. Witness this exchange from the Batbook:

BATMAN: And you are…?


BATMAN: Margo?…

PRETTY LADY: Farr. And to the wall for my man.

BATMAN: You seem to be backed up against it.

PRETTY LADY: If it looks like what I’m up against is a wall, you’re the one that’s backed up.

Verbally, the gymnastics these two go through to have that conversation are just as dextrous as the ones they apparently endure to get into their respective outfits. They’re also just as realistic, but not nearly as much fun to watch. Sigh.

Alan David Doane has an experience similar to the one I had months ago at his local Borders. His seems to bode well for American comics–not as well as for manga, but still.

Two bits of snark to wrap things up:

1) Has anyone else noticed that Citizen Soldier from Micah “Fightin’ the Man, Bitchin’ about Everything” Wright’s StormWatch: Team Achilles is just Nuke from Miller & Mazuchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again with the flag on his face painted upside-down instead of rightside-up?

2) The Warren Ellis Self-Parody Watch continues….

Where the Monsters Go: feast your eyes

October 27, 2003

First Kill Bill, now Rite of Spring: is it me, or is ol’ James Lileks’s aversion to unpleasant art getting a little tedious? He honestly seems to see such things as a threat to Civilization As We Know It. I’m not the smartest student of human history, but it seems to me that people who freak out about such things always end up looking like priggish schmucks as the mighty river of time flows by. I know that as a horror fan I’ve got something a vested interest in defending art that reveals horrible truths (put truths in scare quotes if it makes you feel better); and it’s not like I myself don’t draw the line someplace about amoral art (I personally think action comedies are loathsome–Grosse Pointe Blank is one of the most reprehensible films ever made, f’rinstance); but seriously, chill out, James. Maybe everything isn’t all happiness and light here in The Modern Age. There’s value in depicting unpleasant behavior and ideas in art, one that does not equate to endorsing those behaviors and ideas. I know there’s a war for Western Civ on, and I’m as In For The Big Win as the next guy, but is this idea really that difficult to accept?

Meanwhile, thanks to Big Sunny D and Eve Tushnet for the kind words on The 13 Days of Halloween. Relapsed Catholic is enjoyin’ it too, except for all them SAT words I keep throwing in. I know that the reviews have been a little flowery, and that was not planned at the outset, I assure you–it just kinda came out that way. My guess is that I love these films so much I can’t help but wax rhapsodic about them. Glad to hear that, for the most part, people are enjoying them anyway.

On the horror comics front, Big Sunny D praises Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, one of the most beautiful books out there. There’s an ineffable creepiness to this title, despite the rock’em sock’em action and the deadpan sense of humor, that’s what keeps me coming back. I tend to think of it as a more action-packed version of Jim Woodring’s Frank, a comparison that probably makes sense only to myself. Also, Eve Tushnet is the latest person to fall in love with the horror manga title Uzumaki. I guess I’m going to have to pick this book up, huh.

Jason Adams keeps on defending Ginger Snaps, and comes to the realization that straight horror filmmakers find female sexual organs frightening for some reason. Where would David Cronenberg be without the vagina dentata, for example?

Finally, how awesome is RetroCrush’s 100 Scariest Movie Scenes countdown?

Where the Monsters Go: “Don’t you understand?”

October 27, 2003

The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 9

5. The Ring, dir. Gore Verbinski

For once, I don’t have to recount my first time watching a movie. I already did so a few months back, on this very blog. The movie was The Ring, and I was scared as hell.

The most recently made film on my list, it’s very much a product of the genre’s history. The Shining, Hellraiser, Jacob’s Ladder, The Blair Witch Project, Shivers, Videodrome, Candyman, Psycho, Rear Window, The Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, Twin Peaks, Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Scream, Poltergeist, and The Sixth Sense are all referenced (as are creepy moments in Fight Club, Blow Up and The Conversation, for that matter). Astoundingly, though, the film manages not to be at all derivative or lazy. It’s simply too relentless for that.

This is a film that deploys the Monumental Horror Image with almost unbearable regularity; to paraphrase a famous review of Stephen King’s It, The Ring is to the Monumental Horror Image what the Sears Roebuck catalog is to things to buy. A chair, a ladder, a television set, a tree, a well, a mirror, a girl, the ring itself–they all stand there in the center of the screen, mute indictments of normality, sanity, reality itself. They should not be, and yet there they are, over and over and over again, each time imbued with more menace than the last.

This is also a film that embraces the horror of the small detail, the little things that just don’t seem right: defaced pictures, distorted photographs, a fly on the TV screen, unexpected phone calls, static on the television. (It seems safe to say that this film will have caused more people to have nervous breakdowns when the cable goes out than any movie since Poltergeist.) Just as the monumental horror images shatter our composure, these “minimal” horror images undermine it. No scene is “safe,” because the filmmakers establish that horror can be found anywhere, in anything. (Especially, thanks to one of the all-time great shock moments in film history, in closets.)

It’s interesting to note that they do so from the very beginning of the film. I’ve found that many of the best horror films begin with a long, slow build-up of tension, with some hints of the horror to come but very little actual action in that direction. Here, however, we’re only five or six lines of dialogue into the movie before the central horrific conceit is introduced. Sure enough, the opening sequence doesn’t end without claiming a victim.

The filmmakers are also smart enough to tie the discovery of horror directly into the plot, which is essentially a search for information. The protagonists are a reporter and a videographer, and the instruments they use to capture and convey information are lushly fetishized throughout the film: lines of type, pens, paper, videocassettes, televisions, editing decks, telephones, cell phones, answering machines, files, microfilm, frames of videotape, photographs, cameras, hands and fingers (with which we write and type and press play and record), and, of course, eyes. With televisions, telephones and a videotape as its central vehicles of horror, this is a prime example of Information Age anxiety in art.

But the most disturbing facet of this intensely disturbing film is, as is often the case with great horror, one of cruelty. When you think about it, it’s actually kind of obvious that all horror is about cruelty: “Look at what we’re doing to your precious status quo. Look at what we’re doing to everything you believe. We’re destroying it. We’re destroying you.” But this is a different status quo than that of the small towns and suburbs that are so often the locus of horror. I’m not referring to the traditional business wherein the kids who smoke pot and fuck get chopped to pieces by the masked killer–no, not at all. This isn’t rebellion that’s being punished by the motiveless agent of horror–it’s a whole new status quo that’s being destroyed, one of leveling, of comfort, an “I’m OK, You’re OK” world. Our hero, Rachel, is a foul-mouthed absentee parent who has her son Aidan call her by her first name. The kid’s father, who Rachel insists must “grow up,” talks to Aidan as though they’re on the same level: “I just don’t think I’d be a good father,” he explains to the little boy the same way he’d explain it to Rachel, or to one of his buddies. Moreover, Rachel views the terrifying supernatural occurrences that befall her as a mystery she can solve, preferrably with comforting life-lessons about love and acceptance. She believes that heartless psychiatric workers and a domineering, abusive patriarch are to blame for it all, and that the murderous “sickness” that has infected her world can be soothed away through understanding. The filmmakers aid us in buying into this, slowly transforming the movie into a relatively traditional beat-the-clock mystery.

In the end, though, we understand nothing.

I won’t go into it any more than that–I don’t want to spoil this film, which should be viewed as unspoiled as possible–except to say that depictions of evil and malice as purposeless and uncompromising as this one are rare, perhaps mercifully so. Mockeries of goodness, of the soporific means of understanding the presence of badness in our world that we feed ourselves, are rarely this vicious, this unrelenting, this frightening. We’re scared, alright. And we’re more scared still, because we’ve been shown that the presence of that which scares us will never, ever end.


October 27, 2003

I think a great Toby Keith song title would be “You’re Pissin’ Off Jesus.”