Archive for December 23, 2005

“I’m not like other guys”: Why the video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” belongs in the horror canon

December 23, 2005

(An early Christmas present from me to you. Originally posted at Dark But Shining.)

The most popular zombie movie of all time is not Night of the Living Dead. The most popular werewolf movie of all time is not The Wolf Man. The most popular blurring of the line between fictional and real-life horror is not The Blair Witch Project.

No, my friends–“Thriller” tops them all.

Directed by John Landis, the video for the title track of Michael Jackson’s magnum opus is horror’s elephant in the room. Perhaps because it’s just a music video–or, to be fair, just a short film–“Thriller” is almost never seriously considered when the pantheon is discussed. This, I would argue, needs to be rectified, and pronto. Fans and students of horror are doing the genre a grave (no pun intended) disservice if they overlook a work this influential, and this excellent.

Consider the clout Jackson had when the video was released. Between late 1982 and 1984, the album from which it came spent 37 weeks at number one on the Billboard charts (out of a total 122-week stay) and spawned seven Top Ten singles, including “Thriller” itself, which went to No. 1 (as did “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “The Girl Is Mine,” its immediate predecessors). The album’s first single, “Billie Jean,” was the first video by a black artist to be played on the then-ruthlessly segregated MTV (a fact for which the network now lauds itself endlessly, as though overcoming their own racist policy is some sort of major blow for civil rights), and essentially transformed the network into a cultural phenomenon. Jackson won a record eight Grammys in 1984, seven of which were for Thriller, a record he holds to this day (he shares it with Carlos Santana); he also won eight American Music Awards that year, another record he holds to this day (sharing it with Whitney Houston). And of course, Thriller is the best-selling album of all time, with a staggering 51,000,000 copies and counting sold worldwide. In America, its 27,000,000 copies make it the best-selling album of all-new material in the country’s history. And (most importantly for our purposes) when the video for “Thriller” debuted in February of 1984, it was the first long-form music video in MTV’s history and rapidly became acknowledged as the greatest music video of all time, a position it continues to hold on countdowns and on critics’ lists and is unlikely ever to relinquish; its companion home video, The Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, became the best-selling music video of all time (eventually being displaced by another Michael Jackson home video, Moonwalker).

The centerpiece for all of this is a 14-minute horror movie, folks. That matters.

The story behind the creation of “Thriller” is well-known: Jackson caught a glimpse of John Landis’s seminal werewolf movie An American Werewolf in London and, despite a thoroughgoing unfamiliarity with contemporary horror, decided Landis would be ideal to direct the short film he’d envisioned for “Thriller,” his campy salute to Vincent Price and the creature-features he loved when he was a boy. With the help of Werewolf make-up effects genius Rick Baker, Landis concocted a two-part adaptation of the song.

In the first part, Jackson and his female co-star Ola Ray are walking through the woods in ’50s-style clothes on a moonlit night, when Jackson transforms (graphically and grotesquely) into a slavering were-cat creature, who stalks and presumably kills his girlfriend. This is then revealed to be a movie that the “real” Michael and Ola are watching; disturbed, she insists that they leave. On their walk home, Jackson teasingly sings the verses of the song in order to spook her, presumably into his arms; but as the Vincent Price-narrated “rap” begins, zombies begin emerging from graves and sewers to surround the young lovers. Suddenly Jackson himself transforms into a zombie and leads the undead in a dance the choreography of which is pretty much imprinted directly into the memory of anyone who’s ever watched MTV. He then bursts into the song’s chorus, and then the zombies chase Ola into an abandoned house, where, again led by Michael, they prepare to devour her. Screaming, she’s awoken from this nightmare by the “REAL” “real” Michael, who reassures her that it’s just a bad dream and offers to take her home–only to take one last grinning glance back at the camera, revealing he has the yellow eyes and slit pupils of the cat-monster from the beginning of the video.

Does it work as a music video? Oh hell yes. The fact that MTV, which obsesses on the new to the point of psychosis, can’t bring itself to dislodge the video from the top of its All Time Greatest lists even today is testament to that. When not being monstrous or victimized respectively, Jackson and Ray are a really likable pair of performers–they actually have quite a chemistry, and Jackson’s charm reminds us why he was the hugest star in popular music this side of the Beatles or Elvis (and quite possibly the other side as well). The song itself, produced by Quincy Jones, is a killer slice of the pop-funk that Jackson all but singlehandedly converted traditional R&B into in the late ’70s and early ’80s, with goofily scary lyrics and that unforgettable “darkness falls across the land” monologue by Price at the end.

And Jesus Christ, could Michael Jackson dance or what? He’d debuted the moonwalk on May 16th, 1983, on Motowns 25th Anniversary TV special–probably the single most memorable dance step in the history of rock and roll–but the guy was so stupid with talent that he didn’t even need to use it here. Instead he put together a choreograpy combining the spastic movements of breakdancing with the shambolic stalkings of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and the Living Dead, creating a dance routine that’s seared directly into the brains of anyone who’s ever watched MTV. The limp shoulder-shimmy of the zombies, and most particularly the part where they make their hands into claws and swing from one side to the other with them, are still instantly recognizable as being from this video. Can you think of choreography that’s better known than this? (No fair using the knife fight in “Beat It” and the precarious leaning in “Smooth Criminal.”) I think you’ve got to go with “Singin’ in the Rain” or nothing. (Britneys tune-in-Tokyo move from “Toxic” only counts if you’re a Best Week Ever junkie.)

But does it work as horror? Again, hell yes. Jackson may not have known horror aside from whatever black-and-white classics he managed to watch during his sad non-childhood childhood, but he knew what he liked, and what he liked was the work of Baker, who in The Howling and American Werewolf helped create some of the most convincing and disturbing transformation scenes in film history. Baker was a long-time collaborator of Landis’s, and while the director’s tasted in horror ran more along the lines of schlock (literally), don’t forget that Baker also worked on the likes of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. He was no stranger to serious, transgressive horror, and he brought this sensibility to his more mainstream work as well.

The end result, surely seen by many more people than had seen any of the many movies referenced by the video itself, took its two genres–werewolves and zombies–and knocked them the hell out of the park. Jackson’s transformation into the furry, claw-wielding beast at the beginning of the video is tensely built up to and shockingly directed–the way yellow-eyed, sharp-toothed, but still-human Jackson bellows “GO AWAY” at his girlfriend in a last-ditch effort to save her from himself is genuinely chilling and unexpected. We’re then treated to a series of straight-on, unblinking shots of Jackson’s face and hands as they bulge and swell, sprouting fur and claws and whiskers in what is a quite obviously painful process. The sequence culminates with Ola lying on the ground, helpless as the monster slowly approaches, reaching down to snuff her out. Even as a kid, I found that incredibly scary–there’s no doubt that she knows she’s about to die, and that’s maybe the scariest thing imaginable. And don’t let’s gloss over that final, smirking shot, with Vincent Price’s triumphant and evil cackle echoing in the background; that’s a face of horror, and an unforgettable one.

Then there are the zombies. Horror aficionados had seen their decrepit, decaying, blood-vomiting ilk in Italian movies like Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, but mainstream American audiences were being exposed to these really gross undead for the first time. Keep in mind that the revenants in Romero’s zombie movies looked more or less like living people with bad make-up; Romero’s grossest (and least popular) zombie movie in his initial cycle, Day of the Dead, came out two years after “Thriller.” These zombies, flesh rotting off their faces, limbs and heads dropping off their frames, black blood spilling out of their open mouths, were, as far as most people watching were concerned, sui generis. And those horrible noises they made when the song cut out–As a five-year-old who was super-excited that his parents allowed him to watch the video for this awesome song, I was so terrified that I began screaming and bawling, and spent days afraid to go near the television again for fear I’d hear those noises again. I’ve managed to hold myself together a little better when I’ve seen the video since then, but that zombie work still compares favorably to anything the feature-length folks have produced.

Finally, of course, there are the video’s unintentional and disturbing resonances with the Michael Jackson we’d come to know, or at least allegedly know, over the ensuing years. “I’m not like other guys,” says a suddenly serious Jackson to his bobby-sox’d girl during the film within a film. She reassures him, and he rejects the reassurance: “I mean I’m different.” That’s certainly one way to put it. Jackson undoubtedly came across as weird even in the behind-the-scenes Making of video: think of his childlike giggle as director Landis tickles him, or his high-pitched squeals as he’s coached to display pain during the transformation scene. But each time we saw the video as it was shown and reshown every year–around Halloween; at the top of MTV’s annual “Top 100 Videos of All Time” countdown (now abandoned, as are pretty much all videos on that network, and shunted over to occasional revisits on VH1), the film-Jackson’s claims took on more and more believability. The plastic surgery and skin lightening, the strange relationships with everyone from Brooke Shields to Uri Geller to Liz Taylor to Bubbles the chimp, the hostile takeover of the Beatles catalog from his former friend Paul McCartney, the regression into a perpetual childhood (the ranch is called Neverland, for pete’s sake), the hyperbaric chamber, the Elephant Man…the barrage of the bizarre never let up. By the time a simultaneously enraged and aroused Jackson destroyed a car with a crowbar while repeatedly fondling his own genitals in his video for “Black or White” in 1991, Jackson had gone from a superstar playing at a transformation into figures of horror into something of a figure of horror himself. And when allegations of child molestation surfaced in 1993 and sprung up again a decade later, this time leading to a trial and acquittal, the real-life transformation was all but complete. Watching the were-cat and zombie Jacksons stalk their respective girlfriends in sequences rife with subsumed sexualized violence is now infused with the belief, however unproven, that the real Jackson is a sexual predator too. (That Jackson himself was a victim of child abuse at the hands of his odious stage father Joe gets factored into the sinister equation as well.) Moreover, by the time of that trial, as we watched repulsed while Jackson’s face seemed to disintegrate before our eyes, “Thriller”‘s repeated use of disfiguring prosthetics–and especially the behind-the-scenes footage of their creation and application in the Making of video–seemed all too prescient itself. In the end (as with Robert Blake in In Cold Blood and Lost Highway), Jackson’s performance in “Thriller,” frightening then, is all the more frightening now.

So that’s “Thriller”: A musician and entertainer at the peak of his popularity and powers, employing a grade-A horror crew, tackling and nailing two key horror subgenres in the most public way imaginable, achieving an impossible-to-replicate level of pop-culture impact and unwittingly displaying traits that will be hauntingly eerie in later years. To me it’s a recipe for a horror classic. When you whip up that kind of dark magic, it is indeed an evil no mere mortal can resist.

(Images courtesy of Neverland Valley.)

Destructor Comes to Croc Town: The Special Edition

December 22, 2005

I’ve been meaning to do this for ages: The comic that Matt Wiegle and I did a while back, “Destructor Comes to Croc Town,” has been up on my site for a while now, but the scans were so lo-res that a lot of Matt’s beautiful detail was lost. I just put up new, higher-res scans of the comic, and believe me, it’s like reading it for the first time. Just make sure to click on the little magnifying glass or whatever it is your browser uses to signify that you can see the images closer-up once you’ve opened them. I hope you enjoy the comic!

Well, that’s that

December 22, 2005

Sean has posted at The Outbreak for the final time, at least for the forseeable future. Go say goodbye to him, if you’d like.

Carnival of souls

December 20, 2005

Pete Mesling at Fearfodder points out some news that, as I’m sure you can imagine, is awfully awfully exciting to me: Clive Barker has a new short horror story out! Called “Haeckel’s Tale,” it’s going to be adapated into a film for Showtime’s Masters of Horror series by James “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” McNaughton. Well, that’s tough to beat, isn’t it? I haven’t been watching the series–it’s difficult for me to watch a lot of horror at home given my wife’s sensitivities to things like gore and vomit; moreover, without making a big thing about it, I find what I’ve heard about the Joe Dante-directed agitprop installment enormously tedious–but this, along with Pete’s rapturous praise for the Dario Argento and Tobe Hooper episodes, makes me want to reconsider. At the very least it appears that the TV setting is enabling these filmmakers to take risks they’re unable or unwilling to take in the comparatively high-stakes theatrical realm (even Dante’s episode is proof of that, whatever else it’s proof of). Fascinating to consider that the consensus is that TV is producing some of the country’s best horror, just as it produced some of the country’s best crime fiction via The Sopranos…well, I’ll do what I can to check out the series.

In a pair of posts, Mexploitation’s Joachim Ziegler considers the unexploited potential of technology in horror. I know what you’re thinking, but seriously, Joachim’s thesis is a convincing one: For all the horror/sci-fi hybrids and Poltergeist/Ring-inspired spectral-static-on-your-screen images there have been, the vast majority have used technology only to explain away something bogus, or to show it as impotent in the face of the supernatural or otherwise unreliable when confronted with whatever the horrific antagonist happens to be. Technology rarely is a window into a clearer understanding of what is threatening us in a horror film, that’s for sure. As Joachim puts it,

Horror as a genre has been good at using technology as a creator of the horror (Frankenstein and innumerable other over-reacher/mad scientist stories), sometimes as a medium for the horror to twist and distort or use for its own ends (The Ring, The Mothman Prophecies), and often as a feeble strawman for the horror to destroy as an illustration of man

A few spoilery thoughts on Stephen King’s It (the book and the television show)

December 19, 2005

I reread It last month, and re-watched the TV miniseries based on it.

1. I don’t know why I never noticed this before–possibly because this was the first time I read one right after the other–but It has got to be the most Clive Barker-influenced Stephen King work around. Chronologically, It was after Barker’s Books of Blood began having their seismic impact on horror fiction, and King’s enormously effusive praise for the collections (as quoted on said collections’ covers) would indicate they had quite an effect on him as well. The most obvious link is the quote from Barker’s short story “The Midnight Meat Train” that King uses as an epigraph to one of It’s subsections, but the very idea of the book–a telepathic shapeshifting creature whose actual physical shape is all but incomprehensible kills and eats children–could for all intents and purposes be a lost Books of Blood chapter, simply blown up to a gargantuan length and sprinkled liberally with Neil Young and Jerry Lee Lewis references.

2. I’m struck by how many friends of mine who’ve read the book instantly reference the pre-adolescent group sex scene towards the book’s end when I tell them I’m re-reading the novel, especially in contrast with how little this scene seems to be brought up when King’s work is discussed in general. It’s a genuinely outre bit of writing, and given the sexual mores of this country I’m a little bit surprised that it hasn’t landed the book and its author in more trouble than it has. (I happen to think it’s remarkable and speaks directly to the primordial sexual feelings of that age group–I remember thinking that when I first read the book, back when I was part of that age group–but I’m surprised that this is not a discussion I’ve ever had the opportunity to have.)

3. Aside from Barker, surely the other huge looming influence in It is Tolkien. Even aside from the references to Shelob and the fall of Barad-Dur and Mordor that form the core of the book’s climax, the book has much in common with The Lord of the Rings, from the “sleeping shadow that is once again taking shape” angle to the constant glimpses of ancient history that are only partially explained (if even partially–we get no more an answer for why Pennywise’s “human” name is Mr. Robert Gray than we do for what the hell the Watcher in the Water is, but of course that’s what makes both so fascinating to me.)

4. Did you realize that from the time each of the grown-ups receives the phone call asking them to come back to Derry to the time their quest is fulfilled is something less than 48 hours? Maybe even less than 36? I never would have guessed that it took that little time before rereading it last month.

5. Only now do I realize how impressive it is of King to place the entire saga’s lynchpin scene–the blood pact sworn by the protagonists’ younger selves–at the very, very end of the action, after we’ve seen the entire rest of the story from beginning to end (save the postscript stuff). It’s not just structurally risky for a maker of bestsellers, but emotionally quite beautiful as well.

6. I don’t know what this says about me, but I’ve read this book (I think) three times now, and this is the first time the depictions of child and animal abuse got to me at all. But my god, did it get to me. I cried several times.

7. A haunted town–more specifically a town that’s grown quietly evil because of that haunting. What a great idea!

8. And it’s haunted by an evil clown monster–another great idea!

9. Casting Tim Curry as that evil clown monster–ANOTHER great idea!

10. That said, the TV miniseries sure did muck up a lot, didn’t it? A lot of strangely arbitrary changes were made, like making the death of Ben Hanscomb’s father in Korea a big deal. First of all, was that even in the book? I don’t think it was. Second, why introduce that? I would imagine that being a fat kid has an entire wealth of psychic scars a writer could exploit without the introduction of the slain air force captain father angle. King managed just fine. Making Richie a stand-up comic instead of a disc jockey, keeping Eddie with his mother instead of marrying him off–lots of little things like that were just sorta annoying to me.

11. More importantly, the TV movie misconstrues the entire nature of It (the monster, not the novel named after it). It can appear as whatever frightens its intended audience the most–that much the movie gets right. But in the movie, that’s all it is–an appearance. Time and time again the characters repeat to themselves things along the lines of “it’s all in my head,” “you’re not real,” etc., and then they open their eyes and POOF! Pennywise or whatever It’s transformed itself into are gone. But the WHOLE POINT of the book is that It IS real, which is why it’s able to kill and eat people rather than just startle them, duh. When It appears as the Teenage Werewolf or the Creature from the Black Lagoon or a giant statue of Paul Bunyan or a swarm of flying leeches the size of your middle finger, It really is there, in that form, and able to get you. The only time characters think “this isn’t real” to themselves in the book is when It takes the form of a relative or friend of theirs–Bill’s slain brother George, Beverly’s dead father Al, the group’s dead friend Stan, etc.–and what they mean is not “this is just a mirage, like a hologram,” it’s “this isn’t ACTUALLY my brother/father/friend come back to life to kill me.” But that It-in-human-form REALLY IS there, and it REALLY CAN kill you. This should not have been a hard concept to comprehend and work with.

12. The qualitative difference between the cast of It and the cast of The Stand turned out to be a fairly substantial one, huh? But it’s not just the folly of having Harry Anderson in a lead role that scuppered It–it’s the aforementioned lack of imagination when it came to translating King’s ideas, and of course a lack of time in which to let King’s sprawling storyline play itself out. I’d love to see one of the cable nets take a crack at doing a season-long maxiseries adaptation of the book, with all the violence and sex and vicious small-town bigotry and hatred intact.

13. Back to the book for a moment, did Eddie’s wife never bother asking what happened to him? Given what King went out of his way to teach us about her, I think it’s far more likely that the author just didn’t bother tying up that particular loose end. Sloppy, but forgivable, given the strength of the rest of the book.

14. One other loose end–King establishes, through the glimpes into the town’s history provided by librarian/historian Mike Hanlon, that each of Its feeding “cycles” begins and ends with a spectacular eruption of bloodshed–a mass axe murder, a gangland massacre, a factory explosion, a racist arson attack, etc. But what were the massive attacks that began either of the two cycles the book chronicles? Obviously they were cut short before the final outburst, but the beginnings should have worked the same as always, right? Another authorial oversight?

15. All in all it’s a really rich combination of various horror strains: King’s “recurring power of evil” theme, Barkerian “shifting anatomies” and transgressive victimization, Tolkienesque “shadow,” ’50s drive-in monsters, Lovecraftian cosmic horror, urban legends, haunted houses, fairy tales, serial killers, sordid small-town secrets, god knows what-all else. I’m very happy I reread it.

History, Kong, etc.

December 16, 2005

ADDTF co-blogfather Bill Sherman writes in regarding yesterday’s post about A History of Violence, King Kong, and the uncomfortable moments in both:

Re: your thoughts about art that makes people feel uncomfortable. Personally,

I find that there

‘Kong’ Bomb?

December 15, 2005

Malarkey, Drudge. It may have had a relatively low opening day, but it opened on a Wednesday in a cold December before anyone has off from work or school with no built-in Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings/Star Wars-style hardcore fanbase that rushes to opening night, and it’s getting outrageously good word of mouth. It’s going to do just fine. It’s also a pretty handy barometer for just how messed up Hollywood has gotten itself that a movie’s being pronounced a bomb before it’s been out 24 hours.

A History of Violence (and some Kong)

December 15, 2005

I finally saw it last night, in the last theatre in New York that was showing it (the Village East, site of the Rocky Horror screenings of my youth.) I thought it was pretty terrific.

It amazes me, though, that critics (both liberal and conservative) really seem to believe this was some finger-wagging statement about The Violence At The Heart Of The American Experience–in essence, “Norman Rockwell Lied, People Died.” (In the battle for the crown of Most Tedious between left-leaning critics who find a kick to America’s junk in every movie and applaud and the right-leaning critics who do the same and boo, the left-leaners lose, but not by much.) First of all, all of the violent people in this film actually hail from big cities–hardly the indictment of Small Town America we’re supposed to see it as. And secondly, Cronenberg went out of his way to make the Americana aw-shucks-apple-pie-small-town stuff as transparently cliched and TV-movie as possible, almost–but not quite–to the film’s detriment. Cronenberg is an extraordinary filmmaker and also, perhaps more relevantly, no dope–why would he do that, if not to undercut that too-pat reading of the film? (Seriously, did no mainstream critics pick up on this? Bizarre.)

Consistent with his work in other, more on-the-surface-weird films, Cronenberg is a philosopher, not a politician, and this movie was not about America’s Love Affair With Guns or some other bit Michael Moore demagoguery for the New Yorker set–it was, like all his films, about the extremes to which we can push our bodies and to which our bodies, our instincts, can push us, and the danger that comes when we ignore or attempt to stifle the fact that biology is, in fact, destiny. Cronenberg out-and-out agreed with Freud’s famous pronouncement in the excellent horror-in-the-’70s documentary The American Nightmare; surely it’s no coincidence that the violence in this film really stems from a man who tried to shun one set of biological links in favor of creating a new one?

With Croneneberg’s usual obsessions in mind, I love how in-your-face this film got with both the violence and the sex, which in both cases always seemed to last several seconds past the point of uncomfortability. Ignore this, it says; try to remain unimplicated by this.

It actually reminded me of the bug scene in King Kong, which I’ve noticed a critic or two (like the always readable, almost never clueful David Denby) say stopped the movie in its tracks. Well, of course! In Kong‘s case, the protagonists have (literally) hit bottom. The relentless rigors of Skull Island have broken them down, and they will not stop until they’ve all been devoured. Jackson strips away the music, strips away everything but the vain struggle–the increasingly primal grunts and screams of the “heroes” and the increasingly grotesque and unstoppable array of creatures aiming to devour them. (Again, seriously, did Denby et al not pick up on the “lowest point” angle, the missing music–did they really think Jackson was unaware the scene stopped the movie’s momentum?)

Cronenberg’s not up to the exact same trick–he’s not trying to stop the movie in its tracks, he’s saying this is the movie’s tracks. This is what sex is like; this is what violence is like. When we cringe and recoil, whose fault is that, really?

And I think it must be said that this movie functions perfectly well as a slightly fantastical action thriller as well–with a darker heart than, say, Four Brothers, and a more realistic one than Kill Bill or Sin City, but certainly not as far removed from all that as it’s cracked up to be. That doesn’t bother me, and I can’t imagine it bothers Cronenberg either. He’s said that setting this film in the context of a family rather than in the context of, I dunno, a man with a video-playing orifice in his chest makes it easier for people to relate to, and therefore to see beneath the surface. I think the thriller context does the exact same thing, in the same way that Cronenberg’s more straightforward horror efforts did.

One final thought: Folks have argued that people who praise art for making people uncomfortable are in fact perfectly comfortable with that art because it makes others feel uncomfortable, and therefore we can feel superior to them. Alls I can say is that my nightmares last night should serve as exhibit A that this movie made me uncomfortable, too, apparently moreso than I’d thought. And I’m glad for it. It’s a really good movie, and I think a really great movie also.

I’m very happy I saw this in the theatre.

King Kong

December 13, 2005

I saw King Kong last night at a sneak preview.

It’s a truly grueling film, that’s for sure. This is telegraphed pretty much from the beginning, in that the opening half-hour is one long meditation on what it feels like to know, somehow, that some very big shit is going to go down in your life sometime soon. This is where the contrasts with Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films first begin: It’s a lot easier to get an audience to swallow this sort of rendezvous-with-destiny business if you’ve got wizards and elves and magic rings by way of an explanation. After setting the film in no uncertain terms in the Great Depression of a very real Earth, Jackson’s asking a lot to get us to run with his “something’s gonna happen” moments. But goodwill goes a long way, and surely this project has inherited more good vibes–from Rings and Kong fans alike–than any film in recent memory.

Once again Jackson proves he’s a horror director in blockbuster director’s clothing. Rings gave him this opportunity with its orcs, wraiths, giant spiders, flying monsters, cthuloid water creatures and so forth; in Kong, though, the first glimpse of real horror comes in human form, with the truly terrifying (and studiously multi-ethnic-beneath-the-make-up) native tribe that waylays the protagonists’ ill-fated filmmaking expedition. And in much the same way that Rings was able to incorporate disparate and entirely unexpected horror references (Aragorn’s dreams echoed Fr. Karras’s in The Exorcist; Shelob’s lair was reminiscent of Leatherface’s), the natives call to mind mondo/cannibal exploitation flicks, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (there’s a lot of Indy present here, and not just because they share the same sort of pulp/serial source material; the Indiana Jones movies are source material themselves now) and the booing old hag from The Princess Bride (no less potent a source for nightmares for coming from a romantic action-fantasy comedy).

The action sequences are tremendously grueling. Don’t get me wrong–they’re just as exhilarating and exciting as you’ve heard–but it’s a demanding exhilaration. Jackson is an immensely talented director of physicality, and so much of Kong‘s action centers on the simple act of maintaining one’s balance in precarious positions. Try to imagine the staircase sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring stretched out over the course of about two hours, with dinosaurs and giant centipedes and a 25-foot gorilla running up and down the steps too, and you’ll get the idea. It’s exciting, but exhausting. You’re left breathless in both ways.

Speaking of giant centipedes, it would appear that once again Jackson’s exploiting the audience’s fear of creepy-crawlies writ large. (More shades of Temple of Doom…) What’s shocking about it here is how really gratuitous it gets at one point. For upwards of five minutes, Jackson dumps giant insects of every conceivable type upon his hapless voyagers, in once case resulting in the most memorably gruesome death in a blockbuster movie that I can think of. (You’ll know exactly what I’m talking about, and you’ll be completely grossed out, I promise.) To do another Jackson-to-Jackson comparison, imagine the climactic scene of Heavenly Creatures, only with leeches the size of ponies.

Then there’s Kong himself. The CGI work is landmark, but what’s most impressive is how well his might is conveyed. I was put in mind not of other giant-monster movies but of Clive Barker’s monster-run-amok sine qua non, Rawhead Rex. Kong is not the sadistic brute that Rawhead is, but in Jackson’s hands he’s effortlessly destructive, which makes when he does put some effort into it even more frightening. Considering how much the film rests on making Kong sympathetic–and he is; boy, is he ever–it’s almost miraculous how well Jackson did in making him scary as well. His final rampage through New York City gets laughs at some points, and again you’ll know exactly when and why, but it’s those points in particular that are the most troubling. Yes, you think, this is a giant, angry animal; and yes, this is what a giant, angry animal would do. He’s an innocent, but he is also a remorseless killer. And the way that remorselessness is embodied in Kong’s trademark act of discarding the corpses of his victims, during which process they often become corpses, is really haunting.

And the Empire State Building climax–well, I guess no spoiler alert is necessary here, but still, I’ll try not to say too much beyond the fact that if you are at all afraid of heights, you will be on the verge of a panic attack by the time it’s all over. There’s a bit involving a broken ladder that will make your hair stand on end. Again, you’ve got to marvel at Jackson’s knack for teasing out the visceral, physical nature of our relationship to what’s on screen. There’s so much potential for fear there, and he uses it all.

And what to say of the film’s underlying theme, of the exploitation of mystery by charlatans? Only that the scariest thing is that we are at least halfway into the movie before we realize that’s what’s going on, and kudos, believe it or not, must go to Jack Black’s performance as Carl Denham for that. Sure, at first we think they’re a little sketchy, a little rough around the edges, but they’re not such bad guys–he’s not such a bad guy, right? But. Actually, strike what I just said–the scariest thing isn’t that we don’t realize that, but that Denham doesn’t realize that, not until the very end.

Well, that’s your blockbuster entertainment. A ton of fun at the movies, an all-time-great adventure flick, and oh yeah, genuinely chilling horror. You should certainly go see this movie.

A new song I like

December 11, 2005

You smell good


And another

December 8, 2005

My old college roommate Josiah Leighton and I have just finished a comic based on the creepily beautiful dance song “Rippin Kittin,” by Golden Boy & Miss Kittin. You can see it here. Enjoy!

Tentacles in the news

December 7, 2005

I am SO glad the above post title is factually accurate.

Echizen kurage are giant–and I mean giant: 6 feet, 450 pounds–poisonous jellyfish, and apprently there are so damn many of them in the Sea of Japan for some reason this year that they’ve put an enormous dent in fishermen’s ability to make a living. Asian nations are holding a summit to devise a plan of action against these giant sea-faring monsters.

Sheesh, the horrorblog posts write themselves sometimes, don’t they?

A full article can be found here. Photo by Asahi Shimbun/Tetsuji Asano/AP. Story courtesy of Ken Bromberg.

The expanded edition

December 5, 2005

Matt Rota and I recently added a new beginning to our comic about Ukrainian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, “It Brought Me Some Peace of Mind”. Go and look!