Posts Tagged ‘horror’
The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead send the message to a society in the throes of endless war, openly nativist and racist politics, and mass gun psychosis that the only way to ensure the survival of you and your loved ones is to act with maximum brutality at all times. It’s not that I’m saying these shows are turning people into killers; on the contrary, everyone involved knows damn well that this is decadent nonsense since virtually no one watching will ever be in the personal position to do anything like what Travis Manawa and Madison Clark are made to do. But the same is true of the NRA or Donald Trump or Ben Carson, who for political and financial profit fuel the paranoid, masturbatory murder fantasies of a country full of gunfucking shut-ins terrified of the unwashed, undead masses flowing over the border, out of the ghettoes, and into Main Street USA. Ideologically, Rick Grimes and George Zimmerman are just a zombie apart.
It’s important to understand why this violent show, among the countless ones now on offer and racking up gangbusters reviews as well as ratings, stands out. What’s wrong with Fear the Walking Dead and the show that spawned it that isn’t wrong with Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, The Americans, and on and on and on? To find the source of FTWD/TWD’s ethical failure, you have go look at an artistic failure, a hole in the writing the show falls into time and time again. On those other shows, characters are presented with moral choices between right and wrong options—one side may look more appealing or viable than the other, one may have better or worse repercussions, one may be easier to live with or live through, but their nature is never truly in doubt. Fear the Walking Dead is different. It repeatedly offers characters and viewers alike a false choice, one in which the only options are brutality and survival on the one hand or naïveté and death on the other. In this closed moral circuit, violence is both vital and virtuous; no other correct answer is allowed.
The Walking Dead in Westeros
We’re comparing two of the biggest shows on television in this episode of the Boiled Leather Audio Hour. One of them is an adaptation of a popular staple of nerd culture—a genre work that had only appeared in print before—which has translated its bleak themes, wide scope, and controversial use of violence into a modern-day ratings blockbuster. The other is Game of Thrones.
That’s right—the BLAH Boys are taking on The Walking Dead, and its current spinoff Fear the Walking Dead, by contrasting the shows and their source material to Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire. How does their treatment of violence in an unforgiving world of real and supernatural menace differ? What do the relationships between the original works by George R.R. Martin, Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard and their adaptations by David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and AMC’s land of a thousand showrunners reveal about their respective ideas, ideals, aesthetics, and ethics? Which shows really deserve our moral outrage, and why? We’ll be examining all these questions and more. And one of us, at least, will be getting really freaking worked up. Enjoy!
What makes both Fear and The Walking Dead flagship exceptional television, literally, is how they break the usual rule against assuming that depiction equals endorsement in fiction. In both shows, violence is repeatedly depicted as both necessary and, given the post-apocalyptic context, virtuous. Yes, the brutality is made to feel ugly, but it’s invariably less ugly than the alternative. All of the show’s dramatic weight rests upon the idea that if you were in these people’s shoes, you’d want to do the same things to survive. And man, fuck that noise. Like the zombies locked into that stadium in their thousands then inexplicably left unguarded, I want out.
I reviewed the latest installment of TV’s most morally repugnant franchise, Fear the Walking Dead, for Decider. Much, much more on this coming soon.
While great art generally fills some kind of need in the hearts and minds of its audience, art need not be as utilitarian as all that. Fabergé eggs, extended remixes, the Wet Hot American Summer fart track: In these cases and many others, enjoyment is self-justifying. Hell, by some definitions, art is inherently unnecessary, which is precisely what elevates making it from the pursuit of food, shelter, sex, and survival.
But this ain’t dancing when nobody’s watching or writing the great American novel we’re talking about here. This is “Not Fade Away,” the fourth episode in what looks increasingly likely to be the entirely superfluous first season of Fear the Walking Dead. With the largest fanbase in television built right in, this spinoff series could have gone anywhere. Instead it made an infected-style beeline straight for one of the most traveled paths in the history of the zombie genre: When the dead rise, the army runs amok. Whether you’re talking about 28 Days Later and its sinister soldiers, its sequel 28 Weeks Later and its well-intentioned but incompetent and ultimately indiscriminate occupying army, Day of the Dead and its tiny band of undisciplined bullies and martinets, this story has been told over and over, in a much tighter and more engaging way. It’s difficult to watch Fear and think this particular take on the tale is worth telling.
I reviewed this week’s Fear the Walking Dead, which was bad, for Decider. Danny Boyle, contact your attorneys.
This is the cover for a minicomic edition of Hiders by me and Julia Gfrörer, previously available only in Study Group 3D, which we’ll be selling at SPX this weekend.
“Good people are the first ones to die,” says Fear the Walking Dead, doling out INSANELY badass truths to its audience of bored gamers. Is that an unfair characterization? Of the audience, maybe. Of Fear the Walking Dead? I fear it’s not. With the conclusion of “The Dog,” this week’s episode, we’ve reached the halfway point of this short introductory season, and the series has yet to produce a compelling reason for itself to exist—other than “we can make a lot of money selling grimdark violence to people who will live and die without ever once experiencing such horrors themselves,” that is. Ending with a military takeover of the town is appropriate, because ethically and aesthetically, Fear is basically a gun nut waiting for the UN’s secret Muslim invasion squad’s black helicopters to land, in TV-show form.
This is the cover illustration for a print version of The Deep Ones by me and Julia Gfrörer, which we’ll be selling at SPX next week.
Maybe it’s the strength of the preceding episode, which, true to the Red Dragon arc’s pattern of being brilliant every other week (the first, third, and fifth episodes were amazing, the second, fourth, and now sixth not so much) was as good as this show ever got. Maybe it’s the apples-to-apples comparison of this season’s final hour to the crushing defeat at the conclusion of Season One and the orgy of bloodletting that ended Season Two. Maybe it’s simply the wish that the show go on, with further heights to hit and depths to plumb. Whatever it was, the whiff of anticlimax permeating “The Wrath of the Lamb,” quite likely the last episode of Hannibal we’ll ever see, was unmistakable. Ideally, this de facto series finale would have felt stronger, grander, more final than the fake-outs and gunshots that dominated the proceedings, which, timing aside, added up to one of the season’s weakest episodes. No one will fault you if you wound up wishing for something a bit more, ahem, mindblowing.
Apocalyptic fiction should have the courage of its extinctions. If you’re going to feed damn near every man, woman, and child on earth into the maw of slaughter for our viewing enjoyment, own what that really means: not just full-grown undead versus ragtag survivors, but hundreds of millions of children dying in terrified agony. You don’t have to dwell on it, I suppose, but passing it over in silence to get to the good stuff is aesthetic and ethical cowardice, pure and simple.
So a very dark congratulations goes out to Fear the Walking Dead’s second episode, “So Close, Yet So Far,” for the image of a mom getting devoured amid the ruins of her daughter’s birthday bouncy castle. Sure, doing this just hours after having her cheerfully and audibly sing “Happy Birthday” lays it on thick—you could practically hear the collective groan of millions of viewers going “oh no” the moment the first notes rang out—but it’s better than the alternative.
Whatever its pleasures as a hobby and legitimate value as a means for its mostly young, mostly female practitioners to explore sexual taboos, fanfic has a worrying tendency to collapse the incredible range of potential adult relationships in fiction into a romantic singularity, distorting the totality of human experience just as surely as a black hole warps light. This act of emotional reduction—and reduction’s the right word for it, as both the fannish truncation of “relationships” into the neologism “shipping” and the pruning of the pair names into the portmanteau “Hannigram” semiotically symbolize—hits the possibility of non-romantic male friendship, cooperation, or even enmity especially hard. Is there truly no other way to process the bizarre mind meld between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham than as their bloody valentine?
The answer, of course, is that maybe there is and maybe there isn’t, but either way the question is irrelevant. This is the way Bryan Fuller, Hannibal’s creator and visionary, is processing that relationship. It may not be the story I expected—not any more than I expected Will Graham to slip into murderous darkness throughout the show’s run rather than remain squarely on the side of the angels—but it’s the story Fuller has chosen to tell, and it’s that story, and no other, that must be engaged by the audience. At its worst, the partisanship of shipping represents a willful refusal of art’s transcendent potential, in which rather than step outside oneself and inhabit the mind of the artist, its adherents force her ideas into a template of their own mentally provincial devising. What better way to atone for its excesses than to go along for Hannibal’s ride, no matter how many left turns it takes?
Given that it’s the most popular show on television, The Walking Dead can pass quite easily for one of the New Golden Age of TV’s crown jewels. The reality, however, is a lot closer to costume jewelry. Despite a grim tone typical of many iconic shows and proximity to masterpieces of the medium like Mad Men and Breaking Bad via their shared network, AMC, the blockbuster adaptation of the surprise-hit comic-book series by writer Robert Kirkman and artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard is striking for has so little else in common it has with its antihero-and-auteur-driven era that it gives us a whole lot to chew on.
For starters, there’s no auteur to speak of. Developer and Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont departed unceremoniously after disputes with the network, and his successor Glen Mazzara lasted only two seasons until parting ways with the show in another impasse before current showrunner Scott M. Gimple took over. And while creator Kirkman remains actively involved, the show departed so radically from his source material almost immediately—another marked contrast from contemporaries like Game of Thrones—that the closest thing it has to a consistent creative vision is that of zombie-makeup guru Greg Nicotero. Though this lack of a singular voice is not necessarily an inherent evil—Darabont’s mawkish sub-Spielbergian sentimentality, to say nothing of his penchant for Wang Chung music cues, is certainly no great loss. But the difference from Davids Lynch, Chase, Milch, and Simon, and their heirs, from Louis C.K. to Shonda Rhimes, is tangible.
More importantly, and alarmingly, TWD’s approach to its own bloody bleakness too often takes the “anti” out of “antihero.” Even the most uninspired post-Sopranos series about the inner turmoil of men who murder people for a living generally pay lip service to the idea that their cathartic explosions of violence do more harm than good, and that our vicarious thrills must be priced against the moral cost of killing. For Rick Grimes and company, however, gore, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, is good. Yes, the show frequently toys with the idea that the former sheriff and his roving band of zombie-apocalypse survivors have Gone Too Far This Time; in fact, the frequency with which this question is raised indicates the inconsistency of the writing. But far more often, the story serves as an ersatz endorsement of brutality in the name of survival, justice, and revenge, concepts frequently treated as indistinguishable. For The Walking Dead, killing is bad, unless you really really have to or unless they really really deserve it, in which case it’s extremely good. Seriously: When The Wire veteran Chad Coleman’s pacifistic Tyrese finally offed someone, the crew congratulated him like he’d just been bar mitzvah’d.
Normally I’m first in line to blast critics for equating the depiction of atrocity with either the exploitation or outright endorsement thereof. But in TWD’s case, the frequent recourse to redemptive violence in a world where virtually none of its massive audience will experience such situations reads as decadent at best and downright immoral at worst, a nasty and unnecessary exponent of the reactionary potential that’s been buried beneath the zombie-horde metaphor from the start. To treat “What would you do to protect those you care about?” as the central ethical question of our time is to invite the creation of imaginary enemies to justify our mental murderousness against them; the consequences of this paranoid mentality for America are as thick in the air as teargas in the streets of St. Louis.
I reviewed the series premiere of Fear the Walking Dead, and the Walking Dead phenomenon generally, for Decider. I’ll be covering the show there all season, which should be interesting.
TMI time: As a TV critic, you see enough sex scenes to get desensitized. Whether it’s the pneumatically thrusting buttocks of a pay-cable drama or the “let’s show them getting all breathy and frantic as they start tearing at each other’s shirts because that’s basically all we can show” approach of your average commercial-network affair, the stuff just hits a point of diminishing returns after a while. For me, at least, it takes something special to elicit that telltale sign of effective televised sexmanship: a long, low murmur of “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuudge,” but, you know, not actually the word “fudge.”
So, yeah, the bit where Rutina Wesley’s Reba McClane reenacts holding her face to the power and heat of the sleeping tiger on the lap Richard Armitage’s Francis Dolarhyde instead? Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuudge.
If a lifetime of gorehoundsmanship has taught me anything, it’s that horror is a genre in perpetual conversation with itself. By that standard, “…And the Beast From the Sea,” this week’s Hannibal, is a chattier episode than most. And why shouldn’t it be? If you’re going to bring one of the most iconic monsters in horror history to the small screen, why not cannibalize some of that history in the process?
So take a look at Francis Dolarhyde’s raid on Will, Molly, and Walter Graham’s family homestead. His mesh mask echoes the pantyhose disguise of an earlier incarnation of the Red Dragon, Tom Noonan’s in Michael Mann’s Manhunter. Molly & Wally’s daring through-the-window in-a-bathrobe escape echoes Wendy & Danny Torrance’s flight from Jack Nicholson and the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. The way they burst from the trees into the road to be saved by an African-American motorist passing by feels a whole lot like the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, while that motorist’s death so that they might live is reminiscent of one of the shootouts in No Country for Old Men. You don’t needto know any of these reference points; hell, they don’t even need to be things the show is deliberately referring to. They’re just part of the narrative and visual vocabulary of terror available to any astute horror filmmaker. And that’s long before we get to the Tooth Fairy’s Tyler Durden impression.
‘Hannibal’ Recap: With a Little Help from My Friends
The decision to reintroduce Abigail Hobbs, the dead daughter of the killer who was killed during Hannibal and Will’s very first case, via flashback, in the middle of a story arc as self-contained and separate from the past as Red Dragon, is a baffling one. Don’t get me wrong — the character brings out a level of paternal perversity from the show that’s awesome to behold. I mean, get a load of the scene in which Hannibal recruits her to help him fake her own death. Her acquiescence is hard to swallow (no pun intended, Will) at first, given her terror of Lecter and her warm feelings toward Graham. But it’s not difficult to imagine the severe Stockholm Syndrome that would kick in when the daughter of a serial killer who forced her to help him find victims is told by another serial killer she’s about to die, but then spared at the last second as part of some grand plan.
This leads to what can only be described as the most erotic faked murder ever filmed. (Move over, Gone Girl, I guess?) Her glee about participating is Oedipally delicious: “Can I push the button?” she asks, referring to the device Hannibal will use to shoot her blood across the room in mimicry of arterial spray, with a tone of voice that would make Humbert Humbert blush. After a langourous bloodletting, during which Hannibal tenderly brushes Abigail’s brown hair back from the ear he will soon slice off and force-feed to his friend, the girl slips off the kitchen counter and into the arms of her murder-daddy. He manipulates her body like a cellist playing his instrument until the moment of release: a slow-motion shot of her blood being expelled from a tube like a vampire ejaculating.
I reviewed this week’s Hannibal for Decider, which is another way to say I was paid to write the phrase “like a vampire ejaculating.”
More impressive still is Richard Armitage’s instant-classic work as Francis Dolarhyde — aka the Tooth Fairy, aka the Great Red Dragon — whom he doesn’t so much play as inhabit. In a recent interview, Armitage said he patterned his (so far entirely wordless) performance on Mica Levi’s avant-garde score for Jonathan Glazer’s art-house horror masterpiece Under the Skin. That a main character on a network television show would be based not a performance but the music from one of the most difficult and surreal horror films ever made is remarkable in and of itself. But beyond that, the connection makes perfect sense. Like Under the Skin, Red Dragon concerns an individual in the process of becoming: making, and perhaps unmaking, themselves into a creature driven to commit monstrous crimes. Armitage’s Dolarhyde stares at his own hands as if only now realizing not just their potential but their existence, and mouths formless syllables as if trying to construct not just speech but the meaning behind it. It’s both easy and instructive to see the parallels with Scarlett Johannson’s nameless predator, another beast slouching toward mayhem to be born.
But there are few parallels, if any, between Dolarhyde’s brutality and that of the series’ title character. After a half-season immersion in Hannibal’s world of refined and decadent Old Europe evil, the blunt force of this new killer could not be more striking. Frederic Chilton, who as played by Raul Esparza could quite convincingly pass himself off as Armitage/Dolarhyde’s twin brother, makes a joke out of the contrast (to say nothing of Hannibal’s ratings woes). “He has a much wider demographic than you do,” he tells Lecter. “You, with your fancy allusions and fussy aesthetics, will always have niche appeal. But this fellow…there is something so universal about what he does. Kills whole families, and in their homes. Strikes at the very core of the American dream. You might say he’s a four-quadrant killer.”
Indeed, Dolarhyde kills with an urgent simplicity that’s more viscerally frightening than the elaborate installation-art, performance-piece slayings that have been the stock in trade of both Hannibal and his several serial-killing rivals throughout the series’ run. The Tooth Fairy uses a gun to commit most of his murders; he needs to end lives as quickly as possible. While he does stage his victims’ bodies in gruesome tableaux, posing them together as one big happy family with the shards of broken mirrors over their eyes and mouths (and in the mothers’ genitals), he actually puts the corpses back afterwards. He has no interest in advertising himself to the world, proclaiming his sick genius; what he does, he does for himself alone. If Lecter is a vampire, Dolarhyde is a werewolf. He is an exclamation point to Hannibal’s ellipsis. All of this is communicated by the show through killing; this is its design. And if it is the punctuation that must end the series, so be it.
I reviewed this week’s episode of Hannibal for Decider. This show is astonishing.
…nearly all of the “Mignolaverse” titles are shot through with a sense of tremendous loss, of mind-warping waste. The world Hellboy and his friends inhabit is a brutal one, rendered unspeakably ugly by a combination of venal people whose minds are too small for empathy and the unstoppable forces they therefore unleash.
Moreover, there’s a specific sense throughout the saga that the violence wielded by its protagonists is futile, even counterproductive. The most gung-ho member of the B.P.R.D., heavily scarred ex-Marine Captain Ben Daimio, secretly harbored an evil spirit that eventually took over and rampaged through the team’s headquarters. An attempt by the artificial man Roger the Homunculus to ape Daimio’s hard-charging attitude led directly to his own death. The depiction of violence as causing more problems than it solves is a self-critique that few superhero stories attempt, and even the ones that attempt it usually ultimately reject it.
Yet Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. soldier on, fighting a menace they are too weak, and too late, to stop. Their goal, to the extent that they have one, is simply to survive, and to preserve what little light and life they can — to write an epilogue for a story that has already ended.
It’s been a long, long time since a path to Hannibal Lecter’s capture was clear. The rules of narrative, to say nothing of Thomas Harris’s source material, dictate that Will Graham would be the man to take the Chesapeake Ripper down. But he and Hannibal had become so emotionally intertwined that it made the profiler’s triumph over the killer increasingly unlikely, at least in terms of it resembling a good old-fashioned arrest.
At the end of Season Two, as we learned for certain a few episodes ago, Will had a chance to stop Hannibal but instead hoped to join him on the run. More recently, he was on the verge of stabbing the doctor to death in the the streets of Florence before fate, in the form of one of Chiyoh’s deus-ex-sniper-rifle bullets, intervened. Either way, Graham was morally compromised in a way that would give any defeat of Lecter a bitter aftertaste (no pun intended). As Will himself puts it during their final conversation, “When it comes to you and me, there can be no decisive victory.”
Turns out he’s wrong about that. Brain Hannibal with the butt of your handgun, plumb the depths of his backfat with a knife, brand him with red-hot iron, truss him up in a pigpen while preparing to eat him alive, and he makes nary a peep. Hurt his feelings, though? Then he’ll voluntarily give up his entire criminal career, so long as it’s Will doing the hurting. “I miss my dogs,” Graham says to his nemesis as they sit together in his cozy country house for yet another heart-to-heart chat. But then he sticks the knife in: “I’m not gonna missyou. I’m not going to find you. I’m not going to look for you. I don’t want know where you are or what you do. I don’t want to think about you anymore.”
Smug until the last, Hannibal tries to tell Will what he’s really feeling: “You delight in wickedness, and then berate yourself for the delight.” That’s the final strike. “You delight,” Will replies. “I tolerate. I don’t have your appetite.” Then comes the kiss-off: “Goodbye, Hannibal.” No more cat and mouse, and no more folie à deux either — Will’s done with the devil for good.
Earlier in the episode, Hannibal told Alana that she never could have understood him. Now it’s his turn to experience that kind of ignorance. Will’s superhuman empathy, the quality that enables him to understand Hannibal through and through, is the exact quality that renders him ultimately impenetrable to Hannibal in turn. Simply knowing that the closest thing he’s ever had to a friend has thoroughly rejected him, even as an enemy, for reasons he will never be fully capable of understanding, is enough to make Lecter give up, if only to ensure their continued connection. Will Graham caught Hannibal Lecter by letting him go.
I reviewed last week’s Hannibal, perhaps the most insane thing ever to air on network television, for Decider. You really need to see the gifs.
Let’s state it for the record: If Hannibal really is over, it’s the most upsetting cancellation since Deadwood, hands down. Both series are, or were, ruthless and uncompromising in articulating the poetically violent visions of their creators through inimitable dialogue and sumptuous cinematography. They’re gifts we’ve been lucky to have, even if only for three seasons apiece. That said, only one involved human bodies prepared like Peking duck, attempted incestuous insemination, beautiful women having kaleidoscope sex, and bone saws slicing through living human skulls. C’mon, NBC, Netflix, and Amazon! Hannibal has it all! And “Dolce,” tonight’s episode, was a veritable garden of unearthly delights — funny, sexy, suspenseful, repulsive, and, as always, absolutely gorgeous.
“Contorno,” last night’s action-packed, bowel-unpacked episode ofHannibal, took visceral (no pun intended) pleasure in kicking the living shit out of Hannibal Lecter. Physical opponents — that psychopathic mental-hospital orderly, Mason Verger and his goons, and of course Jack himself — have gotten the drop on the Doctor in the past, but in each case the action was elegant and elevating, whether Hannibal was being trussed up for the perfect death or engaging in an expertly choreographed hand-to-hand battle with a worthy opponent. None of that this time. This was just a decent guy who’s getting too old for this shit handing an asshole’s ass to him. And man, it felt good, even if he got away in the end. The split from the show’s usual operatic setpiece-violence in favor of this down-and-dirty fight was striking, and provided a surprising and welcome break from the claustrophobic, symbolism-laden slaughter.
And maybe it’s the latent class warrior in me — okay, not so latent, the expropriation of the wealthy really can’t begin fast enough — but it seems as if the show relied on a certain slobs-vs.-snobs schadenfreude to fuel the climactic town-vs.-gown beatdown. After all Hannibal’s posturing, his expensive clothes and fine wine and gourmet meals and high culture, he was for all intents and purposes beaten in a bar fight by a working stiff. Hannibal revels in the perversity of immersing us in this aristocratic killer’s mind and world, but a scene like this shows it’s still wisely attuned to popular desire to watch the effete elite taken down a peg. (The use of Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie” as the soundtrack for this scene smartly recalls its accompaniment of Alex DeLarge’s anti-aristo rampages in A Clockwork Orange.)