Posts Tagged ‘horror’
Saying Stranger Things wears its influences on its sleeve is like sayingBarb had a lousy time at Steve’s party: It’s true alright, but it understates the case considerably. Entire articles have been written detailing the themes, concepts, creatures, fonts, sound effects, and imagery swiped more or less wholesale from other films — here’s Vulture’s, just for example. And any fan of genre entertainment, particularly (though by no means exclusively) from the ’80s, can rattle off the creators whose original visions fueled the Duffer Brothers’ own without breaking a sweat. Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter are the most obvious touchstones, but you can also spot Judd Apatow, Shane Black, John Byrne, James Cameron, Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, Wes Craven, Joe Dante, Richard Donner, Fred Dekker, Jonathan Glazer, Gary Gygax, Tobe Hooper, John Hughes, Richard Kelly, John Landis, David Lynch, Katsuhiro Otomo, and Robert Zemeckis from a mile away. Any show assembled from building blocks that solid is going to be entertaining, at the very least; factor in universally fine performances from the show’s many child and young-adult actors, the strongest such cast assembled since Game of Thrones, and you’d be tempted to move Stranger Things out of the “hey, that was kinda fun” column straight into “this is a stone classic, gimme season two immediately” territory.
But unlike many of its countless forerunners, Stranger Things’ story of small-town terror communicates little beyond the contents of its creators’ Blu-ray collections. It’s so fixated on stirring nostalgia for the science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and adventure tales of yore that it has no time or energy left over for what made those horror tales compelling in the first place: wrestling with the fears and desires of the time period, and the different kinds of people — boys and girls, men and women, parents and children, kids and teens and adults — who found themselves struggling with them. Nearly everything difficult about the original works, everything weird, gross, uncomfortable, unexplained, and hidden beneath the surface (“occulted,” to use an evocative lit-studies term) has been stripped away in favor of a lowest-common-denominator pastiche that retains the surface elements but loses the power within.
The more I saw of this show, the more what it did with its source material bothered me. I went in-depth on how Stranger Things squandered its potential to actually be a stranger thing for Vulture.
The beauty of all this is that Nick is neither a born survivor nor a feckless, hapless loser. He’s a guy trying his best, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. The false dichotomy usually present in Fear the Walking Dead’s survival stories, where living to fight another day usually comes down simply to how violent you’re willing to be, is nowhere to be found. And throughout, director Daniel Sackheim — veteran of some of television’s best-made shows, including The Leftovers, The Americans, and Game of Thrones — frames Nick with some of the series’ most striking shots to date, driving home both his isolation and the lyrical, largely wordless nature (after all, he’s got no one to talk to) of his emotional and physical world.
It’s reminiscent, frankly, of the long, lovely, riveting silent stretches of, say, The Leftovers or Better Call Saul. Sure, it shows how much potential Fear squanders — imagine if it were like this every week! there’s really nothing stopping it! — but even so.
All in all, Nick’s journey here favorably compares to similar passages in, say, Stephen King’s The Stand, where the main obstacle to survival was distance itself — the vast amount of terrain that survivors of the apocalypse had to cover, and the sheer variety of dangers, large and small, they’d have to face on the way. Frankly, this entire franchise has never earned a comparison with a genre touchstone that strong before. I fear it won’t last, but for one week anyway, it’s manna from survival-horror heaven.
I reviewed last night’s Fear the Walking Dead mid-season premiere for Decider. Believe it or not, I liked it a lot! I think it’s the series’ first top-to-bottom good episode. For many reasons detailed in the review I feel a worthy follow-up is unlikely, but still.
I’ve never seen a show fail as spectacularly as Preacher did in its Season One finale. I mean that in every sense of the phrase, honestly. As is the show’s custom, “Call and Response” went as far as it could possibly go, then pushed even farther. Graphic violence of virtually every variety, narrative zig-zags and head-fakes and dead-ends that would make Lost go “now hold the phone,” gross-out moments as stomach-churning as a basic-cable show can get, more tragically hip music cues than a mid-‘90s Miramax movie soundtrack, a complete and total abandonment of taste, decorum, or even just the sensible fear of being corny as hell: Preacher has always been willing to go for it, and went for it the finale did. It just so happens to have gone for the goddamn face of a cliff. It was spectacular, yes. It was also a failure. A complete, total, spectacular failure.
I’ve been hard on Preacher, and that’s never been harder on me than this week. By any objective measure last night’s episode, “Finish the Song,” ended with the sort of sheer convention-shredding narrative audacity every TV critic worth their salt would commit at least a misdemeanor offense to see more often. It’s actually heartbreaking to how far the show is willing to go, and how hard it works to get there, only to watch it fall short again.
Preacher made one of the boldest storytelling decisions I’ve ever seen on TV, and it still didn’t work. I tried really hard to unpack why in my review of this week’s episode for the New York Observer.
If you want an object lesson in how Preacher is just about half a head shy of being an actual good show, you could do worse than to look at this week’s episode. ‘El Valero’ could be considered a climactic installment, insofar as Odin Quincannon’s forces succeed in taking back the church from Jesse Custer, while the angels fail in removing Genesis. But nearly everything that happens hints at greatness, or at least damn goodness, that goes frustratingly unrealized.
Take Odin Quincannon. This episode begins with a flashback to what amounts to his origin story: He lost his entire immediate and extended family to a ski-lift collapse while he was stuck at home working, then went slightly mad and disemboweled both a cow and his daughter’s corpse to “prove” that the idea of a human soul is bullshit. Yes, the Quincannon family’s totally-‘80s wardrobe and hairstyles are played for laughs, and yes, Odin’s over-the-top reaction is there for the gross-out factor. But at least once it becomes clear that this wasn’t a murder he orchestrated — i.e. an attempt by the show to demonstrate just what a badass bastard he is — but a genuine, tragic accident that cost children their lives and broke a man’s spirit with survivor’s guilt, the performance by Jackie Earle Haley as the grief-stricken, mad-at-god meat magnate thrums with real sadness and anger and hate. His reversion to type throughout the rest of the episode — barking sarcastic orders at his men like the opening scene had never happened — cuts the impact off at the knees. (Or shoots off its dick, as the show would likely have it.)
Jesse Custer’s in a really bad mood. Accidentally sending a teenager to Hell will do that to you, of course. The fascinating thing about “He’s Gone,” this week’s episode of Preacher and the first I’ve felt has anything more on its mind than what you might find in a college sophomore’s bathroom reading material, is the complex manner in which that bad mood is manifested. This was the first hour I’ve spent in Jesse’s company that left me wondering what he might do next — not in an “oh shit anything can happen on Preacher…and usually does!!!” way, which is as predictable as anything, but in a “human beings are complicated, difficult creatures and we probe their mysteries at our peril” way, which is the hallmark of television worth watching.
The fight scene’s what will get most of the attention, but my vote for the best moment in which Preacher gets physical this week is when Jesse and Cassidy stand around in their underwear. With their clothes in the wash after a knock-down-drag-out brawl with the angels that left an entire motel room looking like Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton were staying in the adjoining suite, the two men (well, one man with an angel-demon hybrid inside him and one vampire) kick back with a morning beer and talk about their tattoos. Why? Because when you’ve got two guys in your cast with the physiques of Dominic Cooper and Joe Gilgun, why not? Preacher has been a show about spectacle and sensation from the start, and you don’t get more sensational than that.
So if there’s a problem with “Sundowner,” it’s not that heaping helping of eye candy, any more than the show’s bold stylization and blood ’n’ guts violence have been a problem as a whole. The generic Texas-shithole setting aside, Preacher has always been a heck of a thing to look at. The issue is what lies beneath, or more accurately what doesn’t. The glitzy surface conceals lapses in logic and a hollow heart that would easily have felled a less audacious and accomplished show by now.
The blasé manner in which characters react to the extraordinary events befalling them is endemic to the school of comics in which Preacher’s source material, the DC/Vertigo series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, is squarely located. Playing it cool around vampires, angels, demonic possession, and the wrath of God Himself has long been a way for writers of a certain vintage to mark their protagonists as either erudite sophisticates familiar to the point of boredom with the ways of the multiverse (“The Elder Gods do have a tendency to make one frightfully late for tea”) or hardcore badasses whose busy schedule of drinkin’, fightin’, and fuckin’ leave them no time to be wowed by the world beyond (“What’s the matter? Never seen the infernal legions before, new guy? Hurry the fuck up and shoot ‘em — I got a date with three strippers tonight and I’ll be damned if Beelzebub’s gonna cost me my nut”). With nerd culture’s Orwellian oligarchical takeover it was only a matter of time to see it so directly translated to the small screen, but that doesn’t make it any less joy-killing now that it’s happened.
Which brings us to the Red Wedding. A pop-culture touchstone the instant it took place, this bloody on-screen slaughter of House Stark’s leadership — most notably King Robb, his mother Catelyn, his wife Talisa and their unborn child — was payback by crusty old Walder Frey for the insult he suffered when the Young Wolf broke his promise to marry a Frey daughter. It was the ultimate revenge killing, for the pettiest of reasons. But more importantly, it represented as great a shock to the storyline as Ned’s death did. Before that fateful night, we’d assumed that while Dany’s dragons and the White Walkers would wind up moving to center stage at some point, the Stark/Lannister conflict would serve as a series throughline. Wrong. When Cat’s throat was cut, our understanding of what the show was about went with her. Suddenly the Lions were in charge, becoming the show’s ersatz protagonists simply by virtue of survival. A change that big required a massacre this graphic.
The same logic underlies the show’s most controversial and upsetting acts of violence: those against women and children. On this show, kings have ordered the murder of infants. Children have been sacrificed to White Walkers and the Red God. Peasant kids have been skinned, hanged, and burned just as a ruse, or devoured by the dragons their mother hoped would be humanity’s saviors. Young slaves have been crucified to send a message, young prisoners executed out of rage or simply for convenience. And from monsters like Joffrey and Ramsay to schemers like Littlefinger and Roose Bolton to ostensible heroes like Tyrion, women are treated like cattle: bargained for, bred with, and slaughtered at will.
It’s these deaths, whether they involve major players or minor characters, that are toughest to endure and most important to think about. Violence, like water, flows downhill, and inevitably drowns those most vulnerable to it. Depicting it in any other way would betray Game of Thrones’ central contention that however you dress it up, power is seized by the sword, with all the carnage that entails.
This is why complaints that Ramsay was too one-note in his cruelty miss the mark. Does he have a “character arc”? Not unless you count his legitimization by his father, which only made him more of what he already was. Does he grow, change, surprise? Nope — once he led Theon back to that X-shaped crucifix, we knew what he was, and he never challenged that knowledge. But there’s more to a character than this kind of by-the-numbers analysis lets on. There are the intangibles of Iwan Rheon’s performance — how he made the Bastard’s demented mirth feel so striking and singular amid an ocean of comparably cruel characters. There are the themes he helped articulate better than any other character — the inherent unfairness of Westeros’ class system, the way rich and powerful men can quite literally get away with murder. And there’s the spectacular nature of his brutality — how his extreme bloodlust forced every viewer to confront our own complicated feelings about violent stories, on-screen and off. We’re glad the bastard’s gone, but it’s good we got to know him.
Every once in a while a show will present us with a storyline that acts as a convenient metaphor for that show as a whole. At first glance, “Cassidy, the century-old Irish vampire, bamboozles two unkillable Cockney angels into paying for a superhuman quantity of drugs at a Texas whorehouse before a case of mistaken identity causes him to be beaten through a second-story window” might seem an unlikely candidate for this role. Take a second look, however, and…well, yeah, it still doesn’t make a ton of sense. But a third look — that’ll do it. In “Monster Swamp,” its first season’s fourth episode, Preacher is as wild and intoxicating as ever. But it’s a shallow high, with a hell of a crash coming down.
Take the cold open, a chase scene involving an underwear-clad woman fleeing unknown pursuers that ricochets rapidly between creepy and zany and back to creepy again. There’s a closeup on a light and a schoolbus drifting past. Then the town mascot wanders by. Then the scantily clad woman shows up. Then it seems like she’s running for her life. A truck pursues her, with a rifle mounted at the rear windshield. As she flees, she tries to hide, but her hiding place is occupied by twoother women in their underwear, who wave her away. By this point it’s clear she’s being chased by the macho employees of the menacing local monopoly Quincannon Meat & Power, meaning this is some kind of game involving a whole other exchange of meat and power. She keeps running, and is joined side-by-side by another woman, who gets shot by what looks like some kind of dart, not a bullet. When our heroine is finally cornered, her pursuer tags her with a paintball, indicating this is likely all some kind of bought-and-paid-for foreplay in Most Dangerous Game form. But just when you think all is well (or well-ish), boom, the ground opens up and she falls in a sinkhole and dies.
Pretty TWISTED, right???!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!
In other words, here’s the problem with Preacher: Its tracking shots, title cards, and go-for-broke mirth and mayhem make the show a lot more entertaining than a show by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg based on a retrospectively cheesy ’90s “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” series has any right to be. But being entertaining is a lot different from being interesting. Preacher talks in a language all its own, but that doesn’t mean it has anything to say.
While we’re on the subject of explosives, let’s talk about Joe Gilgun as Cassidy, lovable Irish vampire. This dude is a fucking supernova in this role, for real. He has the rangy physicality of a guy who’s had just enough to drink to give his every movement a tiny bit more momentum than required to get the job done — he always seems to be leaning, slouching, lunging, weaving, careening, even when sitting still. This serves him well in his comedic exchanges with Jesse and his major domo Emily, and even better in his fight scenes, which are fast becoming among the best choreographed and bloodiest on the small screen. His gory churchhouse slobberknocker with the two mysterious Brits who’ve been tracking the entity that has possessed Jesse is some Evil Dead-level splatstick, right down to the chainsaw, with severed arm still attached at the handle, crawling itself down the aisle toward the preacher’s passed-out body. Cassidy’s such a welcome presence every time he shows up that you half-forget he’s a vampire and thus oddly superfluous to the central storyline, like if Game of Thrones had a character who was an alien.
Is it the Word of God that has come unto Jesse Custer, or is he merely possessed by the spirit of the ‘90s? Preacher, AMC’s new readymade blockbuster series — it’s got the nerd pedigree, the nonsensically titled Chris Hardwick postgame show Talking Preacher, a superstar co-creator in the form of Seth Rogen, the whole nine — is based on the comic book series of the same name by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon (and, though he’s not credited, tone-setting cover artist Glenn Fabry), which ran for 75 issues or so during the pre-millennium tension of the last five years of the 20th century. This was perhaps the last era during which taboo-busting for taboo-busting’s sake could get a comic over with an audience; a quick visit to the Preacher wikipedia page reveals more inbreeding, cannibalism, anal rape, and Kurt Cobain references than you can shake a crucifix at.
And judging from the pilot episode, the TV show is just as indebted to the signature filmmaker of the era, Quentin Tarantino, as were the “cutting edge” mature-readers-only comic books of the day. There’s a redneck-laden setting, a madcap vampire, a soundtrack full of hipster-revered square singers, a series of self-aware title cards (OUTER SPACE / AFRICA / TEXAS / ETC.), and mutilation galore. If you mashed up Natural Born Killers, the “bring out the gimp” sequence from Pulp Fiction, and the “Stuck in the Middle With You” scene from Reservoir Dogs, then sprinkled in some post-9/11 elements like the Budd segment of Kill Bill Vol. 2, the Death Proof half of Grindhouse, and the cartoonish graphic design of Scott Pilgrim (itself a comic-book adaptation) and Zombieland (starring Natural Born Killers leading man Woody Harrelson in what I insist to this day is a reprisal of his role from that Tarantino-story-credited film), you’ve got pretty much the whole show nailed down. To paraphrase a conversation I had about the show with critic Eric Thurm, you’re a Bill Hicks monologue away from reliving the second half of the Clinton administration.
So is the bloody thing any goddamn good?
I’m reviewing Preacher for the New York Observer, how about that? I started with last weekend’s pilot, which was audacious and entertaining but at times worryingly glib.
“Look at me!” Chris Manawa yells at his father Travis, minutes after holding a child hostage at gunpoint and moments after trying to stab his old man to escape. “I’m no good! I’m no good!” He may not be wrong—he’s directly threatened the lives of his stepmother and stepsister multiple times—but nor is he alone. “Shiva,” the “midseason finale” (ugh) of Fear the Walking Dead, offers the clearest demonstration yet that there’s something rotten in the extended Clark-Manawa-Salazar-Strand clan. Too bad the only people capable of seeing it are batshit insane.
I reviewed last night’s Fear the Walking Dead for Decider. Lots of fire, but not so hot.
Fear the Walking Dead just served up one of 2016’s great doomed romances. Show of hands: Who the hell saw that coming? Before today, this largely superfluous spin-off’s idea of tenderness was…well, who knows, since it never showed us. Travis and Maddie have all the chemistry of a wet firecracker, Daniel’s love of his late wife seemed primarily a matter of wanting to save her life and/or determine the time and place of her death, whichever was necessary, and Alicia’s two love interests either died in the initial outbreak or were part of a crew of pirates who nearly got them all killed. Enter Victor Strand and Thomas Abigail, two he-men with hearts of gold, separated by the apocalypse itself, tragically reunited just in time to say goodbye. Their love for each other made “Sicut Cervus,” this week’s episode, the best Fear the Walking Dead yet.
You’re not gonna believe this: I really liked last night’s Fear the Walking Dead, which I reviewed for Decider. It shows how easy it would be to defuse the franchise’s fascistic overtones simply by introducing alternatives to “kill or be killed.”
Break out your Dungeons & Dragon alignment chart, folks: “Captive,” this week’s episode of Fear the Walking Dead, spelled out this show’s versions of good, neutral, and evil in no uncertain terms. “Good” came from Travis, held prisoner by chef-turned-pirate Connor and his not-so-merry men: “I’m sorry,” he tells Alex, the woman Strand cut adrift a couple episodes back. “I’m so sorry for all of this. We can…we can be more than what we’ve become, can’t we?” Though neither he nor Alex necessarily believe the answer is yes, he’s at least striving for than the vicious cycle of violence he and his companions have embraced during the course of the series. “Neutral” arrives via Ofelia, while she’s mopping up the blood of the imprisoned pirate Reed whom Chris had just shot to death. “This is what we do now,” she says: “Spill blood, clean it up, and spill it again.” She sees the horror in this but neither embraces nor rejects it — it just is. And before he dies, Reed gives voice to “Evil”: “Blood’s all that matters now,” he tells Chris, articulating the blood-and-soil pseudofascism that underlies Fear’s central survival tenet: To protect you and yours, you must do whatever it takes against all potential threats. If you can’t guess which ethos wins out, you haven’t been paying attention.
I reviewed last night’s Fear the Walking Dead for Decider. This was the calmest I’ve been while writing about the show in a while, and it wound up being an interesting episode to pick apart, even though I still feel the same about the series.
Every time I think Fear the Walking Dead has hit bottom, out comes some big steampunk subterranean drillmobile to dig even deeper. On “Blood in the Streets,” this week’s episode, it comes in the form of Reed, the leader of the trio of pirates who’ve been following our heroes since they hit the high seas. He and his mates, Alicia’s ersatz shortwave-radio boyfriend Jack and a very pregnant woman named Vida, bluff their way aboard the Abigail by faking a bloody pregnancy complication. Chris, standing guard duty on deck with Ofelia, is paralyzed with indecision about whether or not to shoot them, shouting to anyone who’ll hear for advice, but it’s too late — though not too late to spare us the obscene spectacle of a teenager pointing a gun at a pregnant stranger and wondering aloud whether he should shoot her to death.
But this is Fear the Walking Dead, so of course the answer was yes: Once on board, the newcomers drop the ruse, quickly overpower everyone aboard, shoot Strand’s raft and leave him for dead as he tries to escape, help their pirate leader Connor kidnap Alicia and Travis, and nearly kill everyone else before an unexpected rescuer (more on him later) kills them instead. Before he dies, Reed drives the point home by taunting Chris for his hesitation to, and I stress this, shoot and kill a pregnant woman in distress and the two panicked men trying to help her. “‘Should I shoot ’em?’ Piece of advice: If you have to ask the question, someone should already be dead.”
Folks, if I sat around and tried, I could not possibly have come up with a better illustration of what makes this show such an appalling, fascistic spectacle. Like I keep saying over and over and over, because the show keeps doing it over and over and over, the correct choice in any given situation is always cruelty and violence, without exception. Anything less — helping children, aiding a wounded person, not shooting a pregnant woman to death — is foolhardy to the point of suicide. For the preservation of your people, you must act without mercy. I dunno about you, but I liked it better in the original German.
I reviewed last week’s Fear the Walking Dead for Decider, and you’re damn right I linked to a speech Himmler delivered to the SS.
The first rule of Fear the Walking Dead Club is kill or be killed. The second rule of Fear the Walking Dead club is there is no other rule. Three episodes deep into its second season, the Walking Dead spinoff demonstrates no clear raison d’etre other than demonstrating how vitally important it is to stamp out any people who stand in the way of your tribe’s survival without mercy. Every other rule of survival? Who the fuck cares? Certainly not the creators, who pepper the story that surrounds the punishment of empathy with death and the vicious treatment of outsiders with decisions a shitty slasher movie couldn’t get away with. In this regard, “Ouroboros,” this week’s installment, is as lazy as it gets.
“Ring Around the Rosie” is not about the bubonic plague. It’s not a song invented by medieval children about carrying posies to ward off infection, or about how the disease’s rash takes the form of a rosy red ring, or in which “ashes to ashes” is a corruption of the “ah-choo” sound of sneezing, or in “we all fall down” refers to death. The idea that it is is pure fabrication, an urban legend spread around by people who get a thrill out of inserting fake-deep, phony-dark meaning into entertainment for children. So naturally, it’s the perfect chunk of horseshit for Fear the Walking Dead.
Fear presents the fake factoid with a straight face in this week’s episode — actually named “We All Fall Down,” for god’s sake — as a way a doomed little girl to get schooled by sadder, wiser teenager Alicia, despite the fact that the Snopes page debunking the claim is “Ring Around the Rosie”’s second fucking google hit. I never thought I’d tell a show as tryhard as FtWD to try harder, but seriously, Fear writers, Let Me Google That For You.
I reviewed last night’s Fear the Walking Dead for Decider. What a contemptible show.