Posts Tagged ‘horror’
That there is a Season 2 is a tough thing to complain about. Mad Dogs was entertaining as the dickens from start to finish, its pacing often as good as this kind of “oh shit!” suspense gets, its performances uniformly strong right down to the bit parts, its musings on sacrifice and regret and morality never glib or hamfisted and often quite thoughtful. Plus, with any luck, Allison Tolman and Ted Levine will be along for the ride on a semi-permanent basis next time.
But it’s still tough not to wonder if the show wouldn’t have been better off as a miniseries or anthology. No matter how hard the writers work to justify it, bringing the four friends back together in Belize, or anywhere else for that matter, can’t help but feel like horny teenagers returning to Camp Crystal Lake, or John McClane running into yet another band of terrorist bank robbers only he can stop. As it stands, the series was forced to soft-pedal the confrontation with “Jésus,” introduce Levine’s Conrad Tull but leave him hanging there like an unfinished sentence, and leave many vital questions about Joel and his current situation unanswered (but not in a cliffhanger way—in a “hey, what the hell is up with that?” way). A finite, 10-episode story would almost certainly have yielded a bigger emotional payoff and a more explosive genre-based ending. I’ll be happily watching next year regardless, but perhaps this trip really should have been once in a lifetime.
I liked Mad Dogs a lot, but I got to thinking that even as showrunners have been granted authority to tell and end their stories as they see fit, for the most part (aside from anthology series) they’re still expected to tell those stories over multiple seasons. I wrote about that in my review of the final episode.
…Jazmin just doesn’t measure up. She comes across like a bad guy in a bad action movie, all unpredictable mood changes, inappropriate laughter, and the overall demeanor of an ADHD kid who’s gone off her meds. One second she’s playing Luke Skywalker with a machete, the next she’s asking Joel if he’d like to fuck, and the next she’s telling him how sad his kids will be to hear that he died. This manic pixie drug kingpin schtick flattens the character into a collection of tics, and makes it hard to take Joel’s plight seriously. He’s basically being threatened by a Looney Tunes character, whether the CIA wants to recruit her services or not.
At some point during the eighth episode of Mad Dogs—I believe it was between when the bomb exploded and when the chihuahua got its throat cut—I got to thinking: This shit is hard. I don’t mean survival for Cobi, Joel, Gus, and Lex, mind you—I mean writing it. Like Breaking Bad and Fargo before it, Mad Dogs depends on a plot structure of interlocking catastrophes so intricate you’d practically need those robot arms they use to handle plutonium to pull it off. The go-to comparison is dominoes, with one thing falling on top of the next as everything speeds out of control, but that implies a linearity that doesn’t exist here. TV shows like this are like dominoes if and only if occasionally new dominoes spring up from the ground, or drop out of the sky, or materialize from space, or are fired from a drone piloted by the CIA. They’ve got to simultaneously maintain the tension of knowing something bad’s going to happen and wanting to avoid it, the suspense of not knowing something bad is going to happen but suspecting that it will, the shock of having something bad happen completely out of the blue, the plausibility that all these events could conceivably occur (within a TV show or movie, anyway) without knocking you out of the story with their ridiculousness, the raw mechanical skill to make the action plain entertaining, and the emotional stakes of protagonists and antagonists you enjoy watching, if not care about as people. Even to a writer who can see the wires, so to speak, pulling off this feat feels close to magic.
I reviewed episode 8 of Mad Dogs and wrote quite a bit about both the Breaking Bad model of constant-bad-shit-happening TV and the importance of a great villain to genre storytelling.
Remember those episodes of Breaking Bad where the show was less a story than a series of unfortunate events? The ones where no matter what Walt and Jesse tried to do, they were met with a neverending cascade of calamities, each one more unexpected than the last? Okay, yeah, that’s pretty much all the episodes of Breaking Bad. But it fits “Ice Cream,” the seventh ep of Mad Dogs, to a tee as well.
Without the great Allison Tolman as a stabilizing and unifying presence, “Leslie,”Mad Dogs’ sixth installment, resumes its previously very, very heavily serialized model. As I’ve said before, the show’s episodes increasingly feel less like cohesive (if to-be-continued) units and more like fifty-plus minutes torn off at random from a ten-hour reel. Think of how different the first half of this ep, with its Outbreak/Contagion quarantine claustrophobia and paranoia, feels from the second, with Joel and Cobi cutting and running and communing with beatific locals and tourists they encounter along the way. You could have rolled the closing credits right in the middle and begun an entirely new episode for all their stylistic and thematic continuity.
Allison Tolman is a tremendous screen presence and her casting here is a real coup, like plopping a fifth main character right into the action halfway through the season. Even if she doesn’t last—and that’s how it’s looking, though on this show anything’s possible—she transformed the dynamic simply by being there. For one thing, her presence opened up space for kindness between the characters and the people they meet, a note that had been almost entirely absent for hours now. A story with Rochelle in it, however briefly, is a story where our foursome can stop to help scavenging street kids, where Joel can admiringly commune with a local living the good life with his wife and goats up in the mountains, where Gus and Cobi can hold children on their laps and sing songs to them to make them laugh, where Lex can have a kind and quiet conversation about music and life on the road with a person who won’t at some point condescend to his addictions and failures. It’s a story where the black-comedy nightmare can clear up for a few minutes, giving everyone much-needed emotional breathing room.
I’ve never really bought the idea that Amazon and Netflix are doing something materially distinct from HBO and AMC or any other terrestrial TV network. Television has been doing heavy serialization since The Wire, and before that Twin Peaks, and before, during, and after that in every single daytime soap. Netflix and Amazon execs can make all the noise they want about seeing the season rather than the episode as the fundamental storytelling unit, but this too is basically true of every good prestige drama, to one extent or another—just ask David Simon. In my experience, if a streaming series suffers when seen one episode at a time as opposed to in multi-hour chunks, that’s not because streaming TV is a different medium, it’s because the show isn’t that great. Jessica Jones would not have been less a slog had I watched five episodes a day instead of one, you know?
As critiques of Toxic Masculinity™ go, it’s pretty cutting. Who doesn’t love their crime thrillers with a terrifying, gun-toting dwarf in an animal mask mixed in? It’s precisely the kind of surreal badassery such films have trafficked in since the world first heard the phrase “bring out the gimp.” You could read Cobi, Lex, Gus, and Joel trimming the Cat’s claws as Mad Dogs indulging that kind of cinematic cool just long enough to reject it.
When a dwarf in a cat mask shoots your friend to death and warns you to return his stolen property in 24 hours or you’ll be next, you’ve pretty much got your day planned out for you. It’s also reasonable to assume this has the TV series in which you’re starring pretty much mapped out as well. Surely Cobi, Gus, Joel, and Lex, the feckless foursome at the heart of Mad Dogs, will spend its ten-episode run battling their way back to the boat, like Martin Sheen going up the river looking for Colonel Kurtz (who they went so far as to name-drop in the pilot), right?
Wrong, actually. Well, kinda. Within the first few minutes of “Xtabai,” Mad Dogs’ second episode (which you can watch on Amazon Prime Video), our heroes have already triumphantly returned to the stolen yacht that got their frienemy Milo murdered. Granted, it gets a whole lot more complicated from there. But the unexpected immediacy with which they find the boat was a pleasant shock to the system. For one thing, zooming right through what seemed like it was going to be a long journey through beaucoup screentime toward an obviously inevitable destination was a smart storytelling decision. Unless you’re Game of Thrones, a lot of shows would benefit from taking a hatchet to all the buildup and just getting down to business. For another, genre shows like this rely on familiarity way more than originality — that’s what makes a genre a genre, after all, common tonal and narrative elements — so almost any curveball is worth throwing.
In TV terms, the spectacle of middle-aged men indulging their id is abundant and low value, so to speak; this means Mad Dogs’ execution must be unimpeachably tight to distinguish it. Provided the premise alone doesn’t turn you off, so far so good. The cast is solid, yes, and the tropical-paradise eye candy is tasty, though that’s easy enough for TV today too. But what really works is the editing, the rapid-fire kind we olds used to call “MTV style” but which you rarely see in contemporary dramas. It gives the proceedings a sort of adrenaline sheen, but it can be played with to great effect too, whether by dragging things out—a club sequence crash cuts through three different and distinctive songs to suggest that the gang stayed there for a long time—or slowing things down—the quieter scenes drop the staccato rhythm for longer takes that drive the importance home.
Still, the biggest surprise is that defiantly anticlimactic ending. Anyone hoping for a knock-down drag-out fight between Ash and Ruby, let alone him and the forces she controls, is outta luck. (Save it for your Bruce Campbell/Lucy Lawless fanfic.) What you’ve got instead is an exhausted middle-aged man who wants to save his own ass, keep his friends from getting killed, and give up the fight to go live the good life down in Jacksonville. Ruby talks a good game, claiming her goal isn’t the apocalypse but its opposite — an orderly world in which evil coexists with good under her command. That’s part of why Ash takes the deal, sure. But the real reason goes back to what Kelly said about him last episode: He always takes the easy way out if given the chance.
Maybe that’s what explains the character’s enduring appeal. Campbell, of course, is Exhibits A, B, and C in the case of Evil Dead’s lasting legacy. But Ash isn’t just the cartoon character he comes across as. He often makes decisions that aren’t just stupid, but shitty — something action-horror-comedy hybrid heroes are rarely permitted. His carelessness with the Necronomicon is what got everyone into this mess, and his willingness to fob it off on anyone, even Ruby, appears to have brought on Armageddon. In the end, he saves his friends and hightails it out of there, leaving the entire world to its fate; he gets to the finish line and immediately hooks left. It’s not how heroes, even funny ones, are supposed to act. It’s not how stories like this are supposed to work. But Ash vs. Evil Dead never claimed that it would play by the rules. It’s too crazy and confident to be anything but its own groovy self.
When you talk about what makes a TV series succeed or fail, you typically want to avoid repeating the same points over and over. Who wants to sound like a broken record, right? Tell that to John Lennon and Yoko Ono when they made “Revolution 9″ — and if repetition is good enough for the Beatles, it’s good enough for us, and for Ash vs. Evil Dead. The penultimate episode of the show’s first season — “Bound in the Flesh” — gets where it’s going by repeating the same trick it’s pulled since the pilot: taking the gore and nastiness as far as it can, then taking them one step beyond. Like that creepy voice saying “Number nine … number nine …” over and over, it works.
As a general rule, Ash vs. Evil Dead has its tongue buried so far in its cheek it pokes through the side of its own face. True to its splatstick roots, the series cranks up the blood and guts to a more-funny-than-scary degree, and uses its talented troupe of comedic actors to crack wiseass jokes about the carnage. It’s not that it’s making light of violence, let alone celebrating or valorizing it — its attitude is that in the face of evil, death, and the combination thereof, you just have to laugh.
Which makes tonight’s episode — “Ashes to Ashes” — such a shock. From the title on down, it seemed like little more than an excuse to introduce the series’ goofiest antagonist yet: a clone of Ash J. Williams, grown from the stump of his own severed hand. A Bruce Campbell vs. Bruce Campbell fight scene? Groovy, right? But when the evil Ash killed Amanda Fisher — the dogged, surprisingly flirtatious detective who went from nemesis to love interest in the blink of an eye — it was a development that the show’s shits ‘n’ giggles tone made impossible to see coming, and emotionally difficult to withstand.
I reviewed this weekend’s Ash vs. Evil Dead for Rolling Stone. This show has really been a pleasant surprise.
“Life is hard and dangerous, and sometimes you just gotta chop off somebody’s head to survive.” Wait, since when did Ash vs. Evil Dead become The Walking Dead? We kid, of course. Unlike the smash-hit zombie series, Starz’s resurrection of the beloved splatstick franchise is neither pretentious nor nihilistic enough to serve up that line of dialogue with a straight face. While TWD doles out its sadistic, kill-or-be-killed valorization of violence in all misguided seriousness, tonight’s Ash episode — “Fire in the Hole” — treats it like the joke that it is. In this go-round, Ash J. Williams and his merry band come across a militia full of Rick Grimes–style might-makes-right gun fetishists, and promptly pull their asses out of the fire.
1. Hellboy: Seed of Destruction
2. Hellboy: Wake the Devil
3. Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others
4. Hellboy: The Right Hand of Doom
5. Hellboy: Conqueror Worm
6. BPRD: Hollow Earth & Other Stories
7. Hellboy: Weird Tales Vol. 1
8. BPRD: The Soul of Venice & Other Stories
9. Hellboy: Weird Tales Vol. 2
10. BPRD: Plague of Frogs
11. BPRD: The Dead
12. Hellboy: Strange Places
13. BPRD: The Black Flame
14. BPRD: The Universal Machine
15. Hellboy: The Troll Witch and Others
16. BPRD: Garden of Souls
17. BPRD: Killing Ground
18. Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus
19. Hellboy: Darkness Calls
20. Abe Sapien: The Drowning
21. BPRD: 1946
22. BPRD: The Warning
23. BPRD: The Black Goddess
24. Hellboy: The Wild Hunt
25. Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels
26. BPRD: War on Frogs
27. Hellboy: The Crooked Man and Others
28. BPRD: 1947
29. BPRD: King of Fear
30. BPRD: Hell on Earth: New World
31. Hellboy: The Bride of Hell and Others
[31.5 Hellboy: House of the Living Dead]
32. BPRD: Being Human
33. Witchfinder: Lost and Gone Forever
34. BPRD: Hell on Earth: Gods and Monsters
35. Hellboy: The Storm and the Fury
36. Abe Sapien: The Devil Does Not Jest
37. BPRD: Hell on Earth: Russia
38. Lobster Johnson: The Burning Hand
39. BPRD: Hell on Earth: The Devil’s Engine & The Long Death
40. BPRD: Hell on Earth: The Pickens County Horror & Others
41. BPRD: Hell on Earth: The Return of the Master
42. BPRD: 1948
[42.5 Hellboy: The Midnight Circus]
43. BPRD: Vampire
44. BPRD: Hell on Earth: A Cold Day in Hell
45. Abe Sapien: Dark and Terrible & The New Race of Man
46. Lobster Johnson: Satan Smells a Rat
47. BPRD: Hell on Earth: Lake of Fire
48. Hellboy in Hell: The Descent
49. Sledgehammer 44
50. Abe Sapien: The Shape of Things to Come
51. BPRD: Hell on Earth: The Reign of the Black Flame
52. Lobster Johnson: Get the Lobster
53. Abe Sapien: Sacred Places
54. BPRD: Hell on Earth: The Devil’s Wings
55: Witchfinder: The Mysteries of Unland
56. Abe Sapien: A Darkness So Great
57. Hellboy and the BPRD: 1952
58. BPRD: Hell on Earth: Flesh and Stone
59. Frankenstein Underground
60. BPRD: Hell on Earth: Metamorphosis (due in January)
61. Hellboy in Mexico (due in April)
62. Abe Sapien: The Secret Fire (due in June)
63. Hellboy and the BPRD: 1953 (due in August)
As I’ve explained when I’ve done this in the past, I left out the humor collection Hellboy Junior and the superhero-crossover collection Hellboy: Masks and Monsters because they’re not in continuity; arguably neither are the two Hellboy: Weird Tales volumes but they’re at least in the spirit of the thing. I listed the original graphic novel hardcovers Hellboy: House of the Living Deadand Hellboy: The Midnight Circus as .5s rather than factoring them into the list proper primarily out of pique that they hadn’t been released in paperback yet, though that is now forthcoming with Hellboy in Mexico next April. I used the regular-edition trade paperbacks rather than the larger omnibus-style collections, though I refrained from noting the individual volume numbers within each series just for the sake of my sanity.
Enjoy, and many thanks to Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davis et al for this marvelous story!
Six episodes into its first season, AvED shows no signs of either slowing down or slipping up. In fact, in sheer entertainment terms, this week’s episode — “The Killer of Killers” — may be the best of the bunch so far. Yes, it lacks the genuine jump-scares of the pilot’s haunted-house atmosphere — hard to pull off when your climactic battle is staged in a greasy spoon — or the inventively awful creature design of the Eligos installments. But it more than makes up for this with crackerjack jokes, no-nonsense viciousness, and enough gore to fill an elevator in the Overlook Hotel. Directed by Michael Hurst, whose resume is full of rollicking genre fare (Hercules, Xena, Spartacus, the Bruce Campbell–starring Jack of All Trades), it’s the most fun you’ll have in 24 minutes this weekend.
I reviewed this weekend’s episode of Ash vs. Evil Dead for Rolling Stone. My editor cut the concluding “…without taking your clothes off” from this graf but otherwise I stand by it.
The coup de grace against Eligos is the moment that brings it all together. Once Pablo lures the entity out of their friend, Ash is ready to blow it to kingdom come with his shotgun, except the beast teleports far too quickly for the boomstick to get a bead. Then our hero flashes back to something he said during his drug trip last week: “Shoot first, think never.” It’s a terrific credo for the character, not least because Bruce Campbell hilariously plays any instance where thought is required like the strain might cause his head to explode.
And it leads to a kick-ass climax: El Jefe tosses his shotgun in the air, then takes a swipe at the demon with his chainsaw-hand in slo-mo. The creature disappears. The shotgun lands back in his hand, he levels it where it lands, and just before he pulls the trigger, bang, that’s where Eligos reappears. BOOM — the demon is dispatched in a spray of green jelly. Instinct prevails over logic, chaos over order, magic over reason, fun over not-fun. For both the character and the show itself, nonsense makes perfect sense.
Last week on Ash vs. Evil Dead, the show put its unique splatstick spin on Hellraiser. This time out, it took on the Monkees’ Head. The Pre-Fab Four’s film, a free-form psychedelic-era artifact (written by Jack Nicholson!), is as good a touchstone as any for the far-out trip Ash J. Williams went on this week — that, or the “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” dream sequence from The Big Lebowski. Our working theory was that tonight’s episode, “Brujo,” was going to offer AvED’s version of New World witchcraft. Instead, it showed us El Jefe’s brain on drugs. As the man himself might put it: Groovy.
I reviewed this past weekend’s Ash vs. Evil Dead for Rolling Stone. This show is really a hoot.
If you’ve watched more than a handful of horror films or TV shows, you know the ugly truth all too well: There are a million ways to make a denizens of the netherworld completely boring to watch. So praise the Lord and pass the ammunition: Ash vs. Evil Dead knows how to do it 100-percent correct. What this Starz continuation of the venerable “splatstick” franchise understands is that when it comes to the genre, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel — sometimes simply building a better mousetrap will do.
Is it premature to declare the birth of a whole new TV-show genre? Tonight’s Ash vs. Evil Dead episode — “Bait” — boasts more gore-soaked scenes than half a True Blood season and better gags than the bulk of the broadcast networks’ fall comedy line-up. What do you call the result? Action, drama, sitcom, horror — none of these feel quite right. It’s some high-octane hybrid of all of them, and it pursues a single purpose with all the relentlessness of the reanimated dead: to entertain the living shit out of you.