Posts Tagged ‘horror’
9. The Descent (2005)
Years before he redefined TV action with his work on Game of Thrones, British director Neil Marshall earned his place in the horror pantheon with this merciless survival-horror story. One year after a car accident shatters their bonds, a group of women go spelunking in a remote Appalachian cavern and unearth far more than they bargained for. The claustrophobic setting is intense and the creature effects genuinely disturbing, but the film’s greatness lies in its use of its main character’s raw, red grief as emotional kindling for the catastrophe that follows. Few of even the greatest genre movies dare to go places this deep.
Alongside a murderers’ row of critics, I wrote about some of the best horror films of the new millennium for Rolling Stone. (For the record, I was on the “Mulholland Drive IS a horror movie” side of the argument referenced in the intro.)
Three episodes deep into Westworld, it’s become clear that there’s a problem with the user interface. Theoretically, our deepest interest in this increasingly dark sci-fi parable should be with the characters best capable of sustaining it: the humans. After all, the guests and the staff of the theme park are the ones with actual, honest-to-god (or honest-to-Darwin) consciousness. They’ve lead real lives with real experiences, instead of having fake memories uploaded into their brains. Their emotions can’t be switched off with a command. Their bodies can’t heal from fatal wounds after a quick overnight trip to maintenance. They’re people, damn it.
So why do they feel like lines of computer code, stuck in a loop?
I reviewed this week’s Westworld for Rolling Stone. The human characters are faltering while the robot “characters” are fascinating.
“I know you think that you have a handle on what this is gonna be: guns and tits and all that mindless shit that I usually enjoy. You have no idea.” When Logan, a handsome, sleazy young veteran of multiple trips to Westworld, says this to his milquetoast first-timer companion William, he’s ostensibly referring to misconceptions about the park. But for all his subsequent blather about the place helping you find “who you really are,” who Logan really is turns out to be a guy who enjoys, well, guns and tits and mindless shit. He indulges in multiple male and female partners twice in his first day of vacation, pulls out a gun in a restaurant to test whether a fellow diner is real or an android, and brutally stabs an elderly “host” he finds annoying. Despite what he told his coworker, this creep’s robot-resort experience lives down to expectations.
But the real target of his words is quite clearly us, the audience. In Westworld‘s second episode – “Chestnut” – co-creators/co-writers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy continue to take an “as below, so above” approach to their material. The same ethical dilemmas posed to the park’s visitors – the gratuitous violence, the literally dehumanizing sex, the freedom to indulge in absolute cruelty with complete invincibility – are the same ones set forth by the show to its viewers. The implicit promise is precisely the one Logan makes to William: There’s more to this onslaught of nudity and brutality than meets the eye, even if for the time being we mostly have to take their word for it.
Not that any single fucking thing on this show matters, because we know what the outcome and the moral will be every single fucking time. Kindness is always weakness, brutality is always morality, outsiders are always animals, and at a certain point everyone will try to kill everyone else, so you’re never wrong to kill first.
Fear the Walking Dead is fascist.
I reviewed the season finale of Fear the Walking Dead for Decider. This franchise has way bigger problems than lousy cliffhangers and superfluous spinoffs. It’s hugely popular and deeply toxic. It should be talked about.
“What does it mean to be human?” is the least interesting question science fiction can ask, though that hasn’t stopped the genre from using tales of androids among us to ask it year after year. “What does it mean to be inhumane?” on the other hand? That’s an inquiry worth exploring. To knowingly inflict pain on artificially intelligent machine-men (or machine-women, though that’s a whole other issue) – when we treat them as slaves or toys or, to use Westworld‘s evocative term, “livestock” – that says a lot about us. Dr. Frankenstein made Frankenstein’s monster. The real question is whether this makes a monster of Dr. Frankenstein himself.
Judging from its intriguing, disturbing, hugely ambitious pilot episode (titled “The Original”), HBO’s series-length redo-cum-re–exploration of the 1973 Michael Crichton movie is focused on the correct side of this equation.
I’m reviewing Westworld for Rolling Stone, starting with last night’s pilot episode. I started as a skeptic and did not end that way.
I won’t say that Fear the Walking Dead’s very, very occasional brushes with insight and intelligence are the most frustrating thing about it — you know, that “why can’t they be like this all the time” kind of frustrating. No, the most frustrating thing about it remains how everybody acts like brownshirts the moment they meet another group of people, and how the show presents this as fundamentally sound behavior. (Unless someone’s doing it to our heroes, in which case it’s bad, and our heroes therefore have every right to murder the perpetrators, which isn’t a whole lot better.)
But still! Fear the Walking Dead’s very, very occasional brushes with insight and intelligence are pretty frustrating. The doomed romance between Victor Strand and Thomas Abigail, Nick’s wordless journey through the wilderness, Strand talking the bereaved newlywed in the hotel through his loss — this stuff is restrained and thoughtful enough to make you imagine a zombie show that was like this all the time, a wish we know is no more likely to come true than a cure for the zombie plague itself. “Date of Death,” this week’s episode, added a few more moments to the “Okay, that was actually good” pile. Not a lot, and not enough to outweigh the usual allotment of idiocy, but enough for said idiocy to feel like a real slap in the face instead of business as usual.
I was delighted to become (I think) the first ever recurring guest on Shallow Rewards, the enormously insightful podcast from music criticism’s adulte terrible Chris Ott, to discuss the use of standout pop songs on the soundtracks of prestige television shows. We focus on Mr. Robot and Stranger Things (so watch out for spoilers) but touch on Halt and Catch Fire, The Sopranos, and The Wonder Years, with plenty of digressions into film soundtracks and film in general (Cameron Crowe, Martin Scorsese, SLC Punk, Under the Skin) as well. Chris is one of my favorite critics of any kind and it’s a pleasure talking to him. I hope you enjoy the results!
We’re turing the podcast Upside Down this episode with an in-depth discussion of Stranger Things, the hit summer thriller series from Netflix and the Duffer Brothers. Wearing its many, many genre influences on its sleeve so proudly that said sleeves might as well have had “STEVEN SPIELBERG” and “STEPHEN KING” directly embroidered on them, the show gave its fans an ‘80s nostalgia fix like few others. But is there more to the whole than the sum of its parts? Sean and Stefan explore that question at length, touching on related issues such as the nature of horror, the hegemony of nerd culture, the ever-increasing prominence of the ‘80s in contemporary entertainment, and of course the show’s similarities with and differences from the approach to genre taken by A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Grab your D&D dice and roll for initiative with us!
Despite its portentous, Lot’s-wife-referencing title, “Pillar of Salt,” this week’s Fear the Walking Dead had little more on the docket that simply showing us where everybody is (except Chris; thank heaven for small favors) and what everybody’s doing. A “surprise” ending that features one of the show’s top-billed actors getting closer to the other top-billed actors, after an episode filled with more of the same, is all too fitting. There’s was nothing going on here, good or bad — the episode simply existed.
No one believes me when I tell them this — no one except other critics, anyway — but I’m in the liking-things business. When a television show is bad I’m going to say so, and when it’s really bad I’m going to say so hard. But the pact I’ve made with myself to stay relatively happy and sane is to assume, at the start of every episode, that there’s every probability that I’ll have considered it time well spent by the closing credits. If I didn’t want to enjoy myself every time I sit down to watch a TV show, I wouldn’t watch them for a living, you know? Bad shows don’t fulfill my pessimistic expectations, they disappoint my optimistic ones. Even in the case of Fear the Walking Dead, a series I think is not just “bad” but also ethically and politically noxious, I’m out here every week looking for diamonds in the rough. If the best I can come up with is cubic zirconium, hey, I’ll take it.
The worst part, by far, is Elena, the mad fascist…hotel manager. Yes, this winner of a character willingly sentenced an entire wedding party to death when one of their number turned zombie. Why? “I had the hotel to think about. We were at capacity.” Oh, well, alright then! “I contained the situation,” Elena explains. You know who else “contained the situation,” Fear the Walking Dead? You might say that Elena found the final solution to the guest question in her hotel.
It’s not inconceivable that Elena might react to a sudden zombie outbreak in her hotel’s ballroom by locking everyone at the party in with the dead. Had she been shown to be panicked, preoccupied, or even just a little nervous about reports of “the sickness,” that kind of snap decision would make sense. On the contrary, she blows off the mother and father of the bride’s concerns about the dawning apocalypse mere seconds before the dad drops dead. (A tidy bit of plot-hammering right there!) In that light, her reaction to the infection of a paying customer, and his sudden decision to chew the face off his child in the middle of their father-daughter dance, looks either insanely sociopathic or insanely poorly written. But hey, this is Fear the Walking Dead — why choose?
I reviewed this week’s Fear the Walking Dead for Decider. This show is fascist, right down to the philosophical incoherence.
The malevolent beauty of “Mr. Robot” Season 2 is such that knowing and not knowing are equally unpleasant options. The show’s twists earn it constant comparisons to films like “Fight Club” and “The Sixth Sense,” but its ability to create and sustain the look and feel of a bad dream has much more in common with David Lynch’s roughly contemporaneous, twist-based mind-benders “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Drive.” You’re no better off on one side of the reveal than you are on the other.
I reviewed tonight’s creepy Mr. Robot for the New York Times. A point I’m trying to make here is that an overly literal focus on Elliot’s dissociative identity disorder, either in terms of twist-based plot mechanics or psychological realism, misses the point, which is to viscerally illustrate powerlessness and dread.
Unfortunately, high-rise-hotel-dwelling zombies attracted by the ruckus raised by the extremely drunk Maddie and Strand in the lobby weren’t the only things that went plummeting on “Los Muertos,” this week’s episode of Fear the Walking Dead: The show’s quality did, too. After airing its first top-to-bottom Good Episode with last week’s quiet, thoughtful, Nick-centric survival-horror road-trip ep “Grotesque,” the series has returned to form: fascist tribalism, ham-fisted dialogue, half-baked philosophy, and more idiotic and inconsistent behavior than you can toss an empty shot glass at.
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.