Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Have a very scary solstice!

Originally uploaded by Trillium grandiflorum
I'm a little late (and have been reprehensibly quiet recently; more frequent posts will return in 2011 as I re-embrace the joy of watching movies for their own sake) but wanted to wish everyone a very happy winter holiday. We can't do much for this goldfinch here, but the outlook for the rest of us is, I hope, a great deal brighter for the coming year. Stay warm on these dark nights, and pray for daylight....

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Downtown gothiness

Neither a man-eating plant nor a scary movie. I am just happy with this photo! The carvings are outside the Million Dollar Theater on Broadway, a beautiful place to visit. I am fond of the Million Dollar Pharmacy on the corner of Broadway and Third. Across the street is the Bradbury Building, which was the only sight in LA I really wanted to see on my first visit. When it turned out to be three blocks from the office that was interviewing me, I was pretty thrilled.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

"Left Bank" (2008): Yes! Belgian horror!

I cannot highly enough recommend "Left Bank," which came to my attention via the always-reliable Arbogast. He was comparing it favorably to "House of the Devil," and while I would agree that it is far superior to Ti West's snoozefest I'm not sure I'd compare the two. Both involve creepy buildings and a lone girl in peril, but "Left Bank" is unquestionably modern. Which is weird, because it ends up involving some crazy medieval hoorah, but still.

Heroine Marie (Elina Kuppens) is a scrappy, independent-minded young woman living with her divorced mom and spending most of her spare time running: she's training for an international event in Portugal, and her proud coach thinks she has it in the bag. When she gets sick and Portugal becomes out of the question, she's devastated. With a sudden amount of unwanted free time on her hands, she takes up with cute archer Bobby (Matthias Schoenaerts), and after a night of hot sex, she pulls away from her mom and coach and decides to go recuperate at Bobby's. He's got a sweet apartment on Antwerp's Left Bank, apparently a hip transitional neighborhood, in a huge old building run by his grandmother.

But almost immediately things start to get weird for Marie. Instead of getting better, she suffers headaches, nausea and insomnia; when she tries to go running, she hurts her knee, and it spends the rest of the movie getting darker and purplier and grosser. Her flaky mom comes to visit and starts fussing about weird vibrations and dangerous ley lines. A neighbor tells Marie that the previous tenant of Bobby's apartment was a woman who vanished. Then a package comes for the missing woman; when Marie opens it, she starts learning more about the building than she ever wanted to know.

There are definitely shades of "Rosemary's Baby" here, but unlike fragile Rosemary, Marie stays totally independent and together. I adored her character. She clashes with her parents and coach, but she keeps her head on straight; she asks direct questions, she never starts at shadows, and when things start getting berserk she does the sensible thing and moves the heck back out. She doesn't go creeping timorously down hallways, and you never want to yell "Don't go in there!" You're right along with her the whole way. She's fab.

Marie is also a very physical character -- she's young, her body's always been her ally, she loves running and she enjoys sex -- and I love how this is really key to the ensuing awfulness. Her problems begin when her body turns against her: she's been pushing herself so hard that she's quit menstruating, among other problems. You really feel how much it kills her not to be able to rely on herself anymore. She wants so much to get better, and she can't. And as her hurt knee gets darker and weirder -- eventually sprouting hideous stiff hairs that she tries, sobbing, to yank out -- it all starts to feel like a metaphor for puberty or old age. Transformation turns out to be key to what's happening. I won't give it away, but: brr. See this film!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Casting a shadow

I do love this spider. Every day when I go out to visit my plants, it's hanging around on the pitchers, usually on top of a Sarracenia rubra. Sometimes it crawls, picks itself up a bug and crawls back out. The sunlight caught it just right the other day for this photo.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Final Girl Film Club: 'House of the Devil'

Writing about this movie is going to be difficult because I kept falling asleep. Each time it happened I would jolt awake a few minutes later, see unfamiliar stuff happening onscreen, sigh with irritation and rewind the movie to the last thing I remembered. This was a tedious exercise but, I imagine, not quite as bad as watching "House of the Devil" straight through without interruption. I'm grateful not to have seen it in a theater, where I would have had to sit upright. This movie is a snooze and I'm afraid director Ti West is a frightful bore.

This is the first film I have watched for the Final Girl Film Club that I have energetically disliked. It will be very interesting to see what the other Film Club Coolies have to say! My friend Jason adored it. I read a bajillion favorable reviews when it came out. But -- I have nothing good to say about "House of the Devil." It is without redeeming qualities.

Everyone's favorite thing about this movie seems to be that it's set in the 1980s and made in the style of the era's brilliant horror movies. And how could you not love that idea? A babysitter, a synthesizer score, a friend with a crazy flip hairdo -- these are great accessories for a horror movie. But they're accessories. You need something real at the core. The movie needs a scary idea, and "House of the Devil" hasn't got one.

Heroine Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) lives in a college dorm and really wants to rent an off-campus apartment from landlady Dee Wallace (tribute! tribute!). To help pay her first month's rent, she accepts a babysitting job from weirdo Tom Noonan ("Manhunter," "Monster Squad") and his weirdo wife, Mary Woronov (the friendly scientist from "Night of the Comet" -- and OK, I did get excited about that). But the house is dark and it's creepy! It might even be the house of the devil! Whatever will Samantha do?

Well, she plays some pool. She listens to her Walkman. She orders a pizza. She watches some TV. She walks around the house. I woke up and skipped the DVD back and she obligingly did it all again.

The problem with this movie is not so much that it's slow -- it's really not that slow -- but it gives your brain absolutely nothing to latch on to. The characters are impossible to understand. How come Samantha needs this apartment SO badly? So she gets sexiled by her roommate. Who hasn't been through that? How come the couple is so weird about pretending they have a kid, and then pretending instead they have an elderly mother who needs looking after? How come they don't even show her the upstairs of the house before leaving her alone? How come she puts her Walkman on? What if the "elderly mother" called out for her? Who's after whom? What's going on? I just sat there getting irritated, and after a while I just quit caring and let my eyes close.

Unfortunately, West's "The Roost" had exactly the same effect on me, which is really a shame because I love farm horror and I love bats and I love zombies. But "The Roost" never quite coheres -- it creates an atmosphere, but it isn't intelligent enough to create a mood. "House of the Devil" is the same. A scene doesn't automatically become interesting because the heroine is using a rotary phone instead of a cell phone. The fact that this is all West has got -- I find it kind of insulting. Come back when you have something to say, dude.

But Mary Woronov! That's pretty sweet. God, do I love "Night of the Comet."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ladybug opens

Ladybug opens
Originally uploaded by Trillium grandiflorum
My Sarracenia hybrid "Ladybug" unfurls a sinister new pitcher! It will turn deep red in the (as you can see) bright rooftop sun. The pale spots are translucent windows that disorient insects and lead them to their doom. I have really come to love this hybrid and the hooded-cultist look of the pitchers.

I took some better photos of this pitcher but sort of like the washed-out, raw quality of this one. Sometimes death is more frightening in broad daylight.

Monday, July 12, 2010

I do so love "Cabin Fever"

And I don't think enough other people do. The debut feature from Eli Roth has so much going for it. Just a few reasons, off the top of my head...

The music. Nathan Barr does a fabulous nails-on-a-chalkboard score, starting with the gorgeous opening credits. Angelo Badalamenti contributes a jazzy, "Twin Peaks"-esque number for the surreal Deputy Winston, as well as the haunting "Red Love," for Paul's doomed attempt to manually satisfy Karen. A bunch of songs are borrowed from "Last House on the Left," providing both a shout-out to Roth's beloved 1970s horror, and setting a nicely creepy we're-alone-in-the-woods kind of mood.

I even love the closing bluegrass band, pepping up the end credits with "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." (Apparently they were a local band and Roth invited them to come play in his movie; I just love that.)

The characters. They're all likable enough that you root for them, yet ultimately they're just rotten enough that you don't feel awful when they die. I've never seen a slasher movie that walks this line quite so well. They're selfish but not loathsome. Everyone gets annoyed with Burt when he shoplifts, and when Jeff talks down to the locals ("If such an incident were to result in a 'lawsuit,' you could be held liable"), his girlfriend Marcy tells him to shut up. A sick man asks for their help, and they light him on fire -- but they feel really bad about it! You wouldn't want to be on vacation with these kids, but you don't hate them like you hate the people in the "Friday the 13th" remake either.

The disease. Flesh-eating virus! I love nothing more than fake blood and zombie skin effects. I also love how a killer disease preys upon these beautiful, hygiene-hyperconscious kids -- "I don't want him touching me" is a recurring line. But the best part: Everyone gets sick by the end, but not one of the main characters actually dies of the disease.


The writing. "Paul, that guy asked for our help. We lit him on fire." (I also like when Jeff says "The rain probably put him out.")

The girl stuff. I might get in trouble for this but I think this movie is particularly fun for women. It can be hard to find good female characters in your modern horror movies; at a glance Marcy and Karen just fall into the usual slut/girl-next-door pigeonholes, but they turn out to be a lot more complicated. Marcy turns out to be very nurturing, fixing chili for everyone and stroking Karen's hair. Karen strings Paul along and then drops him as soon as a semi-cute stranger shows up with a bag of weed ("You can sit here!").

And I think women viewers just are going to get a more personal frisson out of Marcy's notorious leg-shaving sequence, or Paul's even more notorious misfire as he attempts to manually satisfy Karen. (Male viewers might relate to the misfire in their own way, of course.) Even just little moments ring true, like Karen talking about her parents' shower massage and saying "You can imagine my disappointment the first time I had sex." Marcy rolls her eyes: "Tell me about it," and all the boys look confused. ♥!

The group dynamics. People are awful, and they're even worse in groups. "Cabin Fever" is a fascinating showcase of groups behaving badly! First, the teenagers light the aforementioned sick man on fire. They don't mean to; they think he's attacking them, and maybe he is; but still, it's not nice. Later, when one of their group gets sick, they react in terror: screaming, running, slamming doors, and finally putting the sick girl outside in a shed, alone. I love the scene where they line up to carry her mattress out and then help her down the stairs, silent for the moment, their group decision made: they look like a tribunal, there on the back porch.

Then various group members go for help, running afoul of locals in various ways, then lying to each other about what happened: the group is coming apart. They meet their match in a tightly-knit, shotgun-toting family of rednecks. And that's before several law-enforcement agencies hold an emergency parley in a hospital room to discuss the best way to handle this strange new disease. It all seems chillingly plausible. I mean, we cover things up and scrub the surfaces clean and make sure our hair is as shiny as can be, but -- underneath it all, people are just nasty.

God, I love this movie.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

New camera, new spider

At last I have replaced the camera that I dropped on the ground and can photograph the beautiful green spiders who have been hanging out on my pitcher plants. Sometimes they are just inside the pitchers and sometimes outside. I spotted this one on my lovely "Dixie Lace" hybrid, casting a dramatic shadow over the intensely veined pitcher top. Still figuring out the camera settings -- and the sun was way too bright -- but this will do for now!

Monday, June 28, 2010

One more thing

"Spike," about which I posted some wild-eyed ravings here, is now slated for an early August release on DVD... you can however find it now on Netflix and add it to your queue, where hopefully it will not languish as long as, say, all the other saved movies in my queue. (Come on, Netflix, I wanna see "Cronos" and "Cry of the Banshee." And how come "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" is still sitting there? Wah! Although they finally did release "Rabid." That was exciting.)

Anyway. "Spike"'s actual website is here. Horrornews.net liked it too.

Not enough plants

I have not had enough photos of my carnivorous plants up lately, in large part because I dropped my camera a few weeks ago and it no longer works. But I need to get a new one and document the full summer glory of my beautiful Sarraceniae. They are magnificent plants and they really love the new rooftop home they've got this summer! In the meantime, here's a newly opened Sarracenia pitcher from spring. So lovely. Check out those veins.

Final Girl Film Club: 'It's Alive' (1974)

There is a nightmare, fairly common to those who have the care of an infant: that if they close their eyes for a second they will hear it walking about. It makes the blood run cold.
- Alice Thomas Ellis,
"Fairy Tale"

My husband asked politely, "May I help you with breakfast?"
"No indeed," I said. I stopped to catch my breath and smiled reassuringly. "I feel so well," I said.
"Would you be offended," he asked, still very politely, "if I took this egg out of my glass?"
"Certainly not," I said. "I'm sorry; I can't think how it got there."
"It's nothing at all," my husband said. "I was just thirsty."
They were all staring at me oddly, and I kept giving them my reassuring smile.


"I'm not yelling," I said. "I don't like this any more. I've changed my mind, I don't want any baby, I want to go home and forget the whole thing."
"I know just how you feel," he said.
My only answer was a word which certainly I knew that I knew, although I had never honestly expected to hear it spoken in my own ladylike voice.
"Stop yelling," my husband said urgently. "Please stop saying that."
-- Shirley Jackson, "Raising Demons"

This month for the Final Girl Film Club, a movie I'd never seen and never had any particular interest in seeing. I don't really want to see a monster-baby movie any more than I want to see, say, a monster-kitten movie (although -- please, God, somebody make one). Scary children are one thing, but scary babies just seems sort of un-cricket. Like Pussy Galore, I have maternal instincts. Still, I did love "The Brood," and the whole Pill-era fear of reproduction is sort of interesting. So I gave it a shot.

The first half-hour of this movie is just about perfect. It opens with the very pregnant Lenore (Sharon Farrell) waking up in the night feeling certain pangs and rousing her husband, Frank (John Ryan): "It's time!" I love the late-night eeriness of this intro, how this domestic scene already feels a little like a horror show -- it's just weird to wake up in the night and have to go to the hospital. The couple is excited but a little scared. Lenore & Frank's son, Chris, is a little freaked out too.

The scenes in the hospital are also pitch-perfect, as Lenore tries to talk to her patronizing doctor (who reminded me of Shirley Jackson's reminiscences about labor, quoted above) and Frank hangs out with other nervous dads in the waiting room. I love the tension of this segment: this is stuff that happens to thousands of people, every day, and yet the sense of certain doom is just inescapable.

And then Lenore's baby is born, and kills everyone in the delivery room. See, you were right to be scared!

From here the movie gets pretty bizarre, as Lenore and Frank's monster baby rampages through West L.A., mostly unseen until it leaps on someone's throat with its fangs out. It seems to be pretty much your basic baby, except with claws and fangs and massive jumping/climbing abilities: it's bald and it crawls, and although it kills people, it doesn't seem to eat them or anything. Its motives are unclear. Rick Baker did the makeup effects, but they're hard to see.

Lenore and Frank, meanwhile, argue about their new baby and its place in their home, in a bunch of sequences that I guess are supposed to indicate anxieties about modern medicine and the modern family. It's implied that the monster was caused by fertility drugs -- or maybe Lenore's oral contraceptives -- or maybe just all the smog in the air. Lenore and Frank turn out to have been considering abortion at one point, just to add one more social-issue layer to things. I appreciate the allegory here, but after a while all this gets boring.

But the killer-baby scenes aren't all that satisfying either. I mean, come on, it's got fangs, but it's just a baby! There's a high-camp sequence where it goes after a milk-truck driver (did they really still have milk trucks in 1974?), in a scene that reminded me of the truck scene in "Night of the Lepus." It ends with milk and blood pouring down the street. I guess it's funny? Sort of?

Another bit, used more than once, involves a character standing in a dark room full of baby toys. Everything looks so sinister! Wait -- did that plastic car just move? Is something else here? You get the sense that director Larry Cohen is immensely pleased with these scenes. At one point, multiple characters enter a dark nursery in turn, alone, just so Cohen can push that button again.

And they do resonate, unpleasantly; it's true that there's something otherworldly and alien about babies, sure, and you never really know what's going on inside their heads, and we project all kinds of anxieties onto them, both about our private lives and about society.

But still -- it's just a dang baby! I don't know about it, people. I'm going to hold out for the killer-kitten movie.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

In which I very unexpectedly fall in love

I had no hopes whatsoever for "The Legend of Hell House." I knew nothing about it; I forgot why I put it on my Netflix queue; it just meandered up to the top and landed in the mailbox one day, and later that week I was in the mood for horror and noticed with pleasure that it was only about 90 minutes long. And then I fell in love.

The premise is your basic haunted-house setup: A disparate group of people is asked by an eccentric wealthy person to spend several nights in a house full of nasty spirits. In this case, a millionaire who wants to know for sure if there's life after death has hired a physicist and a pair of psychic mediums to investigate the Belasco house, also known as Hell House. The house is notorious for its nasty spirits: Other people have tried similar investigations and have been killed. Yoicks!

The script is based on "Hell House," a book by the ubiquitous Richard Matheson (the night before I had happened to watch "Somewhere in Time," which is also based on something of his; he is of course responsible for "I Am Legend" and that damn "Trilogy of Terror" story with the Zuni doll). Apparently after Shirley Jackson had a hit with her lyrical "Haunting of Hill House," he got inspired. But unlike Jackson, Matheson does not like things to be quiet and understated. I am usually more of Jackson's way of thinking, but the gonzo baroque fun of this movie proved irresistible. Someone has sex with a ghost, people! What more could you want?

Plus, just look at these frames. Every scene in this movie is just lushly gorgeous. Even when the story is in Maximum Ridiculousness mode, "Hell House" is a beauty.

Our group consists of physicist Barrett and his wife, who is just tagging along; a young medium named Florence Tanner; and another medium named Ben Fischer, (Roddy McDowall!) who is the only survivor of a previous Hell House expedition. Barrett gets right down to business, taking measurements and readings. Florence immediately senses a powerful presence in the house. Ben pretty much keeps to himself; he wants to get through the experience, get his money and go home. The house, though, has other plans for the group.

What I love about this movie is the interpersonal conflict between the investigators as the paranormal situation gets more and more out of hand. Unlike Jackson's much classier story, in which each individual sort of retreats into himself, this movie is all about the fights the characters have. It's almost too glib to say it's like a paranormal "Survivor" but it does focus on the effects of an extreme (and extremely peculiar) situation on a group's dynamics. Barrett (sort of the hero) dismisses Florence as silly, Ben as unhelpful and his own wife as irrelevant; Florence is frustrated because no one's listening to her; and Ben has a lot of tension and fear simmering beneath his calm, sexless exterior.

As for the house -- it's not so much a character as a puppet master, provoking everyone individually into a group conflict. The prevailing spirit appears to be former resident Emeric Belasco, who used the house as a staging ground for appalling orgies: as Fischer describes them, his practices included "drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies." (If I were into ringtones, I would love an audio sample of McDowall dryly reciting this sequence -- the final clause just kills me.)

Anyway, all this degenerate behavior seems to have made the house evil, or at least extremely restless. Florence thinks she's got its number: it's haunted by Daniel, an illegitimate son of Emeric's. Is she right, or is the truth something darker? Lonely Ann Barrett finds her way to a very provocative bookshelf indeed and soon starts hurling herself at poor Fischer. Daniel's spirit (if there is one) shows a very, shall we say, personal interest in Florence. Things get more and more bizarre, with a final showdown in a crypt involving a blood-soaked corpse, the hurling of insults and heavy objects alike, a lead-lined room, and a surprising discovery of false limbs. It's a great ride from start to finish.

Plus, just look at this bookshelf. How many movies have prop books like this? "Obsessive Acts And Religious Practices" indeed! "The Worship of Priapus." "The Anatomy of Abuses." I love it. I love "Hell House." Let's go!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Midnight Warrior Attack: What is guaranteed to make you happy?

Dear horror movie bloggers: I love you for updating and giving me reading material and suggesting cool movies for me to watch. But I especially love you for holding participatory events that spur me to quit staring at your sites for long enough to update my own! This is my first Midnight Warriors post for the wonderful The Mike over at From Midnight, With Love. What The Mike does is, he presents a topic, and then we either email him our thoughts or, as in this case, post our own and send him a link.

The current topic is: What's guaranteed to make you happy when it comes to horror, genre or cult cinema? This was a fun topic to kick around. The Mike's list is here; although he kindly insists we do not need to also come up with top 10 lists, I came up with 10 anyway, albeit in no particular order.

1. The woods. Always, anything set in the woods. I grew up on a farm in Tennessee, and at night I would lie awake and think about all the dark forest surrounding the house. What was going on there right now? What creatures were prowling, leaves rustling, unseen things moving through the dark trees? I sleep with the light on when I visit my parents, always. And my favorite horror movies confirm what I always suspected, deep down: There are awful things in the woods and they are going to get you. My beloved "Evil Dead" captures the mysterious feel of the woods late at night so perfectly; "Cabin Fever" does a nice job too, I think, and even M. Night Shyamalan's maligned "The Village" turns that primal dread into a nifty, creepy fable.

2. A dreamy mood. I love a movie that clings to your imagination like cobwebs afterward, trailing gorgeous sticky shreds of mood. I love being haunted by a movie. "Let's Scare Jessica to Death" comes to mind; after watching it, I just put it on again and let it play while I wandered happily around the house, enjoying the music and the creepy water scenes. "Spike" is another one (with another nice eerie score), and so's "Carnival of Souls." I love watching "Evil Dead" at night because it sends me to sleep feeling that way: like I've already been dreaming. Mm.

3. Comedy, but not too much. Such a tricky one. I love the humor in "Evil Dead" but "Evil Dead 2" is almost too much, and "Army of Darkness" makes my head ache. I just like things to be subtle. "Cabin Fever" though is pretty gonzo and it cracks me right up. I also love the vicious black humor of "Hostel," and the loopy insanity of "Spider Baby." Even "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" has some of the most hilarious moments in horror ever -- I love Pam sitting up in the freezer. And then there are the "Friday the 13th" movies, which aren't quite comedies but are impossible to watch straight-faced. Hm. It's hard to get the balance right, but when it's there, oh baby. "Bubba Ho-Tep, "Re-Animator," honeys, I'm looking at you.

4. Gin and microwave popcorn. I don't keep microwave popcorn in the house anymore, but back in my 20s when I was less worried about my girlish figure, my favorite thing after a tough night at work was to fix a giant gin martini, sit down with a bag of popcorn and watch something scary. These days it's usually a baked potato, but still, it's all about the gin and butter. Happy AE.

5. Children. Scary scary children. The floating vampire kid in "'Salem's Lot." Tomas in "The Orphanage." The entire cast of "The Devil's Backbone" (except for that fab teacher with the wooden leg). Is it some kind of psychological anxiety? Is it just that they're small and could creep unseen around your bed at night? Whatever the reason, nothing's as creepy as children.

6. Being surprised. There are jump scares, there's twist endings, and then there's a genuine surprise. Maybe it's taking a chance on an old BBC movie and having it be so scary I actually spit out my drink in terror at one point ("The Woman in Black"). Maybe it's a twist that's more than a gimmick and actually makes you think ("High Tension" -- I realize not everyone will agree with me here). Maybe it's a movie you expected to hate and ended up loving ("The Wicker Man"). When a movie surprises you it becomes yours in a whole different way.

7. H.P. Lovecraft. Darling, elegant, mannered, racist, disturbing Howard. Just trot out his name and I'm happy. It doesn't matter if it's a faithful adaptation like "The Call of Cthulhu," or something that takes more liberties, like the CoC team's upcoming adaptation of "The Whisperer in Darkness." Or something that is completely insane, like "Re-Animator" or "Dagon." Or even something that just requires the adjective "Lovecraftian." I am just happy about the man from Providence.

8. Houses. Anything set in the woods has me. Movies set in houses are much trickier. Done well, they bring your worst nightmares to life: something evil invading the place where you should be safe, making you fight for your life in the exact places you have your cozy daily routines. The best ones make you look around, as you sit drinking tea in your living room, and think : "where are the exits? What could I use as a weapon here?" They force you to think about really nasty logistics. "The Birds," of course, is the classic, as is "Night of the Living Dead." I am also a pretty big fan of "Signs," although it doesn't really turn into a house movie until the very end. Done badly, though, the logistics fall apart and everything becomes confusing: this happens in "Ils" and "Dog Soldiers."

9. This.

10. Fear. That's all. Waking up in the night knowing -- just knowing -- that the old dead woman from "Black Sabbath" is in your doorway. Driving down your street and wondering if, like Mary in "Carnival of Souls," you shouldn't be here. The best horror movies get under your skin, expand your perception, stretch your imagination. Sometimes it hurts, but it's good for you.

Wow, this is long. So much happiness. Also, I clearly need to just dedicate a post to "Evil Dead" already. Thanks, The Mike!

Friday, June 11, 2010

I write about old movies

Just another plug for my other blogging project -- over at the LA Times' Daily Mirror site I write a Friday column called From the Vaults, about movies from 1920, 1940, 1960 and 1980. The site is a history blog and most of the posts focus on those specific years, so I figured, why not see how many movies worth watching I can round up? 1920 and 1940 have proven to be particularly entertaining. (I almost wrote another review of "City of the Living Dead" (1960!) but I want to keep this blog a dirty little secret from that blog -- also, I just did not want to think about the intestine scene anymore.)

Anyway, this week it's the Cecil B. DeMille picture "Why Change Your Wife?" which I just cannot recommend highly enough. The dresses! The shoes! Gloria Swanson! The completely awesome title cards! Even the typefaces are beautiful. Even if you don't bother reading my review, do yourself a favor and watch the movie. It's a blast.

In other news, my "Spike" post is now listed on Maverick Entertainment's site for the film, where my site is described as "Review Blog." Yes! Am famous!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Final Girl Film Club: 'City of the Living Dead'

(Best thing ever, btw: the backwards E's on this DVD cover. Silly zombies, they can't write good!)

My first Fulci! One hears about the ruthlessly baroque gore of Italian maestro Lucio Fulci -- his work even makes a cameo in "Juno" -- but nothing can really prepare one. "City of the Living Dead" (or, as fancy-pants IMDb has it, "Paura nella città dei morti viventi"*) should really be watched with a crowd, so everyone can bob heads to the catchy organ music and scream "Oh my God" during the gore sequences, and most particularly so everyone can say "What in the name of God just happened?" after the head-scratching ending. The Final Girl Film Club is the next best thing.

Plot's not really the point here, but briefly and with spoilers: During a seance, a comely psychic (Catriona MacColl) has a vision of a priest hanging himself in a cemetery and thereby opening the gates of hell. Paralyzed by fright, the psychic is buried alive and rescued by a cigar-chomping reporter (Christopher George, of "Pieces"! (Or as IMDb has it, "Mil gritos tiene la noche." What is with you, IMDb?)). The two of them set off together to find the cemetery and close the gates before all hell breaks loose. While they're getting their act together, lots of craziness starts going on in Dunwich, the town with the cemetery in question. (Nice Lovecraft reference there, Fulci babe.) This movie doesn't make much sense and it's not really good, per se, but it is a blast to watch.

First, the live burial: This entire sequence is just fantastic, starting with the eerie shots of Catriona lying in her coffin. I wasn't expecting this to go the live-burial direction; I figured she'd just be a zombie or something; and when her eyes flew open and she started gasping for breath and clawing at the coffin lid, oh my, the effect was very chilling. The big lesson here is that if you are going to get buried alive, make sure ANYONE rescues you besides Christopher George. He waits about an hour to respond to her shrieks and then nearly puts a pickaxe through her skull. It's worth it for you, the viewer, because the payoff is the fantastic image below.

Meanwhile, particularly unpleasant things are happening in the town of Dunwich. The gates of hell are being unleashed in the form of a zombie plague; I expected the zombies to advance upon the townspeople in a straightforward manner, but since these are the devil's zombies, their ways are more roundabout. They like to appear and disappear, often covered in earthworms (not a lot of gardeners in Dunwich, apparently, since no one is happy to see the worms). Other strange things happen: a mirror cracks and the shards begin to bleed; a cat freaks out; the streets are filled with creepy sounds, like howler monkeys and crying babies.

But mainly it's a plague of zombies, who bring about some very baroque deaths! The most vivid of these is the famous intestine-vomiting scene -- oh, I am so grateful not to have seen this as an impressionable tyke, because I would have been scared of throwing up to this day. (I mean, I still don't like it, but damn.) A girl sees the priest zombie standing outside her car, a nice scare in itself, and within seconds she's bleeding out the eyes. Then stuff starts coming out of her mouth. I actually put down my tea and started repeating "Oh my God. Oh my GOD." If watching the buried-alive sequence is like sipping a fine chilled martini, this is like slamming a shot of tequila. I mean, damn.

Also famous is the drill through the head sequence, which is just what it sounds like! My favorite thing about this is how early you see the drill. By this point, even the Fulci virgin knows he's not going to power up a drill and let it just sit there without poking a hole in somebody. You (and the victim) get to watch it coming, and watch, and watch, and watch. It's a little like the steamroller sequence from "Austin Powers." Again, this is where it would be fun to have a room full of people screaming "Here it comes!"

And then there's the ending. I found a couple Web reviews that referred to the "much-discussed" ending, but I didn't find much discussion. What, ah, what happened there? Johann, Peewee, Final Girl, help!

Also, I loved how game the cast is. They had goofy dialogue and inexplicable plotlines to deal with but they all just seem really committed. I particularly adore the actresses, who nearly all have to bleed out of their eyes at some point, and most of whom have to do something worse; even the heroine is willing to foam at the mouth. Plus all the main cast members get covered in writhing maggots in one memorable scene. (It's nothing like Argento plunging Jennifer Connelly into a maggoty pit in "Phenomena," but I am not getting into the Argento-Fulci discussion right now.) The point is, these people are troupers! Fulci must have been quite persuasive. "You weel wear maggots on your face! Eet ees perfect."

*I guess this means "Terror from the city of the living dead," in case it wants clarifying that the living dead are scary.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

So my friend made a movie and it's gorgeous, or, You shouldn't have come here.

There are a handful of movies that authentically replicate the feel of a dream: "Evil Dead"; "Don't Look Now"; "Carnival of Souls"; "Picnic at Hanging Rock"; parts of "Edward Scissorhands" and the 1992 "Last of the Mohicans"; even fragments of the vigorously campy "Night of the Comet." And then there's Robert Beaucage's Spike, which is part nightmare and part love story and part fairy tale, and all dream. I just finished watching it for the third time and I'm anxious to just go to sleep, all swathed in the mood of it (I did that one night last week, and ladies, it was lovely), but tonight I just want to write about it. Around middle school I used to stay up past midnight writing in my diary (my version of rebellion) and this movie puts me back into that exact mood. It's deeply, deeply unsettling. I mean, how does this movie reach that place? How does it know? Even I had forgotten.

I have been dithering with how to write about this movie here, because I wouldn't have seen it if I didn't know the director -- it's not out on DVD yet and I missed its showing at Shriekfest earlier this year. This isn't a situation I've really come across in LA yet, and I've had the little Homer Simpson angel and devil on my shoulders saying "You just like it because it's your friend's movie" and "Shut up, you!" and "Yes sir *poof*" and frankly it's very tiring for a middle child like me. Dammit, I'm not a professional blogger, I'm just a person, and if I didn't like his movie I would just tell him "Well, that was very interesting" (that's what we say back home for "God almighty, get me out of here") and not worry about it here in Emma-land. But all I can speak for is myself, and this movie just gets to me. It's unsettling as hell.

The plot is pretty simple, really. Two couples are driving at night through the woods in a relentlessly quaint vehicle (what is that thing, a Suburban?) and crash, and they find themselves at the mercy of sinister and primal forces. Or you think that's the plot, until it becomes clear there's really only one sinister and primal force, and he's got a major, primal crush on one of the occupants of the Suburban. (If it is a Suburban. I don't know. I try not to get bogged down in this stuff.)

The dynamics change abruptly and decisively: The one guy in the car is severely injured by this hostile force in the forest. His girlfriend goes after him and promptly, in manner of helpless damsel, gets herself bitten by a rattlesnake; perhaps the hostile force in the forest can save her. The other two people in the car, a lesbian couple, get bogged down in a hopelessly fatalistic argument about what to do next. You could get snarky, and part of you kind of wants to -- but the movie is so sincere and so earnest, it defeats your attempts at snark. (Though the dialogue shows flashes of wry self-awareness: "That is the cheesiest line ever." "Marry me!" "Um, what's for dinner?")

What it turns into is a big meditation on relationships. This hostile spiky thing in the forest, it turns out, knows the straight girlfriend -- they grew up together. A bizarre past is hinted at involving her dad, his Harley, and his fear that his daughter might be harmed by her strange little friend. A lullaby is sung: "Your dad sang it, so I sang it to you." It's dark. The damsel's not as helpless as she seemed. Things get confusing.

I've always had a thing about movies shot in the woods, and this film was shot entirely in Angeles National Forest. (I drove up there winter before last, homesick for snow; I got to some snow and walked on it, blissfully, then turned around and went home. That spring the Station Fire happened. It burned up all the locations used in this film.) When the characters go stumbling into the thornbushes, cliffs, undergrowth -- you know where they are. No matter who you are, it's a place you have to recognize. You've been there. They're in the Forest of Arden, Prospero's island (Spike helps you by quoting "The Tempest"), the bramble forest of Sleeping Beauty. It's not just that there are monsters there: this is the primal setting where you find out what you're made of, whether you're Red Riding Hood or just a Star Trek red shirt. As Alan Moore put it in his "Swamp Thing" series: This is the place. This is the story. And you shouldn't have come here.

Yeah, it turns into being about relationships. But is there anything else more enduring or haunting? Before I had ever heard of this movie, I had nightmares about turning into a monster for someone I loved; you know someone's deepest, darkest secrets, and when you leave them it's as if suddenly you had become a daisy-cutter bomb for them, suddenly turning from their sweetest friend into a weapon that can level sharp weapons at their most vulnerable places. It's something only someone in a relationship can do.

And the cruel truth this movie has for you is the worst one imaginable: You can never, in a thousand years, run from it though you may, escape from hurting the person you love. Just by loving them you do them unimaginable harm. But you have as little choice in it as any creature of the forest. This is the story. And you shouldn't have come here. But you can never help it. You'll be back.

Sweet dreams.

Top: Anna-Marie Wayne faces a nightmare; below, Edward Gusts adorns a poster.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The world as we know it

So I finally got around to reading "The Stand." I love Stephen King, I really do. I have never read anything by him that I haven't enjoyed -- "Carrie," "The Shining," "Misery," "'Salem's Lot." I wanted so much to like "The Stand" and I hated it.

This bothered me a lot, not least because it dawned on me something like 300 pages in and I knew I had a long way to go, because it was the uncut version. Maybe I should have started in with the shorter one instead. My first complaint about the book was that it was bloated beyond belief. I can tell from the introduction that he's incredibly proud of the descriptive passages involving heroine Frannie and her nasty mom, who embodies the sort of oppressive suburban strictures that King is excited about taking out with his superflu plague. I appreciate what King's trying to do here, especially as a fellow Shirley Jackson fan -- yeah, these social strictures are unpleasant, aren't they? But oh my God, he goes on and on and ON. Some editor needs to stand on his head and say "Steve, enough!" But people love the uncut version of this book, so what do I know. Just every sequence is like that -- it goes on and on and ON -- and you think there's going to be some major payoff by the end, but no. I was so crushed by this. I don't know what I was expecting (maybe something related to the iconic cover art, above), but it just, ugh.

Has anyone besides me not read "The Stand"? Quick summary: Army-developed superflu takes out civilization. A few individuals are left. They gradually find each other, and find that they are all having dreams of an old black woman in Nebraska; they make their way to her, and find she's real and she's amassing a force to resist the other figure in their dreams, a violent white man. Good people line up against bad people. Except not really, but kind of, at the very end, and then not.

I don't know. If I had never heard of this book and someone had handed me a short version, I might well have loved it. I loved the superflu taking people out (misanthropes love plague) and I enjoyed the awkward social interactions between the survivors, who comes from all different backgrounds. But the eventual society that the survivors form is so weird and crazy and mad sexist, it read to me like a 1960s-era husband's daydream. "What if everyone died and we had to PROTECT THE WOMEN?" This of course led me to thinking about my favorite Ray Milland film, "Panic in Year Zero":

Which pretty much reads like a daydream some henpecked husband has on a fishing trip. "What if we couldn't go back to the city and I had to lead us? What if I had to find us rifles and food supplies and care for the WOMEN?" Well, bleah, is what I say to that.

The best thing about "The Stand" was the idea that you would never, never get away with writing a book like that today. We now live in a world that's rich with apocalypse fiction -- and we owe "The Stand" a great debt, I am sure -- but it is not all about Fertility and Saving The Women anymore. The women will be right up front firing automatic weapons at the rapists and zombies, not huddling in the back all pregnant and scared, thank you.

Oh, and the theology involved with this gave me the utter willies. Maybe it's just, again, a sign of the times: the godlike-old-black-woman trope was tired when "The Matrix" busted it out a decade ago. Does it serve anyone to divide communities into absolute good and absolute evil? The people who don't laugh at your hero's jokes are automatically going to decamp for the evil site? The creeps and the outsiders and the ones who just never fit in, they line up with the dark man? Jeepers. I appreciate that it's just a potboiler, but -- leave me out of it, please.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Happy Mother's Day!

Moms = royalty. Hope all of you have a beautiful day!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Spider baby II

Originally uploaded by Trillium grandiflorum
Finally got some distilled water today and took it out to use on my gasping pitcher plants -- it has been quite warm and dry in LA, and I keep forgetting that they are coming out of dormancy and require moisture! By accident I startled this sweet furry dime-sized creature, who was all snuggled down in the dry sticks of last year's pitchers. She scuttled safely up some old stalks, but my watering had trapped her like a moat. I took her picture and then apologized and moved her to the lemon tree.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Open pitchers

Originally uploaded by Trillium grandiflorum
Now that their beautiful flowers are fading, the Sarracenia pitchers are starting to open up. They like bugs almost as much as spiders do!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Final Girl Film Club: 'Spider Baby' (1968)

You have to love a movie that was originally titled "Cannibal Orgy." I was first made aware of "Spider Baby" by my marvelously creepy Cousin Merricat,* who had a post about a screening in L.A. a few months ago. Although I couldn't make the screening, the movie sounded great. And then Stacie picked it for this month's Final Girl Film Club, and I learned it can be viewed in many places on the Internet, and "Spider Baby" and I were together at last!

And I do not think we will ever again be parted. What a marvelous film, and enjoyable on so many levels: creepy, funny, beautiful, oddly touching. It even has an excellent theme song, performed by star Lon Chaney Jr.

The plot concerns the three Merrye children -- Elizabeth, Virginia and Ralph -- the last descendants of a wealthy family. They live alone in a crumbling mansion, guarded by their faithful chauffeur Bruno (Chaney), who protects them from the world. But he can't keep them hidden from distant relatives Peter and Emily, who show up one day determined to claim guardianship of the children, and thus a share of the family wealth. But Peter and Emily do not know about the degenerative ailment that has left the children in a state of total savagery. They also do not know about the spiders in the furniture, or the skeleton in the bedroom, or the cannibalistic relatives locked in the basement...

True to their name, the three Merrye children just have a grand old time, and it's a blast to just kick back and watch them running around. Sure, they're killing delivery men and cutting off their ears, but it's just so much fun. Virginia in particular gets a tremendous kick out of throwing a rope web over people and pretending to be a spider; when she brandishes a pair of butcher knives like mandibles and runs at her prey, she suddenly goes from ludicrous to terrifying, and it's a fantastic frisson. And Ralph (Sid Haig -- aha, this is who he is) galumphs contentedly about like a great bald Irish setter. They have a totally sweet relationship with Bruno: he looks after them (is he protecting them from the world or the world from them?) and they trust and adore him.

They're a little old to be children; Merrye syndrome, we're told, sets in at puberty and regresses the sufferer to a "prenatal state" of savagery and cannibalism. So much for the Rousseauian ideal. Besides killing delivery men, they catch and eat cats, kiss their father's rotting skeleton every night, and attempt to saw the feet off a fetching secretary (Mary Mitchel of "Panic In Year Zero"). And when Ralph catches Emily (Carol Ohmart of "The House on Haunted Hill") in her lingerie....

Besides the madcap "Addams Family"-type escapades, though, there's a wonderfully dreamy atmosphere. Elizabeth and Virginia wander in their white nightgowns up and down dark stairs; Ralph navigates the house via a large dumbwaiter; tarantulas spill out of a rolltop desk. The house just feels familiar, like something you read about (the theme of two witchy sisters barricaded against the world is very Shirley Jackson) or dreamed about a long time ago. "Spider Baby" opens the gates to you ... but be careful ...

*not an actual relation, alas

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Oh, HA HA.

Happy April Fool's Day, everyone! Last October I finally got around to seeing this 1986 classic (it was one of Cinefamily's wonderful slasher marathons, screening after "My Bloody Valentine" on a holiday-themed night). It's unique, all right. Every slasher movie is essentially a game, with bit players knocked out one by one, routes of escape systematically shut off, until the killer and final survivors meet for a final match. But this is one of the only slashers to make that theme overt: unbeknownst to the main characters, and to the audience (sorry, spoilers, but it came out in 1986 for heaven's sake), it really IS a game.

College student Muffy St. John (Deborah Foreman, marvelously creepy) invites a bunch of her friends to spend spring break on her island vacation home. It's April Fool's Day, and Muffy happens to love practical jokes, so the house is rigged with goofy paraphernalia like joke drinking glasses, joke doorknobs, joke light switches -- stuff that's dumb at first, but eventually Muffy's guests are going to NEED those doorknobs in working order, because it seems there's a killer on the island. Maybe even in the house! Creepy reminders of the guests' dark secrets show up in their rooms. People start to disappear. Muffy starts acting completely spacey and weird. Eventually, clever coed Kit (Amy Steel) and her boyfriend work out the mystery: Muffy has an evil twin sister called Buffy who's been locked away in an institution, but has escaped. Look out!

I can't tell you how weird it is, even knowing the ending ahead of time, to see Kit burst through a door and see Muffy standing there with all her "victims" alive and well. Audiences reacted really badly to this movie, and I can see why (I felt similarly after watching "The Village," although I still love it). Nobody likes being made a fool of, and poor Amy Steel still looks grouchy as it all ends.

There's some interesting tension in this movie between Muffy and another girl named Nan (Leah Pinsent). Nan seems to be particularly hurt by Muffy's weird behavior, and she comes in for some particularly vicious personal pranks involving a rumor about an abortion she may or may not have had. In a bizarre little coda, Nan gets Muffy back in kind for all the April Fool's behavior -- is something going on with these two? Or am I just thinking of lesbians because Amy Steel is here and she's so durn cute? I don't know. Either way it's a fun movie to see with a lively audience. Hooray!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Three dead men ride north

Finally hitched up my skirts, poured a nice tall glass of wine and sat down with "The Last House on the Left" this week. I have been avoiding this movie for many years, on the grounds that it just sounded Very Unpleasant. (The NYT's film critic walked out in 1972!) Sure, it's a horror classic, but why put oneself through it?, was my thinking.

Over the past couple years I've gradually worked up to the idea. First I watched "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," which I had avoided on similar grounds, and adored it. Then I saw Bergman's "The Virgin Spring," the basis for "Last House," and was fascinated by the themes of revenge, redemption and female purity; it's black and white and it's Bergman and it's arty, but it's still fairly brutal. Beloved medieval daughter Karin is raped and murdered by a trio of men who then, unknowingly, seek shelter with her parents; when the parents find out, they take revenge. What interested me the most was the contrast between adored town flirt Karin and her resentful foster sister, Ingeri, who is pregnant out of wedlock and is in thorough disgrace with the household. The dynamic between them is the real driving force of "Virgin Spring," I think.

And "Last House" hews closer to those themes than I expected. Beloved daughter Mari is everybody's sweetheart. Her parents adore her, only making a halfhearted attempt to stop her from gadding around braless and going to concerts by bands with names like Bloodlust. They do not at all approve of her relatively new friend Phyllis, who comes from a bad neighborhood and is taking her to the latest Bloodlust concert, but they let her go anyway. Unlike in "Virgin Spring," Mari & Phyllis are friends, but they exhibit a milder version of the Karin & Ingeri contrast: Mari takes this innocent, exultant joy in the world around her, pointing out the beautiful fall leaves and then her own new 17-year-old bod. The worldlier Phyllis watches her with something like bemusement at times, but Mari's joy is infectious: the girls frolic in the woods, go for ice cream, and then decide to score some grass before the concert, approaching a total stranger to ask him about it as if asking directions from a friendly neighborhood cop. This is where they go wrong. The girls are different, but unlike in "VS," they end up in the same boat.

From here the movie becomes a protracted, sadistic exercise in dread. I just tucked up my feet and poured some more wine and bit my nails and waited and waited. It seems to take forever for Mari and Phyllis to meet their hideous end, and the film cuts mercilessly between their torment and Mari's parents, first fixing her a birthday cake, then sitting up anxiously waiting for her to come home. It's the dread rather than the actual violence that made this so agonizing for me, although when the brutality arrives, Craven films it in a straight-on, almost documentary style that somehow enhances the cruelty. The grainy film stock makes it look like a snuff film. Over on Final Girl, Stacie has a great line in her review of "The Evil Dead": it "just feels wrong." And that's how this feels. It's like something you shouldn't even be *allowed* to watch.

Making it extra horrible is how hard the girls fight and how close they come. One of the last things Mari sees is her own mailbox; Phyllis dies within sight of traffic whizzing by on the road. Both of them make perfectly laudable attempts at getting away. Phyllis (who delivers a haunting "oh, shit!" as the thugs slam the door shut behind them) does a really good job of keeping Mari from completely freaking out, and then picks a great chance to make a run for it. Mari uses smart psychology to get one of them to help her. They almost make it; they should make it; they die for no reason at all beyond their killers' sheer viciousness.

At the same time, it's beautiful. The colors in this movie are amazing: the fall leaves, the bright red blood on Sadie's white face, the magnificent mustard-yellow shirt worn by Mari's dad in the climactic scene of chainsaw revenge. I'm such a sucker for anything horror that's shot in the woods... I love the contrast between nasty goings-on and the bucolic setting. Fairy tales are right: Scary things do hide behind trees (no matter how beautiful the leaves are); there is something waiting under the surface of that still lake. We all know this, deep down.

Also, when Mari's parents start rigging their house for revenge, you just want to hug them; not only is it cathartic, but they are so satisfyingly competent! How I admire movie characters who have a clear plan. I wanted to match this couple up against the mewling, puking pair from Ils.... Dr. and Mrs. Collingwood would've had those hooded home invaders up against the wall in no time, bellowing "And tuck your shirts in, you damn kids!"

And then there's the bizarrely incongruous folk soundtrack -- I counted four tracks that were borrowed by Eli Roth for my beloved "Cabin Fever" -- and the deranged slapstick antics from the incompetent local law enforcement, who seem to have wandered in from another movie. It all adds up to a big bizarre gorgeous raw mess of a movie. When it was over I had one more glass of wine just to celebrate. Then I watched it again.

Edited to add: Arbogast has an interesting essay arguing that the movie is an unintentional blood libel. After watching the movie I'm not sure I buy it, but it's still a good read. Happy Passover!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pitcher plant flower

While I try to marshal my thoughts on "Last House on the Left," here is a photo of my beautiful Sarracenia leucophylla hybrid in bloom. I have had S. leucophyllas bloom with sort of a cherry Kool-Aid smell, and other Sarraceniae flowers have a powerful cat-pee odor, but this one smells like nothing: She is just about line and color. Ah, the color.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Under the thorns

Originally uploaded by Trillium grandiflorum
I loved standing under this silk floss tree watching rain clouds approach this week -- the silvery bark and gold-colored new growth stood out sharply against the darkening sky. Plus silk floss trees continue to just amaze me. I've been here four years and still can't get over the city being full of thorny giants that make lavish pink flowers and fluffy alien seed pods. The LA Arboretum also has a white one and a red one, both extremely beautiful.

Friday, February 26, 2010

New gig

I'm going somewhat legit... I will be writing every Friday for the Times' Daily Mirror blog, a site that looks at historical Los Angeles, about old movies. Most of the posts are about 1920 and 1960, so I will be writing about movies from those years. And my first one is up now, about "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," starring stone cold fox John Barrymore.

I tied myself into a little stress knot over writing the first couple of posts. It's one thing to put up my own thoughts here, semi-anonymously (even though most of you know who I am, not that I am anyone in particular). But the DM stuff has my name on it. People might read it. Gaak.

So far so good, though. I loved watching the movie. I loved watching the 1960 movie that's going to be next week's topic. I'm trying to branch out a little from writing about horror but -- dammit, that's what I love. Anyway, I'll still be here and still be writing, and I am very excited about the next Final Girl Film Club... but I'll also be over there. Yeep.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem" - Not sure who won, but we lost

A copy of the "Aliens Vs. Predator" sequel wandered into my sphere last night, and like an idiot I succumbed to the temptation to watch it. Now I have a pretty high tolerance for Alien-related silliness. I have found something to enjoy in all the previous movies, even the ghastly "Resurrection" (come on, Brad Dourif was in it!) and the mostly forgettable "Aliens Vs. Predator" (Lance Henriksen!). I cherish my "Aliens Vs. Predator" comic books. I even love the goofy "Batman Vs. Aliens" comic -- it has some really beautiful drawings. Just give me some acid blood and a big skeletal tail and I'm happy. But even I couldn't enjoy this movie. There's just nothing there. This morning I woke up and couldn't remember a single thing about it. Aliens and a Predator chase each other around. There are dull human characters (one named, with vicious cruelty, Dallas -- I hope Tom Skerritt kicked someone's ass for that). It's really dark and you can't see what's happening. I may have slept through part of it.

It's all just so depressing. "Alien" fans had been waiting for so many years for a movie set on Earth. The one really great thing about "Resurrection" was that its ending set that up to happen, with superclone Ripley coming home at last. The first "Aliens Vs. Predator" does take place in Antarctica, but all the action happens in a giant subterranean pyramid -- it's so claustrophobic it might as well be a spaceship. But in "Requiem" the aliens crash-land outside a small Colorado town. You could have aliens jumping out from behind Dumpsters, lurking under your bed, chasing you through your own neighborhood. Yikes! And here it finally happens, but it's so chaotic and dark, and the characters are so boring, that there's nothing remotely scary about it. I miss the big drippy aliens who used to give me nightmares. As Mark Twain once wrote, "I have no heart to write more. I never felt so about anything before."

Monday, February 15, 2010

You are a furred leaf, I think

Originally uploaded by Trillium grandiflorum
A good example of deadly soft fur is the beautiful Pinguicula, or butterwort. The leaves look like African violet leaves, with the tiniest sheen of fuzz; but if you are an insect and land on them, you cannot get off again. The tiny furry stems are covered with sticky material that holds you in place while the plant's digestive enzymes slowly dissolve you. How awful! This plant mostly eats gnats, but mine has trapped larger flying insects from time to time.

In "Little Shop of Horrors," the man-eating plant Audrey II is said to be a cross between a butterwort and a Venus flytrap, as Peter D'Amato points out in his wonderful book "The Savage Garden."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Seed pod

Seed pod
Originally uploaded by Trillium grandiflorum
No really, sometimes a seed pod is just a seed pod. From a Queensland lace-bark tree at the LA County Arboretum.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

"Ils (Them)": Come play with us

Ah, ze French. They can ratchet up the tension from the get-go like nobody's business, and it is so elegant! "Ils" (2006) has one of the best opening sequences I've ever seen. A mom and daughter are driving at night and have car trouble: directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud take that simple premise and spin it into several minutes of increasingly exquisite agony. By the time the movie proper got under way, I was about to chew off my own arm. The main story, sadly, eventually loses the elegant simplicity manifested in the opener. But still it has some nice moments.

I knew almost nothing about "Ils" going in, only that it was supposed to be similar to the 2008 American movie "The Strangers" except a) without Liv Tyler, b) shorter and c) French. I haven't seen "The Strangers" due to my violent Liv Tyler allergy, but it sounded good. The premise of both involves a couple being terrorized at home by, well, strangers, for unknown reasons. (It's probably best to go into "Ils" not knowing more than that, so if you haven't seen it, beware spoilers ahead.)

Home-invasion stories are the scariest to me. You can haunt the school or the old department store or the mall all you want to, but come scratching around my bedroom window, where I'm most vulnerable, and brrr. The home-invasion premise also appeals to my sense of practicality: Do you know which windows of your house you can open? Where's your flashlight? What can you use as a weapon? Where are the entrances and exits?

Well, Clem and Lucas (Olivia Bonamy and Michael Cohen), a French couple living in a lonely fixer-upper in Romania, do not pass this test at all. They know where their front door is, and that's about it. The movie's a beautiful exercise in sustained tension, but the imbecility of these two -- particularly Lucas -- had me pretty turned off by about midway through. Creepy people steal Clem's car in the middle of the night; then the power and phones go out; then someone waves a flashlight through the window. What do Clem and Lucas do? Race upstairs and barricade themselves in their room, then decide Lucas should go down and "check" to see if anyone's inside. This just violates all common sense to me. Don't they want to just try and find out who these people are? Maybe they just want to take the TV and jewelry and leave? What happened to Clem's cellphone anyway? And how come these people seem to know the house better than Clem and Lucas do? They switch the power off, they beat Clem to the attic... Maybe it's all supposed to be a metaphor for how Clem and Lucas feel as expatriates, but I was too exasperated with them to analyze.

(And why not go on the attack? Even if you don't have a gun, it's *your* house: you know where everything is. Grab a bottle of spray bathroom cleaner, jump out from behind a doorway and aim for the eyes! But no, these two decide to ditch the house -- and their poor dog, whose fate is unclear but probably unpleasant -- and run, Lucas' severe leg injury notwithstanding.)

Once the action moves outside, things devolve in terms of making sense. Everyone goes into the sewers for some reason, and there's a lot of mazelike running around.

Still, there are some spiffy effects along the way. Sound is used beautifully, with the attackers making a mysterious scrapey sound at the most unexpected moments. The house and sewers turn into a series of set pieces -- it reminds me a little of watching "Alien: Resurrection," which I remember as being just a bunch of baroque fight scenes in different cool settings -- but they're nice-looking set pieces. And I enjoyed some classic-film references: a massive old door bends under the pounding from an unseen force, a la "The Haunting"; a pursuit through the sewers ends at an unyielding grid, a la "The Third Man."

The final twist is fine, but not particularly shocking for the healthy misanthrope. People are pretty much the same at any age, if you ask me. Still, it's something an American-made movie would probably steer clear of. Viva la France!

Monday, February 08, 2010

Movies by heart

A conversation over the weekend got me thinking about this: There really are quite a few movies I could recite from start to finish. (And will, if you ask nicely!) Most are accidental; they happen to be the videotapes we had growing up, including somewhat random movies taped off TV, which has the amusing side effect that I only know the TV-censored versions of some of these. Others are among my favorite movies ever. It's an odd mix. Here are the ones I can think of, off the top of my head:

Gone with the Wind
Romancing the Stone
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (censored version! "I feel like total crud, Ferris.")
Sixteen Candles
La Bamba (it's been a while, but I think I could still pull this one out. "Bob! Mi hijo!")
The Sound of Music
Mary Poppins
The Princess Bride
Flashdance (censored version, although I bought the DVD and couldn't find much difference)
Mystery Men
Starship Troopers
Cabin Fever
Sense and Sensibility (the Ang Lee version; within a few years I should have the six-hour BBC Pride and Prejudice down, but am not there yet)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the one with the whales... it was the only one we owned, for some reason)
Star Wars, Empire & Jedi (of course)
The Last of the Mohicans
Little Shop of Horrors (the one with Rick Moranis and the magnificent Ellen Greene)
M*A*S*H (within reason: I don't think I could do every bit of the overlapping dialogue. But most of it, yes)

Looking this over, it is clear that I have not obsessively watched enough movies from the last decade; I need to pick some favorites and learn them. Project!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Sleeping beauty

Tiny tiny Venus flytrap -- occasionally addressed as "Mrs. Chompy" -- is on the verge of emerging from her winder dormancy. Look at that beautiful spring green! In the next couple weeks she should start putting up little vertical shoots that will open into lively new traps. She lives next to the compost bin, so a bountiful harvest of flies will be hers whenever she's ready!

Her consort, a Red Dragon cultivar (usually addressed as "Please don't die"), is in a considerably less picturesque dormancy: brown and crunchy. He might be dead, although he looked bad this time last year and he came back. I hope he pulls through, for Mrs. Chompy's sake.

Friday, February 05, 2010


Puya venusta
Originally uploaded by Trillium grandiflorum
I never saw "Teeth," the 2007 teen horror film about a girl equipped with a vagina dentata, but every time I tangle with the Puya venusta bromeliad, I feel I should.

My supervisor in the desert garden thinks it's called "Venusta" because of the leaves' silvery/whiteish shade. I think this is about as likely as the Venus flytrap getting its name from its pretty white flowers. (The wonderful Barry Rice debunks that idea in this wonderful entry over at the Carnivorous Plant FAQ, in which you can also learn the history of the made-up naughty botanical term "tipitiwitchet"!)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Final Girl Film Club: Mario Bava's "Black Sabbath"

For this month's Final Girl Film Club, I sat through my first-ever horror anthology! (I have seen most of "Creepshow," but that doesn't count, because it was New Year's Eve and I started in the middle and passed out before the end from too many AEtinis.) This was also my first-ever Mario Bava movie and I just fell in love with him. I want to explore his oeuvre. But first, "Black Sabbath."

This is a spiffy new release which apparently restores a fair amount of footage from the 1963 film, particularly from the first segment. Everyone's dubbed in Italian, even Boris Karloff, who is visibly speaking English in his "welcome to our horrorshow" introduction to the series. The anthology includes three stories, apparently set in three different time periods and places, none of them related at all. Somehow though a similar mood pervades them all -- the same sense of creeping dread. And because they're essentially short stories (although I seriously doubt they're actually adapted from Chekhov, Tolstoy and De Maupassant, as the credits claim), the action moves pretty fast. There's no time for long dream sequences or whatnot as in many of your other vintage horror films. These stories get down to business!

In segment #1, "Il Telefono," a gorgeous woman alone in her plush apartment receives a series of violent and sexual threats via her spiffy red-and-black telephone. She calls a friend for help, and it quickly becomes apparent that the two are... more than friends. Apparently the lesbian-implication footage was largely removed when the film was first released. The segment is campy but sexy, and creepy in a very giallo way -- you get the sense that these women are in peril because they're so gorgeous. While you're still sorting out how to feel about that, matters reach an inevitably grisly conclusion, and we're on to #2!

"Il Wurdalak" (Italian for "The Wurdalak") is the longest and I guess the best-known chapter, starring Boris Karloff as a patriarch who returns to his family after doing some vampire-hunting ("wurdalak" apparently is Olde Country for "vampire"). Perhaps he is a vampire himself! I wanted to like this chapter, just as I want to like all vampire stories, but I am finally confronting an uncomfortable truth: Vampire stories just put me to sleep. I don't know if it's the dreamy mood, or the key role of sleep & hypnosis, or just all the standing around. (Why is there so much standing around in vampire movies?) Last fall I rented Tod Browning's "Dracula" and it took me three nights to get through it; I kept waking up on the couch to the DVD menu. Same for the Spanish-language version, same for "Dracula's Daughter." Maybe I just require vampire tales to be enlivened by campy elements, as in the Coppola version of "Dracula" or "'Salem's Lot." Anyway, although things here are kept moving along pretty briskly, with horseback riding and guns and severed heads, I just about fell asleep. Two things kept me awake: 1) Creepy child vampire!! Crying in a high-pitched voice! Absolutely fantastic. He did not get near enough screen time. 2) The voluptuous heroine is named "Sdenka," which is very Olde Country, and which also sounds like "Stinka." This amused me.

Chapter 3, "A Drop of Water," woke me up quite thoroughly. A hard-drinking, tough-talking single nurse, who appears to live in the 1930s and seems to have a pretty fun little apartment, gets called out in a storm to dress the body of a recently deceased countess. The countess' maid is wigging and doesn't want to do it. So the nurse briskly does her job, listening to the maid go on about vengeful ghosts and how the countess died during a seance. Before heading home, the nurse pockets a ring from the body. Shouldn't have done that!... This sequence is short but fantastically effective. When the countess (played by a ghastly dummy, above) makes her first reappearance -- well, I knew it was going to happen, but I just felt my spine turn to ice. (I would have screamed if Karloff hadn't made me so sleepy.) Water drips from a faucet, a fly lands on a table, a hand reaches around a corner: the tools of a movie ghost story are so basic, but Bava deploys each one so expertly. The man is a master craftsman. I left the lights and radio on all night.

What impresses me is how different these stories are, yet how consistent the mood is. They're a contemporary (well, for 1963) thriller, a vampire tale, and a ghost story. But somehow they all go together. At the end, Karloff appears again in his Wurdalak costume, and the camera pulls back to show you his horse is a fake and so are the trees he's riding through. It's all just a show, a three-ring circus if you will -- you're invited to buy a ticket and have fun. Whee! I'm in. Thanks Stacie. Looking forward to the next one. In the meantime, I want more Bava!