Book Release: Spring and Fall in the Old Dark House

Just in time for Halloween is this nice little ghost story about two friends – super-smart, super-sweet, irrepressibly lively Jenny Spring and taciturn, dour, extra-stoic David Fall – who end up having to explore a (possibly) haunted house, where they learn a thing or two about how much they still have to learn.

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

When twelve-year-old Jenny Spring is asked that question by her best friend, David Fall, she insists that she doesn’t. She’s the smartest kid in school, and she knows exactly the right arguments to prove that there are no such things as ghosts.

But when the actions of a bitter classroom rival force them to enter and explore the creepiest house in town, Jenny and David find themselves forced to reconsider; what if there are such things as ghosts?

 

Jekyll and Hyde at Catholic Match

For my Halloween post at Catholic Match, I got to gush a little about one of my all-time favorite horror films, 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:

You all know the basic outline of the story: the brilliant, good Dr. Jekyll uses a chemical potion to transform himself in the evil Mr. Hyde, the embodiment of all his worst instincts and desires unfettered by even the smallest shred of conscience. Jekyll uses Hyde because, in that form, he can indulge in the pleasures that “a gentleman like me daren’t take advantage of.”

G.K. Chesterton perceptively pointed out that Jekyll and Hyde is not a story about how one man can be two, but how he cannot.
 
The whole point of the story is that Jekyll’s double-life, his attempt to contain and keep his sins, was doomed from the start. Because what Jekyll refuses to acknowledge, until it is too late, is that he and Hyde are the same person; what one does affects the other.

The more he lets Hyde out, the more the Hyde personality becomes his ‘true’ self, until by the end of the story Jekyll has effectively been absorbed into Hyde.

Read the rest here.

Thoughts on ‘Freddy vs. Jason’

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I have a habit of referencing Freddy vs. Jason as a go-to example of solid writing. So, for Halloween, I figured I’d delve a bit into why.

2003’s Freddy vs. Jason was the final film for both the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, at least before the reboots began (though really, who’s counting those?). It also came after a fairly long hiatus for both of them: Friday had ended in 1993 with Jason Goes to Hell, then went through a failed revival effort with 2001’s Jason X (widely regarded as the single stupidest film of the series, and that’s saying a lot).Meanwhile Nightmare had ended in 1991 with Freddy’s Dead, then had a very strange and unsuccessful (though well-regarded) post-script with the meta-fiction New Nightmare in 1994.

Freddy vs. Jason very cleverly plays off this for its premise: both Freddy and Jason, in this film, are figures out of the past: Freddy’s stuck in Hell (the low-security wing for horror villains) and Jason’s body is rotting away in the woods. You see, Freddy has been forgotten by the children of Springwood (thanks to the quarantine-like efforts of the town elders), which means he can no longer haunt their dreams. No memory, no fear, no dreams, no Freddy.

But Freddy, being Freddy, figures out a weak point in their plan; Springwood is so vigilant against Freddy’s return that they will assume at any strange murders might be his handiwork. And if so, their response might just let him out for real. All he needs is another supernatural serial killer. Someone he can easily manipulate. Someone like Jason Voorhees.

Okay, so what makes me say the writing in this film is so solid?

In the first place, set up is pretty clever; it depends on both Freddy and the Springwood authorities being smart, but both their plans being flawed in a way that is obvious in hindsight, but reasonably overlooked. For Springwood, the problem is that they naturally didn’t consider the possibility of a second killer (and why should they?). And Freddy, of course, is too arrogant to consider the possibility that Jason might be harder to put down than he was to call up (we’ll come back to it, but Freddy’s slow realization that he’s drastically underestimated Jason is one of the film’s most satisfying aspects).

Moreover, this premise allows the film to neatly cover a few potential plot holes: the fact that the town authorities have engaged in a massive conspiracy to cover up Freddy’s existence, to the point of drugging and imprisoning those kids who are aware of his existence, means that when things start getting dangerous, the kids have a reason not to go to the police: they may not quite know what’s going on, but they do know the adults aren’t acting normally and that they can’t trust them.

There’s a scene partway through where the heroine, Lori, learns that her father had been lying to her about how her mother died (she’d been one of Freddy’s last victims), and that he was the one who committed her boyfriend, Will, to an insane asylum (because Will had seen the event and thus potentially knew of Freddy). Thus, when he tries to get her to stay home and take a drug he offers, she understandably refuses and runs away to try to deal with the problem herself. It’s a mistake, but one that makes absolute sense given what she knows.

The drug in question is hypnocil, a dream-suppressor that was introduced back in Nightmare on Elm Street III. The kids sent to the asylum have been getting nightly doses of it to help keep Freddy at bay, despite the fact that the film shows it to be dangerous in high doses (we see a ward full of patients who were overdosed into comas). The kids only figure out what it does after they’ve decided they can’t trust the adults, which leads them to make a deadly run to the asylum to try to get it, thus putting them into both Freddy and Jason’s paths once more.

So, the premise of the film is not only solid in itself (given the somewhat flexible rules of this universe), but also provides a solid reason why the kids can’t go to the authorities for help and a motivation to put themselves into harm’s way.

The use of hypnocil points to just how much respect the writers show to these franchises. The return of Jason’s mother Pamela (actress Paula Shaw gracefully replacing Betsy Palmer) is another example; Mrs. Voorhees hasn’t been seen since way back in Part 2. Moreover, this isn’t just fan service; it all serves the plot. How does Freddy control Jason? By impersonating the one person Jason loves and is obedient to. This not only works to move the story along, but actually helps to develop Jason’s character, from the rapt way he listens to ‘her’ to his wide-eyed fury when he realizes that Freddy’s tricked him (that her trademark blue sweater is now a Freddy-appropriate red is another mark of the filmmakers’ attention to detail).

As this indicates, the writers clearly took the time to sit down and work out just who these characters were before writing the film. This results in some really pretty startling scenes, such as the horrifying prologue where we see a pre-death Freddy slaying one of his child victims (off screen, thankfully), or the unexpected conclusion to their first fight in the dream world. Ultimately, the film is credibly driven by the contrasting personalities of its two stars, and they both consistently act in character throughout.

Again, it kind of amazes me that Jason, of all people, actually gets something like character development in this film. We get to see something of his relationship with his mother, a hint at how he views his murderous actions, and even a glimpse of him as a child (which, if I’m not mistaken, is the only depiction of his actual drowning in the whole series. Granted, it’s obviously a twisted, nightmare version, but still it’s interesting to finally see such a pivotal moment in the Friday the 13th ‘lore’). Actor Ken Kirzinger gives a really quite excellent performance using only his eyes and body language, so much so that I would even rank him above Kane Hodder as the best Jason portrayal. I also really like how, when we visit his shack in a dream, there’s a toy ukulele on his bed, pointing to his childlike nature (attention to detail again).

As others have pointed out, the fact that Jason is a kind of ‘child-man’ whose twisted mind remains as it was when he drowned at the age of eight and Freddy is explicitly a child murderer makes their showdown all the more satisfying. Here is one ‘child’ that Freddy can’t kill, and when he tries to bully him it comes back to bite him hard.

Robert Englund, of course, gets to ham it up one last time in his signature role, though his boisterous personality and bad puns are here leavened by his truly horrific actions. Again, almost the moment the film opens it let’s us know just what Freddy is, and it never lets us forget it for long. After being reduced to a clown in his later films, Freddy is back to being the monster he’s supposed to be. They also thought out the implications of his dream manipulation, allowing him to attack one character who, rather than falling asleep, simply gets thoroughly stoned (the scene has Freddy appear as a hooka smoking caterpillar; a nice touch).

On that subject, though the film aims at being pulpy, almost comic-book style entertainment, it also remembers that it’s supposed to be a horror film and makes a genuine effort to scare the audience. There are some great atmospheric shots here, especially whenever we’re around Crystal Lake, and some nicely constructed scares. Jason’s prologue, which is kind of a compression of the Friday the 13th formula, where a girl strips, skinny dips, then runs through the woods and gets killed, is quite exceptionally well-done and reminds us that yes, that formula can be effective. The nightmare sequences, especially one about the middle of the film, are likewise pretty darn frightening and, like in the olden days, capture the feel of a nightmare pretty well (for instance, there’s one where a girl tries to flee, only to find that the door she just entered through has turned into a solid wall).

Horror is a pretty simple effect to create, but it’s also very easy to spoil. Generally speaking, if you try to go too big with it or too over the top, you kill the effect (something Universal apparently failed to understand with its recent ‘Mummy’ remake, with disastrous effect). Halloween II is not three times as scary as Halloween because three times as many people died; quite the reverse. Freddy vs. Jason ups the ante some, but ultimately keeps itself within a reasonable frame; there’s no world or even city-level threat, it’s all a matter of these people and this community, and its most effective scares are the most focused.

Meanwhile, the human characters range from insufferable to excellent (though fortunately most of the insufferable one’s don’t make it out of the first act), but they are pretty much all decently written and at least believable, and you do root for them. Katherine Isabelle gives a particularly good performance, as does Chris Marquette. I also like how the film takes the time to actually let the characters mourn a little when their friends start dying. And how there’s a scene where the kids simply sit down, pool their information, and try to work out a plan for survival. And again, they never really do anything unbelievably stupid (well, the stoner deciding to get high in the middle of the raid on the asylum was monumentally dumb, but not unbelievably so). Again, the actions of the characters all – or at least almost all – make sense given what they know and who they are. They make mistakes, but understandable ones.

I really could go on and on; the running theme of the Past being dug up and brought to light, which is consistent with both franchises. The innumerable references and small details attesting to a knowledge of the franchise (like the sugar sack that one of the bullies pulls over young Jason’s head in his nightmare). The tonally appropriate humor (my favorite being Freddy referring to Jason as “That hockey puck”). And of course the immensely satisfying fight sequences, the last of which is preceded by the wonderful moment where Freddy realizes he’s been pulled into the real world directly in front of an enraged Jason Voorhees. You will never see a finer rendition of the expression “Oh, crap!”

Also, since I just saw Cabin in the Woods, I have to point out that the black humor here is far superior. Black humor, to my mind, is when the absurdity of life suddenly intrudes upon a grim situation. Like, there’s a bit where a kid ends up holding his father’s severed head. Then Jason appears and swings his machete at him, and the kid instinctively (and ineffectually) tries to block the blow with his dad’s head. It’s quick, it’s ridiculous, and it completely fits the scene.

Now, let me be clear: Freddy vs. Jason is no classic. It’s simple, pulpy entertainment, and it has plenty of flaws (among others: the asylum is ridiculously easy to break out of and into, the CG does not hold up well, and several of the actors among the kids are pretty bad). It’s very vulgar, very crude, and definitely not for everyone. And I’m not even that big a fan of the two franchises (for the record, the original Nightmare is one of my favorite horror films, so much so that I don’t really want to see any of the others, and though I’ve seen several Friday films, I don’t think I’d recommend any of them).

Nevertheless, this is one of my favorite films simply for how solid the writing is. All the more so because this is exactly the kind of movie you’d expect to have a rushed or incompetently done script. This is the kind of movie where you expect the phrase “who cares?” to have been used a lot during production, the kind that would attract the contempt of those who worked on it.

But it didn’t. The filmmakers took these franchises seriously, treated them with remarkable respect (indeed, far more than they deserved), and put genuine effort into making a good film, one that is not only satisfying in itself, but actually manages to restore some dignity to the long-moribund franchises, just in time for them to end and allowing both to go out on a high note.

It is especially useful in contrast to the recent entries in, say, Star Wars, where the most prestigious film franchise of them all is treated with utter contempt by writers who can’t even muster the most basic level of storytelling competence. When we say we want a well-written film, one that respects what has come before while nevertheless building on it, one that holds together under scrutiny and evinces real care for the material, we’re thinking of something like Freddy vs. Jason.

Thoughts on ‘The Cabin in the Woods’

The other day I watched The Cabin in the Woods for the first time. I have to say, for a film with such a high reputation, I was really not impressed.

The set up is that it’s your standard ’80s horror film; a bunch of college students go out to a, yes, cabin in the woods, where they wake up an ancient evil and get slaughtered one by one. Only this time, it turns out the whole scenario is set up and controlled by a techno-corporate organization for reasons of their own. So we both follow the kids in the cabin and the workers who are arranging for all the cliches to come off. For instance, when the kids decide the best thing to do is arm themselves and stick together, the workers turn on a gas to impair their judgment and make them think that the thing to do is split up.

And that’s kind of the problem; the whole story is in service to this joke, but the joke isn’t either very clever or very funny. People have been making fun of ’80s horror cliches for ages, and Cabin in the Woods doesn’t really have anything original to add, except for a few (genuinely funny) gags involving the workers and their blase attitude toward the whole thing. It kind of reminds me of the ‘Godfather’ joke in Zootopia (to draw a somewhat distant example): it’s the sort of thing where, if you’re going to make that joke, you really have to do something original with it. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, for instance, did this very well by making the hillbillies the heroes, while the joke was they kept accidentally acting like the villains. Cabin’s horror-related gags are almost all completely standard and pretty shallow in comparison.

Another problem is that the techno-corporate framing device is all wrong. The aesthetic doesn’t fit the premise. It ought to be either more artistic (akin to a TV studio or theater) or more militaristic. The business-type organization is jarringly at odds with the atmosphere and even the premise of what’s really going on. And like mocking horror films, mocking the business world is nothing new. The satire on both fronts is much too obvious and shallow (the original Robocop was doing these same jokes better thirty years earlier).

On that note (and here we get into spoilers), there’s another issue: it’s revealed near the end that this organization has an entire stable of horror monsters kept locked up in individual vaults and, depending on what the kids did they would have unleashed one or other on them.

There are two major issues with this. One is that, like the corporate America aesthetic, blending all these creatures together, and especially in little technological aquariums, completely ruins any kind of atmosphere. These horrors are completely defanged by being established as essentially ‘props’ kept in a backroom. It’s as effective as seeing costumed characters running around Universal theme park: kind of fun, but completely ruins it as a horror film and destroys any substance it might have had.

The other is that this gets the horror genre all wrong. Good horror is essentially a morality play; there always has to be some ‘transgression’ that brings the horror as consequence. But, according to this film, the corporation essentially seeded the cabin with fake chances to ‘transgress’ while keeping the appropriate monsters in readiness. The game is rigged to produce the intended effect, and that is fatal to the genre.

The way this ought to work would be that the organization would be monitoring people who enter certain areas and providing the retribution if they transgress. That might have allowed them to have their joke without spoiling the horror. As it is, I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’s account of his reluctance to accept that the nature he so loved had a creator: it would, he said, be like discovering that the mouse that ran across your path from under a hedge was a wind-up toy that someone had put their on purpose. It all just feels so fake.

The problem isn’t that this isn’t a ‘standard’ horror film, or even that it’s not really a horror film at all. The problem is that what it is instead isn’t very interesting.

This isn’t helped by the fact that there’s really no mystery or twist going on; we follow both sides the whole time and see all the tricks being used throughout the film. What ought to be a startling twist that causes us to question everything we saw is instead just…there.

All that said, it’s not a bad film; there are some funny jokes (my favorite being the running gag about how one of the workers wants to see a merman), and there is some enjoyment to be had with the crazy monster rampage at the end, where genre fans can have some fun identifying the different franchises and films being referenced. I am glad I saw it, if only because I think it is a film worth observing and forming an opinion about.

(Although frankly, if they really wanted to be clever, the Director should have been played by Amy Steel, Heather Langenkamp, or Jamie Lee Curtis, not Sigourney Weaver. Again, the joke is too obvious and doesn’t require any real knowledge or understanding to pull off).

The protagonist of the film, as it turns out, isn’t the redheaded final girl, but her stoner friend, who turns out to be immune from the chemical manipulation of the watchers due to the massive amounts of pot he’s consumed. That, it strikes me, is pretty much what this film is like and probably who it’s made for; it’s like listening to an intelligent, somewhat stoned college student with absolutely no aesthetic or moral sense trying to deconstruct something. He’s able to identify the superficial absurdities and inconsistencies and make witty jokes about them, all while completely missing the point. There’s no real insight into the subject; just a handful of fairly obvious observations.

 Galaxy Quest deconstructed and made fun of the tropes of ‘Star Trek’ and similar shows while being itself an excellent example of the genre. So too did Hot Fuzz, Megamind, and The Princess Bride, among others. These films didn’t just play with their tropes, but they also understood why they were tropes and how to use them. In other words, they understood their genres. Cabin in the Woods doesn’t understand horror, it only knows the cliches.

Apu and Charlie Chan Syndrome

I’m long since finished with ‘The Simpsons’ outside of the occasional re-run, but I had to comment on this.

Apparently, the show has decided to drop the venerable character of Apu in the face of ‘controversy’ over his ‘blatantly racist’ portrayal. Said ‘racist portrayal’, as far as I can tell, amounts to that he has a ‘stereotypical Indian’ accent and works in a convenience store.

This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, but why is it that a certain segment of commentators seem to regard any non-White character with an accent to be a racist caricature, regardless of how the character is actually portrayed? I remember back when I watched ‘The Nostalgia Critic’ he did this all the time; like calling Fisher Stevens’ character in the ‘Short Circuit’ movies a racist stereotype because he…had an accent, I guess? Despite the fact that he’s portrayed as a perfectly decent human being and even takes over the role of human protagonist in the sequel.

I remember back in my corporate days we were forced to watch a video on ‘diversity,’ wherein we were shown a talk by an Asian gentleman who started off speaking with a very thick accent, then abruptly dropped it for a Midwestern-style voice. The idea, apparently, was that it was racist for us to assume he would speak with an accent. I pointed out that we only assumed that because he was in fact speaking with an accent.

Really, do the people who complain about this think that no one speaks with thick accents? Or do they think that finding accents funny is somehow ‘racist’? Because it’s not like anyone laughs at British, German, French, Italian, Texan, Minnesotan, or New York accents, right?

Isn’t considering a thick accent an ‘offensive stereotype’ insulting to people who actually talk that way? Doesn’t it imply that there is something wrong with them, if the portrayal of such an accent is taken as an insult?

As for Apu, the people behind this ‘controversy’ apparently missed the fact that part of the joke of his character is that he’s ridiculously overqualified for his job, possessing a genius IQ and a prestigious degree from an Indian university. The satire is that he’s stuck working behind a check-out counter because he’s Indian despite being qualified for much higher-paid work, but he still has an obsessive work-ethic. In other words, they’re complaining about the very stereotype he’s designed to make fun of.

There’s also the fact that he’s no more ridiculous than any other character on The Simpsons and much less than some. Again, he has a genius IQ, a killer work ethic, is a crack-shot, maintains a lush roof-top garden, and is personal friends with Paul McCartney. He’s cleans up at a bachelor auction and is as respected a member of the community as anyone (which, given the community in question, isn’t saying much).

This is what I call ‘Charlie Chan Syndrome’; where a character is assumed to be a racist caricature because of superficial qualities such as having a thick accent, regardless of what the character actually does (named after the ‘Charlie Chan’ film series, which featured an intelligent,  courteous, and professionally respected Chinese-American detective traveling the world and outsmarting predominantly white opponents, yet are often described as ‘racist’ somehow). This apparently only applies if the character is non-European. Thus a wise, polite, somewhat funny Chinese detective with a thick accent is racist; a wise, polite, somewhat funny Belgian detective with a thick accent is not.

This is a point we today often miss; how a character is objectively written, what he does and says and how he interacts with the story, is what determines what the character is, not what may or may not be going on in the world when the character was written. Charlie Chan is not a racist caricature because his race is never (at least in the films I’ve seen) portrayed as making him in any way inferior to those around him. The fact that he is played by a Swede and has a thick Chinese accent is irrelevant to that point. Likewise, the fact that Apu was written and voiced by a white man is irrelevant to the question of how he is portrayed on the show (you can legitimately ask why someone was cast and not someone else, or what the motives of the writers were, and so on, but that is a separate issue from what actually is portrayed on screen).

Anyway, The Simpsons has long outstayed its welcome, and as far as I can tell has been on a downward spiral for a while, but if they’re going to start rolling over and giving in to this kind of controversy, their end cannot be far off. More concerning is simply the fact that this kind of nonsense is actually taken seriously in our society.

Halloween at the Federalist

New post up at the Federalist discussing the original Halloween:

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To understand this film, it is necessary to understand its monster. The thing in “Halloween” is usually referred to as Michael Myers, the name of the young boy in the opening. However, that’s not how Nick Castle is credited. He’s listed as playing “The Shape.” What is a shape? It is form without matter. A circle has the same nature, whether rendered in wood, ink, smoke, or mathematical notation. Thus, the Shape in “Halloween” is some form or reality that can materialize in many different ways, but always with the same nature.

Taken with Dr. Loomis’s pronouncements of the Shape’s inhuman nature, and especially with his final exchange with Strode —“It was the bogeyman!” she says, and he replies, “As a matter of fact, it was”  —  the implication is that the Shape is in fact a supernatural manifestation of evil. It isn’t Myers; he is only the material the Shape uses to give itself substance. This is why it always wears a mask, to the point that when Laurie briefly tears it off, the Shape pauses its assault to re-don the mask.

The Shape needs a disguise to give itself substance. It needs a “mask” of some sort. Even Myers himself is the Shape’s mask. This, of course, explains everything; The Shape cannot be killed because it is not a person but a supernatural entity. This is the same reason it has inhuman strength (enough to effortlessly strangle a German Shepherd with its bare hands) and some power over its environment (it seems able to lock and unlock doors from a distance).

It also explains the Shape’s eerily unnatural behavior. Not just its senseless murders, but the way it simply does strange things at times, such as when it appears in front of Linda wearing a ghost costume and then just stands there. Or when, after dispatching another victim, it pauses and thoughtfully tilts its head back and forth, as though studying its handiwork.

Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be any point to much of its behavior. For example, why the tableau with Annie’s body and Judith Myers’s gravestone? Or, for that matter, why is it targeting Laurie at all? The Shape, whatever its nature, is operating on a clearly alien mentality to anything we the audience can understand. It isn’t human.

Read the rest here.