Thursday, February 28, 2013

Television King: It (1990)

I haven't had a post series on here in a while so here we go with a new one. I've been recently looking back on all the Stephen King television miniseries. I remember bits and pieces of these from my childhood, in fact I seem to remember always catching the same half hour of The Langoliers and Storm of the Century which would drive me up the wall. But these were in the quaint days before the internet when all my memories are tinged with sepia. These mini-series seemed to always be on TV when I was younger and I have a real fondness for them. I tend to think that epic horror is hit or miss (with more misses than hits) so what better way to see what works and what doesn't by watching all of them? At 3+ hours each, if you have another suggestion, I'd love to hear it.

 For today I'm going to start with It (1990) which traumatizes many but I remember thinking it was a big fat "meh" when I was younger. I remember thinking it was long, talky and I didn't like that Pennywise the Clown turned into a shoddy stop-motion spider. It left a dull impression in my mind of something that should be scarier than it is. Nevertheless, friends of mine find this movie terrifying so I thought I'd give it another shot.

The small town of Derry, Maine is cursed. Every thirty or so years the "eater of worlds and children" (the best job title that should be on a business card) Pennywise (Tim Curry) comes up and scares children to make them appetizing enough to eat. Pennywise can turn up as your worst nightmare to scare you and adults don't see him because they don't believe in him. (try not to think too hard about that one, trust me) The miniseries follows a group of seven local kids who are taunted by Pennywise but are able to fend him off by not giving into their fear. They decide to destroy him once and for all by using a sling shot, because sure. The film intercuts this timeline with the present with the kids, now adults, thirty years on. The murders have started again and it's up to them to put an end to Pennywise once and for all, because hitting a demon clown on the side of the head with a silver earring may not have been the killing blow.

I think It plays into all the sentimental trappings of Stephen King that I'm not a fan of: children in peril, idyllic childhoods fracture by broken parents, seemingly unbeatable evil beaten simply, one of the characters being a horror fiction writer. I love King's set ups, but the execution not so much. In It there is a lot of talking about each character's problems, I do think this is the problem of the miniseries format where the audience may be coming in and out so objectives and motivations need to be reestablished constantly which requires a lot of talking, emoting and Acting. (yes, with a capital A) The characterizations are also sloppy. For characters you've got The One That Stutters, The Fat One, The One Always Doing Irritating Impressions, The Girl, The Asthmatic etc. When their fears are triggered their handicaps become more pronounced. It's boring and frankly irritating.

From left to right: Sicky, Stutter, "Funny", Ethnic, Worried, Fat and Girl.
Each child has a parent or parents that not only don't see Pennywise but are also shitty ass parents. I think on the whole It is trying to make a statement about the main characters forced to confront the failings and trappings placed on them by their parents. Whether the parent is overbearing or abusive, these traits manifest themselves in Pennywise's attacks on each of them. It's important to mention, as I stated above, that there are seven children in this group so we get to see seven attacks that are all pretty much the same. It goes on for so long, and the attacks aren't scary enough to necessitate repeat viewings.

Perhaps it's just me, but I found Pennywise pretty funny. He, sorry, It pops up in the most random places which is fucking hilarious. Like this:

Or this: 

Frankly, it's hard for me to imagine sillier images.

While Tim Curry is great as the demented clown, the script and direction just don't facilitate him being scary. He just kind of pops up and taunts you for a while. And not about the messed up things in your life, about the most mundane things possible. Like your glasses, or that you're a girl. I don't understand why he doesn't just kill these kids. I know he says they taste better scared but there are several scenes where he just shows up and eats a kid. I guess these ones are special... because ... I don't know. They're sad?

I haven't read the book but I'm a firm believer that you shouldn't have to read a book to enjoy an adaptation of it. I love the premise of It, but it all falls apart pretty quickly. For all the set-up and energy involved in the three hours of screen time, it all gets resolved a little too quickly. I like that they tried to keep Pennywise to the shadows of the series, but they should have kept him way more mysterious in my mind.

Between the repetition, silly scares and shoddy special effects It never really takes off to become anything more than a cheap scares and adults complaining about their emotional problems. Like an artistic interpretation of a Dr. Phil episode.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

White Tulip: Fringe (2008-2013)

Fringe is an ambitious series. Full of wormholes, resets and alternate universes it's the kind of ongoing plot that can make an Observer's head collapse in on itself like a dying star. The basic premise is this: superstar FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is recruited to work in the Fringe division of the bureau, solving unexplainable cases. The pilot episode requires her to get mad scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) out of the loony bin with the help of his estranged son Peter (Joshua "Pacey" Jackson). The first season skips on with the team solving monster-of-the-week type cases, not too dissmilar to the first season of The X Files. The end of season one teases the larger idea of alternate universes that exist paralell to our own and in the later seasons, different timelines emerge and lapse in on themselves. And this is where Fringe became Fringe.

Fringe only aired its series finale about a month ago and I've watched the entire series in that month. At the recommendation of my older brother (in between calling me "Short Bus") and my sister-in-law I started watching the series on a whim. And by the end I was completely won over by Anna Torv. I think it's hard to strong and tough interestingly but she does and I really enjoyed watching her fill out the role. By the second episode John Noble had completely won me over as the bumbling mad and potentially evil Walter. I agree with critics of the show who become frustrated with the notion that Walter has the perfect weapon and/or answer to every conundrum. At some points the series does devolve into the Bishops' Bag of Magical Answers. But Fringe has a lot of heart and humour and I think it successfully merges the two within a sci-fi/horror series and uses science fiction to explore the mysteries of family and love.

While the show invested a significant amount of time into developing its own mythology (the glyphs,  Walternate/Faulivia, Observers, ambering) its main thrust was the relationship between its characters. I think this was most clearly seen with Astrid (aka Astro, Ashcan, Advil) who's character developed from office assistant to full on team member. While it is primarily Olivia, Peter and Walter's show the larger team blended with the core to create a true family dynamic. While Fringe delved into the darkest recesses of science it balances out with a lighter, humourous touch. My main problem with the series is the same as any American length series (appx 22 episodes a season) a lot of it becomes filler between main plot threads and in doing so the plot becomes convoluted and confusing. Had Fringe been forced into a 6-12 episode season (a la British series) I think we would have denser episodes an overall clearer more focused vision of their universe. In the space that Fringe did fill, the show took a lot of chances in tone and style, most notably in their film noir/musical episode, an extended animation sequence and, my favourite, Walter's Monty Python inspired LSD trip.


While Fringe did falter, it did emotional drama better than any of its peers (X Files, Battlestar etc) and I say that, because that was the element that kept me watching and even in that it could go overboard in its sentimentality. For me, Fringe is a show best watched through an avenue like Netflix because it allows you to become engrossed in a show without the stagnant week to week wait. (I know some people like that, but I'm impatient) It also meant that when it came to the series finale I cried. Twice. Both times because of John Noble, because he is amazing and can take wonky dialogue and turn it into something near transcendence. He was able to convey the confusion and all consuming nature of being a parent with a lot of subtlety and intelligence. His performance as Walter Bishop (and Walternate in the alternate universe) is astounding and unparalleled in genre television, and hell, in most television.

Fringe is a flawed show, but it is a show about our humanity. One that posists its characters against the highest levels of science and asks, why is our humanity important if we can achieve all this? Can love conquer all? How far would you go to save your family and is it worth it? All while maintaining a pretty impressive sense of humour. In all the mythology and science created within the show there is a sense of hope that prevails through the makeshift family dynamic of the Fringe team. And it surprisingly more affecting than one would think, perhaps proving that we've needed a show like Fringe for a long time.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Love is a Many Gothic Things - Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

If love never dies, it's bound to get angsty at some points. In Francis For Coppola's version of Dracula, the titular Count is more love-lorn aristocrat than twisted creature of the night. I'm writing about this adaptation on the holiest of holy love days, Anna Howard Shaw Day because in Stoker's original novel, the love story is between Mina and Harker only. So what does the love that won't quit add to the myth of Dracula? Let's find out.

In the added prequel for the film, Dracula is made out to be Vlad the Impaler. Upon his return home from a battle with the Turks he discovers that his beloved wife Elisabetta has committed suicide after receiving a false report of his death. Vlad then denounces the church and stabs a cross which bleeds which is amazing. We skip forward in time to 1897 to meet a young solicitor Johnathon Harker (Keanu Reeves) leaving his beloved fiancee Mina (Winona Ryder) back in London to meet with Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) who has inquired about buying some property. Right now this movie sounds like a 20/20 segment BUT it looks like this:

And this!:

Sooner or later you'll dance with the Reaper.
 So, it's like the best 20/20 segment ever. We encounter Dracula who has an accent that drips like heavy candle wax and a speech pattern somewhere between Yoda and Mr. Miyagi. And I mean that as a compliment. Gary Oldman, along with the costume design, is the best damn thing in this movie. If Oldman is the best thing about this film, Reeves is the funniest. His expressions and line reading are somewhere between bemused and vaguely concerned. During all the craziness at the Dracula homestead, the Count catches a glimpse of a photograph of Mina that Harker has. The Count is certain that Mina is the reincarnation of his beloved Elisabetta. He packs up his coffins, boards a ship for London and makes himself look like a fancy Keith Richards to impress his would be lady-love.

The rest of the film devolves into Dracula following Mina around London and attempting to woo her, but at the same time he manages to turn her best friend the saucy Lucy (Sadie Frost) into a vampire, like a Victorian episode of Jerry Springer. Mina eventually realizes that she is in love with the Count and he begins her transformation into a vampire. Then they go back to his castle to make-out FOREVER. A bunch of men, including Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, follow them to stop Dracula and save Mina. After the initial tussle with the men Dracula is mortally wounded, Van Helsing and Harker allow Mina to take him away. Dracula asks Mina to put him out of his misery, she does so by stabbing him in the heart. As he dies, Mina returned to her human state and the fresco above them (what? you don't have one in your apartment?) changes to show Vlad and Elisabetta ascending to heaven. Awwwwwwwwwwwwww.

Coppola has taken Stoker's classic and changes the story from an adventure to romantic saga. Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct was release the same year also mimics the bizarrely asexual aftertaste of this movie. (Verhoeven's Showgirls perfects this) After all the sex, blood drinking and titillation is done with the movie has no heat left. It's a childish version of sex, all show and no results. Both Dracula and Basic Instinct have been read as warnings in the midst of the AIDS crisis. I don't disagree with this reading but I do think it's a little too on the nose. Dracula is about dangerous love, the kind that changes us and not always for the best.

Lucy, the most overtly sexual character, is practically a cartoon in a corset. The majority of her lines are delivered while flouncing on a bed with her, ahem, cups running over. I enjoy a good Victorian romance because of the restraint. With their permanently buttoned up collars and stiff upper lip, it makes the romance all the more intense. With the overt, almost childish sexuality on display in Dracula it becomes campy rather than romantic. The clearest instance of this, to me anyway, is when Mina finally gives into her desire and wants to drink Dracula's blood. Dracula cuts his chest and as she drinks he proclaims "I do not vant this!" while Mina forcibly continues drinking he lets her and contorts his face as though he's in the midst of sex positions we were never supposed to hear about.

Because of all the weight placed on the love story, the last act feels cobbled together from bits and pieces of the original novel and the ingenious set piece like the race to Castle Dracula are haphazard and confusing. Stoker created a brilliant narrative that included among other things, a love story between Harker and Mina. Apparently that's not enough. The entire storyline becomes centred on Mina and Dracula, to the detriment of all the other elements of the story. The love triangle is so ham-fisted and shoved down our throats that it makes the film into a goody thrill-ride rather than a depiction the full and engaging world that Stoker created.

Love may never die, as the film's tagline would have us believe, but it can make everyone queasy. All this to say, I like this film a lot. It's a failure, but it's a spectacular failure.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Faculty of Horror

Do you wish you could hear the sound of my voice? The ongoing ramblings of my horror addled mind? All in the convenience of your own personal listening device? Well, you're in luck! At the end of 2012 the lovely Andrea "Hellbat" Subissati and I founded The Faculty of Horror podcast. Our goal was to have an analytical and engaging dialogue about all our favourite horror topics. It's as though the coolest papers at a conference have come to life and are talking about horror movies.

Andrea's a good friend of mind and one of the things we initially bonded over was writing about horror films in our post-graduate work. Andrea's Masters thesis was published as the awesome book When There's No More Room in Hell: The Sociology of the Living Dead . While my work in the area dealt with the audience's willingness to believe in the manufactured truth of certain horror films (specifically Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist and The Blair Witch Project). The title for that paper was Scare Tactics: The Real and the Live in Contemporary Horror Cinema, which in turn became the inspiration for this blog.

Our first episode went live in January. It was a compare/contrast of Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974) and John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) and the birth of the slasher genre. Our second episode is now available and just in time for Valentine's Day deals with Fatal Attraction (1987), Fear (1996), how both films deal with the construct of patriarchy and I reveal how Andrea and I are the real-life Mulder and Scully.


So give it a listen won't you? We're on the Modern Superior network, Podomatic, Facebook  and iTunes. You can also reach either myself or Andrea at if you have any comments concerns or complaints. We'll be uploading one podcast a month so keep watching the skies.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

From Hell - Whitechapel (2009-2012)

I've been going through a spat of rediscovering television. I don't have cable so I've been able to search out things that I would have an interest in rather than turning on my TV for the sake of it. At the end of last year, I stumbled on a British detective show called Whitechapel. I was immediately drawn to it because of my lifetime fascination with Jack the Ripper. (fuck Bearenstein Bears, Ripper casebooks are the best thing to fall asleep to) Whitechapel focuses on the police force in that part of London as cases reemerge from the past. It's intelligent, creepy and most importantly human.

Rookie Dectective Inspector Joseph Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones) is put in charge of a cynical and hard boiled squad of dectives in London's east end. With the first case under Chandler's watch a copycat of the Jack the Ripper murders that took place in the same place over a hundred years ago, Whitechapel creates an interesting tension between a historical mystery and a present terror. It questions our need to create stories and narratives in an apathetic time. Are we missing something because we're unwilling to let go of a unsolved mystery? Stuck between those who believe these murders are random and a Ripperologist Edward Buchan (Steve Pemberton) who's convinced that they may be able to catch the Ripper this time, Chandler is stuck between a rock and a mounting pile of dead women.

Whitechapel District circa 1888
 I went on one of the infamous Ripper Walks several years ago and while it was deeply creepy it is also a fascinating example of the evolution of a city. At the turn of the 20th century, Whitechapel was the slummiest slum that ever slummed nowadays the price of homes in the area makes me light headed. As a television series Whitechapel merges the dark past with its new shiny exterior which in turn forces the police to reasses everything they know and suspect.

Initially it is Miles (Phil Davies) a hardened detective on that leads the insurrection against Chandler, believing he doesn't know what the job actually entails. “Every time there’s a stabbing in Whitechapel they come crawling out of the woodwork,” Miles says. “I hate Ripperologists.” While frantically trying to solve the murders as they unfold in the same timeline as a hundred years ago the tensions within the squad build until Chandler finally admonishes his team with “haven’t you heard of showers?” he yells at his tormenters, who are slobs. “Or irons?” Then he adds: “Get yourselves organized. Self-discipline. Self-respect. Deodorant.” I don't think you can have moments of real darkness without real levity. That's what life has and that's what Whitechapel is consistently able to find.

While we may never know who the real Jack the Ripper does, Whitechapel creates a fascinating portrait of a series of murders and the obsession they cause. Balancing atmosphere with black humour, Whitechapel is one of the best detective series out there and if you're curious and can find it here.

Ripper graffiti found in present day Whitechapel