12/30/2009

MAREBITO (A STRANGER FROM AFAR) (2004)

Country: Japan

Genre: Horror

Running Time: 92'

Director: Takashi Shimizu

Cast: Shinya Tsukamoto, Tomomi Miyashita, Kazuhiro Nakahara


GHOUL RATING: *** (3)


Story: Masuoka (Shinya Tsukamoto) is a freelance cameraman craving to understand fear. He obsesses over his footage of a subway suicide and wants to understand the reasons that made one man poke out his eye facing some invisible horror. His investigation leads him to a cavernous underworld beneath Tokyo, where he discovers a beautiful mute girl. He takes her to his home and starts tending to her needs, including her unusual diet, suspecting that she might lead him to the discovery he craves for so much...

Review: For some strange reason, the best Lovecraftian movies are those which are not directly based on his stories and which do not even use his name in advertizing their titles. Remember ALIEN or Carpenter's THE THING? Now, that was some real cosmic terror merged with extravagant creatures and body horror. MAREBITO, equally Lovecraftian in an equally indirect way, offers a different aspect of this author's themes. It is a low key mood piece about an obsessed, alienated individual on an irreversible downward spiral towards doom. It is a mood piece rather than plot-based movie, centered on an alienated psyche rather than on action involving alien beings. If ALIEN and THE THING can be compared to Lovecraft's novellas like 'The Dunwich Horror' or 'The Call of Cthulhu' in their scope and amount of sheer terror, then MAREBITO is more akin to short sharp shocks of stories like 'From Beyond' or 'The Music of Erich Zann'.

At one point our protagonist on his quest ends up way below the city and discovers buildings which he immediately labels 'Mountains of Madness'! But wait, aren't those supposed to be on the South Pole? And isn't it quite a distance from Tokyo? Yes, your geography is right. But, the point is that Lovecraft's inventions have become inseparable parts of the geography of the mind, and their influence on the XX century's pop culture – including Japan's! – is measureless. One of the key reasons that his horror stories could travel so well and so far, especially to Japan, was the psychology and philosophy behind them. Alienation, self-loathing, body-horror, mutation, alien influences, decay of traditional culture, loneliness, perverted sexuality... all those and many other Lovecraft's obsessions are shared by the contemporary Japanese culture. In many regards Lovecraft is more at home in today's Japan than he is in his native America.

And who better to embody an alienated, solitary obsessive than Shinya Tsukamoto, a great director who also happens to be a very good actor. With a nuanced understatement, in a seemingly effortless role, he plays Masuoka as a man detached from the world and its mundane reality, completely devoted to finding ultimate truths in the darkest, nethermost regions of human experience. The nude girl that he discovers in the subterranean world is obviously not 'normal', maybe not even human. Yet he brings her to his apartment, films her with his camera and feeds her blood (in an inspired, darkly humorous touch, from a baby bottle!) and eagerly awaits the final terror whose avatar she is. This is a pure example of Lovecraftian self-destructive, masochistic desire to know, even when the knowledge is that of the darkest reality. For his characters, just like for Masuoka, there is no turning back. The only way is – down, into the abyss.

Filmed on video, in just eight days, with only a couple of actors, on limited, unambitious sets, with very few special effects, MAREBITO achieves a lot by carefully creating the unique mood of a creepy obsession and inevitable doom. Video technique, especially in the shots of Masuoka's camera, adds to the gritty feel of being immersed in a psychotic mind, and once you're there, you do not need elaborate big budget special effects, since 'the mind is a terrible thing to taste'. This does not mean that MAREBITO is without problems. After a stunning first half hour, it becomes somewhat slower once the girl is in the apartment, and numerous great promises are not fulfilled by the end. But, could anyone fulfill them? MAREBITO is at its best with teases and suggestions: it is not about set-pieces, nor is it about stunning vistas of extravagant alien landscapes or about complex transformations of the flesh. It is, more than anything, about the landscape of a very peculiar mind that may have imagined the bulk of what he shared with us as 'reality'. Admittedly, it is disappointing to learn that instead of the Elder Gods perhaps it was mere domestic problems lying behind it all. In any case, be warned: if you expect 'explanations', reason, logic and motivation in their everyday sense, MAREBITO may disappoint you. If you come to it for mood and a trippy experience unlike any other, you'll get your share of existential dread and in-your-skull claustrophobia.

DVD [ NTSC, Region 1 ] : Tartan delivers, again! For a film shot on digital video, the image (in anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1) is sharp and crisp, and the Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 mixes provide a perfect soundscape for a memorable experience. There are very good English and Spanish subtitles, trailers for Tartan's new releases and great extra material: three interviews, clocking at approx. 15 minutes each, with Tsukamoto, Shimizu and Hiroshi Takahashi (the producer). Shimizu is not exactly man of words, and tends to repeat himself a lot. Tsukamoto is obviously the most analytical, and provides most intelligent insights into the plot, character, ideas etc. He is also most considerate: it's so endearing to see him worried that he may not have given sufficient answers. It must be said that the (invisible) interviewers could've done a better job, and the interviews footage is awkwardly raw, unedited, including some gaps and pauses or preparatory and ending comments that should've been cut. All in all, if you're intrigued by this film, this is the DVD to have.

12/28/2009

THE CINEMA OF JOHN CARPENTER: The Technique of Terror

THE CINEMA OF JOHN CARPENTER: The Technique of Terror

Edited by Ian Conrich and David Woods
Wallflower Press, London and New York, 2004
224 pages

DEJAN OGNJANOVIC



John Carpenter has been variously labeled a "maverick", a "horror director", an "auteur", even "the last genre filmmaker in America." Unlike some of his more talkative and self-reflective colleagues like David Cronenberg or George Romero, he has always remained rather tight-lipped when it came to deeper analysis of his motifs, themes and ideas, preferring his movies to speak for themselves and sometimes even humorously downplaying his own status and importance. Yet, he remains the only director whose not one but two titles (HALLOWEEN and THE THING) can rightly claim their place among the top-ten horror films ever made, so we should not really take his word that he's not much more than a hack. Carpenter remains one of the most underrated modern American directors (and, frankly, his films from the past 10 or 15 years did not do much to change his status) but this selection of essays provides a full and comprehensive insight into the best work of this auteur and serves as a final proof of his continuing relevance.


Barry Keith Grant opens the book with an excellent essay 'Disorder in the Universe: John Carpenter and the Question of Genre' which must be one of the most concise and insightful essays I've ever read on Carpenter. This director is viewed in the context of auteur theory, and his "consistent vision" is recognized in his portrayal of "a dark world tainted with evil and corruption in which morality is severely tested and social cohesion crumbles." Especially helpful is Grant's comparison of Carpenter's vision with that of Howard Hawks, his strong influence and role model: it shows numerous Carpenter's departures from the benevolent, optimistic world of Hawks's camaraderie.


David Woods "Us and Them: Authority and Identity in Carpenter's Films" deals with ideology –or, more specifically, the interplay between authority and individual- in the more neglected Carpenter's films like THEY LIVE, MEMOIRS OF THE INVISIBLE MAN and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.


Steve Smith writes about "A Siege Mentality: Form and Ideology in Carpenter's Early Siege Films" concentrating on the early quartet of HALLOWEEN, THE FOG, THE THING and, especially, on ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Smith's close reading of the PRECINCT 13 is especially illuminating as it reveals the complexities and ambiguities that are usually neglected. Smith defends this film from Robin Wood's label of 'regressive' ideological attitude and makes some clever parallels and contrasts to its two main cinematic influences: Hawks's RIO BRAVO and Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

In "Carpenter's Widescreen Style" Sheldon Hall obviously deals with Carpenter's formal elements: the use of Panavision, subjective (first person) vision and omniscient narration, patterns of camera movement, framing and editing, extensive exploitation of the breadth and depth of the anamorphic image, his use of frames within frames and of deep staging without deep focus. Most examples come from one of the greatest and scariest of all horrors, HALLOWEEN, but together with the minute analysis of that film's style Sheldon Hall also provides a very telling context by references to the shooting style of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks – great Carpenter's influences none of whom, however, liked anamorphic photography!


Along the similar lines of formal analysis David Burnand and Miguel Mera write about "The Film Music of John Carpenter", another significant authorial touch by the director who also composed the scores for most of his films.

There are two essays which deal with the main roles Kurt Russel played in four Carpenter's films (ELVIS, THE THING and the two ESCAPES): Robert Shail's "Masculinity, Kurt Russell and the ESCAPE Films" analyzes the tensions between the star's unapologetic right-wing attitude toward machismo, individualism and rebellion and the director's far more complex approach tinged with irony, parody and even nihilism. The previously mentioned essays prove that Carpenter never uses the ready-made material but always imprints it with his own vision, whether he's paying homage, making a remake or a book adaptation. If the author's vision is "extrapolated from the tension between a director's personality and his material" (as Andrew Sarris formulated "auteur theory"), then Kurt Russell can be seen as another such material (like Hawks, Hitchcock, Stephen King, kung-fu, etc.) which becomes reshaped in his hands.


The other essay on this unique director-actor collaboration is "From Elvis to L.A.: Reflections on Carpenter-Russell Films" by Tony Williams. He is more critical of these four films, stating that while they do send up the masculine roles Russell played in other films, they fail to subvert the status quo of the ideology behind such characters. Assuming a leftist position very similar to Robin Wood, Williams criticizes the demonizing of The Other (which, according to Wood's famous claim, in a "progressive" film must be presented as sympathetic and human) and Carpenter's equal suspicion of authorities and revolutionaries, which in the eyes of unmitigated Marxists is seen as an unpardonable nihilism.

"Revisionings: Repetition as Creative Nostalgia in the films of John Carpenter" by Omayra Zaragoza Cruz and Raiford Guins is an interesting essay which deals with remakes, adaptations and sequels in Carpenter's opus viewed in the context of the mass culture, stating that he uses his films to comment on mass culture in a very distinct, even personal manner, as well as on his own position as a filmmaker and film lover. The essay devotes a special spotlight to the films BODY BAGS (where Carpenter had the Crypt-Keeper-like role), IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and VAMPIRES and concludes that "working within repetition, Carpenter thwarts the common expectations and routine acceptance largely associated with the horror film of the 90ies, by returning to the less habituated moments, motifs, themes and styles from the past."


Anna Powell's "Something Came Leaking Out: Carpenter's Unholy Abominations" deals with the occult elements in CHRISTINE, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS, stressing Lovecraft's influence on IN THE MOUTH... and THE THING and providing a solid reading of CHRISTINE (somewhat misplaced in this occult context).

Any collection of essays must have a few clunkers as well, so let's moderate our appraisal of the above mentioned works with a few lines about the three not-so-good additions to this book.

"Killing Time... and Time Again: The Popular Appeal of Carpenter's Horrors and the Impact of THE THING and HALLOWEEN" has the longest title and... little else to offer. This is basically a pointless summary of FANGORIA readers' letters and personal messages about John Carpenter published in this magazine. The essay does not in any way shed a new light on Carpenter (since it mostly deals with infantile comments from FANGORIA's readers) and ends with a shallow, predictable conclusion: "As Carpenter would surely realize, the respect and admiration shown by fans to a given film is the real sign of its cultural value." Yeah, right: messages like this –"Death to D. Cronenberg. Long Live John Carpenter"- surely 'prove' a great cultural influence.


Suzie Young in her ominously titled "Restorative and Destructive: Carpenter and Maternal Authority" quite predictably uses every feminist cliché in the book to "recognize" the pattern of Carpenter's films: "deliverance from the failed homosociality is achieved by mother-goddesses who, as sole parent and originating womb, are both redemptive and appalling and restorative and destructive, enticing and vile." Ms Young sees "mother-figures" in each and every female protagonist in Carpenter, including the virginal Laurie from HALLOWEEN! Cluttered with the tiresome Freudian and Lacanian idiom (not forgetting the obligatory Julia Kristeva!) it goes on and on about the "pre symbolic and pre-Oedipal pandemonium" and "the guilty womb that readily infects".

"A Spook Ride on Film: Carpenter and the Gothic" by Marie Mulvey-Roberts is certainly the worst essay in the book: its shallow parallels and empty claims never coalesce into anything coherent or relevant. For example, the following lines seem to indicate a confluence between the female protagonist and the evil force: "Carpenter's fog is a phantasmagoric fabric of fear heralded by the female disc jockey in the lighthouse. Her voice over the radio waves is similar to the fog in that it too can penetrate walls and barriers." Yes, and – so what? This indication that Adrienne Barbeau's character is some kind of accomplice to the fog is never returned to. It was silly to begin with, but why stressing it in the first place? Of course, in this misguided feminist misreading, "in a film in which there are no women, the Thing is the embodiment of the absent mother"! The blood on Kelly's face (in THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS) "actually represents a displacement of the afterbirth"! Unsupportable claims abound: "The proliferation of the Thing is a variation on the solitary male propagation brought about by Victor Frankenstein," Ms Mulvey-Roberts preaches, completely forgetting that Dr Frankenstein was an active creator responsible for his creature, while the scientists in THE THING have no responsibility for the Thing propagating there whatsoever! This laugh-riot is full of statements like this one, about THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS: "Kelly, the female acolyte delivering the deliverer is, at the same time, the actress Susan Blanchard, who is facilitating the film director's vision and its materialization via the cinema screen." This claim of the similarity between the director and the Prince of Darkness is driven to ridiculous heights (or lows?) in the essay's conclusion which must be seen to be believed.


Luckily, these three essays fail to significantly undermine the prevalent seriousness and importance of the book whose authors more often than not manage to provide a fresh insight and lucid reading of the well-known but still not-quite-understood classics. The bulk of the essays are certainly well worth your time as they manage to show John Carpenter as a far more complex and potent filmmaker than many would be ready to admit. An Interview with John Carpenter, conducted by Ronald V. Borst, ends the book on a high note, revealing from the first-hand perspective numerous valuable facts about Carpenter's origins, influences, development, style, themes etc.

Rounded up by the minute filmographies and a vast bibliography for further reading, augmented by well chosen stills from the movies, THE CINEMA OF JOHN CARPENTER is an excellent introduction for the novices and equally helpful elaboration for the initiated.

12/24/2009

RUBBER'S LOVER (1997)



Shozin Fukui has a new film!!!

Well, sadly, it's only a 30' short, but damn, it's 30' of Shozin Fukui madness!

You can read the film's review here, and on this blog this is a perfect opportunity to be reminded of his two major feature length films!

Country: Japan

Genre: SF Horror

Running Time: 90'

Director: Shozin Fukui

Cast: Kawase Youta, Nao, Ameya Norimizu, Saitou Sousuke


GHOUL RATING: ***(*) 4-



Story: A group of (literally) underground researchers use human guinea pigs, and subject them to extreme noise, pain and lack of oxygen in order to awaken their primal energies - to make them psychic, or some such. When their funding is in danger, they become desperate and start doing even crazier things than before in order to produce results – which only creates more mayhem.


Review: Key phrases: cyberpunk; mad scientists; clandestine operations; secret powers of human body and mind; drugs; nudity; rape; gore; evisceration; mutation; lots of screaming… How could you possibly go wrong with these? This is what the Japanese do best, and Shozin Fukui has already proved himself in the similar vein with his previous PINNOCHIO 964 (also available from Unearthed).


RUBBER'S LOVER could be mistaken for an earlier work, since it's in black and white, and is more extreme and experimental than its predecessor, but that's Fukui for you: while other similar directors, like Shinya TETSUO Tsukamoto, moved from grungy underground towards mainstream, Fukui's second effort is even weirder than PINOCCHIO. While PINOCCHIO had a reasonable semblance of a more or less linear plot and a sympathetic protagonist to guide you through it, RUBBER'S LOVER is lacking in that regard. Whether you take it for a more 'avant-garde', praiseworthy approach, or a fault which makes viewing experience more difficult, depends on your ability to enjoy a non-linear structure in which motivations and reactions of characters are not really explained, and a plot in which a lot of the stuff comes out of the left field. Personally, I like to be surprised, but surprise is based on expectations; RUBBER'S LOVER, however, at the very beginning sets its main strategy as 'Expect the unexpected'. For some viewers, this would translate as 'Anything goes' kind of plot.


Still, the things that go on in this film are mostly intriguing and weird enough to captivate an open-minded viewer and challenge the most jaded sensibilities, which is always a good thing. The crisp black and white photography provides a lot of eye candy to equal the best parts of TETSUO: the cyber-gear and techno-paraphernalia intermingle with the screaming human flesh which sizzles and smokes in pain (and pleasure as well) and are treated as equally fetishistic as the more conventional sights of torn clothes and writhing naked bodies.



More erotic and more perverse than PINOCCHIO 964, RUBBER'S LOVER still lacks the emotional punch that goes with such a stock device as 'a sympathetic protagonist', and the ending is even more frustratingly cryptic and hermetic than in Fukui's first film. Also, the sound design is pretty rudimentary and the sparsely used music score leaves a lot to be desired; it is passable, but with a subject matter like this, and the director's background in the musical underground, one would hope for at least the melodic stuff of Chu Ichikawa if not the downright sonic assault of a project like THE DISSECTING TABLE.


At least as a director Fukui hasn't lost his punk sensibilities in his second feature, and he's back with lots of quick cuts, weird angles and extreme close-ups as well as his trade-mark: a hysteria of almost incessant screaming of all grimacing characters. One would expect at least the scientists to be more restrained and reasonable, but the ones you find in this film are the closest cinema progeny of Dr Benway, the amoral doctor from the novels of William Burroughs. And, while we're at Burroughs, one should also mention welcome outbursts of dead-pan humor, in lines such as 'Rectal injection for immediate effect!' or 'Torture sways records – Stay to low-tech stuff!' There are many visual jokes as well, the best of them being a cyclopean syringe which would scare off an elephant, used to inject ether into (mostly) unwilling subjects.

RUBBER'S LOVER is a thoroughly satisfying example of Japanese underground cinema and provides an inevitable dose of their idiosyncratic weirdness for all those already addicted to such material. If you're new to this kind of filmmaking, maybe you should start with slightly more accessible stuff like the already mentioned TETSUO, or Fukui's own PINOCCHIO 964, and see if you can take it. Then come for more.

DVD [ NTSC, Region 1 ] : Although RUBBER'S LOVER was originally filmed on 16 mm, the video transfer (in original format of 1:33 : 1) makes it look as perfect as can be. The same goes for the Dolby Digital 2.0 sound which provides the maximum the original recording could produce. The supplements include the second part of the interview with the director (in which he explains that this film was made in black and white solely because the rubber suit did not film well in color!), trailers for other Unearthed Films goodies, and another short film. This time it's GERORISUTO (which translates as 'Vomit Terrorist', or something like that). It's much shorter than CATERPILLAR on the PINOCCHIO 964 DVD, but it may not be short enough for those not able to enjoy a prolonged vomit sequence, even more repellent here than the one in PINOCCHIO's subway (since it's filmed in broad daylight here).


12/22/2009

PINOCCHIO 964 (1991)

Country: Japan

Genre: Sci-Fi / Horror

Running Time: 97'

Director: Shozin Fukui

Cast: Hage Suzuki, Onn Chan, Kyoko Hara, Koji Kita, Ranyaku Mikutei

GHOUL RATING: ***(*) 4-

Story: A discarded sex-droid with erased memory roams the streets of Tokyo until he meets Himiko, a strange girl with binoculars who also suffers from a memory loss. Together they go to her dark, ramshackle room, where she tries to teach him speech and help remember his past. At the same time, the crazy sex-droid constructor sends out his goons to recover ‘Pinocchio’… Then Himiko starts acting REAL weird and tries to (literally) enchain the droid. But no chains can stop him once HE starts acting REAL-REAL weird and rushing to meet his maker…


Review: PINOCCHIO 964 is a delicious piece of weirdness the likes of which you’ll hardly ever find west of Japan. It belongs to a typically Japanese kind of cyberpunk which, unlike its American counterparts (ranging from BLADE RUNNER to THE MATRIX), is light on budget, effects and gloss, but heavy on the whole ‘punk’ part of the affair. You might actually say that the Japanese put ‘punk’ back into ‘cyberpunk’. And punk means: a lot of dirt, grit, bad taste, nihilism, exaggeration, speed, noise… Which is a good and healthy thing, and it brings this subgenre back to the basics as expounded by William (Neuromancer) Gibson.

Another distinction: while the American films of this subgenre are often SFX extravaganzas using a lot of action film’s trademarks, the Japanese ones usually verge on another, appropriately bleaker genre – horror. As such, they are much more body-conscious and far more existential in their approach to the genre, which means that their western roots, if any, can be found primarily in the early works of David Cronenberg (especially SCANNERS and VIDEODROME). In PINOCCHIO 964 one can also recognize bits from David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD, while the screaming frenzy in the later part of the movie seems to build upon the insanity of A. Zulawsky’s POSSESSION. Shozin Fukui, in the interview supplemented on the DVD disc, admits that POSSESSION is one of his all time favorites, which is more than obvious even without his explicit statement.


PINOCCHIO 964 starts with a bang: a flash of quick cuts shows the titular character in the arms of two writhing naked women, a drill to his head (to erase his memory) and him being dragged into the street by a sexy ‘nurse’. Slim, pale and bald (save for a small patch of hair in the front), in white hospital clothes, he’s obviously a lost soul, a stranger in a strange land. He’s immediately recognized as such by Himiko, a girl who’s making some kind of a map so as not to be lost in the city. Their encounter takes place on a crowded sidewalk in a scene which is pure guerilla filmmaking – with real passersby around them instead of stuntmen and extras. Fukui obviously likes to use (and provoke) his fellow citizens: later in the film, there is a scene in which Pinocchio is running amuck down the crowded city streets, screaming with his bloodied mouth and dragging chains behind him, while the confused Tokyo citizens look on.

Pure punk, isn’t it? Or perhaps this attitude is best exemplified when Himiko goes crazy in the subway and starts vomiting copiously for interminable minutes, in a scene that is obviously inspired by the famous Isabelle Adjani going berserk in the subway of POSSESSION. It doesn’t get longer and more explicit than this, so - be warned! The film is relatively light on gore, and violence is equally directed towards the viewer as it is towards the characters in the film: it is done through flashy editing, tilted framing, close-ups of screaming distorted faces and a lot of noise. The final 20 minutes or so consist of a long frantic running down the streets and alleys -TETSUO-style- with a speed that may get you dizzy, especially if you enhance the viewing with any substance heavier than a fruit juice.


This is a film pretty light on plot, and even the little there is – is not hammered into your skull the Hollywood way. You may or may not ‘get’ all the characters, their histories and connections on first viewing, but – here’s the good news: this is definitely a highly enjoyable and rewatchable film, provided you’re into this kind of unconventional filmmaking in the first place. PINOCCHIO 964 is, more than anything else, a pure emotion recorded on film, and the emotion is: rage, anger, frustration, confusion, alienation, a sense of being betrayed and lost. Hage Suzuki, as Pinocchio, is perfect in conveying this through his body language and expressive face, and Shozin Fukui is always there to capture and edit it to a maximum effect. If I’m to look for some faults, I might say that music could’ve been a tad better, that a little bit more gore wouldn’t hurt it, and that the final showdown could’ve been more explosive and cathartic. But, except the last complaint, these are minor faults which do not hurt the film in any noticeable way. If you’re into stuff like ERASERHEAD, VIDEODROME, POSSESSION and, of course, TETSUO – then PINOCCHIO 964 is definitely for you.

DVD [ NTSC, Region 1 ]

After 13 years of cult status and second-hand fame, this rarely seen gem can finally be enjoyed on something other than a poor VHS copy. Thanks to Unearthed Films, PINOCCHIO 964 is presented on a quality DVD, in full-screen and with 2.0 Dolby Digital sound. The extras include a short film CATERPILLAR (a slightly overlong, but intriguing outburst of punk energy: no plot, but a lot of images to assault the viewer) and an interview with the director –a quiet, almost shy-looking fellow who does not explain more than his film does, but still gives a valuable insight into his creative strategies and provides some funny anecdotes as well.

12/20/2009

CTHULHU LIVES!

When Lovecraft wrote about them, you didn't believe him? You thought: "Meh, that's just some horror writer inventing stuff!"

Well, THINK AGAIN!

(click on the pics to see 'em BIGGER!)



Spectacular deep sea pictures taken in Antarctica have revealed waters teeming with life.

Staff at the British Antarctic Survey captured the images as part of a project to explore biodiversity in the Bellingshausen Sea.

"Few people realise just how rich in biodiversity the Southern Ocean is — even a single trawl can reveal a fascinating array of weird and wonderful creatures as would be seen on a coral reef," said research team leader David Barnes.

NOW LOOKE HERE!

Octopuses have been captured on camera using coconut shells as disguises and for protection, astonishing the Australian scientists who made the discovery.

Footage shot off Indonesia shows an octopus crawling along the ocean floor with two coconut shell halves suctioned to its underside, behaviour which biologists describe as "bizarre".

The octopus then reassembles the coconut and hides inside it, confirming the species as a tool-carrying animal, according to National Geographic.

Researchers from Melbourne's Museum Victoria filmed 20 veined octopuses carrying the coconut shells that were nearly twice as big as their 8cm bodies.

VIDEO, HERE:

http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/983859/octopuses-using-coconut-shells-as-tools

IA, IA, Cthulhu Fthagn! Ph'nglui mglw'nfah Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!

12/16/2009

ON EVIL GROUNDS (Auf bösem Boden, 2007)

ON EVIL GROUNDS

(Auf bösem Boden, 2007)

Directed by Peter Koller

Starring: Aleksandar Petrovic, Kari Rakkola, Birgit Stauber


GHOUL RATING: ** (2)


Romeo and Juliet – a couple that has a very odd perception of their relationship – decide to buy a loft situated in a remote and run-down factory. Don't we all dream of just such places for ourselves? Unfortunately, the secret owner of the factory, and his buddy, the real-estate agent, turn out to be sadistic serial killers (aren't they all?) in the habit of capturing and torturing young and innocent couples. Why? Because they're sick bastards, that's why! Too bad Romeo and Juliet are everything but docile victims…


In John Guare's play 'Six Degrees of Separation' a character wonders: "Why is it nowadays that imagination is replaced by style?" That's the same question I had in mind while watching ON EVIL GROUNDS, a flick definitely NOT made for those who frequent theatre.


Of course, there's nothing wrong with the 'style over substance' approach: there are some auteurs who made entire careers out of it, like, say, Italian horror-maestro Dario Argento. Still, something tells me that Peter Koller would prefer to be compared to some lower-level purveyors of 'stylish' violent flicks, like Robert Rodriguez or Guy Ritchie. And, to be frank, ON EVIL GROUNDS is not too far from their kind of filmmaking: violence is 'fun', violence is 'cool', bad-ass characters are so sexy, so let's cram as many tough-guys and sleazebags into one movie and have them beat and shoot each other to death in ways as spectacular as the budget would allow.


But, one of the problems of this particular flick is that there was no budget in sight, so the director had to make do with only three main characters, plus four or five side characters, all of it confined to one cheap location. Not the most spectacular set up, indeed, but hey, guess what: Tom and Jerry chased each other through just a couple of rooms, that was it, and still it was fun to watch them beat each other. Inventiveness and gleeful sadism were quite sufficient for entertainment even within a limited setting. Now, Mr. Koller describes his movie with a tag-line "Sergio Leone meets Tom and Jerry." But would you care to watch a cartoon in which Jerry is captured for the 4/5 of the running time, while Tom can't think of anything better than to punch him (just once!) with a crowbar and do some innocuous target practice on his head? That's what happens here: Bald Romeo (Aleksandar Petrovic) is dug into the ground up to his neck, and spends most of the time cursing and grimacing like there's no tomorrow. He just doesn't know when to shut his mouth: it's wide open even while the psycho (literally) pisses into his face!


So, our 'hero' (previously seen to be equally despicable as the psycho) is immobile for the most of the flick. The psycho (Kari Rakkola) is woefully unimaginative in his 'torturing' ways, and no budget can be blamed for the poor imagination. Julia doesn't do much, either. Her main scene will be funny to you only if you find the rape funny, as Koller seems to. First she's shown teasing the psycho ('She was asking for it!'), and when he finally takes her from behind and starts humping, he's groaning like a pig while Julia is making 'funny' faces and director accompanies all of that with some 'funny' music. Ho-ho-ho! Your belly will hurt with laughing! (And if so, you know who you are!)

OK, maybe Koller had to be economical with his leads and kept them for the end. How about some funny torture porn with those side-characters? Not here, kids. Mr. Koller is cheating at his own game: he was teasing us with the sight of two previously captured and bloodied hippies in chains. You expected some SAW-like contraptions? Or at least Tom and Jerry contraptions for their demise? SPOILER: No way; they're dispatched with two measly bullets, and that's all. Within 30 seconds the director kills-off 3 out of 4 cannon-fodder 'characters' with the oh-so-boring gunshots! END OF SPOILER!


We're promised a blood-soaked orgy of sadism: what we get is an orgy of extreme close-ups of cartoonish grimaces, 'funny' noises, uninspired, misguided and/or just not funny gags. All of this infantile mess may be amusing to (pre)teens with disturbed behavior (psychopaths in the making), but I'd find it a really sad testament to the world we live in if I heard of a grown up person who enjoyed ON EVIL GROUNDS. It manages the rare trick to both suck and blow, i.e. to be at the same time underwhelming and too exaggerating. It's not good at what it tries to be (violent, brutal, offensive and funny), and what it tries to be is not that admirable in the first place.


On the positive side, Koller shows off a solid talent for direction, what with all those fancy odd angles, close-ups, crazy editing and the stuff. His short film, SKRYPT announced a talented filmmaker who cares more about polished surfaces (excellent photography) than about anything remotely resembling substance, and his debut feature, ON EVIL GROUNDS is a further proof of his strengths and weaknesses. As for the Leone part in that tag-line: are you kidding? Let's just forget that one of the greatest film directors of all times was even mentioned in connection with this Austrian psycho-flick, and stick to the Tom and Jerry part instead. The amount of talent exhibited here is quite sufficient to be used as a calling card for Hollywood. With his inclination towards cartoons, perhaps Koller might be an ideal director of the likes of SCOOBY DOO 3 or GARFIELD 2. Good luck!



12/14/2009

ART OF THE DEVIL (2004)

Country: Thailand

Genre: Horror

Running Time: 95'

Director: Thanit Jitnukul

Cast: Supaksork Chaimongkon, Arisa Will Somchai, Sathutham Krongthong...


GHOUL RATING: **(*) 3-


Story: A cute girl is unceremoniously dumped by her lover when her pregnancy is discovered. The lover just happens to be married and very rich. He agrees to pay a large sum for her abortion, but later proceeds to invite a bunch of friends to rape her (while he shoots all of it with his digital camera). The reasoning for this? 'To get his money's worth', of course. And also, to introduce himself as a hateful scumbag so that he can become a perfect victim for her revenge by means of black magic. The girl pays a witch-doctor to put a curse on the whole family, but their bloody deaths are only the beginning. When the family's cousins take over the mansion, she wants it for herself, and places a new curse on all of them...


Review: Thai film industry seems to have discovered that horror flicks sell well, and in recent years this country has produced a number of popular titles. This trend was started by the great success of NANG-NAK (1999) and also includes titles like BANGKOK HAUNTED (2001), RAHTREE: FLOWER OF THE NIGHT (2004), SARS WARS (2004), and SHUTTER (2005). Coming from a country with no rich tradition of horror films, these admittedly provide an exotic flavor to jaded fans of Asian horror, and as exotic spices – they deliver. However, viewed in the wider context of other Asian countries' horror output, it must be said that Thai horrors still lag far behind the Japanese and South Korean ones, and are only now approaching the levels achieved by Hong Kong productions from twenty years ago. The technical level of recent Thai horrors is quite decent, and above the cheap Hong Kong flicks from the '80-ies, but Thai horrors have a lot to learn from their Japanese and Korean brethren.

The main problem that bogs down most of Thai horrors is their over-reliance on melodrama. And melodrama is the last thing you expect or want in something advertized as a splatter. Talking about advertizing: ART OF THE DEVIL has an excellent cover, somewhat similar to the holy simplicity of SAW 2, and in the same manner suggests that 'oh, yes, there WILL be blood'. Razors and nails are very prominent in the packaging (DVD covers, posters, etc.). That's cool, but the problem is that such advertizing creates a somewhat inaccurate expectation. Because, what you really get in this movie is 90 minutes of trite melodrama of the lowest order (think of cheap Latino-American daytime soap operas) and only about 2 minutes of gore.

The characters, their motivation, their behavior, their dialogue: pure soap opera! If you're foolish enough to watch the film with the option of English dub (instead of Thai with English subtitles) then its cheapness becomes even more prominent. The structure of the plot is strikingly unoriginal, and boils down to: 'let's have some people do unimaginably cruel things to someone so that they could brutally revenge for the rest of the movie'. That's where 'black magic' comes into the plot, and provides the DEVIL's main set-pieces and ONLY reasons anyone might want to watch it. Said set-pieces include a guy cutting open his leg because he suspects something's crawling under his skin, and the much-advertized scene in which another one vomits razors. Fine idea, if you ask me, but the execution is disappointingly poor: all you see is some blood coming from his mouth, and then in the pool of blood you briefly spot dozens of razors. The way it is shot, edited and acted, however, does not even try to convey the brutality and pain involved: it's as flat as can be, and therefore misses the opportunity to be truly memorable. Luckily, there is at least one occasion in which the yuck factor is milked to its full potential. In the middle of the movie there is a scene in which a guy is taken to the hospital because he vomits worms. Medical science fails to prevent 9000 eels (according to the director's statement in the 'Making of' feature) to erupt from this guy's stomach and to ooze all over the white floor. His sister arrives just in time to witness slimy things coming out of his body: she slips and falls into the writhing mass of real, live, no-CGI eels covered with blood and slime...

ART OF THE DEVIL is Thanit Jitnukul's first genre work, and it's obvious that he's not familiar with it enough to provide genuine scares. The tone of the film is misjudged, with too much triviality regarding shallow characters going through the motions of their melodramatic actions, and there is no real sense of darkness and doom hanging over their heads which would make those 'drama' scenes palatable and atmospheric. The film is shot in a flat, uninspired way, the scenes are over-lit and photography is unimaginative, merely functional, like in some old made-for-TV flick. Instead of scares, at least this ART delivers some fine shocks, one of which including the inevitable 'a person unexpectedly hit and run over by an out-of-nowhere vehicle' scene – but with the difference that the person hit is a pregnant woman. You won't see it any time soon in an American film. If that's your thing in the first place. In any case, the make up effects are quite passable, while occasional CGI is poor enough to be obvious but not too poor to destroy the experience. All in all, ART OF THE DEVIL can deliver some low-level fun, but it's obvious that Thai horror must abandon melodrama and start honestly looking for its dark and sick heart the way that Japanese and Korean horror flicks are doing so efficiently! Real horror must be creepy in its non-horror scenes as well in order to work, whereas if you cut out the 3-5 minutes of horror in this flick – you're left with 90 minutes of a cheap, predictable soap opera with laughable superstitions thrown in.

DVD [NTSC, Region 1]: The package is nice, and suggests a class that the film itself does not really have: the cardboard slip case protects the regular plastic one, and they both prominently feature images that are NOT in the movie. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; the image is not very sharp, but it appears that it's the way it was shot and has nothing to do with the transfer. The sound options are: Thai 2.0, English 2.0 and English 5.1, but I really would not advise the English dub: the voice 'acting' is atrocious and will destroy the little horror you might otherwise feel watching this. The subtitles of the film itself are OK, but those on the extra documentary are not too good (their English is poor, but they are legible and understandable enough). This 30 minute documentary has a cheesy host talking in front of a temple with the director and three female stars, but there is very little valuable insight. The most endearing part is that, whenever someone expresses their opinion about black magic in this made-for-Thai-TV promo material, there is a Thai caption at the bottom of the screen which says: 'Please, use your own judgment.' Other extras include the film's original trailer (sadly, there's no trailer for part 2!), and also trailers for other recent Tokyo Shock titles: SISTERS, CURSED, KIREI, and ONE MISSED CALL. You also have the option of 'scene access', but its menu is rather poor, with close ups of faces which give you no idea about the content of a particular scene. To sum up: the flick is average, but can be interesting to some viewers; the DVD is a very good presentation of it, so - 'Please, use your own judgment.'

12/08/2009

THE CINEMA OF DAVID CRONENBERG: FROM BARON OF BLOOD TO CULTURAL HERO



THE CINEMA OF DAVID CRONENBERG: FROM BARON OF BLOOD TO CULTURAL HERO

by Ernest Mathijs

(Wallflowers, 2008; The Directors' Cuts Series)


Dejan Ognjanović


David Cronenberg rose from the gutter of the Canadian backwater exploitation cinema (his "Baron of Blood" phase) to the red carpets of the most prestigious film festivals in the world (his "cultural hero" phase). As he started moving away from the former, almost imperceptibly, towards the latter (beginning in the mid-80ies with THE DEAD ZONE and his commercially most successful, THE FLY), wider audiences started noticing him. With wider viewers came wider (potential) readers, too, so in the past 10-15 years we've seen a virtual subgenre in the cinema studies: books about David Cronenberg. It also includes the books which feature his films prominently, though not exclusively, being devoted to such fashionable topics like "body", "gender", "queer studies", "post-human" etc.


Let's stick to the ones solely about "The King of Venereal Horror" – here's a brief selection: THE SHAPE OF RAGE: THE FILMS OF DAVID CRONENBERG by Piers Handling and Academy Of Canadian Cinema, 1983; CRONENBERG ON CRONENBERG edited By Chris Rodley, 1992; ORGANISCHER HORROR: DIE FILME DES DAVID CRONENBERG by Almut Oetjen, 1993; DAVID CRONENBERG: A DELICATE BALANCE by Peter Morris, 1994; THE MODERN FANTASTIC: THE FILMS OF DAVID CRONENBERG by Michael Grant, 2000; DAVID CRONENBERG : LA BEAUTÉ DU CHAOS by Géraldine Pompon and Pierre Véronneau, 2003; DAVID CRONENBERG: INTERVIEWS WITH SERGE GRUNBERG by Serge Grunberg, 2005; THE ARTIST AS MONSTER: THE CINEMA OF DAVID CRONENBERG by William Beard, 2006; DAVID CRONENBERG: AUTHOR OR FILMMAKER? by Mark Browning, 2007. Quite a pile, n'est-ce pas?


And, of course, without Cronenberg's movies titles like THEY CAME FROM WITHIN: A HISTORY OF CANADIAN HORROR FILM by Caelum Vatnsdal would be quite pointless (and empty). Cronenberg has rightly become synonymous not only with Canadian horror film, but with Canadian cinema itself. In many ways his films are the epitome of modern horror: a thinking man's visceral studies of the human condition. As for the books on him, the best one still remains CRONENBERG ON CRONENBERG, a selection of Cronenberg's interviews where, instead of the usual wise-ass academic jargon, you get all you need to know about these films, from the horse's mouth. As it turns out, Cronenberg is not only a great filmmaker, but also a very literate, clever, witty and analytical talker, and he is not reluctant to delve into the meanings and ideas of his films (unlike some other weirdo directors like, say, David Lynch or Takashi Miike). While no artist's "explanation" of his films should be taken as the last word on the subject, the depth and consistency of Cronenberg's interviews largely undermines the necessity for so many books on him. Wanna know what THE BROOD was all about? Talk to The Man, don't take the mediator's words for it. All you need to know is in CRONENBERG ON CRONENBERG already, where it is said clearly, succinctly, with no vague bull nor tiresome references to what some other critic has written. It's the essence.


Anyway, to this viable sub-industry within the academia another item is added now: THE CINEMA OF DAVID CRONENBERG: FROM BARON OF BLOOD TO CULTURAL HERO by Ernest Mathijs. Mr. Mathijs may be known to some cinephiles as co-editor of ALTERNATIVE EUROPE; EUROPEAN EXPLOITATION AND UNDERGROUND CINEMA (New York/ London: Columbia University Press/ Wallflower Press, 2004 – with Xavier Mendik) and also of Wallflower's CULTOGRAPHIES series of books, reviewed on this site. No stranger to the cult cinema, Mathijs devotes a whole book to one of those directors who (re)defined the term "cult". The key question is, of course: what's the angle? Does it bring anything new to the table already cluttered with books on Cronenberg?


The methodology used in this book is best described as a combination of reception studies and textual analysis. Actually, the stress is on the former. What it means is that this study is not so much about the author's interpretation of Cronenberg's output as it is his interpretation of other people's interpretations of it. This doesn't mean that Mathijs himself doesn't indulge in close readings of each and every Cronenberg project ever made (including the short ones, made for TV ones, even his cameo appearances in other people's movies), because he does. Most of his plot overviews are pretty insightful, and may draw the attention to some important details, meanings or connotations that even the most devoted fans may have missed. But just when you get a good starting point for the analysis of a film, and start expecting more, and deeper, what you get instead are pages after pages of what other critics said about the film in question. One thing cannot be denied: this book is meticulously well researched! One gets the impression that Mr. Mathijs has read every article, review, essay and book ever written about Cronenberg's films (no small task there!) as there are copious references to virtually all of them.


This impression is validated by Mathijs himself, who admits that in 1992 he turned his fascination with this director into a research project. He started researching the reception of Cronenberg's films when he wrote his MA thesis in the Film and Visual Culture degree at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, which discussed how Cronenberg's films seemed to attract auteurist interpretations, and how many critics elevate him to the status of artist. In 1996, he started working on a PhD. research project that went further in researching the reception of Cronenberg's films. In 4 years Mathijs analyzed over 1000 pieces of writing on Cronenberg's films, from 8 countries. They included every book and academic article written on Cronenberg, and numerous interviews, reviews, editorial comments, and letters. The PhD. dissertation was validated summa cum laude in May 2000. That's all very commendable; however, the problem is that those thousands of texts are largely nonsense, or, at best, misguided and superficial.

Having filled his head with all that baloney, Mathijs occasionally has the trouble providing a meaningful interpretation of his own. He especially has trouble with Cronenberg's earliest and most unconventional films, which are often reduced to simpleminded readings. For example, is this what SHIVERS is about? "It represents a revolution not in its effects or goals – for that would still invite a moral question – but its pragmatics: what succeeds in overthrowing an order, and who benefits?" (p. 35) And this revolutionary talk goes on and on: "One cannot help think that the sheer violence and distress involved in the infection – the forceful rape-like penetration of other's bodies – acts against the effectiveness of the revolution. Even if its procedures are effective, its methods may destroy what is supposed to be rescued." (p.37) Bogged down in the quagmire of over-intellectualization, Mathijs forces SHIVERS -this relatively straightforward piece of ingeniously vivid bio-metaphysics- into a far more limited and pointless political reading. It is evidenced even further when RABID is, basically, reduced to an allegory of the "October crisis" of 1970. in Quebec, and very little else is said about the layers of meaning inherent to that film other than production details (budget, shooting, reception, etc.). Placing SHIVERS and RABID in the context of the cultural climate of the 1970-ies and the state of horror genre at the time is done rather ingeniously (pp.42-43) but, sadly, his analysis of the films themselves leaves a lot to be desired.


THE BROOD, that most controversial (and complicated) of Cronenberg's early films also remains largely under-analyzed: instead of his own stance, Mathijs mostly deals with the queer and feminist nonsense written by Robin Wood and Barbara Creed which accused this film as a misogynistic pamphlet about a man suppressing his wife's rights within the family. Mathijs points that Frank (BROOD's main character) is a questionable type himself, but does not tell us what to make of the whole story he's part of. Instead, off we go into the far safer field of regurgitated theory about "the cult of horror" which started rising in the late 1970-ies and early 1980-ies that BROOD became part of. Always readier to jump at a political reading if the film offers even half a chance for that, Mathijs does not so much interpret SCANNERS as he labels it a conspiracy thriller which "swaps intimacy for spectacle" (p.89). Instead of dealing with its themes and ideas, Mathijs is more comfortable retelling (admittedly interesting, but mostly well-known) details about that film's most famous money-shot (the exploding head), special effects and, of course, the reception of the film.


VIDEODROME and THE DEAD ZONE are, predictably, analyzed in terms of politics and paranoia. At one point Mathijs claims that "VIDEODROME is the quintessential, comprehensive Cronenberg – the crux to cracking the code of the 'Cronenberg Project'" (p.105) This alliterative KKK sentence might be funny in a FANGORIA article, but it is a bit out of place in this academic study. What's even worse, the text which follows never really justifies this superlative claim and thus the 'Cronenberg Project' remains a code largely uncracked and uncomprehended. Oh, well, at least VIDEODROME made "an almost prophetic reference to reality television" (p.110).

Cronenberg's best two films, THE FLY and DEAD RINGERS, are practically begging the feminist nut heads to project their "theories" on them, and so of course, Mathijs quotes Barbara Creed's gonzo understanding of these two films representing "womb envy: the inability of men to come to terms with the superlative reproductive abilities. Frustration over this ability manifests itself in extreme explorations of the human body... etc. etc." (p.138). For Mathijs, THE FLY and DEAD RINGERS are about the modern system of health care and misguided ways of today's medicine and "the intricate connections between sex roles, health and commerce" (p.147). He wastes several pages on those who read the AIDS metaphor into THE FLY – only to negate them with a crystal clear quote from Cronenberg himself, who put them to rest convincingly: "AIDS is a metaphor for something else... (THE FLY) is about death as most horror films are... I'm really thinking of it as growing old" (quoted on p.150).


But even Croneberg's quoted protests against political readings of his films do not stop the author of this book. Consequently, he doesn't devote much time nor effort to the anthropology, deep psychology, philosophy and metaphysics of Cronenberg's body horror; it's always far easier to rely on the currently fashionable politics. Indeed, very little is said about the archetypal, universal appeal of Cronenberg's best films. Burroughs's reference to an Evil waiting for the settlers in America is "read" as a criticism of American foreign policy and colonialism. NAKED LUNCH and M. BUTTERFLY are viewed as "social comments". CRASH is too open for interpretation for Mathijs to even try one. Instead, he deals with scandal-mongers and shallow-brains who clamored for banning that film. The references to other artists, like Kafka, Nabokov and Beckett are merely quoted as existent (with numerous references to those who spotted the similarities) – but are not explored nor convincingly analyzed in this book.

Of course, Mathijs is on a much safer ground with Cronenberg's most obvious, simple-minded recent films like SPIDER, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and EASTERN PROMISES. Since their author himself intended them to be ambiguity-free, linear, non-provocative exercises in obviousness, they can readily be seen as "about reassessing values embedded in family traditions and habits" (p.226). "The topicality of these forces in American society makes both films cultural markers of our time" (p.227). Just like Tom Mes reduced the complexities and ambiguities of Takashi Miike to the social aspect of Japanese society today in his AGITATOR book, in a similar manner Ernest Mathijs placed too strong a stress on the societal topicalities of Cronenberg's multilayered oeuvre thus successfully pushing back precisely those other topics which made the 'Cronenberg Project' unique and unparalleled. His analysis, although not without its limited merits, makes Cronenberg look like a mere Atom Egoyan on LSD. But he is so much more.


To conclude: well-researched and multi-referenced, solidly supported and illustrated, THE CINEMA OF DAVID CRONENBERG: FROM BARON OF BLOOD TO CULTURAL HERO by Ernest Mathijs is a study whose main value lies in exploring the reception (and misconceptions) of Cronenberg's films, but has very little to add to clarifying them and enabling a better understanding of their essence. It tells you how and where they were filmed; what the budgets were; what their plots are; what some critics wrote about them; and what societal concerns can be projected on them (AIDS, gender, homosexuality, feminism, media, politics, paranoia, family, etc.). What it doesn't tell you is: what, exactly, IS the 'Cronenberg Project', what is the tissue that connects the issues behind his films.

As such, the book is far from being the authoritative last word on David Cronenberg. As James Spader says at the end of CRASH: "Maybe the next one, darling. Maybe the next one."


-Originally published on Beyond Hollywood: The Cinema of David Cronenberg