Now Fear This: Ravenous

David Arquette gets third billing. There’s no joke here. Well, other than that.

Not long ago, Ryan Murphy claimed to have invented the concept of horror/comedy. This might be the first time a TV writer has ever tried to take credit for evolution. The prevailing thinking is, determined by studying our closest primate relatives and showing them Will Ferrell movies or something, is that laughter is done to relieve tension. A chimp sees something that might be a snake, but when he finds that it’s just a stick, the laugh is the signal for all the other chimps to be little Fonzies. Comedy is funny specifically because it subverts expectations — that’s why old jokes aren’t funny anymore. Horror is also about subverting expectations, because they spring from the same place. So when Ryan Murphy thought he created horror/comedy, he would have had better luck saying he invented verbs. Because that second one happened later.

Horror and comedy are also inexorably linked because they are the most subjective genres. I mentioned Will Ferrell above because while he owns the address to my funnybone, some people find him obnoxious and loud. It’s not like they’re wrong, either. If something’s not funny to you, it’s not funny. There’s no right or wrong about it. Unless you think Airplane! isn’t funny, then it’s time to quit the human race because you’re clearly not good at it anymore. Setting out to make a horror/comedy has a degree of difficulty numbering in the insane, like a gymnast deciding to do her floor exercise while simultaneously eating a deep dish pizza and being attacked by ninjas. The balance is nearly impossible, so when it’s done well, such as with Behind the Mask, or Ghostbusters, you end up with a legitimate classic on your hands. This week’s movie, Ravenous, has dodged the burgeoning cult of the former and the universal acclaim of the latter, but it richly deserves a second life.

The film opens on a pair of quotes, which lets us know what sort of movie we’re going to watch. Nietzsche lingers on screen first, to make everyone but high school-aged douchebags roll their eyes, then following it up with something from Anonymous (not the hacktivist collective): “Eat me.” Presenting something allegedly high-minded and then instantly undercutting it is the movie’s playbook. The quote turns onto war hero Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) getting a medal for valor for his service in the Mexican American War, then instantly revealing via flashback that he only survived by playing dead. General Slauson (John Spencer, in his final film role), the man pinning the medal on Boyd, even knows the man is a coward. It’s the classic refuge: reward a bad thing to avoid punishing it and thus looking even worse. Slauson dispatches Boyd to Fort Spencer a remote outpost in the Sierra Nevadas where Boyd won’t cause any more trouble.

It looks like the Army has been using Fort Spencer as a dumping ground for all its undesirables. There’s the commander, Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), an overweight nebbish who would rather eat walnuts and read books than do anything militarily, Major Knox, the hopelessly alcoholic second-in-command, Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies) who is maybe the Jeremiest Daviesest character he’s portrayed in a career full of them, Private Cleaves (David Arquette), the fort’s stoner, Private Reich (Neal McDonough), the violent one, and George and Martha, a pair of Native American siblings. Of the group, really only Reich and Martha — it’s funny that despite them all being in the Army, Reich is the one Hart refers to as “our soldier” — are apparently useful.

The fort is shuttering for the winter, the skeleton crew of burnouts, discipline problems, and goldbrickers waiting around for the new wave of pioneers in the Spring when a bloody and exhausted man collapses on their doorstep. He claims to be a traveler named F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), and he tells a harrowing tale. Along with five others, he was crossing into Oregon when a snowstorm stranded his party in a mountain cave. Led by the evil Colonel Ives, they resorted to cannibalism, and Colqhoun only barely escaped. Because Ives was left alone with a woman, Hart considers it their duty to go rescue her.

Before going, George attempts to warn Hart about the legend of the wendigo. Essentially, cannibalism gives you superpowers, but at the price of your sanity. You turn into a heroin addict who is also Wolverine. Unlike the trailer, I’ll leave off the synopsis here only to say that George’s warnings are not lightly fucking given. Wendigo are bad news.

The film strikes its balance between cannibalistic horror by acknowledging the ridiculousness at its core. As soon as your food has a name — “Mmm, this is good… who is this?” — there is comedy to be mined. The movie also plays with mood dissonance with the score co-written by Blur’s Damon Albarn. At times its a lonely frontier melody with the twang of a single guitar, while at other times, it’s a banjo-pickin’ flesh-eaten’ carnival of sound. As the film goes on, and more and more characters either fall to the curse or to the cooking pots, the superpowers kick in. During the final battle, when the living wendigo attempt to find something heavy and sharp enough to kill each other, the production actually ran out of fake blood. That in itself is funny, and at a certain point the goriness of the battle tips from intense to unlikely then to flat-out hilarious.

The best Yakmala films are those that wear their hearts on their sleeves. Troll 2 was made by people who hated vegetarians to the point that the only way to express their rage was to make a nonsensical movie about it. Horror is the same way, in that we are better at expressing our own feelings of fear and disgust, and the skill comes in making those accessible to those who don’t share our pet peeves. Ravenous was made by vegetarians and stars a vegetarian, and yes, Guy Pearce chowed down on actual meat for some shots (he spit it out later, but still, that’s rough for them). The medal ceremony is followed by a steak dinner, and these slabs of beef look like they were held up in front of the grill before slopped on the plate. It’s a long table digging into nearly-raw still-bleeding meat making the animal sounds of an active banquet. When Boyd vomits in response, it’s the filmmakers underlining what they think of meat. This disgust fuels the rest of the film, and while it never turns into a polemic, the purpose is crystal clear.

Great. You undercooked Knox.

Ravenous never concerns itself with good and evil. Morality is central, but the contrast exists between cowardice and survival. How far every character is willing to go directly informs everything about them and often authors their fate. Since that is the ultimate source of the vast majority of opportunistic cannibalism, it’s the perfect contrast on which to hang a movie.

Ravenous is a rare treat, no pun intended, a period piece horror/comedy with an incredible cast and a righteous yet subtle point of view. Just don’t watch it with dinner.

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New Satellite Show Episode 19: Into Darkness

Between the return of Rene Montoya as the Question, Louis’s beef with Lean Dunham, Dante’s confusion on why people hate Lena Dunham and She-Hulk is the wormhole from which Christopher Nolan hides, fearful of both comedy and Star Wars. The Panel is not afraid, however, to discuss Lexi Alexander’s correct reading of the Wonder Woman situation and other pressing topics of the day. This month’s Yakmala film is “Invisible Child” as the Satellite Show goes Into Darkness. Host: Erik. Panel of Experts: Louis, Dante, Clint, Justin, Dawn.

Click here or subscribe on iTunes.

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Yakamala: The Spirit

“My City Yodels” was the first draft of that tagline. Didn’t test well.

The quickest way to get clicks on the internet is to say something blatantly stupid. This is why we have lately been suffering through a wave of revisionist film criticism in which rightly reviled movies get reassessed and we learn how we really got it all wrong, you guys. Ang Lee’s Hulk isn’t an unwatchable mess where Hulk transforms through the power of angst and fights CGI dad splooge, it’s a lyrical… actually, no. I can’t even say it. The most recent recipient of this nonsense is Frank Miller’s The Spirit and hoo boy, if you liked this one, see a doctor immediately, because your brain is visible through that crack in your skull.

Tagline: My city screams. She is my lover. And I am her spirit.

More Accurate Tagline: What are you, dense? Are you retarded or something? I’m the goddamn Spirit!

Guilty Party: Frank Miller chose to announce his insanity with the comic All-Star Batman and Robin, also known by its alternate fan-given titles: “ASSBAR” and “The Goddamn Batman.” As the writer and illustrator of what is generally considered to be the second-greatest graphic novel of all time, it was a little jarring to see what he had become in his dotage. The hardboiled noir narration, what seemed so fresh in the ‘80s had become a hollow parody of itself two decades later. The odd quirks — dinosaurs, Nazi imagery, butts — which once provided the spice of originality had warped into obsessions. It really seemed like if Miller could have written an entire comic about Nazi dinosaur butts, he would have. After Robert Rodriguez made Sin City, and managed to walk the tightrope of straight-faced homage and affectionate parody, Miller tried his luck with Will Eisner’s iconic The Spirit. Miller’s id, unchained by age and I’m guessing a ton of prescription drugs, took it over and made this.

Synopsis: Remember when your screenwriting teacher said “show, don’t tell”? Good, neither does Frank Miller.

Anyway, the Spirit, a mannequin whose favorite pastime is weird misogynistic rants about his city delivered to cats, rushes off to the mudflats to fight a super criminal and egg enthusiast named the Octopus (Sam Jackson). The Octopus, along with sexy-clothes-owning thief Sand Serif, are after a pair of trunks that are sunk in the bottom of the harbor for no reason. The Spirit arrives in time to mudwrestle the Octopus, while Serif escapes. After a brutal, gritty fight that somehow employs cartoon sound effects and lug wrenches sized for kaiju, they have an argument over who won the fight. Sadly, they never manage to get to the “nuh uh, yuh huh” portion of it, because the Octopus has to go.

Serif got one trunk, the Octopus got the other, and here’s the kicker: they got the wrong trunks. Serif wanted the one with the Golden Fleece (you know, from mythology) and Octopus wanted the one with a vase of the blood of Heracles. Yep, we’re in a gritty, hyper-stylized noir reality in which Greek mythology actually happened.

The Spirit gets patched up by his doctor girlfriend Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson), and I have no idea why she’s even in this movie. The point of the scene is that the Spirit can regenerate from any damage, which is an excellent way to make sure that your movie has no stakes.

The Spirit got a locket from a murdered cop at the scene, and with this locket he knows that Sand Serif was there. See, they were childhood sweethearts and he gave her the locket because that’s what fictional characters do. She left town after her father, a beat cop, got killed protecting a drunk. This makes Sand hate cops because Frank Miller never passed basic psychology.

Anyway, Sand realizes that her fence sold the location of the artifacts twice, and she then blackmails the guy into killing himself because he’s a closet homosexual. It’s more than a little disturbing, but don’t worry, Serif never gets her comeuppance. During this scene, she photocopies her ass for no reason, and despite not having seen her since she was fifteen, the Spirit is able to identify her by her ass. I just lost fifty IQ points writing that fucking sentence. He uses this ass picture to track her to her hotel where they have a conversation. After he reveals that he’s her childhood love, she pushes him out a window. If it’s starting to sound like things happen for no reason and everyone acts like they’re off their meds, good. Means I’m describing it well.

Using industrial salt on one of the Octopus’s cloned minions (yes, he has cloned minions and it’s… painful), the Spirit finds the evil lair. Unfortunately, he immediately gets captured by the Octopus’s right hand woman, Siken Floss (Scarlett Johansson). The Spirit wakes up tied to a chair to find that the Octopus and Floss are dressed as Nazis. That’s right, this movie features Black Hitler. He tells the Octopus their shared origin story. The Octopus was a city coroner who also developed a regeneration serum. He injected it into slain cop Denny Colt — that’s the Spirit — as a test. It works! But for true immortality, the Octopus needs to drink the blood of Heracles. Because who fucking cares at this point?

Then Plaster of Paris, the assassin the Octopus hired for no reason, comes in dressed as a belly dancer. Come on guys, we had a Nazi theme going and now there’s a belly dancer? She’s not even a Nazi belly dancer. Also, she’s French, and not even Vichy French. It’s just a mess. And yes, I’m complaining about not enough Nazis, because if you’re doing to do something that stupid, at least stick to the theme. The Octopus tells her to cut the Spirit up, and instead he seduces her. And why the hell hire her in the first place? He’s tied to a chair. Floss can cut him up. Or the Octopus. Or one of the clones. Anyway, she gets him out but also stabs him. Chicks, am I right?

The Spirit falls in some water, but the Spirit of Death resurrects him. Yep. That also happens.

Sand and the Octopus meet up for an exchange which the Spirit and the cops also show up to. This degenerates into a massive gunfight. Eventually, the Spirit shoves a grenade into the Octopus, and Sand rescues the Spirit using the magical Golden Fleece. They have a romantic kiss — right in front of the Spirit’s girlfriend — and Sand leaves. Floss finds a single finger of the Octopus and leaves with that, planning to regenerate him.

Life-Changing Subtext: Women are psychopaths! But it’s cool, though. They can’t help it.

Defining Quote: When you watch an Ed Wood movie, you think, “There’s no way anyone will ever write dialogue this bizarre and redundant ever again.” And then this happens:

The Octopus: “Free range chickens with their big, brown, ugly-ass eggs. They piss me off. Every time I think about those big brown eggs they piss me off.

Yeah, the Octopus has a thing about eggs. It’s… off-putting.

Standout Performance: This could only go to Stana Katic as the rookie cop Morgenstern. Whenever she’s onscreen, whether she’s squawking in her put-on Baltimore accent or just silently watching other people talk, you cannot look anywhere else. And it’s not just because she’s gorgeous, either. She is made of eye magnets.

“I’m just super-psyched to be here you guys!”

What’s Wrong: It starts with the casting of Gabriel Macht as the Spirit. Maybe Miller is a bad director — wait, what am I saying, “maybe.” Macht is straitjacketed by his performance, doing nothing but going off on his wooden rants. His tie upstages him on more than one occasion.

The biggest problem, though, is tone. The movie doesn’t have one. It has no idea if it wants to be a lighthearted parody that features cartoon sounds, silly clones, and dad jokes, or a stonefaced neo-noir where people are chopped up with machine gun fire. So it settles for doing both. Badly.

Doesn’t help that the “comedy” consists of people being hit with toilets and Sam Jackson screaming about how toilets are always funny or references to movie taglines from the late ‘70s.

Best Scenes: So the Octopus is a genius who created an injection that can bring dead men back to life. He’s going to be real disappointed when he realizes that the circulatory system stops at the moment of death. I wish there had been a shot of them, with a chyron that said, “6 hours later,” with Floss checking her watch, and the Octopus all, “Okay, one more hour and I’m getting another dead cop.”

Frank Miller doesn’t trust his audience. Maybe because he knows we’re dumb enough to have paid to see a Frank Miller movie. He’s also a douchebag who can’t resist throwing in references to his time of being culturally relevant. So when the Spirit and the chief are trying to explain Sand Serif’s motivations, Morgenstern loudly chirps that Sand has an Elektra Complex. Just in case someone in the cheap seats missed it, she proceeds to repeat herself eight or nine times. Get it, guys? Miller had a character named Elektra? Huh? Remember?

When the Spirit raids the Octopus’s hideout, all the clones have guns. The Spirit starts up his noir narration about how the city provides weapons for him. And what’s the first weapon he uses? A snowball. Next, he’ll break out the crazy shit, like snowmen, Indian burns, and purple nurples.

Transcendent Moment: Early on in the movie, the Spirit starts up his narration. It’s intrusive and jarring, but it’s tough to have a noir movie without the first person voiceover. The audience is conditioned to ignore it. Until a cat meows. Turns out it’s not narration. It’s the Spirit talking to a cat. So through the rest of the movie, whenever he’s trying to be a tough guy, he’s basically just that old cat lady who doesn’t have any company except for like a hundred cats.

“My city screams, Mr. Whiskers.”

The Spirit is terrible, but in a fun, unique, and utterly crazy way. Miller has since said he always intended it as a parody, but contrast that with his statements at the time. That’s the surest sign of a Yakmala movie: the desperate backtracking of the truly exposed.

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Thoughts on DLC

So, it’s Assassin’s Creed week for me and though I’ve not received my games from Amazon as I write this, I’m pretty stoked. Well, stoked enough to use the word “stoked” in polite company.

You could even say it's "tubular."

“Radical” word choice, dude.

But talk about the game in various circles the last week inevitably led to a discussion of DLC — the downloadable content add-ons game publishers use to entice gamers or squeeze more money out of their customers. Specifically, the discussion began with the dismay in certain circles that the brand has a tie-in with Edge Shave Gel. Buy a can, get a piece of gear also available in the DLC season pass. But besides Ubisoft’s usual blindspot regarding its female fans, this is a fairly benign promotion. The gear is available elsewhere (with a whole lot more) and if it had not been brought to my attention, I’d never know Edge had an game tie-in promotion.

Others see it as the End of Everything.

And, to be fair, DLC is often problematic. The racing and sports genres have been destroyed with publishers nickle-and-diming fans for add-on tires or players that are hard-coded on the disc, but locked behind an additional pay-wall. Keep in mind these games are $60 to start. I’m not much of a fan of either genre, so the impact is much less on me, but let’s look at a game I actually like and how its DLC changes the game.

Every single piece of single-player content EA made available for Mass Effect 3 felt like core content held back from the game so the publisher could charge an extra $5.99 per release. Now, I’ve seen the production flow chart and I know that DLC material is often based on early ideas the developer had to abandon for scheduling reasons … but why, in this particular game, does everything — including the DLC pack that’s just Shepard and his/her crew partying — feel so essential?

No, seriously, getting to this photo is the whole point of Mass Effect 3.

No, seriously, getting to this photo is the whole point of Mass Effect 3.

When it was first released, fans griped about the fact Javik the Prothean, a playable character, was hidden behind a $10 day-one DLC payment (or the $70 Collector’s Edition release). While it’s possible to play the game without him, the depth he adds to the game is pretty astounding. I’m tempted to even say it’s core as Javik’s story is thematically essential to Mass Effect 3. And thinking about it now, most of the Mass Effect 2 DLC was essential as it set-up where certain characters would be at the start of the third game.

Outside of sports and racing titles, the Mass Effect series is the most egregious abuser of DLC, but there are a few cases where major publishers, even EA, deploy it effectively.

Dragon Age: Origins: Other issues aside, the first Dragon Age title featured a day-one DLC that was A.) free and B.) rewarded customer loyalty. Offered in an insert boxed with the game was a code for an armor set that would unlock in both DA:O and Mass Effect 2. The company also offered “The Stone Prisoner” as free add-on content that unlocked the playable character Shale and added a couple of hours to the gameplay. This, to me, is an excellent use of DLC. The publishers combat stores like Gamestop, who encourage customers to buy used games, by offering a little extra freebie for buying new. That content is available to those who buy used (at an additional cost), but it at least offers a sometimes compelling enticement. EA also got this right with Mass Effect 2‘s Cerebus Network and included extras. Other titles like Arkham City and its follow-up, Arkham Origins, also used this tactic effectively.

Though a couple of the add-on packs — including a second day one release — were designed as part of the core-game, the majority of Dragon Age DLC content packs (as opposed to armor sets or promotional tie-in items) add to the post-game state. Campaigns like “The Golems of Amgarrak” and “Witch Hunt” explicitly take place after the main game has ended. Additional story content DLC include an alternate history campaign and one set in another character’s youth. To me, these are reasonable paid DLC because they extend the game. They offer stories that could not happen in the core gameplay and present a separate experience.

Assassin’s Creed: For the most part, DLC for this series also offers separate experiences. The major Black Flag add-on is a compelling, if occasionally tone-deaf, adventure staring the equally compelling Assassin Adéwalé as he goes on a quest to free slaves and route slavers from the Caribbean. A Revelations DLC pack sees you reliving Subject 16’s time at Abstergo. Assassin’s Creed 3‘s only substantial DLC quest pack features an episodic alternate history that pits an untrained Ratonhnhaké:ton against King George WashingtonLike the Dragon Age DLC, none of these missions are essential to the core game, but offer interesting additions to the series.

If only there'd been more DLC featuring Haytham Kenway.

If only there’d been more DLC featuring Haytham Kenway — the best AC character.

Now, the series also offers gear packs, multiplayer whatsits, platform-specific exclusives and even shortcut packs. So, there’s plenty of bad in their DLC options, but the marquee stuff, the material worth paying $7-14 for, is generally worthwhile.

Grand Theft Auto: In its High-Def series, the GTA franchise has also offered content that sits outside the core game. In IV, it manifested as two separate stories (with new player characters) set in Liberty City. In V, it was an MMO using the core game’s Los Santos setting and mechanics. Neither are essential — granted, very little in GTA IV is essential — but extend the life of the title in interesting ways. Admittedly, I’ve only spent an hour or two in GTA Online because multiplayer, but none of these things matter to the item I actually bought. GTA IV and V exist completely separate from their DLC.

And I suppose that’s the key for me: DLC should be extra. It should never feel essential to the core game, but deepen the experience or offer a new experience in that environment. It can offer new game items, but that shouldn’t be the point. DLC I’m happy to purchase should always be about “plusing,” to steal a term from the Disney Way. To do it any other way (coughEAcough) may help the short-term bottom line, but will eventually break even the hardest of hardcore costumer loyalties.

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Lifetime Theater: PopFan

Lindsay Lohan’s name has become shorthand for the tragic way Hollywood chews up youth and spits out dead-eyed husks intent on flashing genitalia and punching paparazzi. But also, there’s a negative side. Like any fan of movies, bad movies, and trainwrecks, I watched the unfolding making of coverage of her possible comeback The Canyons with rapt interest. I couldn’t decide — and this does mark me as the worst kind of person, so, you know fair warning if you decide you want to be/remain my friend — whether I wanted her to rise like a pill-addled phoenix from the ashes or if I wanted to see if her career could implode hard enough to make an actual black hole. It was an irresistible story: three former A-listers, Paul Schrader, a highly-acclaimed director whose career hit a brutal slump, Bret Easton Ellis, noted douchebag who was finding less of a market for that one story he keeps telling, and Lohan herself, the cheapest and best name they could get for the film that would revitalize all three of them. It’s a bit like resting the hope of the American Space Program on one of those Florida residents that’s trying to shoot the moon down with meth-powered bottle rockets.

The flashiest bit of casting — and it’s with brutal irony that Lindsay Lohan, at the Lindsayest Lohaniest point of her career couldn’t even be the biggest curiosity in her own movie — was porn star James Deen. Mrs. Supermarket and I decided to check the movie out. It’s terrible, in a very empty way like a lot of Ellis’s work, and not even salvaged by a director who can find the core of ridiculousness within. The funniest part was James Deen was not the worst actor in it. Neither was Lohan. No, the worst performance belongs to a bro-faced slab of beef by the name of Nolan Funk. So not only does he have a better porn name than Deen, Mrs. Supermarket was convinced he was the porn star until she checked the IMDB.

Fortunately, terrible actors who stay in shape will always have work, either on the Lifetime network or starring in movies about the special needs X-Man Gambit. Funk stars in this week’s Lifetime Theater, and while he’s marginally better here, that’s not really saying a whole lot. He plays a deranged lighthouse-dweller (already my favorite character description ever) who “rescues” a pop singer from a horrendous car accident, takes her to his remote home, where they stay partially due to inclement weather, and while nursing her back to health steadily grows more and more unhinged. In the last act, he graduates to full psycho killer. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It’s the basic plot of Stephen King’s Misery, a book that I rank as one of his best. Granted, PopFan is more Lifetimey, but the changes aren’t entirely what one would expect.

“I’m only doing this because my husband is addicted to internet porn.”

For one thing, the accident is less severe. Paul Sheldon breaks both his legs, while Ava Maclaine only suffers one of those bumps on the head in fiction that put you to sleep for a few hours but don’t suddenly make you forget math. Funk’s Xavier is also more proactive; while Annie Wilkes finds Sheldon in the kind of unlikely coincidence that only happens to set plots in motion, Xavier actively sabotages Ava’s car to insure the crash. His motives are also more romantic or venal, depending on how sympathetic you want to be about some creep who causes a terrible crash to to kidnap a woman. While Annie was a genuine (though psychotic) fan, Xavier really just wants to shack up with Ava. In the lighthouse. I only bring that last part up because he lives in a fucking lighthouse and that’s never not funny.

Meanwhile, Ava’s boyfriend Curtis and her manager Damon do their best to track her down. Since the movie opened with her slipping out of town for a little me-time, it’s difficult. Then New England gets hit with a Nor’easter and I find I have to digress. I love when regional slang gets adopted for a specific thing, especially when that slang happens to be ridiculous. I generally just assume that a Nor’easter is a storm so severe that pronouncing the “th” would take too long and result in some deaths. The Nor’easter in question is accomplished with some of the worst digital FX work outside of a Syfy original movie. They apparently could not get storm stock footage. So I’m left to assume that a sharknado is brewing, and I can understand why Xavier might not want to go out in that.

In New England, they call them “sha’nados.”

This is a Lifetime movie, and it needs to take some kind of stand. Predictably, these stands come from a place that would appeal to the tongue-clucking set, or who I like to imagine Lifetime thinks their core viewership is. At this point, I need to accept that I’m part of Lifetime’s core viewership, and let’s just say that my concerns are a wee bit different than theirs. Anyway, Xavier’s biggest lie, or at least the one that horrifies Ava and proves to her he’s not what he seems, is that he’s a former marine. He claims to have served in Afghanistan, but in his psycho room — a section in the lighthouse because if you have access to a lighthouse, and need a psycho room, you’d be stupid to put it literally anywhere else — he has forms revealing he was 4-F. Later, Damon correctly susses out Xavier’s lie when the kid says “hoo-hah” rather than “oo-rah.” Also, “hoo-hah” is my mother’s generic noun for anything she can’t think of. So it was even funnier here.

The second stand is somewhat harder to parse. In the opening, which is a party to celebrate Ava’s sexy new video, some throwaway dialogue establishes her origin story. And you know what? It’s pretty good writing for what it is. They don’t hit the viewer over the head with it, and if I weren’t taking notes, I might have missed it. Ava is implied to be a Miley Cyrus type, a former child star who is doing her best to shed that image with some over-the-top sexuality that plays like what a sheltered kid might think grown-ups do in the bedroom (my wife assures me that this is limited to making pillow forts). She starts sexy dancing with a guy and a girl, doing her best to piss off conservative boyfriend Curtis. While this happens, the whole party films her on their phones. It’s like one of those racist old stories about primitive tribesmen being afraid that pictures steal souls, only presented utterly without irony. Later, the scene is referenced again when creepy Xavier wants to film Ava doing stuff. It’s a pretty dark scene, and entertaining the way Lifetime dances around the actual words.

In the greatest missed opportunity of the film, Ava escapes to Xavier’s truck. She tries to get it started, and can’t, and suddenly he’s just there. He says the line, “It’s an old truck. You have to use the choke.” Mrs. Supermarket, who was out of the room getting a drink, comes charging back in and demands to know, “Please tell me he choked her!” So that’s what this movie turned us into. And here’s the thing, I was thinking the same thing and was disappointed when he didn’t. You can’t set that up and not deliver.

What did we learn? Well, for one, when impersonating a marine, it’s “oo-rah.” Also it’s apparently okay to pretty much rip off an entire Stephen King novel. He’s not very litigious, I guess.

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Tread Who Safely: The Tomb of the Cybermen

Tomb_of_the_cybermenWith the Cybermen back in action in this week’s new episode of Doctor Who, I thought it was a good time to finally talk about one of my all time favorite stories, the Patrick Troughton-starring “The Tomb of the Cybermen.” It also happens to be a great introduction to late-60s era Who.

“Tomb” opens season 5 of the classic series and served as a trial-run for eventual producer Peter Bryant; that eagerness to prove something makes this kind of a landmark story. The Doctor, stalwart companion Jamie McCrimmon and newly-joined Victoria Waterfield land on the icy world of Telos just as an Earther archeological expedition discovers an ancient tomb of that world’s long dead civilization — the Cybermen! Though stymied by a rigged door that electrocutes a member of the dig team, the Doctor can’t help but getting involved, allowing them access to the outer tomb. The Doctor tries valiantly to stop the team from progressing any further, but cannot help but solve several of the puzzles the Cybermen left behind for anyone who would enter their tomb. Also, the dig’s financier, Kaftan, and her chief confidant Klieg are adamant about progressing into the complex. It of course leads to the Doctor’s third confrontation with the cyborgs bent on making sure that all the humans will “be like us.”

Unusual for the period, “The Tomb of the Cybermen” is a four-part story. The rest of season five is composed of six-parters and generally suffer the usual six-parter pace problems. (At least the ones that survive. Until last year, “Tomb” was the only season five story to exist in its entirety and only one of two that is complete without animation or other means of bridging missing episodes) As I’ve said before, the four-part story is the ideal length for the classic show, and “Tomb” exemplifies why. It’s long enough that we get a feel for the guest characters like Kaftan or Parry, the official leader of the dig, but not so long that we lose an episode to the characters running across the same Lime Grove Studio sets.

That said, the sets are quite spectacular. Flush with cash as the season begins, the production designer manages to create a pretty solid reality to Cyber design. Switches work, big heavy-looking doors swing shut on companions and Cybermen alike. While it’s not feature film quality, it’s spectacular for a modest British sci-fi program with a kid’s show budget.

It also gets a boost from unusually good black-and-white camerawork and lighting. While the bulk is shot in the traditional three-camera studio set up, a few select moments are shot on film. They almost blend seamlessly; a rare event for the BBC’s standard production method. There’s also a nice contrast between the upper levels being dark and spooky while the Cybermen’s literal tomb is generally brightly lit.

The Titular "Tomb"

The titular “Tomb”

Though the Cyberman are photographed with plenty of light, this story sees them at their actual spookiest. Often figures of camp, the villains are treated seriously here with their desire to assimilate never more present or deadly. They manage to be genuinely chilling for the first time in their existence. Although, I’ll admit, they tend to make a jaw-harp like muttering sound at odd times and the moment of their return is hampered with the inclusion of the unofficial Cybertheme music.

I consider this story the best place to bring a new viewer into the Troughton years precisely because he’s just spectacular in it. Now having been the Doctor for a year, Pat plays all the various shades of his Doctor over the course of the story’s 90-minute length. He’s excited by the technology and mystery. He plays the fool to prevent the team from accessing the inner part of the tomb. He’s indignant when speaking to the Cybermen. He’s also unexpectedly warm with Victoria in the story’s single most amazing scene. Comforting his new companion, who lost her father in the previous story, Troughton delivers a speech that is both revealing of the character and a restatement of the show’s “spirit of adventure.” It’s really, really good.

Now, there are definitely some criticisms to address. Chief amongst them is Kaftan’s nearly mute strongman servant Toberman. Needing a man nearly as physically imposing as Cyber Controller actor Michael Kilgariff, the production cast Roy Stewart as Toberman. As one of the few black actors to appear on the program at the time, hiring Stewart makes a statement, whether intended or not. Though Toberman is not a racist caricature, the story still paints him as something of an obsequious manservant — neighboring on a noble slave persona — and can be quite shocking the first time you watch the story. While the show is often progressive (Victoria gets in a few good digs at a chauvinistic starship captain in this story), Toberman represents one of the times it sinks into the cultural blindspots of the era in which it was produced. Also, on one of the DVD commentary tracks, actor Frazer Hines admits they nick-named the character “Toblerone” because black skin … and chocolate … and … yeah, we all still suck at this race relations thing. But, at the same time, Stewart does his best to deliver some character to the thankless role.

There are a handful of obvious bloopers — mic shadows, line flubs and a very noticeable wire attached to Toberman when one of the Cybermen throws him across the set.

If you are used to the higher energy end-of-episode cliffhangers, the lack of them here may surprise you. Prior to 1970, the musical sting, smash-zooms and shouting that generally accompanies a Doctor Who cliffhanger had not yet been devised. Consequently, the end moments of each part tend to slow the pace rather than make you anticipate the next episode.

Also, as I’ve mentioned in other Doctor Who articles, stories from the 60s are paced much, much slower than the current series. Luckily, the DVDs retain the opening and closing titles for all the episodes, so it’s easy to take breaks or watch it in its original 25-minute-per-episode presentation.

The final two episode do lose some of the atmosphere that make parts one and two particularly great, but Troughton’s performance, the final character turns and the absolute chaos of the closing minutes make this a worthwhile story and definitely a fine introduction to the Second Doctor.

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Now Fear This: The Bay

Chew with your mouth closed, Skeleton Dave.

Horror movies depend on two factors: plausibility and proximity. In many modern horror films, these are the first two things to go right out the window. Compare any relatively recent remake to the original. What used to be nondescript suburban homes have become spiderwebbed neo-gothic manors, filled with Satanist symbols and cannibal ghouls. Since no one has one of these houses on their street — unless you’re neighbors with a serial killer, and then you have bigger problems — this removes proximity from the horror and makes it less scary. The second factor, plausibility, is inherently subjective and has some give regardless. Alien isn’t really plausible, but put it on that realistically beaten-up ship and recognizable crewmen and suddenly it is. The audience has to buy into the threat of the horror, or it’s not scary, it’s just some stuff that happened to a bunch of idiots. 2012’s innovative found footage The Bay has both of plausibility and proximity.

The Bay has a surprising pedigree. Barry Levinson, director of The Natural, Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam and like every movie from the ‘80s, both directed and provided the story to it. I have gone on record before as defending found footage horror movies, and though I acknowledge that the genre is more open than most to both hackery and abuse, The Bay circumvents most of the standard criticisms just by the way it’s structured. The most common — and valid — complaint about found footage is that the main characters might want to drop the cameras and think about running from the giant monster that’s eating them. The film has to figure out a way to justify the camera being present, and The Bay is by far the best of these at that. Instead of following a single protagonist navigating the kaiju distaster/terrible camping trip/slumber party in the old asylum, The Bay is cobbled together from a news footage, a reporter on the scene, Skype calls, text logs, Facetime, a few amateur videos, police dashcams, security footage, and so on. If the film cannot justify a camera being present, then there isn’t one, which ends up producing the most skincrawling scene where the horror is only auditory.

The Bay exists in its own universe as an expose cobbled together to tell the story of a mass outbreak that occurred in Claridge, Maryland on their Fourth of July festivities in 2009. Its framing device is a young woman, who at the time was an intern at a local news station, covering the festival as the kind of low-key fluff reporting newbies get to cut their teeth on. Pretty soon, it looks like there’s a murderer on the loose as horribly mutilated people keep showing up. At the same time, the footage is intercut with images of some kind of disease outbreak. People go to the hospital with blisters, boils, and lesions, and pretty soon the baffled doctors are just amputating limbs willy-nilly. As soon as the film finds a more effective character to tell a specific aspect of its story, it switches over. It’s not completely chronological either, as some later revelations include the first deaths nearly a month before, including some local kids and a pair of oceanographers looking into the pollutants in the titular bay.

The oceanographer scenes invoke the environmentalist horror of the ‘70s and the ‘80s, a genre once again becoming relevant with the rising temperature of the planet. What they determine is that 40% of the bay is dead. Just completely dead. No fish, no plants, no nothing. They believe this is due to the runoff from local factory chicken farms, which dumps steroid-loaded chickenshit into the bay by the ton. Oh yeah, there was also “a small radioactive leak” that made it into the bay as well. None of this would be a problem except for the desalinization plant, shown ominously spewing white smoke in several shots. This plant has not only provided enough water to allow those chicken farms, it also provides drinking water to the town at large.

As it turns out, the problem comes down to parasitic isopods. Isopods are like those adorable roly-polies you find in your yard, except like everything else, the ocean has transformed them into nightmares. There are the giant isopods that live in deep water and more horrifying, there are the ones who eat the tongues of fish and then stick around, figuring that if the fish ever wants to scream in agony, the isopod will be there to make the words. The idea is that the pollution from the bay has mutated a strain of these little monsters, the steroids have made them grow quickly. While adults can’t make it through the filters of the desalinization plant, the larvae sure can, and they’re eating the people of Claridge alive.

This is a real creature. Repeat: THIS IS A REAL CREATURE.

The biggest flaw with the movie, from the standpoint of traditional storytelling, is the lack of a clear protagonist and antagonist. The aforementioned intern, Donna Thompson, is the closest thing to a heroine the movie has, though in keeping with the realism, she runs away at the end of the second act. As soon as it’s no longer realistic to have her stick around, she’s gone. It transfers over to a young couple who has been sailing to Claridge through the movie in a bit of slow-burn suspense, yet the sympathy they garner is more for being a young, attractive family than because of character development. Likewise, Mayor Stockman, who ignored the findings of the oceanographers and thus helped bring about the disaster, is the closest thing to a villain. He is barely a character, to the point that when he does get his comeuppance, it takes a moment to realize who he is.

The film is, however, very good at tracking its various characters. Because the cast is so sprawling and the method of telling the story so organic, the film will concentrate on a character intensely for a few minutes and then move on. This makes for effective moments later when these same characters are found mutilated and dead. It shows the real cost of the horror going on around, and it provides a quick and effective end to the character’s arc. They’re not abandoned. They were killed by the impersonal nature of the tragedy itself.

Assuming the movie’s goal is to scare, The Bay is the most effective found footage horror movie I have ever seen. Claridge is everytown enough to have proximity, and the parasitic isopods feel plausible enough. The way it’s told — as a documentary for something like Vice or Wikileaks — the action unfolds the way we as viewers are used to seeing it in the real world. The FX are organic, often shot out-of-focus, as they would be by panicked camera operators.

Nothing could recommend it more highly though, than one simple fact. I watched it yesterday. My skin still itches where I imagine the isopods running over me.

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