Now Fear This: Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau

They tried to fit a few more words in the title, but ran out of them.

Occasionally I like to use this space to discuss films that are horrifying, but might themselves have a different opinion of what they are. This week’s movie, the incredibly long-titled Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is not a horror movie on the face of it. It’s a documentary about the making of a horror film, joining Overnight in that rarefied category of making-of documentaries better than their genesis film. Yet, for me, Lost Soul was a horror movie. The most frightening kind, because it was all too real.

I worked for a studio for a little over a year as an in-house writer. I helped adapt a screenplay into a comic, several comics into screenplays, pitched movies for the properties they owned, and swallowed my dignity in daily meetings. Working for a studio is lucrative, but it’s also hell. Executives hold all control, and these are fundamentally businesspeople. They don’t really understand story, and in many cases are actively hostile to any form of creativity. They’re motivated entirely by fear with a little bit of greed thrown in. It’s not entirely their fault, either. Since the business model of Hollywood has shifted, the only way to make money are massive blockbuster tentpoles, and you don’t make Avengers-levels of money by challenging your audience.

In the ‘90s, writer/director/LARPer Richard Stanley was obsessed with making an Island of Dr. Moreau film. Stanley, while being a creative guy, is not the best filmmaker out there. His cult-horror flick Hardware features some impressive worldbuilding in the first half, only to throw it out the window and make Terminator, if Terminator existed entirely on the post-apocalyptic set of Friends. Enough people liked what he was doing, though, to give him a couple more shots at it, and he was going to take it with Moreau.

To his credit, Stanley had a vision. As detailed in fragmentary scenes and lurid pulp drawings, it was a medical dystopian nightmare of a film. Lost Soul lingers over every surviving piece of artwork Stanley had commissioned, showing a surgical gallery populated by feral dog-doctors (dogtors?), a library of squawking skesis-vultures, a pig woman giving birth, and so forth and so on. While watching this, I got swept up in his descriptions of scenes and characters, forgetting that this was the guy who wasted 100 minutes of my life with Hardware, and wishing I could see the Moreau movie as it was in my head.

How do you not want to see that?

I was not the only one. Stanley had the misfortune of selling an executive on his vision, and what always happens, happened. Executives hear tons and tons of pitches. It’s part of the job. So naturally, they gravitate to the odder ones, the ones that break through the constant noise of buddy cop movies, revenge flicks, and superhero origin stories. Like anyone who spends a ton of time in a field of entertainment, it’s the oddballs that attract. Stanley is nothing if not an oddball.

Then, the second phase starts in. You’ve sold one executive, but when the time to make this vision comes around, well, now there’s a price tag. And in a feat of logic so insane it could only exist in great fiction or the real world, selling a star on the project is necessary to get it made, but it also raises the price tag, making it that much harder to get made. Now this ballooning budget film (which had to be ballooned, just to get name recognition) can only be justified if this thing is a blockbuster tentpole. All the weirdness, all the idiosyncracies have to be ironed out. It has to appeal to a broad audience because that’s what the budget demands.

See where this is going? Stanley, drunk on the thrill of having a major studio picture, managed to land some very big stars in Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, the former of whom is an insane person and the latter such a colossal douche he managed to submarine a promising career in a field consisting almost entirely of douches. Stanley got to watch, in horror, as his project was taken away from him, inch by inch, and moment by moment, until he was unceremoniously shown the door.

This might be the end of another story, but the studio had already thrown too much money into the project. They just wanted to get something out of it. More to the point, the film wasn’t quite done being insane yet. Richard Stanley, while he seems like a nice enough guy, is the kind of crazy you usually meet in gaming stores and used book shops. If he were a little creepier, he might have a collection of Gor novels. This is a man who, in the film’s best sequence, hired the world’s worst warlock named (not making this up) Skip, to help him land Moreau. Skip spent the rest of his life failing harder at doing magic than anyone has ever failed at doing anything. And after Stanley’s firing, he doesn’t actually leave the island, instead turning into Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now.

The most dangerous aspect of Lost Soul is that it made me want to watch Moreau again. I kind of remember the movie, one I saw in the theaters with some friends. Even at the time, I knew it was shitty. Yet it retained a spark of delirious insanity from its inception, mostly due to Brando. This is a man dedicated to seeing how much he could get away with on set, and that turned out to be “demanding a personal dwarf.” While it lost the greatness lurking in Stanley’s original vision, Moreau found a more dubious honor: that of a legendary failure.

Lost Soul is fundamentally about the crushing homogenization process of the movies. One that leaves you with one question. Not, “How did they fail with this project?” But the far more damning, “How have they ever succeeded?”

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Tread Who Perilously Series 2: Episode 6

whoErik and Justin’s latest stop brings them to 2005 and the first season of the revived Doctor Who. Unfortunately, it means Justin must confront Rose once again as the Doctor confronts the Family Slitheen from Raxacoricofallapatorius. Harriet Jones, MP for Flydale North, makes her first appearance and Justin nearly falls asleep during part 1 of the story. Erik and Justin discuss Rose’s audience appeal while Justin rates Christopher Eccelston on the Capaldi scale. Local police stop by and aliens fart.

But at least Peri wasn’t in this.

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Yeah, Leave It Here – Ep 6: The Devil Wears Prada

Welcome to Episode 6 of “Yeah, Leave It Here.” Today’s movie is 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada. We discuss how useless the romantic subplots are, how Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci (and Emily Blunt) steal the movie from everyone else, and you’ll learn about our wedding vows. Also: Simon Baker plays a sentient bag of dicks.

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Yakmala: Steel

Shaq was so large, his torso served as low-income housing.

In the late ‘90s, there was no one bigger — literally and the new meaning of the word “literally” — than Shaquille O’Neal. Since he was a genetic freak and good enough basketball player that he stopped hearing the word “no” once he hit fifteen or so, everyone was like, “Sure, Shaq. Let’s get you that terrible movie career you always wanted. How about you cut a godawful rap album while you’re at it?” Thus 1997’s Steel happened.

Tagline: Man. Metal. Hero.

More Accurate Tagline: Man. Basketball. Food. Hammer. Noun.

Guilty Party: Shaq has always been public about his abiding love for Superman. In his days with the Lakers, Staples Center would explode with one of his big plays, while John Williams’s majestic score piped through the house. So it makes a certain amount of sense that Superman’s biggest fan in reality should play Superman’s biggest fan in the comic books: Steel, DC’s answer to Iron Man. Appropriately enough for DC’s more Gee Whiz characters, Steel is noble inventor inspired by the Man of Steel’s heroism to make the world a better place, rather than an out of control drunk with an Ayn Rand fetish. As to why the latter is so much more popular? Well, it comes down to the difference in Robert Downey, Jr. and Shaquille O’Neal. They are acting, and presumably basketball, Bizarros.

Synopsis: John Henry Irons (O’Neal, and yes that’s his name from the comics) is part of some Army division where they make experimental weapons. On a routine test, his reptilian rival Nathaniel Burke (Judd Nelson, doing everything but tasting the air with his tongue), fucks up the test, killing a senator and crippling John’s friend Sparky (Annabeth Gish). Burke gets drummed out of the service, and a disillusioned, and possibly slightly sleepy Irons (it’s tough to tell with Shaq’s acting) leaves the service.

He returns to his hometown of Los Angeles to live with his grandmother, and a character I had no idea was supposed to be his little brother, Martin. Burke comes to LA too for some reason, but he brings his experimental weapons along. Smuggling them in arcade games (because the movie was concerned it might not be quite dated enough), he distributes them maybe? But then there’s an auction in the end where he’s selling them? I don’t know what’s happening. Nothing good.

Anyway, John gets Sparky out of the veteran’s hospital and she and Uncle Joe (Richard Roundtree) help John build a suit of armor and a hammer to fight crime. They even set up a half-assed Batcave under Joe’s junkyard.

Burke kidnaps Sparky and draws the newly christened Steel into a trap. Unfortunately, for him, this only a trap the way locking yourself in a cage with a grizzly bear is technically dating. Steel just goes nuts on Burke (and Burke’s goons have even turned on him because he betrayed them five minutes earlier for no reason). Also, Sparky’s wheelchair is the Death Star.

Irons decides to retire after placing one final prank call to his old boss. The end.

Life-Changing Subtext: Vigilantism is the only way to bounce back after an accident.

Defining Quote: Nathaniel Burke: “Eat the hot dog. Don’t be one.” This is something a Zen monk might say after a massive head injury.

Standout Performance: Hill Harper plays a goon named “Slats” and it’s just… bizarre. He looks like he wandered into the costume trailer, put on everything left over from Streets of Fire and Can’t Stop the Music and emerged and was like, “This is how Hill Harper wishes to be on film.” And no one said shit. In his first scene, he’s wearing black leather hip-waders with some weird halter top, fingerless black leather opera gloves, a vest, and, oh yeah, a fucking eyepatch. He’s the only one in his gang who dresses like this too. I think that’s why he’s in charge. His boys figure if he’ll leave the house looking like that, he’s crazy enough to do anything. I’m beginning to think Harper designed the look for Jared Leto’s Juggaloker.

What’s Wrong: I refuse to call what O’Neal does “acting.” It’s close. He’s trying to mimic the words and feelings of human animals, but as it turns out, being good at acting takes time and practice, which he doesn’t have. Hell, he didn’t even practice basketball, and he was actually good at that. So, instead, you have what I’m going to dub “Shaqting.” While O’Neal is the prime perpetrator of this, you can see other Shaqtors of note with Brett Favre in There’s Something About Mary, whenever Condoleeza Rice was on 30 Rock, and, of course, everything Channing Tatum has been in.

Flash of Competence: The soundtrack instantly throws in a waka-chika, marking this as a blaxploitation superhero movie, and you know what? That’s actually a pretty good idea. Blaxploitation heroes are already pretty pulpy, so it makes a certain amount of sense to add superpowers. Granted, the logical choice is Marvel’s Luke Cage (who basically already is Super Shaft), but if you’re working in the DC stable, Steel is probably the next best thing. Richard Roundtree was brought on to do the handoff, blessing the transfer from 1970s street-level badasses to 1990s cheesy superheroics. He’s great too, but I don’t think Roundtree has it in him to be bad.

Best Scenes: Whenever Shaq gets to act — well, Shaqt — you’re in for a good time. When Burke sabotages the initial test in the beginning (because he’s eeeeeeeeeevil… and kinda dumb), and the wall collapses on Sparky, we get a great “nooooooooo!” moment from Shaq. It’s more of a “SPARKYYYYYYY!” Some prime Shaqting there.

Then when he picks her up from the Veterans’ Hospital. The idea is that she’s feeling sorry for herself because she’s paralyzed from the waist down now. Still, the entire scene is a handicapped woman repeatedly saying “No,” while a (much) larger man ignores her protests, picks her up, and carries her bodily out of the hospital while everyone claps. Now, to be fair, in a normal movie these two would be love interests, but this was 1997 so the idea of a black guy romancing a white woman was still out burning crosses.

Transcendent Moment: Free throws. Christ, the fucking free throws.

This will probably mystify modern audiences who never saw Shaq play, but he was bad at free throws. He was known for it. There were entire strategies based around making him shoot them.

So, because this movie desperately wants to avoid the timeless quality that afflicts your better superhero movies, they introduce a running gag of Steel missing free throws. Yeah, they actually come up with three excuses to have him shoot a free throw. It’s riveting. The final one of these is when Burke drops a grenade into a room where Steel is with Martin, and Steel has to throw the grenade back out through a small hole in the roof. And yes, this means that Steel’s entire character arc revolves around something the actor could not do.

Here’s the thing though. This grenade has the longest fuse in the history of explosives. Steel has time to think about it, pick it up, protest he can’t do it, then accept coaching from his little brother on proper shooting form. This thing took so long, I could have used a flashback partway through to remind me it was a live grenade. Maybe we could have seen what the grenade was like before it got to the island and met the Others. Or why the grenade got sent to prison and how its past informs its romance with Piper.

So about 45 minutes later, Shaq free throws the grenade away, and it explodes. And I’m left with a deep, empty feeling. I got attached to that grenade.

I named him Mr. Splodey.

It’s hard to imagine a time before the superhero dominance of the box office. With flicks like Steel, it’s even harder to imagine it happening.

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Tread Who Perilously Series 2: Episode 5

whoErik and Justin’s journey through time and space bring them to 1968 and the world of the Gonds, conquered by the crystalline Krotons. Erik finally introduces his favorite Doctor to Justin while Justin finds himself quite appreciative of Zoe and Jaime bumbles about with a crowbar. The Gond revolution doesn’t go so well and the Krotons wear metal skirts. Wavering 1960s BBC production values are discussed and the Doctor Batmans out of the situation. This episode is dedicated to Wendy Padbury.

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Yay for Comics! July/August 2015 Edition

yaySo, a million years ago, Paul Pope drew an illustration of his THB protagonist, HR Watson, jumping for joy and exclaiming “Yay for Comics!” It is a reminder that the medium is filled with excitement. Yet, it can be difficult to enjoy comics with the sexist and violent tirades of certain fans, the thin margins under which the industry operates and the continuing racial and gender inequality in the creative sector of the business, but there are still things to love about it. Things that make me jump for joy, just like HR Watson.

Well, between Comic-Con, clearing the work from Comic-Con and one or two other developments behind the scenes, I’m a little late with the July edition. Enough that it’ll have to serve for both summer months. But never fear! I haven’t stopped reading comics and there are plenty to look at and cheer for. Let’s get started.

Above the Clouds #1: A find at Comic-Con’s small press area! Writer/Artist Melissa Pagluica is an outstanding talent. Above the Clouds, reprinted from her webcomic of the same name, represents her first foray into comics and it is already a showcase of staggering talent. The story concerns a young maiden in a (fantasy?) Scottish realm who is given a half-written book by a local warrior. The warrior is utterly embarrassed by his need to write, and freaks out when she demands more pages of the story during a dinner celebrating all of the local warriors’ prowess. While the Scottish section is told without dialogue, the warrior’s story is and provides such a sharp contrast to the lives lived in both stories. But throughout is Pagluica’s breathtaking art. Both dream-like and filled with remarkable expression, it shows what is possible when an accomplished artist comes to comics. Three chapters are in print so far, so I highly recommend picking them up.

Art from Above the Clouds #1

Art from Above the Clouds #1

Fables Vol. 22 – Farewell: Doubling as the final issue of the series, Farewell doesn’t quite stick the landing. Like the previous volume, the primary conflict is resolved with a brief conversation instead of a major confrontation. The text explains why, but it still seems like backing away from the momentum of the last several books. But where the main story falters, the side stories excel at showing us the “last” story of characters not covered last time. These are definitely worth it, as is a brief cameo by a long-dead character. The main art team of Mark Buckingham, inkers Steve Leialoha, Andrew Pepoy, Dan Green and Jose Marzan Jr. with Lee Loughridge on colors pull out all the stops page after page for one of the best looking volumes in the whole series. Also, a great selection of guest artists illustrate the shorter “last” stories … but at the same time, this is strictly for readers invested in Fables for the last decade. And, like I said, the main story backs away from the seemingly intended confrontation. To a certain extent, the story was over two or three years ago; a fact the characters even acknowledge. Though it is sad to say farewell to these characters, they were very close to overstaying their welcome.

Art from Fables Vol. 22

Art from Fables Vol. 22

Doctor Fate #1-2: Part of the recent DC soft reboot, Doctor Fate takes the golden age concept and finally puts the helmet of fate on the head of an Egyptian immigrant who only wants to keep his family safe, attended medical school and maybe fool around with his girlfriend. Written by DC stalwart Paul Levitz with phenomenal art by Sonny Liew and color by Lee Loughridge, this is, to me, the most exciting of the new DC titles … even if the story is moving slowly. I suppose that pace is a problem of modern superhero comics as a whole, but Doctor Fate combats that with a truly novel reinvention of an old concept and kick-ass art. The Dr. Fate concept always used ancient Egyptian mysticism to power its main character and story, but by introducing modern Khalid Nassour to the mix, Levitz creates the possibility of sharp contrast between the two eras and what it means to contend with that history. Though we’re only two issues in, the possibility — and the talent involved — make this one to watch.

Art from Doctor Fate #1

Art from Doctor Fate #1

Black Canary #1-2: Another of the DC soft reboots sees Dinah Lance, with her sonic cry and martial arts training, take up the role of lead singer in a rock band named “Black Canary.” Since this takes place in the newer DC continuity, I’m unsure how much of Dinah’s history is in tact, but it doesn’t matter. At it’s core, the book is about a band taking on the only thing stranger than a rock star: a superhero. While Dinah tries to hide her past, she’s forced to train the band to fight. Key here are the visuals, supplied by Annie Wu and Lee Loughridge yet again on colors. It sparkles to life and immediately establishes its own identity. While it’s still early going, it, along with Doctor Fate, represent my two favorite new DC books that look to emphasize character and style over crossovers and event tie-ins.

Art from Black Canary #1

Art from Black Canary #1

Pang The Wandering Monk: Vol. 1 – Refuge of the Heart: Ben Costa’s Xeric-winning graphic novel is a marvelous example of cartooning. Pang, the lead character is far more abstracted than the characters and world around him, but it makes quite expressive and sets him apart from the 18th Century China that surrounds him. For his part, Pang is a husky monk at a Shaolin Temple who must flee when one of the waring factions in a recent civil war lays siege to the temple. He arrives in a city under Qing rule and must hide his association with Shaolin in the hopes of finding other monks. He also meets a girl along the way. It’s charming and well-researched with copious footnotes about the history of China at the time, pronunciation hints and even a few highlighting the different regional dialects used at the time. It does take some time for the story to get going and some of the layouts are a little more ambitious than they need to be, but by halfway though, the story fires on all cylinders and you’ll want to pre-order vol. 2 as soon as you can.

Art from Pang The Wandering Shaolin Monk Vol. 1

Art from Pang The Wandering Shaolin Monk Vol. 1

So that’ll do it for the month. Plenty of excited stuff out there and comics feel pretty vital and exciting right now, even if people wring their hands about the comics getting lost at Comic-Con. Surely, the proliferation of webcomics, offbeat mainstream titles and self-published efforts, there will be even more reasons to shout Yay for Comics.

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Lifetime Theater: Gone Missing

The Lifetime network is just fucking with me at this point.

It’s inevitable that, in a project as long as this one, some themes are going to start to emerge. None were more striking than my discovery of the Alcoholic Mom Trilogy nestled in the middle of some otherwise unconnected Afterschool Specials. Perhaps, though, the discovery of these themes is what this whole endeavor is about. Otherwise, it turns into some kind of weird James Franco-esque pop-culture experiment that makes everyone hate me.

Like that time he instituted a fascist government in Spain.

I just wish Gone Missing weren’t so goddamn boring. Nothing against her, but I’m beginning to think that Daphne Zuniga’s presence in a Lifetime movie heralds a deeply unpleasant 84 minutes. It has nothing to do with her performance, which is perfectly fine for what we’re looking at, but maybe her agent only gives her the scripts the rest of the cast of Melrose Place has already passed on.

To properly explain the plot of this one, I need you to imagine a road. It’s right around San Diego, so over your right shoulder, you see the blue Pacific. Over your left, some dun colored hills with big patches of prickly pear cactus. It’s absolutely beautiful, the kind of place where you want to eat Mexican food, drink bear, and listen to the waves wash up on the sand. But every ten minutes on the road, there’s a turnoff. A really obviously evil turn off. The first one leads to a bear with a chainsaw for an erection. The second one to a vampire’s castle where they make rohypnol. The third one leads to a pack of bikers led by Satan and Dick Cheney. And so forth and so on.

This road you imagined is the one traveled by Kaitlin, an eighteen-year-old high schooler on Spring Break, on a harrowing journey from a border town to her resort hotel in Coronado. She follows that pretty road, dodging past the bear with the chainsaw dick, past the creepily leering vampire in his castle, past Dick Cheney shooting Satan in the face, only to turn off at the last possible one, which is also arguably the only one you might not mind so much. Instead of getting raped, murdered, raped and murdered, put in a snuff film, shipped off to a Macau sex dungeon, or any number of a thousand fates, she suffers a badly broken ankle, a little exposure, and maybe some mild dehydration.

As you might have guessed from that road description, Gone Missing flirts with darkness. Hell, Gone Missing tells darkness how drunk it is, flipping its hair and suggestively waggling its eyebrows. Gone Missing gives darkness a lapdance and invites it home, but at the last minute remembers it has to get up early the next morning and slams the door in darkness’s face. Poor darkness, doomed to go home alone and jerk off to one of those ASPCA commercials with the Sarah MacLachlan song.

So, Kaitlin and her best friend Matty get to go on Spring Break! Yay! But their moms and Katlin’s little brother are coming along. Boo! Moms Rene and Lisa are BFFs from the dawn of time, who are implied to have had a wild youth. Rene has turned into a helicopter mom, complete with loudspeaker and spotlight, so intent on controlling her daughter’s life with the zeal Kim Jong-Un. Lisa is one of those moms who wants to be her daughter’s best friend, and Matty is a burgeoning trainwreck, blind drunk in her first scene and hungover in her second (something Lisa is entirely aware of and dismisses with a breezy sigh). The girls want to have fun with alcohol and condoms and whatnot, but Rene will not stand for such malarkey.

She’s also not a fan of nonsense, shenanigans, horseplay, frolics, fooling around, funny business, hanky panky, hijinks, or bullshit.

After one night, Kaitlin and Matty vanish. The moms experience growing panic as it turns out these two are definitely gone, rather than just avoiding them. In the fine tradition of Lifetime Moms, the two become amateur sleuths. Sure, they enlist both the law and resort security, but the plot is always being driven by these two. Each commercial break leads them to another step along the long and bizarre night the two girls had. Each time they get right next to some horrible fate (Kaitlin nearly gets raped three times. Seriously.), only to stay on the clear and straight road. Even Matty, who goes across the border with three guys and winds up in some terrifying snuff-house, escapes relatively unharmed.

See, it’s Lifetime, not a movie where you need Liam Neeson to find them. This is fundamentally my problem with the movie. Well, that, and the endless scenes of Daphne Zuniga and Lauren Bowles (playing Lisa, perhaps most famous from her turn on True Blood) wandering around a resort and looking frustrated.

The bulk of the drama, other than Kaitlin’s night (played as a series of jittery-cam flashbacks) is the tension between the friends. Basically, the movie wants the moms watching to know that neither Rene nor Lisa’s parenting strategy is right. They’re both just terrible moms. It’s heavily implied that if Kaitlin weren’t smothered and Matty were given maybe one boundary, none of this would have happened.

The most Lifetime-y flourish, of course, is the husbands. Lisa is divorced after her husband cheated on her. For about half the movie, I was convinced Rene was divorced as well, albeit amicably as she and husband Jack talk on the phone. Nope, he just travels a lot for business. Lisa states several times Rene’s marriage is on the rocks, but it never actually goes anywhere. Jack attempts to fly out to San Diego to help with the search and lend support, but never makes it. Rene finds Kaitlin more or less all by herself, just by being more persistent than anyone else. She’s a hard-boiled mom.

Well, that plus her visions.

Yeah, this movie has more dropped threads than a… coat… dropping… factory? Sorry. I didn’t think that one through. Rene has visions of her daughter drowning. They’re so important to the movie that’s the opening shot. I think it’s supposed to either be a red herring for the final fakeout scare (Kaitlin does not take the turnoff into the ocean for a midnight swim), or a weird psychic impulse that leads her to the stretch of shore where she does finally find the weak and injured Kaitlin.

I mean, who cares? I’ve defended a lot of Lifetime movies, both for those offering unintentional entertainment, intentional entertainment, and some unholy middle ground. Gone Missing gives us none of the above. I’m pretty sure it was shot like an Adam Sandler movie: an excuse to get to a San Diego resort for a couple days and maybe shoot a movie.

So what did we learn? Don’t be a helicopter mom, and don’t be best friend mom. Also, don’t be dad.

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