Sunday, August 30, 2015

Neil Jordan Double Feature, Part 1: Interview with the Vampire

As of this week, Netflix has both vampire movies directed by Neil Jordan, who's probably most commonly remembered as the director of The Crying Game. Directed nearly twenty years apart, Interview with the Vampire and Byzantium have some interesting commonalities and some striking differences, and both are well worth watching.

We also just received the news that Wes Craven is dead, having lost his battle with brain cancer at 76. A master of horror whose creations include Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, he will truly be missed, and while he hasn't been as active in the 2000s as he once was, the genre owes much of its popularity to Craven, and won't be the same without him. We'll see you in our nightmares, Wes.

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Interview with the Vampire, directed by Jordan from a screenplay by Anne Rice based on her own book, seems to have been made with sequels in mind if the subtitle "The Vampire Chronicles" is any indication. It kind of got a sequel in Queen of the Damned, but with none of the original cast or crew involved, it was basically shit. Interview, however, is probably one of the best existential movies ever made. It begins with Talbot, (Christian Slater) a collector of stories, inviting a man into his apartment who soon claims to be a vampire -- and provides enough evidence right off the bat that his claims are clearly not to be denied.

Two hundred years ago that man, Louis (Brad Pitt), a colonial aristocrat in New Orleans who finds life unbearably empty and welcomes any opportunity to allow a stranger the chance to murder him, is welcomed to the world of undeath at the hands of the vampire Lestat -- older, wiser, more ruthless and generally a real asshole. He's also the most entertaining thing in the movie, which was doubly surprising because Tom Cruise was the last person anybody (including Anne Rice, who protested his casting) expected to turn in the star performance of the movie. Louis isn't much into the whole killing-people-to-stay-alive thing, and Lestat grows increasingly frustrated with his petulant refusal to accept that he's no longer human, while Louis continues to drink the blood of rats and poodles and his serving staff become suspicious of Louis and have an intense dislike of his "houseguest."

Louis finally burns the mansion to the ground, feeling that he and Lestat deserve to live in squalor. Eventually Lestat figures out a way to bring his pupil to heel when he leaves a young girl named Claudia, orphaned by plague, on the brink of death, leaving Louis no other course of action but to turn her into a vampire. Though Claudia is an eager pupil of Lestat's, ruthless and free of conscience in her own murders, she retains enough of her childish innocence that Louis acts as the angel on her shoulder to Lestat's devil. The three vampires adapt and change throughout the decades, but, as immortals, they also remain the same in many ways, hence Louis' existentialist dilemma. At least he's come to terms with his need for blood to survive, and mellows out in time.

Things fall apart quickly, however, as Lestat and Claudia begin to hate one another, forcing Louis to burn Lestat as he attacks the girl. Fleeing for Paris, Louis and Claudia are in for more trouble when they encounter Armand, a vampire who runs a theater whose players are vampires pretending to be humans pretending to be vampires -- it's complicated.

The movie depicts a dysfunctional family in Louis, Lestat and Claudia, whose personal tensions against each other grow over time, but may not be enough to truly pull them apart when all they really have is each other. They exist apart from the world, stagnant and unable to connect with everything around them that's changing, and some vampires seem to deal with that angst better than others. Louis, at least, seems to take things in stride by the time his interview with Talbot comes around. There's a lot of black humor to it, Tom Cruise is obviously enjoying himself playing a total jerk like Lestat, and Kirsten Dunst's acting debut (at least, in a major role) as Claudia is probably better than anything else she's done since. It's also just lovely to look at, with great costuming work and stunning scenery from the dark bayous and graveyards of New Orleans to the elegant night life of Paris.

Come back in two weeks for a look at Byzantium!

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Weird American History Meets Lovecraftian Horror

Banshee Chapter (2013)

Before anything else, I'd like to give a shout-out to my friends Pat and Katie, two fellow horror enthusiasts who have a new movie podcast. Show your support and have a listen to Post Mortem's first episode, where they take on the classic B-movie Attack of the Giant Leeches.

Banshee Chapter is the sort of movie that made me refocus this blog. It's low-budget (under $1 million), not too well-known, it's available on streaming video and it's pretty creepy. It's based on a couple of bits of real-life weirdness. One is the CIA's MKUltra project. This was a series of experiments conducted throughout the 50s, 60s and early 70s that focused on the use of drugs, hypnosis and electronic signals to achieve mind control, and has been the subject of quite a few movies over the years, several of them oddly comedic, such as Pineapple Express and The Men Who Stare At Goats. For the most part it was trying to facilitate more efficient methods of interrogation, with a lot of the X-Files stuff as a smokescreen to make its more outlandish aspects seem like conspiracy-theorist ravings and distract people from the project's core goals. Some of that stuff was still basically true, though, as there were apparently several efforts to slip Fidel Castro mind-control drugs, among other thins. It was the sort of disturbing, unethical stuff you expect from the CIA, and most of the records were destroyed in a panic back in 1973 after the Watergate scandal. It makes for a good story.

The movie starts with author James Hirsch preparing to take a drug mixture supposedly used during Project MKUltra as part of his research for a book on the subject. He disappears immediately after, and the friend who was helping him with the project vanishes a few weeks later. This leaves James' college friend, journalist Anne Roland, with some unanswered questions, and she goes looking for the truth behind the disappearances. She meets up with counterculture icon Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), who is TOTALLY NOT Hunter S. Thompson (or Ken Kesey, for that matter). Blackburn, his friend Cassie and Anne all take a shot of the drug -- in this case DMT-19, a form of dimethyltryptamine with some unexpected side-effects.

It basically turns the brain into a transceiver, able to receive a mysterious radio signal being broadcast, from parts unknown, to any piece of electronics in the general vicinity. It seems to be a numbers station, another weird real-world phenomenon nobody seems to have worked out yet. They're among the first radio broadcasts ever, dating back to World War I, and consist of a voice -- usually automated, usually a woman or child, but not always any of the above -- reading a series of numbers. Some think they're a method for government agencies to communicate encrypted messages to their agents. Others think they're related to the drug trade. Anyway, they're creepy and there are groups of enthusiasts all over the world who follow them and try to figure out what they are. This particular numbers station also heralds the arrival of creatures, possibly from another dimension, who track down people who've ingested a combination of DMT-19 and human pineal gland extract and empty them out so they can wear them as skin-suits. That's where the Lovecraftian angle comes in, as the movie is basically a loose adaptation of "From Beyond," which is at least acknowledged when Anne and Not-Hunter-S.-Thompson investigate Callie's disappearance.

A while back, I had an unsettling waking dream. I'd fallen asleep on the couch one weekend while watching TV, and when I woke up, I saw someone looking through the window. This was in broad daylight. The person outside was very short, under five feet tall, and had a face that was horribly burned, scarred and melted. He just stood outside, watching me on the couch, until I actually woke up and realized, of course, that there was no one outside at all. This is the sort of thing that makes Banshee Chapter a solid horror movie. The idea that something is outside, something is coming toward your back door, something sees you, and daylight won't save you. It relies on jump scares a bit more than I'd like, but the imagery and atmosphere are genuinely unsettling enough that I'll give it a pass.

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Play Misty For Me

The Mist (2007)

This is a bit unusual in that it's a movie that's not among my favorites, for a number of reasons, but still interesting on a purely conceptual level and, in some ways, in terms of execution. Kind of like Event Horizon. I like the idea, basically, and sometimes the movie does it well enough that I can sit through the annoying parts.

Based on a novella by Stephen King and directed by The Shawshank Redemption's Frank Darabont, The Mist opens with, as might be expected, a dense mist descending on the small town of Bridgton, Maine -- a nonfictional town, though Castle Rock, one of King's favorite fictional locations, is mentioned. Artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane), his son Billy (some kid) and his unfriendly neighbor Brent Norton (Homicide's Andre Braugher) take a trip to the local supermarket to pick up some supplies and find themselves trapped inside as the mist creeps far enough inland to envelope the entire store, with out-of-towner Dan Miller (Jeffrey DeMunn, who's probably remembered these days as Dale from The Walking Dead) running ahead of it screaming about something dangerous in the fog. Maybe something alive.

Tensions start to rise as the shoppers debate whether to venture out into the mist and see what's up with it. Then the shit hits the fan when David, Norm the bag boy and a few local assholes go to check the generator in the loading dock and Norm gets eaten alive by a bunch of spiny tentacles that reach in from outside and rip off his skin. It's pretty unpleasant. Nobody in the store believes them, so Brent, in an idiotic attempt to prove David wrong, heads outside with a rope tied around his waist and ends up getting bitten in half by something. That pretty much sets the powder keg off and pits everyone in the store against each other as they prepare for nightfall and the new horrors that come with it. There are a few other people of note -- a trio of soldiers from the nearby Arrowhead Base, who seem to be keeping a secret, and the awful Mrs. Carmody, a religious zealot deeply devoted to an extremely bloodthirsty Old Testament God, whose preaching goes from annoying to dangerous as the people trapped in the supermarket grow more frightened and more susceptible to her influence.

It's a good story and it's been influencing other writers for a long time. The first computer game based on the novella was released in 1985, and Silent Hill has a number of similarities (the all-encompassing mist being the most obvious). The groundbreaking video game Half-Life was directly influenced by the novella. There's even an episode of Ultraman based on it. Both the novella and the film are deeply cynical, and none of these people are likable. The only people you don't want to see mauled by tentacles are Ollie the assistant manager (Toby Jones, who at the time was in every movie released for about five years) and Irene Reppler, the badass old lady who beans Mrs. Carmody in the head with a can of peas. The irrational tensions, the eventual willingness to participate in human sacrifice to appease the monsters in the mist, all this is basically the point of the story: that people are dumb and panicky and dangerous, and if you put more than two of them in a room for a few days, they'll start thinking of ways to kill each other. It wouldn't be quite as frustrating if it weren't true. At least in this movie it's intentional. Most movies want you to like their shitty people, or at least to sympathize with them. They constantly ignore the obvious. Seriously, half the deaths in the movie could have been averted if they'd just duct-taped Mrs. Carmody's mouth shut, tied her up and tossed her in the storage room at the start.

I do like the monsters here, and how they're handled. There are all sorts of creatures, from giant crabs to skinless pterodactyls to dog-sized spiders that shoot acidic webs. Eventually you're sort of looking forward to seeing what horrifying death the next monster will inflict on these hapless jerks. What's interesting is that as easy as it would be to portray a tentacled horror hundreds of feet tall, large enough to leave road-width footprints in its wake, as some kind of Lovecraftian thing from beyond space, the creatures here are all just animals. Animals from a different place, and by all evidence a much less pleasant place, but they're still part of a natural order. Sure, the pink four-winged pterodactyl thing takes out a few shoppers during its rampage, but it's just going after the giant poisonous bugs attracted by the store's floodlights. It's how I imagine things would go if one drastically different ecosystem began to impose itself upon another one.

One last thing that makes The Mist noteworthy is the ending. It differs quite a bit from King's original, which I liked better, but I have to admire the sheer, unexpected cruelty of the movie's ending. It might be the least happy ending I've ever seen. Most horror movies can't resist having the slasher survive, or having the characters doomed after all, even when it makes no sense whatsoever...but The Mist sticks the knife in and just twists it, and I have to give it a few points for that. There's also a director's cut in black and white, which is probably the best way to watch this.

Available On: Amazon Prime.