Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Under the Dome (2009)

The gist of Stephen King's latest novel is succinctly described by the title itself and expounded upon by the wraparound jacket art, which contains no description whatsoever, not even a blurb or author photo. The image of a New England tourist 'burb trapped beneath a translucent dome -- a crashed airplane near one side, a small dog looking plaintively out another, a church on fire in the distance -- does the job of several thousand words. Such is the situation for the long-bestselling Mr. King that his books, however small or large, now need no introduction.

Under the Dome begins with the eponymous Dome descending from Space Unknown (to the great misfortune of a foraging woodchuck) and ends with it silently rising back into the sky. Who put it there and why are not the primary concerns of the story, and those reading only for those puzzles will come away disappointed; the Dome is transparently (pun intended) a deus ex machina meant to showcase conflict. It serves the same purpose as George Romero's shambling legions of dead folk: why they're there is not nearly so important as how people handle the crisis.

To this end, the town of Chester's Mill, Maine (neighboring the familiar King-doms of Castle Rock, Derry, and TR-90), fragments in a relative hurry with big assistance from a blustery town selectman and used car salesmen, name of Big Jim Rennie, who is more inclined to political machination than community organization. That semi-thankless job will fall to decorated Iraq War veteran-turned-short order cook Dale Barbara, on the run from his past but not running fast enough to escape either the judgment of the Dome or Rennie's attempts to keep him from usurping power, even when Barbara is deputized by the President himself.

As the case would be, of chief concern to the Outside World is getting the citizens of Chester's Mill liberated; on the inside, it's simple survival of the fittest. And those vying for their survival are divided into two camps: the Good and the Bad. Rennie, turns out, is very, very bad (think Captain Ahab as Mayor of Mayberry). His ultimate motivation is not the welfare of the citizens but the stowage of his own secret: an outskirts-of-town meth factory so large it supplies most of New England with product. Barbara just wants to leave town, already, but his sense of duty -- spurred by Julia Shumway, owner of the town newspaper -- will prevail. In the meanwhile there are intrigues a-plenty, from a serial killer preying on the trapped victims to the town's children having eerie, identical nightmares about falling pink stars. This being a Stephen King novel, not everyone will come to a happy ending.

Despite the book's size, this is not an epic in the usual sense -- just a thriller-diller with a surplus of moving parts (in fact, it often seems strangely and decidedly non-epic, such is King’s prowess with storytelling intimacy). Given the plethora, there are inevitable weak spots: too many stock characters (several named alike); too much obvious, melodramatic Law and Order-esque dialogue; too damn many pages, et cetera. But frankly, King gets raked over for variations of these sorts of things, all the time, anyway. It misses the point. Which is this: King, like Dumas and Shakespeare before him, is writing for a popular audience, one looking for meaty entertainment, not necessarily literary showmanship (more on that in a moment).

King delivers the beef, even manages to sneak in a broad lesson or two. He has explicitly stated how Under the Dome is "about [our] serious ecological problems. We have this little blue world, and it appears like that's about all there is. We haven't seen evidence of anyone else. We're on our own, and we have to deal with it. All of us." That ideology doesn't come into play until the novel's final hundred pages; more to the forefront is a commentary on the current divisionary tactics in American politics. Rennie often comes across like a porcine first cousin to Rush Limbaugh, reaching around the obvious truth to grasp the ideas necessary to serve his own purposes. While Rennie is a good description of the kind of misled idiots who sometimes end up, by hook or by crook, in power in small tourist towns, this is King's thinly veiled criticism of the Bush administration and how it handled crisis, right down to the two airplanes that strike the sides of the (Super) Dome.

To serve this end, the characterizations are suitably stark and static. This creates a dearth of surface friction but King is working in absolutes, Survival vs. Death. The reader is presented a type of morality play old as time and moving at breakneck speed, King’s favorite gear, housed in a dressed-up "disaster" template like Towering Inferno or Airport. The isolation and dread he describes will be solidly familiar to anyone who has ever had to deal with crippling coastal storms: King perfectly evokes the outside-of-time atmosphere which settles over an area in the path of a hurricane or nor'easter. During such emergencies, shades of gray only muddy the palette.

At a time when genre fiction is finally getting its due -- Lovecraft and Chandler and Philip K. Dick are all published by the prestigious Library of America; Pulitzer-Prize winning Michael Chabon is embracing comic book and crime noir narratives -- our most popular author of potboilers is getting bolder in his experimentation, seemingly shrugging off his old, self-applied critique that his work is the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries. There are burger meals which transcend drive-thru fare, as Umberto Eco will tell you. King's last couple short story collections include flat-out literary exercises, such as the excellent "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away" (which appeared in The New Yorker), alongside the expected horrors. Under the Dome is spiced with sweeping, omniscient overviews ("Thanks to the magic of narration..." begins one) which break away to showcase the citizens of Chester's Mill, their reactions to the crisis, their precious foibles, their logical fears; these little tableaus would not be out of place in Winesburg, Ohio or A Lesson Before Dying. And, let's face it, there's more than one latter-day Pulitzer winner, rich with language but nevertheless sorely underdone in terms of plot, who could benefit from a little time sizzling on King’s barbeque grill, or at least steaming in his pressure cooker. Kiss the cook and pass the fries.

Originally published in the Mobile Register, April 04 2010

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Cave Dwellers (1984)

Some old wizard name of Akronos has discovered how to split the atom, but an evil army is coming to take that technology from him in order to conquer the world. The cowardly wizard could use this "Geometric Nucleus" to defend himself, but noooo -- he dispatches his daughter Mila to go find the warrior Ator (Miles O'Keeffe), his former student. Cue the trials and tribulations involved in getting there, not the least of which are sunglasses-wearing evil soldiers who take Akronos hostage. Once roused from his hammock, Ator pulls a hang-glider from his back pocket and commences tossing bombs on the invaders surrounding the castle. Don't think about where the bombs came from, don't think about where the bombs came from.... Incomprehensible Italian sword-and-sorcery mess cut from the fabric of Conan's loincloth, this is a sequel to a 1982 movie, Ator L'invincibile, mercifully not in circulation. Fodder for one of the better Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes. Watch this only if you miss your saving throw vs. crap.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Pod People (1983)

A hunter stumbles into a womb-like cave containing a clutch of alien eggs, which he destroys without a second thought -- doing little for the attitude of the mother, who proceeds upon a tri-state killing spree to avenge the loss of her offspring. All but one, that is -- discovered by young Tommy, who takes the egg home, where it hatches into a baby Philly Phanatic that Tommy dubs "Trumpy." Trumpy hoovers peanuts and popcorn by the bucket before developing a taste for hamsters. Meanwhile, the mother alien slaughters a rock band practicing nearby, just like Grendel does to the partying Danes in John Gardner's eponymous novel -- see, Grendel is metaphor for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, so all the loud partying and singing drive it nuts, and it slays everybody just to shut them up, what with their self-limiting structures of conscious communication gumming up the works anyway. Like Grendel, the mama alien is eventually killed by somebody or other, but not before she thins out the human population, and Trumpy escapes into the woods to provide for the possibility of a sequel. Bizarro spaghetti-SF-schlock combination of E.T. the Extraterrestrial (which director Juan Simon is explicitly ripping off) and Dumbo (which he is not).

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

More (1969)

Stefan is a mathematics student on self-imposed sabbatical. In Paris he commits a little burglary to raise cash, then heads south to Ibiza to commence a doomed love affair with Estelle. Warnings from friends fall on deaf ears, but soon enough Stefan learns the truth: Estelle is a heroin addict. [insert: organ stinger, 3 seconds] She promises to stop using, but her late-night dalliances with Wolf, the local supplier, continue. Stefan moves them to a villa on the other side of the island where they smoke hashish and take LSD and enjoy the blisteringly refracted sunlight because it's the 1960s, maaaaaan. Guess what: the cure doesn't take, and Estelle is back on the same horse she was riding before she fell off and it trampled her, or whatever. People in this movie are always saying things like "Groovy man, let's get high..." and that's when the dialog is comprehensible at all. If people had conversations like the conversations had in this film, we'd all be on drugs just to cope. Supposedly now a cult classic in Europe, on the order of Easy Rider (1969) in the US. The first of three films for which Pink Floyd provided the soundtrack, which is about the only thing More has to recommend it to modern audiences. And that's not much. So, how about a little less, please?

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)

Texarkana filmmaker Charles Pierce's first project was a low-budget "documentary" about the Fouke Monster, a Bigfoot-esque creature roaming the bottomlands and swamps of the Texas/Arkansas border. The film collects various accounts of encounters with the creature, local legends and campfire tales tied together by a folksy narrator recounting how the creature scared him as a child and wondering if the thing is still lurking in the woods. Local citizens and landowners spin yarns of spotting the monster while on squirrel hunts and driving at night on lonely roads; at one point, a hunt is organized but once the dogs catch a whiff of the hideous thing, they go no farther. The centerpieces of the film are two disturbing scenes involving late-night attacks, one on a trailer where three teenage girls have a slumber party, the other on an isolated farmhouse rented by two young couples; the latter attack is a recreation of a newspaper account, but both occurrences too closely resemble archetypal "damsel in distress" horror-movie scenarios to carry much credibility. Hoax or not? One old salty codger, living for decades in a shack deep in the swamp, claims he's never seen any such creature. What is beyond dispute: despite the extraordinarily low budget (the movie was filmed on a borrowed 16mm camera, and it shows), or perhaps because of it, Boggy Creek is very effective at delivering some low-grade thrills. Pierce -- savvy to catch the Bigfoot craze in full swing, not long after the release of the infamous Patterson Film -- lovingly showcased the eerie shadows and sounds of the remote swamps in such a way that, sure, a shaggy 8-foot-tall monster seems plausible. And the fleeting glimpses of the creature, never fully revealed and often only heard, are just right. A huge hit at the drive-in theaters of the era, this was an undeniable influence on later films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Reefer Madness (1936)

Filmed as Tell Your Children by a church coalition -- intended as an educational treatise on the dangers of drug use, concerned/easily frightened parents the target audience -- the footage was re-edited by savvy investors and the retitled Reefer Madness became an underground classic on college campuses and the midnight movie circuit during the 1970s. A bizarre pastiche of blatant misinformation, clunky scripting, and campy overacting; no plot, just thinly connected vignettes detailing the criminal hi-jinks "marihuana" inspires among fiendish "hop-heads," including but not limited to: unmarried cohabitation, misadventure by automobile, rape, suicide, murder, and (shudder) jitterbugging. Scandal! At least the drug dealers, in their snappy suits and fedoras, look respectable. Why, you'd never know the evil at your doorstep, dressed up all fancy, just like the Devil himself is apt to be.... The 'Rifftrax' edition from Legend Films includes commentary from Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)

In a distant quadrant of space, an ongoing war between humans and Cylons --sentient, human-like cybernetic creatures -- enters its endgame following a sneak nuclear attack on human outposts (the Twelve Colonies of Kobol and primary planet Caprica), which are thoroughly destroyed. A handful of survivors escape by taking to whatever ships are nearby. This cobbled fleet falls under the stewardship of the only remaining warship, the Battlestar Galactica, and its beleaguered commander, Admiral Adama. Newly-elected President Laura Roslin, battling cancer and susceptible to drug-induced visions, instructs the skeptical Adama to chart a course for the legendary lost Thirteenth Colony (Planet Earth, duh) guided only by religious artifacts and vague prophesy derived from ancient polytheistic scriptures. Adama is grumpy about it, but follows orders, understanding that people need a more constructive, positive goal than merely maintaining their desperate flight from the relentless Cylons. They need to find a new home.

The mortal plight of these 50,000-odd remaining human beings is counterbalanced by the schemes and needs of the Cylons. They are a race eons old; twelve clone "models" of Cylon are known to exist, but only seven have been identified. The "Final Five" models have critical internal, subconscious knowledge of their racial genesis, but are scattered among the remaining human population, their memories erased and masked by new identities. To fulfill their destiny and forward their monotheistic system of religion/prophesy, the Cylons want to reunite with the Final Five, find their own way to Earth, and establish a permanent home world. But the "Significant Seven" are themselves divided about how to proceed: do they simply destroy the remaining humans (so the Final Five will then "download" into new clone bodies on their Resurrection Hub)? Or do they use, even team with, the humans to collectively find Earth and, eventually, peace? Even their primary pawn, human scientist Gaius Baltar, can't keep their machinations in order -- not that he tries much, being so sidetracked by his lust for Cylon Model #6 he can no longer tell reality from dream. A condition that may very well define the end (or is it the beginning?) of the Human Race....

War and Peace set in outer space; a serious SF drama about war, politics, culture, race, and the miraculous, unknowable nature of God. Showrunners David Eick and Ronald Moore remain philosophically pliable throughout, challenging viewers to pick a side, then painting the Cylons the same shade of Human as all the other human characters. Much that the 1970s-era show took for granted, this version cultivates and explores, building a world that supports two conflicting religions, neither of which can survive direct confrontation. This became problematic when it came to scripting an ending for the series, but the great strength of the overall Galactica narrative is in the questions it raises, less so the answers provided. Joss Whedon: "It's so passionate, textured, complex, subversive, and challenging that it dwarfs everything on TV."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Detective Sam Spade is hired by va-voom redhead Brigid O'Shaughnessy to find her sister ... only she doesn't have a sister, and people connected to the case keep winding up dead: a cargo ship's captain, a guy named Thursby, even Spade's business partner Archer. What's an amoral PI to do? Get to the bottom of it, of course, and in this case what everybody's chasing is a jewel-encrusted statuette of a black bird, paid in retribution by the Knights Templar to the King of Spain. Hooey, maybe -- but the bodies keep stacking up, so keeps Spade shifting allegiances in order to remain one step ahead of the law. John Huston's enduring take on Dashiell Hammett's quintessential grifter tale is still a hoot after eight decades. Humphrey Bogart is to Sam Spade what Boris Karloff is to Frankenstein's Monster. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet turn in equally iconic performances as villains each looking to catch the mysterious Falcon for themselves. The penultimate scene, as the principals conspire to get their story straight for the authorities (and to hell with whatever really happened) is the greatest send-up of cozy butler-did-it mysteries ever concocted -- takes place in a parlor, even. Play it again, Sam.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Slither (2006)

Small-town lawman Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion, having a blast) is charged with protecting the province of Wheelsy just as a meteor lands and a space bug with a mission -- a reproductive mission -- hatches. Freakin' alien terrorist cells, I tell you what. The critter isn't choosy for a mate, picking the first target of opportunity, happens to be town boss Grant Grant, out in the woods with his mistress Brenda since his wife back home (the lovely Starla, who also happens to be Pardy's old unrequited love) won't give him any, boo hoo. Take a pinch of Alien (1979), a dash of Die Monster Die (1965), garnish liberally with some From Beyond (1986), next thing you know Grant has mutated into a giant space slug and taken up stealing raw meat so he can feed Brenda, whom he's tucked away in an abandoned barn while she... gestates. Not to give it away, an unholy rain of brain-eating space slugs ensues. Something for everyone. Lovecraftian homage to creature features of yore; James Gunn's witty script and direction target the funny bone as much as the gross-out gizzard. This is how a dud becomes an underground cult classic.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (1997)

Errol Morris documentary focuses on four oddballs: a sculptor of topiary hedges, a lion tamer, an engineer who builds insect-like robots, and the world's foremost expert on the mole rat. Morris crosscuts footage of his subjects weighing in on what their obsessions mean to them with bizarre stock footage from old newsreels, educational films, and cartoons, then layers dialogue from one subject over visual footage of another -- disorienting techniques that deliver unusual punctuation, and uncover common ground between these disparate men and their works. What first seems a kooky conceit gone wrong slowly gels into a deeper meditation about how our passions shape our lives. Sublime, weird, hilarious, moving.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Reliably inaccurate psychic Criswell clears his throat and warns audiences of "grave robbers from outer space" (the film's working title) as this Z-grade masterpiece from Ed Wood kicks off. Airline pilots report flying aluminum foil pie-tins wobbling through the California skies. Innocent gravediggers are brutally attacked by thin-waisted creature-feature movie host Vampira. At some point, police inspector Tor Johnson becomes a zombie (plot twist: no one can tell the difference). Bela Legosi dies in real life, does not become a zombie, is replaced by the director's chiropractor (plot twist: everyone can tell the difference). Cops scratch their foreheads with their revolvers and stumble over cardboard tombstones while muttering dialogue so inept, it doubles back to a Zen-like grace: "It's tough to find something when you don't know what you're looking for." Fey aliens wrestle with cheap prop curtains and cross their arms in salute just before their own zombies choke them to death. Smart viewers seek solace in illicit medication. A classic of its kind, as the kids say.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The House that Dripped Blood (1971)

Robert Bloch-scripted anthology film from the always excellent Amicus Productions centers around a sinister rental property and the misfortunes of those who reside there. In "Method for Murder," a thriller writer (Denholm Elliott) is literally pestered by his latest creation, a dastardly strangler named Dominic. He is believed only by Stephen King, who cribs the idea for his novel The Dark Half. Meanwhile, Peter Cushing obsesses over a "Waxworks" museum where one of the displays resembles a former paramour. That Salome was a real head case, turns out. In "Sweets to the Sweet," Christopher Lee plays a frosty widow/father who disallows his daughter any toys or even friendship with other children; her new tutor takes umbrage but soon learns about the voodoo she do. Finally, a prissy horror film actor (Jon Pertwee) searches a curio shop for suitable vampire attire for his next picture. But "The Cape" he purchases is a little too realistic, as his co-star already knows, beautiful bloodsucker that she is. Fun atmosphere, brisk storytelling, numerous genre in-jokes, including several swipes taken at contemporary critics who complained about Hammer's typical gore and violence; at one point while wandering the wax museum, Cushing strolls dismissively past a figure of his co-star Lee as Dracula. But it's Pertwee who gets the best stuff, at one point mulling a mantle portrait of himself in his Doctor Who garb. The framing device -- a Scotland Yard officer investigating the disappearance of Pertwee's character -- has a weak payoff, but the individual stories are what counts.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The first of Hammer's Frankenstein series (and the only to feature Christopher Lee as the semi-titular Monster, though Peter Cushing would recur as Victor Frankenstein) also marks the start of the studio's long run of horror classics, establishing production aesthetics that continue to influence filmmakers. Dodging Universal at every turn (lawsuits awaited if the new film in any way resembled their iconic versions), Sangster's screenplay cribbed much from Mary Shelley's novel which had been discarded by James Whale, focusing on Frankenstein's immoral studies, propensity to murder, and descent into Mad Science rather than on the monster he creates, a mere symptom of his true ills. Terence Fisher's film is a feast for the eyes, summoning a deeply Gothic atmosphere straight away. Phil Leakey's creature make-up veered considerably from Jack Pierce's famous Karloff applications; the Creature suffers a more stitched-up, gruesome visage. Tame by latter-day standards, this tale of dark deeds and harsh consequences was initially panned for violence and gore by critics missing the film's subtle nuances: Was the Monster a figment of murderous Frankenstein's imagination? Or is his former accomplice Paul Krempe simply getting the last laugh as the Baron is led to the scaffold, the place where he acquired so many of the parts that went into his work? A cornerstone of modern horror.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Evilspeak (1981)

Coopersmith (a suitably miserable-looking Clint Howard) is admitted to a private military academy as a kind of charity case following the deaths of his parents. This being the kind of military academy where the hoary personnel in charge slyly approve of cadets torturing the underachievers, Coopersmith has a rough time of it. For punishment duty (though his crimes, beyond clumsiness, and lateness to class attributable to his classmates stealing his alarm clock, are never disclosed) he is sent to the basement of the abbey to "clean up." The school custodian, an old drunkard named Sarge who happens to live in said basement, doesn't much like this, but what the hell, it leaves him more time for whiskey. Besides, Coopersmith is mostly out of sight, especially after discovering a sub-basement filled with books of black magic. He steals a Tandy TRS-80 from the computer lab, lugs it down to his newfound lair, finds an electrical outlet in a cave otherwise illuminated only by the light of black candles, and starts coding passages from those dusty old pentagram-decorated books into the mainframe. The computer answers! The earliest version of the Internet was a gateway to a Hellmouth, who knew? Some brand of Satan worship ensues, wax dummies spurt red syrup, and at some point a nude woman in a bathtub gets eaten by possessed pigs, I kid you not. A lot of bad data went into the screenplay; garbage in, garbage out.