Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Weekly Watchlist: October 1st to 7th, 2017 [Pt. 2]

Watching movies this first week of October was not only interrupted by the various television shows I was bingeing (on top of my normal duties as a stay at home dad) but also a free HBO weekend on Hulu. Once I discovered that HBO had made their library free to all Hulu customers until Monday morning, that became all I watched. I knew I wouldn't be able to get through a series, but I watched as many movies as I could, focusing primarily on the Oscar nominated films I had not yet been able to catch. Of course a horror film or two snuck in there, but it just wasn't my priority over that weekend, meaning the 1st, and part of the 2nd, contained very little in the way of seasonal viewing. What follows below is the complete list of what I watched this week, and some brief discussion about a few of the more noteworthy films.

The Films:

Circle (2015) This one hopped to the top of my Netflix queue due to a very loose connection I have to it. Or should I say, my wife has. One of her coworkers is dating an actress who appeared in the film, and my wife said it had sounded interesting. She was right; it did sound interesting. A group of 30-some people awake to find themselves standing in a completely black room, circled around a podium where an orb sits and occasionally crackles with electric energy. The people are standing shoulder to shoulder, each in their own red circle. If they step out of the circle, the orb in the center of the room shoots out some lightning and kills them. If they try to touch another person, the orb kills them. Every two minutes someone is killed by the orb, and the people in the circle quickly conclude that they can vote for each other, and the person with the most votes gets killed off. Circle is one of those high-concept sci-fi films full of psychological hokum that I almost always enjoy, like CubeCoherenceAfter, or the similarly premised Belko ExperimentCircle is also a film I happened to not enjoy.

I think my main problem with it was the pacing, and the speed at which the story moves before it slows down a bit towards the end. The characters all figure everything out way too quickly, within the first ten minutes, in order to get to what the filmmakers probably considered the meat of the story: how groups of people will turn on each other to survive. The problem is that this removes any real mystery or sense of discovery from the beginning of the film, as we're presented with the rules very early on and then just have to watch increasingly shrill and awful people decide to kill the weakest among them. This also leads to some groan-worthy exposition and leaps of logic as people figure out how to control who gets killed with no real effort, just some quickly babbled nonsense. At first I thought this implied a mole in the group, but (spoiler alert) no, it was just lazy writing There was also a problem with the pacing of the film, as I said. The orb kills someone every two minutes, no more no less, and so the dwindling group of survivors has two minutes to talk and try to discover a way out of their predicament once somebody is killed. The film is presented in real time, yet for the first 20 minutes of the film the orb often gives the group much less than 2 minutes, while by the end it's giving more than that amount. A small quibble, maybe, but it was annoying.

The Purge: Election Year (2016) My second year working at Halloween Horror Nights the theme was The Purge, and it was decidedly un-Halloween. Guests would walk around a corner and someone in an intentionally cheap mask (mimicking the masks in the film, of course) wearing a tuxedo would walk up and point a gun at their heads. Sometimes people with chainsaws would lunge at them, too. I was disappointed all season long, because nothing about it seemed appropriate, or in the proper spirit. Personally, I would not consider the Purge films to be horror, or at least I would consider them horror in only the loosest sense. I'm not trying to be a pedant here, but the films have just never been scary, and don't really seem interested in scaring people beyond a couple obligatory jump scares. The only thing that causes the films to be filed under horror are their general aesthetic and focus on gore. I would actually consider the films to be grimier-than-most action flicks. But these films are categorized as horror, and labels can be so slippery when discussing genre films anyway, so I'll go ahead and add it to the scorecard for my Halloween viewing.

Or perhaps I should be more forgiving to the Purge films. Certainly they do what all great horror movies do by tapping into a prevalent fear of the day. These days, when we have more mass shootings then there are days in the year, when every large gathering brings with it the fear that some madman with a gun will choose to cut down dozens of civilians, when every parent worries about not whether their child will fit in at school, but whether one of their classmates came to school with their parent's gun, and our elected politicians respond to the largest mass shooting we've seen by explaining to us why we can't do anything about gun violence, the Purge films do tap into something. It certainly seems in this country that we've become resigned to random mass shootings, and it's beginning to feel like the victims of those shootings are our sacrificial offerings in order to live in America. In that light, a film about an annual culling of the poor and helpless orchestrated by wealthy politicians seems like the perfect vehicle for exploring very real anxieties. It's so obvious that you can't even call it a metaphor; the films directly address the world we live in today. The problem is, the Purge films just aren't very good.

The original Purge was a forgettable home invasion film that introduced the concept of an annual murder-fest in a film that never actually revolved around said murder-fest. It was decent enough, bolstered mainly by Ethan Hawke giving it his all in a film that did not deserve it, and the reliable thrills of vicariously watching characters mount a makeshift defense of their home. I had a lot of issues with both the plot and also the general world building of the film, as the purge did not make sense to me. Not only could I not see it actually becoming the law of the land, but I had serious questions about how the rules of that society as presented would function. Putting that aside, the biggest flaw was that The Purge never became about the purge, it was a standard home invasion flick with some lip service towards dystopian horror. The second film, The Purge: Anarchy, was a massive improvement over the first, and while not a film I've ever felt driven to revisit, it was one I actually enjoyed. It took the major problems of the first film and seemed to address them all. The world was fleshed out significantly by shifting the focus from one family being stalked by rich kids to an ensemble piece focusing on several characters over the night in question. The film's varied locales and multiple points of view pointed a way towards the Purge films becoming almost an anthology series of desperate characters struggling against a violent dystopian society.

At first glance Purge: Election Year continues to make good on the promise of the second film. It expands our knowledge of the world by shifting the focus to politics, and also to the groups of people who try to fight the purge (a pair of women who drive around in a fortified ambulance and help victims when they find them, an underground resistance movement focused on more violent means of governmental overthrow). In practice, however, the film represents a marked step backwards. Not only is Election Year the cheapest looking of the Purge films by far, it features some of the weakest acting in the series, and definitely the worst dialogue. Five minutes in I had lost count of how many times various characters had used the word 'cunt' in casual conversation.

By the end of the film I had quite lost interest in any of the events, and lost track of the plot for awhile as my mind drifted off to more engaging things. I realized I am probably done with The Purge, though I see a fourth film is in development for release next year, and I have to admit I'll probably watch it eventually.

A Ghost Story (2017) Lest you think I watched nothing but shitty movies all week, I did watch at least one film I believe is destined to become a classic. A Ghost Story's release came and went with generally positive, but also pretty divisive critical reactions. Myself I'm going to have to watch the film again and spend some time pondering it's dreamlike conception of our place within the vastness of time, but I do want to list it here as a recommendation. The film has a deliberate and elliptical pace that may not be for everyone, and certainly its level of pretension is higher than that of your average blockbuster, but I've always been a fan of pretension, and of unconventional chronology in films. A Ghost Story is definitely not a horror film, despite its title and the fact that it is about a literal ghost, but it is a very moving and engaging piece of work. The central image, of a ghost that is actually just the old Halloween standby of a sheet with eyeholes cut into it, may strike some as amusing at first, but it evolves to become a strikingly evocative and expressive figure. Worth your time.

The Incident (2014) This is the feature length debut from Isaac Ezban, who seems eager to make a name as the Mexican Rod Serling. I'd seen his second feature, The Similars, previously, and his contribution to the Mexican horror anthology Mexico Barbaro, and while neither film exactly set my world on fire, they did intrigue me enough to check this one out. At the time I said about The Similars that it was an odd, funny movie, but that I wasn't sure how in on the joke the filmmakers were. It was such a ridiculous concept with such ridiculous visuals (while sheltering in a bus station during a near-apocalyptic storm a group of strangers all begin transorming into the same bearded man), but also treated completely seriously. It was as if the film had no real sense of humor about itself. It was not a great film, but it appealed to me for many of the reasons I cited above when discussing Circle. It also explicitly acknowledged its debt to The Twilight Zone through some voiceover and distressed visual style meant to evoke an older lost film.

The Incident is very much more of the same. The film follows to parallel storylines, one in the present day, and on in the mid-eighties. The first storyline follows two criminal brothers and the cop that is chasing them. After trying to escape through their apartment's stairwell, one of the brothers is shot by the cop, and they find the stairwell has become an eternal loop. Going down to the first floor takes them back to the 9th, and going up takes them to the 1st. In the second storyline, set 35 years earlier, a married couple and two children embark on a roadtrip to take the children to visit their biological father. On a deserted stretch of highway the daughter begins suffering an asthma attack, and when they turn around to race back home and get her inhaler, the family discovers the highway has become... an eternal loop. Are the two stories connected? I think you can figure that part out on your own.

I enjoyed The Incident at about the same level, and for many of the same reasons, as The Similars. In fact I was ready to say that The Incident was the superior film, as it seemed to have a firmer grasp on the message it was trying to convey. The film has some interesting things to say about how violence can be almost like a physical illness, passed on from perpretator to victim to witness, creating an endless chain going on to the end of time. It ruined that, however, in a silly ending that tries to hard to explain what was already obvious, and by bringing in some really ridiculous metaphysical elements that were not even hinted at in the preceding film. Anyone who's read this far will probably have a good idea of whether they'd want to see it or not, but I would call it a qualified recommendation for those looking for a little Twilight Zone weirdness.

Elsewhere in the week I also watched The Attic (2007), a horror film from Mary Lambert, director of Pet Sematary, and starring  Mad Men's Elizabeth Moss. It's a film that is almost inconcievably bad, considering it was made by an experienced director who has done good work in the past. It's not just a creative misfire, but a laughably amateurish production that should be expunged from her record. In response to wasting time on The Attic, I lost any urge to watch something new and so popped in a movie I knew I would enjoy: It Follows (2014). This is my first rewatch of the year, and it will be my unending shame that I had tickets to the AFI Festival screening of this film in 2014, and skipped out on going because I was too tired after a long day of work. It Follows is a genuine masterpiece, and even on second viewing had me on the edge of my seat.

I watched a Godzilla flick with my daughter: Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah. My daughter is an emerging Godzilla fan, and I was happy to revisit one of the Heisei films, featuring one of my favorite running exchanges about peoples inability to grasp that a spaceship is actually a time machine (a gag ruined by the fact that I originally watched this film dubbed, and the subtitling, which is probably more accurate, simplifies the exchanges). Through Shout Factory's website I streamed Bad Moon (1996), a werewolf film I had somehow never watched. It was fairly mediocre, but I always enjoy a monster. I also thought that, for the time, the digital composite effects used to create the transformation, while nowhere near as good as something practical like American Werewolf in London, were still surprisingly solid. Also on Scream Factory I checked out Nomads (1986), which I only knew about from seeing the cover in the video store as a kid. It was surprisingly dull and convoluted, with Pierce Brosnan trying out the worst and most inconsistent French accent I think I've ever heard.

It Comes at Night (2017) was an artful post-apocalypse of the killer virus variety. The film never explains exactly what is going on, but relies in part on our overfamiliarity with the genre to dispense with the boring expositionary scenes and get straight to the dramatic struggle between the survivors in their isolated refuge. I found it a handsomely staged production on all accounts that still never quite wowed me. And finally, Long Weekend (1978) was the most surprising film of the week. A nature run amok film from Australia, Long Weekend follows a truly despicable married couple as they go on a weekend camping trip, seemingly to save their marriage. Along the way they casually kills a variety of animals and destroy their environment by throwing their waste everywhere, until the very earth itself seems to rise up in revolt. I went in expecting a gonzo horror film with animals attacking and maybe some shocking gore, but ended up watching a surprisingly eerie film about two people being swallowed by nature. It was truly creepy, and more haunting than horrific. One that I'll definitely be returning to.

To see my numerical ratings, and follow along with everything else I'm watching, you can check out my letterboxd profile here:

Monday, October 09, 2017

Weekly Watchlist: October 1st to 7th, 2017 [Pt. 1]

Well, this Halloween sure is off to a slow start for me. I'm watching horror movies when I can (which is, as always, not as often as I'd like), reading some spooky stories before bed, working on some seasonal writing projects both solo and with my pal Rik (proprietor of The Cinema 4 Pylon, and my partner in We Who Watch Behind the Rows and Visiting & Revisiting), but still it just doesn't feel like Halloween yet. Partly that may be due to the weather, which has turned unseasonably warm once again after a few refreshing weeks of near-autumnal cool in September (well, Autumnal for Southern California, which isn't really very cool at all). The biggest factor, I feel, is that this year I'm not working the Halloween Horror Nights event at Universal Studios, which I did for the last three years.

Halloween Horror Nights worked as a great jumpstart to the season, beginning my Halloween in mid-September when I would begin spending four nights a week down at the Bates Motel, in the open night air surrounded by Walking Dead zombies the first year, Purge killers the second year, and killer clowns the third. It was without a doubt the most fun thing I've ever been paid for. My first year I was a new hire, but my second and third years I went back as a team lead in charge of the Bates Motel. I loved it each year, even the third year, when various managerial frustrations became so bad that I almost walked away from the event and rejoined day operations in the park. Even though I would come home with a laundry list of complaints every night, and I really was annoyed and frustrated, part of me also still loved it. Just to be in that location, seeing and hearing people getting scared all night, spending time with my coworkers who were uniformly great, eating lunch at a table packed with zombies, was great. It relaxed me in a way, though I spent each night on my feet and running back and forth putting out fires (figuratively, of course). 

This year I am without that framework that would normally get me into the Halloween spirit, but on top of that, I am fully unemployed. I don't necessarily mind that part, as it has been allowing me to spend the last few weeks as a stay-at-home dad, taking care of my kids and preparing meals and trying to relax. but it does have some very real drawbacks. And lets not even get into the socio-political landscape we live in, which seems to become more nightmarish with every passing day. I want to say that I am not actively depressed, and am generally in a pretty good mood every day, but all of these things together have left me feeling less seasonally festive than normal.

All of that will hopefully explain why I got a bit of a late start on my Halloween viewing this year. While I usually begin the month of October with a vague framework of movies and books set aside to watch and read, this year I've been playing it by ear. What follows is the list of what films and television shows I've been watching so far to get into the Halloween mood.

The Television Shows:

I want to briefly discuss a show I did not watch this week, but that more or less started the ball rolling in my Halloween preparations. Stan Against Evil,  the horror-sitcom from comedian Dana Gould that is about to begin its second season on IFC. If I were to be strictly objective about the show, it would in no way convey how much I actually enjoyed watching it. If I were being brutally honest, I would say that much of the Stan Against Evil is overly familiar, the jokes all seem a bit too easy, and the gore is primarily of the digital variety, but I would also say that I didn't mind any of that and had a lot of fun watching the show. A lot of that lies in the casting, with John C. McGinley as the title character, a recently retired sheriff in a town where, due to a witch's curse in the 1600s, every sheriff has been killed violently on the job. Stan is in fact the only sheriff ever to make it to retirement age, for reasons that are revealed in the pilot episode. Actress/comedian Janet Varney plays Stan's replacement, brought in after Stan violently assaults an elderly woman at his wife's funeral. Don't worry, the woman was a witch threatening his life, so he's not entirely unhinged.

If the show works, it's generally due to John C. McGinley's performance as the gruff ex-sheriff. The character was modeled after Dana Gould's own father, and the specificity adds a lot to the character's general appeal. I wouldn't say he has charm, because he's never less than insulting or intentionally offputting towards every other character we meet, but it's hard not to like McGinley in the role. McGinley specializes in verbose macho jerks, and it would be easy to just slot his Dr. Cox character from Scrubs into this series, but McGinley turns down his normal energy for a much more grounded New England stoicism.

I began watching Stan Against Evil on the night of the day I got fired from a new job that I had been very excited and hopeful about. In general I was in an unproductive malaise for a good week or two after the firing, and Stan Against Evil was a great help during those first few days. The night I began watching, I was sitting like a lump on my couch, while my wife worked on some cross stitching next to me. I couldn't think of anything to watch that I wanted to expend the energy to concentrate on, so after a few minutes of scrolling through Hulu and Netflix and Amazon, I settled on Stan Against Evil. I recognized straightaway the problems with the show that I've already mentioned, but it also completely won me over from the opening scene. It was visual comfort food, a supremely silly and lighthearted series that required little investment on the part of the viewer. I could start it up whenever I felt like it and for 22 minutes just let the goofiness wash over me. Owing to my lack of a cable package, I'll have to wait awhile for season two to make it to Hulu, but when it does I'll most assuredly be binging the entire thing. In fact, I may squeeze in a rewatch of the first season just to keep myself sated.

More pertinent to the topic of this piece, which is ostensibly about movies and shows I watched during the first week of October, is the seventh season of The Walking Dead, a show which should need no introduction from me, and if I'm being honest I don't have a ton to say about. I wasn't a huge fan of this show at first, which started with one of the best pilot episodes in recent memory, but then became a little less interesting with each subsequent episode. I stuck around the dismal second season more out of stubbornness than anything else. The show was not only boring, but it was too easy to see the hands of the writer guiding every character. Characters would do idiotic things not because that was in their nature, but because the writers needed to spice things up, or move pieces into position for a planned confrontation. Characters would behave inconsistently from one scene to the next, motivations would change or be forgotten, and it became more and more embarrassing that the show would only add a new black character once the previous one had been killed. Season three showed marginal improvement, mainly by getting characters out of the farmhouse that killed momentum in the previous season, but it still suffered from many of the same writing problems that plagued the previous two seasons. Season four started to really come together, and although it still wasn't great, it was consistently improving to the point that even the episodes I didn't like I at least appreciated for the way they were trying to course correct. At this point, I look forward to each new season dropping onto Netflix, and my wife and I usually burn through the season in a couple days.

When this latest season premiered I was actually working in the Walking Dead attraction at Universal Studios. Since I watch the shows on Netflix, I'm behind the times and have to make sure I leave the room when people start talking about the show, which I knew would be a must once the new season premiered. If you remember season six, it ended with a cliffhanger where we knew someone in the main group had just been killed, but we had no idea who it was. Amber and I had already planned on purchasing the episode on Amazon so we could watch it quickly and discover who had died before it could be spoiled for us, but unfortunately we just didn't act quickly enough. The season premiered on a Sunday, and I had no time to watch the episode due to conflicting work schedules. I showed up to work early Monday morning to set up the venue for the day, planning on watching the show as soon as I got home. I was the second person in after the supervisor, and my job was to get the place set up, do safety checks and equipment checks, and prepare daily paperwork. My plan was to get through the day without engaging in discussion of the television show, and I was already prepared to shush people who wanted to talk to me about it. I arrived at work, grabbed the daily meeting paperwork the supervisor had printed out, and right there taking up half the page was a picture of two prominent Walking Dead cast members and the large-type caption "Rest in Peace [names redacted]." Shit. Surprise ruined. I'm not overly sensitive to spoilers in general, although I do try to avoid them, but this struck me as a bit cruel. Of course, I was able to keep my mouth shut for the rest of the day and not ruin it for Amber, although when we watched the episode later that night most of the tension had been removed from the long buildup to revealing who had died.

The show has become remarkably consistent over the past few years, and I find myself more and more engaged with the characters on screen, even characters I had previously not enjoyed. The widening of the scope of the show that started with season six's introduction of additional communities continued with this season, with the introduction of the incredibly entertaining Kingdom, the inscrutable trashpeople, and an isolated community composed of only women survivors of The Saviors. I know everyone loves Negan, the larger than life leader of the Saviors, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is really chewing the hell out of that part, but I was actually a little flumoxxed by how inconsistent he was as a threat. He's introduced beating two main characters to death, and then continues to terrorize everyone who crosses him in truly horrific manner. And yet, each time Rick's group defies him, his punishments never live up to what he's promised, and he spares the lives of people who have done far worse than others he has punished brutally.

I think the thing that keeps me engaged with The Walking Dead at this point, despite the continued flagging of my interest in zombie entertainment, is that the show learned awhile back how to inject a bit of humor, and that the point of the show should be hopeful rather than nihilistic. Sure, death comes to characters beloved, hated, or unknown, and it often comes at seemingly random intervals. Sure every few steps forward seem to come with a commensurate step back, but those steps forward are being taken. No matter how dire the situation gets, the takeaway is that we can regain our humanity, we can find a way forward.

Also, the effects team has really risen to the challenge of coming up with interesting zombie kills. Some really amazing practical effects on that show. That alone would keep me coming back, I'm just glad the rest of the show has caught up.

If you read my previous piece about Fear Itself, the fourth season Buffy the Vampire Slayer Halloween episode, you'll recall that my daughter was interested in the show enough that she asked if we could watch the rest of the series. We started that this week, and due to her spending a day home sick, and the general brevity of the first season run, we finished that on Friday night. It was the first time I'd seen the series in at least ten years, and it was an interesting experience revisiting it with her. In that earlier piece I already briefly went over my history with the show, so I'll skip that for now and just discuss the first season on its own.

Season one of Buffy, like most genre television shows, in retrospect feels more like a dry run for what the show would eventually evolve into. It's the rare show television show indeed that comes out of the gate fully formed and firing on all cylinders, but genre television shows in particular have a hard time in the beginning. I can think of only one sci-fi/fantasy show that has jumped onto our television screens with everything more or less in place, The X-Files, and even that show had its share of missteps in the first season. When it came to Buffy, my thought was always that the show only started to get interesting in season two, give or take a couple of bright spots in season one. Season one just came across as too silly, while much of the humor never quite landed. The actors weren't quite used to their roles, the writing hadn't yet deepened these characters in a manner that made their personal turmoils interesting, and visually the show could be unpleasant to look at. I had thought about starting my daughter off with season two, as the show develops in such a way that a new viewer could pretty much jump in whenever they wanted up until the final season, but in the end we started at the beginning (my completist nature would accept no less), and I withheld my opinions so she could make up her own mind. If she lost interest, I'd just tell her that the show improves and forge ahead.

So color me mildly surprised that I actually found myself really enjoying the first season. Maybe it had to do with the length of time since I had last seen it, and the nostalgia that had built up around the pop culture surrounding me in the late 90s (though I didn't watch Buffy during it's first season, I was certainly aware of it and the various pop culture accoutrements the show dressed itself in), or maybe it was my lowered expectations, but I found myself wondering why I had been so hard on the first season. Sure, the visual look of Buffy is altogether too dark and the film is too grainy, the action is amateurishly staged compared to what the show would be doing from the next season onwards, a lot of the humor falls flat, and some of the threats the gang faces are downright laughable, but it's also not nearly as bad as I remembered.  The show may not have been firing on all cylinders, to reuse that phrase, but you could see the pieces coming together over the season.

Definitely a real low point in the series.
The entirety of Buffy season one was filmed before a single episode had aired, which has some positives and some minuses. One of the positives is that it allowed Joss Whedon and Co. to pepper in some foreshadowing in a fairly organic manner, allowing the season-long arc dealing with The Master and the prophecy that he will kill Buffy to simmer along in the margins for the majority of the season. It also allowed the showrunners to develop a stable of extras so that the high school was filled with faces we would occasionally see again over the course of the season. Teachers would show up in the background, or students would pass by that we had seen before, making the high school feel more like an actual school. The biggest drawback, however, is one that is a danger to all television shows that are developed without audience reaction: they had no idea how the audience would react to the cast or the plot. A lot of shows undergo course correction as they run, as audience reaction can help writers discover what is and isn't working and react to that input. The fact that Buffy was written and directed before any audience had a chance to see it meant that they would not be able to react to any criticisms, they would have to trust that the show was on the right track. So it might count as a minor miracle that the show not only struck a chord with audiences, but found the right track on its own. There's a clear point at which season one seems to find the right balance of humor, horror, and high school dramatics, so that by the end of the twelve episode season a remarkably sturdy framework has been constructed that six future seasons will be built atop.

Currently, my daughter and I are a couple episodes into season two. With school all week we may only get through a handful of episodes by the time my next Watchlist piece goes up, but I'm really looking forward to rediscovering this old favorite.

Note: This piece was originally intended to cover both film and television, but I took so long with my intro, and the television discussions took up so much space, that I've decided to split this article in half. Check back soon for discussions of the eleven seasonally appropriate feature films I watched in this period.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

A Very Special Episode: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Fear Itself

Growing up, one of my favorite parts of the Halloween season were the Halloween specials that would air more and more frequently towards the end of the month. Possibly I enjoyed this even more than the act of trick or treating, which was undeniably fun and rewarding in terms of acquiring piles of candy, but also sometimes a chore. Halloween night in Anchorage, Alaska was often not the most pleasant time to be wandering around outdoors. The temperatures would have dipped to the point where I would have to wear my costume over bulky snow gear, if I was lucky, and under the snow gear, if I was not, so that all that was visible of my costume would be my face. That is not to say I ever avoided trick or treating. Some nights I would make multiple trips, never to the same house twice, so that I could head home and warm up for a few minutes and empty my often stuffed-to-the-brim bag of candy. But still those nights are cold, in  a way that can cut through even the thickest jacket, and heading inside for the night would become more and more appealing as the night wore on. Once inside, with my pile of candy in front of me, after my mom had gone through and checked to make sure everything was factory sealed and had no tears or holes in the packaging (Providence Hospital provided free screenings of candy for parents nervous about poisoning or razorblades, but I grew up in a pretty nice neighborhood where we knew a large number of our neighbors personally, and so a cursory visual exam was usually all we needed to make sure things were safe), I would sit on the floor or couch and gorge myself on candy while watching whatever Halloween programming I could find.

Halloween specials started to fall out of fashion eventually, but when I was a kid it seemed every sitcom or procedural drama on the air would do a spooky Halloween themed episode. Sometimes the Halloween trappings would amount to nothing more than some costumes and decorations, though sometimes the showrunners would take the seasonal opportunity to indulge in a little supernatural hijinks, maybe explaining it away as a dream, maybe just letting it stay there, never to be remarked upon again. On one end of the spectrum is a show like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which does a Halloween episode every year, but keeps it within the reality of the show as the characters indulge in some seasonal shenanigans. On the other end is something like the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror, in which all rules that normally govern the show are thrown out in favor of anthology horror tales where, often, some of the regular cast dies. These types of episodes are usually non-canonical, and take place in a sort of Elseworlds version of the show. The sweet spot for me lies somewhere in the middle; a show where the Halloween episode exists within the show's overall reality, but allows the supernatural to creep in in a way that would otherwise not be possible without, as they say, jumping the shark.

For this Halloween season, on top of my regular viewings of horror movies and my regular readings of horror books, I've decided to revisit some of my favorite Halloween specials. I'll be discussing five of them here this month, and though I'll be watching a lot more than that I think I've already narrowed it down to my desired list. But, of course, things may change. So now, without further ado, allow me to welcome you to the first entry in A Very Special Episode, charting some noteworthy, at least to me, Halloween specials from, (generally) my childhood.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Fear Itself (Season 4, episode 4)
Written by David Fury, Directed by Tucker Gates
Original Air Date: October 26, 1999

This episode is the most recent of the specials I've chosen to cover this year, and the only one that aired after I could be called, legally if not emotionally, an adult. It is also the only show in which the dark supernatural aspects present in the Halloween special are actually part of the normal makeup of the show. I almost saved this one for later, or bypassed it altogether because it slightly breaks the pattern of the rest of the shows I'll be talking about, but then I remembered how great Fear Itself is, and that watching it again would give me an opportunity to introduce my thirteen year old daughter to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I came late to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, mostly missing out on the first two seasons. This was owing mainly to the fact that in the pre-DVR era you were at the mercy of the television schedule, and if something conflicted with that schedule, of you weren't the only one in the house with an interest in the television, you were out of luck. I didn't actually start catching episodes regularly until the third season, when I was in college and my schedule meant that I frequently caught episodes while other students watched it in the common room. And it still wasn't until the fifth season, when I was living in an apartment on my own, that I began to actively watch Buffy every week as it aired. For the rest of its run I would not miss a single Buffy episode, and by the sixth season I was watching it semi-regularly with friends. Also, by the end of the sixth season, I was living with my future wife, who has had little patience for my Buffy fandom over the years. Now, twenty years after the series first premiered, I decided it was time to introduce my daughter to the show, and used this opportunity to start her off with one of my favorite episodes.

The first thing I noticed when watching Fear Itself for the first time in at least a decade, compounded by the fact that I was watching it with someone who had no prior information about the world of the show, was how integral the serialized elements of the show were to what I mostly remembered as a standalone episode. A lot of time is spent in the first half of the episodes following the characters as they navigate their daily lives and the problems, mostly romantic in nature, that plague them. Buffy is in a funk brought on by the fact that the boy she was falling for turned out to only be interested in a one night stand, while she also steadily falls behind in her college course work. Willow is experiencing her own romantic strife with her werewolf boyfriend Oz, who expresses concern that Willow is diving too quickly into witchcraft. Xander is still trying to figure out where he stands with ex-vengeance demon Anya, who at this point he has been kinda-sorta dating for a short time, while also fending off strong bouts of insecurity brought about by the fact that he's the only member of the gang not going to college, and without any supernatural abilities. Also lurking around the edges are future Buffy boyfriend Riley, subtle intimations of the health troubles that will plague Buffy's mother in the next season, and the shadowy government agency that's been stirring up trouble in Sunnydale.

All the personal drama takes up almost half of this episode, and there aren't even any intimations of the threat the gang will be facing until 15 minutes in, when Oz accidentally bleeds onto a decorative occult symbol that some frat boys are painting on the floor as part of their Halloween preparations. Unseen by anyone else in the room, a plastic spider within the magical circle becomes a real spider and crawls away. Cut to commercial. And still it takes another ten minutes of interpersonal drama before the gang arrives at the haunted house party (a metaphorical haunted house, the house itself is not normally haunted) and discovers the threat inside. Cut to another commerical. This is an awful lot of screentime to devote when you've only got 43 minutes, minus opening and closing credits, to tell your story, and yet it's integral to not only why the episode works, but why Buffy as a television series was so successful.

A lot of people claim season three to be their favorite season of Buffy, owing to the introduction of some fan-favorite characters and, in the Mayor, the best season villain (or Big Bad in the show's parliance, a term coined by the show that has since entered the common lexicon) the show would ever have. Season three is when Buffy really began to fire on all cylinders. The first two seasons are still great, but season three is when the show came into its own and the humor, scares, drama, and general writing quality all began to work in harmony. For my money, however, season four beats season three in all but one aspect: the villain. It's true, the Mayor is an incredibly charismatic, engaging, and entertaining villain, a man who's aw-shucks Boy Scout demeanor belies a ruthless devotion to the dark arts that has kept him alive for over a century, a perfect foil for Buffy. No other Big Bad quite matches his appeal, but season four suffers for placing perhaps the show's weakest villain so closely to its best. 

Adam also looks fairly silly.
The main villain of season four is, for much of the season, The Initiative, the shadowy government agency listed above. It's a bit of an odd addition to Buffy's mythology, bringing a dash of X-Files conspiracy to a series that had primarily been interested in myth and magic. They don't mesh with the rest of the show, and fail to become very interesting. Eventually the threat of The Initiative leads into the threat of Adam, a Frankenstein's Monster style reanimated corpse being trained as a super soldier. I actually enjoy the performance of the actor portraying Adam, but the character himself is dull by design and lacks the dynamic personality of the Mayor. 

If you look at the season beyond merely its villain, season four shines in every other category. Season four contains some of the series' sharpest comedic writing and its most successful blending of serialization and standalone episodes. The trend in dramatic television these days is towards tighter seasons and an emphasis on serialization, where every episode needs to be about the show itself, and needs to be focused on moving the story forward. This has led to some great television, without a doubt, but I do miss the days of 22 episode seasons, where every once in awhile you would get an episode that was just the characters hanging out together, dealing with one specific threat, without it having to be about only moving the story forward (for the record, I think Breaking Bad is maybe the best-case example of the current trend towards hyper-serialization, as each episode pushed the storyline forward but also kept its focus solely on character). Buffy in its fourth season had the best handle on this balancing act, as even the throwaway episodes that have no bearing on the overarching plot include some incremental movement forward. There's even an episode that hinges on a magical wish changing reality, that ends with everything back the way it began and the episode's events more or less erased from existence, and it still features one major development that sets the course of events for the finale. This has always been my go-to explanation for Buffy's greatness: the show knew when to switch gears and allow the fans to just enjoy these characters being their charming likable selves, but also knew how to weave in more long-form storytelling. 

Fear Itself is written by David Fury, and it's his fourth script for the series overall, but his first after being hired on as a regular writer and producer. David Fury would become one of the most reliable names in the Buffy credits, alongside Jane Espensen, Marti Noxon, Douglas Petrie, and Whedon himself. He would also go on to become an important voice in the spinoff series Angel, helping that show find its footing and grow out of its awkward phase into more than just a Buffy clone. Fury's episodes tended to hit the sweet spot between funny and scary, and showed a deft hand at serving the individual characters as well as the genuine schocks, which is evident in Fear Itself when the gang arrives at the frat party (filmed, coincidentally, in the same house as season one of American Horror Story) to discover that something is making everybody's fears manifest: rubber spiders become real, decorative skeletons become rotted zombies, peeled grapes actually do become slimy eyeballs. Good stuff. All of the personal drama in the front half of this episode may seem in the broad strokes to be a perfunctory attempt to keep all of these running storylines moving before going on to the good stuff, but the two are actually so closely intertwined that it would be impossible to have either section of this episode work without the other. 

Oz's fear that he won't be able to control his lycanthropic tendencies and will eventually hurt someone he cares about manifests itself when he begins to change into a werewolf despite it not being a full moon. Willow's insecurity over being always stuck in the sidekick role causes her conjuring of a spirit guide to split off into dozens of separate guides, one for each course of action she can't decide on. Xander feels that he is being left behind by his friends both socially and mentally, and he becomes invisible to them, lost in the house unable to communicate (in a callback to season one episode Out of Mind, Out of Sight). Buffy's fear is the least remarked upon in the episode itself, but also perhaps the most complicated. She finds herself alone as the house separates the group, and it underlines the fear she has that she will never be anything but the Slayer, that no matter how she tries she will only ever be defined by this one aspect of her life, and will never have a normal existence.

If all of this sounds a bit too involved, or possibly even dull, for a series about a bubbly blonde teenager fighting back the forces of darkness, it should be noted that Fear Itself is a legitimately scary hour of television, punctuated by some great bits of humor (Giles' continuing descent into Dad On Vacation mode with his garish Halloween decorations and giant sombrero; Anya's revelation that there is nothing scarier to this ex-demon than bunnies; Giles responding to the mystical forces creating a maze of the frat house by simply using a chainsaw to cut a path through the building). Buffy The Vampire Slayer did two other Halloween-specific episodes over the course of its seven seasons, and while both of them are good fun, Fear Itself is a true classic, aided in large part by its abrupt and somewhat unexpected ending. 

As should surprise no one watching this show, the occult symbol painted on the floor turned out to be part of a summoning ritual, in this case a ritual to summon a fear demon called Gachnar. Gachnar, in the woodcut drawing we see of him, resembles a more feral cousin of Clive Barker's Cenobites from the Hellraiser series, all sharp teeth and long claws and tight leather straps. He appears to be an opponent worth fearing, and in Buffy's rush to avoid a fight she inadvertently completes the summoning spell and unleashes Gachnar on the world. I'm not going to actually spell out the ending of this episode, on the off chance that anyone reading this has not actually seen the episode in question and yet still plans to do so, but it does involve a fantastic visual gag and a terrific punchline of a closing line. 

There was a point about a decade ago where I thought Buffy would eventually join the pantheon of great television shows, shows that illustrate what the medium is capable of while also pushing forward the standards to which a television show should be held. That hasn't quite turned out to be the case, as Buffy's reputation has slightly fallen over the years. To be sure, the fandom behind Buffy, and also Joss Whedon, remains fervent and supportive, but the public conversation has also died down a bit. Gone are the days when fans would organize singalong screenings of the Buffy musical episode from season six, and even Whedon's own longrunning and very popular fansite was recently shuttered. Part of that probably has more to do with certain revelations regarding Whedon's personal life than it does with the quality of his work, but it also coincides with a general lack of interest in his style. Despite creating two of the cornerstones of modern nerd culture (Buffy and his short-lived space opera Firefly), and despite being one of the architect's of Marvel's current cinematic dominance, Joss Whedon's star has fallen somewhat, and the cultural discussion seems to be in the process of passing him by.

For myself, I'm still a fan. He's done too much intriguing and entertaining work for me to ever write him off, and I'll probably continue to check out whatever new projects he has. If it's a little dated, that is unfortunately unavoidable, and something you'll just have to get over if you expect to appreciate anything made more than a decade ago. As an example, I will say that this episode intrigued my daughter enough that she asked if we could watch the rest of the series. We are currently midway through season one, which is not the high point of the show, and she loves it. She wasn't even born yet when the series went off the air, and she's finding herself drawn into the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not for a minute is she put off by the incredibly dated fashions or odd Whedonesque slang. Beneath all of the cool-in-1999 trappings, beyond the vampires and demons and monsters, Buffy's themes remain universal.

Next on A Very Special Episode: Quantum Leap; The Boogieman

Sunday, May 21, 2017

My Secret History of Twin Peaks

The sound of wind through the trees. The pine needles sway and rustle against each other. Saws buzz in the lumber mill, the smokestacks piercing the sky. A lumber truck rolls past a small diner. The call of an owl. A telephone rings. The telephone on the table by the red chair. A lonesome foghorn blows. A dead girl, on the beach, wrapped in plastic.

Premiering in 1990, Twin Peaks was a true cultural phenomenon. More than just Must Watch TV, Twin Peaks hit the television landscape like a freight train, forever altering the way we watch. Across the country weekly viewing parties were held, complete with drinking games (with coffee, of course), cherry pie, and lots and lots of donuts. The cast graced the cover of nearly every publication you could think of. Parodies, homages, and subconscious emulations flooded the airwaves, while Twin Peaks references littered the monologues of late show hosts. Books both official and unofficial were rushed to market. 1-900 numbers were set up for viewers to catch up on pertinent details related to them by cast members. T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, trading cards, and board games filled the shelves, and everyone everywhere was asking the same question: Who Killed Laura Palmer?

That bubble did not last long. After the first season ignited the public's consciousness with only seven episodes (discounting the pilot), the second season failed to create the same spark, and the show was cancelled in 1991, with ABC burning off the remaining episodes unceremoniously. Thirty episodes were produced in total, along with a theatrical prequel chronicling the final week of Laura Palmer's life. The show would remain a cult hit, as fans carried the torch for the show in the form of fanzines and festivals. Eventually, slowly, this led to an 18-episode revival on Showtime. Somehow, improbably, Twin Peaks will be returning tonight with the first new episodes in over a quarter of a century.

I missed the show when it first aired. I was twelve at the time, and was certainly aware of its impact, but didn't hear about the show until it had been on the air for awhile. The show was absolutely everywhere, and I felt I needed to join the conversation, but I was too late, and too lost with the single episode I managed to catch. It would be years before I would return, and I finally watched the series in 1997 after discovering David Lynch as a filmmaker. I had seen Dune by this point, but what really grabbed my attention was his then-upcoming film Lost Highway, which featured the involvement of Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor. To prepare for the film, which I was reading about for months before its release, I rented every Lynch film I could find. I managed to find a VHS copy of the Twin Peaks pilot in the bargain bin at Fred Meyer, and immediately fell in love with it.

Later that year, after having seen Lost Highway each night during the week it ran in Anchorage, Alaska, I stuffed my Christmas money into my wallet, headed over to the Dimond Center, walked into Suncoast, and bought the entire series (minus the pilot, which was sold separately by Warner Bros.) on VHS. I began watching it that night, and by the end of that weekend I had finished my first viewing of what had already become my favorite show.

The mystery of Twin Peaks was somewhat spoiled by my having been impatient earlier in the year, when I rented the prequel Fire Walk With Me. I actually think this worked out in my favor, as knowing the answer to that popular question allowed me to experience the show in a manner pretty close to how Lynch had intended. Lynch, probably naively, had never wanted to solve Laura Palmer's murder, instead wanted the show to become about the lives and mysteries within Twin Peaks itself. Public impatience with solving the murder, falling ratings, and skittish network execs prompted the reveal of Laura Palmer's killer in season two, and is most commonly regarded as the impetus for the show's eventual cancellation. But I, as a first time viewer already aware of the killer's identity, focused instead on the other stories, the other characters, and the amazing town itself. By the time Laura Palmer's killer was revealed, I was ready to stick with the show for whatever they wanted to do. I just loved spending time in that world.

A voice on a telephone, distant and far away, a sound like wind on the line. The clouds hang low along the mountain. A flashlight moves among the trees, nothing visible but for the circle of light. A traffic light swings over a road, deserted in the darkness, cycling through its commands for no one to see. There are owls in the roadhouse. They are not what they seem. A needle on a record that has ended but continues to spin. A white horse. Premonitions of an evil deed. I'm so sorry. It is happening again.

Following that initial viewing, spaced out over about four days, I became a bit of an evangelist for Twin Peaks. I organized group viewings and lent the series out to anyone I thought would enjoy it (and some I wasn't too sure). One intrepid group of friends came with me as we tried to watch the entire series, and the movie, in one sitting. I'm not normally a coffee drinker, but cold, day-old coffee proved pretty helpful when we came around that 24-hour mark. Everyone I shared the show with liked it, but none of them seemed to love it the way I did, and so I turned to the internet. I became pretty active on a particular message board dedicated to David Lynch, with a heavy leaning towards Twin Peaks. I got deep into the rabbit hole of looking for clues and and coming up with theories for even the most minor characters or scenes. I spent a large chunk of my free time online with fellow Twin Peaks fans from all over the world, all united in our love for a fictional one. And even this wasn't enough. I had the soundtracks, I had the books both official and unofficial, I had a global community of likeminded people that I belonged to, and still it could go to another level. With that in mind, I boarded a plane in 1999 for Seattle, Washington, and then on to Poulsbo, for my first Twin Peaks festival.

The Twin Peaks festival was started in 1992, and has happened every year since in and around Snoqualmie and North Bend, Washington. While the fest has expanded since I went, the years I was there included some general mingling activities, a few cast members, a screening night with selected works of David Lynch, trivia and costume contests, and tours of several filming locations. I arrived in town early, and with no real place to stay. My plan had been to camp in Kitsap Memorial State Park, which was nearby and had public campgrounds. I met the fest organizer early that day, and after hours of walking he was kind enough to let me crash on his hotel room's couch while he prepared ID badges and attended to other administrative duties. This would be indicative of the general mood of the fest, where I met a large number of open, friendly, odd individuals (some of them I knew from conversing online) all extremely jazzed to be among their chosen tribe, in the locations that were so familiar to them.

A quick aside. I did camp a few days, and while I was setting my tent up on the first day I heard a rustling in the woods behind me. I turned around just in time to see a large cow emerge from the trees and into my campsite. I was in the middle of a vast national forest, and there was a cow standing there staring at me. The cow stopped, considered me for a moment, and then turned disinterestedly back to walk through the brush. I followed it to see where it had come from, and came upon a clearing where I could see more cows further off. Apparently I had set up camp near a farm, and yet the moment had such a Lynchian feel about it that I knew I had chosen correctly.

I went back to the festival in 2000, but poor planning and bad timing on my part meant I missed out on most of the major events. Many of the friends I had met the previous year did not return. I had also flown into Washington directly from a couple months in London, which I was already missing. In general it was a less fun year for me. If my first festival had been Twin Peaks the series, quirky, fun, at times spooky, then my second trip was like Fire Walk With Me, a darker version of everything that had come before. All in all it was a much lonelier experience, shaded by my emotional state at the time. Still, I would have liked to return, but for several reasons I never made the return trip. The following year I had to grow up and get a real job, and had no money for the fest. I went for awhile without a computer and, during that time, lost touch with my online friends when the Twin Peaks message board became defunct, and I realized I had very few direct email addresses for the people with whom I had been speaking.

Over the years my continued enjoyment of Twin Peaks became more insular; more of a personal thing. I still had viewings of the show for interested friends or loved ones. I subjected my wife to the show while we were still dating, and to my great relief she loved it. I bought the DVD of the first season, still missing the pilot episode, when it came out. I bought the second season after waiting way too long for it. Eventually the Gold Box came out and I was able to watch the pilot in its original version for only the second time (the 2000 Twin Peaks Fest had a screening of it), and then the Entire Mystery was released on blu-ray, and I could watch the fabled deleted scenes we had spent so much time discussing back on the message boards.

I still loved the show, I still revisited the world on a regular basis, and I would still talk to anyone who would listen about Twin Peaks, but as more time passed I found myself actively avoiding the larger community of fans. The show, what it meant to me and how I enjoyed it, became so personal that a lot of the online discussion of the show slightly depressed me. I saw people discussing theories like I had back in the day, but the tone seemed slightly more combative. People arguing whose theories were correct, who were the real fans and who was wrong about the show. I could not care less. The show may have snagged my attention way back when with its mysteries, but over the years I had just come to accept the show as it was, and was not interested in theorizing about anything that may have happened next. And so what had begun as accidental isolation became a self imposed exile as I retreated into my own feelings about Twin Peaks.

A circle of trees, bare and sickly, surrounding a black pond. Red curtains. There is music in the air. A place both wonderful and strange. Owl Cave. The Black Lodge, the White Lodge and the Red Room. The right arm shakes uncontrollably. Premonitions of another evil deed. When you see me again, I won't be me. How's Annie?

Sometime around 2015, approaching the 25th anniversary of the show, word began popping up that Twin Peaks might return. After all, Laura had told Cooper in the red room "I'll see you again in 25 years." I didn't pay a lot of attention to it at the time. I recognized the timing would be great, but didn't think it would happen. But lo and behold it did happen. David Lynch and Mark Frost both tweeted out indications that they were embarking on a new season, which seemed pretty certain, but it wasn't quite over yet. There would be troubles getting the entire cast back together (some had died, some had retired, and some were unavailable for other reasons), and there were a particularly bad few weeks where Lynch himself dropped out of the show during contract negotiations with Showtime. Of course as we know by now, David Lynch did come back to the show, but the uproar was pretty instantaneous at the time. I should have been excited but here's the odd thing: I wasn't sure how I felt about Twin Peaks coming back.

Twin Peaks, in my mind, was this perfect artifact, and I wasn't sure if I needed or wanted any more. I didn't know if I wanted to see what the ravages of time had done to the town and citizens of Twin Peaks. I was cautiously optimistic, but a little uncertain. And then the first teaser was released, featuring only a clip from the original final episode, the words "25 Years Later" in that recognizable Twin Peaks font, and a shot of the sign welcoming people to town. As soon as the theme song came in near the end of the teaser, I actually got tears in my eyes. I hadn't realized how much I actually did want to see all of these people again, even if they weren't going to be exactly the same.

It's been a long two-year wait since then, and I've been doing my best to avoid articles and interviews and speculation about the show. I checked out the Twin Peaks subreddit and made a few comments before getting annoyed by the tunnel vision of the majority of posters, and the tendency to point out everything that features a dead girl as 'totes inspired by Twin Peaks! OMG!' A friend added me to a Twin Peaks Facebook group, and I hung around for a couple of days and again made a few comments, but quickly removed myself from the group because it all began to depress me. That and I was seeing a lot of people digging for spoilers and if there's one thing I want to appreciate unspoiled, it's Twin Peaks. That is not to say I haven't been watching the official teasers and trailers, because I have been watching them multiple times, but then they reveal next to nothing, and I convince myself that if I had been watching television, I likely would have seen spots like these anyway.

Static, like wind through the trees. The sound of breaking glass, a piercing scream. A meeting above a convenience store. Formica tables and creamed corn. We're not going to talk about Judy. The sound of electricity. This picture would look good on your wall. A green ring. An owl insignia. Another place, another girl Let's Rock.

I recently finished my 8th or 9th total watch-through of the show (I've watched the pilot episode pretty regularly, but the series itself only every couple years), and I did something different this time. In the past I had binged through the series as quickly as possible, watching as many episodes as I could get whoever I was watching it with to sit through. This year I started early and spaced it out, watching two episodes per week. I got behind a bit and had to increase the episode count for the last two weeks, but still I was making it last. It was interesting to watch the show like that, to give myself time to digest the episodes and spend the week looking forward to the next one. I found myself noticing the structure of individual episodes, how many episodes would have complimentary stories and details that lined up that I had not consciously noticed before. It's what television is so great at that movies can't quite match: the sense of time being spent with these characters. All in all, you'll spend just over one full day in Twin Peaks if you watch all of the available material, and yet when you watch it weekly on television, you'll spend several months (or over a year, if you watched it when it originally aired). That creates a familiarity and a sense of actually living with the characters and stories that you just don't get when you binge something over one weekend.

I also fully submerged myself into the world of Twin Peaks with this latest rewatch. I watched all of the Log Lady intros, all of the recaps and 'next time on' spots, all of the various advertisements that aired during the show's initial run. I pulled out all of the books I had and read them in between episodes, largely keeping to when they would have been set. I read the Twin Peaks Access Guide between seasons one and two, listened to Agent Cooper's Diane tapes shortly after the second season premiere, read the Secret Diary of Laura Palmer after poor Harold committed suicide, and blazed through The Secret History of Twin Peaks in order to get up to speed with what happened after the finale. I discovered something that surprised me: I liked seeing Twin Peaks back in the public eye. I had been worried about the Hot Topic-ification of the show, with kids walking around with Who Killed Laura Palmer? shirts without having the faintest idea of who she was or who actually did kill her. And yet that fear disappeared once I started seeing the cast on magazines again, once the bus I came home from work in had a Twin Peaks advertisement plastered on it. I like looking around and seeing Twin Peaks everywhere again.

You may be asking yourself, after all of this: why Twin Peaks? Why is this the show that has grabbed my attention so tightly? And I'm afraid I don't have a complete answer to that. I just enjoy the characters, even the ones you're supposed to hate. I love the subplots, even the ones nobody likes (except for that one, you know which one I mean). I love the geography of the town, the sound of the wind through the trees, the owls flying overhead, the music in the air. I love it all. The common consensus is that Twin Peaks went off the rails once Laura Palmer's murder was solved, and the central pillar of the show was taken away. Most people feel that most of what follows is aimless and silly and somehow worse than what had come before. I used to say that I could recognize that as subjectively true, but that I still liked the cheesy subplots.  But with this latest rewatch, I realized that isn't quite true. I don't recognize that those plots are bad; I love them just as much as I love everything else about the show. I sometimes joke about skipping James' scenes once he leaves the town of Twin Peaks, but you know what? I never do. I watch them every single time. Nadine gets amnesia, thinks she's 18 again, goes back to high school, joins the wrestling team, and starts sleeping with Donna's ex-boyfriend? Love it. Andy Brennan and Dick Tremayne start mentoring an orphan who they come to believe is the devil? Perfect, It doesn't matter what you think of the show at this point in its run; I love it.

People have asked me repeatedly what I'll do if the new season sucks, and the true answer is; it won't. I don't mean that it will be perfect, or that it'll be what people want, or that it will answer all of those lingering questions, I mean that I will enjoy, no question about. I am fully prepared for the town to be changed, for the characters to be different, for some mysteries to be unresolved. I am simply excited to visit the town again, and to see what David Lynch and Mark Frost have in store. It's their world, I'm only visiting it.

The show premieres tonight, and I am ready. I've got a dozen donuts, my Showtime subscription, and I'm picking up food on the way home so I don't have to delay my viewing by making dinner. To be honest, my mood has been a bit odd. After finishing my latest rewatch, an odd depression fell over me. There are new episodes of Twin Peaks so close I can taste it, but for the first time in all my viewings I felt a finality to the finale. Twin Peaks will no longer be this perfect artifact; it's about to change, for the first time in a long time. It suddenly hit me that Cooper would be older, probably not as sunny as he is in the first series. Harry won't be there at all. Lucy and Andy? I worry about what became of them. This thing that I had been holding in my mind for decades is about to evolve. That is undoubtedly exciting, and I can't wait, yet it also holds an uncertainty, and a sadness for what has passed.

There's a line James has near the end of the second season (or at least near the end of his time on the show), a line that is oft-mocked by fans, like most things that come out of James' mouth: "it's not really a place it's a feeling." And that is it, right there. Twin Peaks is a feeling, and all I really know is that it's a good one.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Streaming Cellar: The Houses October Built (2014)

Currently Streaming on Netflix.

For the past three Halloweens I have been working at Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, as part of the Terror Tram attraction. It's been pretty much the best job I've ever had, as the Halloween theming really gets me into the seasonal spirit (as if I needed help), and provides some great seasonal festivities now that I'm way too old for trick-or-treating and not social enough to get invited to any parties. Plus, I spend four nights a week roaming around the Bates Motel, listening to people scream in fright all night long (it's not the original Bates Motel from the Hitchcock film, but it was used for the sequels, along with the "Psycho House" on the hill behind it).

With this work experience in mind, I was looking forward to catching up with The Houses October Built, a horror film centered around seasonal scare attractions. I'd heard a few mentions of the film, though never an outright opinion. Sure, Netlix's spookily accurate rating algorithm predicted I would hate the film, but they've been wrong before (though correct more often), and that premise intrigued me. A group of friends in an RV on a Halloween road trip, on the quest for the ultimate haunted house. Not only did it sound like a great premise, full of potential, but it sounded like something I would love to do with my own friends.

Considering that I am still happily employed this Halloween, I am going to let discretion rule and refrain from speaking about my job very much. Let it be said, however, that I sympathized far more with the villains of this film than I did with any of the asshole protagonists.

When this film started my heart immediately sank as I realized it was going to be another found footage flick. I've said before that I'm a moderate fan of the genre, and my positive review of In Memorium shows that I still believe effectively scary movies can be made with consumer grade equipment and non-professional actors. And yet, here, I had a dim vision of how the film would play out, and I despaired at having to listen to unscripted, half finished conversations among this group of obnoxious twenty-somethings in an RV. An RV which, for some reason, has been outfitted with a handful of GoPro cameras, capturing every angle within, and some without, the vehicle.  I was a little confused as to why a group of friends had brought along so many cameras, including a few handheld ones. It just seemed like overkill for a fairly casual vacation with friends. Researching this film I discovered that a more serious documentary version was made in 2011, and was reworked into new footage for the horror film that is currently streaming on netflix. This would explain all of the cameras, but unless I missed it there was never any mention of making a documentary in the film itself (it's quite possible I missed it).

I've already tipped my hand in regards to my opinion about this group, so it should come as no surprise when I say I found long stretches of this film difficult to sit through. One thing I dislike in found footage films is the tendency to edit within conversations. Instead of a full scene with the characters having a complete discussion, we get snippets of conversation. This sort of thing tends to be most prevalent in the early scenes of a found footage film, and it's intended as a shorthand in order to show us the character's relationships to each other in as quick a manner as possible. A little of that goes a long way, however, and when, 45 minutes in, The Houses October Built is still cutting away from conversations before they've concluded, or cutting into them mid-sentence, it's nigh intolerable. There's no rhythm, nothing to grasp onto as a viewer. Instead of falling into the flow of the film, we're kept at a distance.

Add to that the fact that this group is comprised of dull, shallow, self-obsessed jerks, and The Houses October Built becomes a bit of a chore to sit through. The unlikability of the characters wouldn't be a fatal flaw, though, if THOB didn't also treat them as if they were sympathetic. Throughout the film this group belittles each and every attraction they go to, insult every worker they come across by, usually, calling them 'backwoods' or 'inbred', ignore house rules at the attractions, repeatedly climb onto private property and disrupt the experience for others. At one point one of the group, the 'affable, portly party guy', brings a Scare Actor back to the RV and records the two of them having sex without informing her of all the hidden cameras pointed at her. Not to get all preachy, but that sort of frat-boy, chauvinistic behavior hasn't been appropriate for comedy for at least a decade. The film wants us to think it's just good fun, but of course it comes across as significantly sleazier.

So, OK, the characters are shits, but how are the scares? Well, probably about as good as you would expect a film about people walking through a fake haunted house would be, which is to say; not very good. The characters are, when they're not having snippets of conversation on the RV, walking through attractions designed to be scary in person, and filming them with handheld cameras. This group is remarkably easy to scare, and the camera is always suddenly jerked out of focus as they jump in fright when some 17 year old kid in a clown mask jumps out from a dark corner. This means we get a lot of canted angle shots of corners while we hear people scream, and then laugh, and then ask in a panic which whey they should go. There's also no fluidity to the editing, and instead of watching the camera glide through the maze we get disconnected shots of disconnected rooms. The film never reaches the heights of fear achieved by watching walkthroughs of horror mazes on youtube.

This is perhaps the film's most fatal flaw; there's no reason to find anything scary. We know the mazes are fake, the characters know the mazes are fake. Everything is store bought costumes, strobe lights, and hastily applied makeup. That's too much disbelief to suspend. And yet, these characters do get scared, each and every time, and they always react as if they don't have any idea of what is going on. Somehow, though, they repeatedly complain that they're sick of these lame, corporate scare mazes. They want something really terrifying. It's a weird complaint to make, considering how obviously they've been scared so far.

Throughout the film one of the characters has been hunting down traces of an extreme horror haunt that moves from town to town and state to state. He hears rumors about it on chat rooms, in conversations at bars, and from seasonal Scare Actors on the road. He even discovers a password needed to gain entrance to this mythical haunted house. As the film goes on they seem to be getting closer to this attraction, and there are brief moments of threat on the journey. For the most part this is meant to be creepy, but fails to attain that goal. It's hard to make a clown standing behind a tent threatening when we know all the clowns are just taking a smoke break. But there are a few moments; a creepy clown they piss off in the beginning follows them to their RV and stares at them menacingly. A girl in a creepy doll mask from one of the mazes is waiting for them by the side of the road, and screams wordlessly when they let her into the RV. Eventually it becomes clear that someone is entering the RV while they sleep, and they get threatening videotapes.

Strangely, none of the characters ever take this seriously. Or, I should say, some of them do, but are convinced by the rest of the group that it's all part of the mythical Blue Skeleton haunt they're tracking down. Another reason to not care about this group; they ignore even the most blatant signs of danger. But perhaps that's too unfair a complaint; people never think they're in a horror movie. How many potentially terrifying moments have each of us been in, and ignored because we realize life isn't like a horror movie? But there's a difference between not being scared of a dark basement, and not going to the police when someone films themselves holding a knife to your sleeping neck.

Eventually they find the Blue Skeleton, or perhaps more accurately the Blue Skeleton finds them. This is the big moment, when the true terror starts, and yet the same problems persist. It's all filmed half-heartedly, and it still just amounts to people in costumes jumping from out of the darkness and then backing off. In other words; exactly like all of the haunted houses they've been to before. Perhaps it would have been impossible to make a film about fake scares scary, but I can picture a film in which this all worked, and I'll tell you right now it wouldn't be found footage. The found footage aspect makes it all seem too fake, which of course it is, but an actual film would have made for an easier suspension of disbelief. As it is, The Houses October Built joins the long list of films that squander their interesting premises.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Streaming Cellar: The Pit and the Pendulum (2008)

Currently Streaming on Amazon Prime

We believe we know those closest to us, our families, loved ones, friends we've known from childhood. We may believe we know and understand these people, but we don't. Not really. There will always be missing pieces, like an incomplete puzzle. We have a tendency to substitute those missing pieces with aspects of ourselves, but this a double-edged weapon we wield. When we love or respect someone, we round them out with our most positive aspects, or what we aspire to be. When we dislike someone, they become a receptacle for our worst tendencies, the parts of ourselves that we fear to be seen as. But it's an illusion, and we'll never see the entire puzzle completed. There will always be this lacuna, this defining information that will forever be unknown to us.

This is something that's been on my mind a lot lately, and it forms the dramatic thrust of The Pit and the Pendulum, a 2008 Korean film that has absolutely no relation to the Edgar Allan Poe story (the title is both literal and metaphorical. I'll explain in a moment). The film is narratively framed by four friends (a fifth will join them) sitting in a cafe and discussing their absent friend Sang-tae. The film takes its time letting the audience know the reason for the gathering, and for the somber attitudes of everyone involved, but eventually we figure out that another absent friend has recently died, and Sang-tae may have had something to do with it. Before we learn that information (and really, you don't get most of the pieces of the puzzle until the end) it's clear that Sang-tae is the focus of the group's thoughts this night, and that however close he may have been to them, something has happened to sour him in their thoughts.

The film proceeds in an elliptical style, with characters trading stories about Sang-tae that oftentimes are little more than anecdotes, brief glimpses without context that show Sang-tae striking one of the friends, Byeong-tae, drinking too much at business lunches, or confronting a woman, Eun-young, whom he appears to be stalking. There is a story about how Sang-tae and one of the others found an unconscious girl in the woods, the victim of a taxi driving serial killer who shows up a couple times during the film (in one of several genre elements that lurk on the sidelines and sometimes infect what is otherwise a fairly sober drama). We hear that Sang-tae was embarrassingly inappropriate with the woman, massaging her and even asking for her phone number. There is discussion about the fact that Sang-tae was fired from his teaching job, and we're given two different reasons for why he might have been let go. It's clear he was drinking too much, and while most assume he was fired for always being drunk, there is also the intimation that he raped one of his students, the niece of the dean of his university.

But hold on a second. As I said these stories are little more than anecdotes, and surely there must be more to them.

Every story inspires another memory in someone else at the table, and they come forward with their own story about Sang-tae that provides a little more information. We see the scene with the attacked woman, and to our eyes it looks only as if Sang-tae is trying to keep the woman conscious and alert. We see Sang-tae with the woman he is accused of raping, and it's clear that she is obsessed with him, and she drunkenly tries to seduce him before Sang-tae places her into a cab (is this the cab driven by the serial killer? The film never brings it up). We find out that the woman Sang-tae appeared to be stalking is actually a childhood friend and former lover, and that the unease between them is due to the fact that Eun-young, had an abortion, though Sang-tae was unaware of the fact that he had gotten her pregnant. Even the striking of Byeong-tae is shown to be the boiling over of long held resentments, as Byeong-tae has had a lifelong habit of inserting himself, unwanted, into Sang-tae's life and co-opting his friends and loved ones. Byeong-tae openly tries to seduce Eun-young, who Sang-tae still loves and is confused by the coldness she shows him, and Byeong-tae even writes Sang-tae's life history into a screenplay while claiming everything was invented entirely by him.

Sang-tae does drink a lot, clearly to the point where it is damaging his personal and professional relationships, but he never comes across as quite the alcoholic his friends make him out to be. In a bit of business that might come across as too culturally specific for many western viewers, Sang-tae's own personal crisis is kicked off when he discovers, in the course of writing his thesis, that his grandfather was pro-Japanese during the Japanese occupation of Korea, even going so far as to adopt a Japanese surname. He discovers this information while researching the history of a mass grave left by the Japanese and recently unearthed. This would be the titular Pit.

Each story offers context to the stories that preceded it, sometimes weaving in and out of them. We learn more as we go along, and our perceptions of everyone involved swings back and forth. This would be the Pendulum. To the viewer, it becomes clear that Sang-tae's treatment from his friends has been unfair, and yet they themselves cannot see this. We never truly know anyone, and we fill the empty spaces with ourselves. It can be hard, often impossible, to change perceptions about ourselves held by others. Sang-tae has fallen in his friends eyes, and they can only see an alcoholic asshole, and not the young man suffering a mental crisis. A crisis exacerbated by the fact that his friends are withdrawing from him when he needs this most. It's a situation I think we're all familiar with. People form an unfair opinion of us, but what can we do? If we struggle to change the opinion, it will only serve to distance them further. If we ignore it, that will only confirm it. Cutting those people out of our lives may be too painful an amputation. This is another pit, one that Sang-tae is sinking into.

It's been incredibly hard to find any information on this film online. I found a Variety review of the film from 2008, but that's about it. The IMDb page is strangely inaccurate, listing incorrect character names and a completely incorrect plot summary. This is why I haven't named every character I discuss. To make matters worse, I found the film listed on various Korean resources and wikis, and they're all wrong, as well. They each say that the friends have gathered for Sang-tae's funeral, when he is clearly alive at the end. They also state that they are all students of Sang-tae, when in fact they all know each other through other means (Eun-young knows him from childhood, Byeong-tae knows him through their shared military history). I guess that's to be expected from a rather low-key Korean film. Despite the glut of great films that have come out of Korea in this century, they still haven't quite reached the cultural awareness of China or Japan to most Americans. It also appears to have been a fairly minor event in its own country, however, with the sources I've found saying it only played on four screens, and it's current box office total is $6,454. That makes it the perfect film for this project, as I do believe it's worth seeking out.

I've watched this film twice now in the last week, because after my first viewing I had a few unanswered questions. The Pit and the Pendulum is more of an interesting formal experiment than a satisfying film, at times. Writer/director Sohn Young-sung has mentioned the style was influenced by the twisty stories of Jorge Luis Borges, and that is clear through the Russian nesting-doll style of the film, and on the various outre moments on hand. I haven't even mentioned the possibly immortal martial arts master that Sang-tae meets as a child, or that this master (who speaks to Sang-tae from a noose he's been hung from, left for dead) might be locked into an eternal battle with the cab-driving serial killer. Or the fact that one of the people we've been watching the entire film is, actually, a ghost. On first viewing it can be hard to figure out what the point of it all is, since the film's focus is never really explained until the final scene. It didn't help that the subtitles were often stilted and broken. They were never indecipherable, but it added a layer of distancing to the viewing experience.

The movie ends without resolving all of the stories. There are a lot of unanswered questions revolving around Sang-tae and his relationships, but that's entirely appropriate. We never really know anyone, and there will always be the missing pieces.

Next week in the Streaming Cellar: The Houses October Built (2014), which is currently streaming on Netflix.