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.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

The Streaming Cellar: In Memorium (2005)

Every October, like most people, I watch a ton of horror movies. That in itself isn't very noteworthy- I always watch a ton of horror films- but in October I become a bit more focused in my viewing. I watch almost exclusively horror films, and I try to watch at least one a day. I also begin to theme my viewings, programming mini-marathons based around character, actor, or even country of origin. I make an effort to watch as many new-to-me titles as I can while also pulling out old favorites I haven't seen in a few years. I try to favor the new-to-me movies, and usually only sneak in a handful of rewatches. As much as I make it seems like I put a lot of thought into it, I'm actually just winging it, picking whatever I feel like watching on any given day.

Currently my horror binging is aided by Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, frequent trips to the library, and a trial membership to Netflix's disc-by-mail service, which I signed up for in order to get some of the more hard-to-find titles on my watchlist. My Halloween season also starts a bit early these days\, as this marks my third year working at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, so I tend to start my Halloween viewing in mid-September, when I begin working at the Terror Tram attraction. Here's a partial list of what I've watched so far: The House on Sorority Row, Scanners II & III, The Witch (or, The VVitch), They're Watching, Cooties, The Editor, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Night of the Eagle (AKA Burn Witch Burn), The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow, Deathwatch, The Eclipse, Open Grave, and Demeking the Sea Monster. As you can see, it's a fairly eclectic list of horror films, spanning several decades and genres. I try to experience as wide an array as possible of styles and types of films I might normally not gravitate towards.

It's this last part, a conscious widening of my film awareness, that leads me to today's film, and the topic I hope to continue. As anyone who uses a streaming service knows, it can sometimes be difficult to find something to watch, partially due to the overabundance of cheap looking knockoffs and movies that went straight to streaming. Netflix is full of low budget films no one has ever heard of, no-budget flicks that would have gone direct to video but now arrive unheralded on your recommendations list. This is usually the most common complaint I hear about such services, but as I've shown, my tastes are more omnivorous. I refuse to use the term indiscriminate, which is something I've frequently been accused of. It's not that I lack critical thought, or turn my brain off when watching certain films, it's just that I believe good movies- or at least interesting movies, which is pretty much the same thing in my eyes- can be found in surprising places.

I've decided, this Halloween and possibly beyond, to make a more concerted effort to watch some of these titles. Hence, The Streaming Cellar, where I dig into some of those questionable titles that always get recommended once you've finished binging on Stranger Things. I've been doing this occassionally already, but I'm going to be taking more chances this October. I haven't quite codified a list of guidelines for this project, and I'm mostly playing it by ear. I will, however, try to limit myself to lower budget films that have not had any national theatrical release (festival screenings and perfunctory one-week engagements are OK). I'll also be widening the scope to cover international films, as long as they haven't enjoyed a long theatrical run.

Today's film seemed to be an even bigger risk than usual, as not only was it a no-budget horror film shot digitally with a cast and crew of unknowns whose careers never took off, but it was also a found footage film. I actually enjoy a lot of found footage films, and often dig the theme park feeling that comes with a POV camera stumbling through chaos, but I also recognize that it's too often simply a gimmick used to generate cheap jump-scares without having to invest a lot of money or talent.

Also, they couldn't even spell the title correctly.

In Memorium (2005)
Currently streaming on: Amazon Prime

I'm going to deflate the suspense right up front and just tell you that I rather enjoyed In Memorium, despite its drawbacks. For one, this film came out in 2005, two years before Paranormal Activity (this film's most similar counterpart) jump-started the current craze for found footage that seems to finally be slowing down. Certainly In Memorium is not the first film that could be classified as found footage (not even close), and certainly there were a bunch of likeminded films being made at the same time, but the genre had not yet broken through to the mainstream to be recognized as an actual genre by most moviegoers. There was something charming, almost quaint, about going back and watching a found footage film before all of the genre's tropes had been so rigidly set in stone.

One thing I found oddly endearing was the manner in which In Memorium was filmed. The characters set up a bunch of motion-activated cameras, covering every possible angle in the house, and yes, the cameras are also inserted into the bathroom, leading to at least one genuinely amusing moment when they realize what this means for their daily habits. The cameras are all fairly visible and stick out from the wall in what is probably the biggest signifier that this movie is over a decade old. The wall mounted cameras also preclude the need for any shaky handheld camerawork (there is a tiny bit, but it's a pretty negligible amount), which is certainly going to be welcome news to many found footage detractors. It also gives a reasonable response to the frequently asked question of 'why do they keep filming?' In In Memorium, they keep filming because no one has removed the cameras yet.

The film also has another great improvement over most films in the genre; likable characters. One of my common complaints with found footage film is that the characters tend to skew towards the unlikable and unpleasant. I'm not sure if that's a conscious decision on the filmmakers' part, or possibly an attempt to try and distance the audience from characters that they'll have to watch suffer and die. Or possibly it's an an unconscious reaction on my part towards the type of person who reacts to tragedy befalling their friends or family by grabbing a camera rather than trying to help. Maybe that narcissism is just part and parcel of the character type.Think of the boyfriend in the first Paranormal Activity, who continues filming despite his girlfriend's obvious and growing distress.

The central couple in In Memorium are markedly more appealing, though the film does stack our sympathies in their favor by giving the boyfriend, Dennis (played by Erik McDowell), incurable cancer. It's this disease which has prompted the couple to install motion-activated cameras inside their rented home, to document Dennis' final months. If this sounds like a thin setup for a horror film, especially for a childless couple (at least Michael Keaton in My Life was filming his last days for his son's benefit, same for Mark Duplass in Creep), perhaps it would help to know that Dennis is an aspiring filmmaker, and his girlfriend, Lily (Johanna Watts), is an aspiring actress. Actually, writing that out, my description makes them sound just as narcissistic as the character types I was complaining about, but they come across as more likable than that.

The acting is solid for something of this budget, and though that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it really isn't. I've noticed that when most casual moviegoers complain about bad acting in low budget films, they're really talking about a matter of post production. Have you ever seen untouched behind the scenes footage of scenes being made? It turns everything into a high school drama class production. Great performances in films depend on a lot of things aside from just the performer. Obvious things like sound mixing, of course, but also less obvious aspects, like lighting, video quality, or color correction. Most low budget movies have to rely on a lot of ADR, and while blockbusters have the same issue, the larger budgeted films tend to have more resources and a larger team to make sure the dialogue is mixed properly into the scene. Similarly, your reaction to performances in movies depends on other contextual information, allowing you to buy into the film's reality more easily.

Putting aside the actual performances, I felt the two leads had a nice chemistry between them, and I enjoyed watching the two of them exist together. I like horror movies where the leads are likable and get along, because having concern for the welfare of the main characters is something most horror films tend to neglect. One of my favorite horror films in recent memory, Ti West's The Innkeepers, affected me so strongly because I liked both of the leads and I didn't want to see anything bad happen to them. Something similar happened to me while watching this film, though I should probably stress that on a much more minor scale than The Innkeepers. There's only really one performance I didn't buy in this film, that of Dennis' brother Frank (Levi Powell). Both brothers are variations on the Southern California surfer dude, though Frank is clearly a caricature while Dennis only somewhat sartorially fits into that descriptor. He's a rather stiff presence, and unfortunately the majority of his scenes are meant to be tearful and dramatic. His performance is more befitting that of an extra in the original Point Break.

Now you have a general idea of the film, and I'm sure by now you've guessed the trajectory the story will take. Young couple in new home begin filming their lives, and unexpectedly find they're filming other unknown presences. Creepy goings on start off small, and then escalate throughout the course of the film. You spend a lot of time staring at static-filled screens where nothing is happening, and suddenly get a quick glimpse of something spooky. Some of it will go unnoticed by the cast, other stuff will be noticed and dismissed. Eventually the activity will reach such a pitch that the main characters are forced to acknowledge it, at which point there will be a discussion of what to to, whether to stay or leave. Some reason will be found for everyone staying put, at which point the dramatic finale will be in motion. The formula is pretty well known, but, as with all horror films, what really matters are the details and small variations within that formula.

So far I've described the basic setup, and given some of my thoughts of the film in general, but I'm about to get very specific about some plot elements. If you've read this far and think you might want to watch the film, I'd advise you to go ahead and do so before reading any further. If you don't mind having the plot spoiled for you, by all means read on.

Part of what I found so charming about this film is the manner in which Dennis and Lily react to the haunting. When they first notice evidence of a ghost on one of the cameras, they're both disbelieving but interested, and begin to investigate the history of the house they have just rented. It's pretty much how I think I would react in this situation; they don't believe, but still think it would be cool to see proof of an actual ghost. To begin with the landlord, Ms. Sporec (Mary Portser) is helpful, as she's been keeping scrapbooks about all of the tenants for decades, but soon becomes less forthcoming when she fears that the cameras and haunted house theories are only a ruse to try and sue her for wrongful death when the boyfriend eventually dies. Yeah, that part didn't really make sense to me, either. But I think it's meant to make us suspicious of what she's trying to hide.

The big question in every haunted house movie is; why don't they just leave? I think for a lot of people in America the answer is pretty self explanatory; not everyone can afford to hightail it to a hotel and give up on their home. But still, it's a valid question within a film, and In Memorium chooses to answer it by heightening the stakes for the characters. When the activity escalates and the presence is clearly not friendly, Dennis and Lily do try to leave. The home was only recently rented under a three month lease, and these kids are clearly well-to-do enough to have options. The problem is, Dennis has been experiencing bizarre symptoms unrelated to his cancer, and every time he tries to leave the property they get worse.

I've said repeatedly that this house was rented, and I keep mentioning it because it's an important detail that I don't fully understand the necessity of. It doesn't quite make sense, that Dennis would learn of his diagnosis, come up with his plan to film his final months, and then also require a rented house that he can fill with cameras. I honestly think the detail only exists to provide a McGuffin, to keep us believing that the house is haunted and to give a reason as to why none of the characters has ever noticed it before. Throughout the film Lily and Dennis repeatedly question why the house appears to be haunted, when none of the recorded tenants have died there, and no one before them had ever seen a ghost. The answer is obvious; the house isn't haunted.

Oh, there is a ghost, and it is malevolent and killing Dennis (faster than his cancer), but it turns out he brought the ghost with him. Dennis and Frank's mother was apparently an abusive wreck, and once Dennis was old enough he struck out on his own, effectively abandoning his younger brother to the care of their horrible mother. She died of her own terrible disease, and Frank was left as the only one to care for her. Now, on the anniversary of her death, she has returned to exact her revenge by killing Dennis with the very symptoms she suffered from. It's an effective twist, and handled well by the movie, and it elevates the film above many in the increasingly crowded field of found footage. It also leads to some interesting dramatic territory as the small group of actors have to deal with some seriously emotional familial baggage. It's a task that not everyone is up to, unfortunately, as Frank in particular seems hard pressed to actually sound sad, as opposed to merely constipated.

All in all the film is probably only a minor success. In Memorium isn't as outright scary as many of its contemporaries, but it also has a little more on its mind. The suspense is handled well, and with no real budget for special effects director Amanda Gusack is able to stage a couple of effective little jolts. I haven't really thought of a scale by which to rate these titles, but I will say the film probably won't appeal to most modern fans of found footage. However, I think the film deserves to be remembered, and would probably be enjoyed by fans of low budget horror and quiet festival films.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Countdown to the Countdown to Halloween

For a few years now, off and on, I've been taking part in the Countdown to Halloween blogging event. A loose assemblage of blogs covering various themes, but all posting frequently about something Halloween related during the 31 days of October. I'm taking part once again, and while in years past I've tried to keep to daily posts, or 3 times a week, or some other self-imposed schedule, I'm under no such delusions this year. I plan to keep posting as long and as often as I can this month, but I'm working odd and lengthy hours, while also dealing with a 3 month old at home. What I'm saying is there may be gaps in my activity, but I hope to at least drop in here regularly with a quick review, some reminisces, or maybe just some awesome music to add to your Halloween party mix.

I'm finishing up a few posts that will be going up over the next couple days, so for now I just wanted to promote the Countdown itself. Heading over to the Countdown to Halloween site will give you a list of contributors, as well as instructions for joining up if you feel so inclined. You'll notice on that list my pal Rik, who is going to be celebrating the month on his main blog site, The Cinema 4 Pylon, as well as his awesome animation blog The Cinema 4 Cel Bloc. We're also putting together something special over on our shared blog, We Who Watch Behind the Rows, where we pick a Stephen King book or story and then discuss the written word and the filmed adaptation(s). Head over there to read out latest post on The Woman in the Room, and an announcement for what our Halloween plans are.

I know this is a brief and somewhat low-key beginning to the month, but my plan is to build up to a pretty great Halloween this year. It should be fun, and I hope you join me for the party.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

We Who Watch Behind The Rows: Graveyard Shift (1990) Pt. 1

Welcome to our first installment of We Who Watch Behind the Rows: Stephen King Print vs. Film. The focus of this new column is to compare the written works of author Stephen King against the numerous adaptations made for either the movie or television screen. Since there are what seems to be about 4,000 such adaptations released into the wild to this point, we expect catching up with all of them will take a good amount of time on our parts.

As with our other semi-regular column -- Visiting and Revisiting -- your hosts are myself, Rik Tod Johnson of The Cinema 4 Pylon and Cinema 4: Cel Bloc websites, and Aaron Lowe of the Working Dead Productions website. We are both hardcore, longtime cinema fans, but we are also, to varying degrees, big Stephen King fans. 

The difference between us is that I, after following King earnestly and faithfully around every turn in his career since I first read The Dead Zone around 1981, largely gave up on his writing (with a couple of notable exceptions) post-Gerald's Game (that would be around 1992). So with this project, I will basically begin my personal reintroduction to each of King's stories and novels as we make our way through his oeuvre.

Aaron, what is your personal experience with the written works of Mr. King?


Aaron: I actually started reading Stephen King and stopped reading Stephen King around the same time. I read my first novel from him in 1990, when I was in 6th grade, and I more or less stopped following his career post-1992. That isn't to say I stopped reading King after those two years; no far from it. By the time I came on board, Stephen King had twenty-three novels and five story collections in print, which means I had a wealth of material to dive into. It also means that, much like you, I stopped keeping current with him sometime around Gerald's Game. There were a few exceptions to that, when I would get gifts from relatives who knew I liked Stephen King and not much else about me, but for the most part I fell out of touch with him once I'd caught up, and didn't start buying his novels again until Black House (2001). That may not seem like a lot of time to not be reading Stephen King, but it means that I missed seven novels that I still haven’t caught up with.

Along with reading Stephen King, I was watching his movies nearly constantly. I was a child of the video age, and it seemed as if nearly everything King had written had become a movie or short film or episode of some anthology horror show. There were four filmed adaptations in the year I began reading him, and the world was entering a golden age of Stephen King television, with mini-series versions of some of his biggest books (and, ahem, The Langoliers). It’s certainly no coincidence that I first became acquainted with Mr. King at this point in time.

I’ve pretty much reached the point where I’m back to looking forward to each Stephen King novel or story collection with quite a bit of low-key excitement. It’s no longer a pressing issue to buy the latest King novel as soon as I see it, since he still has one or two books come out a year, but every birthday or Christmas the first thing I use my gift cards on is whatever his latest offering happens to be. And I can say honestly; I’ve never not enjoyed a Stephen King novel. Even a King novel I end up disliking on the whole entertains me and speaks to me in such a way that I never feel like I’ve wasted my time on it. Whatever the outcome, I always enjoy the experience of reading Stephen King’s prose.

Rik: Since rereading each novel takes a bit more time, we have decided to jumpstart We Who Watch Behind the Rows by reviewing the varied pieces in King's 1978 short story collection, Night Shift. From the twenty stories in Night Shift, there have been eight feature films and four television adaptations made thus far. Of the remaining stories in the collection, most (but not quite all) have been adapted into short, amateur films known by King and his fans as "Dollar Babies". Overall, this gives us quite a surplus from which to begin.

The Story: Graveyard Shift [Night Shift, 1978; first published in the October 1970 issue of Cavalier magazine]

Original Cavalier appearance of the story 

Aaron: I’m not entirely sure when I first read the Night Shift collection, but it would have been in the early nineties as I was in the midst of my full-blown King obsession. I remember reading other stories from the collection in the back of my uncle’s pickup truck on a family camping trip, but Graveyard Shift kind of melds into the pile of stories I was reading at the time. There are a few tales in this collection that I have some fairly strong sense memories of where I was when I read them, but Graveyard Shift isn’t one of those. It’s not that the story is bad or lackluster, it’s just that it lacks a central image as striking as that of Grey Matter or I Am the Doorway (the latter of which inspired the cover of the paperback in which I first read these stories).

At its heart, Graveyard Shift is a simple, straightforward, grisly little shocker equally inspired by Poe and EC Comics. That’s not to say it’s derivative or unenjoyable. Quite the contrary; this is an economic, fun shock story that I’ve read through twice now in a short time period and enjoyed each time. Stephen King would, in just a few years, be known for epic, encyclopedia-sized books, and he himself would self-deprecatingly discuss his tendency to ramble on and on and on. But this collection proves that he was just as adept at sketching in characters that seem fully realized within the span of only a handful of pages, and possibly only a couple of lines of action. It’s true that most of the characters in this story are basically background, given only a name or a single line of dialogue, but a few of them become living, breathing characters on the page in a very short span.

I have quite a few friends who only really like Stephen King’s short stories, and avoid his novels. While I don’t agree with that stance, clearly, it’s one that I can understand. His short stories tend to be swifter, nastier, and stranger than his novels. It’s almost as if he lets his imagination run wild for a dozen pages or so and puts no restrictions on his concepts, no matter how bizarre or unsettling, while his novels tend to rein things in a little bit. Also, one thing I discovered early on: Stephen King loves a happy ending. With very few exceptions his long form work (novels or novellas) end with a positive outcome, whereas his short stories have no such assurances. In a Stephen King short story, all bets are off, and no one is safe.

How about you? Where do you stand on this divide? Do you prefer his short stories to his novels, or are you a fan of each in equal measure? How did you feel about his ability here to sketch in a believable world within 26 pages?

Rik: Until I reread Children of the Corn in this same collection a few months ago, it had been so long since I had read any of King’s short stories that I forgot just how economical he could be in his writing. Part of why I started to have a falling out with him is that I felt that he had grown too much in love with his voice, and that voice had definitely developed a rambling tic that I found somewhat annoying, and therefore rendered King a chore to read at times. He had also started to veer slightly away from the supernatural around the time of Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game, and I was mostly uninterested in the topics he was starting to explore. Even when he touched on the supernatural in that mid-‘90s period – such as in Insomnia or Rose Madder – I couldn’t muster much excitement. I read the first couple of chapters of each and gave up. And for the novels leading up to that period, his record was hit or miss with me; mostly miss really. I did not like The Eyes of the Dragon, The Tommyknockers, or Needful Things. While I was a big fan of most of his early novels (especially The Stand and The Dead Zone), the last novel of his that I really liked was The Dark Half.

But his short stories? Loved them. The tales in both Night Shift and The Skeleton Crew were constant re-reads for me throughout the ‘80s and into the ‘90s; likewise for his classic novella collection, Different Seasons. It was thrilling in those days that so many of these pieces were being made into films in theatres and on television as well, even if the quality varied greatly from project to project. But perhaps it is telling that his ‘90s work in the short story and novella area also failed to grab my attention as well. I liked Nightmares and Dreamscapes well enough; I read through it a couple of times, and some stories, like The Night Flier, really stuck with me. But I really did not enjoy Four Past Midnight all that much, so maybe that is where my real ennui with King started to set in for me.

The beauty of the short story is in its succinctness, in the sparing of details unnecessary to the moment at hand. In those early collections, King is brilliant in keeping a tight grip on information, his pen is sharp and concise, and he even seems to practice a form of subtlety – no matter how fantastical the situations, characters, or creatures – that would run away from him sometimes in his longer novels. Since I have rarely read King in recent years (and that would almost entirely be non-fiction and his pop culture columns in Entertainment Weekly), I don’t know if I would still perceive this problem with him.

Just like you, my friends and I – many of whom were also massive fans of King in those bygone days (I am unsure if any of them still read him; many were having a similar falling out with his ‘90s work) – had many discussions regarding “short stories vs. novels.” The short stories usually came out on top about two-thirds of the time. While I did love many of his early novels, I too ran with the short story crowd. And I would have to say that I am probably still with that group today.

Without diving fully into the actual movie version of Graveyard Shift until a bit further on in this discussion, I must admit that my initial re-read of the short story was colored by the fact that I did my re-watch of the film first. (I will not do this with future installments of this column.) Although only two characters truly bear the same name and gender (more on this later), I kept hearing the dialogue in the voices of the actors in the film, one actor (Stephen Macht) in particular. Did you have this problem, or did you do the smart thing and read the story first? If not, were you able to divorce yourself from the screen experience enough to enjoy the story without being influenced by the film?

UK Poster

Aaron: My process went like this; I read the short story, and then watched the film. A few days later I read the story again in preparation of writing this article. I have to say that’s probably the path I’ll be taking from here on out, as it provided me with a few neat insights into both. In fact, I’d like to try and watch the movie one more time before we truly wrap this thing up, and may end up doing so. One thing that I noticed on my second reading of Graveyard Shift (which would actually be the third or fourth lifetime read for me) is how much the film actually stuck to the brief descriptions in the story. We’ll get into the film later, of course, but almost every word Stephen King wrote found some form of representation in the filmed version in one way or another.

The story takes place in just under one week, divided into short sections, each covering one night on the titular graveyard shift as a crew of textile mill workers cleans out a disused basement. Though the narrator is omniscient, the focus of Graveyard Shift is Hall, a college dropout who has been drifting around the country taking odd jobs and searching for something in his life. The only other character of real note is Warwick, the foreman of the textile mill who seems threatened by Hall’s youth and college background. Warwick is the character Stephen Macht plays, and at the risk of getting ahead of myself, I felt that he was the best at capturing the flavor of the character as written. A few of the other mill workers have lines here or there, like Wisconsky or Ippeston, but they’re basically background characters, extras in this story.

Right away, King introduces a stylistic flourish that will eventually become a trademark: grounding his story in the mundane details of everyday life while introducing characters that speak in exaggerated vernacular. The details of the mill are made more real through King’s use of actual product names or pop culture references. The Orange Crush thermometer that Hall keeps checking, or the cans of Nehi that he throws at the rats. There’s no reason for King to point out that the thermometer is a promotional item from Orange Crush, nor that the aluminum cans Hall launches are Nehi, yet doing so gives the story a quick jolt of verisimilitude. We recognize these items from our own lives, and it places this story directly within our understanding.

King also has his characters speak in a weirdly poetic, often stilted, frequently profane style. He claims this language came from his youth surrounded by older blue collar New Englanders, and yet I have a feeling no one actually spoke like he writes. Like when Carmichael gets bitten by a large rat, and complains that he wants compensation, Warwick’s response is “Sure. You got bit on the titty.” This isn’t the most outrageous example in his bibliography, but you get the point. King himself has credited most of his success to this simple act of having his characters say bizarre, distinctive things.

I think Graveyard Shift turned out to be an unexpectedly subtle way to start this project. It features a lot of things Stephen King is known for, but toned way down to the point where it would be easy to miss them. Reading ahead in this collection (though skipping for now the ones we’ll eventually cover for this series) I can say that his stylistic tics become more pronounced the further along we go. Have you read ahead yet? What do you think of his penchant for cultural references and idiosyncratic dialogue? Anything else in the story we should cover before jumping into the film?

DVD Cover

Rik: I only read ahead through the next story, Night Surf, but that was because I remembered that it is connected to The Stand (the use of the Captain Trips influenza as a device), and I loved The Stand. (As to whether I still do, that remains to be seen for future columns.) It was amazing to me how I had almost completely forgotten the story over the intervening years, but the second that I started to read the story, details came flooding back into my head mere sentences before I happened upon them on the page (or really, on the screen, since I was reading it on my iPhone).

We had three constant battles in my gang when we seemed to be group reading King’s latest book back in the day. (Many of us worked for the same bookstore chain, so we were able to get discounted copies of each release, and thus nobody really had to wait to read each one.) One battle was over the overtness of his use of sexuality in his stories, and by that, I mean his descriptiveness and openness. (We had a couple of people in our group who felt he went a little bit too far with the details and sordidness in some scenes, and others, like – ahem -- me, are pervos who felt he never went far enough.) (That I ultimately found happiness in the far sicker and gooier writings of Clive Barker is no surprise.) The second battle was indeed about his use of product placement to sell the reality of his settings to the reader. Certainly he wasn’t getting paid to use any of these trademark names, and I agree with you that it made his stories seem like they were taking place exactly within our own dimension. We again had a couple of dissenters, who felt that it actually cheapened his writing, as if he were taking shortcuts instead of relying more fully on his imagination to set a scene. I saw their side of it as well, but overall, felt that King’s concentration on Nehi and other brands is part of what made him popular: his ability to make us imagine ourselves in his outrageous scenarios.

Such scenarios might even make us say the most outlandish things in the midst of trying to stay alive. That third battle was most certainly over his dialogue. I have always been torn on it myself, but he certainly makes his characters more memorable by his use of it. His characters sometimes employ the most ridiculous, out of left field wording, but King generally gets away with it. While the words may not jibe with our own understanding of the English language, you definitely can’t forget those characters.

In the case of the most egregious user of such language in the story version of Graveyard Shift – the foreman Warwick – he is definitely memorable, though that doesn’t excuse him from how profoundly (and purposefully) annoying he is. Warwick speaks in a manner that I could only proscribe to Stephen King; I have never met anyone in real life who converses as he does, at least when combined with an inability to even attempt to relate to anything living thing on even the smallest level. I will save any discussion of his movie counterpart until the appropriate section of this article. Taking the written Warwick as is, he is probably one of the best examples of how far King was willing to take a character into the realm of the completely unlikable.

Look, I’ve never been to Maine, and I probably will never go there. I am not knocking the state, but I grew up in Alaska, so there is not much in Maine that I can’t get by just going back home for a visit. And I am allergic to shellfish, so in a gastronomic sense, why would I even? Nor have I ever met (to my knowledge) anybody directly from Maine, so I have zero experience in any actual dialect from that state. What has always struck me in the King adaptations (when they stick to that region) is how phony the dialogue sounds to my ear. Period. No one speaks like that at all, I tell myself, and the overriding effect has been that if there is a feature of pure artifice to King’s stories, it is not the fantastical creatures that never have or never will be in this world, but the words that fall from his most annoying characters mouths and the odd angles at which those words hit my ears.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy some of those words. I find their use annoying, but at no point would I admit that King doesn’t achieve the exact goals for which he is striving. When I saw George A. Romero’s (and King’s) Creepshow in the theatre for the first time in 1982, and saw King on the screen as the doomed Jordy Verrill – or even in his cameo role as a loudmouth spectator in Romero’s earlier but equally fascinating Knightriders -- I got the sense (apart from King being a shitty actor) that in his head, all of King’s characters spoke within those parameters – as annoying as possible and with accents so outrageous they may as well be the “Frenchies” in Monty Python.

Of course, I exaggerate – as King does as well -- and it does bring me to my point. I can say “No one speaks like that in real life!” but what do I know? Right down the street, in any direction, there are groups and nationalities and subgroups and cultures that speak to each in ways that I have never heard. Nor am I likely to hear if I don’t immerse myself in their cultures. I am no expert on anything. Do I know anyone from the backwoods or small towns of Maine? No. So how can I say that Warwick doesn’t exist somewhere, and that people just like Warwick influenced King? I cannot know. It doesn’t mean that I have to accept every frustratingly odd piece of dialogue, but I will give King the benefit of the doubt in most cases.

There is some memorable imagery in Graveyard Shift – such as King’s vivid descriptions of the mutated creatures –but the one that gets my mind racing is the lock on the underside – yes, the underside – of the trapdoor that is discovered, which will eventually lead to a hidden sub-basement and much carnage by the end of the story (and possibly portends more carnage post-story). The rusted lock is a marvelous tension builder, and the “hero” character, Hall, seems to revel in its discovery, if only because it helps continue to cut through Warwick’s blusterous faƧade of toughness. Trying to fathom exactly what purpose led to its necessity almost distracts me from the exploration of the dank subbasement and the mutant rat-bat action that occurs next. Did the lock perform similar black magic on you? What other imagery stuck in your memory the most?

Aaron: Definitely the lock is the big, glaring, flashing light at the center of this story. It hints at something grander and stranger than the inbred, mutant rat action we get. At first glance it seems like an early example of yet another Stephen King tic; the offhand remark or briefly mentioned artifact that hints at an older, more horrific story only tangentially related to what we’re seeing. Eventually those digressions would get the best of him, and Stephen King would devote hundreds of pages to ideas that were only really incidental to the main plot, but I’ve always loved them. Even when they threatened to overload the main story, my favorite parts of King books tend to be the brief (or not-so-brief) detours that give the impression that the world is weirder and scarier than you thought. Right now I’m going to take a page out of Stephen King’s book and back up a bit and work my way back to answer your question.

On my first re-reading of this story, I felt the ending had a few rushed elements. After some pretty leisurely storytelling, and without much foreshadowing, the ending comes rushing at us in just a couple of quick pages. Warwick and Hall seem to undergo some pretty major shifts in personality, and Hall in particular gets a new motivation that seems to come out of left field. I’m speaking, of course, of Hall’s decision to not just force Warwick into a rat infested basement in order to prove his aggressive blustering is merely a show, but to actually take an active role in Warwick’s death as almost a sacrifice to the rats.

As soon as Warwick and Hall enter the sub-basement, Hall’s entire attitude changes. Where earlier in the story he had been silently acquiescing to Warwick’s demands and insults (though often with some passive aggression), here he begins to take charge of the situation, to badger and harass Warwick openly. His inner thoughts change as well, as he begins to feel a wild elation, ‘something lunatic and dark with colors.’ He feels a sense of purpose drawing him on, and his inner thoughts remark that ‘he had perhaps been looking for something like this through all his days of crazy wandering.’ This change happens so suddenly, over barely a page, that at first blush it seemed unearned. Then, when re-reading the story it all fell into place; of course Hall was unmoored and probably a little unhinged, despite his seeming sanity at the story’s outset. And of course a drifter who seems to be searching for his place in the world would find something almost religious in the mystery and violence of what happens in that sub-basement.

Which brings us back to that lock on the underside of a trap door. Why would it be there, on that side of the door? The characters in the story all wonder this, but it’s glossed over rather quickly. As I see it there is only one real reason you would lock the inside of something; you are locking yourself in and something else out. Based on the disused nature of the basement, and the certainly even more disused nature of the sub-basement, neglected for decades, who could have set that lock? And what must their rationale have been? How could anyone with even the barest sense of curiosity not be tempted down those stairs?

But there’s more to this mystery, and although we never get a definitive answer we get a lot of weird clues. First off is the basement itself, which is ancient and full of weird fungi the characters have never seen before, strange and swarming beetles, and of course giant rats and bats. The basement is also larger than the mill that lays on top of it, extending past the mill’s borders, and we get explicit evidence that the basement might predate the above structure by several decades. Warwick and Hall discover a large wooden box with a name and date painted on it; “Elias Varney, 1841.” At the discovery of that item, Hall asks Warwick if the mill is that old, to which Warwick answers that the mill was built in 1897.

In the sub-basement Warwick and Hall find one skeleton, and though no connection is made in the text, I think it’s a fair assumption to make that the skeleton belonged to whoever locked the basement from the inside. I think another assumption could also be made that the skeleton and Elias Varney are one and the same. So now the question remains, who is Elias Varney? I’m going to get a bit extra-textual here, and go outside of the book for a theory I’d like to put forward.

Knowing how much Stephen King likes to make allusions to his own works I went online to look up any other instances of an Elias Varney in his work, or even just another Varney, and could find nothing (Stephen King fans have tirelessly plotted most story connections throughout several websites, so if a connection existed I should have found it). What I did find, buried in a forum thread from ages ago, was the idea that the name meant nothing in and of itself, it was just there to identify the skeleton, and perhaps Varney had been chosen because King is a ravenous fan of horror literature, and wanted to give a shout out to Varney the Vampire, the first English-language vampire tale.

But what if the naming wasn’t random? What if it was a clue to the very origins of the story? The wooden box they find isn’t really described, other than it is apparently huge, but what if it was a coffin? What if Elias Varney is related to Francis Varney, the titular vampire of that story? Or, what if he had nothing to do with that story and was simply a clue as to the nature of the trouble beneath the mill. There are a couple ways it could go from there. This vampire had sealed himself away from the dangerous humans above, or perhaps this Varney was as self-hating as the original, and had sealed himself away to keep humanity safe. Either way, it’s clear that he died beneath what would eventually become a textile mill.

Now, I’m not saying that I’ve solved a mystery in a 26-page Stephen King story that no one had ever even noticed before, and I’m not saying that King wrote a secret sequel to a half forgotten penny dreadful from over a century earlier, but it does serve to highlight what I love most about short stories like this; the idea that there is a larger world and we are looking at it through a keyhole. In this case we’ve got Elias Varney, who may or may not be a vampire, but who has locked himself away in an ancient cavern that ends up full of mutated rats, bats, and other forms of life normally found in caves. Did he lock himself up before or after this change in the natural order? Did he do it because of the change? Did the change happen because of him? We’ll never know, and whether you want to buy my version of things or not, I think it’s a fun way to look at the story, and it got my imagination whirring.

Rik: I am willing to entertain the notion, though I really think King never meant anything more than simple literary name-dropping (at most) to add an extra spooky layer to his story’s trappings. But, just as the strange positioning of the lock lends itself to allowing the reader to wander off in epic flights of fancy regarding just exactly why it appears that way, so too does the box with the name of Elias Varney. Why not imagine such a connection?

I, too, had set myself toward scouring the interwebs for some corroboration of the Varney theory, but found nothing beyond the forum source that you did. Since I am not prone to jumping on theories without multiple sourced facts to back it up, I discounted the notion. But I will agree that it is a most engaging idea, and it caused me to head further to King’s non-fictional foray into the history of horror fiction and film, Danse Macabre, itself first published a couple of years (1981, to be precise) after Night Shift. In Danse Macabre, King name-checks Varney while discussing Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but nothing beyond informing us that the novel “never degenerates to the level of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Varney the Vampyre.” So it is clear that King is well aware of Varney, but doesn’t hold it in high regard as literature. He also fails to include it in his list of important horror novels and stories in the appendix for Danse Macabre. Since there, by his own words, “roughly a hundred” such works included, it seems there would have been plenty of room if he wanted Varney there.

But it also doesn’t mean that he was beyond dropping a Varney reference into Graveyard Shift as a gag. And no matter how much certain writers might bemoan this fate, once the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, it is not going to go back in easily. Once he published the story and the readers took in his words, the fate of Elias Varney became their concern, whether a lightly implied joke or the doorway to further horrors left undiscovered and untold.

Our discussion continues over on Rik's site as we delve into the film and its differences and similarities to the short story. To read that part visit Rik's Cinema 4 Pylon here.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Visiting and Revisiting: Starcrash (1978) Pt. 2

This is Part II of a two-part discussion about Luigi Cozzi's 1978 Italian "rip-off" of Star Wars, Starcrash. To read the first part of this article, visit my buddy Rik Tod Johnson's Cinema 4 Pylon website at: 


Rik: The chief influence of this film is clearly George Lucas' Star Wars; that cannot be denied. But there is a huge dose of the legacy of the late Ray Harryhausen at play as well. Stop-motion animation, not even close to being as fluid as Ray's patented Dynamation process, plays a big role in this film in a couple of scenes. The one that played a big part in coaxing me to the theatre was the sword fight between Hasselhoff and a pair of robots that look like Gyro Gearloose from the old Uncle Scrooge comics constructed them. They even look like they have stylized duckbills. Hasselhoff picks up Gortner's lesser form of lightsaber (it now reminds me more of the way that a Schwartz was used in Spaceballs) and has a battle against the extremely jerky, sword-wielding automatons. The swordplay is actually surprisingly engaging, even if the animation is definitely and expectedly subpar to its influences (most definitely the skeleton fights in Harryhausen's Jason and Sinbad films).

Where the stop-motion animation really fails for me, however, is in the scene with the giant "female" robot (with titanic, possibly titanium, breasts for some reason -- who knew robots breastfed?) on the beach. The entire sequence is clearly modeled after the Talos scene from Harryhausen's classic Jason and the Argonauts, but it is almost painful to watch, so awkward are the relatively simple movements involved in the scene. You could say that Talos in the original movie was also jerky and awkward, but he was a normally inanimate statue that had just been magically freed from its base. Talos was towering in stature and composed of metal, like the "female" robot here, but its limbs were not built for movement at all, merely to support its mass as a piece of art; hence the jerkiness in its motions. However, Talos is imbued with remarkable life by his creator -- that god being Harryhausen -- and as stiff as he is naturally portrayed, he has clearly been brought to life fully and his muscles and joints move, albeit deliberately, in a surprisingly life-like manner. The robot in this film clearly has working knees and elbows, and therefore it must be surmised that it is meant to walk around and perform its duties, most likely to guard the planet upon which it resides. However, it moves every bit as jerkily as Talos, even more so due to an obvious lower range of talent attempting to duplicate the moves of the great Harryhausen. Of course, maybe the Amazons on the planet were just inept engineers and technicians, and they made a shitty robot that could barely move as required.

Aaron: That giant robot not only had breasts, but large gear shaped nipples, as well! In a good film, striking design choices like that can easily be explained as atmosphere-enhancing aesthetics, but in Starcrash it just made me wonder, while watching that scene, why the guard had been built that way. I suppose the fact that it’s a planet of Amazons might explain why they’d choose a feminine form, but it did seem strangely sexual. And why hadn’t they bothered animating even a basic bend of the arm at least once? The animation looked like something a bright, enthusiastic nine-year-old would make in their backyard. I mean, it’s great looking for a nine-year-old playing with his action figures, but for an actual movie projected in theatres, it’s laughably subpar.

Speaking of references, I really got a kick out of how blatantly they stole the look of the Martian mastermind from Invaders From Mars for that of the judge that sentences Akton and Stella to hard labor for their various crimes. On top of those references already noted, there’s at least one shot that seems to directly echo Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Zarth Arn bears a more than passing resemblance to Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, and some of the ship-launching sequences look suspiciously like those in Battlestar Galactica. That last one may be nothing more than coincidence considering how close their releases are to each other.

Rik: Starcrash gets a lot of surprising mileage out of just how colorful and charmingly fantasy-like its vision of outer space is. The stars at night may or may not be big and bright deep in the heart of Texas, but they are bigger and brighter here. Every planet, moon, and star is represented in the sharpest of hues, and whatever demerits can be attributed to the film on nearly every other level, one cannot deny that much of the film is very pleasing to the eye. I am only watching the film on DVD, and it is awash in the most brilliant colors, far more than I remember. I can only imagine that the Blu-ray I gave you for Christmas is even more pleasing (not that you have seen the DVD version).

Aaron: I have not seen the DVD as you say, but I have watched some clips online (and on the special features) that feature some of the footage before it was touched up, and the Blu-ray is indeed pretty great looking. Aside from some blurriness here and there as a result of aged film stock, everything is pretty eye-popping. There is one downside to this, however, as the added clarity betrays some of the shots of deep space to look like exactly what they are: multicolored light bulbs placed against a black background.

But yes, of course, the visuals are great fun. The exteriors of the ships are off kilter and interesting (though the ship from the beginning, the one that the emperor’s son escapes from, looks a bit like a guitar frame someone stuck some plastic bits to and then spray-painted grey), and the interiors are full of oddly designed furniture and decorated in primary, often clashing colors.

Rik: As I mentioned earlier, in that attack on the Galactic starship at the beginning of the film, Count Zarth Arn's minions use a weapon that creates a field of floating red spheroids that are undeterred by walls or atmosphere, and simply drift through everything in their path. The red spheroids exert a mind-altering force that serves to drive the crew of the starship mad and ultimately cause the starship to explode. This is the terrible weapon that, later in the film, Stella and her pals are recruited to stop. It is a very simple but weirdly effective scene. The spheroids are never actually touching or even in the same plane as anything else; they are merely superimposed by the filmmakers over everything (according to Starcrash expert Stephen Romano, the images are of various objects floating in a fish tank). While the effect looks as low-rent and cheesy as anything in the rest of the film, I found it to be one of the more memorable images from the film, and it has stuck with me since that first teenage showing. The same effect is used later in the film, on an even larger scale, when Stella's ship is attacked. This time, the effect grows even more psychedelic, with other elements added to the superimposed imagery. Watching it now, even seeing how simple it is, it kind of holds up for me as one of my favorite moments in the film. What did you think of the use of the red balls?

Aaron: I must admit it didn’t quite affect me in the same way. I agree it’s a nice enough image, and a clever use of their limited budget, but the weapon itself seemed so… ill defined. The characters never refer to globular red balls floating through the ship, and instead repeatedly say they were attacked by groups of monsters. But there’s really nothing monstrous about them, other than how unsettling it would be to travel through space and suddenly find yourself inside a red lava lamp. There was a lack of physicality to them that I found hard to connect with, and I couldn’t really suspend my disbelief enough for them to read as menacing in any way. They do remind me, however, of Rover, that giant white ball that acts as a security system in The Prisoner. That’s a similarly cheap and spherical effect that nonetheless still unsettles me when I see it.

Rik: The Prisoner is such a great show, and yes, Rover has always unsettled me, even to this day. Getting back to the red blobs, I did find it amusing that one of the very first things that Starcrash historian and DVD commentator Stephen Romano says when the scene pops up is to discount the theory that the filmmakers have merely superimposed an image of a lava lamp over the rest of the film. It made me chuckle because that is what my friends and I have always figured it was over the years.

Watching Starcrash now, Caroline Munro is every bit as lovely as I remember her, but there is an odd thing that must be told about her performance. Even though she is a British actress, Munro's dialogue was dubbed for its Western release by Candy Clark, who was married to Marjoe Gortner, who plays Stella's super-powered sidekick, Akton, in the film. Supposedly, when they redubbed the film, both Munro and her husband, Judd Hamilton (who played the loyal robot, Elle), were not flown over to America to save expenses, and so Clark and character actor Hamilton Camp were used in their places. It's a shame that we don't get to hear Munro's own voice as this is her biggest role in a film, and because I find Clark's line readings to be as off-kilter and often stiff as many of her own performances. Though I do adore Candy Clark in certain films, I don't think she is a particularly adept actress, and her voice doesn't quite match some of Munro's reactions emotionally. That said, the only voice I find annoying in the film is that of Elle the robot. The Texas twang with which Camp imbued the robot in the English dub is quite tiring and ridiculous, and it adds undoubtedly to the film's cheese factor.

Physically, Munro is jaw dropping gorgeous as Stella Star. She only wears her skimpy leather bikini outfit for the first chunk of the film, and as a teen, I was upset that her outfits gets increasingly less provocative as the film progresses. By the end of the film, Stella is completely covered up in a full bodysuit and cape (and ultimately, a space helmet). While one would look at any another movie for its psychological implications (has the hell-bent Stella been tamed by her conversion from bikini-wearing smuggler to demure heroine?), the real reason here seems to be Munro wanting more to wear in the film than just a leather bikini. On one of the audio commentaries, Romano quotes Harlan Ellison as saying that they had to ugly up Munro a bit for the film so that the cameras wouldn't melt. I've looked around to verify this quote (unsuccessfully so far), but I do have to agree that such a thing might have been possible.

Does Caroline Munro affect you in the same way, sir, or is my lingering affection merely a by-product of my misspent youth?

Aaron: All I can say is that Caroline Munro is delightfully cute, and it was a pleasure to spend a couple of hours watching her traverse the stars. I can only imagine what my opinion would be had I been exposed to her in my formative years. However, it saddens me to know that I can’t really appreciate her performance in this film, as her lines were dubbed by someone else. She certainly appears to be giving it her all, but the lines come out a bit stale, which is a problem that affects almost everyone in the cast, even those who were able to dub their own dialogue. You mention in particular disliking Hamilton Camp’s portrayal of Elle, and while I can’t argue with you, I have to say I kind of enjoyed the hillbilly twang he gave the robot. It was such an out of place detail that some part of me loved the randomness of having a robot in this fantasy galaxy speak like an extra on Hee Haw.

I would like to take a moment to talk about Marjoe Gortner’s character, Akton. As I said, he seems like a Han Solo analog at first, but turns out to be more Obi Wan Kenobi. That may not be entirely accurate, but he’s certainly supposed to be Starcrash’s version of a Jedi master, complete with light saber. But it continually bothered me how little they go into Akton’s powers or background. He just randomly exhibits new powers whenever the plot demands, and while no one ever expects him to have these powers, no one ever questions them either. Discussing plot holes or story inconsistencies seems almost beside the point for this film, though. Starcrash feels beyond criticism, in a way, as if the normal rules of storytelling don’t apply to it. Still, I think a little bit more information about this character would have been much appreciated.

Rik: No one is ever going to mistake Starcrash for Star Wars. But I also think that some of the spaceship design is pretty interesting. One of the ships is even named after science fiction author Murray Leinster, who specialized in pulp adventures such as this (though his works were often more elevated intellectually than Starcrash). By the time I saw this film, I was not only immersed in the technology of Star Wars, but also Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers (I actually watched the TV pilots for both series in theatres). I was swamped with outer space dogfighting, and so when I finally did get to see this film, I had already gotten a bit tired of spaceships due to the over-saturation of the market. Honestly, I really just wanted the film to get to the parts with Stella, so maybe my teenage boy sex drive had overtaken my patience with everything else. Watching the film since, though, I really enjoy many of the ship scenes, especially the quite appropriate design of the evil Count's ship, which looks like a giant, clawed hand.

Aaron: The ships are great, and straddle the line between innovative and old-fashioned. Some of the ships are clearly on tracks, and look like the planes that would attack Godzilla in his early decades, but then some of them are quite interesting and feature more detailed movement. Zarth Arn’s fist-shaped ship (try saying that five times fast) is the clear standout, though it does beg the question; what is that design for? Have you ever wondered why Zarth Arn would need five extendable digits on his space fortress? They don’t appear to provide any protection or added benefits beyond being a cool visual gimmick. Then again, given how flamboyant Zarth Arn is in his fashion sense and demeanor, that would probably be enough for him. In a quick side note, Joe Spinell as Zarth Arn really reminded me of Dave Grohl, which gave me a quick chuckle any time he was stomping around the screen.

Having now seen the film two-and-a-half times, I think I might be done with it for a while. I enjoyed it, but I think I’ll let it sit in my memory for a little while, where I can let the neat visuals and the fun swashbuckling moments overshadow the more perfunctory plot motions. Seeing the film for the first time as a man in his late thirties, I think that might be the best way to experience this film; as a burst of juvenile excitement. Best to allow it to sit in your mind and remind you of how totally awesome sword-fighting robots, spaceship dogfights, and the very idea of ‘the haunted stars’ can be.

Rik: Obviously, the design of Zarth Arn’s fist-shaped ship is so he can pull four of the fingers back to flip the bird at his enemies. He’s just that type of guy. I see your point about Spinell reminding you of Dave Grohl, and I must admit it did cross my mind briefly and made me chuckle a bit. Spinell, as he often does, sort of reminds me of the younger and not yet enormously rotund Ron Jeremy as well.

I, too, am probably done with Starcrash for a good while. Having just watched it about five more times in the past couple of months, I think it is burned in pretty good for the time being. In those two months though, my estimation for the film has gone up ever so slightly, but not so much that I ever forget my long-running disappointment with the film. Loves and hates that stem from childhood or your teen years are awfully hard to shake. I still think Caroline Munro is one of the most beautiful women to ever appear on the movie screen, but I also think Starcrash is well below what constitutes a good film, even on a pure entertainment level. That said, were I ever to throw a video party again (not that I have in the past twenty years), this might be one that I would choose to show everyone a crazy, weird time and allow everyone to riff at will.