Lying Media Bastards: Reviews Archive

October 30, 2004

Horror Thing

As a child, I was not allowed to watch scary movies. In fact, I was rarely allowed to see anything rated higher than PG, unless my parents had seen it already and found it acceptable (and "acceptable" meant "no sex or nudity"). Unfortunately for me, they didn't see movies that often, leaving my choices pretty limited. But, as kids do, I found a way around this, and got my dose of R-rated violence at a friend's house. And luckily for society, my substantial intake of horrifically anti-social media has resulted in nothing more violent than a brief stint on the high school wrestling team my freshman year.

Somewhere along the line, I developed a taste for horror movies. Not those lame-ass slasher films of the 80s, or horror that focused on cheap startle-scares, but movies that had scary concepts, or managed to build and maintain tension or anxiety or foreboding. In a way, I've taken good horror to be a window into that broad concept "what do humans find scary?" It fascinates the hell out of me.

I think the first horror movie that I ever saw that was actually scary was one of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. The concept itself is really pretty terrifying: sleep = death. You're at your most vulnerable when you're asleep, and that's when this killer can get you. And you can't have someone watch over your sleeping body to protect you from attack, because this killer gets inside your head. Not just inside your head, but inside the elastic reality of your dreams, a reality where most people have no control. So you're under attack at your most vulnerable and your most powerless. On top of that, the killer usually takes a familiar or pleasant dream scenario, and turns it into one of your worst fears. And of course, at your most vulnerable, most powerless, and most terrified, the killer will mock and taunt you.

The Elm Street movies then had one final element common to many horror films: adult neglect. The kids were always in danger, the kids always knew what was going on and asked for help, but the grown-ups never listened. And the kids paid the price.

And finally, the Elm Street movies did an excellent job of creating icons for the villain, that could all suggest his presence and invoke fear without even showing him on-screen. His distinctive hat, sweater, glove, claw marks, the Nightmare House, and the Freddy nursery rhyme were all ways to imply that Freddy was afoot, and save the real scare of showing his face for later.

After that, probably the next enjoyable horror I found were the first two Hellraiser movies. These had great concepts and great creepy visuals, but were generally lacking otherwise. The idea was that there exist a group of human-like creatures called cenobites, who know all the secrets of pleasure and pain. If you solve a special puzzlebox, they will teach you torture and please you until you die, and keep your soul. The first movie's tagline was "Angels to some. Demons to others." I thought that was a great concept. These creatures aren't good or evil, they just provide a service when asked. That service results in pain and death, which we perceive as evil, but the cenobites were just fulfilling a contract, dispassionately and methodically.

The cenobites' forms matched their function, punk rock and S&M taken to the next level: nails in the skull, wounds held open by piercings, eyelids sewn shut, skin pulled tight by wires and hooks. Gruesome and memorable. Sadly, the series went to shit pretty quickly after that (although Hellraiser 4 did have some pretty cool new cenobites), as they forgot their initial concept and the cenobites just became averge everday Monsters Who Kill People. I think they're up to Hellraiser 8 by now.

After Hellraiser, I saw Evil Dead 2, and shortly after that, Dead Alive. These combined horror, slapstick humor, and absolutely stunning amounts of gore, and showed that horror could be a lot of fun-- if you could stomach the viscera. Evil Dead 2 (essentially a twisted, bizarre remake of Evil Dead 1) features cult icon Bruce Campbell as an arrogant everyman faced by mysterious forces and zombie monsters, demonic posession, and his own crumbling sanity. The special effects are often bad, but that just adds to the fun. To me, the film feels as though the producer was hanging around for the first few days of shooting, but after he left, the crew got in a circle and said "okay, now let's fuck it up!" Hilarous. The sequel to Evil Dead 2 was the (more well-known) Army of Darkness, which is good for maybe the first hour, before descending into lameness.

Dead Alive is actually a good movie. It's the story of an shy young New Zealand man from the 1950s trying to find love and happiness while dealing with his overbearing, posessive mother. Set against the background of a killer zombie attack. This movie is a laugh riot, if you can stand the gore. How much gore? It's probably the goriest movie ever made. Let's just say that by the end, the heros are almost unrecognizable under their covering of pink goo.

Amusingly, the directors of these two low budget shockers went on to become some of Hollywood's elite. Evil Dead's Sam Raimi directed the acclaimed sleeper A Simple Plan, and went on to direct both of the Spiderman movies. And Dead Alive's Peter Jackson directed the amazing Lord of the Rings trilogy. Let that be a lesson to all you would-be directors out there: get yourself a cheesy horror script a a couple barrels of fake blood.

Sadly, apart from the recent wave of Japanese horror, there haven't been many good horror movies in years. Which is why I turned to video games for my horror fix.

I know that many folks write video games off as mindless shoot-em-ups, or think that we're still in the era of Pac-Man. But they have evolved into movie-like productions, with realistic graphics, professional voice actors, plots, settings and musical scores. Sadly, all this still usually results in an interactive version of your standard action movie, but I have hope. I have played several games with amazing stories and characters, games with themes and messages, even a couple that approached real literary merit. But most of the time, I have to take a game for what it is, and just enjoy the good parts.

In a way, horror video games are a better way for me to do my analysis of fear than movies: video games are much longer (usually 8-40 hours of gameplay, vs. the usual 90+ minutes for a film), and you control where the main character(s) go and what they do. In addition, I think that video games have taken greater strides in maniuplating visuals and sound to put fear into the player.

The video game horror revolution began with Resident Evil. You play as a member of some kind of elite police squad, trapped in a spooky house, fighting zombies and other monsters. Over time, you learn that the monsters and zombies are the work of genetic tampering by scientists at the evil Umbrella Corporation.

The game really isn’t that great. It favors cheap scares, falling back on clichés and illogic when need be. The one legitimate scare comes early in the game, before any monster attacks. You walk into a room, hearing some odd noises. You round a corner and see a man laying on the ground, with another man hunched over him. After a moment, you realize that the first man is dead, and the second is simply eating his body. The second man’s head whips around, chalk-white except for the blood-wet mouth, and turns to get you. Resident Evil is also known for some of the worst dialogue and voice-acting in the business (my favorite comes at the beginning, when one cop gives the other a lockpick before they split up to search the house. "Here, take this lockpick. It may come in handy if you, the master of unlocking, take it with you."). The game has become quite the franchise, with probably 5 or 6 sequels and a couple of movies to carry it along.

But the horror game that blew me away was Silent Hill. SH took horror in a different direction. Instead of the cheap scares and stock monsters, SH was about keeping you unsettled and disturbed at all times.

In SH, you play Harry Mason, a widowed writer taking his young daughter on a vacation to the sleepy resort town of Silent Hill. He loses control of his car and crashes, and when he comes to, his daughter is gone. The town is bereft of people, and covered in a dense fog. As he searches for his little girl, he also finds the town populated by strange, eerie monsters, and the city’s streets are inexplicably torn by cataclysm and shrouded in fog. And at times, he finds himself shifting into the Other Silent Hill. This alternate reality is sort of like if you took a spooky, abandoned resort town, and crossed it with a Marilyn Manson video. Blood, rust, chains, filth, and all manner of occult trappings.

One key element of gameplay was that your character carried a broken radio. For unexplained reasons, when monsters approached in the darkness, your radio would start to crackle with static. Since your view was often limited (darkness, with only a clip-on pocket flashlight to see) This meant that you always had to have your ears straining, to give you as much warning as possible of coming danger. Before SH, I would often play video games with my stereo turned on, playing any old music. After SH, game designers began to work very hard on making sound an integral part of the game. No more music 'n games for Jake.

But SH didn’t always throw it in your face. To me the most disturbing moment was when I found a backyard basketball court in the non-Hellraiser version of town. There was a puddle of red on the ground near the basket (you get desensitized to the amount of random blood around the town), but there seemed to be something in the middle of it. I pressed the "examine" button, and a text description popped up: "A dog’s head." I looked up, and there was a splotch of red on the backboard. I put it all together. My god! Someone cut off a dog’s head and shot a basket with it! This shit is fucked up!

Plenty of story, too. As one would imagine, the town of Silent Hill has a history plagued with cults, torture, murder and secrets. Silent Hill went on to become a franchise, with each game usually having only tenuous connections to the others.

For a while, Resident Evil and Silent Hill were really the only significant horror games out there, but that's changing. The most promising new series are the Japanese folklore-based Fatal Frame series, where you must use a mystic camera to capture the souls of angry spirits, and The Suffering, which focused on sanity, morality, and the hellish conditions of prison.

So what are people afraid of? I think more than anything, people are afraid of what's out there. Whatever's just beyond the edge of their vision, whatever's just around this corner, whatever's just beyond their mind's comprehension. It's out there, and if it comes near us, it could do terrible, terrible things to us. What kinds of things? If you've done the scaring right, everyone will be too afraid to ask.

Posted by Jake at 02:25 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

June 15, 2004

Touching Evil

One of the hallmarks of the LMB site is my tradition of announcing that I'm going to do something, and then not doing it.

I announced that last week was going to be "pop culture week" on the site, where I would write about various films and books and whatnot, politically and otherwise. Didn't happen.

So only a week late, I'm getting started. This one ain't so political.

Touching Evil is a newish cop drama on the USA Network. I like to say that it takes place in an "alternate reality San Francisco", because their version of the city is like 80% serial killers. And every week, the members of a special serial killer-catching police force get inside the head of a different serial killer and catch them. That sounds a bit common, of course, but it has several differences from the average cop drama.

The first difference is the show's gimmick. The main character was a brilliant detective who was shot in the head, put into a coma, and has only recently returned to work. He's come back with brain damage, which has ruined many of his social skills and have set his emotions to Intense mode most of the time. We see the extremity of his life and job, and watch him express the grief, fury, and joy it creates. He's a passionate, pained, goofy, loving, unpredictable fellow. Which again, sounds generic, but it works.

The second enjoyable aspect of the show is its tone and atmosphere. The show's music is muffled, melancholy and dreamy, all kinda stolen from the Nine Inch Nails song "A Warm Place" (which in itself was pretty much a theft of David Bowie's song "Crystal Japan"). This music matches nicely with the sequences that go between the main story. These scenes are beautiful time lapse images of San Francisco: glaciers of fog storming the bay with a quickness; city streets streaked with speeding tail lights; sunlight rising and falling on the Golden Gate. In my opinion, all this serves to emphasize the show's inherent sadness, and makes the viewer a bit more introspective and susceptible to the show's moodiness.

And finally, you have the show's characters and their interactions. As the episodes progress, you realize that this is not a crack unit of hard-boiled cops: these are a group of walking wounded. Slowly and carefully, you learn that each of these people is suffering a terrible loss, and has no clue how to cope. So they try to bury it all with cold exteriors, emotional distance and obsessions with their job. With the edition of they hyper-sensitive new detective, these icy barriers soften and fracture, and you catch glimpses of the pain and raw anguish, but also of tenderness, and the possibility that maybe, just maybe, these damaged souls could help each other start to heal.

I might be reading a lot into this, but that's just where I am right now.

Of course, the show has plenty of flaws: plots that sometimes don't quite work, abrupt conflicts or breakthroughs, twists and misdirections that are a tad transparent. And there's no guarantee just yet that it'll even be renewed for a second season. All I know is that as it stands, the show clicks with me, and maybe it'll keep on clicking.

Posted by Jake at 11:55 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

March 27, 2004

Dawn of the Dead (movie)

It's a nonbrilliant theory of mine that the popularity of horror figures only endure so long as they touch a popular nerve, that they invoke a deep fear inherent in humans, or that is part of the current cultural climate.

- Frankenstein and many other monsters, of course, hit our fears of science gone out of control.

- Dracula and vampires, I would argue, are about our fear of seduction; modern vampires are sleek, sexy, charming things that could tempt us into giving up our lives and souls.

- 80s slasher villains invoked our fears of, well, everybody. They were about strangers, who could appear and behave completely unpredictably, and tear "us" out of our suburban havens. Maybe two decades of safe suburban living have assuaged these fears.

Other horror figures did not maintain their cultural power, and faded away. We no longer see movies about giant killer ants, blobs, or fishmen from the swamp.

But we now see a resurgence of zombies. I think that the "traditional" zombie, the slow-moving, slow-witted undead, is about claustrophobia, an unstoppable force, about inevitable death which we cannot ever escape (of course, I should differentiate our regular zombie movie zombies with the resurrected slaves of Haitian folklore). I'm not entirely sure what the new crop of energetic, high-speed, screeching zombies mean. Honestly, I don't expect them to catch on.

What always intrigued me about the movies of George Romero's old "Living Dead" trilogy was that they created a whole new world, one in which every time someone dies, their body turns into shuffling, mindless monster that only wants to kill (and infect) the living. Our everyday world is rapidly transformed, like a nuclear apocalypse without the bomb, with its own different textures and flavors. Governments, authority, family, and relationships collapse. The comfortable world of the city turns into a dangerous jungle, a battleground.

The "Dawn of the Dead" remake manages to catch a little of that feel, but not much of it. The movie's introduction teases us with a bit of background chaos (main characters ignoring radio reports about murders and unexplained disease outbreaks) before putting us right in the thick of it when the main character's neighborhood is overrun by the zombie holocaust. Fire, death, sprinting zombies, and an already advanced case of civilization breakdown. It's pretty scary, and you can feel "you are there" licking at your heels. "What would it really be like?" you think to yourself. "What would I do?"

Then there's an interesting credits sequence with a quick-cut montage of pixelated video footage (which makes it more "realistic" somehow) of all kinds of worldwide conflicts and catastrophes that we're supposed think are somehow zombie-related, all set to the tune of the late Johnny Cash's end-of-days ballad "When the Man Comes Around." Odd.

And after that, most of the movie is crap.

Survivors from "all walks of life" hole up in a shopping mall to escape the zombie hordes. Gore. Tension and conflict and romance among the refugees. Discovery and revelation. Gore. Stupid decisions that lead to unnecessary battles with zombies. Exploding zombie heads. Gore. A final mad plan for escape.

Many movie buffs compare this version to its predecessor, lamenting the new film's lack of social commentary and ridicule of consumer culture. And while this is true, these critics conveniently forget that the original movie was actually pretty boring.

Dawn of the Dead 2004 is a video rental, at best.

Posted by Jake at 11:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

October 13, 2002

Bowling for Columbine

Saw a sneak preview of Michael Moore's new movie this past Thursday over at the Museum of Tolerance. The film is another documentary that takes a hard, satirical, liberal/progressive look at America, this time about guns, violence and American culture. It's called Bowling for Columbine. And at this particular screening, Michael Moore was in attendance, and was planning to answer some questions from the audience afterwards.

Actually, this movie was opening in Los Angeles the day after this particular screening. My main reason for going is that my boss, Tom Morello, was friends with Michael Moore, and I thought that there was a good chance if I went with Tom, that I'd get to talk with Mike a bit. He seems like a good guy.

The movie was good, I definitely recommend seeing it (Hell, it's almost worth seeing just because it's a documentary that is appearing in mainstream movie theaters. That only happens like once every 5 years or so). The film is a bit jumbled for taking on as many subjects as it does, but when a segment hits, it hits hard.

The first half of the movie is about America's love affair with guns. It veers from the wacky (banks that give away free guns for opening up new accounts) to the horrific (the Columbine school massacre). However, making the American Gun look silly or terrible is not a very difficult task. Moore manages to accomplish the task using a combination of legitimate humor, hard-hitting satire, and obvious cliches.

The second half of the movie is very intriguing. The film compares the huge numbers of American gun deaths (around 11,000 a year) to the numbers of gun deaths in other Western countries (usually around 300 a year). But just when you would expect the film to argue that the reason for the excess gun death is due to the huge numbers of guns around the country, the film points out that Canada contradicts the predicted argument; Canada has many guns, but few gun deaths. Which begs the question, what makes America different? What is it about American culture that brings about these gun deaths?

It's a question both fascinating and important. The remainder of Moore's film explores it, suggesting several broad theories, but doesn't try to give a definitive answer. You'll walk out of the theater with your brain chugging like a train uphill, seeking an answer, making slow-- but forward-- progress. My mind's still got this task running in the background.

The film also includes a short interview with Marilyn Manson, in which he postulates a link between fear and consumerism. My subconscious is also working on his theory, trying to refine it into something simpler about the nature of power.

But did my plan work? Did attending the Thursday screening allow me to meet Michael Moore?

Once the Q&A was over, Tom grabbed Mike's attention and invited him to go out with us. Mike told us that he'd love to, but that he had to stop by a party first, it should only take about 10 minutes. Would we like to join him?

Which is how I ended up at a posh Beverly Hills mansion, at a party being thrown by the head of MGM Studios.

I lead a strange life.

Dinner came later. Mike and Tom caught each other up on the events of their lives. We discussed Mike's movies and the pending war on Iraq. And, I was able to determine, Mike is indeed a good guy.

Posted by Jake at 12:32 AM | Comments (3)

July 03, 2002

Dropping Dissent

If you like hip-hop and dislike the war on terrorism, go out and buy the new Mr. Lif album, "Emergency Rations".

It's a "concept album," fairly rare among rap albums, in which we learn via short audio sketches that no one has seen our hero, Mr. Lif, since he recorded a number of tracks criticizing the government and the war on terror. The implication is that the government made him "disappear."

The songs on the album are all pretty good, sort of like Eric B. & Rakim-style grooves and flow, with lyrics like a hip-hop Howard Zinn. The central themes are freedom of speech, government repression, government dirty tricks, the sham of a war on terror, and the absurdity of dropping both bombs and food on the same population. Plenty of the lyrics are clever, and some of the dramatic interludes are pretty amusing as well.

Although it's easy to get free music off the internet, I always like to plunk down my dollars to support artists who are creative, especially when I like what they've got to say.


Brought to my attention by the mighty Michele, who in turn discovered it via Pitchfork.

Posted by Jake at 11:22 PM | Comments (3)

Lying Media Bastards is both a radio show and website. The show airs Mondays 2-4pm PST on, and couples excellent music with angry news commentary. And the website, well, you're looking at it.

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