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Family-Friendly Horror in GRAVITY FALLS

Posted in Dark Musings, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Last night witnessed the finale of television’s greatest modern kid’s show, GRAVITY FALLS. Had someone pitched this to me and said “it’ll be a massive hit for Disney,” I would have laughed at them. How can a family-friendly Twin Peaks with hints of X Files and Lovecraft become a hit? As awesome as that sounds, today’s market for kids has become so PC and watered down that we would never expect Disney to greenlight such a dark premise. And yet, here we are.

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One of the contributing factors to this show’s success was its older audience. Millennials, people in their twenties, latched onto Gravity Falls and made it their own. In addition to attracting the Disney demographic, its intelligence and darkness widened the audience ingeniously. I think that’s a great sign.

I fell in love with this show because it was clear that Alex Hirsch loved the same things I did. He offered a part to David Lynch, references Lovecraft and John Carpenter all the time, and was not afraid to make things freaky. I’ll never forget the Summerween Trickster or Bill Cipher’s horrible laugh. Seriously, how did those things get into a kid’s show? Didn’t it traumatize people? Yes, it probably did – but I forget that I had my own traumatic content as a kid, too. And I loved it.

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Kids are far more resilient than we tend to believe. My generation grew up with safe  bubblegum shows too, but we also had Tim Burton, Scooby Doo, Snow White, Harry Potter and much more – all brands targeted at children, but featuring some seriously messed up shit. And I’m pretty sure we turned out fine. Being frightened in this controlled way taught us about darkness, and also taught us how to overcome it. Sure, we were still protected by a TV screen, but we understood what fear meant. That’s vital.

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Gravity Falls finds its boldness in its willingness to frighten, to thrill, and to break hearts. The monsters in this show are not easily defeated – the lead villain manipulates people’s minds and reveals their darkest desires, for God’s sake. Even I, a horror film maniac, got chills from some of these episodes. Carpenter’s The Thing makes an appearance, ghosts turn people into trees, and a dimension of nightmares opens to wreak havoc on a town that we’ve come to love.

And through this, Hirsch builds a story about growing up, familial bonds, and the prevailing strength of friendship. He couldn’t tug at our heartstrings so painfully without raising the stakes. So, against the normal child-safe mold, the Falls finale becomes a life-or-death fight for humanity. The plot structure is brilliant and the unfolding is shockingly terrifying. Without giving away the denouement, though, I’ll say this – Hirsch does not play it safe. He ends his show with tenderness, but also tough truth. And through that realism, the viewers feel what it means to grow, to change, and to celebrate those things. It’s not hackneyed or cheap – Hirsch earns these themes.MABEL, DIPPER

I could ramble on for several posts, but I’ll leave this one here. I hope that the success of Gravity Falls allows children’s media to explore the dark, the serious, and the scary – because it is important to encounter those emotions. Let this usher in an era of smarter and deeper content. Kudos to you, Alex Hirsch, for giving us this amazing series.

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A Tribute to Free Love in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW

Posted in Dark Musings, Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, an occasion on which monogamous couples are encouraged to celebrate their union and romance. In many ways it’s a paean to heteronormativity – it’s meant for a man and a woman who are solely bound to each other.

Rather than feed into this, I want to talk about THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW – one of cinema’s purest celebrations of free, uninhibited love and pleasure.

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Most people know of this film as a crazy, hilarious, purposefully bad sendup of 50s sci-fi films and musicals. It’s a midnight classic, still screening around the world with shadow casts and costumed fans who have memorized the lines. But even more remarkable is its depiction of sex and love. There is a Bacchanal sense of madness to the film, and an unabashed queerness, with men dressed as women, people sleeping with the same and opposite sex without qualm, orgiastic pleasure… All hot topics in social culture today. Only Richard O’Brien crafted this show forty years ago, when this was still a dangerous idea.

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RHPS is bold and overt in its dissection of traditional love. We begin with the wedding and proposal, played with grotesque, pure excitement; but it’s not long before we’re sucked into the frenzy of Frank ‘N Furter’s world. This is a character who completely destroys gender boundaries. His fabulous wardrobe, his ever-selfish dominance, and his obsession with Charles Atlas are his own, creating an identity independent from societal constructs. The wedding between Frank and Rocky is a terrific parallel to the opening scene. It would be seen as a perversion of that ceremony if it wasn’t so passionate, so free.

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What follows is a sexual awakening for Brad and Janet, whose sexuality was so clearly repressed. Frank initiates a renaissance for both of them – while they protest at first, they give into the pleasure and realize what they were missing. Janet’s tryst with Rocky is funny, sure, but she also finds her own identity in the act, as bold as Frank’s.

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And (SPOILERS!) the big number, followed by the orgy in the pool, ties it all together. “Don’t dream it, be it” – a hymn to all of those who felt their identities locked away, too ashamed to explore them. Frank might be hedonistic and bizarre, but he is liberated. His liberation carries over to Brad and Janet, too. They find their own happiness in sexual freedom because there is no longer fear. To anyone who has ‘come out,’ that experience is universal.

The ending has always struck me as far more tragic than the bulk of the film would justify. Frank is murdered for living his dream, seen as a perverted lifestyle by his own servants. His final song is heartbreaking in this context. And at that time, this was a reality. Anyone who did not fit into the societal definition of ‘normal’ was targeted for hate and violence. Is it a coincidence that O’Brien, who identifies himself as a third sex, concludes his show in this manner?

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It might end in sadness, but even so, Rocky Horror is wholly liberating. It presents these themes and ideas without batting an eye. So, rather than indulge in films that promote the image of ‘normal’ romance this holiday, I want to celebrate Frank ‘N Further’s message. Allow yourself to find your own identity and embody it to the fullest extent. As opposed to forty years ago, today, there is not nearly as much reason to fear.

Film Review: SOUTHBOUND

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2016 by smuckyproductions

 

Anthology films are notoriously difficult. Balancing the tone, theme, characters, and transitions can overwhelm any director, let alone four at once. When done well, though, these works are brilliantly entertaining – especially in horror. We’re lucky to have another classic in 2016. Take a ride to Hell in this year’s SOUTHBOUND.

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Fresh from Toronto’s Midnight Madness section and helmed by four different directors (most veterans from 2012’s VHS), this collection of stories is all set on a mysterious road deep in the Southwest. Each of the tales revolves around this strange netherworld, and their characters all find themselves trapped there – two men on the run from wraiths, a rock band who ask for help from the wrong family, a man who has to save a woman’s life in an abandoned hospital, a crazed man searching for his lost sister. These unwitting souls confront all manner of demons, monsters and madness, just off the map.

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The world of this film is astoundingly creepy and fun. It’s a deformed lovechild of Rod Serling, John Carpenter, and perhaps a dash of Flannery O’Connor – brewed in a pot of metaphysical, weird-fiction terror. “Carnival of Souls” plays on several screens throughout the stories, which gives a hint of the rules in this world – there are none. It’s unapologetically weird, and it oozes uncomfortable dread, something most horror films can’t claim. The filmmakers know how to make the viewer feel just a little bit off. So you’re scared before the mayhem even begins.

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It helps, too, that each of the stories features a character who we care about (at least, I did). The writers create authentic humans with flaws and quirks, and they develop them with rapid skill. Cliches are also hard to find. That is part of the weirdness – whatever a ‘normal’ film would do, this one blatantly swerves around, or does with such bravado that it’s shocking anyway. Horror cinema rarely sees such a unique, insane universe.

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I am not surprised to find out that the folks at Dark Sky Films, who brought us modern classics like “The House of the Devil” and “We Are Still Here,” are involved in this release. Larry Fessenden himself voices a sinister radio host who introduces each segment a la Mr. Serling. Like many of their offerings, this one feels retro, but it’s also rooted in our modern world, cleverly using cell phones (that actually work) and avoiding gender stereotypes. The characters are contemporary, but the nightmare is an amalgamation of 70s strangeness, 50s music and 40s wardrobe. It fits into the Dark Sky canon beautifully – and we can only hope that company will continue to make such brilliant genre pieces.

Though it is a limited release, if you can’t find it in a theater, get to it through the Internet – it’s a must-see for fans of classic horror from any decade. It’s bizarre, funny, ultra-bloody, and legitimately frightening. Turn on the ignition and drive down this dark road.

Forbidden Tomes: THE GREAT GOD PAN by ARTHUR MACHEN

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2016 by smuckyproductions

We all know and bow down to Lovecraft and his pal Cthulhu. But where did that horror master find his inspiration? This early tale of cosmic terror is hard to find in print, which is a dreadful shame, because its evocation of what would become Lovecraft’s themes is soul-shaking. I’m talking about it today, though, because Valentine’s Day is coming up – and this is possibly one of the least romantic stories I’ve ever read. This cosmic warning is called THE GREAT GOD PAN.

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Now, by today’s standards, this story is pretty sexist in its setup and conclusion. This must be taken into account when analyzing it by the standards of its time. It begins with two doctors preparing a woman (willingly, sort of) for a strange procedure: they will open a part of her brain that will allow her to see the massive truth of the universe, the Great God Pan. Naturally it goes about as badly as it could. But it doesn’t end there – years later, one of the doctors hears uncanny tales of a woman who has the power to ruin the lives of those she touches by driving them insane. And the test subject happened to get pregnant after seeing the Great God himself. Is the child of Pan roaming the earth, and if so, what does that mean for humanity?

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Arthur Machen poses this story as just that, a series of stories told by secondary sources. Our main character witnesses nothing but the procedure – everything else comes to him through rumors and tales. This is confusing for the reader at first, but as the pieces fit into place, it creates an atmosphere of deadly mystery and paranoia. We can’t see the Great God or the evil woman, but we know she’s out there. And her intentions could not be more evil. As we hear of her deeds – ruining men with her sexual power, holding dark rituals, driving children insane with fear – we come to fear her, too.

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The cosmic elements elevate the story from mildly intriguing to terrifying, a terror that lingers. Machen’s opening idea, of this entity that exists in a nether region of space, is eerie – but giving this entity agency is nightmarish. And because of the format, we never get close enough to reconcile this force, put a face or size to it. That is the genius of this story, and the reason it still holds power. If we saw the Great God, we would know its limitations; instead, we are left with only second-hand accounts, all of which are too rattled to give a full image. As Lovecraft said, the greatest fear is the fear of the unknown.

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I love this type of story for its atmosphere and implications, the sense of overwhelming dread inherent in the events. Forcing characters to face an irreconcilable monster, when done right, makes for fascinating insights. And it also happens to be a perfect anti-Valentine’s Day statement. We witness marriages imploding, demonic births, and sexual manipulation, all under the sway of a massive evil force from beyond the veil. What a better way to comfort oneself about a lack of significant other? I’d much rather be single forever than date the Great God. So stick it, Hallmark.

That, of course, is a secondary concern – manufactured holidays aside, THE GREAT GOD PAN is an astoundingly influential work. Like “The King in Yellow” and “The Willows,” it set the stage for Lovecraft, Ligotti, Barker, and so many others. Read it and tremble in the face of Pan himself.

Sundance Review: THE GREASY STRANGLER

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Sitting in the Yarrow Theater at 9 pm on January 23rd was a special experience. And by special I mean disgusting, bewildering, stupefying and inanely hilarious. It isn’t often that you witness the birth of the next cult phenomenon. In the midst of oily grapefruits, potatoes, hootie-tootie-disco-cuties and a vat of costuming grease, those of us in Park City can say we did just that. This film is THE GREASY STRANGLER.

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Looking back on it, I’m shocked to remember that there is a very coherent plot. A father and son duo, living together after the death of their wife/mother, begin a personal war when they fall in love with the same woman. But there is an even more dangerous scheme afoot – a murderer is stalking the streets, someone covered in grease and growling like a post-modern Wolfman. Also like the Wolfman, his kill of choice is a good, old-fashioned strangle. (The title is very literal.)

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Another surprise – the film is gorgeously crafted. The production design and lighting are vibrant and ultra-professional, lending it the aesthetic of a true Hollywood rom-com. That look only makes the bizarre aspects more delirious. From the opening, we are assaulted by totally insane images and conversations – greasy coffee, oozing sausages, men in pink short shorts, and endless Dada arguments about free drinks and potatoes. (Also, BULLSHIT ARTIST.) And don’t forget the prosthetic penises. Yes, I said it, prosthetic penises.

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It’s a hymnal to absurdist humor and the grotesque (in the classic sense of the word, which means ugly to a hilarious extreme). While there is a clear plot, which is more than can be said about many ‘normal’ films, there is nothing clear in the way it pans out. The film is utterly baffling in the most exhilarating way – an amalgamation of cartoonish comedy and endless goop that all serves to create a world we’ve never seen before. And I truly haven’t seen anything like this in film. Comparisons to John Waters can be made, but this film is so surreal, almost animated, that it creates its own brand of weird.

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This originality is only part of the reason I call it the next cult hit. The charm of this film hard to explain to someone who wasn’t in the theater. Listening to the audience erupt in almost-constant confused laughter, usually because the images on screen were just so out there, was undeniably special. Like “Rocky Horror” and “The Room,” I think this film is destined for midnight greatness. Its wacky quotability and immersive boldness will give it eternal life.

When viewing this repugnant and beautiful piece of work, leave all conception of film at the door. This is an experience like no other. And it’s worth it. Come mingle in the mire, the disco, and the colorful chaos that is THE GREASY STRANGLER.

Sundance Review: ANTIBIRTH

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2016 by smuckyproductions

 

What happens when a tripped out music video director befriends Natasha Lyonne and Chloe Sevigny and wants to make a movie? And what further happens when you add 80s body horror, conspiracy theories, class politics and some seriously weird costume design? Well. If it gives any indication, the resulting film is called ANTIBIRTH.

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Lyonne plays the hell out of Lou, a hard partier who blacks out one night – not an uncommon occurrence, but this time, she displays symptoms of pregnancy. Thing is, she hasn’t had sex in weeks. As she continues to hide behind drugs and alcohol, her symptoms get worse, and the mystery deepens – something that revolves a close-by military base, a prostitution ring, and an experimental drug. All of this comes into focus when a homeless woman – played beautifully by Meg Tilly – tells her of an alien conspiracy involving her body. Lou’s belly is growing fast, and she doesn’t have much time before this thing pops out.

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It’s no surprise that Danny Perez’s debut is visually fascinating. Transitioning from a successful music video career, Perez uses his camera and colors vividly, creating an entrancing aesthetic. The editing and soundtrack boost the visuals and cement the film’s unique style. While the plot gets muddled at times, the filmmaking is always crystal clear, rooting us in Lou’s psyche more closely than we’d like. And it gets visceral. Perez does not shy away from excretions, peelings, poppings, and more.

But he also pays attention to his characters. By setting this tale in the wasteland of Michigan, the intensity rises – no one will listen to an impoverished woman, even if something truly is going on. Lou and her comrades, through their desperate living situations, bring a new layer to a familiar body horror plot. Class issues are rarely touched in horror films, but here we see them on full display. Perez doesn’t judge Lou, either. She is our hero, flaws and all, and I for one cared about her.

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Like I said, the plot gets muddled, but it still satisfies. The culmination of spurtings and hallucinations is just what horror fans want. Perez doesn’t go gross just for the sake of shock, but he doesn’t skimp, either. The audience went wild during the climax – I will NOT spoil it, but let’s just say it’s one of the weirdest endings I’ve seen in horror lately.

It’s fair to acknowledge, too, that this film polarized the audience at the premiere. Half of the people I came with hated it, several viewers left (mainly during a scene involving neck skin); but Perez, along with Lyonne and Chloe Sevigny, showed so much passion about the film. It was a struggle to get made – not hard to imagine, considering the ending – and they saw that struggle through. Perez also knows horror. I certainly hope he continues as a director. We need more bold and wacked-out voices in this genre.

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Stay away from ANTIBIRTH if goo, aliens, wombs, blisters, and creepy monkey suits aren’t to your tastes. But if those things strike a cord, this film is a godsend. Harkening back to 80’s psychedelic horror and getting political to boot, here we have a wild, gross, and beautiful gift to genre fans.

Sundance Review: TRASH FIRE

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2016 by smuckyproductions

 

It’s hard to find good Gothic cinema these days. And I don’t mean the twee fey of Tim Burton – I’m talking grotesque, blackly humorous, and eviscerating works that examine the extreme darkness of humanity. Who would have known that this genre could be revived by a film about millennials with relationship issues? Leave it to Richard Bates Jr. to bring us a masterpiece in the form of TRASH FIRE.

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After seeing Excision several years ago, I’ve kept an eye on Richard Bates. His nihilistic, tonally various and visually gorgeous style is wholly unique in modern horror. I didn’t expect him to surpass his previous efforts with this film about a man who can’t deal with the death of his parents: in a fire that he thinks he started. When his girlfriend gets pregnant and threatens to leave him, however, he is forced to confront his past: literally. They take a high-stakes trip to his grandmother’s house, where his burned sister lives, so he can reconcile. But that’s the least of his worries.

The cast here is phenomenal. Adrian Grenier is repugnant and sympathetic at once, Angela Trimbur is empowering as his vulnerable but adamant girlfriend – but Fionnula Flanagan and Annalynne McCord truly shine as the family left behind. The former rivals Bette Davis for a Grand Guignol villain, and the latter is heartbreaking (but dangerous), the only character who has really done no wrong. Yet. Place all of these great actors in a creepy Southern house, add some snakes and fire and hallucinations, and you’ve got this film.

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It isn’t a horror movie in modern sense – it will not frighten or startle like a ghost story or survival flick. Instead, it attacks the mind, exploring very real situations with a vicious eye and finding the rot underneath. Bates reaches the heights of Robert Aldritch with his revelations, all without a supernatural occurrence. It’s Baby Jane meets Shirley Jackson meets Gen Y. This combination may not be ‘mainstream,’ but it’s all the more horrific because of that. The ending will leave you shaking and torn between morals.

Hearing Bates talk about his process after the Q&A only cemented my love for this movie. He is so passionate about these stories, and pours his own soul into them – which is why they feel so human. His personal touch makes these tales of terror touch the soul, finding their dread in humanity, but also their heart. Once the shock wore off, I felt a sense of deep melancholy – a feeling from which this film was born. I wanted to cry for these characters. That sense of catharsis and connection is the reason I love horror so much. It exposes these dark emotions in a way that we can examine and confront.

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Those who like their horror superficial can turn away now. But for a cathartic, gorgeous, funny and disturbing experience, TRASH FIRE won’t be surpassed. Bates has revived the true Gothic film – let’s hope it stays alive.