In Praise of Maximum Overdrive (and 34½ other films): Spooktober 2019

Happy day after Halloween! October this year was another busy month, but between work, church, and family activities I explored a variety of Halloween-themed media. For the first time I experimented with a daily Twitter update, sharing “31 Days of #SpookyMusic” (see my Twitter feed for links). I’ve created Halloween playlists and mix CDs in the past, but this selection was more of a sampler from a variety of genres than a single playlist, as I didn’t choose songs based on their flow or stylistic affinity. The weather here in Kansas was variable enough this month that I could veer from the warm-weather spookiness of Lee Morse singing “‘Tain’t No Sin (To Dance Around in Your Bones)” to Yoko Ono’s eerie “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand in the Snow)”; other songs and pieces of music were drawn from a variety of pop music, film and television, video game, and classical music sources.

And of course I watched as many movies as I could fit in. Once again the only unifying theme was “this pile of unwatched movies on my shelf.” In addition to going through the DVDs and Blu-rays I’d accumulated during the year, I streamed a few on Netflix, Prime, and Night Flight. I also saw several movies on the big screen, including several as part of the annual October at the Oldtown retro horror series, and a couple of new releases; In Fabric was shown as part of the Tallgrass Film Festival.

October has become the month in which I watch the most movies by far: it’s partly because the post-October wrap-up has become a reliable blog entry, something for me to post. It’s also fun being part of several horror-themed discussion groups on Facebook, seeing what everyone else is watching and being part of that conversation. I don’t approach the numbers of films that some fans watch, but it is satisfying to take some discs out of the “unwatched” pile and check off some previously unseen classics from my list. More than that, it’s the media equivalent of gorging on candy; the excess is part of the point of the season. So, without further preamble, here are the films I took in during the month of October, the sweet and the sour:

1. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982) *

2. Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2007)

3. Survival of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2009)

4. Dead & Buried (Gary Sherman, 1981)

5. The Wasp Woman (Roger Corman, 1959)

6. The Power (Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow, 1984)

7. Blood Mania (Robert Vincent O’Neill, 1970)

8. Christine (John Carpenter, 1983)*

9. Maximum Overdrive (Stephen King, 1986)*, **

10. Point of Terror (Alex Nicol, 1971)

11. The God Inside My Ear (Joe Badon, 2019)

12. The Vampire Doll (Michio Yamamoto, 1970)

13. Lake of Dracula (Michio Yamamoto, 1971)

14. Evil of Dracula (Michio Yamamoto, 1974)

15. Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012)

16. Beyond the Gates (Jackson Stewart, 2016)

17. Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)*

18. Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019)*

19. The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman, 1971)

20. In Fabric (Peter Strickland, 2018)*

21. Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014)

22. Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988), **

23. Zombieland: Double Tap (Ruben Fleischer, 2019)*

24. Saint Bernard (Gabe Bartalos, 2013)

25. I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I. (Marius Penczner, 1982)

26. Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)*

27. Fade to Black (Vernon Zimmerman, 1980)

28. Mayhem (Joe Lynch, 2017)

29. The War of the Gargantuas (Ishiro Honda, 1966)

30. Sleepaway Camp (Robert Hiltzik, 1983)

31. Velvet Buzzsaw (Dan Gilroy, 2019)

32. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019)*

33. A Cure For Wellness (Gore Verbinski, 2016)

34. Ghostwatch (Lesley Manning, 1992)

35. The Pit (Lew Lehman, 1981)

35½. Monsters Crash the Pajama Party (David L. Hewitt, 1965)

(This one was only 30 minutes long, originally a “spook show” in which costumed actors would invade the theater and interact with the audience during the film, a William Castle-like gimmick that would have played alongside other features at the time; it made a fitting cap to the month’s viewing.)

* theatrical screening

** rewatch

Best Movie: There were several very good films I watched this year, including the original Poltergeist (a film I’d been too scared to finish as a kid, although now much of it seems downright playful). The most impressive overall was The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as lighthouse keepers trapped together on a remote island. Like writer-director Robert Eggers’ previous film, The Witch, this is historically-informed, atmospheric horror, drawing on documents from the past to build up the dialogue. I enjoyed The Witch, but The Lighthouse is more assured in every way, and the creepiness of the premise (involving mermaids, bad omens, and the secret of the lighthouse’s lamp) is the stuff of classic weird tales.

Worst Movie: It’s often interesting when special effects artists make their own movies, because plot and logic can take a back seat to whatever crazy visuals the filmmakers feel like cooking up. Saint Bernard (by Gabe Bartalos, FX man for Frank Henenlotter and Matthew Barney, among others) shows the downside of that, however: in the film, an orchestra conductor (Jason Dugre) experiences an existential crisis and carries a severed dog’s head as he wanders from one elaborate set to another, mostly as an excuse for trite symbolism. (In an early scene, the protagonist raises his arm to conduct a piece and a bunch of drugs fall out of his jacket; later, a greedy preacher sees the hero as wearing a suit made of dollar bills and chases him from the church trying to grab them; the hero ends up on Wall Street where passersby strip him of his money suit.) Despite some interesting scenes and images, there is very little forward momentum, and it feels much longer than its 97 minutes. The inadvertent message of all this is that film, like music, is an art that unfolds in time: if you want to make installation art, you should really just do that.

Weirdest Movie: Peter Strickland has become a director whose films don’t always land 100% for me, but whose technique is so incredible and his fixations so resonant with me that they are must-see anyway. As Berberian Sound Studio (also watched this month) channels Italian giallo and The Duke of Burgundy borrows from European softcore of the late ’60s and ’70s, so In Fabric, about a cursed “arterial red” dress, suggests the horror anthologies of the early ’70s such as From Beyond the Grave, with their interlocking stories of terrors lurking beneath the mundane surfaces of modern Britain. The main part of the plot follows one of the dress’s unfortunate buyers, divorcée Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who finds the price tag (and the incomprehensible jargon of the saleswoman, Fatma Mohamed) impossible to resist during a large department store’s seasonal sale. There is quite a bit of dry and absurd humor, much of it local in nature but still apparent. Large swathes of the film are deliberately abstract or cryptic and don’t make things easy for the audience, but there is no attempt to elide the B-movie premise. Strickland seems to understand how goofy scenes of the dress wriggling off of its hanger, crawling across the floor on its own, and floating in mid-air while its owner sleeps are, but having had nightmares of similar scenarios as a young child during the time period in which he has set his film, I think he’s on to something. A throwaway scene, late in the movie, proposes a childhood origin for one character’s erotic interest in tights; like much of the rest of In Fabric, it suggests that Strickland is either an unreconstructed Freudian, or at least he has found Freudianism a useful language for his art.

Scariest Movie: On Halloween night in 1992, the BBC broadcast a supposed live investigation of a poltergeist haunting in suburban London, casting real-life children’s presenter Sarah Greene as the on-site host while genial Michael Parkinson held down the studio, interviewing experts on the paranormal and fielding calls from the audience. As with Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast and The Blair Witch Project, the attempts at verisimilitude worked all too well, and many viewers took the proto-reality TV special for an actual report. Even at this distance and knowing that it’s fiction, Ghostwatch pulls its tricks incredibly smoothly, building from odd but explicable anomalies to all-out terror in the haunted house–and in the studio. I can only imagine what this must have been like when it was shown.

Least Scary Movie: Actually, only a few of the movies I watched this October were capital-S Scary. One might expect this year’s genre outlier, Ad Astra, a relatively hard science fiction movie, to be the least scary, but what could be scarier than the prospect of growing old and being alone in the universe (not to mention the risk of a crazed research primate chewing your face off)? Leaving aside kids’ movies like Beetlejuice and The War of the Gargantuas, I’d like to focus on a pair of movies starring Peter Carpenter, Blood Mania and Point of Terror. In both films, Carpenter (apparently the driver behind both projects) plays a charismatic, irresistible lover of women who gets in over his head, and like all film noir patsies, he pays for his previous transgressions; there’s a Joe Sarno-like disgust at the hedonism depicted, even as the film keeps it coming. Given their titles and posters, I fully expected these films to fit into the Spooktober spirit, but it would be more accurate to describe them as erotic thrillers. Blood Mania at least builds up to a climax that justifies its title, but Point of Terror just isn’t that kind of movie. A flashback to a giallo-style murder couldn’t be more than a minute or two, and the rest of the violence in the movie is purely emotional. Blood Mania and Point of Terror aren’t bad movies at all, but based on their misleading marketing I’m calling Point of Terror the Least Scary. If Point of Terror is a horror movie, Basic Instinct is a horror movie.

Goriest Movie(s): Late in his life, George Romero expressed frustration that he couldn’t get projects financed unless they involved zombies, and some of that boredom comes through in the last two entriees in his “living dead” series, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead. In the first, a group of student filmmakers are making a monster movie that turns into a documentary as a mysterious zombie epidemic emerges (that distinguishes Diary from the first four Dead movies, which roughly trace the collapse of civilization). Romero was clearly interested in commenting on the new media landscape and “citizen journalism,” and he has a few things to say about filmmaking and the state of contemporary horror (“dead things move slowly”), but the zombie stuff revisits all the greatest hits: loved ones turning, good old boys and rogue authority figures who are the real monsters, disenfranchised minorities given a chance to be in a charge, and even a clown zombie. It’s uninspired, but serviceable.

By contrast, Survival seems like it would be better without any zombie business in it at all, giving Romero free reign to make the magic-realist Western he appears to have had in mind (but then of course it wouldn’t have been made at all). The film centers on two families feuding on an isolated island. One side sees the cold logic in putting down the zombies, even if they were once loved ones; the other holds on to them, corralling them into stables in the hopes of curing them one day, or at least training them to eat something other than human flesh. In the previous Dead films, a dividing line between the living heroes and villains is how they treat the dead, with the bad guys using them as sport or slave labor or scientific experiments, revealing their own inhumanity. Survival touches on that theme, and in fact makes it the central point of the conflict, but that thoughtfulness is at odds with with the inventive ways the protagonists dispatch the zombies, like in a slasher sequel trying to up the ante with more and more outlandish kills.

Funniest Movie: Speaking of sequels upping the ante and dispatching zombies in creative ways . . . well, I laughed a lot at Zombieland: Double Tap.

Most Fun at the Movies: I also laughed a lot at Maximum Overdrive, a rewatch that was part of a “Stephen King killer car double feature” with Christine. Readers of this blog have seen me gradually turn from a Stephen King skeptic to a fan over the years, and stuff like Maximum Overdrive is part of the reason why. King’s only directorial effort, the film is based on his short story “Trucks,” about a mysterious revolt by the machines of Earth against their human masters. King made a trailer in which he directly addresses the audience, infamously declaring “I’m gonna scare the hell out of you”; Maximum Overdrive doesn’t live up to that threat, at all: how could it? But it’s a hoot nonetheless. Sometimes when reading King’s books, you recall that he was an English teacher, that he has written intelligently about literature and the writing process, that he knows what he is talking about. Maximum Overdrive isn’t the work of Mr. King, man of letters. It’s the work of Uncle Steve the trash-hound, enthusiastic reader of EC horror comics and watcher of B-movies, the slightly disreputable older relative who shows you his scars and tattoos and has a story behind each of them, who will happily loan you the movies they won’t rent to you at the mom-and-pop video store, or failing that will lovingly describe the best parts to you. From the moment King appears in a cameo as a bank customer being called an asshole by the ATM (in the trademark “loudmouthed townie” persona he used whenever he showed up in his buddy Romero’s movies), to the shots of stuntmen ecstatically flying through windshields, to the generous use of blood squibs as people are riddled with bullets, it is clear: this is the work of a fan who is thrilled to finally have his hands on the controls. Looking back at his small role in the film, Giancarlo Esposito complimented King’s direction, saying, “He certainly directed me beautifully. I’ll never forget when I was shaken to death at the game machine, and he wanted me to shake harder and shake more.”

Shake harder. Shake more. I can’t think of any wiser words to leave you with as we say farewell to Halloween 2019.

Halloween 2018 Roundup

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It is once again the last day of October, and as always I am here to report on what I have been doing with my time in activities both spooky and spoopy. October was quite a busy month for me this year, and I consciously made an effort to keep some balance in my life (I even read some books, including such seasonal fare as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and a reread of Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October). After last year’s high-water mark of watching thirty-nine films, I felt glutted with movies, as if I had gorged all month long. Sure, there are many fans who watch more movies than that in October, but for me that is a lot. So while I kept track of my viewing, and took advantage of screening opportunities when I could, I wanted to keep my goals reasonable, watching thirty-one films. Imagine my surprise when I reached the weekend before Halloween with only a couple left to go, necessitating some tough choices: what would be left out?

My screening of Dawn of the Dead in 3-D was scheduled for last night, so I decided to make that movie no. 31. I go back and forth on which of Romero’s Dead trilogy is my favorite, but seeing Dawn on the big screen, and with a beautiful (and until now rarely-seen) 3-D conversion, made it a fitting culmination to my Halloween pregaming.

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This year I didn’t approach my viewing with much of a plan, other than working my way through the pile of unwatched movies I already own and checking out the offerings at the Regal Horrorfest (formerly October at the Oldtown) organized by Leif Jonker and Big Screen Wichita. The resulting list is less diverse than in some years, with over a third from the 1980s and nothing from earlier than the 1960s. There was also very little foreign film on my list this year. On the other hand, it’s been a boom year for new horror, and I watched more films from the current year than in past Octobers, both in theaters and catching up with films released earlier in the year on home video.

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1. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)
2. Evil Dead 2 (Sam Raimi, 1987)*, **
3. Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, 1992)**
4. Happy Death Day (Christopher Landon, 2017)
5. Puppet Master II (David Allen, 1990)
6. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (Don Coscarelli, 1994)
7. Phantasm IV: Oblivion (Don Coscarelli, 1998)
8. Chopping Mall (Jim Wynorski, 1986)
9. Hell Fest (Gregory Plotkin, 2018)*
10. House of the Damned (Maury Dexter, 1963)
11. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)*
12. Venom (Ruben Fleischer, 2018)*
13. Horror Hotel aka The City of the Dead (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1960)
14. The Devil’s Bride aka The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1968)
15. Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez, 2013)
16. A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018)
17. Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)*, **
18. Slaughterhouse Rock (Dimitri Logothetis, 1988)
19. Hellbent (Richard Casey, 1988)
20. Blood Diner (Jackie Kong, 1987)
21. Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)
22. The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)*
23. C.H.U.D. (Douglas Cheek, 1984)*
24. C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud (David Irving, 1989)
25. Waxwork (Anthony Hickox, 1988)
26. Winchester (Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, 2018)
27. Paganini Horror (Luigi Cozzi, 1989)
28. The Midnight Hour (Jack Bender, 1985)
29. The Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry Selick, 1993)*, **
30. John Dies at the End (Don Coscarelli, 2013)
31. Dawn of the Dead 3-D (George A. Romero, 1978) *, **

* seen in the theater
** rewatch

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Best movie: Groundhog Day as a slasher? Sure, why not? Happy Death Day delivers on that high-concept premise, as spoiled sorority girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) relives the same day over and over again, each time dying at the hands of a mysterious baby-masked stalker, only to wake up again on the morning of her birthday, the clock reset. Lots of fun is had as she comes to understand her situation and uses it to discover her killer; a montage in which she follows various suspects, crossing them off her list, is one of the most purely joyous sequences I’ve seen this year; she learns a few lessons and grows as a person, as you might expect. But the film isn’t content only to hit the beats of its model, and even when Tree thinks she’s got it all figured out, it doesn’t let her (or us) off the hook quite so easily. I loved this movie: it’s funny and scary and satisfying, a movie about death brimming with life, anchored by a fantastic lead performance from Rothe.

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Worst Movie: I didn’t see anything that struck me as truly terrible this month, but horror as a genre often means gambling on the unknown, and they can’t all be winners. The most disappointing film I saw this month was surely House of the Damned; at barely over an hour, it feels padded: it opens with an estate lawyer calling architect Scott Campbell (Ron Foster) to offer him a job surveying a long-empty mansion built by an eccentric heiress so it can be sold; then Scott repeats the same information to his wife in a second conversation. Once the pair move into the house and begin their work, strange things begin to happen: doors are locked, keys are missing or found moved, and they are watched by unseen eyes. Perhaps the last tenants never really left? The middle section features some eerie imagery reminiscent of the classic Freaks (and includes an early performance by Richard “Jaws” Kiel), but just as it’s getting good the whole thing winds up and all the tension and mystery dissolve in a puff of smoke with an explanation even tamer than I would have guessed. This was shown on FXM Retro, with movie channel FXM taking a page from Turner Classic Movies and showing old movies from the Fox vault, uncut and without commercials. Sometimes the movies are pleasantly surprising discoveries; other times they are justifiably forgotten programmers like House of the Damned. Oh, well, it least it had a cool poster.

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Scariest Movie: Would I lose credibility if I named Hell Fest as the movie that most tightened the screws on me while I watched it? I’ve been in the position of heroine Natalie (Amy Forsyth), as the scaredy-cat dragged into things by friends with thicker skin, and the movie ramps up so subtly that I was convinced in the first forty-five minutes or so that it wasn’t scary at all. Only once I grew attached to the characters and invested in their story did things get intense, but it worked on me. I’ve previously expressed my relative lack of interest in slashers (although I did see several this year, including the classic original Halloween, finally), but Hell Fest‘s setting–a pop-up theme park devoted to horror, of the sort that have become popular in recent years–is colorful and intriguing, and the idea of a real killer being loose in such a place provides copious opportunities to explore one of my favorite horror tropes: the thin line between theater and reality. Some of the best moments in Hell Fest involve killings taking place in front of blasé parkgoers, convinced that they’re just seeing another performance; and who will believe someone is really stalking Natalie when the entire park is set up to instill and exploit that fear?

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Also Scariest, In a Different Way, Movie: Another movie from this year, Hereditary, has gotten a lot of buzz, with comparisons to The Exorcist (although in my opinion Rosemary’s Baby might be the more apt comparison). Suffice it to say that this was one of the most intense, dread-inducing films I watched this month, but much of that came from the barrage of horrible events that befall the family at the center of the story (made all the worse because they are things that could plausibly happen, outside of the supernatural business) and Toni Collette’s volcanic performance as the mother of the family whiplashed by grief, guilt, and fear for her own sanity. One could imagine tackling this material as a psychological drama without the occult overlay, but the film telegraphs early on that witchcraft is brewing, so there’s not as much tension as there could be in the notion that Collette is losing her mind. This was still a disturbing film whose imagery will linger with me for a long time, though.

Goriest Movie: Only two films are really in the running this year: Blood Diner features a cannibal cult hiding behind the façade of a vegetarian eatery (O irony!); as such, it gleefully transgresses all notions of good taste, filling the screen with severed limbs and dismembered body parts, all washed down with gallons of stage blood. But since Blood Diner is a comedy (no, really!), it’s all phony and it’s hard to take too seriously. By contrast, the 2013 Evil Dead remake is in deadly earnest, and is one of the most violent movies I’ve seen recently. (Since I revisited Sam Raimi’s original trilogy this month, I figured I might as well check out this later installment. It earns points for remixing some of the original’s iconic moments in the context of a new story rather than remaking the original beat-for-beat: for one thing, there’s no replacing Bruce Campbell’s Ash.) The original Evil Dead was a grotty supernatural spin on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and it is quite intense (only in the later sequels did the comedy come to the fore), but realistic it is not. The 2013 Evil Dead is both more graphic (and plays nothing for laughs) and doesn’t flinch; there’s no cutting away from the self-mutilation of the demon-possessed victims or the extreme measures the heroes must take to save themselves; director Fede Alvarez dares you to watch.

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Weirdest Movie: After reading director Don Coscarelli’s memoir, True Indie: Life and Death in Film Making this month, I decided to fill in some of my blind spots in his filmography, including the Phantasm sequels I hadn’t seen and his most recent feature, John Dies at the End. I haven’t read the David Wong novel upon which John is based, but it’s easy to see the appeal the material would have for the director of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep, including parallel dimensions, mysterious supernatural adversaries, and grotesque monsters (there’s even a cameo by Angus Scrimm, Phantasm‘s “Tall Man,” as a priest). Like the Raimi-influenced Phantasm sequels, John Dies at the End handles its ideas in a tongue-in-cheek manner, centering on a drug nicknamed “soy sauce”; the drug gives its users psychic abilities with the unfortunate side effect of opening rifts in time and space, placing (authorial self-insert) Wong in the middle of an interdimensional invasion. John riffs giddily on themes pioneered by H. P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, and William Burroughs, and the snarky humor, frequently scrambled chronology, and unreliable narrator (as Wong, in fits and starts, tells his story to a skeptical reporter played by Paul Giamatti) bring to mind cult film forebears like Donnie Darko and Fight Club.

Funniest Movie: Every year, there is at least one film in my October viewing that stretches the category of horror movie: this year that film is Venom, the action-horror-comedy hybrid starring Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock, a loser who becomes entangled with a hungry alien symbiote. I was skeptical when I heard about this project: in the comics, Venom is inextricably linked with Spider-Man, but with Spider-Man busy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, how would Sony credibly produce a spin-off without the main character? That turns out to be less of a hurdle than I expected, but the comic-book origins are still, in my opinion, the main challenge to categorizing Venom as a horror movie. Of course, I will be the first to admit that Venom isn’t scary, and while there’s quite a bit of violence there’s not a drop of blood; still, based on its premise and plot points, this is a movie about a shape-changing alien who takes possession of a human and bites off the heads of his enemies, leading to scenes of body horror and split personality. What really makes Venom take off is Hardy’s commitment to the bizarre premise (and his penchant for adopting funny voices, even before the symbiote takes over his body), throwing himself into contortions and chewing the scenery like Jim Carrey in The Mask. That’s not a comparison I would usually make as a compliment in a superhero movie, but the key to the movie is just how little actual heroism is involved: Eddie Brock is a loser, and he finds the friend and supporter he needs in his alien companion–who, it turns out, is also a bit of a loser. Forget the requisite CGI monster battle, which comes off blurry and incomprehensible anyway: it’s beside the point. The heart of Venom is an off-the-wall, sometimes kinky buddy comedy.

Most Inspired by Actual Events: We all know that when Sarah Winchester began, on the advice of a spiritualist, the decades-long expansion of her California mansion in order to evade the pursuing spirits of those killed by her late husband’s rifles, she couldn’t have been in her right mind. What this year’s Winchester supposes is, maybe she was? The words “inspired by” do a lot of heavy lifting in this tale of an alcoholic physician (Jason Clarke), himself marked by death, who arrives at the constantly under-construction mansion in order to evaluate Mrs. Winchester’s (Helen Mirren) state of mind. Will it surprise you to learn that the place really is haunted? The labyrinthine Winchester house is a fantastic setting, and the film is a well-constructed ghost story, but the elegant Western gothic that could have been is overpowered by a constant need to prod the audience. If jump scares produced actual fright instead of momentary surprise, this would be the scariest movie of the month by far, and I would now be under treatment for acute hypertension.

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Musical Horror: Finally, longtime readers of Medleyana may be aware of my longstanding interest in musical horror, particularly fables in which musicians trade their souls to the devil in exchange for success (“Instruments of Death,” still my most-read entry, is a good introduction to this topic). Of the three music-related films I watched this month, two had exactly that premise (Slaughterhouse Rock, despite its title and the presence of Toni Basil as the ghost of a dead rock star, isn’t really about the rock scene at all): in Hellbent, punk Lemmy (Phil Ward) makes a deal with “Mr. Tanas” (David Marciano)–the film is not exactly subtle; it similarly makes much of the anagrammatic relation between Santa and Satan–and becomes a junky almost overnight, crossing paths with other desperate people caught in Tanas’ web. A quintessential indie film, Hellbent features plenty of grimy L.A. atmosphere and broadly-drawn characters, as well as some big laughs (whether they are intentional or not, I can’t say for sure, but I was never bored with it).

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Paganini Horror came to my attention on Twitter as a movie that was hilariously inept but all the more entertaining because of it, a description that fits it exactly. Made by infamous Italian low-budget filmmaker Luigi Cozzi, this one filters themes of Dominic Argento through the context of MTV music videos and the legend of the violinist Niccolò Paganini selling his soul; Paganini himself turns up, wearing a gold Carnaval mask like the Commandatore in Don Giovanni, killing off the members of the all-girl rock band who hope to turn his lost composition into New Wave gold. Those who aren’t murdered directly fall victim to increasingly bizarre ends, such as the girl whose body is consumed by a mold only found in the wood of Cremona and Stradivarius violins. Also, Donald Pleasence was there for a day to film a couple of scenes and wrap things up with a suitably diabolical explanation. Ah, Italian genre film, never change.

That wraps up October until next year. Happy Halloween!

Hi there! Wow, a month and a half sure flies by, doesn’t it? But I think I’ve given Pee-Wee Herman the top spot for long enough. More long-form content will appear on Medleyana soon, but in the mean time I haven’t been idle. If you missed it, you can catch up on Tune in Next Week, my ongoing series at The Solute in which I’ve been writing about the 1939 Buck Rogers serial one chapter at a time (and the most recent installment of which was just published yesterday). With only two chapters left to go, I’ll soon have a little more time to write over here.

Another project that has occupied me this spring is putting some more of my compositions on my long-neglected YouTube channel. I haven’t posted everything, but the pieces that are up represent a good cross-section of my output, including some of my ragtime piano, wind band, and electronic compositions. The big one is my symphony Carnival of Souls, recorded by the Wichita Wind Ensembles Professional Band in 2012.

If you haven’t already done so, I invite you to subscribe to Medleyana and/or follow me on Twitter to get instant notifications of updates and announcements. Thanks!

David Bowie, Immortal

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Observing (and sharing in) the outpouring of grief following David Bowie’s untimely death at age 69, it’s striking just how diverse Bowie’s 40-plus-year career was, and how many avenues existed by which young fans might discover him: his appearances as an actor or the use of his songs in movies; as a continually reinventing man-of-a-thousand-faces fashion icon; as recording artist and producer, or as the writer of songs covered by the many artists whom he influenced. There are probably young people who first heard his name through the many references to Bowie on The Venture Bros., whose creators are obviously big fans. A Picasso or Stravinsky of rock music, Bowie was continually taking on new looks, sounds, and personae, always exploring.

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As a kid in the 1980s, I think my first awareness of David Bowie was his “pop” album Let’s Dance, followed within the next couple of years by his duet cover of “Dancing in the Streets” with Mick Jagger and his lead role in Labyrinth. It would be some years later before I was really conscious that Bowie had been a huge star before his dalliances with MTV and Jim Henson, and that Labyrinth wasn’t even his first starring film role. The Man Who Fell to Earth had previously been the perfect vehicle for Bowie, the story of an alien visitor who succumbs to the temptations of life on Earth.

bowie.labyrinth

Bowie’s characters, musical and otherwise, were almost always otherworldly, even when playing down-to-earth self-caricatures like his cameo in Zoolander. What unified his most far-flung performances was his magnetism: he couldn’t help but be the center of whatever scene he was in. This is what I wrote on Facebook just last October, after watching The Hunger:

David Bowie is the man: you can slather him in old man makeup, and cast Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon as vampire lovers, and Bowie’s STILL the most interesting part of the movie!? That is star power.

bowie.hunger

Reading A Year With Swollen Appendices, the 1995 diary by Bowie’s friend and collaborator Brian Eno, I was struck by the many appearances Bowie makes in its pages, just exchanging emails or meeting socially, or appearing at art openings, charity events, et cetera. By the mid-’90s, Bowie had amassed a body of work anyone could be proud of, and it would have been perfectly understandable for him to settle into famous rock star retirement. Yet he continued to produce music and videos up until his last days, releasing his final album, Blackstar, just last week. It’s obvious in retrospect that it was a farewell gesture from a man who knew he was ill, but nonetheless an act of courage and incredible will.

Bowie.Blackstar

It’s been heartening to see how much Bowie and his work meant to people, not to mention a reminder that seemingly unstoppable artists, even the otherworldly Bowie–chameleon, alien, vampire, Goblin King, magician–won’t be with us forever. He leaves behind an enormous body of work, much of which I still have yet to discover for myself.

Revisiting Farinelli il Castrato at The Solute

Farinelli

Gérard and Andrée Corbiau’s 1994 film Farinelli il Castrato was released in the US twenty years ago this month. At the time of its release, the film received a lot of attention for its use of digital editing to simulate the castrato‘s unique vocal qualities. I took a look at it to see how it holds up as cutting-edge technology and as a drama about some age-old concerns (sex, money, and artistry). Visit The Solute to read the article.

Film Review: Following the Ninth

It’s easy to be desensitized as a defense against hype; all around us we are being sold, told that something is the biggest, the best, the newest. Folding our arms and saying, “Oh, yeah? Prove it!” isn’t just reflexive cynicism, it’s practically a self-defense mechanism, the only way to protect ourselves against the barrage of pitches clamoring for our attention.  Arts advocacy, sadly, isn’t immune to hyperbole, and even well-meaning statements like Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Mozart Effect can overstate their cases, ringing hollow.  I’m as guilty as anyone else: music can be a powerful experience, and difficult to put into words. If we sometimes go overboard when speaking on its behalf, it’s because we have been transported, and words are rarely big enough to explain it.

Kerry Candaele (the director of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and other documentaries) described himself in his 20s as full of “angst, existential dread, and spiritual maladies,” before his discovery of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, specifically a cassette recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  The music touched him so deeply that he became a convert, digging into Beethoven’s music and wanting to pound on people’s doors, asking them, “Do you have Beethoven in your life?”  Fortunately, instead of doing that, Candaele wrote and directed Following the Ninth, which takes a different tack (I caught the film at the Wichita Orpheum Theatre Wednesday night, co-presented by the Tallgrass Film Association and Wichita Symphony Orchestra).

Following

Before Wednesday night’s screening of Following the Ninth, Candaele spoke briefly to those brought to the screening “not under their own free will,” seeking to allay their fears by stating up front that his film is not a biopic, and not an academic analysis of the music.  Indeed, as the film proceeded there were relatively few pronouncements from musical experts and almost no references to Beethoven’s biography, other than the fact that by the time he composed the Ninth (his last completed symphony) in 1824, he was completely deaf.  The film focuses squarely on individuals from China, Japan, Chile, and Germany, speaking in their own words (and with the support of copious historical and newly-filmed footage) about what the Ninth Symphony has meant to them.  Candaele makes his case for the power of art by example.

Following the Ninth celebrates the communal nature of Beethoven’s masterpiece, concentrating on times and places in which the complete work (especially the famous “Ode to Joy” of the last movement) gave solace or energy to people desperate for freedom, equality, brother- and sisterhood.  In 1989, mere months apart, demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and crowds celebrating the dismantling of the Berlin Wall adopted the Ninth as anthems under very different circumstances: the Chinese student demonstrators, represented by student leader Feng Congde, hijacked public PA systems and blared the Ninth Symphony to drown out official announcements and threats; in East Berlin, Lene Ford grew up being forced to sing Beethoven’s work in school, taught only that he was a “social revolutionary.”  After the collapse of the Wall (only two months after Lene’s brother had been shot trying to escape to the West!), the Ode to Joy symbolized a moment of sudden openness: for a young woman who had been spied upon by the Stasi simply because she had pen pals in other countries, “who were like fiction to me, because I knew I would never see them,” the experience of freedom was overpowering.

While the Chinese student demonstrations would be crushed by government force, and East Germany would be reunited with the West as the Soviet system crumbled, both Feng and Ford speak to the transformation they underwent during those events: the sense that they could do anything, that both they and the world had changed.  Ford comments that the feelings she experienced, and the welcome she received from West Germans the first day the border was opened, have stayed with her, forming a reserve of strength she has drawn on throughout her life since then.  At a concert after the Wall fell, conductor Leonard Bernstein famously changed a single word in the Ode from freude (joy) to freiheit (freedom)–a change not without some controversy; while both words were appropriate for the moment, it is the sense of utter joy that comes through as Ford recounts her story.  As for Feng, when he describes the plaster statue of a woman holding a torch aloft that the students erected in Tiananmen Square–an iconic image that was interpreted as a Chinese Statue of Liberty in the U. S.–he refers to her as Joy personified.

Feng’s recollections of his role in the protests dwell on the liberation of the students’ artistic impulses during the protests, and emphasize that the restriction of the Communist system was not only physical, but a sort of prison of the mind: while the protesters faced physical violence, they were protesting against a more pervasive “violence of culture,” in which art, music, and dance were all “bourgeois,” forbidden.  A sad irony of totalitarianism is that the same creative outlets were forbidden under the fascist government of Chile under General Augusto Pinochet: in the words of one activist, “there was no culture, because all culture was Left culture.” It was forbidden to sing Chilean folk songs or the “Himno de la Alegria,” as the Ode to Joy is known in Spanish, because of their association with popular socialist movements, or simply because the majority of musicians were known to have leftist sympathies. It is a reminder that, as Czech author Josef Škvorecký pointed out (in “Red Music”),

when the lives of individuals and communities are controlled by powers that themselves remain uncontrolled–slavers, czars, führers, first secretaries, marshals, generals and generalissimos, ideologists of dictatorships at either end of the spectrum–then creative energy becomes a protest. . . .  Totalitarian ideologists don’t like real life (other people’s) because it cannot be totally controlled; they loathe art, the product of a yearning for life, because that too evades control.

Some of the most harrowing passages in the film describe the paranoia and secrecy that marked Pinochet’s Chile, as suspected dissidents were “disappeared,” rounded up by the government for torture and (sometimes) execution.  Indeed, many of the public protests against Pinochet were led by women: so many of the men had been taken that the women left behind became the public voices of dissent, keeping the names and faces of the “disappeared” in the public eye and leading non-violent demonstrations (including singing the forbidden “Himno”).  Although Pinochet is gone, the recollections of the Chilean activists are bittersweet, with a sense of grievous loss that can only be processed through wry humor or simply by moving on.

Unlike the examples of the Ode taking on heightened significance at moments of political crisis, the annual performance of Beethoven’s Ninth has been an established tradition in Japan since World War I: professional orchestras, schools, and Daiku (“great nine”) associations stage hundreds of performances of the symphony every year in December, where it is associated with the New Year, similar to choral societies in the West that perform Handel’s Messiah and other works annually.  Candaele sits in on rehearsals with some of these groups, made up of amateurs who sing for both musical fulfillment and camaraderie; as in the West, Daiku choruses are civic and social as well as artistic in function, with a great emphasis placed on the value of cooperative endeavors.  Following the Ninth was six years in the making; at the outset of filming, Candaele could not have expected the horrific earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan in March 2011; but in the aftermath, Beethoven’s Daiku was an obvious symbol for the Japanese people to express their resilience and solidarity.

Following the Ninth is not a straight concert film, but it does roughly follow the order of Beethoven’s symphony, with the Ode to Joy as a recurring touchstone, introduced at the very beginning and referred to throughout the film (whereas in the symphony it is heard only in the final movement).  The four countries’ stories are intertwined, cutting back and forth, leaning on the similarities more than the differences (after all, the theme of the Ode is universal brotherhood).  Beethoven’s music is frequently heard in the background under dialogue or in tandem with footage of crucial events, but longer passages are also played over montages of images cut to match the rhythm of the music.  It’s in these sections that Following the Ninth comes closest to being outright manipulative: scenes of children playing, people marching, and breathtaking natural vistas are like cinematic candy–tasty but not very nutritious–and Beethoven’s music doesn’t need the extra juice.  Likewise, the scenes of goose-stepping German soldiers, Chinese tanks rolling over student encampments, and massive walls of water bearing down on the Japanese coast are chilling enough without Beethoven’s timpani or ominous harmonies making the point.

Still, even those scenes contribute to the film’s theme: the unity of mankind in all its diversity, as optimistically celebrated by poet Friedrich Schiller in the Ode that Beethoven would set to music in his monumental symphony; and the ways in which Beethoven’s music has been adopted and given meaning in settings quite different from that which he experienced.  Candaele opens the film with punk/folk singer Billy Bragg telling the story of the time he was invited to rewrite the words to Schiller’s Ode; like Bernstein’s change of a crucial word, that is sacrilege to some people, but it is similar to the way in which each person interviewed in the film has made Beethoven their own, and the way Candaele has used the symphony as a vehicle for telling their stories.  I think that’s the reason so little of Beethoven’s specific history is included in Following the Ninth: it’s already well-known, sure, but more importantly it’s beside the point.  For the Chilean and Chinese protesters, for the suddenly liberated East Germans, and for the Japanese coming together in the face of disaster, Beethoven’s music wasn’t history, or even a convenient symbol: it was alive and it was speaking to them in that moment.  I suspect that’s what we really mean when we say a work of art is “timeless,” and it’s the reason it’s so difficult to put into words after the moment is over.

Art Rules: A Brief Example

In my last post, I described the process of discovering affirmative formal rules during the process of composition. I thought I’d share an example from my own work, a short piece for piano four-hands entitled Odell Lake.

Most of my compositions for piano are in a ragtime style, and while Odell Lake started off that way, it took off in a different direction as I composed it.  Formally, it is not a rag: it doesn’t follow the typical AABBACCDD arrangement of themes, and the themes are not 16 bars long.  It does, however, contain repeated sections, and as I composed it I focused on how to use repetition as a constructive element: was there a way to change the context of a repetition so that it sounded different, or had a different musical function, each time it was played?

The rule that emerged was twofold: first, everything in the piece (except the very beginning and end) would be repeated, sometimes more than once (two sections contain “nested” repetitions, echoes within echoes).  Second, most of the phrase endings don’t correspond to the points of repetition, giving the impression of phrases that end in two different ways, depending on whether the music circles back to a previous point or continues into the next section.

This formal approach led to a piece that is fairly sectional (appropriate, given the ragtime influence), but in which the themes and ideas are continually developing, as if the listener were examining them from every angle.  I didn’t worry too much about thematic consistency (although the initial ideas return at the end in the manner of a recapitulation), given that everything would be repeated.  Because it was a duet, I also gave thought to where the repeat signs would fall on the page, in order to avoid excessive page turns; that was also a contributing factor in the sectional design.

The end result was a piece that had formal integrity without being predictable, and was fun to play.