Sunday, October 17, 2010

Bleeding Hart: An Evening With the Most Controversial Man in Horror

I am sitting on one of the most comfortable leather couches I've ever felt in a room that doubles as the set for the upcoming television show “American Horrors”, three feet away from a man who has had protest marches on his house, legions of death threats, book burnings, and blacklistings. Of course, to look at him you begin to suspect that there is something very different about this man than anyone else; there is a fierce intelligence in his blue eyes, a sort of rabid passion when he speaks, and the tattoos bleeding down his forearms begin to hint at a past that can be somewhat pieced together by extensive Googling. However, no search engine is going to give you the down-low on this man; in fact, a lot of sites have actively blocked him from being discussed, including Wikipedia. No, the way you're going to pin him is asking other people.

“I'm sure you've heard a few Hart Fisher stories,” he invites me with a laugh on one of our phone calls. “Come on, tell me a good one. I like to hear what people are saying.”

The funny thing is, he's not lying. It's easy to play six degrees of separation with Hart D. Fisher; he knows everyone in the business because he's been in it from every possible aspect for nearly twenty years. He's worked in comics (both on his own line, Boneyard Press, as well as for Glenn Danzig's Verotik label), literature, movies, and now television. He's been on talk shows to promote the genre, including Jerry Springer, Sally Jesse Raphael, and Larry King Live. Hart is a writer, a painter, a photographer, an art director, an actor, an editor, and an investigative journalist. He is also a loving husband; he works his wife Waka, a survivor of ovarian and cervical cancer, into the conversation every chance he can and he speaks with nothing but glowing affection when discussing their nine-year- marriage.

Part of Hart's danger is his charm; he is a serpent in the grass, one with beautiful stripes. He's fascinating to watch, but when he speaks it's lightning in a bottle. He can hold a discourse on anything from his favorite horror movies to his sordid past without batting a lash or sliding a segue between the topics, yet no matter the subject his delivery is what seals the stories for his audience.

It's exactly this talent that is going to make “American Horrors” literally explode like a cherry bomb in the unsuspecting curious faces of the horror genre executives.

“I'm going to take over the industry,” he tells me cheerfully over dinner at the hole-in-the-wall restaurant a few blocks from his Los Angeles home. “The thing is, they're primed for a revolution. For too long the genre has been screwing the fans, the indie filmmakers... everyone who makes it what it is. I want to put the power back where it belongs. I want to bring it back to where it needs to be and make it fun again, make it good. Everyone's ready to tell you that horror is dead, they can't wait to tell you that horror's dead. Well I'm here to prove that it's not--- or if it is, it's undead. It'll just keep coming back over and over and over again, it's relentless. It's gonna come out of the grave no matter how many times you bury it.”

It is a call to arms being issued by perhaps the perfect man for the revolution; Hart has been lampooned, attacked, torn to pieces by critics, and raked over the coals for nearly two decades. His infamous “Marvel Can Suck My Cock” shirts resulted in him being banned or harassed at several conventions and trade shows, and he was often asked to take offensive comic titles off his table to prevent him from scandalizing the patrons of any given convention. He shows no fear when dealing with opposition; if anything he meets it with teeth bared and shoulders squared, fists at the ready. And if anyone knows how to hit and make it count, it's Hart--- he's proficient in many areas of martial arts, and he trains with Gene LeBell, the man who taught Bruce Lee his moves. In short, he's not a man you want on your bad side. And yet he seems to have a lot of enemies in the field, or at least people opposed to his idea of change.

“I used to have a lot of parasites on me, especially when my wife got sick. People who I thought were my closest, best friends, my confidants, turned on me the first chance they could. People change when a life-threatening illness is involved, and in my case as soon as I was busy taking care of Waka, that's when the knives came out,” Hart says reflexively, and though he is speaking in past-tense it's clear these wounds are still fresh. “People I'd known for years and trusted were suddenly sabotaging me, destroying my business, taking money from me while my back was turned. I realized what a bunch of vipers I was surrounded by and I cut them loose. I'm so much happier now than I've been in my life before; I'm where I'm supposed to be.”

It's true that the Hart Fisher I see before me isn't the man I expected to meet after reading his books Poems for the Dead and Still Dead. These poetry collections are savagely dark and tormented, written in the aftermath of the murder of Hart's girlfriend Michelle and the ensuing trial to keep her killer behind bars. I read the poems when I was twelve, listening to the spoken-word CD that came with them; Hart's pain was vibrant and neon lancing through his twisted prose, turning every poem into an exercise in pain and purgatory. He says that the book has been a blessing, as people seek him out regularly to tell him what a difference it made in their lives, how it impacted them as they grew up.

The Hart of the past was controversial just for the sake of shaking things up; he has figured out how to channel that energy now into a productive, targeted attack plan and that is why people should be worried. He briefs me on the plans for the empire of “American Horrors”; an iPhone app is launching the week of Halloween, and soon other cell phone carriers will have access to exclusive content and marketing materials for subscribers. They are picking up independent horror films for distribution and collecting talent from far and wide; to hear Hart describe it is like watching someone assemble a crack team of highly-trained soldiers, each specialized in a particular brand of hurt. He is going to deliver one hell of a punch, with years of indignation, abuse and scandal behind it. He is rallying his troops, recruiting for an army of loyal, dedicated horror fans who can actually get the job done; names like John Skipp and Phil Nutman come up in the same breath as Glenn Danzig. Hart knows what he wants and he knows how to get it, and whether that involves honey or a battering ram, he means to have it.

Watching the reels of “American Horror” already filmed that have been cut for European audiences, it's impossible to see a reason why this show wouldn't get picked up by major networks. In truth, they should be chomping at the bit to get it; the show is well-produced and interesting, hosted by Hart as he and his crew pursue anything in the genre. It isn't dedicated to shots of celebrities walking the red carpet or pimping their latest project; he gives equal attention to things like investigating reports of paranormal activity in the Midwest (an episode reminiscent of “Ghost Hunters”) as he does a segment at the New York Horror Film Festival. He is an enthusiastic, charismatic interviewer who knows his stuff, his questions are insightful and amusing, and every so often he throws out a red herring just to shake up a bored talent who is giving him rote answers. My mother--- a more casual horror fan, and I are both laughing through the episode, delighted with the change of pace from the usual uninspired interview shows; “American Horrors” is a breath of fresh air in a putrid smogscape. The fans are ready--- this is what we've been asking for. Hart is not creating a film company or a record label or a comics house; he is creating an institution, a brand, and he is an expert at both marketing and getting people talking.

Hart is a phenomenal showman and this is his circus; the ringmaster is in the house. He has been through the fire and come out cleansed and purged of the negative energy that plagued him when he was younger; this is a sleeker, streamlined Hart, the dead weight shed like snakeskin and the glowing performer beneath unveiled at long last. “I'm finally in a place where I can let myself be happy and let myself be loved,” Hart says with a smile, relaxing with a glass of red wine as we watch a collection of grindhouse trailers. “I've got all the ammunition I need and I know where I want to aim it.”

I hope the industry's wearing Kevlar, because Hart Fisher is loaded for bear.

Follow Hart and join his revolution at You can also read his amazing and controversial true accounts of his tumultuous past at his blog,

Friday, October 8, 2010

"My Soul to Take": A Review (Spoilers)

As a lifelong horror fan, of course the name Wes Craven is enough to put the tinglies in me and make me wonder what's in store. Of course, my favorite films of his have been the Nightmare on Elm Street series, but the Scream franchise was also original and fun and I loved The Last House on the Left. However, the trailer for "My Soul to Take", out this week from Rogue Pictures, gave me pause; was it really something I wanted to invest my money into? Wes Craven doing a 3D film? Was it going to be any good?

Luckily that answer came in the form of a free screener pass, so I didn't actually have to concern myself with the price-gouging ticket for a 3D movie. The screening was held Thursday night at the AMC in Dallas, Texas, partially sponsored by Off the Bone Barbecue.

While I appreciate a free movie as much as everyone else, I didn't appreciate having a local business literally preach to their captive audience for an hour about why we should all eat at their rib joint. They had several bags of Rogue-issued swag to give out and decided to give it to people who could answer questions about soul food rather than anyone actually a fan of the horror genre. So that was great.

Once the movie began though, I couldn't care less about winning a t-shirt from the film; it wasn't a film I'd want a t-shirt of, for one thing.

The film centers around a man called the Riverton Ripper, a schizophrenic man who believes that multiple souls are in his body fighting for dominance. He slaughters his very-pregnant wife and several other townspeople before a police officer shoots him; his wife has an emergency c-section and gives birth to a little boy named Adam. His older daughter Leia survives, and the two are adopted. A nurse at the hospital remarks that seven babies have all been born that night, one of them blind, and how strange it is.

The film opens sixteen years later, when the seven children born that night (who call themselves the Riverton Seven) are gathered on their birthday to commemorate the slain Ripper. They hold a candlelight vigil and pray for another year of their safety. We meet the seven; Jerome is the blind boy, Penelope a beautiful Christian zealot, Brittany a shallow blonde, Brandon the stereotypical violent over-steroided asshole jock, Jay the sassy Asian, and Alex the nerdy picked-on geek. The seventh is Adam, who now goes as 'Bug' and who is a strangely naive boy who is very shy and quiet and insecure and has schizophrenic tendencies and several unsettling interests and habits.

The movie follows Bug and Alex primarily as they go through high school life; we learn that Leia has grown up to be an absolutely gorgeous high schooler who goes by the name of 'Fang' and runs a sort of mob operation out of the school, selling test cheat sheets and beating up kids who cross her path. Bug has a crush on Brittany, who thinks he's cute but could never date him because of the social heirarchy. Alex has an abusive drunken stepfather and a shitty home life in general. Penelope spouts a lot of absolutely cliche religious lines--- did she really just say "when things get too hot, turn on the prayer conditioning"?

On his walk home, Jay is attacked by the Ripper; the man is dressed in a costume somewhat similar to the Pig-headed figure from the Saw films with a flowing black cloak, ratty long hair, and a mostly-hidden white face. The Ripper slays him and throws him off the edge of the bridge, which of course Bug sees in a dream but doesn't take seriously. Throughout the day, each kid is slaughtered by the Ripper in a series of completely uninspired and utterly unscary sequences; everything is a flat-rate stabbing, with very little gore actually shown and the suspense laughable. The set-up for each kill consists in a ton of quick cut-away shots and flash shots of the Ripper, who despite his appearance inspires nothing beyond thoughts of Freddy Krueger; his voice is so snarly and low that you genuinely believe Craven has paid Englund to do ADR work off the books--- how else do you explain the character uttering lines like "Now where'd I leave your bitch?" to the dying jock while using a gutteral sarcastic voice? There's even a scene where Penelope is in the school pool, then hears weird metallic sounds in the filter room; she walks in to find it's transformed into a hellish red-lit boiler room where a hand wraps around the pipe and scrapes, making a metal rasp. HMMMM, we've never seen Craven use that gimmick before, particularly not the boiler room bit. Or how the character says a sardonic little one-liner when he kills her. Nope.

The film feels much longer than it is, simply because it feels like there's very little point to it. The audience is supposed to be confused; is the Ripper real, or is it one of the kids in disguise? Is Bug actually a killer, or just schizophrenic? Are the seven interlinked because of the poignancy of when they were born, or are they just reading too much into the town's superstitions? However, you don't actually care about the answers to any of these questions by midway through the film; you just sort of want it to be over. And when it reaches its unsurprising, completely trite ending, complete with a neat little voiceover monologue at the end to wrap everything, you just feel cheated and bummed that Craven dropped the ball on what could've been a promising movie.

Worst of all is the '3D' aspect. There are NO 3D effects in this film. Even the kill scenes are done with extremely minimal 3D utilization, and since the film wasn't available in a 2D format, I believe this was done entirely to garner more money in ticket sales. The average 3D movie ticket in Dallas costs $13.50; trust me, if I had paid that for this film I'd be livid. The 3D does nothing to enhance the film whatsoever, it just makes everything dark and blurry. At one point I took my glasses off to watch part of the film and aside from a slight blurriness, I could see no difference except for the film looking much brighter and more colorful.

In short, if you're a die-hard Craven fan, see this as a rental with the 3D glasses. If not, skip it altogether; you won't be sorry.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Hatchet 2 Review: If You Want Blood, You Got It! (Spoilers)

The first time I heard of Adam Green was at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors in 2007, when a young man in a beanie and facial scruff was engaged in a passionate conversation with a man next to me about the nature of horror films these days. The man was so heated in his opinion that I couldn't help eavesdropping, and moved away with a smile on my face; it was nice to know that someone else believed that the horror genre was becoming a self-parody of sequels, remakes and franchises with little to no thought, effort or originality.

Cut to thirty minutes later, when I was sitting in the auditorium watching a panel for a film I've never heard of called "Hatchet" and the same handsome young man walked out onstage to raucous cheers and applause. The man was Adam Green, the creator and director of the film, and he proceeded to share his vision with the audience and show us a two-minute clip of some of the most gruesome kill scenes I've ever witnessed in a slasher film.

"Hatchet" quickly rose in the ranks as among my top ten favorite slasher films of all time, and Green's next effort, "Frozen", was an equally phenomenal and original film. So when "Hatchet II" hit theaters in an unrated capacity, a landmark for the horror industry, I knew that I had to see it.

Surrounded by my friends who all love the first film, we embarked upon the AMC Theater in Mesquite, Texas to view this movie, arriving thirty minutes early expecting to find trouble getting a seat. Imagine our surprise when we walked into a completely empty theater which remained empty all the way through the film.

It speaks volumes to me about the ignorance of the American movie-goer when they will shell out money incessantly for films like 'Resident Evil: Afterlife' or 'Scary Movie 4' but will not support an independent horror film that is not only original and fun, but was released in an unrated version in theaters--- something that has not been done before now. Still, despite our disappointment and irritation that more people weren't there to appreciate the viewing party, we took the opportunity to cheer loudly at the kill scenes, laugh at the jokes, and clap appreciatively when something awesome happened.

"Hatchet 2" is fun. There's no deep meta-plot, no motivation, no moral to the story. Victor Crowley is a slasher of the same variety as Jason Voorhees and Madman Marz; they give him a backstory that's fairly run of the mill (in this case, a deformed mongoloid who was killed in a freak accident, and now seeks revenge on those who would cross his path), a set location (a haunted swamp that Victor cannot leave, much like Jason Voorhees with Camp Crystal Lake or Freddy Krueger with Springwood, Illinois), and a high body count. He has a signature 'look', his childhood home that he still occupies neƩ Michael Myers, and a whole arsenal of interesting weapons (do gas-powered belt sanders even exist?). The victims are fairly formulaic, although the casting choices are what make them great--- faces like Tony Todd (Candyman) and R. A. Mikhaioff (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3) hold supporting roles in this film, and the lead role of Marybeth is filled by scream queen extraordinaire Danielle Harris (Halloween 4 & 5, Rob Zombie's Halloween, Halloween II, Fear Clinic, Urban Legend, etc). Kane Hodder (Friday the 13th) plays the monster Victor Crowley with the same savagery as he showed in his turns as Jason Voorhees; he is truly the epitome of what a homicidal maniac slasher should be.

The film literally picks up the instant the first film wraps, making a seamless transition for a viewing party when it comes out on DVD; it is a brutal opener that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. 'Hatchet 2' is rife with tension, but as soon as things get too serious the audience is forced into laughter. Sure, it might be the shocked, horrified laughter of disbelief over a comically-long chainsaw or a particularly funny punchline to a kill (Adam Green finds a way to give 'axe wound' a whole new meaning when it comes to a certain female victim, for example), but either way, it is a welcome relief to the armrest-gripping gore of the rest of the film. The movie hinges on the idea that Tony Todd's eerie and underhanded Reverend Zombie character has figured out a way to beat Crowley once and for all--- if he gets his revenge on the people responsible for his death, then he will cease his reign of terror and Zombie can open up the swamp again for tourism and profits. Unfortunately, nothing ever goes according to a plan that simple, and Green throws plenty of buckets of blood in the way of the solution of the film. Danielle Harris is a strong, likable female lead; she carries the title of 'survivor chick' proudly.

More critical members of an audience might complain about the film--- the acting, for example, which I found quite tolerable but someone expecting an Oscar-worthy performance might not. In the same vein though, what are these nay-sayers doing seeing a film like 'Hatchet 2'? It is not only a low-brow gorefest, it revels in its own absurdity; the movie is completely aware of how unlikely it is, and yet it celebrates with buckets of gore, blackly comedic moments, gruesome kill scenes, and nakedness--- all of the elements for a successful horror film. Adam Green has woven these together in an intricate quilt that makes for one hell of a fun viewing for a horror fan--- if you want something thought-provoking, Victor Crowley just might have a belt-sander for your skull to show you the error of your ways.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Review of "I Spit On Your Grave" - The Day of the Woman is Back! (Spoilers, NSFW)

Ordinarily with a remake the purists in any genre, but particularly horror, tend to get up in arms about how sacrilegious it is and how the remake damages the credibility of the original. When 'I Spit On Your Grave' originally debuted, it was so scandalous and horrific that it was banned in the majority of countries it screened in; some of them have still not lifted that ban to allow it to be released on DVD, and most DVD versions available still offer renditions with a few minutes of film edited out.

In the midst of a controversial backstory like that, the filmmakers of the new Anchor Bay release must've been soiling themselves in nervousness trying to figure out how to top it. After all, we're in a jaded age now where kids grow up on movies like 'Saw' and 'Hostel'; mere gore doesn't shock anymore and rarely offends. People have become used to the formulaic structure of a horror film and simply go along for the ride; there's very little left that is considered taboo territory.

Until 'I Spit On Your Grave', that is.

I'm fairly sure that rape is still one of the more untouched subjects in contemporary horror film, and often if there is a scene of violent sex it is done in cutaway shots and implications more than actual panning camera work. While the original film was very blatantly an exploitation film that was honestly about 80% rape scene and 20% kills, the new one keeps that percentage a little more balanced but takes the rape scene to a whole new level.

The film was very well shot, with beautiful camera work and several effects (such as overexposure during the outdoor scenes) that paid tribute to the grainy film stock look of the first film. The premise was believable and kept very true to the first film; a beautiful young woman, Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler) embarks on a remote cabin retreat alone to get some writing done on her new novel. On the drive up, she encounters a pack of local hoods at the gas station and has an altercation with their leader, Johnny (Jeff Branson) when she refuses to play into his come-ons. Jennifer excuses herself and continues on to her cabin, unable to predict the horrors waiting for her.

Several days pass with Jennifer drinking wine, working on her novel and sunbathing. She has no idea that one of the louts, Stanley (Daniel Franzese) is videotaping her most private moments from a vantage point in the surrounding woods, making homemade spank-bank films for himself and his buddies.

One night while indulging in some drinks, the boys get to ribbing Johnny about his strike-out with the girl. Stanley brings up an incident earlier that day that he caught on film--- their friend Matthew (Chad Lindberg), a mentally-handicapped young man, was sent out to Jennifer's cabin to repair the plumbing. When he was successful, she was so enthusiastic that she kissed his cheek in gratitude. It caused Matthew, a virgin and completely uncomfortable with pretty women, to run away, and the boys have a great laugh at his expense. It gets Johnny to thinking, however, and he decides that he should show Matthew exactly what "city whores" are for. The boys head over to Jennifer's cabin to cause some mayhem.

What follows may be one of the most uncomfortable scenes ever filmed, and I can't honestly imagine how the actors did it without feeling like they needed to scour their skin off with a Brillo pad between takes. Jennifer is tormented and humiliated, made to act like a 'show pony' and peel her lips back to show her teeth, fellating various objects for the boys, and made to dance as if she's enjoying herself. Andy (Rodney Eastman) throws lit matches into her hair to make her squeal, and Stanley videotapes everything. Jennifer manages to escape and runs into the woods, where she collides with the local sheriff (Andrew Howard) and his hunting partner Earl (Tracey Walter). She pleads the sheriff to come and arrest the boys, and when he returns to her cabin he finds the wine bottles and marijuana cigarette she was enjoying earlier and asks her if she's sure she wasn't inviting trouble.

Of course, the audience can see where this is going; the boys return and the sheriff joins in on the fun for a truly horrific rape scene in which Matthew is forced by his friends to lose his virginity to a screaming, struggling Jennifer. He is gibbering and completely out of his mind by then, the chaos too much for him, and he succumbs to the pressure of his friends' taunting and follows through with the rape. Afterward, Jennifer escapes into the woods and is pursued, where she is brutally gang-raped by the other boys and the sheriff. When it's done (an unbelievably long, graphic scene in which the audience was so silent you could have heard a pin drop), Jennifer staggers naked onto the bridge and falls into the water before the sheriff can shoot her. Her body doesn't come to the surface and the boys panic, assuming she may have escaped; they vow to search the river every day until she washes up.

A month passes and the boys begin receiving clues that someone knows about what they did; however none of them put together exactly who it is until it's far too late for them. Jennifer takes great pleasure in hunting each boy down and killing them in some of the most creative and horrible manners imaginable, culminating in a beautifully gory finale with the sheriff himself.

The reason that this film is so poignant rests entirely on the actors; Sarah Butler's turn as Jennifer is so unbelievably convincing that your heart goes out to her, and she invokes exactly the empathy that the director was going for. The audience is one hundred percent in Jennifer's corner; no one thinks she's a bitch who 'had it coming', no one thinks she goes too far in her plot for revenge. She is beautiful, witty, charming, and believable; she is any girl you've ever known, self-reliant and independent, who has her identity stripped from her brutally in a single act of grotesque selfishness.

While she carries the performance's lead on her capable shoulders, the supporting ensemble is equally phenomenal. Nightmare on Elm Street 3 & 4 alum Rodney Eastman is revolting and completely sells his role as a psychotic asshole; he is appropriately creepy and unsettling just in appearance alone, the intensity of his gaze enough to make you squirm and ask for an adult. Chad Lindberg, best known for his work on Supernatural, is absolutely terrific as Matthew. The role required him to reach a certain balance between sympathetic and revulsion; the audience has to hate him for going along with his friends, but they have to pity him too and pray that his death is a quick end. He is the only one genuinely remorseful about what they've done, and the guilt is already tearing him apart by the time Jennifer gets her revenge. Lindberg brings a depth to the role that is truly refreshing and beautiful, and it shows a real leap of acting talent on his behalf to play a handicapped person so convincingly without turning it into any sort of parody of the character's mental state. Daniel Franzese, who will be most recognizable for his turn as the catty gay high schooler Damien in Mean Girls, undergoes a drastic transformation from fey sidekick to completely repulsive voyeur in this film. He is potbellied and sports a shaved head, a heavy Southern accent and a mean, piggish look to him; he is out to hurt and to catch it all on film. This role is completely different than anything Franzese has done before, and it adds a new layer to his resume in a way that none of his fans would expect. Andrew Howard is not only unsettling and horrifying as the sheriff (because truly, what's worse than going to a law official for help only to find out that he's in on the fun himself?) but he lends a twist to the role that makes the character all the more upsetting for audience members. And Jeff Branson plays Johnny as such a cocky, condescending asshole, a complete chauvinist and unsympathetic in the least, that our audience gave a massive cheer when he met his end.

While we're on the topic of 'ends', I won't spoil them for you, but allow me to shed a little light - they are far more horrific in this film than in the original, and much more ingenius. While they are slightly contrived (as in, I find it hard to believe that Jennifer Hills, no matter how well-defined her abs were in this movie, could move Danny Franzese or Jeff Branson by herself while they were unconscious), they are truly unique from anything I've ever seen in a horror film before, and they were almost ingenius in their metaphorical relations to the roles the rapists played in her assault. Our audience was torn between cheering and utter silent horror; two grown men walked out of our theater, and after the lights came up at the end most people looked brutally violated themselves, pale and shaken by what they'd seen.

I would like to point out that I am not squeamish and it's hard to scare me; that said, I spent a good third of this movie with one hand over my face, alternately squealing in anticipation of something terrible or gasping as it happened. At one point during a poignant scene, I actually moaned "Oh, fuck my life" and covered my eyes (which, as happens, was the only sound in the theater at the time and made everyone around me crack up).

Would I recommend this movie to you? Absolutely. It's got great acting, good writing, and more gore than you can shake a stick at (hell, the makeup effects alone are a reason to hail this film as one of the best things horror has done in awhile). It sticks with you and is truly unsettling in a way that will make your skin crawl and your soul feel like it needs some Oxy-Clean. But beyond that? If you have ANY triggers about rape or humiliation, or you are even slightly squeamish about incredibly graphic gore, this is not the film for you--- and for all of you dickfaces that bring your toddlers to "Halloween" because you couldn't get a babysitter, I wouldn't suggest making that judgment error with this film.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Movie Review: After.Life

I will be the first to admit that I'm very gullible when it comes to watching things and falling into the 'traps'. I like to think that I'm a fairly clever girl, with a grasp of foreshadowing and such, but when the twist ending of 'The Sixth Sense' happened I was seriously picking my jaw up off the floor in complete awe. Similar things have happened to me in much less grand scale; I very rarely can predict where something is going unless it's blatantly obvious, and you know what? I like it that way. I like being kept on my toes, holding my breath and seeing what kind of ride the director is taking me on.

A film that blew my mind in a way that very few do is "After.Life". Starring Christina Ricci, Justin Long and Liam Neeson, I first saw the trailer for this indie gem at the Anchor Bay table at Texas Frightmare Weekend and was quite intrigued. The premise is fascinating enough: a young schoolteacher (Ricci) in a tumultuous relationship with her boyfriend (Long) gets into a car accident only to wake up in the local funeral home with the mortician (Neeson) trying to convince her that she's dead and it's his job to help her cross over. The movie is extremely existential, with Neeson's character asking Ricci's what she would've done differently, why she was so distressed at the thought of death when she wasn't really enjoying her life as it was anyway. The performances are incredibly solid; Long is perhaps the standout as the heartbroken, emotional wreck of an alcoholic boyfriend who is left to deal with the aftermath of the guilt over his girlfriend's death. Neeson is charismatic and sufficiently unsettling, his very charm and eloquence making him all the more unsettling; it is incredibly easy to picture him as a gentle guide to those in limbo between life and death, but as the film's events progress and the plot twists begin, his gurney-side manner begins to take on a sinister edge. Ricci is ethereal and beautiful as always, a haunting performance of a young woman who doesn't know if she cares that she's dead; she doesn't want to die but is afraid to live, and therein the dilemma lies.

The movie is beautifully shot, with incredible use of symbolism in the colors it chooses. Most things are monotonous, soft shades of gray and white and a bluish tint like death; the only flares of color, truly, are a vibrant and striking red, which has always represented life and passion and fire in culture. While Ricci is in denial of her own mortality, she wears a slinky red slip, insisting that she wants to live and doesn't deserve to die so young; when she accepts her own fate, she allows herself to be stripped naked by Neeson, then dressed in somber funeral attire, at which point she succumbs to her impending burial and refuses to fight for continued existence on this plane. She even dyes her hair red at the beginning of the film to shake up her humdrum life, a move criticized cruelly by her mother and boyfriend and later, Neeson washes the red out of her hair and returns it to its normal brown for her funeral. The life in her, like the dye, was temporary and easily taken from her; she has no permanence to her own mortality, no reason to continue to fight for something she doesn't believe is worth the effort in the first place.

"After.Life" is a thriller full of suspenseful twists and turns, but it is also a thinking-man's movie. It provokes one to question their own values and how much their own life is worth to them; it also slides effortlessly between potential twists so smoothly you are unsure what's reality and what isn't, leaving you as an audience member just as bewildered and disconcerted as Ricci's character in the film. Certainly worth checking out, this film is a warped trip through the heart and soul of our own mortality, making us question the boundaries of life, love, and self-fulfillment that we all possess deep down inside.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Holy Captain Howdy, Batman!: "The Last Exorcism" Delivers Chills (Mild spoilers!)

In the horror genre, the various tropes have all just about been done to death. Zombies, werewolves, vampires, mummies, serial killers, grotesque mongoloid juggernauts in masks--- those ideas are great and they provide awesome entertainment value, but each category has become so predictable that you wind up with a mental checklist of 'must haves' in the films. Any variation of those things is hailed as wildly creative, even if it really isn't; we're just so eager for something to deviate from the safe mundane predecessors.

With The Blair Witch Project, handheld cameras became a fascinating idea for filmmakers. They were inexpensive and allowed for an entirely different look than the larger-budget cameras; they gave a gritty realism to the piece. By casting unknowns in the core roles of a project and the use of clever marketing, a point-of-view horror film could become wildly successful just on its own sheer novelty.

Fast forward a few years, and the medium has begun to catch on. We've had hits and misses both; Rec, Quarantine, Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, all of them were done with hand-held camcorders. Paranormal Activity broke records in theaters and received rave reviews from audiences and critics and was shot in one location, with two unknown actors, on a very basic camera.  The appeal of this filmmaking, and what has to be embraced in order to make it work, is the idea that it's what you don't see that's truly terrifying. There is no sweeping pan shots of the location, no graceful aerials taken from helicopters. It is raw and close, it is in our face. It is 'real'.

Some films, of course, can't actually back up this promise. Cloverfield, in my opinion, became a much less effective movie the moment you actually saw the monster in its entirety. The glimpse of its tail from between two skyscrapers, shots like that were truly breathtaking; it's the fear of the unknown that we love.

And what can be more unknown to man in general than the workings of Heaven and Hell? Perhaps this is why exorcism films consistently hold their own in theaters; people are terrified of things they can't understand, and chief among those things is religion. It is all heresay and faith, and unable to be proven by science. Thus its effect varies from individual to individual; some may believe with all their hearts in demons and ghosts and angels, and some may not believe a whit. But the question isn't whether you believe in those things or not... it's the question of their reality. We cannot know if they're truthfully in existence or not, so we are tethered to our own belief system in the hopes that it will be enough to save us if the time comes.

Enter The Last Exorcism. Cotton Marcus was groomed for pastoral duty from the time he was a young child; his father was a fire-and-brimstone preacher in the South who built up a huge, loyal congregation of Holy Rollers. When the movie opens, Cotton is in his late thirties or so, with a beautiful wife and an ailing child to care for. He candidly tells the cameraman that he has been preaching without faith, that he has his congregation so cowed that he could walk into the chapel and speak about the healing powers of banana bread and be able to get away with it if he delivered it in the correct tone of voice. He is a shameless scam artist who performs exorcisms for hefty amounts of money; he pretends to clear someone from demonic possession by rigging their room with a series of hidden speakers for demon moans, tablets to make pans of tepid water turn boiling in seconds, fishing line to move photographs, rigs for the bedframes, electric thumbrings, and a cross that discharges a puff of gunpowder on command to look like it's smoking in his hand.

However, Cotton has decided that he is done with this line of work; he read an article in the newspaper about an exorcism done by amateurs that resulted in the death of a boy his son's age, and he refuses to be a part of that institution anymore. He hires a pair of documentary filmmakers to follow him as he chooses a case at random to be his 'last exorcism'; he will expose the church for the fraud that it is, and put to rest the stigma around private exorcisms.

The case he opens leads him to a small town in backwoods Louisiana, where a widowed farmer named Louis believes that his innocent teenage daughter Nell is possessed by a demon. Louis is a pious and well-meaning man who is overprotective of his daughter and drinks to cope with the sudden death of his beloved wife two years prior; his teenage son Caleb is bitter and angry, very stand-offish, and resents the presence of Cotton and his team greatly. We meet Nell, who is beautiful and utterly wholesome, charming and endearing right off the bat. She is the epitome of sweetness and innocence, completely enamored with the sound-girl's flashy red Doc Marten boots. It seems impossible that this girl could be in cohorts with an evil being inside of her.

Cotton walks the documentarians through his 'set-up', rigging Nell's bedroom with his special effects and going through the motions of a great laying-on of hands. Nell prays with him, sobbing and begging the demon to leave her; when it ends, Cotton collects a fat wad of cash from the father and vacates the premises. That night at the motel up the road, he is proud of a job well done, having exposed himself for a fraud; the camera crew insist they got excellent material from him. Cotton goes to lay down, and suddenly the camera cuts to the middle of the night, the camera crew running up to Cotton's room. There on the bed sits Nell, catatonic; when the sound-girl goes to hug her, Nell begins to lasciviously lick the woman's shoulder and kiss her neck seductively, then vomits uncontrollably. The crew rush her to the hospital for blood tests and try to reach her father on the phone, but he does not answer. In the morning, Louis arrives at the hospital to check Nell out, informing Cotton that he doesn't trust medical doctors after his wife's diagnosis and death, and he won't have her in a medical facility like that.

The film progresses with a lot of shock moments; there is precious little gore, but what there is is truly gruesome albeit brief. What you get more of than gore is genuine shock; I am hard to scare, yet I had goosebumps for several scenes in the film. The lead actress playing Nell, Ashley Bell, is double-jointed and quite flexible, and the film crew took extreme advantage of that by having Bell perform most of her own stunts without the use of CGI or makeup. She snaps her neck from side to side in ways that would make a chiropractor cringe; she scuttles along the floor like a beast or an insect, moves like a marionette having her strings jerked. And of course, the most disturbing scene is the poster image, when Bell bends her body backward nearly double and begins to taunt the priest, her neck snapping to the side to deliver grotesque teasing in a purring, seductive voice that is much clearer and therefore eerier than the distorted monstrous tones of Eileen Dietz in the original The Exorcist. There are plenty of twists in the film, red herrings thrown out to make the audience follow one train of thought before a wrench is tossed out to send us reeling back in another direction entirely. There is genuine foreboding and unease that builds throughout the film; the light humorous mood of the opening is discarded for sincere terror and suspense much like the opening of Rec/Quarantine. The acting is solid; all of the characters are portrayed believably and well, and are unfamiliar faces which keeps us in the realism of the film.

The only two complaints that I have about the film involve the last ten minutes, and the editing. The film is beautiful and highly effective visually, but it is meant to be 'found footage', in the same manner as The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. Yet the film, at times, features subtitles explaining who the characters are (as if the first half of the film is already edited and ready for the documentary, while the rest is raw footage), or mood music--- Nell will do something terrifying and there will be a screeching violin sound or a bit of ambient sound effect to keep the audience jumping out of their seats. This polishing sort of cancels out the realism so beautifully portrayed through the rest of it.

The second complaint involving the ending seems to be one shared by many. Unlike most critics, I did enjoy the ending of the film; I felt like it was an alright ending, while it won't please everyone. It made sense, though it wasn't what I expected. It did feel slightly off in comparison to the rest of the film, but while we're suspending disbelief to begin with, if you continue to do so it should be quite bearable a leap for audiences to make.

All in all, the film is a good execution in suspense and unease; the performances more than anything else carry it. The film can be divided into three acts, and each is not cohesive to the next. The film is enjoyable for what it is, but it has trouble deciding what that is; moments are absolutely side-splittingly hilarious followed by creepy, eerie shots followed by confusing conspiracy theory conversations. A distracting subplot asks us if Nell is mentally ill or possessed by a demon, a question which isn't resolved until the last four minutes of the film. The script is schizophrenic, with little transition between the moods in various scenes; it can be hard to keep up with the emotional rollercoaster of the scenes, which probably led to a lot of the negative feedback the film is receiving from critics.

However, I did enjoy it. Fans of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and its ilk will be pleased, as this film follows that line very closely; just allow the film to be what it is without comparing it to what it's not.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review: The Secret Book of Repo Fanfiction. Warning: NSFW

I'll admit it, with no small amount of sardonic smirks on my end--- I love fanfic.

Whatever fandom I've been a part of from puberty on, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer all the way through to my current fixation on Supernatural, I love to read fanfiction. I've been a member of Internet communities that celebrate it, and I've written more than my fair share. If done responsibly, it can be a great exercise in creativity; you're taking pre-made characters and a ready-made environment and then twisting them to tell your own tale. I've read everything from amazing flashback scenes, gorgeous-with-potential alternate universe fics, and filthy smutty sex scenes between characters, and written more than a few of each myself. Some writers of fanfiction are genuinely talented enough to be uber-successful published authors if they pursued their craft. It's not all Mary Sues and self-insertions.

But fanfiction is the redheaded stepchild of most fandoms, and for good reason. Many creators themselves are forbidden to read it by law; they could glean ideas from the authors and then be sued for royalties. Many actors, musicians and authors have stated publicly that they find it creepy or unsettling, and avoid it at all costs. Thus, most fanfic writers keep their craft under their hat, like a shameful hobby that they only confess to on the anonymous terms of the Internet; they use pseudonyms and screen-names to hide behind, and obviously their work can never see print or profit. It's a labor of love, not sensibility.

So when my fascination and involvement with all things Repo! The Genetic Opera began, I started to follow several people involved on Facebook, including Spooky Dan Walker, one of the friends of the film's creators and the head of the fan movement. A few months ago, I saw Spooky Dan leading a discussion on his Facebook page about submissions of Repo! fanfiction, and was curious and more than a little confused.

By tradition, when a show's creators or people affiliated with it in an official capacity authorize something--- say, for example, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer tie-in novels that were hugely popular in the late 90s/early 00s--- then the contents of that work are accepted into the fandom as 'canon'. Thus, if Repo! creators and their fan club condoned a fan-fiction book, this introduces all kinds of complications to the actual backgrounds and outcomes of the characters as written by the film's original creators, doesn't it? Also, fanfiction has been around for free for decades; why would anyone pay for a collection of it when you can go to sites like or, if you like it smuttier, and read it for free?

However, when I voiced this opinion on Spooky Dan's Facebook wall, quite a few fangirls jumped on me to accuse me of not supporting Repo! (right, because I've dedicated almost a full year of my life and a ton of money into my love of this film and its stars, not to mention my current involvement in shadowcasting the movie). So I decided, alright, if everyone's so passionate about it, I'll buy the book and see what's going on with it. See if it's worth the hype. After all, these were touted as 'exclusive' fics of the highest quality, hand-selected by the biggest Repo! fans to please a wide variety of audiences. And at $14 plus shipping for 21 stories, you were paying a pittance for each tale. Surely even if the majority of them were bad, a few good seeds could redeem the cost?

The books were being advertised as extremely limited edition, with only 100 copies in the original printing. I placed my order and sat back to wait.

When it arrived, I was surprised by the tackiness of the overall design. I understand that the books were done on a very low budget and were printed at an independent press; thus the paper and cover cardstock are not the quality of a book you'd buy, for example, at Barnes & Noble. However, you would think that the people affiliated with this project could've used Photoshop a bit more; the cover is a dim photograph of two members of a shadowcast portraying Amber Sweet and a Eunuch, and the title is a dark, blurry graphic pasted in the top right corner. The book is done in a boring font with lines skipped between paragraphs (sometimes--- this is inconsistent throughout the book) and the margins fluctuate at will. Spelling errors and typos abound, which leads one to believe that the book was edited quickly and fairly sloppily; I picked out several mistakes throughout the book that were easily spotted and should've been caught before the book went to press.

The book is divided into two segments, a 'canon'-style section and a 'smut' section. The 'canon' section focuses mostly on Graverobber, who is obviously the main wank fodder for most fans of the film. And true, Terrance Zdunich is a beautiful man and a terrific performer, but the portrayals in the stories in the book read like a teenybopper dream. Several stories fixate on Graverobber having a sexual relationship with Shilo (something I never picked up in the film, but I guess people can read anything they want into it when they watch) or on the relationship between Nathan Wallace and his victims. There is also a lesbian story featuring Mag and Marni for anyone so inclined. The crackfic "Nathan's Secret Hobby", while supposed to be 'fun', reads like a sour taste in the mouth--- apparently Nathan is fond of secretly opening his organ delivery bags, dressing the organs up in Barbie clothes, and acting out scenes with them before turning them in to GeneCo. While I can appreciate off-the-wall humor, the story is just absurd and throws off the vibe of the stories bracketing it; it's the only one of its kind in the book, and it really doesn't belong in the flow of things.

It's the 'smut' section that really takes a turn for the worst. The opening story "Fucking Repo" is one of the most nauseating pieces of shit I've ever had the misfortune of laying eyes on. The story is told from the point of view of a man named Chad who does not want to go to see the film, but his friend drags him to a midnight showing anyway. 'Chad' (writing under the oh-so-clever synonym 'Anon E. Moose'-- die in a fire, won't you?) then proceeds to degrade every shadowcaster present, discussing one overweight cosplayer as disgusting and using several pages to degrade anyone in the cast he found less than attractive. He then proceeds to talk about a GenTern cosplayer sitting on his lap and grinding on his cock during the pre-show, a henchgirl giving him a handjob, and another GenTern letting him finger her during the remainder of the pre-show. He also gets a blowjob from the cast's Pavi, titfucks Amber Sweet, and finally succumbs to the dubious charms of the 'hippopotamus' (his term, clearly, not mine) cast member, who gives him a blowjob to finish him off.

Number one, while I know this is fantasy, this is the most degrading story I've ever read and I can't believe that people who claim to admire the cosplayers and shadowcasters would allow this story to be put in the book. It has NO redeeming qualities whatsoever; the author literally trashes every individual cast member, making a live Repo! show out to be a complete clusterfuck orgy where the shadowcasters are clamoring to fuck a newbie every showing. Please.

Secondly, are we supposed to believe that Anon E. Moose is actually able to sexually withstand six or seven castmates taking him to third base and beyond? Again, please. He goes to great lengths to convince the readers of his heterosexuality while the cast Pavi is deep-throating him, a contradiction which I find truly hilarious. By the end of the story, I wanted to knee him in the groin--- this is what they call smut? He just made an entire fandom out to be either vile, promiscuous whores or fat pigs who are dying to slobber on his cock. He wishes.

The remainder of the 'smut' stories seem to focus on Amber and Graverobber--- apparently every author has seen the deleted "Come Up and Try My New Parts" scene, then, since the stories take on a tired rendition of it. And the book wraps up with a Pavi/Graverobber scene to truly nauseate what little sense you have left.

While the book may have been done in fun, I am truly appalled at its final outcome, and wish I'd saved the money to blow on something else--- something from the official CafePress site, maybe, rather than the Repo Army since disagreeing with Spooky Dan got me attacked on his page. The book is EXACTLY what I thought it would be--- an exercise in Mary Sue sexual fantasy and a collection of mediocre fiction, with a few genuine pieces slipped in to mediate the monotony. The few standout stories that're genuinely good and enjoyable--- "And I'll Throw These Words Out There..." (the Mag/Marni lesbian tale, well-written and delicately worded), "Fathers" (a surprisingly touching piece from Nathan's viewpoint), and "Exit, Stage Left" (a death-fic from Graverobber's viewpoint, beautiful and poignant) are so spaced out that you genuinely have to sift through a mountain of mediocre crap to find them, and it's like finding diamonds in a sea of cubic zirconia. Everything in the book glitters, but not all of it is something you'd genuinely want to keep as a treasure.

Final thoughts: Save your cash and take your chances on if Repo! fanfic is your bag. This was an interesting experiment from Spooky Dan and Co., and I'm sure most of the sort of people who would buy it will love it (or profess to, anyway), but for me, the book was a big disappointment and what began as something I already found weird and unsettling only solidified my concern and skepticism.