Friday, June 26, 2009

To Thrill no more: Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

To say that the world has become a lot poorer is a sadly exhausted cliché, one of those rhetoric devices of grief to be used when someone dies. And yet, I found it to be painfully true when I heard of Michael Jackson’s death. I remembered when I used to joke that we were privileged to be contemporaries of a black man that was capable of becoming freakishly white. Only later did I reason that it was something truly important; not the politically incorrect move on the race playing field – he didn’t need it. He was already a millionaire, an icon, an idol when he went for it. It was the fact that he was so abnormal, so outside of the norm, that he became unique, even if he looked like some kind of musical Bizarro Superman. And how refreshing that was in a media landscape progressively possessed by the vacuous reality-show sameness of everybody in it.

I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed Michael Jackson’s music. At least not to that degree when you have to buy all is albums, know all the lyrics by heart. I’ve enjoyed some of the songs from the Bad album (1987) and can scarcely remember the titles of any of his later songs. But his music went beyond that. It was part of my – or should I say, ours – soundscape; one couldn’t be a total stranger to his music, not when it poured from every radio, every TV screen, every record store. It was, as few others are, a permanent fixture of my life.

And none other as much as the themes from his Thriller (1982) album. I can’t say how many times I’ve heard Billie Jean, or to how many sweet moments from my youth that theme is attached, like the soundtrack of my own inner biopic. I was but twelve when the amazing Thriller (John Landis, 1983) video clip hit the news and changed forever the face of pop music, popular perceptions of horror and popular entertainment. It surely changed me. It was the first time I ever remember hearing the voice of Vincent Prince and instantly falling in love with it. I had yet to see An American Werewolf in London (1981) and didn’t yet know who John Landis or Rick Baker were. But that video, that voice, that music, were the hook that forever dragged me into the horror territory. And I still find absolutely amazing the way Jackson choreographed the unmistakable break-dance moves with the iconic shuffling and dragging and stiff movements of classic zombies.

When one goes to the bottom of the death of someone like Michael Jackson and the ways it impacts one’s life, one’s hard pressed to say from where stems the pain and the longing. As I write this, VH1 is playing a “10 best Michael Jackson Videos” as surely must be all other music channels and radios around the world. For me, Jackson was always that and nothing else: the music, the videos, the soundtrack to my life. And all that still remains. And yet, with Jackson, the outsider, the eternal child, the king of pop, the Bizarro Black Man, there went also the promise of constant – if eccentric – change. He was the well from where had sprang so many of the magical moments in my youth. With him, there also died of piece of each one of us. And it feels like a piece of cold hard steel in my chest.

Friday, May 22, 2009

You know the devil has won...

... when good guys have to resort to a proliferation of crosses.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A masterpiece at 50

Is this a year full of events or what? Darwin was born 200 years ago and The Origin of Species was published 50 years later, in 1929 the stock market crashed big, in 1939 the world was set aflame once more, in 1959 there was the Cuban Revolution, in 1979 the Iranian one, in 1989 Tienanmen Square and the Berlin Wall, in 1969 Neil Armstrong took a small step for him and a giant leap for all of us and on top of it all, Ed Wood, Jr.' masterpiece PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE will have been released 50 years ago, come July.

In order to celebrate that happy event, master-blogger Greg F. convened the first ever official Blogathon at Cinema Styles under the banner The Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon:

The idea is if you want to write about Plan 9 you can. Or Ed Wood. Or any underground, cheaply made movie that was filled with heart, or just incompetence. It can even be about good movies too. Carnival of Souls was made on the cheap in the can-do spirit of Ed Wood and actually succeeded.

Ed Wood became a cult figure in the final decade of the twentieth century when Tim Burton made his highly successful praise of brash independent film-making in ED WOOD (1994), following the publication of Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992). Until that moment Wood was essentially remembered through Harry and Michael Medved's The Turkey Awards (1980), where the then recently deceased director was considered "The Worst Director of All Time", along with PLAN 9, getting labeled "The Worst Film of All Time". But is that all there is to it? I don't think so. As early as 1981, Danny Peary, in the first volume of his Cult Movies recognised Wood as one of the most subversive and radical directors of his time: "Plan 9 is a delirious movie", he wrote, "but perhaps we are missing the point. Could it be that putting up a crazy facade is the only way that Wood can get away with making a subversive movie?"

Won't that be a wonderful question to indulge in this welcome blogathon to be held between July 6th and July 12th? And what about Wood's resurgence in the 90s? Can it be solely attributed to Burton and Grey? Or does it have something to do with an entirely new zeitgeist that moved its creative focus from the 80's strict social climbing ethic of the yuppie generation[manifest in the studio controlled productions following the debacle of Cimino's HEAVEN'S GATE (1980)] towards a new sensitivity that holds personal realization over objective merit? Or am I just babbling nonsense? Be as it may, I'll be there this coming July, when an army of angora sweater-clad film-fan zombies will raise from their celluloid graveyards to pay hommage to the master's spirit.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

LA HABITACIÓN DEL NIÑO (Álex de la Iglesia, 2006)

I love the idea that I once read on a science fiction story published in Analog some years ago: the couple having a fight because the wife complains that the husband snores, a fact he adamantly denies. They decide to buy a sound-activated tape recorder to set things straight. When they play back the tape, they hear someone speaking in their room… speaking about them, while they lay asleep, defenceless. That is a spine tingling thought. The fact that I do not remember the title of that story or the name of its author is due, mainly, to the fact that it didn’t live up to expectations. Something I suspect is usually true of almost all urban legends. They’re great as a premise, but once you start to explore, to rationalize, they’re bound to lead you to ludicrous conclusions.

And I believe that is the main failure of Álex de la Iglesia’s LA HABITACIÓN DEL NIÑO (THE BABY’S ROOM in the American edition), the first film on the PELÍCULAS PARA NO DORMIR (FILMS TO KEEP YOU AWAKE) revival of Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s HISTORIAS PARA NO DORMIR television series (3 seasons, 1966, 1967, 1982). Packing an immense load of references and themes, from the haunted house concept to the doppelganger conundrum of finding out who is who, along with quotes from endless other films and TV series (from HAMMER’S HOUSE OF HORROR and PROFONDO ROSSO to THE AMYTIVILLE HORROR and THE SHINNING), LA HABITACIÓN DEL NIÑO keeps your mind busy enough to overlook it’s core senselessness, but not to entirely erase it.

Juan and Sonia (Javier Gutiérrez and gorgeous Leonor Watling) move with their new-born baby into a house they’re restoring and that they were able to buy below market prices for that upscale neighbourhood. When they get a baby sound monitor from Juan’s sister, they hear the voice of someone speaking to their child in the baby’s room. That is the first step that will lead them down the marriage entropy road, a road well travelled by the likes of Jack Torrance and other countless obsessed parents. When a quick search of the house proves there is no one there, they buy a video monitor where sure and soon enough, Juan sees a sinister man sitting by the baby’s cradle. Fear soon brings out the worst in him, allowing de la Iglesia to rub some dirt on feelings of racial prejudice deeply buried in European countries like Spain, France or Portugal, as well as highlighting the ever present fear of old age and physical senescence (“Somos viejos, y los viejos estamos todos locos”). When his fear and family protection instincts almost lead to him accidentally killing Sonia, she decides to leave with the baby, allowing Juan to dive unchecked into despair.

The second act of the film relies heavily on Javier Gutiérrez’s capacity to convey the often portrayed on screen descent into semi-lunacy as things start to spiral out of control, and in this he succeeds fairly well, although he’s clearly no Jack Nicholson. Unfortunately, de la Iglésia’s resort to that old cliché of the “supernatural expert” that will explain things to the troubled protagonist – in this case a journalist armed with quantum physics theories – clumsily deflates the meaning of Juan’s ordeal and practically destroys the film’s cohesion. I do believe that the supernatural horror in films works best when it is kept at the symbolical level, at the level of the primal fear, of the uncanny and unexplainable things in the darkest recesses of one’s mind. That’s what has made such timeless classics as THE HAUNTING (1963), THE BIRDS (1963) or THE SHINNING (1980) worth viewing once and again. Once you rationalize the horror element, you subject it to enquiry, and enquiry demands total coherence for it to work; that’s what made such beautiful failures as PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987) what they are: failures.

And that is what drags LA HABITACIÓN DEL NIÑO a couple of steps down in the ladder that climbs to excellence. (A word to the wise, now: if you haven’t seen the film yet, maybe you should skip these next sentences). Bed ridden and expert in the kind of UFO lore that is paramount in Spanish tv infotainment today, Sancho Grazia’s Domingo tell Juan about the famous Schrödinger’ cat paradox, using it as an analogue to what happens between parallel realities, which you sometimes can glimpse through electronic apparatus whenever some strong emotional event imprints itself into matter – a process he calls immanence along with the parapsychologist hacks. That leads Juan to buy half a dozen of wireless video monitors through which he can explore that parallel reality that is hidden beneath (or behind) the apparent layers of his and Sonia’s house with the zeal of a NSA security expert. And through the doors of perception he has uncovered – literally – he can step into that other reality, only to be confronted with his and Sonia’s and their baby’s doppelgangers as centre protagonists of a hideous crime. If you try to save the cat, Domingo told him, you end up in the cat’s place, a maxim that has no support whatsoever in Schrödinger’s postulate, but here it is used to tell the viewer that if you can get in, someone may get out as well. And it does, although it is not entirely satisfactory why or what for. Moreover when a very atmospheric pre-credits sequence beautifully set in the 1930s (probably in the early days of Franco’s rule, near the end of the decade) shows us someone extending from the “other side” and grabbing a kid, who we later see coming out – or maybe it's his doppelganger – with the help of something so unsophisticated as an old radio, it makes all the modern set of the film and it’s baby-listening devices seem unnecessary. Just as the subplot of the old lady (María Asquerino) who kept the radio from the first scene turns out to be totally useless to the story.

And yet… despite all its shortcomings, it is a strangely compelling film. De la Iglesia and cinematographer José Luis Moreno create an adequate atmosphere of claustrophobia and encroaching corruption that a sharp editing (by Alejandro Lázaro and David Pinillos) help turn into something almost physical. There is no other movie I can remember that can pull the old child scare of the “man under the bed” so successfully. Indeed, where the film fails intellectually, it more than compensates in terms of imagery, sound and montage, although I believe one golden opportunity was lost when de la Iglesia didn’t take advantage of a previous scene – when Juan is climbing down the stairs, retreating in front of the advancing killer that he can only see through the video monitor – that could allow him, later on, to shockingly reveal that someone has stepped through to “our” world. Wouldn’t it be great to have Juan drop the monitor and see the killer standing there?

Not withstanding its faults, LA HABITACIÓN DEL NIÑO has a technical beauty that completely eclipses its TV origins and the wonderful performances of Leonor Watling - as gorgeous here as she was in SON DE MAR (2001) - and Javier Gutiérrez, along with a cast of Spanish veteran actors like Sancho Gracia, Terele Pavéz or the delightful scene-stealing Antonio Dechent make up for a film that is far from perfection but that will add some welcome fright moments to the horror aficionado's memory.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Every birth is filled with pain.

Because every birth is a scene of horror, distended flesh, spilled fluids, and searing blood red pain. But it is also an act of hope. That twitching gore-covered creature that splits the air with a scream from violated lungs is a promise of something as yet undecided. Oh, and we thrive on uncertainty. That’s the stuff our dreams are made of. The total lack of foretelling within the crazy narrative logic of the sleeping mind: will this be good? Will this be a nightmare?

We live in a frightening world. Because we, ourselves are frightening. We know we carry inside of us the potential for glory as well as the potential for the utmost devastation – not always mutually exclusive. We are dangerous creatures living in a protected environment and that means trouble unless we find a valve to vent all the pent up destructive potential of our psyche. Cue the horror movie. We love to be frightened by the boogieman, to shiver before the silver screen mirror that mirrors only our soul.

With the silvery shiny disk spinning away inside the DVD player, spinning off candy-coloured dramas or luminous black and white elegies on the liquid crystal canvas before our eyes, we sit back to partake in a arcane ritual… with the world shushed all around us, we daydream in darkness, listening only to the murmur of our tortured souls being dissected for the joy of the angels.

We don’t fear the things that go bump in the night. In this rational and technological world of ours, it’s the lack of those things that makes us shudder. We crave the frisson of the unknown – for it is one of the two things that really, really frighten us: the other one is the unavoidable. We do not believe in werewolves, living scarecrows, animated monsters or flesh-eating zombies. But we fear the things they stand for: death and decay, body decadence, the ruin of the mind. The sudden jolt when the magic machine stops and the monster on the screen becomes our dear relative whose brain is being devoured by Alzheimer. The silent enemies we may or not be carrying inside of us like so many other parasites that Mr. Cronenberg can think up.

We know the ride is short and more exhilarating because of it. Ultimately we know death and decay are unavoidable, and we want to laugh at their gruelling faces. And we do. We do. They’re inside us. All evil comes from within. And it dies with us.

So, if you care to join me in exploring the collective fears we stuff in our horror fantasies, just sit yourself comfortably in a dark quiet room, and listen to the screams, to the bumps in the night, to the shuffling of feet and the revving up of chainsaws… they’re here to get you… because they’re you’re friends…