Again, Survey in Horror: Venereal Edition

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For Halloween this year, and on our 666th episode, let’s remember a few of those really invasive scifi movies in a subgenre that combines two words that really do not belong together: body horror. As a David Cronenberg fan, this type of movie became immediately intriguing,

From Beyond

I like Re-Animator, but I think the execution was a little bit lesser than the premise. And it’s such a great premise, how we get to zombie killing, especially for a low-budget movie (and low-budget cleverness is something I’ll return to). We keep it in this morgue, and kind of like the third movie we’ll be talking about, what results is this theatrical quality. Or like a cool bottle episode of a TV show. But we have this character Herbert West, a creation of HP Lovecraft, who is hellbent on bringing back the dead.

So it’s a movie about science experiments, but with zombies, so you have that process of trials and failures, and you can imagine that such things would be gory and grisly. That’s a really fun idea, and probably why this became a series, and also seemed to mandate that this be a comedy-horror, where I imagine the original short story was not.

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It’s a preeminent example of that subgenre, slotting in nicely alongside Return of the Living Dead, Dead Alive, and Evil Dead 2. I feel like I shouldn’t include that last one alongside movies I really like, it seems strangely disingenuous, this cowardice from a wildly unpopular opinion. But I didn’t like Evil Dead or Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. I liked Army of Darkness, and would be up for an Evil Dead 4 if it continues exactly from where that one left off. But Army of Darkness went full comedy, and Evil Dead 2 was still convinced it could be scary…

And actually, that’s an even better transition that the more pedestrian one I was intending, which was to say, as much as I thought Re-Animator was okay, I liked From Beyond a lot more. I don’t want to harp on a point like this, but even if Evil Dead 2 wasn’t trying to be scary, which is something we say about horror movies that have the gall to try to scare us, that it was trying to be scary and so it sucked, how is it that that movie is so eventless?

Look at a modern horror classic like The Strangers — I watched that movie in high school, in a high school classroom, I should say, and so it was impossible for it to scare anyone. And that movie is technically designed, I feel, with so much tension and false scares, that to look at it with that distance, you don’t see a whole lot going on. That’s how you build suspense and create tension, you have to dangle the monster off-screen.

IMG_8307That’s where From Beyond comes in — it’s a funhouse of wild imagery, and this again is an HP Lovecraft adaptation. There’s an author who, from what I understand, never describes the monster, but seems to give you enough that it makes for a frightening enough mental picture. Or maybe it’s the case that the culture of the creature he describes is so thick with description that you can’t help but imagine something interesting.

Filmmakers the world over, but mostly Stuart Gordon, have been putting that imaginative work onscreen, and for that I’m thankful. I haven’t yet seen Dagon, but that’s always been high on the horror list, alongside Rawhead Rex and The Brood. And unlike Rawhead Rex, which was so weird, I know that Dagon is actually good.

So From Beyond also stars Jeffrey Combs, who was Herbest West in Re-Animator, although this time he is the assistant to the mad scientist, one Dr. Pretorius, so named after Bride of Frankenstein. The good doctor is experimenting with the resonator, a technology that will open up an unseen dimension, where there are horrible monsters — why you’d want to do this is the same for every one of these terrifying science stories, because of the advancement of mankind, of course!

Science-fiction so quickly dips into cautionary tales because of our fear of the unknown. But that, on a simplistic level, is what science is all about, is being a pioneer and voyaging out there. There’s a Lovecraft aspect to that, transplanted into the modern world — we keep tinkering in realms we don’t belong, what will be wrought? And we don’t belong in these realms because we’re all afraid of everything.

So the resonator gets turned on, and what specifically it does is amplify the pineal gland, and this is what happened to Pretorius and seemingly killed him. Poor Dr. Crawford Tillinghast, Jeffrey Combs’s character, appears to have done the deed, so he’s taken to a psychiatric ward, but his pineal gland is also growing, having been in contact with the machine.

Needless to say, a trek back to the resonator is made, and Crawford is accompanied by Barbara Crampton from the ward, and Ken Foree, a detective named Bubba. Of course, Barbara Crampton was the female lead in Re-Animator, and suffered a pretty horrible fate, and made a recent appearance in You’re Next, and also suffered a pretty horrible fate, but one considerably less outlandish. And horror fans all remember Ken Foree from Dawn of the Dead, as well as one of the Texas Chainsaw sequels, and I’ve always liked him for his cameo in Rob Zombie’s Halloween.

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Turns out that Pretorius is not dead, but rather a slimy, pink Tetsuo-monster like a precursor to Grant Grant in Slither. And like a Cenobite wannabe, he’s talking about how this unseen realm offers pleasures beyond petty human understanding.

Crawford’s mutations also worsen and he’s eventually taken back to the hospital, and his rampage there sees the movie lag a bit. It’s in the house with Pretorius that From Beyond really shines, because even though the body count is really low, the scenes of gore and mayhem are spectacular, and everything has this otherworldly pink and blue-green color to it. Nothing really like this movie, and to that, it is a freakshow for awesome practical effects.

Giant worm monsters and flying creatures are rendered in animatronic and stop-motion, and even the most fantastical images are rendered very well. Maybe not believably anymore, but with a characteristic, tactile quality that makes genre movies from this era beloved to the day.

Of course, behind great effects there has to be great designs, and I do love the creatures in this movie. That’s where the body horror comes in, though I think Dr. Pretorius is just fine with it. But having your body mutate, and then having those mutations wreak havoc on your psychology — that’s pretty wild, and that’s how we get Barbara Crampton in S&M gear at some point in the movie. Maybe the traditional conflation of violence and sex isn’t handled expertly here, but I guess that’s part of what gives this movie something of a camp appeal.

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Re-Animator was a straight-up horror-comedy, and so I don’t think that Stuart Gordon has ever set out to make something purely scary. That’s a fool’s game anyway, and it’s the reason we laugh with From Beyond. And I’d say that if there are scares in the movie, they’d be all the more effective, because they’re part of a spectrum of human emotion. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we scream. That’s the philosophy behind the subgenre’s godfather, An American Werewolf in London.

On low budgets: I remember having a recurring argument with someone, because things were never ever settled, only reiterated, about the movie Alpha Dog. I still have never seen Alpha Dog, and thought it looked like a pile of garbage and a half, but this guy’s reckoning was that it was pretty good for what it was, that it was based on a true story.

And I immediately called bullshit, because movies don’t get handicaps. A movie isn’t good despite being in black-and-white, or silent, or foreign — and especially if it’s based on a true story. I’m not like some other people, I’m not gonna make that jump (although I am incredibly forgiving in other ways). To ride the high horse, I always suspected that people making this argument on behalf of above average films was a weakness of their critical eye.

I also just want to believe that if you put Citizen Kane in a theatre today, tomorrow’s film critics would totally get it.

That also extends to things that are low budget — you don’t get the pass if you’re low budget. You should’ve haggled more (not really), or done the job and created an engrossing experience where the artifice of film is erased. Effects are effects — the good ones can be bad in the right context, and the bad ones vice versa (Transformers/The Terminator*).

Re-Animator has some pretty choice effects, but you wouldn’t consider them top-tier horror (which is what? Crimson Peak, I suppose). Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna and co. made the most of what they had — I may not be in love with it, but the film’s a classic for a reason.

*Of course The Terminator doesn’t have bad effects, but certainly they are dated. It was the incept point for Stan Winston, whose makeup and animatronics would go on to vastly improve, such that his work in the early 90s represents the pinnacle of genre effects (T2, Jurassic Park), still unmatched

Society

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Brian Yuzna would go on to have a decently prolific career, but I feel like he kind of faded away in the eyes of the public. Which is a shame, because he’s a real talent — Return of the Living Dead III is an inventive, compact little movie, and showed that his directorial debut, Society, wasn’t a fluke. After seeing it and knowing it’s a debut, you have to think that, because it’s a true classic of the genre. And directors contribute great films on their first try all the time, and then fade away, like Richard Kelly or John Singleton. That’s always frustrating, but we can’t linger in that space — it’s true that we have a budget of attention, and we need to spend it wisely. And I know we all do.

This film has been out of print for a long time, so I ended up watching it on YouTube on my Kindle, and I spoke about briefly in last year’s Year End Review. I’d always heard it spoken in the same breath as Akira and Slither, so I expected something pretty gnarly, as it pertains to the explosive mutation of the body. Slither was pretty good about that because of the way the zombification kind of pulled one side of his jaw back and that’s pretty gross. And Akira is a great example of body horror, despite also being any number of genres you can name. Organs dump out of a body in a hallucination, fleshy cables run through concrete, and finally, a body expands into a nuclear, melty giant baby that threatens Tokyo. And a teddy bear bleeds milk, for what that’s worth.

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Society takes it a step further, and is not only the grossest movie of our three today, it’s got the most fucked up images I’ve ever seen in a movie. Tread lightly, and do not watch this if you have a light stomach. For reference, Audition didn’t make me flinch, and I’m saying this about this movie.

But that’s kind of a misnomer, because Audition is a straight-up horror movie, and that’s part of what makes it disturbing. Also gender politics. There are movies with far more haunting moments, like Naked Lunch or Irreversible, and that’s partly because Society is part teen-comedy, part coming-of-age story, and part Body Snatchers.

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It plays with teen angst by pitting a relatable-enough kid in Beverly Hills, surrounded by pristine white skin and bouncing blonde hair. There is an issue of classism here, so automatically you assume there’s going to be some commentary, and you may be surprised by how little that commentary is attended to. It’s right on the poster, which says, “The rich have always fed on the poor, this time it’s for real.” And this time the word ‘feed’ is all-encompassing.

The kid, Bill Whitney, begins to suspect that he’s something of an outsider, perhaps even unrelated to his family, and peels back layers of this society, a pursuit that becomes increasingly dangerous. People are being killed all around him, and the mystery builds to a final reveal where indeed, the rich feed on the poor, and they do this by engaging in this ritual of, I don’t know, corporeal decadence, getting naked and melting into each other, and body parts get drenched in blood and rearranged. There is a buttface at one point.

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With this kind of story, we might think to John Carpenter, but it’s got the structure of In the Mouth of Madness with the visuals of The Thing, and kind of the plot of They Live, though not nearly as cutting or memorable. I’d actually say, in terms of direction, that this movie has a lot more in common with the early work of Peter Jackson. The crazy angles and cartoon atmosphere belying something horrible are straight out of Dead Alive, and the manic intensity that becomes almost hysterical is like Heavenly Creatures.

And Heavenly Creatures is another one of those movies that’s genuinely disturbing, but for different reasons. And yet, there’s some similarity there. I just feel like I have to keep comparing this movie to other things because it took me years to see it, because I never figured out that if I can’t buy it on DVD then piracy or whatever is okay because nobody’s making money anyway. And movies are on and off of YouTube all the time — I got lucky with this and never Mind Game, which is now on Netflix. This year I also watched Azumanga Daioh for the first time, and saw it on YouTube. It’s a good thing that I watched it twice in a row because it quickly disappeared, and I was crushed.

But anyway, the comparison to Peter Jackson is just to say that this movie is really well-directed, and it has to be, because the premise is so precarious. The first wrong move and it all tumbles down, and that never happens. Like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, this movie is perfect to spring on an unsuspecting viewer for maximum horror, because of the way both films manage to balance incredible shock with enough buildup to make them work.

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The effects in this movie are done by Screaming Mad George, who worked on cult classics like Arena, Freaked, Tales from the Hood, The Guyver, and more well-known genre movies like Predator, Big Trouble in Little China, and the third and fourth Nightmare on Elm Street movies. So if you remember those movies, it’s that kind of slimy, sickening quality but blown up to a degree beyond petty human understanding.

And in fact, Mr. Screaming also directed that Guyver movie with Steve Wang, which is funny because Steve Wang alone would go on to direct the sequel, which everyone prefers and stars David Hayter. I feel like the effects in the original had to be grosser, because Dark Hero was fairly antiseptic in that regard. Good, but not very monstrous.

The Fly

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We might consider John Carpenter’s The Thing to be the granddaddy of body horror movies, but it’s almost a cheat, because the horror there is because the alien itself is so terrifying, and that it can replicate the human form. Although it will consume you, and that mustn’t be comfortable, when you see a guy’s head split off from his body you know it’s not really the guy, so we don’t imagine the pain of what that would be like, to have spider-legs punch through your skull.

In the eighties you had three very similar movies, horrific remakes of 50s scifi movies that didn’t at the time qualify as horror: The Fly, The Thing from Another World, and The Blob. And the original Thing is funny, because I feel like it gets a lot of credit for doing some things, but simply is not as memorable a 50s scifi movie as its contemporaries, whether War of the Worlds or The Day the Earth Stood Still.

But I like it probably for similar reasons why I like the remake of John Carpenter’s, because it’s such a great setting, not only in general, but also to have a terrible creature lumbering around. Now, the creature in this movie is essentially Frankenstein’s monster, he’s a space vegetable with a bad attitude, but everything surrounding him is cool. You have scientists in winter jackets and rifles and there’s a lot of cool stuff they do to try to kill the thing. And the classic ending line, watch the skies, always. Which, if my memory serves, was said with a smile, and there might as well have been one of those circle on the face, Looney Tunes endings. Wow, I’ve never tried to describe that effect before. What is that?

I haven’t seen The Blob, and don’t have any immediate plans on it, because honestly, it looks like a bridge too far. People disintegrating is where I draw the line. I’m more about monsters with big teeth, that’ll bite you and tear things off, that’s familiar. That’s personality. But The Blob — although I must say, that’s quite the reimagining. I understand that it isn’t as celebrated as The Thing or The Fly because it’s not as good (those two and Alien are the best of their kind), but it’s a solid idea, especially when we consider the original method of blob killings.

But I’m not in it exclusively for the horror, you know? And while The Thing is just so good that it quote unquote transcends the genre, and also works as a scifi film, The Fly also brings in a very strong element of human drama, with a perhaps unhealthy but effective dose of black humor. Cronenberg thinks all of his movies are funny, and after a while you can begin to see it.

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Still looking…

The Fly though is horror, without a doubt, and as his earliest breakthrough film, a kind of ambassador from his dark mind to the mainstream world, it’s pretty notorious. Even people who don’t know who Cronenberg is have probably seen this, and it’s funny because it’s not a Cronenberg-lite, it’s not a case where you can say, well if you liked that, the rest is gonna blow your mind — I’d wager that popular wisdom has it that Dead Ringers is the only one more unsettling.

It’s not only blood and guts with The Fly, it’s a horrifying idea that’s taken to the farthest point, and the various set-pieces contribute to an intense, emotionally stirring film. An arm gets broken and the bone pokes through, hands are melted off, eyes melt out of a Fly-head, a woman gives birth to a bloody giant maggot, and there’s at least one jump-scare that will take you off-guard.

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The effects were the work of Chris Walas, and he’s also got a great CV, having also done effects and makeup on movies like Scanners, Gremlins, Piranha, Airplane, Return of the Jedi, Dragonslayer, Arachnophobia, and Naked Lunch. He’d go on to direct The Fly II, which was good enough, but ironically The Fly creature was not nearly as good. But the two movies on his resume that stick out to me that he did effects for are Humanoids from the Deep and Enemy Mind. Humanoids is one of two Roger Corman movies I’ve seen, and it’s actually pretty good, despite the fish-rape. And Enemy Mine is also pretty good, and I never hear anything about it. I feel like people might think it’s overly sentimental and cheesy, but I liked it.

Anyway, so the effects are obviously good, depicting a scientist’s evo or devolution into not a fly but a hybrid creature. Issues of identity, of scientific hubris, and possibly Sexually Transmitted Infection. When this movie came out, it was hailed as a metaphor for AIDS, but Cronenberg doesn’t like that, and frankly, I don’t either.

It’s just too specific, not that AIDS isn’t tragic and shouldn’t be analogized in a scifi way like this. But Cronenberg’s intention was to tell a story about aging. I don’t know if I really got that either, but what AIDS and aging have in common is they are biological realities that tear people apart. Cronenberg was not an old man in 1986, but I feel like he’s always been aware of his mortality in a way that religious people try not to be. So that’s what was important to him. I think that dramatically, The Fly is effective, end of discussion. It’s a sad, engrossing movie. But thematically, it’s almost like a Rorschach test. Whatever your pain is, you might see that in this movie. It’s relatable in a horrifying way, the application of body horror to something more.

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The part of this movie that grabs me the most is actually the least important character in the cast, which is probably the only time that has ever happened in a movie, but in this case it’s a cast of three. The character is Stathis Boranis, played by John Getz, who reappeared in the sequel and most recently in the first season of Halt and Catch Fire, which kind of reminded me of Ray Wise in Mad Men, these genre guys from the 80s now playing the sage wise men in golden era TV. Not a bad deal.

To reference television once more, Stathis is exemplary of what I like to call the Prez 180, and the Prez 180 happens all the time, you gotta watch for it. Any time there’s some swaggering asshole on the TV screen, just hold onto that hatred, because in due time, you’ll come around. Jesse Pinkman, Pete Campbell, I’m waiting for it to happen with Teddy Talbot Jr., and of course the Principle is so named for Roland Prezbylewski of The Wire, who was an incompetent, trigger-happy police rookie in the first season, and by season five has become almost mythical, one of Baltimore’s shining lights as a soft-spoken and wise middle school teacher. A dramatic change that plays out skillfully over the course of the series.

Stathis starts out an insufferable prick, and in today’s day and age, where speaking out against sexism in the workplace is increasingly tenable, this guy’s a real scumbag. But he doesn’t give up when it’s inconvenient, because he isn’t in it for the typical shallow reasons. And he then doesn’t give up when it’s fucking terrifying — Stathis emerges as the unlikely hero in a redemptive arc, and I love that, and I love the way it’s played. The acting, the whole setup of bringing a hunting rifle to a Fly fight.

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And in turn, Jeff Goldblum’s character has the inverse arc, which you’ll also find in Memories of Murder, a film that’s grisly in an entirely different way (to think we’ve tried our damnedest but haven’t exhausted depicting the far-reaching dimensionality of violence). Seth Brundle begins a charming but very human individual, with hopes and dreams and tics, and by the end, has lost his mind.

That isn’t so much becoming a villain for the sake of it, and indeed it is tragic. Talk about a 180 — first thing, he’s got a jaw, last thing, he doesn’t. The heart of the movie is Geena Davis’s character, which is an easy thing to say about the woman in the movie who doesn’t have a role, but in this one, I think she has enough agency to stand out.

This episode is really disjointed.

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