Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Weekly Deprogramming Schedule — #3

Masters of Horror: John McNaughton — "Haeckel's Tale" (2006, John McNaughton)

Originally earmarked for direction by Roger Corman, passed at some point to George Romero, the MoH first season finale ended up in the hands of John McNaughton. While I greatly enjoy the maniacal Wild Things, no disrespect intended, but McNaughton is not Corman or Romero. When "Haeckel's Tale" was broadcast it had been twenty years since McNaughton directed his only nominal horror film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. This is my sneaky way of suggesting that some of the "Masters" of Horror are not masters, or maybe not even specialists in horror, which may account for the general lack of mastery on display. This is my kind way of saying that this promising premise resulted in a generally junky program.

Point in case, "Haeckel's Tale" is based on Clive Barker material, which ought to prime an audience for hideous transgressive visions, bizarre plot inventions or at least some weird gross-out shit. What transpires is an absurdly padded out buildup to a laugh-riot punchline that maybe is/probably isn't supposed to be funny, which is that a 19th century country lady has a sex orgy with zombies. Everything is wrong here: go-nowhere reference to historical figure Ernst Haeckel, telegraphed twists, pointless sidetracks exploring God's Domain vs. science vs. Frankensteins vs. necromancy, circular conversations repeated over and over, and poor Jon Polito wearing a long gray wig. The self-negating frame story, for instance, sees an old lady telling a cautionary tale about why not to raise the dead, when the twist reveals that she gets it on with revenants all the time. In one of those special moments where nails are struck squarely on the head, a zombie dog pops out of a trunk and wriggles around in sub-par special effect fashion but our skeptical protagonist scoffs "it's some kind of crude puppetry!"

On a more important note, "Haeckel's Tale" was scored by avant-garde music heroes The Residents, whose work was then rejected and replaced. This previously unreleased material is currently available for a pittance at the group's newly mounted download store. As the Rez say, Buy or Die!

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Masters of Horror: Tobe Hooper — "The Damned Thing" (2006, Tobe Hooper)

What this amiable mess seems to have borrowed from Ambrose Bierce is a title and the image of a man killed by an invisible creature. Basically the deal here is that an unseen horror of some kind stalks Cloverdale, Texas, but is mainly after poor Sheriff Reddle, whose family was wiped out in an attack 25 years prior. "The Damned Thing" tries out and swipes a dozen different ideas, and may be amusing or effective in the moment but the whole thing just doesn't track. It's got a small community devolving into a mob of crazies (like The Crazies, sure, or "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street"), a small town in denial until its sins come to roost in supernatural form (like Stephen King in It, 'Salem's Lot, Cujo, etc.-forever mode), nuclear family meltdown as psycho dads hunt the wife and kids (an extended Shining swipe), a horror passed through generations of the same family (like, er, Jaws the Revenge, maybe), and a sub-Smog Monster not-quite-environmental-parable about tampering with the mysteries of nature (SPOILER it's a giant oil monster that wants to eat the Reddle family because they built an oil rig). Sometimes the monster is invisible, sometimes not, sometimes its presence drives people to aggressive violence, sometimes not, and the story sorta makes sense but really does not.

As an addition to the Hooper legacy "The Damned Thing" is obviously minor work, less ambitious but less botched than "Dance of the Dead", and not as much fun as The Mangler. The episode's most effective sequence in terms of plain, wincing horror and oh-goddamn! surprise is of a man attacking himself in the face with a claw hammer. Clearly this Tobe Hooper has a talent for horror about the misuse of hand-held woodworking tools, and that skill ought to be channelled into something of more consequence than "The Damned Thing".

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The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987, Rod Amateau)

Every time one sits through this treasure trove of appalling images, something new will bother the edges of the mind and haunt the viewer well into slumber. Perhaps it will be gutter punk fashionista Tangerine spreading her pantyhose'd crotch in order to entice 14-year-old Dodger into allowing her to exploit his home-sewn garments (don't worry, she's fifteen, herself... or maybe do worry). Perhaps it will be the never-again-referenced title sequence that may or may not imply the Garbage Pail Kids are extraterrestrial beings. If you haven't seen The GPK Movie — or, rather, Experienced it —, it is the dingiest-looking, most unpleasant children's movie ever made and is about how the a bunch of toddling dwarfs in walleyed rubber baby masks puke, snot, fart and piss all over and help a little boy try to score with a gang leader's girlfriend by using their magical sewing skills.

Like I said, something new every time. This go-round it was a little girl sneering "Go suck a rope!" at the men from the State Home for the Ugly who have caught her in a butterfly net. The image of the pummeled Dodger doused with raw sewage by bullies is enhanced when one remembers he is covered with open wounds. A newly discovered puzzling detail: a painting from fellow fucked-up family classic Troll (1986) is prominently featured on the stairs to the antique shop basement where the GPKs are held captive. The overlapping staff between productions does not seem to include the art directors or property masters, but the films do share the same special effects crew and Charles Band's favorite thespian, Mr. Phil Fondacaro. Perhaps the Troll painting resides in the Fondacaro archives, or maybe like the Garbage Pail Kids driving off into the night on ATVs, some mysteries are like the wind.

Credit also to the lady of the house for noticing that among the cluttered set dressing a nude Cabbage Patch doll hanging by its neck in a rusty bird cage.

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The Informers (2009, Gregor Jordan)

The Informers is set:
a) in Los Angeles, 1983.
b) in a world of people who can afford to sit around watching MTV on Eames furniture in their underwear, with some sidetracks to a fanciful vision of how not-rich people live (selling abducted children to rich people).
c) deep inside Bret Easton Ellis' stalled-out brain.
d) who cares? It's over. It doesn't matter. Like... it doesn't matter.

The fourth screen adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis is apparently the writer's least favorite — he's even gotten soft on Less Than Zero — because it "doesn't work," as he told Movieline and more helpfully lodged the complaint that "it’s not supposed to be played like an Australian soap opera" and that his own vision for the project was funnier. Not being versed in Australian soap opera, I can only say that the tone is perfectly appropriate for an Ellis adaptation, that being suitably zoned out portraits of wastoids punctuated by hysterical potboiler speeches, fights and meltdowns, and shrill moralizing throughout. To be fair, Ellis can sometimes be actually funny — my favorite moments are Patrick Bateman hallucinating a television interview with a Cheerio in American Psycho, and a possessed Furby emerging from a dog's butt in the bonkers Lunar Park. He usually settles for Warholian jokes funnier to talk about than to experience, such as endless lists of characters' designer consumables, celebrity names, sex acts and drugs.

All four Ellis adaptations offer valid, committed takes on the material, all emphasize and capture different aspects, but all are sincerely Ellis-ian. The Informers specifically nails Ellis' cold, sheeny prose, affectless characters, leaden, portentous symbolism in every prop, backdrop and air-sucking line of choked dialogue. Gregor Jordan's film is mostly shot in that too-bright gray of overcast L.A. and his chilly liquid camera moves like it's been resting in an ice bath. Lots of shots of people staring off and thinking/not thinking.

The Informers retains the book's interconnected short story structure but cuts between story threads, in the tapestry narrative tradition of Nashville and Short Cuts, rather than the anthology tradition of Fantasia or Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. Also unlike any of those movies, the hoard of characters are all creepy disaffected idiots and nothing particularly happens in any of their stories. For example the rock singer for the titular band, The Informers, sits around a hotel, ingests substances, cuts his hand, sexes underage groupies, doesn't sign a movie deal, makes a phone call and finally punches a groupie. While magnolia is built of a dozen small stories packed with incident, intricate overlap and convergence, and Crash (2004) has a certain thematic unity and its interwoven sprawl is part of its purpose, The Informers is glued together with persistent drone, its characters largely linked because everyone is passing around the HIV virus, and its theme that everyone is an amoral shitbag trapped in stasis. I'm gonna go ahead and say I think it is surprising and questionable that a gay man who lived through the era would write a satire about the early '80s in which one of the blackly comic jokes is that the whole cast is spreading AIDS to each other, then complain that he wanted the movie to be more "light-hearted." Or it would be surprising if the same guy hadn't written a book with a severed head on a boner, then complained that critics missed the satire.

The magnetic cast gives all kinds of alienated, glassy-eyed and ridiculous, and there are some killer scenes built around very fun performances. Mickey Rourke abducts a child in broad daylight by scooping the boy up and chucking him in a van, and it looks like documentary footage of what Mickey Rourke happened to be doing on his way to set. Billy Bob Thornton as a sociopathic movie studio head corners his mistress, Winona Ryder, in the Spago ladies room. She keeps trying to break up with him and he just smiles calmly and doesn't listen, and she bugs her eyes out, sputters and just can't fuckin' believe his gall. Another diverting Ryder scene sees the nicotine-fitting news anchor harassed by a sniggering rock band during lunch at Canter's deli; it's a sharp and specific confrontation as privileged L.A. square culture and snotty hipsterdom look each other up and down. Stealing the whole mess is Chris Isaak, looking very much like Kurt Russell and playing a terminally dorky dad trying to bond with his bratty, resentful son on a Hawaiian vacation. Again, nothing really happens in any of these stories and that's sort of the point, so in a way these amusing performances are working against the spirit of the material.

If you have read the novel, be warned that all the vampire parts have been removed which makes the film less silly and entertaining. If you have not read the novel, unlike the movie, it has vampires in it, which makes the book stupider but less vague about why kidnapping victims are being sold to Hollywood creepos. Jury is out on whether it is weirder to adapt a vampire book and cut out the vampires, or that vampires could be inserted or removed from a story with no appreciable damage.

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Project Runway — "A Rough Day on the Runway" (Season 8, Episode 8; Lifetime)

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was many things, but "fashion risk taker" is not one of them. A style icon, sure, but in my humble, wearing Dior is not risky. And that's fine, because fashion inspirations from Audrey Hepburn to Tim Gunn may be timeless and memorable without any particular edge. But contestants, advisors and judges alike seem confused by exactly what Jackie's style consisted of, what it meant, and the idea of this week's nebulously-worded challenge. See, T-Gunn stands in front of a big collage of Jackie snapshots and tells the kids that he is "honored" to be in the presence of... 40 year old photographs? Yes. Then explains that Jackie is to be their muse for this challenge.

There are lots of ways to interpret this, but I would have/did assume it meant something like "draw inspiration from and update a classic Jackie look of your choice." The designers largely seem to think this means "what would Jackie wear in 2010?" But, er, no, because she'd be 81, people. She would have Casanova make her clothes. The real point of all this is that they want the designers to make American sportswear with some kind — any kind — of '60s inspiration. To reinforce this, January Jones of the Adventures of the Mad Men teleprogramme is in attendance as a charisma-free Stylish Actress guest judge. See, slight retro-styling and mid-century references are the rage right now due partly to that very AMC show, which is why there are posters about it in Banana Republic windows as we speak. ANYWAY, nobody picks up the hints except Mondo and Michael Drummond. In the end one is de vinna uf dis challench and one is gone, daddy, gone.

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that Mondo Guerra knows his 20th Century fashion miscellanea rather well, as when asked why he is wearing eyeliner, suspenders with tiny shorts and knee socks he says his look was "inspired by The Cotton Club." Which, 1) holy shit, dude, and 2) oh, right on. Point is, young master Guerra's major reference points already seem to be '80s Trapper Keeper covers and '60s sportswear fashion, and he knows how Jackie Kennedy dressed. When the judges coo that he was somehow able maintain his own design identity in the winning ensemble, well, uh, no doy. He'd seen Jackie wear bold colored suits and houndstooth (presidential campaign, check the books!), and seen her casual and in striped tees post-Camelot, split the difference and tossed on Jackie O sunglasses like a goddamn maraschino cherry.

Every other designer just didn't listen or didn't get it or sucks, maybe? No hats, no bold, bright colors, no A-frame dresses, no long gloves, no immaculate styling. And maybe fine, there's not time to make a Kennedy-style suit, but there's time to properly sew an Onassis-style yachting outfit.

Gretchen is not called out on obsessively making the same camel colored Jedi robes that sank her team in the group challenge, but there are more important matters to attend to. Namely, Andy South not only doesn't listen to the "Jackie Kennedy Onassis" part but ignores the "sportswear" tip and disregards "properly tailoring any and every piece." Popular sport-making aside, these are not proper harem pants, but... eh, close enough that with the sorry little vest, Mr. South's model appeared to be costumed as Toad from Super Mario Bros. The judges laugh openly at this clothing which has been custom made for colorful derisive metaphor, but the most tragical, sad thing is that Andy was essentially dressing his model like himself.

Now, whatever else one wants to say about Michael Drummond's lazy-ass bag top and skirt consisting of nothing but pleats, it ought to be pointed out that he made a perfect little wool jacket that was the very picture of vintage Jackie Kennedy. He is made to be Out, possibly because of all the deep V neck T-shirt wearers, his are the deepest and, therefore, grossest. Goodbye, Mike D. You are still my second favorite Beastie Boy!

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