Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Apocalypse Now

Tornadoes! Earthquakes! Hurricanes! The weather on the east coast this summer reads like a disaster movie, and the confluence of extreme phenomena has some people spooked. The twisters that tore a swath through western Massachusetts were odd enough, but when a rare quake shook the coast mere days before a hurricane struck, even my most level headed friends were publicly wondering what it all meant. Could it be a sign… of the end of the world?
This odd turn of events comes just months after the famously mocked “Judgement Day” came and went on May 21, without any sort of judgement. Harold Camping and other fringe elements had predicted a global earthquake and the Biblical Rapture would happen that day, but it passed uneventfully. People laughed it off, and it was soon nothing but a memory. So why are so many now contemplating end time scenarios?
The time is ripe for such a line of thinking. The economy is still miserable. The world remains in turmoil, with an ongoing war in Afghanistan and anxiety provoking activity in Iran. Nuclear weapons, once the fodder of so many doomsday scenarios, remain a very real threat. Changing societal mores—the ongoing rise of gay marriage being one prominent example—have provoked a backlash from religious conservatives who warn we’re on a path to damnation. We’re also highly aware of global warming, but an effective and concerted response has yet to emerge. In short, people are stressed out and depressed, and world destroying forces seem more tangible than ever. No wonder we’re imagining an apocalypse.
Pop culture doomsday's have been in vogue for a while now. A rush of zombie films starting in the early 2000s imagined the world falling to hordes of the undead. (“Not a zombie” zombie movies such as 28 Days Later feature ever-more-plausible results of biological warfare or experimentation gone awry.) Roland Emmerich, who made his name with the oddly prescient Independence Day (substitute terrorists for the aliens and you’ve pretty much got 9/11), has continued his streak with the global warming themed The Day After Tomorrow and the mythology exploiting 2012. (The approach of that date has spawned plenty of end times thinking all on its own.) Genre television from The Event to Fringe has imagined a world rocked by bizarre and supernatural events. On this fall’s Terra Nova, Earth grows so unstable that a group of colonists head back in time and attempt to rebuild society in the prehistoric era.
The idea of our world ending has always been dramatically compelling, but the recent turn of events has put me on a Judgement Day movie streak. On the eve of Hurricane Irene, I revisited the hokey but effective Day After Tomorrow, which seemed like a ridiculous distortion of global warming at the time. Watching it now, I found it both fun and deeply unsettling. After all, tornadoes didn’t hit LA, but they did make an unexpected appearance in my hometown of Springfield, MA this summer. And while no tidal wave swept through the streets of Manhattan last weekend, there was flooding in the lower part of the city, much of which was evacuated. On a lighter note, I followed with Mars Attacks!, a knowingly ridiculous homage to space invader films of the 50s. In its kooky, ultra-stylized way, the movie still dramatizes many of our worst fears, notably that our enemies are as intelligent and powerful as they are hateful and mindlessly destructive, and that our leaders are woefully inept. Jack Nicholson’s President Dale seems smarter than, say, George W. Bush, but he still refuses to see the writing on the wall until it’s far too late, giving the Martians second and third chances to attack and kill the American people.
Why am I and others so fixated on the end of the world right now? The superstitious answer is that we all sense the end is truly near. More realistically—and history bears this out—we are merely in the latest cycle of global anxiety and collective fears manifesting themselves as the worst possible scenarios. The world can be a scary and dangerous place—but let’s not get carried away. Rather than wallowing in morbid panic, we’d do well to follow the unflappable example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who saved the world more than once on her long-running television series. Refusing to give up her social plans, she once quipped, “If the apocalypse comes—beep me.”

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

It's Fright Night again

Seemingly every notable horror title of the past two decades is being remade right now, but Fright Night is particularly well suited for a revamp (if you’ll pardon the pun). The original 80s classic was focused more on the humor of the situation, with a pleasingly hokey tone, some high camp performances, and memorable special effects. Director Craig Gillespie and writer Marti Noxon have the opportunity to make the story far scarier this time around, and they take it. The movie’s no ground breaker, but it succeeds as a suspenseful and entertaining thriller.
This Fright Night seems as much a response to the homogenized Twilight breed of vampires as it is a retake on Tom Holland’s original film. The movie’s bloodsuckers, led by Colin Farrell’s intimidating Jerry, are vicious and visibly monstrous killers. The gore is plentiful and the movie doesn’t shy away from depicting the terror and agony of Jerry’s victims.
The basic set-up is the same: Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin), a typical American teenager with a comely girlfriend (Imogen Poots’ Amy) discovers that his next door neighbor is a vampire. This time it’s Charlie’s friend Evil Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who brings the situation to his attention, and their tortured history—once the best of friends before Charlie decided to ditch his dorky pals and past—is one of the movie’s more compelling subplots. After Ed and a female neighbor fall prey to Jerry, Charlie becomes determined to take him down and enlists the help of Peter Vincent (a scene-stealing David Tennant), a Las Vegas magician in this retelling but every bit the coward Roddy McDowall’s character initially was.
Noxon’s script is a good one: brisk, clever (there’s a choice nod to her past work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and engagingly humanistic. There’s real pathos to some of the story lines, notably Ed’s lonely arc. As Jerry, Farrell brings a true sense of menace and danger; an early scene at Charlie’s doorway is dripping with tension. This, combined with a strong grasp of suspense, make Fright Night more frightening than the average horror flick.
The adorable Yelchin leads a cast of characters we can care about, an all too neglected element of horror films. A vintage classic has been remade as something stylish, creepy, and enjoyable.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Don't Fuck With the Original"

With great anticipation, I went this weekend to see Scream 4, the latest installment in the post-modern slasher series that revitalized the horror genre in the late 90s. At one point a character tells Courtney Cox's Gale Weathers "You were my 90s!" and the same was true for me and series creator Kevin Williamson, the openly gay man who also brought us Dawson's Creek. I avidly followed the original Scream trilogy, as well as Williamson's various films and series, I wrote two plays heavily influenced by his hyper verbal dialogue, and my closet door was even decorated in tribute to his oeuvre. Scream 4 arrives a decade after 3 (which was noticeably *not* written by Williamson), long enough that what's old is new again-- or at the very least an exploitable brand. While Scream 4 isn't particularly scary (no Scream sequel has been as frightening as the ferocious original), it's great fun, and it does a nice job of encapsulating, in the tried and true wink-wink Scream way, everything that's happened to the horror genre over the last ten years. In the amusingly constructed opener, for instance, we get nods to torture porn, Japanese horror, and the self referential conceit itself, as well as acknowledgements of Facebook and Twitter. (The horror!) As the film progresses, there emerges a running discussion of remakes and "reboots," the dominant trend in horror since roughly 2003, and the obligatory "rules" conversation. This last bit proves sketchy at best: for instance, when was it established that gay characters are immune in horror films? (Clearly Williamson and co. missed the gay pal who got creamed by a bus in Bride of Chucky.) Still, Scream 4 has fun updating its style for a new generation, with a marked increase in gore as well as the brutal physicality of the killings. Towards the end, the killer, wanting to appear the "sole surviving" victim, gives themself nasty wounds and even falls back through a glass coffee table, a gleefully insane bit that recalls the deranged energy of the first film's culprits. While the new teens are nicely developed and appealing, it's in the handling of the returning characters that 4 falters at times. Gale's quip that "I've still got it" seems like an attempt to convince the audience (she lacks that oomph the character had in the original movies), and Dewey is given very little to do besides react to his wife's initiative in the murder investigation and fend off the advances of a smitten deputy. (Dewey is the sheriff now, but he's still seemingly as inept and slow on the uptake as ever.) Neve Campbell, who looks stunning, comes off the best, with a typically strong role in the film and a number of strong dramatic scenes-- plus plenty of butt kicking. (The heroine once praised for "having a Linda Hamilton thing going on" decidedly *does* still got it.) The shortcomings are ultimately balanced out by the satisfyingly twisty plot, and the climax proves that the Scream franchise, after all these years, still has something to add to the cultural conversation. The killer's motivation turns out to be a direct product of our exhibitionist, famous-for-being-famous society, making Scream 4 as damning to the 21st century's spawn as part 1 was to the "desensitized little shits" of 1996.