Friday, October 31, 2014

Steaming Video and a New Wave of Horror

If you're a regular user of Netflix streaming, you've probably noticed which genre is by far the most visible. There are hundreds upon hundreds of horror films available to watch, the vast majority of which have been released in the last several years. There's a huge new wave of independent horror that has injected new life into the genre - horror's been vibrant since the turn of the century, but the mid '00s were stymied by an overdose of the torture subgenre. Ebbs and flows are typical for this genre, but what's unique about this current wave is that it's almost completely playing out on video streaming services rather than theaters.

It started with the first Paranormal Activity, easily the most influential horror film of the last 10 years. The runaway hit was evidence that you could make a popular and successful horror film with very little money. While it regrettably spawned an onslaught of unimaginative rip-offs aping its "found footage" format, its true contribution to the genre may be the inspiration it gave to aspiring filmmakers all over the world. The resulting boom coincided nicely with the rise of Netflix's movie streaming option and other digital services like Itunes or Amazon. Suddenly, it didn't really matter if you couldn't get a nationwide theatrical release for your movie. Most horror films these days are just having a brief run in big cities before making a beeline for streaming.

The timing works out pretty well because mainstream studio horror is an embarrassment right now. The Saw series is finally over and the Paranormal Activity sequels are basically out of gas, leaving Hollywood, in its escalating desperation for franchises, to produce a whole movie about the doll from the first 10 minutes of The Conjuring. The movies that aren't direct sequels might as well be, since the exact same demonic possession movie gets made every year. One of the most scathing reviews I've read recently was of Ouija, which takes a scene from countless other ghost stories and extends it into a whole feature. The critic wrote that "if that board was telling the truth, it would say 'Wait until Netflix.'" Ouch.

The big studios just don't get horror anymore. You don't market it the same way as superhero movies or young-adult book adaptations. In terms of its cultural role, horror has a lot in common with heavy metal - aside from a few years in the 80s, it's never been truly mainstream. Sure, horror movies always make money, but no other genre has as large a contingent of the general populace saying "I can't watch those movies." This leads to a closer relationship between the creators and the audience, which makes horror ideal for the streaming format and for the creative freedom you can find in independent film. For big fans, horror has a versatility to it - sometimes we want to have a good laugh at the tropes and cliches of classic films, but other times we want something new and terrifying to come in and blow our minds. Thanks to Netflix and other services, there are plenty of choices for everyone. It's a godsend to someone like me, who loves movies but has family responsibilities that keep me from running off every time I get psyched for a movie. It's easier than ever before to keep up on horror movies and movies in general despite living in a small town in Connecticut.

With so much choice, the question becomes: How do I pick out the good films from the tidal wave of movies? Well, it's been my experience that the star ratings won't steer you wrong. If fellow horror fans haven given a movie 1 star, it's probably abysmal because we're known for tolerating a lot of shit for the sake of a good scare. A movie with a 2.5 or 3 star rating is likely very polarizing and controversial and may still be worth checking out. Anything over 4 stars is probably a safe bet.

I'll also give you a list of personal recommendations. I like watching a lot of horror in October and here are some gems I found on Netflix.

The Conspiracy - An incredibly gripping story about two guys who are making a small-scale documentary about a local conspiracy nut (played beautifully by Alan Peterson) who suddenly disappears, leaving them wondering if maybe he was on to something after all.

The Pact - A near-perfect ghost story from up and coming director Nicholas McCarthy. Doesn't break any new ground but there's a lot more thought put into the overall story than is typical for movies like this. McCarthy's got a real talent for generating tension that pins you to the screen like a magnet. His follow-up, At The Devil's Door, is more ambitious but a little less coherent. That one is on Itunes right now.

Pontypool - A weird, cerebral Canadian movie about a small crew broadcasting a radio show from a basement while some kind of contagion breaks out. The real twist is that the virus is somehow spread through the English language, leaving the characters nervous that if they say the wrong thing, they'll be infected too. It's very surreal and interesting and has a lot of highbrow cinephile fans who normally don't bother with horror.

Satan's Little Helper - A ridiculously dark comedy about a kid with a few screws loose who unintentionally helps a masked serial killer who uses the spooky trappings of Halloween to cover up his crimes. It's got a classic 80s-horror vibe and the villain's mask is just awesome.

The Sacrament - A devastating tale of a strange cult in the jungle that is inspired heavily by the infamous Jonestown commune. This one works so well because the first half of the movie establishes the dynamics of the cult so well, making you hope against your own good sense that maybe this place is okay after all. Spoiler alert - it's not, and that's when the movie grabs you by the throat and won't let go. Gene Jones deserves a Supporting Actor Oscar for his simultaneously charismatic and intimidating performance as "Father," the cult leader.

You can go watch any of these right now if you've got Netflix. Enjoy the brave new world and Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sailor Moon

If you were a young man when this classic anime debuted in the United States, it was the show you weren't supposed to like. That wouldn't have been a problem if it weren't so good. Watching it for the first time on some lazy afternoon after school turned into a habit, a dark secret I had to keep from my classmates. Ironically, it had a lot in common with another show that was big at the time and could be watched without embarrassment - Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. Both had a "monster of the day" approach to individual episodes and both had lengthy transformation scenes that were shown every time. But in Sailor Moon, the heroes were all women, so men were forbidden to enjoy it. If you did, you were gay. In the fascist dystopia of middle school in the 1990s, where conformity was strictly enforced by the constant threat of public shame, being called gay was the ultimate defeat. However, the few times when I did let it slip that I knew something about the show, I was surprised how familiar other dudes were with it. I think this covert male fandom spread well beyond my house and yet I'm still a bit nervous about it. This is one of the few blog entries I don't feel comfortable sharing on Facebook...make of that what you will. I've gone back to it recently because of the release of a remake, Sailor Moon Crystal. I might have watched that, if not for the news that uncut versions of the original show were now available for streaming. Given the choice between old and new, I totally wanted to take a walk down memory lane. They've been coming out with two new ones every week and I've been following it faithfully.

If you've never watched the show, here's a rundown. Middle-schooler Usagi Tsukino meets a talking cat named Luna and is given the power to transform into the superhero Sailor Moon and defend the Earth from evil monsters from the "Dark Kingdom." Eventually, four other girls join her - feisty, bullying Rei (Sailor Mars), rough and tumble Makoto (Sailor Jupiter), glamorous Mina (Sailor Venus) and sweet, brilliant Ami (Sailor Mercury). I had a dorky crush on Sailor Mercury back in those days, even if she had the lamest powers (shooting bubbles? really?). Eventually, they would meet other girls to round out the Solar System, but my most vivid memories are of the first story arc, where the girls have to fight the minions of Queen Beryl. Beryl preferred to give orders rather than get her hands dirty, so most of the time the Sailor Guardians faced off against her four generals - whiny, incompetent Jadeite, suave, calculating Nephrite, vain, vindictive Zoisite and experienced tactician Kunzite. In most episodes, a mysterious male hero named Tuxedo Mask would show up to bail the girls out of a jam so they could finish off the monsters with their signature techniques.

Like other shows transported to American television in the 90s, Sailor Moon was heavily censored and altered by the US distributors. Names were Americanized and a GI-Joe-esque "Sailor Says" segment was added to the end of each episode to tell kids to eat their vegetables or whatever. Zoisite, the villain who wears a long blonde ponytail and disappears in a cloud of rose petals, was changed to a woman because of a visibly loving relationship he had with Kunzite. Having a gay romance in a children's show was ridiculously progressive for the time period and I guess the guys behind the dub didn't think American kids were ready for it. Although, now that I think of it, if Zoisite did identify as a woman, perhaps everyone treating her as such was the more progressive way to go! Just kidding, I highly doubt that was the rationale. In any case, the lack of prominent breasts on an anime "woman" should have been a dead giveaway.

The storyline that really grabbed me was the unexpected tragic love story between the villainous Nephrite and Usagi's friend Naru. On one level, it's all kinds of skeevy - she's in middle school and he's a grown-ass man - but I would challenge anyone not to be moved when he dies heroically to protect her and she lets out an agonized cry of pain. The dub couldn't reduce that moment's power and from then on, the show adopted a much tighter continuity between episodes and went from just a curiosity to something I eagerly awaited every day. It all leads up to an emotionally wrenching climax where four of the Sailor Guardians are killed in battle, leaving Sailor Moon left to face Queen Beryl on her own. The American distributors were clearly shocked by the intensity of the episodes. They cut so much content from them that the season finale went from being two episodes to one. Even with the dialogue altered and the darkest moments omitted, the power of those episodes was unmistakable and it was easy to intuit what was really going on. When she finally defeats Beryl, Sailor Moon is able to restore everyone to life on Earth although they can no longer remember each other and their adventures...until the next threat to Earth arrives, at least.

It's clear to me now that this has aged a LOT better than Power Rangers. Obviously it can't compare to more revered anime like Death Note or Paranoia Agent or Monster, but for a kid's show it's quite enthralling. I may write a follow-up to this one in a few months when I've seen more of the episodes. At some point, the series is sure to go beyond what I saw as a kid and into the later episodes which I am totally unfamiliar with. Consider me excited.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The World Outside

Every time I saw the Provazik Enterprises building from the outside, I was glad I only worked part-time. I would walk out to my car, turn around and become dismayed that I worked in that rusty abomination that was constantly pumping black smoke into the air. That parking lot wouldn't win any beauty contests either; there were no yellow lines to differentiate the spaces and large patches of grass had made their way through much of the cracked pavement.

On this particular day, I cast my usual rueful look at the Provazik building and saw something altogether different. Huge buildings began to rise out of the ground, as if the Earth was giving birth to them. These huge structures were coming up on all sides of the parking lot and after squinting, you could see the metal frames that were pushing each out from the underground. These new buildings were sleek and modern looking, unlike the eyesore where I had just spent several hours. I was still standing next to my car, but now the road had been completely cut off by these newborn buildings. The small crowd of us in the parking lot wandered towards the new entrance to see what was going on.

I was taken aback by the new entry hall. It was a wide circle with a huge bay window directly across from the doorway where I stood. All around, there were escalators, elevators and even a monorail to get people to the different buildings in the complex. It was fascinating to see, but at the moment I still wanted to get home. I wandered for a while and eventually found myself in a dimly lit, claustrophobic room where rows of people were scrunched over in front of computers hard at work. This looked more like the old Provazik building and was now a stark contrast to the breathtaking room I had just left.

A robot that couldn't have been more than four feet tall was supervising the activity. He made his way over to me and spoke in a deep, digital voice that sent chills down my spine.

"You are not working."

"I'm done working for today," I said back. "I'm just wondering how to get home now that these buildings have blocked the road."

"There is no world outside Provazik," the robot said immediately.

I needed a few moments to comprehend what the creature had just said. "What?"

"There is no world outside Provazik," the robot repeated, sounding even harsher.

I didn't feel like arguing. It was just too strange. Instead, I backed slowly out the small room and back into the entry hall. Wandering around the circle, I eventually found a map of the property, updated to include the phalanx of new buildings that had appeared only a few minutes earlier. While it did not support the robot's bizarre claim that there was no world outside the area, it did confirm that there was no exit. I grabbed my cellphone, thinking I could call my family and have them get the police to do something about this.

After a few rings, I heard a message that the number I was trying to reach had been disconnected. That was impossible, I thought. I called that number multiple times each day and now all of a sudden it doesn't work? It began to sink in that I might really be trapped here. Panic spread through me and I rushed back towards the parking lot. At least there I was outdoors. Surely there had to be some alleyway, some fence to climb, some way to get out of Provazik.

Instead, when I rushed through the door, I was someplace completely different. Behind me, the complex was gone. I was surrounded by grass up to my waist. The buildings here were crumbling and deserted. It looked as if humanity had been gone for centuries and the Earth was beginning to take back the land. I found myself drawn towards a large concrete staircase that ascended a green hill. Another person followed closely behind, no doubt someone else trying to get away from Provazik.

About halfway up the large white staircase, I turned around and was treated to a lovely view. Green hills and forest opened up before me. For the first time since those buildings rose out of the ground, I felt myself relax a little.

"Well, I don't know where exactly we are," I said out loud, "but at least we're out of there."

My companion said nothing and smiled at me. It wasn't a friendly smile, but a malicious grin that made me uneasy once again. Too late, I realized what would happen. The beautiful green panorama melted away as if it had turned to water and I was back in that dark room with the little robot standing in front of me.

"There is no world outside Provazik," it said once again. "Not anymore."

I rushed out of the room and back into that entrance hallway. I no longer found it enchanting, especially with the increased amount of people wandering the circle. I searched frantically for an exit until my phone vibrated. I yanked it out of my pocket, desperately hoping that it was someone I knew. It was the robot.

"Why do you not cooperate?" it asked me.

"I don't want to stay here," I replied. "I want to do other things besides work. I want to see the world, I want to travel."

"You can earn travel," the robot said.

"What does that mean?"

"You work hard enough and you can earn travel. You will be accompanied by agents to the place you want to visit. After you see the sights, you will return."

Something wasn't right about this and I knew what it was.

"You just said there was no world outside Provazik," I said, with a faint sense of joy that I had outwitted the robot. "Now I can travel? You're a lying sack of shit! You're a fuckin' liar!"

That was only the beginning of the torrent of obscenity I sent through the phone to that little creature. Employees, if they could still even be called that, wandered past and gave me strange looks. Finally, I hung up the phone and resumed my futile search for an exit.

After what felt like an eternity of searching, I saw a woman who I recognized. I believed she was a co-worker, but my memories had been growing cloudier the longer I remained in Provazik. She and a small group of friends were ducking through a small exit against one of the walls. I rushed over and caught a glimpse of a beautiful stream just outside the door. A guard yanked my arm and I found myself unable to move. However, the woman heard the commotion and recognized me. She indicated to her friends that she would only be a moment.

"You have to reject all the choices," she said. "They're going to make you offers, make you think you have a choice. But they're all the same. You have to reject all the choices!"

With that, she and the others went out the door and down a small ramp. The door shut and then faded, as if it had never been there at all. The guard dragged me into another room. It was like a classroom, but with desks that looked comically large since they were intended for adults. At least this one had decent lighting. There was a massive TV-screen in front of the desks, presumably to deliver some kind of education. I didn't want to sit at any of the desks; I was afraid they would never let me stand up again. Another robot ambled around the room and handed me a pamphlet.

I opened it up and saw a list of options. These were the choices she had warned me about. They sounded great on paper and the charming illustrations didn't hurt, but upon close analysis it was clear that none of them would get me out of Provazik.

But if you reject all the choices, what was left to do? The answer suddenly came to me. I picked up a chair.

"You're going to have to kill me!" I shouted to the robots. "You'll have to kill me or I'll destroy this place!"

For some reason, I decided to sing Iron Maiden's "The Trooper" aloud...perhaps to become even more disruptive.

"You take my life, but I'll take yours too!" The chair hit the huge television with a glass crunch.

"You fire your musket, but I'll run you through!" The cracks widened after another hit.

And so it went, until the television was barely recognizable. The room around me seemed to blur and moments later, I woke up in bed. This wasn't another trick; I recognized my bedroom. For a moment, I was still convinced the experience had been real.

"I did it," I said quietly. "I'm out."

I went back to sleep and dreamed of other things.