Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sunday night rumination

Today I read back through some of the posts I've written here years ago -- some news analysis from back in 2005, specifically.

Then I clicked back to the current posts -- and the only things I've really had the energy to write lately are "live blogs" of rotten horror movies... which I haven't even had the patience to really finish.

And it's not as if there isn't anything to write about. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are still squabbling over the Democratic nomination, there are still wars going on (we hit the grim milestone of 4,000 U.S. troops dead some weeks back), and the American economy is poised to take a headlong trip down the shitter. So where's my excitement? Where's this urge I once had to throw in my two cents about everything?

I think the problem, at least in part, is that the Problem is too big. As a people, we Americans are too complacent, lazy, ignorant, and comfortable to be bothered with anything -- at least for more than five or ten minutes or so. And there's just too many huge issues to try to take on: the epic failure of the current administration is a good example. Where do you start? The war? The collapsing value of the dollar? The fact that Americans are now pariahs wherever else we dare to venture in the world? The decline of our education system despite promises of "No Child Left Behind"?

On that last note, a friend of mine told me she'd recently read a study that showed that some 40 percent of high school students now use "emoticons" on text-script in their homework assignments. She's a teacher, and said she'd just graded an assignment that included "idk" as an answer. For the un-unenlightened, that's cellphone-ese for "I Don't Know."

I'd be more inclined to cobble some thoughts together on the presidential hopefuls who are crisscrossing the country at the moment hoping to shore up enough support to get elected in November. But unfortunately, the three of them -- McCain, Obama, and Clinton -- all appeared in videotaped messages at the WWE's Monday Night Raw this past week. I lost all respect I once had for Obama as soon as I heard him say, "Can you smell what Barack is cookin'?"

More importantly, I've lost all remaining respect I had for American voters. All three of the remaining (viable) candidates have large campaign staffs whose job it is to tell them where to appear and what to say to have the maximum impact on the electorate -- and all three agreed to appear on Monday Night Raw. This indicates to me that American voters have been measured as perhaps the stupidest demographic on the planet, vying with sub-groups such as "NASCAR Fans," "pre-frontal lobe lobotomy patients," and "Crossing Over viewers" for the coveted bottom slot.

Be that as it may, I've basically had it with being an American. I don't want to be associated with a people who need presidential candidates to appear on a professional wrestling/gay ballet show to get them excited about voting.

I'll end on that note, because I really don't know where else to take this. Current events are just depressing, so maybe for the time being, I'll stick with old horror movies.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Another old-school horror movie live-blog

This is always fun – I pop in an old horror movie, and write down my thoughts as the film unfolds. Tonight, it’s Dario Argento’s Suspiria, regarded as one of the scariest movies of all time.

Suspiria is dated 1977, and is apparently the first in some trilogy about evil mothers. It’s supposedly a legendary horror film, and it features music by the Italian rock band “Goblin,” who also provided music for several of Argento’s buddy George A. Romero’s zombie pictures (Argento’s daughter, Asia Argento, is an actress who had a lead role in Romero’s latest zombie apocalypse movie, Land of the Dead).

I’ll admit that I didn’t think of doing this until I’d started the movie up and gotten about nine minutes in, so here’s a synopsis of the first little bit. And be aware, there are spoilers coming up.

An American ballet student, Suzy Banyon, has decided to study at a prestigious school in Germany. She arrives (after some storybook-type narration over the opening credits) around 10 at night, and catches a cab to the school during a torrential downpour. When she arrives, there’s another female student fleeing in terror, and Suzy isn’t allowed into the building. A voice over the intercom tells her “Go away! I don’t know you!”

Suzy gets back into the cab and heads for a hotel, picking up the woman fleeing through the woods on her way. The two hole up in a very strangely-decorated hotel, and the German student tells Suzy that she must escape from the school – but for reasons that she couldn’t possibly explain.

“It’s too… fantastic,” she says, unhelpfully.

While she’s getting set for bed, a window in the bedroom flies open, scaring her. Suzy tells her to calm down… which puts us at:

00:09:20 – The girls are milling around the hotel room, and the tense Goblin music is building. Something bad is going to happen very soon, and if Dario Argento’s reputation is anything to go on, it’s probably going to be very gory.

00:09:55 – Blonde student is approaching the open window. This is never good.

00:10:27 – Huh? Nothing’s happened yet, but the musical tension hasn’t shut off. Blondie seems intent on hanging out right next to this window. Where’s that Alan Brooks character from The Trollenberg Terror? He’d get her mind off her troubles with a healthy shot of Scotch from his trusty flask.

00:10:39 – Nervous inner-monologue from the German girl: “Must… open… scary… window… for no… apparent… reason…!”

00:11:08 – Woah! Creepy moment Number 1: While dummy is staring out the window into what seems to be a loaded clothesline (who leaves laundry out on a line in a monsoon? And who has a clothesline up right next to the ninth floor of a hotel? What the hell is up with Germans?), she holds up a lamp to the window, and two weird disembodied green eyes suddenly stare back at her. Since this is a horror movie, and we couldn’t have two characters discussing and rationally dealing with something that screwed up, I’m afraid Miss German Dance Student is not long for this world.

00:13:40 – Well, I certainly called that one. The killer is apparently a somewhat hairy man’s arm, which comes out of nowhere and forces the German girl’s head through the glass window (she never really got around to opening it). Suffice it to say that she is now very, very dead. To top things off, the Killer Arm drops her through a stained-glass window on the roof, and the falling glass manages to kill another woman who happened to be standing in the lobby. That puts our body count at two, and my estimate on gallons of red-dyed corn syrup used so far is three.

00:13:47 – Cut to the next morning, and a blind man with a seeing eye dog and a fixation on the early Beatles’ wardrobe is wandering around the dance school. I need to pause right here and point out the fact that blind people really got a pretty bad rap in movies up until, say, Scent of a Woman. This dude is walking around as if he just now lost his sight: head tilted back, mouth agape, flailing around with his red and white cane (despite the placid presence of his guide dog, which you’d hope would keep him from having to whip that thing around so much). Anyway, let’s see what this dope is up to.

00:14:12 – Hah! Unintentional comedy moment number one: Blind Dude has just tied his dog up to the bike rack outside the school’s main entrance. In the seventies, you apparently could smoke your face off inside, but don’t bring your damn seeing-eye dogs in. Or maybe Blind Guy thinks he’s a cowboy, and that he’s just tied Old Silver up to the trough outside Poot’s Saloon in Tombstone. I have no idea. Actually, based on the way he’s dressed, I’d expect him to be singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” on the Ed Sullivan Show.

00:14:32 – Suzy shows up at the school right on Blind Guy’s heels. She clearly is unperturbed by the fact that her roommate was yanked through the bedroom window and given a working-over with a set of Ginsu knives last night, because she’s sort of moseying calmly toward the door, seemingly enjoying the nice morning weather. This time, she doesn’t screw with the intercom, and just heads right in.

00:15:22 – Inside is a blue atrium filled with students and instructors. One of the instructors is a severe-looking woman who inexplicably has the mouth of Ed McMahon. She introduces herself as Miss Tanner, and asks Suzy why she didn’t show up the night before. After Suzy explains the locked-door-and-hostile-woman-on-the-intercom situation, Tanner apologizes and takes Suzy over to meet Madame Blanc, the vice-directress. “She was a very famous ballerina,” Tanner explains toothily. Blanc is an older woman in what looks like a 1940s cocktail gown, who is talking with three guys in suits.

00:15:38 – Blanc’s first impression of Suzy seems good, if creepy: “You’re pretty. Very pretty,” she says. Suzy actually looks a lot like Marian Ravenwood from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Different actresses, though. As it turns out, the guys she’s speaking to are police officers, who are investigating the rather elaborate deaths that went on last night. I may have screwed this up, because Suzy seems to not know anything about the death whatsoever – only that she saw a girl running away from the school that night. I guess the two who died were both students… anyway, Suzy’s at the school, and Tanner takes her for a tour.

00:17:45 – The molarific Miss Tanner explains that the school doesn’t teach students to dance, because the assumption is that they already know how. During this conversation, a large servant passes them on the stairs. His name is Pavlo, and he might be the brother of Sloth from The Goonies. Apparently, he’s the general handyman at the school, and it’s perfectly acceptable for students to tell him how horrible he looks, because he only speaks Romanian. Pavlo looks a little crestfallen at this explanation from Tanner (but who can tell for sure? He looks like he’s capable of maybe three distinct expressions). He’s high on the Obvious List of possible dancer-slicers.

00:19:02 – Tanner shows Suzy to the locker room, where the other students are getting ready for class or something. Tanner tells Suzy to borrow a pair of shoes from someone who has two pairs. After she leaves, one of the students saunters over to Suzy and introduces herself as Olga, in a distinctly American accent. Apparently, she’s who Suzy is going to be rooming with off-campus. She seems to be out of her mind, and after Suzy meets another student, Sara, Olga observes that names that begin with the letter “S” are the names of snakes. “Sssss! Ssss! Ssssss!” she hisses. I guess now we know why this one wasn’t up for the Oscar in ’77.

00:23:29 – Back at Olga’s place, Suzy finds her room. An Italian guy – also a student, apparently – brings up her suitcases. He’s apparently got to get back to the school, since he lives on campus and “can’t be late for supper.”

00:23:39 – At the school, students are dancing ballet steps all over the place. Wonderful.

00:24:59 – Madame Blanc shows up and tells Suzy that her room at the school is ready, and free of charge. Suzy says she’d rather stay with Olga, and after some attempt at coercing her to change her mind, Blanc tells her it’s her choice. After the brief exchange, Miss Tanner creeps up behind Suzy and says, “I had no idea you were so strong-willed. I see that when you have made up your mind, nothing will change your decision. My compliments.” She grins, and I think she should be holding a giant Publisher’s Clearing House check.

00:25:46 – On her way down the hall after class, Suzy runs into a strange old woman polishing a crystal, as Madame Blanc’s odd little nephew stands by. As the woman polishes the crystal, it begins to glint, and suddenly it glows white, stunning Suzy. The lights go all weird, and Suzy manages to continue down the hall – looking as if she’s about to barf.

00:27:42 – At her next ballet class shortly afterwards, Suzy tells Sarah she’s feeling a little weak. She lets the grinning Miss Tanner know, who tells her to try the step anyway. The blind Beatle from earlier turns out to be the school’s piano player. Instead of wearing the normal sunglasses, he’s got what look like a pair of welding shades on, and he still looks like he’s just getting used to being blind. Suzy tries to dance along, but passes out – with bright red blood seeping from her nose and mouth. Why is it that horror movie blood looks nothing like actual blood? I mean, this stuff looks like red paint – which is probably what it is. Couldn’t they make it darker? And do I need professional help for this?

00:30:35 – Suzy’s taken to her room in the school – ah, so it was all a plot to have her move in! – where Miss Tanner is forcing her to drink water out of a crystal jug. The weird old lady is in the room, arranging Suzy’s possessions, which apparently Olga was kind enough to bring by. The doctor – if he is a doctor – says she’ll need some time in bed, plus plenty of peace, quiet, and bland food.

00:32:17 – Oh, and wine. Apparently, the professor – who is also some kind of doctor – has told Suzy that wine will be a part of her diet, because it “builds up the blood.” It’s constantly amazing to me how social attitudes toward alcohol have changed so much in the past couple decades. You watch a movie from the ‘70s or before, and alcohol was this ubiquitous thing that everybody just had as part of their daily lives. Now, anyone in a popular movie who drinks is usually a sad, sad case. The moral of the story? Well, apparently our parents were total drunks.

00:33:33 – Gross. Suzy has just found worms or maggots or something in her hair.

00:33:51 -- …which apparently dropped from the ceiling, which is covered with them. Gross, again.

00:35:33 – The maggots apparently were coming from a crate of food in the attic, which, Madame Blanc explains later, was ordered from what they believed was a reliable source. The story is that the food spoiled and drew the flies, which then dropped the maggots down through the cracks and onto the school’s shrieking female population.

--:--:-- — Okay, I don’t care if this movie is a horror classic. It sucks. That, plus pausing it every minute or so to write up my own commentary makes it take about three times as long to watch. I’ve had it. Just so you know, the dance school turns out to be a front for a coven of witches. Nothing else gets explained, you never find out who the killer is, and Suzy kills the big bad witch at the end. Oh, and the stupid piano player gets killed by his own seeing-eye dog.

The lesson I’m taking away from this is that the Italians should keep to making pasta, fast cars, and Coliseums. Leave the horror movies to the U.S. – they’re more our speed, anyway.


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Epic blockbuster dream of the summer

I woke up this morning after having a remarkably Michael Bay sort of dream -- there was something about huge alien spaceships crawling out of the water and abducting people and performing experiments on them, but the experiments were more social than physical. For example, I think in one of them, the aliens (who I never saw, it was all robots) gave abductees whatever addictive substance they wanted. People would go aboard and get offered beers or heroin.

The weirdest part was that the whole thing seemed like it was shot like a summer action movie. There were wide establishing shots, and images from the sky of the space ships causing huge tsunamis in the cities where they came ashore. I'm pretty sure there was a closeup shot of Will Smith standing on a golf course saying, "Oh, shit" at one point.

The other day, I was talking with a close friend of mine about how intolerable long, drawn-out dream stories are. I remember hearing Greg Behrednt talking about it (this was back when he was a comedian, before he took a job as daytime company on television for housewives and shut-ins). He said there are two kinds of stories you probably want to think long and hard before telling: the dog/pet story ("Unless part of the story is that your dog started speaking Spanish, you might not want to tell that story") and the dream story. His point was good -- that dreams are amazing, they can be spectacular or horrifying, and they can leave you reeling.

"Here's the thing about dreams, though -- they didn't really happen," Behrednt said, pointing out that this is another kind of story you generally don't want to hear from other people, so you should avoid telling them yourself.

I think he was right, but I think it's more applicable to that kind of dream storytelling that involves a lot of time and explication. I mean, dreams (at least mine, anyway) rarely make sense in a narrative format... it's not as if your subconscious pays much attention to story arcs or the value of sensible conclusions.

But I think you can get away with a very abbreviated version of the dream story without making whoever's listening start plotting an escape route. Basically, you say something like, "I had this really weird dream about oranges last night," or, "I had this crazy nightmare about monsters breaking in and stealing all my coffee last night." If you leave it at that, nobody's going to feel too awkward and the ones who are actually interested might indicate the fact that they're willing to hear more by asking questions like, "Really? What kind of monsters?"

I broke that rule in this post, but at least I kept it to two paragraphs. So don't whine.


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Trollenberg Terror

A while back, I decided to watch "The Trollenberg Terror," a cheesy 1950s horror movie that was alternately titled "The Crawling Eye" -- the second title is also the title of a Misfits song off Famous Monsters, and it gives way too much of the movie away.

Anyway, here's as far as I made it through a minute-by-minute "live blog" of the movie-watching experience.


Greetings, sports fans.

For tonight’s entry in my neglected blog, I’m going to be watching “The Trollenberg Terror,” a 1958 movie also commonly known as “The Crawling Eye.”

I’m not exactly sure what to expect – here’s what I know, though. “The Trollenberg Terror” was directed by Quentin Lawrence and involves mysterious and hideous alien creatures taking up residence in a radioactive cloud at the top of Trollenberg Mountain in Switzerland. Mayhem and carnage ensue. There’s talk of some psychic chick who has an inside track to the aliens – but this is just me going off the Misfits song, “Crawling Eye,” from Famous Monsters.

Let’s begin!

The opening screen is a message from the British Board of Film Censors, and certifies that the film is okay for display as long as no one less than 16 years old is present. Apparently, the Crawling Eye predates the MPAA – I’m not yet sure which is more horrible, though.

00:00:39 – A rather beautiful panning shot of the Swiss Alps. There are some mountain climbers on one of the mountains.

00:01:40 – The two climbers are calling to their buddy Jimmy, off-screen. He says someone’s coming. His pals ask if it’s the abominable snowman. Jimmy screams and falls off the mountain hilariously.

00:02:09 – Fortunately, Jimmy has been secured to his pals by a climbing rope, which they use to haul him back up to their level. Unfortunately, he’s dead anyway. We don’t get to see what exactly has happened to him, but his arm is bloody and his friend in the white knit cap screams “NO!” when he catches a glimpse of him. The rope frays and breaks, and poor ol’ Jim takes the quick way down the mountain. Aliens – 1, Humans – 0.

00:02:18 – An interesting discussion between the two remaining climbers: “You idiot, we almost had him! Why did you let go?” “Didn’t you see him? His head – it was torn off!” Seems like that would have been the first thing they’d both notice. Decapitation isn’t exactly a minor detail.

00:02:20 – Cut to a train racing through the mountains. Credits roll, accompanied by a stereotypical “high tension” orchestral score.

00:03:57 – We’re back on the train, and we’re meeting some travelers -- a mother, who I’m going to assume for the moment is named Betty Crocker, and her daughter Anne, who, according to Betty, was talking in her sleep right before we made it into their train compartment. An old guy with a horrible perm is sitting across from them, reading a newspaper.

00:04:43 – Hey, wait a minute here. Maybe they’re not mother and daughter. Anne seems to be at least a teenager, and Betty Crocker suddenly appears to be in her 20s. Sisters, maybe?

00:04:57 – Anne faints and falls into Old Creep’s newspaper.

00:05:14 – …but she recovers quickly, and is completely unalarmed by waking up lying in an old dude’s lap. He introduces himself as “Alan Brooks.” A likely story. Anne introduces herself as Anne Pilgrim, and clues us into the fact that the other woman is her sister, Sarah. Sorry, Sarah – at first I thought you were her mom.

00:05:40 – Mr. Brooks helps out by giving Anne a shot from his clearly well-used flask. Man, the ‘50s were awesome.

00:06:10 – The conductor announces that the next stop for the train is Trollenberg. Although Sarah has said the two are on their way to Geneva, Anne immediately takes interest in Trollenberg, stating that she can’t go any further and that’s where they’ll be stopping. Brooks, conveniently, is also stopping there. Anne says they can stay at the Hotel Europa. At this point, I’m pretty sure Anne is the psychic chick.

00:06:56 – The party has arrived in Trollenberg and met a buddy of Mr. Brooks’, a wacky Swiss guy who apparently runs the Europa. He agrees to lodge the Pilgrims without notice, and alludes vaguely to how this is normally a busy time of year, but not this season…

00:07:52 – Brooks offers the girls cigarettes while the Swiss dude drives them to the hotel. There’s a discussion about how climbers disappear into the mist and are never seen again. The party disembarks the car in front of an incredibly fake mountain backdrop. Inside the hotel, there’s a guy smoking his face off while a drinking beer. It’s Philip Truscott, who apparently has been expecting Brooks. He thinks the Pilgrims’ name rings a bell, and the women head up to their room.

00:09:46 – Anne looks out her window at Mount Trollenberg and seems to know all the details about the area. She gets scared and asks Sarah, “Why does it seem like I’ve seen it all before?” Why would Sarah know, you crazy wench?

00:11:12 – Truscott stops by Brooks’ room and asks if he’s a climber, and Brooks says not if he can help it. Truscott helpfully observes that Trollenberg is an odd place to come for vacation if you aren’t a mountain climber, and notices that Brooks is packing a revolver. Truscott launches into a creepy discussion about Anne and Sarah being attractive girls, and offers to buy Brooks a drink later on. Truscott leaves, but Brooks overhears him talking on the hall phone shortly after, asking a friend to check on an “Alan Brooks, 40, American.” Brooks dramatically removes his horn-rimmed glasses, squints, then heads downstairs.

00:12:52 – Holy shit, people in the ‘50s were total drunks. Brooks runs into two mountain climbers, Duratt and Brett, in the lobby who are about to head off to climb up Trollenberg. They inform him that they’re going to have a “noggin” before they head up, and that they’re going to need a bottle of brandy for the trip. I don’t know about you guys, but personally, I always get smashed before I try to climb any mountains more than a mile high. Brooks agrees to join them for a nip and orders up a Scotch.

00:13:34 – Sarah and Truscott show up, and Duratt orders them drinks. He explains that it’s his first mountain climb, and that he’s a geologist. Truscott advises the climbers to keep an eye on their rope, and brings up the guys who were climbing around in the opening scene. “Nasty business,” everyone agrees.

00:14:53 – Truscott said some guides found the bodies of “Jimmy” and his pals, and that even though the official story is that the young climber had been decapitated by his climbing rope, the rope had actually been found around his waist, still tied – which apparently would make it impossible to loop around his neck. This is all as per Hans, the bartender, who’s busy being mysterious and cryptic while getting everyone shitfaced. Truscott prods Hans to tell the party what the villagers are saying – which is that the decapitation happened before his fall.

00:15:41 – Brooks follows the two drunk climbers up to the observatory in the cable car. They have some discussion about chemical changes within rocks on their way up, which doesn’t sound even remotely scientific.

00:16:41 – The observatory. Nutty professors are looking out through telescopes, and “The Professor” is busily scribbling notes in a pad. He’s irritated at first when one of his lab-coat-wearing flunkies tells him there’s someone at the door to see him, but changes his tune and becomes excited when he learns that it’s Alan Brooks. I think the professor is drunk, too.

00:17:52 – The professor shows Brooks a bank of screens, which are off. He turns them on, and they display views of the mountain. “You see? Television cameras on the roof. We watch everything!” he exclaims, then promptly turns the monitors back off. He’s definitely drunk.

00:18:35 – The professor brags about how his equipment is all very expensive, and that it’s to study “cosmic rays.”

00:20:08 – The accidents are discussed again, and the professor says remains are never found. This seems to be in direct contradiction to the villagers' discovery of Jimmy's decapitated body, but who's really keeping score? He also mentions a radioactive cloud that seems to be hanging around the side of Mount Trollenberg. The two discuss “an incident” that took place three years prior, in the Andes.

00:22:31 – “Climbers on the Trollenberg!” one of the lab coat flunkies shouts. It’s our besotted buddies from the hotel, Duratt and Brett.

00:24:00 – Back in the observatory, Brooks and the professor disagree over whether to go to the authorities. Something fishy is up, but Brooks wants hard facts before he sticks his neck out again, which apparently is what happened in the Andes. Meanwhile, the two wino-geologists have made it to the cabin a ways up the Trollenberg.


That's as far as I made it. I watched the rest of the movie, and surely enough, there are aliens, they're basically gargantuan eyeballs with tentacles, there's a confrontation, and the good guys win. Everyone drinks copiously. The end.

Check it out -- it's definitely entertaining.