Nov 13 2017

Reading Material: Short Ends 11/13/17

Two years ago, editor Stephen Jones delivered a coffee-table book for the ages with The Art of Horror, and now he and his gang of talented writers and artists are back for another go-round, this time silver screen-cemented, with The Art of Horror Movies: An Illustrated History. Again published in a handsome hardback by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, this full-color follow-up tackles its admittedly intimidating mission by slicing and dicing the subject matter into by-decade chapters, starting with a broader look at “The Sinister Silents.” In doing so, whether accidentally or purposefully, the book presents a compelling visual history of cinema’s bastard child, as we see its ad campaigns evolve before our very hungry eyes. While Jones and company primarily are focused on providing broad-stroke, bird’s-eye views, it’s also not unusual to see them get creative in themed pages that celebrate everything from Rondo Hatton and Sherlock Holmes to covers of fanzines and hand-painted flour sacks used in African villages!

With Kong: Skull Island a massive hit earlier this year and sequels to Godzilla and Pacific Rim already on deck, the oversized-creature feature is enjoying quite the colossal resurgence, and Giant Creatures in Our World: Essays on Kaiju and American Popular Culture is but one piece of the proof. The McFarland & Company release comes co-edited by Camille D.G. Mustachio and Jason Barr, and while the latter dealt with this subject all by his lonesome in last year’s The Kaiju Film, this unofficial (but worthy) companion widens the net to let its contributors dig into the niche. Thus, while Barr theorizes about the nostalgia drive of the adult toy collector, Se Young Kim examines how American superheroes like Spider-Man become enemies of justice when incorporated overseas, and Karen Joan Kohoutek wonders if all those Gamera episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 aren’t maybe a wee bit racist. As Godzilla proved in his ’54 debut, rampaging monsters are to be taken seriously, and this collection does just that, examining these cultural giants with the gravity they deserve, but also the fun audiences expect.

If there will be a better encapsulation of the history and evolution of the medium than David Bianculli’s splendidly penned The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific … well, I doubt it will occur in my lifetime. A longtime TV critic for NPR, Bianculli takes what had to be a bear of a self-imposed assignment by foregoing the expected chronological route in favor of genre. For each of those — workplace sitcoms, medical dramas, Westerns, miniseries, et al. — he chooses five series that best represent the forwarding of the format and explains not only what they did and how they did it (and, in the case of something like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, how they got away with it), but also how their DNA thrives in the programs of today, in the style of this-beget-that. It’s rather amazing how essays so compact yield so much fascinating material; even the chapters on genres I have no interest in (like war) proved unskippable. Interstitial interviews with/profiles of key players — such as Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner, Ken Burns and, um, Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. — make an already excellent book that much more rewarding. Tune in immediately.

It is strange to remember a time when The X-Files was just another under-the-radar, possibly doomed-to-fail show on the fourth-ranked (and occasionally fourth-rate) Fox network, rather than the cultural touchstone it has been for, oh, two decades and counting. But Ireland-based critic Darren Mooney sure does, and lays out that progression in Opening The X-Files: A Critical History of the Original Series. From McFarland & Company, the book opens with a foreword from superfan Kumail Nanjiani (whose 2017 romcom The Big Sick practically gives the series a subplot) before a headfirst plunge. Admirably, rather than following an episode-by-episode formula, which would get dull, the author discusses each season largely in standalone terms, while weaving in the various spin-offs and 1998 feature film. I’m calling it a success because it made me eager to revisit the Blu-ray box set; in fact, if The X-Files studies were a college course (and I’m sure it is somewhere), Mooney’s book would have to be one of its essential texts. —Rod Lott

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Sep 24 2017

Red Christmas (2016)

‘Twas the night of Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring … except for that aborted fetus who answers to the name of Cletus.

Twenty years ago, Diane (Dee Wallace, The Howling) chose to terminate a pregnancy. In the chaos of the clinic being bombed during her procedure, she and the doctors didn’t realize the remnant in the biohazard bucket wasn’t exactly DOA. Now, with Diane widowed and turning 60, she is grateful to have all of her adult children assembled for Christmas Day … well, the four she knew of, that is. Then, fifth wheel Cletus — wrapped in gauze, clad in a black cloak and hauling a pink suitcase — decides to crash the party.

He just wants to be loved — is that so wrong? Technically, no, but when they kick him out of the house, his retaliation spree of gory murder is something upon which society frowns.

Arriving gift-wrapped for gorehounds, Red Christmas is written and directed by Australian comedian Craig Anderson, but initial streaks of dysfunction aside, it is not a film to be categorized as funny. In fact, it is a bit of an odd bird — in a good way. For one thing, one of Diane’s kids is a Shakespeare-quoting young man with Down syndrome (Gerard Odwyer), a trait not only unexploited, but also vital to the plot. Unsurprisingly, Wallace gives a nail-strong performance, whipping into Angry Mama mode (à la Cujo) when push comes to shove and stab; on the unexpected side, the deaths portrayed come attached with a tangible, tragic sense of loss.

The seasonal slasher obviously has more on its mind than shedding blood, although that is done in explicitly gruesome bits. The interesting thing is trying to determine at first where Anderson’s politics reside, because pro-life viewers can side with Cletus (Sam Campbell) as he takes revenge on his mother’s actions, yet pro-choice viewers could see the film as an indictment of the hypocrisy of pro-life extremists who take “eye for an eye” to heart. As the cast narrows, Red Christmas’ true intentions become clear, yet if you need the message spelled out after all the spillage, the credits end with recommendations with further reading and viewing, including the black comedies Citizen Ruth and Obvious Child. —Rod Lott

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Sep 22 2017

Guest List: 22 More Posters and Pics That Did Not Land in Mars in the Movies

In a book we highly recommend, former NASA employee Thomas Kent Miller takes us on every cinematic journey to the red planet, film by film, from the silents to today. And now, for his hat trick of a Flick Attack Guest List, the author takes us on yet another cinematic journey of a different kind: through the photos and illustrations that you won’t find in the finished book! Once more, the volume’s loss is your eyes’ gain. Time to blast off!

My book Mars in the Movies: A History is a ship that has sailed. Still, I can daydream. This is my third Guest List for the site of coulda/woulda/shouldas for graphics that I would have liked to have included in the book, but it was not practical.

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Sep 17 2017

Reading Material: Short Ends 9/17/17

Bart Beaty’s study of 1960s-era Archie Comics, Twelve-Cent Archie, came out two years ago, but with the squeaky-clean icons turned into the soapy hit TV series Riverdale, Rutgers University Press has reissued it with full-color illustrations, so anyone who ever enjoyed the comics no longer has an excuse against buying this milestone in pop-culture criticism. While my eyes appreciate the upgrade, my heart is certain that the book was fantastic even in black and white. Unlike, well, every other academic work I’ve read, Beaty has divided his into 100 tight, concise chapters, and then seemingly threw them into the air and let gravity decide the order. The genius of this approach is that it absolutely works. Whether dissecting the literal shape of panels or discussing whether Archie would be better off with Betty or Veronica (mathematics provides the answer, hilariously), Beaty never fails to enlighten as he charms. I haven’t so much as touched an Archie comic book since leaving grade school, yet every page held me rapt.

In Comic Book Film Style: Cinema at 24 Panels Per Second, Canada-based Dru Jeffries argues — rightly, successfully — that the media continues to misuse the term “comic book” as it relates to the movies, in part because it’s bandied about so carelessly, it’s applied even when the source material isn’t a comic book at all. So what is the comic book film, exactly? Jeffries is glad you asked! Per chapter one of his University of Texas Press paperback, the mostly forgotten 2010 actioner The Losers best represents the true definition, in translating the page to the screen as faithfully as possible — not merely in story, but also in style — and the accompanying images from both mediums prove the point, over and over. Subsequent chapters loosen up a bit to examine more flicks, whether through their use of onscreen onomatopoeia (1966’s Batman: The Movie), framing to replicate panels (Creepshow) or manipulation of time (300). Although smartly designed and more than generously illustrated, the book can grow dry if approached from a casual standpoint. So don’t! This material would kill in a classroom setting.

So venerated is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 existential sci-fi epic that you could fill a small shelf with books dedicated to the film. Even more are on the way; in the meantime, here’s another! From McFarland & Company, film critic Joe R. Frinzi’s Kubrick’s Monolith: The Art and Mystery of 2001: A Space Odyssey reads less like a serious study of the picture (although that exists in one chapter) and more like a Fodor’s guidebook. With enthusiasm and efficiency, Frinzi covers how Arthur C. Clarke’s short story turned into what now is a classic, but considered a failure in its day; plus 2001’s needle-drop soundtrack of classical cuts; Oscar-winning special effects, especially the trippy Star-Gate sequence; and the various sequels, spin-offs and illegitimate children. Chapters vary in usefulness, from quite handy (comparing the various soundtrack albums over the years) to not at all (giving a beat-by-beat plot synopsis). —Rod Lott

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Sep 14 2017

Molly and the Ghost (1991)

WTFIn Molly and the Ghost, which sounds like the greatest ’80s NBC sitcom premise that never was, 30-something Molly (one-and-done Lee Darling) finds her happy life as a successful California Realtor and loving wife turned tail-over-teakettle by the unexpected arrival of her “barely 17” sister, Susan (Ena Henderson, 1989’s Fatal Exposure), at her doorstep. Claiming an epic row with Dad, Susan needs a place to crash; Molly happily offers the guest bedroom since it’s just for a night …

… until it’s not. And until Susan pockets her older sister’s cash and jewelry, then attempts to do the same to Molly’s husband, Jeff (Ron Moriarty, Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2), once she finally meets him. From our vantage point, Susan first plots to get her paws on him when — fresh from emerging topless from an afternoon Jacuzzi soak — she walks in on him in his tighty-whities, ready to rub up against his spouse’s loins on the living room couch. The teen girl’s motivation would click with viewers if Jeff were some ripped, abs-aplenty hunk, but ummm … he’s not. No offense to the photo clerks of ShopRite, but Jeff looks like a photo clerk of ShopRite, whereas his wife, even with her 1991 hair, looks like Anne-Marie Martin of TV’s Sledge Hammer! To be clear, that’s not a bad thing. (But that Darling never acted again is; she has some talent!)

One night, while Molly’s out showing a house to prospective buyers, Susan’s in showing her goods to prospective semen depositor Jeff. Despite her best efforts in black lingerie, he’s just not into it, but to Molly, it looks like a compromising position all the same when she walks in on it. The next morning, Molly gives her immature li’l sis a good talking-to; Susan retaliates as all siblings in this situation would: by hiring a hitman. She finds the freelance assassin in the back pages of a shoplifted copy of War magazine. (Actually, the camera closes in on classifieds advertising military collectibles, but writer/director Don Jones either hoped no one would notice or assumed, not without merit, that his 16mm film’s intended audience could not read.)

The ponytailed hitman, John (Daniel Martine, 1989’s Cage), accepts the phoned-in assignment for $5,000, the downpayment for which Susan acquires by borrowing it from Molly (!) under the pretense of needing it “for computer school.” Beyond the dough, all John requires to get started is the mark’s name and photo. Susan eagerly complies — too eagerly, as it turns out — by tearing a photo of the sisters in two … and sending him the wrong half! Effectively ensuring her own demise, she realizes her mistake much too late.

Ergo, the Ghost portion of the title comes into play.

It is here that Jones (Schoolgirls in Chains) takes his thriller on a turn: a hard left into the supernatural, because, yeah, why the fuck not? Stuck-up even in death, the wraith Susan is given a second shot at sister sabotage when a matronly spirit (Carole Wells, The House of Seven Corpses) allows her to haunt Molly and Jeff rather than rest eternally. “You are so young to be so spiteful,” the boss-lady spirit tells her pupil. “You have much to learn and I fear it will be a painful process for all involved.” In other words, Heaven Can Wait for hussies.

Because skinflint filmmakers like Jones can’t foot the bill for fancy hauntings, much of Susan’s from-the-grave shenanigans amount to her laughing in mirrors. Now, there is a scene that depicts worms crawling from holes in her cheeks, but this animation is so chintzy, it really just looks like her face is pooping. At any rate, our wedded heroes don’t know what to do about this imposition. Then Jeff recalls the VHS copy of Ghostbusters, and just as suddenly, Molly and the Ghost becomes a comedy as well — and a body-switching one, at that! — before settling down as a drama. Maybe it’s best not to ask. Just watch! For all its shortcomings and corner-cutting, it’s never boring. —Rod Lott

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