Crash Discussion: What Is Horror?

PodcastimageBilly Crash and Jonny Numb try to tackle the nightmarish definition of “horror.” Besides exploring the conventions of the genre, we look at some movies that are not categorized as horror, but should be. And don’t worry, theories by Dr. Sigmund Freud and Robin Wood won’t weigh down the diatribe.

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Crash Discussions: Where Are the Werewolves?

PodcastimageTHE LAST KNOCK takes a look at werewolves, where they came from, why they’re not popular, and where they may go from here. Gnaw on some important cultural history, how the werewolf relates to religion, and what the werewolf says about ourselves.

Crash Analysis: THE RUINS (USA/Germany/Australia, 2008)

Far from cliché 

A triumph?

THE RUINS is based upon the novel by Bruce B. Smith, who also wrote the screenplay. The Ruins movie poster onesheetThe beginning offered the usual, hackneyed fair: four American college students on a trip to Mexico. Snooze. Thankfully, I hung on, and witnessed one great dramatic tale of foreboding.

Our college quatro are gearing up to go home when a German traveler, Mathias (Joe Anderson), mentions that his brother and several people are working at a remote archaeological dig. Enraptured by the rare opportunity, the students head out to THE RUINS.

Up until this point, the story seemed cliché laden, but some elements were different from the start. The group is comprised of two heterosexual couples, but none of them fell to the trappings of stock character malaise. No dumb jocks, no geeks, no arrogant beauty. Simply four bright young people ready to engage something a bit more thrilling than a resort and endless alcoholic beverages.

The students soon find themselves at the base of a Mayan pyramid with vegetation covering most of the ruin. However, when they near the structure, they’re met with armed locals who keep themselves at a distance. The Spanish speaking villagers yell at the tourists, but all is for naught since none of the travelers know the language. This leads to a tension filled scene where our group is forced up onto the pyramid to escape the local wrath. In an instant, the conventions of horror entrap the group: isolation, limited if any cell phone usage, little food and water, fears regarding self-preservation, and a sense of impending doom.

The group is led by medical student, Jeff (Jonathan Tucker), who’s logic and pragmatism keeps them all grounded – as much as one can since the pangs of fear are overwhelming. Eric (Shawn Ashmore) reluctantly follows, as well as Stacy (Laura Ramsey), and Amy, played by the ever wonderful Jena Malone.

Director Carter Smith, no relation to the screenwriter/author, brings us a strong, emotional tale that takes place in mostly daylight hours. Under the hot Mexican sun, the group must be aware of water intake as they try to determine a way out. Yet, they have no clue why the locals are bloodthirsty, why they won’t come up after them – and why the archaeological team is dead. In THE RUINS, the one item that may save the tourists is a shaft leading into the heart of the pyramid, where a fully functioning cell phone rings on occasion. Can they get to it?

The pyramid represents a tower, and as imagery goes, one only has to think of the old biblical tale of the Tower of Babel. Builders of that structure had hoped to reach their god up in Heaven, only to be smitten with many languages so they could not understand each other. Building stopped. The movie mirrors the story in two forms: Our college students can’t comprehend the locals, and their privileged lives may make them seem as if they are above the uneducated and poor villagers. Though the students don’t bark that they are better or smarter, the symbolism is clear, though in this case, whatever deity they believe in has no intention of rescuing them from their predicament. For all that privilege and money, two artificial gods of their own, they are trapped. They’ll have to make it on their own or die trying.

Interestingly, with their only hope seemingly being that cell phone at the bottom of a dark shaft, they must lower themselves to gain possible egress. But the uncanny, the element of Robin Wood’s “otherness” surrounds them. The “other” is multifold as well. Besides the “monster” they must face, the thing which must be rejected and annihilated, the villagers also represent that “other” – the natives who cannot be trusted since they are unlike the foreigners. In this case, the students represent the “other” to the villagers. And what follows is a story of attrition and despair.

Carter Smith does a great job in keeping the story moving, and none of the actors fall short of emotion, which is largely a fear driven response to uncanny stimuli. Director of Photography, Darius Khondji, relies on natural light to keep the production grounded, and even in the dark scenes of the shaft, one knows exactly what is happening at all times. Jason Baird’s prosthetic effects are absolutely mind-blowing, and his creation leads to several cringe-worthy scenes. Best of all is Bruce B. Smith’s nice twist and imagery that delivers a cautionary tale about curiosity, as well as self-assuredness.

In the end, desperation leads to action, and one should be grateful that of the three endings Carter Smith had shot, he chose the very best one for THE RUINS. We’re left with that element of the “other” hinting that there is more to come, and one can only imagine where that might lead.

If you are looking for a dramatic horror that offers something a bit different, THE RUINS should prove worthy. Granted, the movie is not perfect (questionable German accents, and a slow pace on occasion), but this should keep your mind churning long after the credits roll.

3.5 out of 5 stars

(Photo from Collider.)

Crash Reports: Parafest 2013

Kootation

Parafest held their very first convention on September 6-8 at the Sands in Bethlehem, PA. I decided to go on a Friday because it began early, and hoped to have a good time. Instead, I had a great one.

Like most, I waited patiently for the doors to open at noon, but as with any first opening, there was a bit of a delay (thirty minutes), that came with the apologies of show organizers. But the diehard fans of all things paranormal and horror maintained their smiles and stood tall. That allowed me to discuss the goings-on with Shannon, a new friend and legal eagle who had driven up from Edgar Allan Poe’s Baltimore to take part. For once, I only had to drive a half-hour, and that felt pretty damn good.

When the doors opened at the Sands Convention Center, on the site of what was once Bethlehem Steel, we poured in from the shadows of the now silent blast furnaces and entered the massive building where paranormal and horror rubbed other-worldly elbows. In short order, I walked by vendors selling everything from EVP equipment, to make-up kits, to comic books. Psychics read cards and palms, horror authors offered their self-published books, and paranormal researchers offered their expertise.

Since most fans were still lost in 9-to-5 drudgery, and wouldn’t arrive until later, the venue felt intimate. If anything, it seemed as if I had paid for a coveted pre-show pass. Here’s who I met, and what they had to say:

STAN GORDON: If you don’t know Gordon, then you probably haven’t heard about Pennsylvania’s Kecksburg UFO incident. On December 9, 1965, townsfolk saw something strange and bell shaped come down in the woods outside their community – only to have it whisked away by the military. Gordon was a witness to the event, and he’s investigated what had transpired there ever since, as well as other sightings. A skeptical man, Gordon does his best to use science to find answers to everything from UFOs to bigfoot.

DAVE TANGO, BRUCE TANGO, and STEVE GONSALVES: Stars of the hit show “Ghost Hunters,” turned out to be the paranormal investigators one would expect: A group of great guys to hang out with and indulge in conversation. Tango and Steve were cool and welcoming, though Bruce admitted that his son, Dave is their to keep him out of trouble, which got a laugh from everyone in earshot. (I tried to say hi to Grant Wilson, but he was speaking to several people every time I walked by the booth. Like everyone else at TAPS, he was engaging and spent quality time with fans.)

MIKE ZOHN: Co-host of “Oddities” and owner of New York’s Obscura store, Mike’s a soft spoken baritone. When I asked him what his house looked like, he let out a hearty laugh. Currently, he’s in the midst of a move, and his collection of the unique and bizarre is in storage. And as expected, he finds a hard time selling some of his rare collectibles in the shop because he’d rather keep them for himself. But the man needs to eat, so he does what he must.

TONY GOWELL: Though Tony has appeared in several television shows and big screen movies, most fans know him as a zombie from both ZOMBIELAND and “The Walking Dead.” When asked if he foresees more “family friendly” horror films like WORLD WAR Z, his response was “Definitely.” And knowing that WWZ has earned over a half-billion to date, I have no doubt Hollywood will bring us bigger if not watered down horror. My only awkward moment came when he asked if I liked “The Walking Dead.” I said that I tried but couldn’t because the show is like a soap opera. His eyes lit up and he exclaimed, “It is a soap opera!” It was great to have that confirmed.

VINCENT M. WARD: The big guy from “The Walking Dead” is a gentle giant who doesn’t seem like he’d hurt a fly – or a zombie. But I wouldn’t chance it. Regardless, he engaged fans with a great smile and many a kind word. What an engaging gentleman. I think he was having more fun than his nervous fans.

WILLIAM SANDERSON: Though the renowned character actor may be best known for his recent work on “True Blood,” diehard fans know him from “Deadwood” and as the ill-fated designer from the amazing BLADE RUNNER. Sanderson was with his lovely wife, and said that working on “Deadwood” allowed him to afford a home. He also enjoyed being with Harrison Ford and a young Daryl Hannah on BLADE RUNNER, and had no qualms working with director Ridley Scott.

MICHAEL BERRYMAN: Being with him was like hanging out with one of the guys. We talked about everything from politics (along with another fan and new friend named Tom) to his fourteen projects in the making (one of which is with Tony Todd). When it comes to fans, Berryman’s a sweetheart and never minds popping out of his chair to have his photo taken.

TONY TODD: In his movies, Todd has a commanding presence, and he does so in person. At six-foot-five, he’s hard to ignore when he enters a room. Among his pictures for autographing, he has a small black chest, dripping with blood, and the words “Candyman” inscribed on the side. After an autograph, the Candyman offers a sweet treat to the fan. When I mentioned his impassioned performance in the science-fiction tale, THE MAN FROM EARTH, he was grateful. It was clear he loved that film.

While waiting for Mr. Todd, I had the pleasure of meeting one of Parafest’s volunteers, a young woman named Maria, who is an empath and psychic. I understand if one’s skeptical and has their misgivings about such things, but Maria was sincere. She works with police departments and families to help solve cold cases. From her field experience, it’s clear she’s had to deal with a lot of grief. Still, she uses her gift to help others, and presses on.

As conventions go, Parafest is a truly intriguing experience. I’m not used to seeing a mix of horror and paranormal, but it was a great venture, and I indulged in some great conversations.  I had a wonderful time and look forward to next year’s event.

My only recommendations to the show organizers: Start later. Although noon on a Friday is fantastic, most people are working, which means celebrities and vendors have to sit around and do a lot of waiting. Consequently, $25 for a ticket is fine, but to pay an additional $8 in service fees at the door is ridiculous. I know it’s a horror convention, but why do you need to involve the always satanic Ticketmaster? Granted, organizers need a return on their investment, however, nickel and diming fans will only keep them away since there are other conventions in the area to attend. And no one wants that.

All in all, I had a blast. Parafest served as the kickoff to fall and Halloween, and that’s a great thing indeed. I have no doubt Parafest will be bigger and better next year, and I’m looking forward to indulging once more.

(Photo from Kootation.)

Crash Discussion: We Take a Bite Out of Vampires, Episode 17

PodcastimageVampires are cool, sexy, and immortal, but that isn’t enough to explain the love of bloodsuckers. Billy Crash and Jonny Numb traverse the Gothic landscape to unravel why vampires are so beloved and indulge in discussing some of the best films the subgenre has to offer.

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Crash Analysis: THE KILLING GENE (UK, 2007)

If you liked SEVEN…

A couple of nice turns for the serial killer subgenre…

Though more of a crime/thriller, there’s enough gore and disturbing elements to shove posterthis movie into the horror vein, and it is labeled as such. I hadn’t heard of THE KILLING GENE until I began looking at more work from the amazing Melissa George (30 DAYS OF NIGHT, TRIANGLE). And as soon as I realized the equally fabulous Stellan Skarsgard (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO series, INSOMNIA) also played the lead, it was my first no-brainer in a long damn time.

THE KILLING GENE script comes from the pen of Clive Bradley, best known for his television work, especially with “Waking the Dead,” and he delivers a gritty, noir tale that’s free and wide open. Director Tom Shankland (THE CHILDREN, and the forthcoming DARK CORNERS) brings the film to light, though there may be less than a handful of minutes where the sun almost shines. Regardless, Shankland lets his actors dive head first into their characters, and few are likable. All seem dirty, tainted by the grime of the eternally dark streets that they roam. In less than ten minutes of viewing, I wanted to take a shower and rub my skin off with pumice stone.

In this ugly tale of torture and murder, Eddie Argo (Skarsgard) and Helen Westcott (George) are on the trail of a serial killer with one twisted agenda of revenge. And as for revenge tales, this is one of the most interesting and disturbing premises I’ve seen in a long, damn time. But never fear, it’s not a slow and tedious police procedural, and we don’t have to worry about meddling officials or slow courtroom banter. The cast is small, the city vast, and the visceral mayhem is up close and personal.

Sure, the acting’s solid, and Morton Soborg’s (VALHALLA RISING, THE GIFT) cinematography truly captures the graininess of the nasty and unremorseful streets, but through all the tumult and suspense, there are problems. As with most movies of this ilk, our gruff cops seem to keep a blind eye to all things legal. As far as they’re concerned, they’re princes of the city, allowed to roam every avenue, and they can equally ignore “the book” to get shit done for the greater good. At times, things happened in the film that throws police procedure way out the window. I’m sorry, but if gang members start whipping out guns right and left, cops would be hauling their asses in jail, not turn away and leave them to their own devices. Furthermore, the most successful gangs keep things on the down low as much as possible, and wouldn’t risk such stupid and blatant exposure. There’s just too much of the over-the-top “movie reality” versus “reality” that cheapens the movie. Additionally, though a UK production, the city is supposedly New York. Though modern in scope, it seems to capture the rough and tumble streets of the eighties and early nineties more than anything else. It’s hard to buy into how sick the streets are in the narrative considering that the bulk of New York seems to be an offshoot of Disneyland nowadays.

As for those little twists and turns, I’d love to mention them, but that would sink the film for you. Suffice to say, both turns were well executed and long over due in the genre. Though they may not surprise ever viewer, they both serve as a relief from the hackneyed formula.

THE KILLING GENE would make a great double bill with SEVEN. Even though the latter does have its farfetched moments, it still has the edge over Shankland’s modern noir. Even so, if you’re looking for a crime thriller that’s hard hitting without an apology, this is the one you need to check out.

Let me know what you think…

3.5 out of 5 stars

(Photo from Bloody Disgusting)