Monday, June 29, 2009

Peak Oil? You Wish! - When Hydrocarbons Attack

Unless you are an especially dedicated hobo, hippie, or hermit, you used a petroleum product today. It fuels cars, powers homes, and makes for some dandy plastic trinkets. The cold hard truth is that our civilization cannot survive without oil. If it all vaporized tomorrow, everything we have come to know, love, and take for granted would be completely proper fucked. That's not likely to happen, but unless we start cloning dinosaurs1 and sending them back in time to die in volcanoes, it will inevitably run out some day, resulting in chaos, war, famine, and other apocalyptic nastiness. To make matters worse, by the time any of that becomes the "near future" the environment may have already been ravaged beyond salvation by petroleum's combustive byproducts.

There is a lot of doom, gloom, and nervous hand wringing over the use of oil, as well as much vicious arguing between those who fear what will happen when we run out, those who fear what will happen if we don't run out soon enough, and those who fear what the first two groups will do to prevent their worrisome hypotheses. Not to mention the folks who make their livings either directly from oil, or by reassuring the nervous, motoring public that everything is hunky dory. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, it is obvious that the developed world is deeply conflicted about fossil fuels.

One thing that fiction of a fantastical nature is excellent at (besides being entertaining and totally awesome) is exploring society's unease and curiosity with various technologies and philosophies that, for one reason or another (primarily because they don't exist... yet), can't be experimented with directly. Cloning is an excellent example; as the technology creeps ever closer to reality, science fiction stories begin popping up in order to explore the murky, ethical depths.2 Considering the numerous issues of massive scale that petroleum raises, as well as its ancient, mysterious nature, it's surprising that there aren't more oil related sci-fi and horror tales. In the world of moving pictures, there are just barely enough to extrapolate a trend. Without further adieu, here they are:

PT Anderson's loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair's Oil! is not a horror film, despite the impression created by its sanguinary title and musical score, but it makes an excellent proxy for the much larger genre of "serious" oil films. (Syriana would probably be a better example, but I ain't seen it.) It follows Daniel Day Lewis as an indecorous oil tycoon with a gruff, sing-song, awesomely quotable way of talking. After discovering oil during a near death experience in his silver mine, he develops an insatiable lust for the challenges and rewards of slurping the black stuff out of the ground. As his supply grows, his already surly demeanor deteriorates into whiskey fueled madness, ultimately revealing that even his one selfless act was merely a pretense to further his ruthless professional goals.

The simple core of the film could have revolved around any period boom industry; there is no suggestion that the protagonist would have been a decent guy had he dealt in silver or tulips instead of the black blood of the earth. He's just a greedy dick. The petroleum industry, with its inherent dangers and geographic realities, merely colors the film with combustible unease.

How they stop it: DRAINAGE!!! and something about milkshakes.

Before it was the butt of winking Kevin Smith jokes, this Affleck saturated shit-fest was a novel by Dean Koontz (I don't know if that is a step up or down) in which an entire town is mysteriously wiped clean of all life. Mary Celeste scenes abound as people vanish from locked rooms and running cars without visible signs of struggle. Its up to Affleck, Rose McGowan, and Peter O'Toole (as a famous researcher called to the scene by the monster itself) to figure out what the heck is going on.

It turns out that the town has been attacked by a giant shoggoth like petroleum creature with the ability to create evil duplicates of any creatures it absorbs. (The titular 'phantoms') Among other historical mischief, it may have caused the Roanoke disappearances. Now it is hungry again, and as it absorbs the minds of terrified townsfolk, it develops human personality traits and becomes convinced that it is the devil. Lethal, unkillable, and kind of a jerk, Ben Affleck is the only one who can defeat it.

Shoggoths, the giant living construction blobs created by strange aeons ago by Earth's first masters, and evil oil monsters have a lot in common: they're very old, usually found underground, can mold their amorphous bodies into various usefull shapes, and will painfully dissolve/absorb people on sight. Also, I imagine they smell pretty raunchy.

How they stop it: First they manipulate its douchey new ego to buy themselves some time, then they unleash convenient petroleum eating bacteria on its formless ass equivalent.

One of the rare macguffin-creatures from the venerable X-files that is in anyway memorable, (excluding "monsters of the week" of course) the black oil was a mysterious black... um... oil like substance that hid away for millions of years in non-evil petroleum deposits before eventually escaping to become one of the many confusing puzzle pieces in the show's convoluted "mytharc" episodes.

I never paid enough as a pre-teen to figure out exactly what the hell was going on, but thanks to the nerdy magic of the wiki, I now know it as more than "the black stuff that got into Krycek's eyes and made him do stuff." An extraterrestrial virus known as Purity, the oil predates humans and possibly most other life on Earth. (Which I guess means its not really extraterrestrial.) It mostly keeps to itself, occasionally surfacing to infect cavemen or WWII bomber pilots, and more may have stopped by the planet in the Tunguska blast. Outside of a host it can merely ooze menacingly around, but once it infects a human, not only does the victims eyes get all gross, but it can control their actions and unleash lethal radiation on others.

Apparently it is a key element in the bad aliens' plan to enslave the human race. (I remember something about spreading it with bees in that awfully titled movie) Not only does it control its victims, but it appears to be just one stage in the life cycle of a more complex organism. Some victims, when exposed to intense heat, incubate clawed gray aliens that emerge chestburster style. (How come extraterrestrials have all evolved needlessly complex reproductive processes?)

How they stop it: Vaccines developed by the Soviet Union's equivalent to the evil shadow government.

Loosely3 based on a short story by Ambrose Bierce, this installment of the consistently mediocre anthology series Masters of Horror follows ex-Boondock Saint Sean Patrick Flanery as the permanently constipated sheriff of a small town with dark secrets. As a child, his father once unexpectedly proclaimed that the 'damned thing' had found him. Papa then followed up his non-sequiter with a murderous rampage, offing his wife and crippling his son before the unseen 'thing' messily disembowels him.

Years later, the sheriff is living in the same house, constantly walking around like he has just 'taken one dry' (as the saying goes), and swiftly burning through his long suffering wife's last remaining patience. Then everyone in town starts going koo-koo for killing people. It turns out that their is a pool of malevolent oil underneath the region that is not only responsible for the hero's traumatic backstory, but also once wiped out an entire town that made the mistake of constructing an oil well. It appears to function like an extra mean version of the slime river in Ghostbusters 2.

People drift in and out of kill craziness, Ted Raimi shows up as a priest/red-shirt/psycho, and the sheriff manages to avoid killing his family long enough for them to flee town. He then proclaims that the oil wants him to 'dig it up' right before a whole mess of it bursts from the ground and swallows him. (I guess it changed its mind.)

How they stop it: Run away! What is it going to do, pump itself out of the ground, seal itself in barrels, then roll the barrels down hills to chase and crush people? (Actually that sounds kind of awesome.) Driving far away seems to do the trick, but in an ironic twist of fate, the survivors' car runs out of gasoline, allowing the evil oil to catch up with them.

The most overtly political of the angry petroleum micro-genre, Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter is a surprisingly decent Arctic survival thriller that oozes with apocalyptic dread and Lovcraftian "whoopsy I dug up an ancient and certain doom" moments. It derives plenty of suspense mileage out of the strange acid+base style chemistry between being heavily derivative of John Carpenter's The Thing and attempting subtlety.

Phantasm II's James LeGros and the never not awesome Ron Perlman star as the two sides of the Arctic drilling debate. (The film's major failing is that they never evolve into true meat & bone characters.) Stuck in an isolated outpost, they continually bicker about the best, safest, and most eco-friendly ways to get the drilling equipment across the inhospitable tundra.

Temperatures are up across the wasteland, causing problems with "ice road" construction, and to make matters worse, some unseen force is slowly driving the supporting cast out of their gourds. LeGros suspects sour gas is being released from the (former permafrost) by global warming, Perlman assumes it is a mere case of 'nerves,' and one of the more twitchy redshirts becomes convinced that it's the restless spirits of the ancient creatures constituting the oil beneath them.

Occam's razor be damned: it turns out that giant, pissed off, super caribou ghosts are running amok. The shit hits the fan, people begin dying mysteriously, and our heroes eventually have to get over their mutual animosity for the sake of basic winter survival.

How they stop it: Cap & Trade! -- Actually they don't. By the time anyone realizes that global warming has unleashed an army of ghostly mega caribou, it is already too late.

Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments if you've seen any other Evil Oil movies.

1. I am aware that fossil fuels mostly come from plant matter and phytoplankton, but as Soundgarden and the senescent Johnny Cash proved, it sounds way cooler to say "burning diesel, burning dinosaur bones" than "burning diesel, burning zooplankton mud."

2. No, this doesn't make The 6th Day an important film; it's just a part of a larger trend.

3. "Loosely" meaning that they have the same title.... and nothing else. How they went from a monster who can't be seen because its color is outside the visible spectrum of light to madness inducing petroleum is beyond me.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Anniversary (1968)

Whether it's horror, black comedy, or one of those tragic, weepy Lifetime originals, there are a few surefire ways to make a "dark" film. The most obvious of which is having as much cruel, gruesome death as possible. If the budget can't stomach the gore, then create likable, sympathetic characters and rain shit on them for 90 minutes. (Bonus points if they have tragic character flaws that incur said shit-rain.) For a more complex and rewarding route to evil, take a concept or institution universally accepted as positive and portray it through a twisted funhouse mirror. As body horror provokes a reaction though the abjection of the human form, similar revulsion can be induced by the abjection of social moorings. For the least specific example possible, look to the perversion of all possible human interaction in the innumerable Body Snatcher films. (At least the ones with downer endings.)

In horror films, one of the richest and most popular subjects to "corrupt" in this manner is motherhood. In every culture across the planet, almost nothing is more revered than the bond between mother and child. Despite some of the unpleasant physical processes involved in its early phases, (excluding the very first step, which is awesome) motherhood is one of the most sacred institutions imaginable. With such a tall pedestal, it only makes sense that the forces of fictional darkness should attack with such vigor. After all, the crater from that fall is guaranteed to be huge. We all know how much the forces of darkness enjoy huge craters and labored metaphors.
Artist's Rendering

In the sub-genre of 'baby anti-christ' films, motherhood is often corrupted for the purposes of evil. The slightly unstable heroine of Rosmary's Baby, upon being impregnated with the seed of Satan, is forced to choose between her overpowering maternal instincts and the fact that her baby is a cloven, cat-eyed abomination of ultimate terror. (I guess that could still be cute in the 'big head-small body' configuration.) Thus the simple, biological urge to do good is corrupted.On the gooier end of the spectrum is the Alien franchise and its legions of imitators. The creatures' overly complicated, invasive, and parasitic method of reproduction can be viewed as a grim parody of mammalian reproduction. Instead of the story of birth ending with the creature hatching from its egg, the larval facehugger must locate a victim to impregnate. Unfortunately for the unwilling "mother," the final creature has no interest in using any of the pre-approved birthing egresses; the iconic chestbursting method is just fine by it. While it is true that the violent co-opting of another lifeform for hatching young is nothing new for terrestrial fauna, it never happens on a scale appreciable to humans in a non-fictional setting. Also, there is the little matter of creature designer HR Giger making everything look as much like penises and vaginae as possible.

Another great example of the abjection of birth: David Cronenberg's The Brood. (Psycho mom makes snowsuit clad killer anger-babies; check it out.)

Finally there is the simplest and most obvious take on motherhood's dark side: the Mean Mom. Even though motherhood is a sacred institution, there is no cosmic rule demanding a Marge Simpson or Jesus-like dedication to the post. Plenty of moms in the real world fail to live up to its cultural ideals, as do plenty of their fictional counterparts. Plenty more do their absolute darnedest to be indelible scourges on the fruit of their loins. The preeminent cinematic example is Mommie Dearest, the Joan Crawford biopic/craziness exposé and camp classic.
Wire Hanger Joke Goes Here

The Anniversary (you know, that movie I should have been writing about 4 paragraphs weeks ago) falls squarely into the Mean Mom camp. In fact, the monstrous matriarch is such a snarling hellbeast that the film could almost justify its trailer's perplexing inclusion with Anchor Bay's "shitty horror collection" that you can find at the beginning of all their DVDs produced within a certain timeframe. Otherwise I'd be hard pressed to come up with a connecting thread between it and Bad Dreams. (Which incidentally looks pretty awful.)
Fear the Doily

Said hellbeast is played with gusto by the terrifying, husk of Bette Davis, though it is hard to scry the once lovely lady through the eyepatch, makeup, and brown dentures. She's terrifying even before opening her mouth. It would be a revelatory performance (of the sort studio starlets seem to always have once their looks go) if she hadn't already been an iconic psycho-shrew six years earlier in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a film whose long shadow Davis' character just barely manages to escape from. (The rest of the film is not so lucky.)
The story centers around Davis' Mrs. Taggart and her loopy brood of luckless sons. Together they operate a construction firm that specializes in fast work, low prices, and dubious quality. Every year she rounds everyone up to celebrate the anniversary of her wedding to the boys' long dead father. They respond by drawing the emotional battle-lines and plotting to finally take the cruel bitch down.
Young Tom is an incorrigible womanizer, bringing a new finance to the celebration each year. His latest catch, Shirley, is smart, beautiful, secretly pregnant, and once informed of the verbal threat that her future mother-in-law poses, ready for scrapping. Terry the middle child is a handsome but meek family man with a domineering wife and a prodigious progeny. His spouse Karen has sparred with Mrs. Taggart before, and has their plans to emigrate to Canada (they're British in case you were wondering) up her sleeve when things get dicey. The oldest brother is Henry, who is almost completely acquiescent to his mother, siblings, and overwhelming urges to wear women's clothing.

They are all steeled for conflict and ready to join forces, but when Mom finally descends the stairs it all goes to pot. Easily able to manipulate and emasculate her children one at a time, she deftly plays them against each other by constantly alternating which she favors. Combined with her ironclad grip on her late husband's contracting fortune, she can effortlessly sow dissent in her kids' unified front. Terry and Karen's plan to emigrate is preemptively diffused with the gift of an expensive home, while Tom and Shirley are offered diddily bupkis. Near the end of the film, when the situation's dynamics have radically changed, she reverses her decision and gives the money to the engaged couple instead of Terry. (Who now desperately needs it)
You guys remember that scene in Scanners?

In addition to being cruel, vindictive, and downright mean (she politely accuses Shirley of having terrible body odor for no reason other than to piss her off, then follows up by calmly telling Karen that all her children have died in a car wreck) Mrs. Taggart provides many textbook examples of how crush children under the weight of immense Freudian issues. In one of the film's more disturbing moments, she plants a big gooey kiss right on poor Tom's mouth. Possible attempt to suck his soul, or just another way to show Shirley just how messed up her fiance's family is. All the boys have inherited terrible issues with relating to women, though each manifests differently. Terry has settled down with another dominant woman as a replacement for his cruel mum; she's not nearly as mean and he can boink her without any disturbing incest issues, but mainly she is a proxy or shield for/from Mrs. Taggart. Tom flirts his way through vast oceans of pussy, but tosses each girl aside either due to pressure from his mom or fear that they will lord over him like Terry's wife. Henry, as told by his brothers, took the easy route to escape their mother: "round the bend." Incapable of reconciling his mommy issues or dealing with people in general (girls in particular), he finds it easier to just let people walk all over him. Oh yeah, and he pathologically steals and wears ladies underwear, which happens to be a surprisingly serious crime in '60s England.
The pieces are all in place on the chessboard of familial battle, and the film has already established its coal black comedic heart. Judging from the trailer (posted below) and the fact that this is a '60s Hammer Film, it could easily be assumed that the movie will quickly escalate into violence. No dice. A quick glance at the credits reveals that the film is based on a stage play. Actually no checking of the credits is necessary; if you were to make it through the first act without noticing the picture's obvious dramaturgical roots, then you are completely daft and beyond help. Aside from a handful of token location changes and a couple of scenes that would have originally happened off stage, the whole thing reeks of the legitimate theater.
Hello, I have the crazy.

The problem is that what works on stage often falls flat on the screen. The intricate and slowly revealed web of motivations, influences, and general scheming, along with the vicious and equally intricate verbal sparring, when viewed on a television screen a half century later, seems talky and inert. Davis is clearly enjoying her time as a cyclopean horror and there are some entertaining "oh snap!" moments, as when she finally discovers Shirley's ultimate weakness (Spoiler: cauliflower ears) or the semi-climactic "how I got my eyepatch" monologue. (MegaSpoiler™: young Terry accidentally shot her with a bb-gun and is thusly wracked with guilt, so any attempt to use it against her just makes him feel bad.)
While watching The Anniversary, I often thought of the episode of Spaced where Tim and Daisy have a verbal argument that is acted out via a Tekken match. The characters twist and parry each other's words so deftly and often that I kept waiting for health bars to appear or at least big red letters proclaiming things like "Wicked Comeback" or "Low Blow - Finish Him!"
In the end the film is only tangentially related to the genre's usually explored at Video Updates, but like many horror films, the villain ultimately succeeds in crushing the poor heroes' spirits. Though unlike those films, our sympathies lie squarely with the victims. Crazy eye-patch Bette Davis may be a sadly ignored character in pop culture, but she is far to big of a bitch to be as sympathetic as, say, Jason Vorhees.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Death to Mannequins

Sorry folks, Knarf is suffering from a crippling bout of "the stupid." I'll try to get things back on track this week, work and E3 news be damned. (Left 4 Dead 2 - Holy crap!)

Coming soon:

-Whatever Happened to Baby Anchor Bay Week?

-Tales of the Well Intentioned but Dangerously Psychotic.

-Peak Oil? You Wish - When Killer Mutant Petroleum Products Attack

-Knarf Finally Watches Class of 1999 While Sober

For now, feast your eyes on the most dangerous monster of all: the semi-animate mannequin.

The horrors.

And most terrifying of all.