Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mini Review: The Red Shoes (2005)

I'm a real sucker for Asian horror (J & K mostly, C & T should probably stick to martial arts movies) but like the slashers and 'torture porns' of the West, a solid decade of profit-minded genre strip mining has boiled things down to the stale mush of familiarity. By now the tropes are just as well established as the horny teens, final girls, and creative kills of the Friday the 13th franchise. Pale, creepy-eyed spirits with long black hair over their faces float around uncomfortably close to terrified faces, while jump scares accompany every reflective surface and cramped, over-the-shoulder camera angle. The plots inevitably drift towards either traditional ghost-story spookiness, or 21st century techno-terror of the viral variety.

2005 Korean creeper, The Red Shoes, waffles a bit between the two story types for variety, but in spite of being a technically solid entry in the classification, it never emerges from the shadows of the superior films it seeks to emulate. Ostensibly based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name, the film follows the hapless exploits of saucer-eyed beauty Sun-jae (Kim Hye-su) who walks in on her philandering husband one day and ends up in almost the exact same situation as the heroine of J-Horror standard Dark Water. (Becoming a single mother with a shitty apartment.)After an eerily effective pre-credits sequence (which later gets shoehorned into the main story, tearing open a massive, unexplained plot hole) and the aforementioned familial strife, the shoe obsessed Sun-jae discovers an enthralling pair of pink high heels abandoned on the subway and claims them for herself. It becomes quickly apparent that the shoes have supernatural powers, causing the various women who come into contact to become unnaturally obsessed. Almost immediately, Sun-jae's daughter Tae-soo falls under their spell, and the two girls bicker viciously over the pumps' ownership. To make matters worse, the various secondary characters who steal or otherwise wear the shoes begin meeting horrific, foot amputation related deaths.

If you are already an Asian horror junky, or if you want to dive into the genre from a different spot than the crowds, you could do far worse than The Red Shoes. It boasts decent acting and effective scare sequences. The cinematography is fair to excellent, with lots of blues and grays for the evil fuschia footwear to 'pop' against and very liberal use of CG depth of field effects. Locations are also excellent, contrasting the sterile, vaguely futuristic Seoul subway system with the lead's dilapidated apartment complex.

The problem is that almost everything in the story can be traced back to a better (or at least earlier) film. It's got a Ring-esque cursed object that supernaturally spreads itself through the population, the previously discussed marital and maternal difficulties, and thanks to the increasingly exploitative Ju-on series, it is now nearly impossible to think of original ways for the pale skinned, black haired ghosts to sneak up on people. (Don't take Japanese/Korean elevators at night, kids.) Even the fugue state twist at the end is straight out of A Tale of Two Sisters, Spider Forest, or anything by Charlie Kaufman's fictional brother.

It's on Netflix Instant Watch, so it's not like you have anything to lose. Watch it here.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Technical Difficulties

Full Video Updates reviews are on temporary hiatus while I sort out an irritatingly timed hard drive failure on my primary computer. Expect some mini-reviews and detritus in the meanwhile.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Devil's Rain (1975)

The Devil's Rain was colossal fuck-up. Despite having a spectacular cast, a solid premise, and an honest-to-god Satanist on board as a technical adviser, the movie failed so spectacularly that it destroyed or irreparably damaged the careers of almost everyone involved. The press hated it, audiences hated it, and Jesus almost certainly hated it, considering the subject matter. The director, having already established himself with the Dr. Phibes movies, went on to die a slow career death making after school specials. The writers' IMDB pages are far spookier ghost towns than the spooky ghost town found within the movie. The only person involved to have a career upswing afterwards was John Travolta, and that's because he was merely an eyeless background shemp. Even Anton LaVey, the film's technical advisor from the Church of Satan, probably leaves the film off his resume.Things start off promising enough. After a nice opening credits montage of Hieronymus Bosch paintings, the film dives right into the crazy with a media in res scene of William Shatner arguing with his mother Ida Lupino over her recurring nightmares. Dad has apparently gone missing in the rainstorm, and senile ol' gramps just keeps making more coffee to keep everyone on edge.The father finally shows up, only he is missing his eyeballs and melting rapidly. (Acid rain?) Before dissolving completely, he demands they return 'the book' to some dude named Corbis out in the desert. It looks like cowboy hatted Captain Kirk has himself an adventure to embark upon. Ida gives him the worlds largest, creepiest crucifix and sends him on his way.So Shatner leaves for little more than two seconds, just long enough to walk slowly to his truck, find a creepy voodoo doll of his mom, and run back inside, and suddenly the whole house is completely trashed. Grandpa is strung upside down and beaten around the face, and Ida is nowhere to be found. This is where the real meat and potatoes of the movie begins: people walking slowly through rooms. Nothing creates more tension than William Shatner walking suspensfully through a room that he was already in not more than five minutes ago. It is starting to look like the movie will not have the crackerjack editing its breathless opening scene would have us believe.

With the movie's pacing completely upended, the editor obviously felt like he could relax things by a few thousand notches. Shatner hops into his awesome station wagon and proceeds on his mystical quest, which turns out to mostly involve driving through the desert, followed by more driving through the desert, until finally coming to a gradual stop at the local Wild West Tourist attraction.He briefly explores the backlot ghost town before running into the real reason to be watching The Devil's Rain, Ernest Borgnine operating at maximum creepy. First appearing as a cowboy creeper, he feigns hospitality by giving Shatner some bitter well water. Kirk's having nothing of it, and over the course of a tense conversation their relationship is established. Borgnine is the evil Corbis previously mentioned, and he has apparently converted Wild West Town into a Satanic cult. He desperately wants a book in the possession of Shatner's family, but he's got to deal with his surly attitude, faith in Jesus, and .45 pistol first. (In that order.)
You know what I don't hate? I don't hate vests.

We're still in the first act and it's already showdown time. Shatner proposes a challenge of faith to Borgnine, the book and his life vs. his kidnapped family members. Satanists, taking after their master, apparently get their rocks off with bargains and challenges, so Ernest giddily accepts. They head to the nearby boarded up church for an old fashioned faith-off, which seems like kind of a boneheaded move on William's part, but still pales in comparison to the unceasing, epic numbskullery the audience will be subjected to by the end of the film. Not since The Rats, have I seen a film with heroes concocting such terrible stratagems.
Thy... kingdomcome, Thy... willbedone, On... Earthasitis in... heaven.

Inside the church, Shatner nervously adapts the Lord's prayer in his signature style, while Borgnine, blessed with the instant costume change powers of darkness, performs a black mass for his be-cloaked cultists. His intestinal fortitude failing, Shatner turns away from the service to discover his mother, now missing her ocular organs, amongst the congregation. This proves too much for our hero's nerves, and he switches out the protective mega-cross for the more concrete protection of a handgun. Since the cultists appear to be filled with some sort of sherbet or frozen yogurt like substance (possibly the Stuff?), the weapon is surprisingly effective.
In a rare moment of decent cinematography, Kirk exits the tainted temple and makes his escape halfback style through the swarming cultists. While the children of Lucifer lack the running or tackling skills to stop him, they already planted a guy in the driver's seat of his station wagon.

Now that the film's pace has picked back up, it is obviously time to grind to a screeching halt in order to introduce an entire new cast of characters. Yay! Silly Shatner fans, this is really a Tom Skerrit movie. He's a scientist and William's brother, so when his psychic wife/specimen receives a distress signal from his rapidly shrinking family, it's time to go solve some mysteries with Science. He packs up the misses and fellow scientician, Eddie Albert, for a quick road trip to the barren, middle-of-nowhere desert where his family resides. (Why the hell do they live in the same region as the dark forces hunting them?)There is quite a bit of promise in this turn of events; while Shatner's faith based solution faltered against the righteousness of evil Ernest, Skerrit's character has two things his brother lacked: science and a 'stache. (See the 1973 film Pioneer Woman for an honest to goodness Shanter mustache--handlebar no less.) Scientists versus Satan? It worked like a charm for Prince of Darkness and Quatermass & The Pit. (Yeah yeah, Satan turned out to be space grasshoppers. Big deal.) The problem is that whenever it finds a spot to inject actual ideas, The Devil's Rain is content to inject mindless filler instead. There is no science v. magic smackdown, just Skeritt walking suspensfully through Satanic churches and western sets.Finding no help from local law enforcement, the gang heads to the ghost town to investigate. Their car randomly explodes, but a crazy cultist is tooling around in Shatner's beat up wagon. They chase him into the old hotel set, and nothing of interest happens for a while. Eventually Tom gets the drop on the eyeless goon so his telepathic wife can suck exposition out of its head.Thanks to an endless, orange-hued flashback, it turns out that Ernest Borgnine is a three century old Satanic priest who was burned at the stake after his congregation is ratted out by the wife of a wig sporting old-timey William Shatner. He was a direct ancestor of the film's leads, and Borgy damned their whole family with a prophetic curse. Why he bothered to do this while they were being burned at the stake alongside him is a mystery, but they must have somehow managed to pump out and raise some children before becoming crispy critters, because their lineage has obviously been established.

Having fought a goon and solved part of the mystery, they decide to leave town. Only Skeritt changes his mind or something, because he stops at the edge of town, gets out, and sends his wife on her way while he continues the investigation. This is Shitty Plan #1, because not only does he no longer have a method of quick escape when things inevitably go off the rails, but his Satanically controlled mom is hiding in the back seat of the car. When she pops up for a scare, his wife's reaction is to completely let go of the wheel in order to cover her head. Car meets tree; wife meets Ernest Borgnine.Back in town, Tom is still walking suspensfully. He tracks the Satanists to a nearby rocky outcropping and observes them performing an elaborate ritual on a restrained Shatner. They burn a waxen effigy of him, carve crap onto his chest, and purify him with the "water of forgetfulness." During the process, Borgnine calls forth Satan himself, who obliges by entering his body, revealing the awesome power of Satan-goat-man-thing-guy.The ritual, which Skeritt makes no attempt to disrupt, is a resounding success. The result: Shatner loses his eyeballs and becomes possessed by the spirit of his long dead forefather. Impressive, but how come it takes them so long to convert William that his brother manages to travel from wherever he was doing sciencey stuff, investigate the town, and show up in time for the main attraction, when they managed to do the same to their mom in less time than it took for Shatner to merely drive across the desert? Also, how did Ida get from the station wagon to the ceremony in time to expose her remaining non-evil son, and why didn't she take the wife along with her? And how do they not already know about Tom Skeritt, if they had planted a trap in the station wagon? Wasn't it day time just a minute ago? What the hell is happening?

Obviously this whole desert exists in some kind of Satanic spacetime warp, because after Tom takes out a couple cultists with a shotgun and makes his escape, he miraculously appears back at the ranch the next day. He also loses the gun in the process, and even though he would just have to walk down some stairs that he probably has to go down anyway, he doesn't bother to retrieve it. It's almost like the good guys want to lose.Back at home base with Eddie Albert, the two men have the worlds most casual conversation about Satanic forces and missing wives. Tom gets a little riled up at one point, but no more so than if they were arguing the merits of string theory. Ed has located the magic macguffin book and uses it to quickly fill in the remaining exposition gaps. It turns out that Hell is a vicious bureaucracy (why am I not surprised?) that requires extensive paperwork on the souls delivered to it. Inside, Borgnine had written down all the names of his parishioners in blood. Without the names, their souls can't be properly delivered to Satan and must remain in some sort of limbo related to the ill defined eponymous precipitation.

So it's established that the villain desperately needs this tome to complete his evil scheme to deliver a bunch of colonial era souls to the devil. (Step 3 is profit.) Instead of burning the book, flying it to Istanbul, or otherwise preventing him from obtaining it, they use their powerful science-brains to formulate an even worse plan than Shatner's previous 'walk right into the evil church and sit down' idea. At least Captain Kirk had the good sense not to take Borgnine's coveted macguffin along with him; the scientists not only take it with them after deciding to go right back to evilburg, they accidentally leave it sitting on the church floor for a random cultist to pick up while passing by. For a while I thought they were setting up a trap with the book as bait, but no dice; after the sheriff randomly shows up as an eyeless axe wielding muppet (When the fuck did they have time to get him?) it gets dropped on the floor and completely forgotten about.
Jesus Christ! Waldorf is trying to fucking kill me!

The expedition is not a total wash. They do manage to locate and steal the Devil's Rain in between losing both the book and yet another shotgun. (Maybe you should have brought a second gun instead of the goddamn source of the villain's power, chowderheads.) It turns out to be the giant lovechild of a Fabergé egg and a Chumby. Inside it's viewing screen, which is actually a pretty nifty effect, are the wailing souls of Borgnine's follower-victims.Before they can beat another hasty retreat, the Satanists show up en masse to unite the book with its magic console TV. Instead of immediately smashing the fragile looking thing, Eddie casually walks to the center of the room and offers to exchange it for Borgnine's recently aquired 20th century souls. He makes a big deal out of not over or under-estimating the Satanists' power, but it rings a little hollow since he is just standing in the middle of a huge swarm of them with no weaponry or plan. Sure enough, evil Shatner has only to reach out and easily snatch the macguffin from him. So every single thing the heroes have done in this movie has only made the antagonist's job easier. If they would have stayed in bed he'd have been fucked.Fortunately for the mouth breathing forces of good, the Shatner ancestor currently occupying Shatner prime's body finds one last sliver of free will, and before you can say "deus ex machina" he performs the movie's first sensible act by tossing the egg/tv/soul-jar/chumby thing to the ground. Ker-Pow! The church's roof blows off so that the Devil's Rain can finally rain down... as rain.
Does this thing get the Playboy channel?

Depending on who you ask, this is where the film either finally gets good or goes completely off the deep end. The rain, if you remember from the first scene, makes the eyeless cultists melt into waxy goo. The next ten or so minutes of the movie is all melting, all the time. They melt. Goat-Borgnine melts. Everyone melts some more. Skeritt and Goatnine wrassle a little. More melting. The church explodes a bit. Melting.To mix things up, the cultists appear to not be melting for a couple shots, but they are actually still melting. Then the church explodes again. Everyone looks sad at each other then melts some more. (It's hard not to look sad when you are melting, though.) Is this a special Devil's Rain that is making them melt, or does any water do it, like for the Wicked Witch? That would certainly explain the desert setting.
Patch Adams with a headful of cold medicine notwithstanding, I don't usually fall asleep during movies, but I'm pretty sure I nodded off a bit during the melt-tastic climax. When I awoke moments later, everyone was... still melting.

Meanwhile, the heroes have rescued the damsel in distress and make their way to a safe distance. Eddie Albert slinks away so they can have a tender moment in front of the raging inferno and gooey remains of their tormenters. But wait, there's more: in a completely original and totally not pulled out of anyone's ass twist ending, it turns out that Tom Skeritt is actually embracing Ernest Borgnine! The film then fades out with a legitimately creepy shot of the psychic wife starring out from what is apparently a backup Devil's Rain. (One soul? Satan's gonna be pissed.) Spooky, until you think about it for two seconds. When did it happen? How did it happen? How come no one used shapeshifting powers earlier? Where is Eddie Albert in all this?The Devil's Rain is not a movie, it is a second string Twilight Zone episode stretched with more tasteless filler than North Korean meatloaf. There is at least a solid hour of footage that could be cut from the film without disrupting the 'plot', and it might actually benefit from some disruption. It's pretty clear that the filmmakers came up with the various elements before trying to wrangle them into a cohesive plot. There is an occasional bout of excuse making, such as the sheriff's recalcitrance towards helping the investigation, but mostly things just happen without rhyme or reason. Someone had an idea for a cool scare scene in the car, so Skeritt just abandons his wife. The plot required Borgnine to somehow get ahold of his prized macguffin, so the heroes just bring it along and practically hand it to him. There was a cheap western backlot available, so they set the whole thing in a desert. Basically, everything that happens can be more easily traced to an artifact of the arduous process of making a movie than to any reasonable logic of character or story. It's just plain awful, and that is coming from someone who considers Man's Best Friend one of his favorite films.Also, a special place in hell needs to be set aside for those responsible for authoring the terrible DVD Netflix sent me. The best thing I can say about it is that it was not pan-and-scan. It was not an anamorphic transfer, looks only marginally better than VHS, and is so poorly mastered that you can actually see individual keyframes. They are noticable because they are the only times when the film's considerable grain is visible; otherwise the grain is compressed into blurry, geometric artifacts. This creates a strange rhythm to the film, as every third or so frame is grainy, while the rest are not. It was actually a little more fun to watch than the film itself.

For more "Meltocaust" action, check out this month's Final Girl Film Club. There are legions more folk giving this film the lighthearted ribbing it so terribly deserves, so check 'em out (if only to compare the metaphors used to describe the crazy TV jar... thing).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Someone Please Make This: Videodrome Videogame

Don't you hate it when you get an idea for something, but it is merely an expansion, adaptation, or otherwise entangled with an established intellectual property? Unless your name is Kevin Smith, you'll probably never be able to actually do anything with that awesome Batman storyline kicking around inside your skull. This soon to be recurring column is an attempt to exorcise such brainstorms and make room for more useful thinking.First up: rather than butchering it with a remake, someone should make a videogame adaptation of my all time favorite film, Videodrome. That seems a little goofy at first blush, but I think it would be a perfect fit. Imagine if you will, a gritty first person action game in the vein of the underrated, imperfect Condemned series. The storyline would have to unfold in the aftermath of the film, possibly revolving around a journalist or detective investigating the fate of deceased former protagonist Max Renn. The malicious spread of the eponymous signal through a subverted Cathode Ray Mission would provide a bestiary of mutating hobos for the necessary canon fodder. In a shout-out to both Bioshock and the source material's plot, the player could initially be used as a pawn against Bianca Oblivion, perhaps even taking her out before realizing the error of his(your) ways. (If this is all going over your head, you should definitely go rent the movie. It's the tits.)There is plenty of untapped conspiratorial potential in the movie's world, but so far it seems like videogame boilerplate. The special Videodrome twist stems from the Motif of Harmful Sensation. Since it is a first person game, looking or not looking at the legions of TV screens and videotapes within the game would factor heavily into gameplay. The player would be exposed to the initial, irreversible does of the signal near the beginning of the game, and accumulating enough exposure eventually kills the player ends the game. This would obviously have to be a high number to make the game playable, but could open up a range of different endings based on how far the player had progressed in the story before maxing out his dosage of videodrome viewing.To add another wrinkle to the gameplay, the player could accumulate his own collection of both videodrome and normal tapes. Normal tapes would function as the usual System Shock-y storyline advancing collectibles, but since the drome signal is affected by the video subject matter overlaid on it, the player could collect tapes with "weak" signals and record useful video on them in order to upgrade his or her rapidly evolving mutated powers. For instance, a gun safety video tainted by a weak drome signal could level up the inevitable gun-hand ability. So it's a bit of a reverse RPG, wherein your character gets closer to death as their powers increase. It also decreases the sting of an inadvertently shortened play-through caused by looking at a giant wall of video screens set up by the villains, when said screens also improved your stats.The videodrome signal could also be used as a weapon. Dispatching a mob of infected street-folk with an experimental '80s style (read: giant) video projector by wheeling it around and beaming a videodrome tape directly into their eyeballs, (also exposing yourself to the weaker, reflected signal) could be an awesome setpiece.

It's the mutant offspring of Condemned, Bioshock, and Oblivion set in a grungy, analog-punk world of urban decay with a unique visually based system combat/danger that directly ties in with character upgrading/customization. If any developers are interested, I'll write the whole damn thing pro-bono. If not, at least it's wasting space on the intertubes instead of my delicious brains.

What say you? Anyone else haunted by brainstorms they can never harness?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Pontypool & The Motif of Harmful Sensation

Danger! The following post contains a dangerous, highly contagious meme, as well as major spoilers for the excellent new film Pontypool. For your safety and the safety of all you communicate with, do not read any of the red text below. I repeat, do not read the red text.

The 'motif of harmful sensation' is an inelegant term for a concept that occasionally crops up in horror and speculative fiction in which mental or physical injury is sustained through a perception rather than physical interaction. Instead of axes, chainsaws, and machine guns, damage is done via sounds, imagery, or even abstract thought itself. (A million points to anyone who successfully coins a better term.)

There is an immediate and powerful common-sense impulse to immediately dismiss the concept as absurd, but there are plenty of less fanciful examples of harmful sensory input in the real world. For instance, the eyes and ears can be easily damaged by overloading; if you doubt this, stare directly into the sun while listening to Slayer on your iPod with the volume turned way up. Some sufferers of epilepsy will lapse into dangerous seizures when exposed to pulsing lights or Pokemon cartoons, while everyone can be psychologically harmed by traumatic sensory input. (Such as a recording of the untimely demise of a loved one.)

When a fanciful imagination combines this relatively mundane concept with the philosophical gray area between the brick and mortar reality around us and the perception filtered reality in our heads, the idea of harmful sensation spirals outwards. One of the earliest and most famous examples comes from the mythological Medusa, a gorgon so monstrous that any who looked upon her would turn to stone. She is eventually slain by Perseus, who only looks at her reflection during the battle, thanks to a mirrored shield. This loophole implies that it is not merely her epic ugliness that calcifies her victims, but some sort of magic radiation that is not reflected with the visible spectrum. Of course it is possible the polished bronze shield was not a perfect mirror, giving the hero enough information for combat purposes while leaving the lethal details indistinct.Modern tales of harmful sensation often focus on technology; specifically how society's newfound ability to easily record, duplicate, and spread information could become a vector for spreading a pandemic if a chunk of that info became toxic. In David Cronenberg's infinitely excellent Videodrome, a small time pornographic broadcaster becomes embroiled in a massive conspiracy after discovering a mysterious video signal that causes hallucinations, mind control, and possibly physical mutations in anyone who sees it. Since overexposure causes madness and death, the sinister forces of purity want to implant the signal behind the porno in order to infect the population's undesirables.In the aptly named The Signal, a similar madness inducing broadcast is sent out across all phones, radios, and televisions, both disrupting normal communications and driving everyone rather nutty. Like the Videodrome signal, the effect is irreversible and its intensity correlates with the length of exposure, but rather than being surreptitiously hidden behind certain programming, it is blasted across all mediums as aural white noise and trippy visuals.In the realm of J-horror, harmful sensations are also found lurking within various technological marvels, but unlike the West, they are almost exclusively supernatural in origin. In The Ring series, a cursed videotape created by the malevolent spirit of a troubled psychic causes its viewers to be killed by said spirit exactly seven days later. In Kiyoshi Kurosawa's epic Pulse (aka Kairo) ghosts invade the world via the internet and begin draining everyone's will to live via making scary eye contact with them.
In all of the above examples, be they based in science or spirituality, the harmful sensation is transmitted directly through the act of observation. The damage is done directly by the malicious photons or sound-waves entering the sensory organs, whether or not the victim is even consciously aware of it. In the Canadian pseudo-zombie flick Pontypool and its ilk, the concept of harmful sensation becomes even more abstract. Videodrome (also Canadian) involves what is essentially killer visual radiation; Pontypool, on the other hand, trembles in fear of the dread 'killer meme.'

Memes, as you should know (you are using the internet, after all) are chunks of cultural data that can be passed from brain to brain. They can take the form of lolcats, jokes, masturbation techniques, songs that get stuck in your head, and basically the entirety of Internet culture. In one of Mark Twain's lesser known tales "A Literary Nightmare," the narrator becomes obsessed with a catchy jingle he sees in the newspaper (How does that even work? Does it come with sheet music?) and finds his brain crippled by distraction. After inadvertently infecting a friend, he finds himself cured, then helps his victim find similar relief by spreading it to a university class. Like in The Ring, the only relief is to continue circulating the meme/jingle/evil tape, but as it is a memetic harmful sensation, Twain had to understand the jingle in order to be affected by it. A meme in a foreign language is rendered powerless by its incomprehensibility.

Monty Python's Flying Circus portrayed the prototypical killer meme with the "Funniest Joke in the World" sketch, where the English discover a joke so funny that all who hear it die laughing. After sacrificing many lives to contain the joke, they translate it into German to use in World War II. The process has to be done one word at a time, as even viewing two in sequence causes hospitalization, but proves quite effective on the battlefield. The Brits can merely read the joke phonetically to slaughter whole battalions, and never have to understand the fatal witticism themselves.
Not too many nuggets of information can induce the massive emotional responses required for lethality, so instead of a factoid or joke, the 1980s era Twilight Zone episode "Need to Know'' has at the center of its harmful sensation, nothing less than the very meaning of life. The dude from CSI has to help Francis McDormand find out why a small town is going insane, and they discover that a local weirdo back recently from 'the East' (dun-dun-du-un!) has figured out the meaning to existence, which naturally drives all who learn it hopelessly insane.

The Videodrome signal is more important that the video image carrying it, and not all malevolent memes are simple deliveries of forbidden or obsessive knowledge. As the concept climbs higher and higher, the act of understanding itself is subverted. In the cyberpunk thriller Snow Crash, the Sumerian tongue turns out to be a sort of proto-language upon which other languages are built, allowing those who understand it to be programmed like computers. It was abandoned after some mean person introduces a linguistic virus that crashes brains faster than [witty software joke not found]. The virus is later recreated as a black and white bitmap that only affects those familiar with binary code.This all brings us to Pontypool, which is such a fan of Snow Crash that it uses a copy of the book as a prop. In the film, a small town radio station is caught between a snowstorm and a mysterious plague of violent madness that is slowly revealed to be spread through the English language itself. Unlike previous examples, the damage is not tied to any specific chunk of information, but jumps around from word to word. Terms of endearment are apparently particularly susceptible, but no English word is truly safe. People seem to be initially infected via exposure to the mad ramblings of other victims, but do not start showing advanced symptoms until they attempt to express themselves with certain specific words. In this case, spreading the meme is integral to its dangerous nature. They become confused by the words and begin repeating them, apparently unable to resolve something in their head. Eventually the disorder renders them completely unable to communicate or think properly, and in the final stages they violently attack anyone (or anything) that is producing intelligible speech before ultimately expiring.The film never establishes its rules in stone (perhaps the novel it is adapted from does) due to the limited information available to the characters, but they manage to find a few loopholes nonetheless. Only spoken English is affected; using broken French, writing, and thinking (at least pre-symptoms) are relatively safe. Once a person starts showing the first symptoms, there are two courses of action explored in the film: either they can produce an endless stream of non-English speech to prevent themselves from focusing on their infected word, or they can attempt to rob the word of its meaning. One character postulates that the infection copies itself during the act of understanding a word, but unfortunately this is usually a reflex rather than a conscious act. *Mega Spoiler* During the climax, the last survivors manage to (at least temporarily) save a character by chanting a nonsense phrase intended to make the word seem alien, halting the infection in its tracks instead of letting it spread through the victim's desperate, disordered attempts to 'understand'. *Mega Spoiler Over*
Starring a real life Mummy... who is actually pretty awesome.

There has already been some mild criticism of Pontypool for its outlandish premise. Obviously there is absolutely no scientific basis for a virus that can be transmitted through language, but the fact is that the film's trapped characters are merely using the term 'virus' as a stopgap for a concept that they don't (and possibly can't) ever fully understand. Like a virus, it is dangerous and transmissible, but that is the extent of the similarities. (It should be noted that Snow Crash's virus does make the jump to the physical world.) A more apt comparision for the Pontypool disorder would be prions, which are infectious particles of mis-folded protein responsible for diseases like mad cow or Kuru, the cannibalism spread 'laughing' disease. Prions generally infect the brain tissue, and as more and more proteins fall victim, the organ is essentially eaten away. This is not to say that the disease is literally a prion, but it does function in a very similar way. Rather than a mis-folded protein, it's a scrambled meme. It wreaks havoc on those who fall under its influence then uses them to spread itself to more victims.

It's hard to predict where harmful sensations will pop up next. I'm pretty sure Pontypool is scraping the ceiling of this highest of high concepts, but as information technology continues its rapid clip, there will be innumerable opportunities to apply the idea. My best guess is that we will see the rise of the Deadly Tweet in the not too distant future.
For a zombie centric take on the film, check out Where the Long Tail Ends.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Killer Meme

Here's a word cloud of things to come. It's amazing how fast things can spread in cyberspace, especially when those things are Ghost Busters 1954. The keyboard cat alone grows like kudzu. Makes you wonder what would happen if someone created a meme that could cause real damage.

Cloud via Wordle
Wordle: The Motif of Harmful Sensation