Wednesday, April 16, 2008

CLIVE From New York

Today, Sloan Fine Art in New York is opening an exhibit of recent works by horror renaissance man – nay, horror Zeus (kaaaaaa-BOOM!) - Clive Barker, doubtless as a highbrow tie-in to the opening of Barker’s newest story-to-film, MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, next month.

If you like, please take a moment and work through all your giggling at that title before you go on.




Five dollars says Barker was sporting a wry smile at the very least when he wrote that one.

The folks at Lionsgate are themselves sporting some new gray hairs because audiences have been laughing at the trailer for a film that should be, by all rights, one of the goriest and most harrowing produced this century. Vinny Jones, a modern shade of Rondo Hatton, starring as a serial killer that hunts subway riders to feed his subterranean mutant masters – what is not to love, I ask you? But come on. The trailer could show Hitler sodomizing a baby fur seal with a white-hot post-hole digger and if it ended with a deep, serious voiceover saying “MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN,” someone would still snort out a chuckle. A movie with that title should be starring Big Dick Blacque, not the guy from KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL.

Brooke Shields, though – meh, gray area.

I read Barker’s collections, THE BOOKS OF BLOOD, about two decades ago and while I only recall the story’s ending, it’s certainly possible that MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN had a veiled sexual punchline in there somewhere. Barker has never been one to shy away from the horror of sex, especially in his earlier work. Have you read THE AGE OF DESIRE? It’s basically Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde if Hyde were an enormous, raging erection. Terrifying? Oh sweet crispy deep-fried jeezus, yes. I’ve only read the TORTURED SOULS novelette since Barker came out with CABAL in 1988 so I can’t speak to works like THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW and THE THIEF OF ALWAYS, but Barker’s auteurism births horror with two earmarks; that mayhem and violation of one’s body is a primal horror that shivers us all the way down to our caveman genes; and that the only thing more horrifying than witnessing said mutilated body, helpless and bloody in a whimpering heap, would be to find it arousing.

Um, eeyew.

The exhibit at Sloan is in two piles. There’s a miscellaneous group of relatively tame, surreal images, about half of which are architectural and make me think that Barker really got a kick out of the panoramas in THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. His work is very cinematic, which is either somewhat ironic or perfectly logical for a novelist that paints. In the hands of a less visionary man, images like THE LIGHTNING TREE could easily be dismissed as the stuff of van paintings. But somehow, when Barker does them, there’s life in them. You can see them in your mind’s eye as if you were viewing them on a big screen. They’re beautiful. If those talented boys at WETA were to bring THE LIGHTNING TREE or THE PALACE OF RAIN LANTERN to cinematic life, every dungeonmaster in Berkeley would die of priapism.

The other pile are Barker’s concept paintings for MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN. Now we’re talkin’. The mutilated beings depicted are the result of some demonic four-way between Frankenstein’s monster, a Morlock, Jeffrey Dahmer and, of course, Pinhead. They are unclean. Barker’s style is unclean. In this context, that’s decidedly a compliment.

His brushstrokes are furious and primal, imbuing his creations with movement and savagery as if they were caged animals, trapped on a piece of paper not quite two feet square. There is little or no finesse apparent in his technique, almost as if he were trying to kill the paper by stabbing it with his paintbrush. But liked a crazed killer from one of his own stories, each stab meets the paper with purpose. Horror is not pretty.

One of my favorites of the bunch, MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN 6, vibrates on a web of black lines with an expressionistic style reminiscent of Willem de Kooning’s figural studies. Have you ever seen de Kooning’s “people”? They’re just…horribly wrong. Similarly, the abattoir in MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN 7 immediately recalled Francis Bacon’s HEAD SURROUNDED BY SIDES OF BEEF for me. For my nickel, this is fine company for a painter to find himself in. In an industry where the average pre-production sketch ends up in a landfill or on ebay, the fact that Barker’s warrant wall space in a New York gallery is a testament to the man’s talent and vision. Whether a director can accurately translate that vision to the screen is irrelevant: the painting themselves are sexy, sexy nightmares.

(What? Just because I spend all my time talking about Dario Argento and George Romero, you think I don’t know from de Kooning and Bacon? Baron gots mad skillz, fanboy. Now get thee to a museum.)

The Barker exhibit is open at Sloan Fine Art through May 10. If you happen to be in New York proper, pop in and tell them Baron Von Goolo sent you. It will confuse the staff and I will find that amusing.

Monday, April 7, 2008

I Do Take Requests

Anonymous April 6 5:20 PM asks:
What I would love would be a list of your Favorite Horror Films of the 21st Century (Thus Far). I'm curious to know which films you make the cut, and which don't.

Let it never be said that I am not a man of the people.

At first, this request gave me a good chortle. Do I even have any favorites released in this century? I am, you see, a hateful curmudgeon with a vocal, hair-trigger disdain for much of the offal that Hollywood thinks we’re indiscriminate enough to cough nine bucks for. And in all fairness to myself, much of that offal is, well, truly awful.

Not that my heightened awareness of the genre impresses many. If any. God as my witness, I once had a “debate” with a young lady that threw up her arms in frustration when she was unable to convince me that the remake of THIRTEEN GHOSTS (2001) was a superior horror film to William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST. Because “the effects were totally way better.” Totally way, mind you.

That was in 2003. My desire to pry out her larynx with a claw hammer has lost none of its original luster.

But as I researched, I soon realized that my cynicism here is misplaced and that this young century has indeed squirted out some fine horror. Damn fine. In some cases, fodder for classicism. Here’s a rundown of my favorites by year.


2002 –28 DAYS LATER
Honorable Mention – MAY, BELOW, THE RING

Honorable Mention – HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, FREDDY VS. JASON

Honorable Mention – Zack Snyder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, CREEP, SAW, SEED OF CHUCKY

Worst – DOOM, ALONE IN THE DARK., HIGH TENSION, THE FOG remake, THE CAVE, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR remake…sweet buttery baby jeebus, what a torrential turdfest ’05 was!

Honorable Mention – ALTERED

2007 – 28 WEEKS LATER

I want to be clear. These are my favorites. Some, like DEAD SILENCE, are guilty pleasures, but all are films I recommend the most often, enjoy the most, watch repeatedly and/or rewarded by dropping some coin to own the DVD. They may or may not be the best. HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, for example, is a fairly awful film – but the characters are amazing, the production design is fantastic, and it leads in to my favorite movie of 2005. AUDITION and 28 DAYS LATER, on the other hand, both made me lose hold of my fluids at least once and might be among the scariest films of all time. Don’t bother requesting that list. It’s coming.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Unless you’ve been too busy raising barns and churning butter or whatnot, you’ve been subjected to the relentless advertising blitzkrieg for THE RUINS, which opens wide tomorrow (April 4). The commercials have been cagey. Is THE RUINS about ghosts? Zombies? Plague? A zombie ghost plague, mebbeh? No, my friends, nothing so pedestrian. THE RUINS is the 21st century’s first man-eating plant movie.

Gay, you say? Fiddlesticks, says I! This tickles me pink.

THE RUINS is based on the best selling novel by Scott Smith (A SIMPLE PLAN) that was released late in 2006. When a friend broke this unrelentingly gory tale down for me, I immediately commented that it was a movie waiting to happen. As fate would have it, it had already been bought by Ben Stiller’s production company – which to me is almost, but not quite, as weird as Mel Brooks producing the remake of THE FLY (1986). Comedians doing horror – who knew? Of course, Brooks tapped David Cronenberg to helm his project, while Stiller gave THE RUINS to a guy that’s done some Tommy Hilfiger commercials. Smooth, Ben. I’ve got three words for your prowess as a producer: STARSKY & HUTCH.

The commercials have purposefully obscured the botanical menace, the studios assuming that these days they need to trick audiences into seeing any horror movie that isn’t a remake of a Japanese one. Long, exasperated sigh. That’s exactly the mistake Hollywood Pictures made with PRIMEVAL (2007), a passable giant crocodile movie that was advertised as if it were the Burundi Chainsaw Massacre. Despite this sort of fumbling parentage that is almost always a smokescreen for a slack-jawed, flipper-fisted banjo boy of a film, I’m excited to see THE RUINS. Why? Because man-eating plants and other samples of mean greenery are one of the most under-harvested monster genres of all time - and in these days of This of The Living Dead and That of The Living Dead, some monstrous mulch is exactly the kind of fresh move that renews my faith in the Hollywood machine. I love violent vegetation, with its long and varied pedigree in cinema; some of which ranks among my favorite ways to kill two popcorn infused hours. Who could ever forget what that possessed tree did to that little boy in POLTERGEIST? Or what that other ever-so-randy possessed tree did to Ash’s girlfriend in EVIL DEAD? You can’t shoot them in the head or stake them through the heart, so unless you’re sporting a backpack full of RoundUp these roots of all evil can prove especially menacing. Here are a few of my faves.

Seventy years old and still one of the greatest movies of all time – but an evil plant movie? Oh hell yeah. If you don’t think those thuggish apple trees were the catalyst for decades of wet beds then you just aren’t paying attention.

The guy from GUNSMOKE plays a murderous space carrot.

What? That’s not enough for you?

Most unsettled souls come back as ghosts or zombies, but in this utter turdfest the spirit of vengeance is the Tabanga, a murderous stump that grows from the grave of a slain native prince. Goofy and unwieldy, Tabanga is a guilty pleasure for those of you clever enough to provide your own MST3K dialogue.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956, 1978, but not 2007)
Required viewing for the culturally literate, this classic sci-fi tale of paranoia put phrases like “pod people” into the common vernacular. Even the 1978 remake, which is heavy on the Invasion’s vegetative origins, is solid, spooky and memorable – especially when the pod people start shrieking. The end of that movie is as bleek as it is awesome.

DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1962, and a 1981 BBC mini-series)
What’s worse than waking up and finding the entire planet overrun by man-eating sunflowers? Well, probably waking up and discovering you’re blind, too. No fair! TRIFFIDS is classic, must-see sci-fi that’s been on the big screen remake block several times: every time preproduction is scrapped, I die a little inside.

Those Asians – they’ll make a horror movie about anything! Wigs, videocassettes, dim sum – they don’t care. But mushrooms? When I was nine this movie gave me nightmares for a month. Now, the bizarre ghost laughter that echoes through the mist-covered mushroom forest is still enough to give me a hospital-grade case of the heebie-jeebies.

A seldom seen French fright flick starring Cameron Mitchell as a mad doctor that’s grown a magnolia tree with a taste for blood. The suspense is not palpable enough to justify saving the monster for the end of the film, but it’s weird enough to get a thumb up from me.

This is pure ‘grindhouse meets greenhouse’ as Dr. Loomis turns Dr. Who into a half-man, half-Venus flytrap in this British bit of weirdness. You really have to give it to them for thinking outside the box on this one.

Lovingly wrapped as a musical comedy, LSOH is a tale of murder, sadism, greed and alien invasion set to a bouncy 50’s beat. I positively gush at this film. Gush, I say!! Arguably the king of the plant monsters, the sinister and insatiable Audrey II ranks right up there with Gollum and Freddy Kreuger as a true scene-stealer. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on one of the original, recalled DVDs, you can see the rough cut of the alternate ending, where Audrey II kills Seymour and Audrey and then rampages through New York, Kong style. Thanks for denying us a better ending, David Geffen and your spineless focus group! You are cordially invited to kiss my daisy-white ass.

What do you get when a mad scientist crosses a rose bush and some Godzilla cells in order to resurrect his dead daughter? A lot of confused round eyes, for one. I mean seriously, I wouldn’t think there was enough sake in the world to come up with that shit. Still, with his acid spitting crocodile head and his toothy tentacles, Biollante is one of the coolest looking monsters to ever get his ass kicked by Godzilla.

(You might note that Audrey II, the Triffids, the Body Snatchers and the Thing (as well as the monsters from INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES, THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, the hilarious THE GREEN SLIME and numerous episodes of THE OUTER LIMITS and DOCTOR WHO) are all outer space monsters. Even Biollante drifted off into space at the end of its movie. Evil plants and outer space seem to go together like schoolgirls and duct tape. I have no conclusion about that. I just found it an odd coincidence.)

So there you have it – a cinematic salad bar of sociopathic shrubbery! What better way to celebrate Arbor Day than to pop a couple of these into the ol’ DVD player?

Besides planting a tree I mean.