Monsters, monsters, monsters!!!

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IT Breaks the Remake Curse

Published September 12, 2017 by rmpixie

It (2017, 2 hrs 15 mins)

We all know by now that Stephen King is one of the most prolific horror writers of the 21st century. Along with his incredible library of terrors comes film adaptions. Some are classics like Christine, The Dead Zone, Carrie and The Shining, and some were not so great like Sleepwalkers (although a cat does save the day), Dreamcatcher, and Secret Window. Being a fan since my teens, I’ve read a lot of his books and watched the good and bad films. One of my favourites has to be It. This chilling book told the tale of a clown that terrorized a small town in Maine and its children every 27 years. When the TV mini-series adaptation was aired in 1990, I was there with bells on and loved it. Fast forward to this summer where Andy Muschietti, director of Mama, took the helm to create a modern take on the demonic clown. I was a little skeptical since I had mixed feelings about Mama, but this director has an aesthetic that I like, so I was willing to give it a go. I’m pleased to say that he has done a more than successful job in modernizing the mini-series into a fast-paced horror movie, destined to create new fans and please the old ones of Stephen King’s work.

The town of Derry is seemingly peaceful and a great place to raise a family, but there is a darkness that dwells there. Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), Bill Denbrough’s (Jaden Lieberher) brother has gone missing after being lured into a sewer by a menacing clown. Given up for dead, the town puts a curfew in place to save other children from going missing as they try to figure out what happened, but 7 young misfits know better. They have all been tormented by the clown in their waking life, being lured and taunted by him; becoming his inevitable prey as he feeds off their fears. When they realized they’ve all encountered this clown known as Pennywise, they band together to defeat this evil entity.

From L to R: Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), Bill (Jaden Lieberher), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor). Photo credit: IMDb

King has a way of conveying an incredible sense of nostalgia with his books, and luckily films like Stand by Me and The Green Mile were in the hands of competent directors who created visual testaments to King’s skill. The 1990 version of It directed by Tommy Lee Wallace works well too, tapping into the schoolyard fears of being bullied and not having the idyllic childhood that so many strive for. I also enjoyed the introduction of characters as adults and their encounters with the dreaded Pennywise in flashbacks. In the 2017 version, we get only the childhood battle with the demon clown, but here instead of a timeline from the late 1950s to the mid 1980s-early 90s, the kids are based in the 80s.

Everything 80s is new again, from the hit Netflix series Stranger Things to popular bands touring for their now adult fans. The writing team of Cary Fukunaga (director of HBO’s True Detective), Gary Dauberman (writer of both Annabelle films), and Chase Palmer were extremely smart about the setting of the remake. Instead of regurgitating the same timelines from the original and making a static revamp mired in a world that is further removed from our generation, they made the timeline dynamic because it holds so much meaning to many of us that grew up in that era, tapping into a visceral feeling of that same nostalgia King is so brilliant at. It translates really well, especially with the music choices, and we all relate to the kids in the film because it felt like we were all there. They also took great pains to encapsulate the episodic TV representation, streamlining action and changing some moments to make things fresh while still capturing the same feel of childhood uncertainty that comes with being a preteen.

Pennywise has become iconic because of Tim Curry’s terrifying portrayal. Everyone remembers the scary clown’s grimacing mouth filled to the brim with razor-sharp teeth. Those are large clown shoes to fill, but Bill Skarsgard did a fantastic job channeling the essence of the evil Pennywise and at the same time making it his own. His handsome young face is unrecognizable under the clown makeup and prosthetics; his voice is eerily childlike, cartoonish and menacing all at once. The ensemble cast that makes up this modern “Loser’s Club” was engaging, sharp and had the best chemistry. Finn Wolfhard embodied the cut-up Richie with a wit that made me forget he’s the kid from Stranger Things. Lieberher and Chosen Jacobs both worked well as Bill and Mike respectively; embracing the sensitivity of the two characters, and Jeremy Ray Taylor will break your heart as the awkward and love-struck Ben. Last but not least, Sophia Lillis was tomboyish and feminine with a wonderful strength that updated the original interpretation of Beverly.

Oh that Pennywise! (Bill Skarsgard)

My only criticism is that Beverly ends up being the damsel in distress that the boys must save after we see her come through as a fighter and survivor of abuse, as well as the unifying, peace-keeping member of the group. It’s contradictory, but in the book, it’s worse when she offers herself up to the boys in a weird sexual bonding scene to unite the group. Other than her needing to be rescued, the new Beverly stands up for herself making this portrayal the lesser of two evils.

If you’re looking for a relevant walk down memory lane, It is a must-see. With the film’s current box office take of 123 million dollars, and a sequel focusing on the kids as adults back to battle Pennywise in the works, horror has clearly made its place in the theatres. I keep saying (and will continue to say) movie-goers are hungry for content, and even though this is a remake of a classic, it’s well done and worth the cost of a movie ticket.

 

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Shudder Exclusive: Kuso-The Anti La-La Land

Published July 25, 2017 by rmpixie

Kuso (2017, 1 hr, 45 mins.)

 

A forest sparkling with fairy dust, it’s woodland floor peppered with what can only be called anus mounds; psychedelic collages of body parts flashing before your eye to an electronic beat; poxy-faced characters in absurd and disturbing circumstances as they struggle through the literal muck of life. That muck, which at first looks like your garden variety sludge, is actually made up of the complexity and randomness of everyday drudgery. All of this can be found wrapped in a psychedelic, comedy/horror package of interconnected segments in the Shudder Exclusive of Kuso, directed by DJ and artistic virtuoso, Flying Lotus aka Steve Ellison.

Kuso opens with a spoken word chorus, or “news pirate” (Regan Farquhar aka Busdriver) hijacking a news report of an earthquake that has hit Los Angeles, and carries on to various TV spots showing the aftereffects of this seismic event on a motley crew of characters. In Royal, a young man partakes in erotic asphyxiation administered by his loving sister who has a secret. Then we have Smear, with a bullied boy whose mother forces him to eat horrific meals. He is ridiculed in school because of his intestinal discomfort and when he runs away, comes across a magical forest with a feces hungry anus-like creature. There is a woman in a subterranean hell as she searches for her baby in Sock, and finally Mr. Quiggle takes us on a journey of another woman who deals with her dating dilemma and her “trans-dimensional” monster roommates, and a man who seeks radical treatment for his fear of breasts.

What we have here is, to me, a nightmarish commentary on the current social and political climate. The reviews have not been overly receptive to the film, citing the over-the-top gross-out scenarios as too obvious or beyond the reach of comprehension. They have also compared the film to the works of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, which makes sense with the bizarre subject matter and body horror. I beg to differ with these reviews for the most part however, because as a person of colour, I see it as a psychedelic, avant-garde and horrific approach to life as a marginalized person.

Avant-garde film, music and comedy is often seen as a white endeavour, but one only has to remember the epitome of avant-garde art, Jean-Michel Basquiat; the afro-futurist movement with Parliament-Funkadelic’s George Clinton (who plays “Dr. Clinton” with his bowel motivated treatments); the cyber-punk gore fests of Japanese horror; the musical DNA from Flying Lotus’s grand-uncle legendary saxophonist John Coltrane; and the decades of spoken word poetry based in the bebop/hip-hop arena to realize this is untrue. Snobbery would consider the latter to be merely a symptom of the “urban” experience with popular music and art of today, but dig deeper and you’ll find modern observations on life as a marginalized or Black person in continually trying times, like the thought-provoking news pirate chorus at the start and end of the film. This is why the Black director and cast composed of mostly people of colour is so important. It shows that we too have a sensibility for the avant-garde, perhaps even more so since some of our real-life experiences can be surreal and literal representations in modern film can often be too painful to watch.

Each sore-riddled character in the vignettes lives on the fringe of society in their filthy abodes. They are the antithesis of the meet-cute, rom-com story, the absent father tearjerker or the mild-mannered guy overcoming his fears. Dialogue in the film mimics formulaic scripts like the intimate, after-sex talk between lovers or the awkward comedy between strangers that just may become friends, and characters sport grotesque skin eruptions instead of picture perfect skin, making the film an abomination of the squeaky-clean Hollywood crank that the masses are addicted to or sick of. That this earthquake takes place in L.A. isn’t unusual, in fact, it is most telling as this is the very place that ideals of how we should live are created even though many a civil unrest has taken place there. In the current climate where racial tensions and turmoil are coming to a head, the earthquake has pushed the build-up of all the white-washing and cover-ups to the surface, spewing forth the discontent, anxieties, fears and truths of the ignored and gagged masses, much like the pus, semen and feces that bubbles from Kuso’s characters.

Although we are now in the internet age, the use of television is so important in this film. One story leads to another from endless screens of all-seeing eyes in each household, illustrating how TV has become a part of everyday life, an extension of ourselves; guiding us in what we should be doing or consuming and feeding us edited and suspect news stories. It is still one of the most powerful electronic mediums in society today as Marshal McLuhan once prolifically predicted, and Hollywood has always been the defining force in what we consume, being the makers of the messages sent through these electronic mediums. When that message is continually manipulated, distorted and upended in no uncertain terms, we must reprocess what is shown to us, which is what Kuso attempts to do.

Incest and general foulness aside, I have only two issues with Kuso. One is with the Mr. Quiggle segment involving the woman “B” (rapper The Buttress) who realizes she’s pregnant and is treated like trash by her two furry TV screen faced roommates played by Hannibal Buress and Donnell Rawlings. These fantastical creatures whip excrement at her and belittle her every chance they get. While her exchanges with them are meant to be comedic, there is an underlying misogyny that can’t be missed as well as the suggestion that she has been date raped by her stalker Phil, played by comedian Tim Hiedecker. His usual Adult Swim-Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! blank-faced delivery gave this story a more disturbing turn even though “B” brushes the incident off. She is also questioned about her decision to get an abortion at the Coathanger Clinic by Manuel (Zack Fox), even thought she says that it’s her body and her right. While she is tough and holds her own with her male counterparts and her stalker does get his comeuppance, it’s a hard reminder of the struggles women endure in the real and surreal comic book world.

The other is a sign spotted in the Coathanger Clinic “B” and Manuel visit, advertising a vaccine for “N*ggapox” with a smiling white face. I will go on record to say that I will never, ever get used to hearing the “N” word, even if it’s used between Blacks and in almost every hip-hop song and Tarantino film out there, but this sign in the clinic made me stop for a moment. It seemed to be a joke, but I wondered if a deeper meaning could imply removing Blackness from society; inoculating us from the Black struggle so we can all live in oblivion and denial, or even removing it from whites who have, perhaps according to their peers, become too ingrained and involved with Black culture. I could be over thinking it, but the few gasps I heard from the mostly white audience at the screening when the camera focused on that sign gave me pause.

There is also a strong pornography element throughout the film, from flashing imagery and TV commercials to full on ejaculate, and even a cameo from porn actor Lexington Steele. Flying Lotus was interviewed by the Guardian, and he mentioned growing up in the San Fernando Valley, where he says “all the porn comes from”, making it a sort of background din for him. He manages to create this feeling of overconsumption with clips of body part collages made of magazines cut-outs undulating to catchy electronic beats that is seamlessly erotic, surreal and absurd at the same time. It desensitizes the viewer at some point, much like the constant battery of airbrushed and perfected bodies plastered before us on a daily basis.

One of the “trans-dimensional” tv monsters in Mr. Quiggle critiques a bizarre porn movie he watches stating that it was “exploitive and sexist though artful”. This along with other statements from the cast like, “I fucking hate this movie!”, is almost a foreshadowing or a mocking of what critics would think once the film was released, and Flying Lotus wasn’t wrong. While some may focus on and denounce the obvious gross-out splatter of Kuso (which is apparently a Japanese word for “shit”) that made people walk out of the 2017 Sundance screening, I challenge viewers to go a little deeper with the insanity. There might be arguments for or against this film as art, and it’s certainly not perfect and will definitely offend with themes of rape, incest and over-the-top sexual content, but it will show you life’s uglier side through fresh eyes, eyes that tire of the La-La Land universe of denial and white-wash.  I caught Kuso at a limited screening recently in Toronto, but you can now see the real dirt streaming (sorry!) exclusively on Shudder.

 

Kong: Skull Island Brings Monster Mayhem!

Published March 13, 2017 by rmpixie

Kong: Skull Island (2017, 1 hr., 58 mins)

If you know me, you know this pixie loves her monsters. Big, small, ugly, or cute, I need a weekly dose of monsters and creepy crawlies to keep me going. The promise of that plus the iconic King Kong being revived for 2017 in Kong: Skull Island made me perk up in the hopes of some great monster action, and I definitely got my fill.

Set in the same universe as the 2014 version of Godzilla, government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) and seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) go to Washington in 1973 to beg for funding and a military escort to a remote island. It’s their hope to be the first to discover a whole new eco-system. The Viet Nam War has also ended, and their military detail is led by Lieutenant Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who, after the war, feels a sense of loss and displacement after the sacrifices he made for his country. Randa adds the surly and ruggedly handsome ex-soldier and tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and the weathered but plucky photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to be a part of their quest. They must all overcome personal agendas and fight for their lives as the island holds way more than they bargained for.

Kong: Skull Island is more fun than a barrel of monkeys (sorry!) because we get one gigantic primate and his prehistoric friends (and foes). It’s a clever blend of traditional war movie, adventure and fantasy quest at its best with some not-so-subtle nods to Apocalypse Now, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (see various character names for proof), and even Platoon. These nods would normally distract me, but aside from some clichéd music choices, the writers somehow got the right balance without regurgitating the same old war stories. They also made the right choice with splitting up characters into teams with different agendas. It made for great adventure a la Jules Verne, and gave us a snapshot of who they were and what they wanted out of the expedition with the right amount of exposition; in fact, I thought the story and pacing made the almost 2-hour film seem a lot shorter.

Some interesting choices were made for the cast. Most of the supporting talent I could take or leave, but it was nice to see Corey Hawkins from Straight Outta Compton and The Walking Dead don his nerd hat, Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham as the all-or-nothing Captain Cole and a woman of colour with Tian Jing as the biologist San Lin (Hey Hollywood, we need more, please!). I was thrilled to see John C. Riley in the trailers (he, aside from the monsters, was a huge draw for me) and he didn’t disappoint as the hilariously loopy fighter pilot Lieutenant Marlow who had been stranded on Skull Island since World War II.  He was necessary for the plot, but at times I felt he was put into the story with a neon “comic relief” sign over his head. This is in part to the uneven treatment of tracker Conrad and photographer Weaver. They were so perfectly coiffed after each perilous moment, with glowing skin and shimmering lip gloss, that there wasn’t any room for their characters to be developed. The one actor that did surprise me was Jackson. In a rare moment he actually showed some range outside of his potty-mouthed villain shtick, showing us a conflicted, revenge obsessed man portrayed with a lot of passion.

And the monsters? Oh, the monsters!! Kong was a thing of beauty, with all the detail and emotion from a CGI character you could want. Terry Notary did the ape acting for Kong and is another simian movement expert alongside his colleague Andy Serkis. The horrifying “Skullcrawlers” made me jump for joy with their reptilian bodies and huge gaping mouths. Kong’s sensational fight scenes made me want to see more fantastic animals, but there was only so much time! Hats off to the long, long list of the incredible concept team and digital artists for a job well done. I also want to point out the “Iwi” people, the indigenous tribe of Skull Island that took Marlow in after he was stranded. The concept for them was really beautiful, although their silent society spoke volumes thematically. There are actually a lot of themes in this film, with Kong representing nature or the rage against war, and the indigenous people silenced against or perhaps because of the march of progress, but upon further reflection, this film just doesn’t have the legs for heady discussions.

Yes, I enjoyed Kong: Skull Island despite the handful of issues I had with it.  Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ first big budget movie offers an intro for the newly imagined Kong and his world, and I can only hope for meatier stories in the future. The film should definitely be seen on the biggest screen possible (I saw it in IMAX 3D thanks to the horror boyfriend), and stay for the end of credit scenes that made me squeal and clap. Godzilla and Kong met in 1962, and with this new “Monsterverse” where there’s a franchise afoot with all my favourite monsters, there’s a juicy re-match on its way!

Check out this cool website for Monarch, the research company in the Godzilla/Kong Monsterverse here.

 

Grace Hallworth and the Oral Traditions of Trinidadian Ghost Stories and Tall Tales

Published February 22, 2017 by rmpixie

Last year, I gained a new co-worker that turned out to be my sister from another mister. We share a lot of similar experiences, good and bad, and also a Trinidadian heritage. When computer glitches made us scream out in frustration, my lovely co-worker would stage whisper “Obeah!”, eliciting uncontrollable giggles from both of us. Obeah is a West Indian term for witchcraft and general supernatural trickery, often thrown into conversation in a West Indian household with a casual knowing, as if every little thing was explained by that one word.

When she brought me a book on folklore from Trinidad, I squealed! Entitled “Mouth Open Story Jump Out” (which basically means you feel free to gossip or tell tales), this book contains all the stories my mother and grandmother used to tell my sisters and I, either to scare us into good behaviour or just freak us out in general. I could once again read about “La Diablesse” or “The Suocouyant”; remembering how frightened I was when the women in my family would recount the “true” stories from the Trinidadian backwoods, otherwise known as “the bush”. This book inspired me to dedicate a post for Black History Month and Women in Horror Month to Grace Hallworth, a Trinidadian storyteller who carries on the tradition of the island’s folktale and ghost stories in both the written and spoken word.

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Hallworth, retired librarian, has a number of children’s books under her belt. Born in Trinidad and moving to England in 1956, her storytelling and writing would honour the tradition of Trinidadian folktales for decades. There isn’t a lot of information on her since she is senior and now resides in a retirement home northwest of London, but she is still active and celebrated within the storytelling community and a great reference for those in the children’s literature and academia world.

Storytelling is ingrained in our human DNA; from the beginning of civilization it has brought us together, connecting us and keeping our traditions and cultures alive through the spoken word, song, dance and pantomime.  It is an exercise in remembering ancestry, entertainment and community in one fell swoop.  In island culture, a simple gathering can result in stories about aunts, uncles, cousins and all the weird and wonderful things they encounter in ” Nancy” stories, a word spawned from the original tall tale figure Anansi, the trickster spider from West African tales.

The stories I remember most were the aforementioned “La Diablesse”, a hoofed woman who leads men astray and “The Suocouyant” an old woman who becomes a ball of light and sucks the blood of humans and animals. I thought about these ominous figures in an abstract way, in the same way a kid thinks about the devil or the boogeyman. These were our boogeymen, or women as the story goes. They were ours and everyone else’s it seems, as these phantoms went by other names across the world, like the Phillipines blood sucker The Aswang and the Succubus who keeps company with The Soucouyant, who in turn shares similarities with the Spook Lights featured in Eden Royce’s collections of Southern gothic horror. Even the Loup Garou, or werewolf, stays the same in France and the West Indies. It never occurred to me then how connected these tales were until I started to write about horror themes critically.

Before each set of stories, Hallworth writes a paragraph or two describing the traits of these entities in the chapter, giving a context to the oral tale. You can see a common thread with the spirits and demons that only makes sense since Trinidad and Tobago are like many Caribbean islands that have a long history of colonization. On top of the indigenous people of the islands, settlers from Europe, Africa, The United Kingdom, South Asia and China came in as well, so there is no wonder that some phantoms share the same traits as their originators back on their home shores.  It’s actually comforting to know that Hallworth worked to validate and document these folktales so that they could stand with their global counterparts in unity as they scare children worldwide.

Hallworth preserves regional dialect or patois, traditions and nostalgia as well as the tales themselves.  Some of the stories provide a moral like be careful what you wish for or living in harmony with the natural world, and some were just meant to scare the bejesus out of you.  It is a feat the can’t be done without some effort, but she takes these oral traditions and commits them to the page with an ease that makes me hear my mother and grandmother’s voices as I read the words. At the very least, it would be a treat to hear Hallworth herself recite these tales, as she will still do from time to time in the English libraries and schools even though she is reportedly in her late 80’s.

As kids become more sophisticated with electronics and adult life readily at their fingertips, it’s comforting to know this little book of Nancy stories persists on library shelves so the original monsters under the bed or at our windows don’t fade away.  I am grateful for Grace Hallworth because it is through her book that I remember my mother (my original woman in horror) and my heritage.  She is a storyteller, writer, children’s author and an honorary woman in horror for preserving these tales.

Grace Hallworth is a patron for The Society of Storytelling in the U.K. and has been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2016 and 2017.

For a list of all her books, check here.

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