Wednesday, October 31, 2012

AMERICAN HORROR STORY SEASON 1, EP. 8: "SPOOKY LITTLE GIRL" RECAP



Simon Abrams is back to kick off our look at American Horror Story's official episode #8, entitled "Spooky Little Girl." Simon?

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What is happening, my man, Dennis?

Having watched this week's episode just before reading your impassioned "Flaws? PFFF! SO IT'S GOT FLAWS" defense, I'm afraid I have bad news: "Spooky Little Girl" is business as usual for American Horror Story. Meaning: while I may roll my eyes more strenuously at this episode's revelations, it's realistically nothing new or especially surprising given what the show's writers have been building toward. 

That having been said, "Spooky Little Girl" is a major disappointment after "Rubber Man." As you just wrote, there's nothing necessarily wrong with shock tactics, and it makes sense that the show's shocks are soapy given since, as you wrote, Dark Shadows is definitely a major influence. At the same time, I'm pretty exasperated by some of the show's sudsier plot twists. There's no sense of fun to them, nor do they seem to accomplish anything beyond building toward more ludicrous revelations. And with three episodes left in the season, I'm kind of exhausted.

Ok, so "Spooky Little Girl" starts in 1947 where we're introduced to the spook of the week: Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia killer's victim, visits a dentist and tries to sell sex for healthcare. She fails. She fails so hard that she gets diced up and turned into a real-life horror story. What this has to do with anything going on in this week's episode is questionable. Is it just another illustration of "wrong place, wrong time," thinking? Do we just have to wait and see, again? I'm thinking the latter as I doubt this week's episode is the last time we'll see Ms. Short. Presumably, a link is being drawn between her actions and Constance's subplot with Travis, wherein Constance laughs at Travis's dreams of becoming a star. Like Elizabeth before her, Constance also wanted to become a starlet. Again, mayhaps this is the uniquely "American" part of our show, the drive towards fame and fortune in our image-driven society? If so, ugh. Seriously, ugh, how many times do we need people to patly cross their arms and tsk-tsk the poor, vain unfortunates that trek out to Ho-Wood, as Steve Boone calls it, to get their 15 minutes? Haven't we all listened to "All the Way to Reno" by now? Why is this a thing? Because it's still a thing in real-life? Not good enough! Next!



This goes back to what we were initially talking about when we discussed "Murder House:" the fetishization of the horrors of the past, like when Murphy and Falchuk randomly name-checked Sal Mineo's sordid murder, is tacky and more than a little inexplicable. I don't think that we still need to worry about that episode's double standard of pitting bumbling modern-day copy-cats against the more dangerous, motive-free psychos of yesteryear. The Infantata are arguably just as ridiculous as Tate and his Rubber Man schtick. But there is also something inherently sleazy about tactlessly throwing Elizabeth Short into the mix of this week's episode for no immediately apparent reason. She gets sliced up, her body is found and then she appears again in the present-day and tries to talk Ben into letting her become his patient. Maybe, she reasons, she can stop what happened to her from happening. This is sadly impossible, as Hayden points out when she bumps into Elizabeth. But Hayden and Elizabeth's brief chat does raise an interesting question: "Don't you know who you are," Hayden asks Elizabeth. We, the presumably educated viewer, do: she's a real-life victim. But if you can tell me who she's supposed to be within the context of this week's episode beyond yet another sign of how history has a habit of repeating itself, I'd love to hear it. 

Really, I'm not just being combatively snide, I want to know what you make of this, Dennis, because it makes me chafe. Seriously, we've got that swing music piece that was most recently used in...is it The Aviator or Shutter Island? One of the recent Scorsese/Dicaprio historical dramas...and when Elizabeth tries to seduce Ben, she fails, just as Moira fails. Presumably, this is the lesson: history doesn't always have to repeat itself. Ben doesn't cheat on Vivien, just as he slowly comes to realize that he isn't the monster Vivien believes he is. This is because, as Vivien's OBGYN tells Ben, Ben's not the father of both of Vivien's twins. Apparently, within the same 48 hour ovulation cycle that Ben got his wife pregnant during, somebody else schtupped Vivien. We know that this someone is the Rubber Man/Tate. But Ben immediately goes off half-cocked, if you'll pardon the bad pun, and goes after Luke. But Luke didn't schtup Vivien, and he's miraculously able to defuse that canned tension immediately in the same episode! 


Which just brings us to the one thing I do like about "Spooky Little Girl:" Ben finally has to get his shit together. Never mind that a new Black Dahlia victim shows up and Larry discovers her body. Never mind that Hayden has sex with Travis just to prove that she can have sex with a living kid (she even says this). And never mind that Travis randomly re-appears and predictably rebuffs Constance's heart-felt request for him to marry her and raise their unborn child together. Never mind all that stuff, ok? That stuff is clunky, and it's go no finesse to it and it's irritating, but as long as we're accepting the show's rote flaws as such, they're fine, ok?! OK. What matters here is that Ben is finally starting to get his shit together: he's not the monster patriarch that his bad behavior had heretofore defined him as. He can stop seeing a tarted-up hussy when he looks at Moira. And he's even able to push past Hayden's usual manipulative BS, like when she pouts to him, "I don't know if we have a future together but I've always been there for you." Yeah, that seems fair, why didn't we think of that before...

Anyway, look: Ben! He's making perfunctory steps away from the abyss and towards some semblance of recovery from being a domineering but wracked sex-addicted alpha male! He's doing it! The show's plot isn't just a downward spiral of characters obliviously lost in a web of hideously contrived plot twists anymore! There is a momentary calm before the upcoming storm! It's not just homogeneous bullshit, it's a little heterogeneous, too! Yes, that was a terrible pun, and what are you going to do about it, this show's going to break me, Dennis, I JUST KNOW!

But what did you think of this week's episode, man? I'll get into it a little more soon, but for now, eh, I think this is a good opener. Kinda hungry. Dinner soon. Later.


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Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and me by clicking on the following links:

"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #4 
"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #3
"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #2
"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #1

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #2
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #3
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2 POST #4

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #2
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #3
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #4

"MURDER HOUSE" POST #1
"MURDER HOUSE" POST #2

"HOME INVASION" POST #1
"HOME INVASION" POST #2
"HOME INVASION" POST #3
"HOME INVASION" POST #4

PILOT EPISODE POST #1
PILOT EPISODE POST #2
PILOT EPISODE POST #3
PILOT EPISODE POST #4
PILOT EPISODE POST #5
PILOT EPISODE POST #6

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

AFI FEST: BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012)




“I just need to scream, that’s all.” So says a beleaguered actress looping her lines in a low-rent Italian studio where the soundtrack of a sexually violent giallo film, Il Vortice Equestre (The Equestrian Vortex), is being finalized under the guidance of the film’s abrasive producer and its pretentious, deceptively avuncular director. Also working behind the soundproof glass is Gilderoy (the marvelous Toby Jones), a sound engineer imported from Britain whose résumé is more closely associated with inoffensive nature documentaries than with the sort of ghoulish undertaking on which he now finds himself at work. 

Gilderoy, a naturally recessive man ideally fitted to the anonymity of postproduction, is at first perplexed at having even been chosen to work on a film bearing a title he soon discovers has nothing to do with horses gamboling in pastoral settings. But that puzzlement soon gives way to an escalating tension between Gilderoy’s passionless, professional, purely mechanical need to just get on with the job and his increasingly apparent psychological defenselessness against the exploitative evidence of the horrors depicted in the film.

In its surface form, the strange, hypnotizing Berberian Sound Studio has a hushed formality that insinuates itself underneath your skin in search of a frisson of psychological fear, a method far removed from the violent visual cacophony of the typical giallo. Yet it is absolutely suffused with fetishistic  close-ups— of 1976-vintage sound and film equipment—and hallucinatory aural landscapes, innocent sounds created from mundane Foley sessions which cannot be separated from associations with the grisly imagery they are meant to enhance, that are the hallmark of vintage Italian horror. 

Writer-director Peter Strickland seals Gilderoy (and us) inside the studio, surrounded by sounds we cannot reconcile with sights that are denied us-- the clever faux opening title sequence for Il Vortice Equestre  is the only footage we ever actually see-- and the free-floating dread and disorientation Gilderoy begins to experience eventually becomes our own. Even the letters Gilderoy receives from his mother back in England, filled with benign accounts of bird-watching and the unmistakable longing for her son—Gilderoy’s only lifeline to a world he recognizes— begin to take on awful shadings as the engineer’s grasp on reality becomes ever more tenuous. 


Viewers will be reminded of Argento, certainly (those close-ups of tape machines scream Deep Red), but through the constant layering of ghastly shrieks and perverse sound effects  the spirit of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and the search for the perfect scream are imaginatively invoked here as well. Strickland constructs a convincing case for sound as a dominant, almost subliminal force in our experience of the movies, all while entertainingly deconstructing the very process by which that sound is assembled, dissolving the audience’s complicity into magnetic particles of horror which begin tightening around and threatening to absorb Gilderoy. But unlike in Blow Out, that perfect scream which somehow synthesizes frivolous art with inescapable humanity proves elusive. Within the walls of the Berberian Sound Studio there are only fading echoes, the blinding light of the projector bulb washing out everything in its throw, reels of tape spinning out of focus, and the final click of a switch signaling escape into the dark.

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Berberian Sound Studio screens Saturday, November 3 at 1:00 p.m. in Los Angeles at the Chinese 2 and again on Monday, November 5 at 9:45 p.m. in the same auditorium as part of AFI Fest 2012. Information on the entirety of the schedule screening at this year's festival, as well as availability of tickets, can be accessed by clicking through to the main AFI Fest 2012 Web site.

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AMERICAN HORROR STORY SEASON 1, EP. 7: LOSING MY RELIGION



Well, after a bit of a delay (I'll blame it on Halloween prep, but that wouldn't be entirely true), I'm back with my response to Simon Abrams  and his last post re our continuing discussion of American Horror Story and this pivotal "Rubber Man" episode.

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Simon, you said something in your last post that got me thinking again about the artistic intent behind American Horror Story:

“That’s what I really want from this show, I guess— signs of a guiding intelligence that can organically establish, rather than just declare without qualifications, what it’s trying to do.”

As I’ve said before, I came at this show in a sort of piecemeal way, the result of professional obligation that required me to encounter the show in a not entirely complete and certainly not chronological way. And now that I’m looking at it episode by episode the correct order, ostensibly closer to the fashion it was intended to be seen, it’s been a strange experience for me to realize how more question regarding the pacing and the overriding thrust of the show have come up.  Of course part of that is undeniably a result of talking about it with you too and having aspects pointed out for my consideration that either went unobserved or were less of an issue for me before. But I think in part seeing American Horror Story out of order, and having missed a few episodes, allowed me to presume that the holes and moments of confusion I was experiencing were due to that fragmentation of viewing, that once seen as a whole these questions, these oddities of experience would somehow be resolved.

So here’s an agnostic point of view – what if there really isn’t a unifying, guiding intelligence behind American Horror Story in the sense of it being conceived thematically and within its narrative beyond being in service to a slightly modern wrinkle on a very old horse-- a house where ghosts are historically trapped and wreak havoc in the lives of those living who happen to occupy the same space? And I’m not saying there necessarily isn’t. Certainly there’s “intelligence” behind the show, but what if it’s in service to something less than telling a coherent, thematically unified story? I offered this facetiously a few weeks ago, but seriously, what if we’re thinking about all of this more than Murphy and Falchuk have? It wouldn’t necessarily be a shock to my system to consider them as something less than artists, and I’m not exactly ready to call them hacks either—there’s passion in this show, but it may finally only be for the execution of mood and shock and little else. And that’s not to denigrate mood and shock—there are plenty of works in horror that succeed precisely on those terms and not because of any underlying (intentional) subtext that might justify the project in the eyes of fans or those who pooh-pooh the genre.  



I started off asking the question, “What is it about what we’re going to see that makes it a specifically American horror story to the point that you’re going to use that as the title, the unifying concept behind the show? Murphy and Falchuk don’t exactly strike me as particularly pretentious in the way of attaching the word “American” in search of credibility or presumed depth. And it certainly wouldn’t be the first time in the history of popular, well-received television (or movies) that a story dribbled along with moments of individual strength and unity that ultimately didn’t add up to a cohesive whole. This symptom of serialization, of filling in the blanks with more good stuff that you may or may not need to tell the basic story, is going to rear its head again in next week’s episode with the introduction of another character straight out of real-life Los Angeles crime history who really doesn’t function in any significant way dramatically to deepen the thematic pool. I don’t think you can give as much leeway to a self-limited show like American Horror Story as you might Dark Shadows, which has to be the primary influence behind what Murphy and Falchuk are up to here. If you’re only giving yourself a pilot and 11 episodes in which to get the job done, then the more frittering around you do the more the audience is going to suspect what we always kind of suspected, even as kids, with Dark Shadows, that there was only the most generalized thematic outline, that to a certain degree it was being made up on the fly.

You said something earlier on in regard to watching out for individual bits of business that are referred to and then seen in flashback that links to this. If it’s a mistake to assume that there’s a continuity editor keeping an eye out to make sure all the threads of the show get tied together neatly and logically, or at least match up with information that is given in one scene and then comes up missing in another (I’m referring to that conversation the cheerleader says she had with Tate re her belief in God before she is killed which is never heard when we see the actual event), then maybe it’s also a mistake to think that as much thought actually went into the story development as we’d like to assume happened. Murphy has even hinted in interviews (some of which are available on the new Blu-ray/DVD set of Season One) that, despite the sense that of course the show has been herded into a certain mentality and thematic cohesion, there’s also the sense which can’t be completely concealed that the story has been in significant ways concocted as the writers lurched along. This information was presented, of course, with an implied wink—“Of course we we’re really winging it!”—but I think there’s room for speculation on that point.

Not to beat a nearly 50-year-old horse or anything, but going back to Dark Shadows, there was a writer’s roundtable on the subject published this past summer in Video Watchdog in which several of the participants talked about that show’s lasting effect and influence, and more specifically the ways in which we experienced that show, how it was constructed to dole out its story in dribs and drabs, in more typically soap-opera or serial fashion, building on it as it went along.  The point was made that the show had constructed into it the practical reality that no one was going to be able to catch every single episode, and back then if you didn’t, there was no chronological time-tripping back and forth through the chapters so one could catch up—once it aired it was (presumably) gone. Audiences had to be able to gather the threads of the story over and make connections that bridged the gaps of what they might have missed, and incredibly, over a span of five years Dark Shadows managed to keep hold of an internal logic and low-budget mastery of mood that it sustained marvelously, despite frequent shifts of time and space within the multiple storylines and actors doing double and triple duties as several different characters over the course of its run, and despite the sort of budgetary and technological limitations that would drive Murphy and Falchuk to their own sort of madness.

Yet within just eight episodes of American Horror Story there’s clear evidence that the ramifications of the basic premise haven’t been fully thought through. Some of this evidence is directly character related and therefore, presumably, of importance, yet some of it I can paper over with my own scrambles of rationalization. Other aspects aren’t so easily palmed off.


For example, I think I can take a swing at the inconsistency you bring up re Tate’s questions of infidelity and the apparent schism in his list of potential spectral screw-mates. Given that he’s got an expressed agenda to ensure that a baby is born in the house to carry on the legacy of (traditional) life-- he tells this to Nora—it would make sense that he sees his terrorizing of Vivien initially as a sort of duty, above and beyond the level to which it allows him to bend Ben’s head around, especially early on in their relationship, before they forge their strange sort of bond. He also clearly sees it as a way of straddling the universe of the living and the dead, of maintaining some sort of connection to the world he chose to give up. But within the strictly spectral universe, he has no reason to fuck Hayden—there’s no pleasure in it for him, he gains nothing, and by this point his has his fidelity and deepening love for Violet to account for as well. There’s another reason, one which I’m sure you’ve caught the scent of by now, but I will refrain from saying anything about that for the moment.

Further toward the horniness of the afterlife, maybe that ramped-up libido is a specific joke being played exclusively for Hayden by who- or whatever evil is guiding the universe they’re all trapped in. (Satan? Murphy? Mitt Romney?) ‘Cause it sure doesn’t play that way for Nora, or Moira. (More on her in a second.) I don’t think Hayden needs to fuck Hugo, but on one level she obviously needs an outlet for this rage that is continuing to build up (an outlet she will find very soon). Like Tate, sex with other ghosts doesn’t get her much in the way of release, and neither does her acting out of the murderous impulses she barely seems in control of, impulses which are obviously not being directed in the way she’d really like them to go. (Watch out, Ben!) How satisfying can it be when she gets to penetrate Hugo right back and then he just gets up to go get a sandwich? Good of him to indulge her little fantasies, I suppose. I certainly don’t begrudge Murphy and American Horror Story staging this little episode for our benefit because it does point toward something down the line, and it’s time spent with Hayden who, probably due to Kate Mara more than anything, is one of the characters I most enjoy spending time with on this show. (She has a way around Murphy’s most strident and knowing dialogue that makes me a whole lot more tolerant of its tendency to slop over the line.) But also I don’t begrudge the scene simply for its value as a shock tactic. A good horror show needs good ones, and as has been demonstrated here over and over again, though American Horror Story has shock tactics in spades, some are, well, better, and better executed, than others.


But what of the Moira Question? I’m afraid we’ve gone a long way now with no strong rationalization within the Murphy/Falchuk-devised ghost rules as to why Moira acts as a reflection of leering male sexism and the other dead women don’t. If it had something to do with the young Moira being an uncontrollable sexual tornado, then that might be one thing. But all indications from the show have been precisely the opposite. Is this then supposed to be a particular bit of ghostly irony, that Moira would be reflected back to males who are still alive in the way she was inevitably received, as an object of unchecked attraction and desire? Okay, I get that. She gets her revenge, and the male population is exposed for its rampant lecherousness and general foul state. But then what accounts for the split between young Moira and Old Moira? Why has she aged at all, when others, like Nora, have not? It seems the split between the two could be exploited and used as something that rises more organically out of her character, yet despite the best efforts of Frances Conroy I don’t see that has having happened just yet.

And it illuminates an inconsistency in Ben’s character too. He’s a psychologist and, as you said, one from whom we would naturally be primed to expect a bit more in the perceptivity department when it comes to the behavior of those around him.  Yet when Violet lands on him for his weird attraction to this old crone in a maid’s outfit he never says to himself, “What? Huh?” (Maybe we’re just supposed to chalk it up to her typical precociousness, or maybe we’re supposed to have forgotten that she pointed it out too—calling the story continuity editor again!) And he never makes the obvious connection between his own level of disorientation vis-à-vis the house and that of Vivien’s. AHS baits the question as to the rationale behind Moira’s appearance and then sidesteps what it might mean in terms of how the house actually works its evil by making Ben so ignorant in this regard. If he’d just ask one or two of the right questions, questions which it would seem his professional calling would incline him naturally to ask, then perhaps he might have a leg up on what the house is doing to him and to his wife with such obvious ease.

Strangely, stirring the pot in this way and focusing now on some of the overall flaws the episode illuminates hasn’t diminished its effectiveness for me in any way. It really is a strong episode, and it makes me look forward to watching the show begin to tighten itself up in pursuit of what I think is a pretty satisfying, and in some aspect unusual, conclusion. The show still feels significantly spitballed in a lot of ways, but that’s probably just the nature of the television beast here, particularly when the serial format is in play. I have less faith in Murphy and Falchuk as overseers who have perfect control of the universe they’ve concocted, but that’s okay too. Losing one’s religion isn’t the worst thing that can happen in the process of appreciating and enjoying the work for what it is.

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Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and me by clicking on the following links:

"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #4 
"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #3
"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #2
"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #1

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #2
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #3
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2 POST #4

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #2
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #3
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #4

"MURDER HOUSE" POST #1
"MURDER HOUSE" POST #2

"HOME INVASION" POST #1
"HOME INVASION" POST #2
"HOME INVASION" POST #3
"HOME INVASION" POST #4

PILOT EPISODE POST #1
PILOT EPISODE POST #2
PILOT EPISODE POST #3
PILOT EPISODE POST #4
PILOT EPISODE POST #5
PILOT EPISODE POST #6

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Friday, October 26, 2012

THE SLIFR FEARSOME HALLOWEEN CLASSIC HORROR FRAME-GRAB QUIZ (1933-1989)



UPDATED 11/4/2012! COMPLETE LIST OF ANSWERS AND THE WINNER NAMED BELOW!

"How deep is your love?" - The Bee Gees, 1977

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Horror fans, the season is upon us, and it's time to find out just how deep your love and your ability to recognize images from classic horror movies really goes. The 2012 SLIFR Fearsome Halloween Classic Horror Frame Quiz features 31 frame-grabs from well-known horror movies culled from between the randomly selected years 1933 and 1989, one for each day of the monsters' favorite month. (Those who have spent any time at all reading this blog won't have much trouble ascertaining what decade gets the most representation below.)

All you have to do is identify the movie from which each image comes. Completely on the honor system, of course, knowing full well that the Curse of the Demon will befall you should you be so foolhardy as to try to cheat. Remember, the movies aren't obscure-- if you know your horror genre, you shouldn't have much trouble, though some are more easily identifiable than others, based on the frames I've selected. What's more, the images have not been pilfered from the Internet but instead plucked fresh by me from various sources, which might tend to make at least some of them a little harder to trace-- but again, you won't have to worry about that unless you decide not to play fair and instead challenge the Demon. (By the way, the image seen above, from 2007's Trick 'r Treat, is not one of the 31 images to be identified.)

Just tally up your scores and leave them with your name, either here in the comments section below or under this post on my Facebook page. If you post answers here, I'll hold on to them until after Halloween so the challenge will remain fresh for everyone. Then after this coming Wednesday I'll announce the winner and publish a key for all 31 movie titles! Have fun, and never mind that hot breath on the back of your neck while you're playing. Dr. Karswell's hell-spawn only consumes them what disregards the rules.

Here we go... (And don't be afraid to click on the image if you need a better view)...

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UPDATED 11/4/2012!

The winner of the SLIFR Fearsome Halloween Classic Horror Frame-Grab Quiz (1933-1989) is longtime SLIFR reader Roderick Heath, who submitted an impressive 20 correct answers out of 31, easily the best tally of any of the guesses received. Way to go, Roderick. Your cobblestone horror street cred is safe for at least another year! Here's the key to the answers:

                1)     THE LEOPARD MAN  (1943)
                2)      THE OMEGA MAN (1971)
                3)      ASYLUM (1972)
                4)      TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973)
                5)      BEFORE I HANG (1940)
                6)      UGETSU MONOGATARI (1953)
                7)      DAMIEN: OMEN II (1978)
                8)      HUSH, HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964)
                9)      DEEP RED (1975)
               10)   PHANTASM II (1988)
               11)   THE LODGER (1944)
               12)   LISA AND THE DEVIL (1974)
               13)   THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958)
               14)   THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970)
               15)   HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)
               16)   THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)
               17)   SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (1969)
               18)   LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (1971)
               19)   SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (1973)
               20)   THE GHOUL (1933)
               21)   FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967)
               22)   PARENTS (1989)
               23)   THE UNINVITED (1944)
               24)   PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)
               25)   HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971)  
               26)   MOTEL HELL (1980)
               27)   THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY (1958)
               28)   THEATER OF BLOOD (1973)
               29)   PSYCHO II (1983)
               30)   FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1943)
               31)   TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972)

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HORROR DADS GET THEIR SPOOK ON: THE 2012 HALLOWEEN TRIPLE-DIP SHOCKAPALOOZA!




Seems like it's been a long time coming, with lots of viewing prep time, not to mention costume coordinating, candy buying and reveling in (a little bit) cooler seasonal weather, but Halloween is less than a week away. And that means it's time for another summit meeting of the Horror Dads, six pals-- Richard Harland Smith, Paul Gaita, Jeff Allard, Nicholas McCarthy, Greg Ferrara and Yours Frightfully-- charged with bringing up kids in the proper atmosphere of the appreciation of the horror genre. This time we've pooled our thoughts and come up with the Halloween triple feature we'd program if we had a revival cinema at our disposal (or perhaps if we just decided to force a bunch of folks to come and watch three movies in our living rooms). Here's Richard to 'splain it all for you:

"It’s time to get our spook on...  To impose a sense of order on what might have turned into a maelstrom of free association, I further asked that the three features follow these stipulations:
  1. Choose a “matinee” geared toward the kids.
  2. Follow this with something seasonably appropriate, something classic.
  3. End your evening of chills with something pitched at the horror lifers, the true believers. No punches pulled, no quarter given, fangs bared." 
And Richard has, as usual, done a brilliant job of making us look good by editing together an excellent post highlighting those choices, The Horror Dads 2012 Halloween Triple-Dip Shockapalooza, now playing over at TCM's consistently excellent Movie Morlocks blog. Richard's choice of photos to go along with the picks is great too, again as usual-- check out the juxtaposition of images from Greg's picks, Horror of Dracula and Altered States. And the one accompanying his top children's choice,  The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (seen above) will sum up the season for you even if you have a legendary aversion to movie scares. All of the Dads suggestions are excellent and likely to send you scrambling to the far reaches of the video store shelves (remember those?) and the back alleys of the Internet to find these titles and watch 'em. Lots of good stuff unearthed from the wide, wonderful world of '70s TV movies this time around too, an arena that Nicholas acutely observes "sit(s) well with fans in my generation, not only since they were, for many of us, our first exposure to non-juvenile horror material, but also because they explore a fascinatingly different set of traditions as opposed to their big screen counterparts."

I'm so glad to have smart, groovy ghoulie pals like the Horror Dads and to be included in their company. Heed their call and check out these triple features for guaranteed Halloween chills!

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AMERICAN HORROR STORY SEASON 1, EP. 7: FANTASY LOVERS


We're back at it! Simon Abrams brings his "A" game to our continuing discussion of American Horror Story's season one doozy, "Rubber Man." Read it and be amazed it don't cost nothin'!
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Halloa!

I'm glad the second time was the charm for you and "Rubber Man," Dennis, so much so that it inspired a more-rambly-than-usual post from you. I often feel intimidated given how consistently well put-together your responses to this show are. That structure, man...the horror! SO it's nice to see you go long and get a lil messier than usual. Made me feel less like a yutz, I guess. If it's okay with you, I kind of want to jump around a bit in my response to your response. Lots to chew on here and I'm not really interested in chewing on everything....

Anyway, like you, I like "Rubber Man" a good deal. I'm finally starting to see the show's writers getting their shit together and making an effort to prove that there is some structure to season one's events, even if it's the kind of structure that tries to reposition what was previously just loose-for-it's-own-sake serialized storytelling and give it a fresh coat of thematic paint. But wet paint, I mean what paint, huh?!

My thinking is that "Rubber Man" is the first down in a last-ditch attempt to make everything we've heretofore seen in American Horror Story look cohesive and semi-tidy. That tactic only works if you're willing to ignore all of the in-the-moment sloppiness that has bogged down much of the last seven episodes. But I also like that, as you noted, Chad and Patrick's story was not played for yuks. I wasn't as touched as you were by the final scene where Chad and Patrick's fingers almost touch each other ala David and God. That I thought was a bit much. Still, I did appreciate that, while the dialogue during the sex shop talk was florid, it was also believably significant.

As cheesy as this notion sounds when tossed off during casual conversation, the sex toy shop-owner is not wrong when he says that, "Every relationship is a power play, with or without the props." The "with or without props" line at the end is typically smug dialogue from show-runner/episode writer Ryan Murphy, but even it can't dilute such a potent sentiment: every relationship is about dominance and submission. I'm not exactly Dr. Ruth, but I do think people typically want their romantic/sexual partners to conform to their fantasies. We project these wild fantasies about what our loves ones can be onto them and that can lead to some tricky shit. Pornography, for example, enables the desire to either be dominated or to dominate others, but that original impulse already existed before anyone thought to fetishize it. So having Patrick spurn Chad is pretty essential. There shouldn't be an easy reconciliation between these two characters. More importantly, there shouldn't be a wish fulfillment subplot where all of the nastiness that has thus far defined Chad and Patrick's relationship can even momentarily be resolved by a gimp suit. Either option is contrived and dissatisfying.
 
Which isn't to say that using the Rubber Man outfit to thematically pull the events of this week's episode's together isn't contrived. But here, I feel like we're finally getting at some truth behind the bullshit catty behavior that necessitated Chad's tantrums in "Halloween, Part 1" and "Halloween, Part 2." Patrick's casual narcissism, as is shown when he triumphantly stands naked before his practically de-balled partner, is completely over-the-top outside of the context of this already manic-ly cracked relationship. But within the context of the show, it makes sense. I can't say that this scene emotionally resonated with me, but I did appreciate the thought that was put into it. That's what I really want from this show, I guess, signs of a guiding intelligence that can organically establish, rather than just declare without qualifications, what it's trying to do.

And when I say "organically establish," I don't mean "justify the horrendously spastic characterizations and proudly campy dialogue of the last couple of episodes." Instead, I want Murphy to make smoother thematic connections between his show's seemingly disparate subplots--and in a single episode, too! It's one thing to see Chad try to remake himself for his lover. But it's another thing entirely to see how Chad's abject failure syncs up with Moira's talk with Vivien. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Moira's monologue about hysteria came off as the character-driven moment it should have been. But I did appreciate the way that speech effectively connects Chad and Patrick's problems with Ben and Vivien's. Ben finally expresses concern for Vivien's mental and emotional stability, a talk that probably should have happened a while ago. Basically, he accuses Vivien of losing her mind. Strange visions of a Rubber Man? Intruders that only she can see, including Hayden? Sounds a little nutty, no?
More to the point, you'd think that a guy like Ben, someone whose profession requires an analytical mind and an ability to rationally anticipate behavior, might conclude that something's wrong with his estranged wife. Granted, Violet blows up at her dad (was it this week or last week? I want to say this week) and tells her how disgusted she is that he's throwing himself at Moira, a shriveled-up old biddy. You'd think that would set off some alarms for Ben, but, uh, no, guess not! So yes, we're still holding our breaths waiting for more of an explanation as to why all men see a sexpot when they look at Moira, and all women see a harmless old crone (Is that a ghost rule? Why don't the men ghosts make similar changes? Or better still, how come Hayden always looks the same? Is her horniness a product of these weird misogynistic ghost-rules? Wuh?). But at the same time, I appreciate when Moira tells Vivien, "Men find excuses to lock women away," and then Vivien loses her shit because she can't prove that she's NOT just seeing things. Lines like that suggest that there's finally some relatively sinewy connective tissue holding the show's narrative together.

That having been said, there's some things that are going to need a lot more 'splaining in the next four episodes. Like the aforementioned ghost-rules. Presumably, there's more than meets the eye to the scene where Tate finally has sex with Violet (isn't it kinda screwy that that's an inevitability in this show, that we're anticipating the loss of Violet's virginity?). And I'm pretty sure I can guess what that something is. But while I appreciate that there is now a semblance of guiding logic to Tate's actions, I don't like how everything now needs to connect with everything else. Tate's character arc this week is downright all-over-the-map. So he's been haunt-fucking Vivien out of some warped sense of duty but won't have sex with Hayden because he's...loyal to Violet. Okay, makes sense in a sociopathic white-knight-gone-wrong kinda way. But what in the fuck, why do we need Tate to be the guy in the Rubber Man suit that kills Chad and Patrick in a flashback? Call me crazy, but while I get and kinda appreciate this repositioning of Tate as the Man of the Murder House, I don't like that so many characters overlap with each others' stories for what right now seems like very flimsy reasons.

Case in point: Hayden's fucking another ghost and then killing him--except he can't die because he's a ghost, too. The ghost in question is Hugo, Constance's ex-husband and a fourth-string character that I don't think we've seen or heard tell of since...was it "Murder House?" I want to say "Murder House," man. But still: why did that need to happen beyond shock tactics? I finally believe in this show in the sense that I finally feel like answers are forthcoming. But at the same time, jeebus, some of this stuff is over-ripe even by soap opera standards.
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Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and me by clicking on the following links:

"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #4 
"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #3
"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #2
"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #1

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #2
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #3
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2 POST #4

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #2
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #3
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #4

"MURDER HOUSE" POST #1
"MURDER HOUSE" POST #2

"HOME INVASION" POST #1
"HOME INVASION" POST #2
"HOME INVASION" POST #3
"HOME INVASION" POST #4

PILOT EPISODE POST #1
PILOT EPISODE POST #2
PILOT EPISODE POST #3
PILOT EPISODE POST #4
PILOT EPISODE POST #5
PILOT EPISODE POST #6

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

AMERICAN HORROR STORY SEASON 1, EP. 7: CONSIDERING THE "RUBBER MAN"



With American Horror Story's new season, Asylum, now under way,  Simon Abrams and I continue our journey through the episodes of season one. Here are some of my initial thoughts regarding an episode I previously thought very little of, "Rubber Man." Excuse me while I change my tune.

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First things first. I take it all back. “Rubber Man,” which I described last week as my least favorite episode of the series up to that point, is by no means the weakest point in the American Horror Story line. At this point, having now seen the show in its entirety, I’d reserve that ignominious status for the "Piggy, Piggy” and “Open House” episodes, with “Murder House” probably running a distant third. Truth be told, "Rubber Man" might well be one the highlights of the Murphy/Falchuk run so far.

Second thing—a bit of explanation: I’m going to blame my lack of enthusiasm for what I originally thought of as a largely clumsy, expository episode, re the origins and import of the rubber man suit, on my distaste for what seemed at the time as yet another poke by Murphy at the tired, iron-poor carcass of middle-of-the-road values. This was a misread on my part as regards what goes on here, particularly the rather sad attempt by Chad to reach out to Patrick through S&M toys which he clearly finds confusing and terrifying himself. I would stand by the instances that I’ve pointed out in previous episodes when Murphy makes too emphatic a point of baiting the conservative tendencies of some viewers with the more outrageous envelope-pushing the show occasionally indulges in, but I think Murphy is on solid thematic ground in re-engaging with this tactic here.

Also, I’m going to blame my previous aversion to/misunderstanding of “Rubber Man” on seeing the episodes out to order. “Rubber Man” was perhaps the third, maybe fourth episode I saw in the run, jumping back and forth chronologically, so much so that a lot of what was alluded to had less narrative power than it might have if I’d been able to go through the episodes in the order in which they were intended. Seeing a show like this and trying to open myself up to its intended effect gives me new sympathy for actors and filmmakers who often must maintain emotional and psychological through-lines in their work that will hopefully make sense to a viewer watching the assembled work, even though the filmmakers may be starting from the ending and jumping around in the chronology of the story as it is being shot.

So much for my caveats. “Rubber Man,” on this viewing, turns out, especially after the doldrums of episodes five and six, to be plenty meaty in terms of actual character development and events that move the story along meaningfully. Though this episode was written by Ryan Murphy, it seems notably lacking in the sort of smarmy, “Look, ma, no hands” dialogue that has been so distracting in the past. And this is even allowing for the scene between Moira and Vivien in which Moira more or less confesses what’s really going on in the house and implores Vivien to leave before it’s too late, after having indulged in yet another speech meant to illustrate the terrible behavior of the male of the species toward the female. This time there’s emotional weight and not just a sense of smug superiority informing the dialogue, and what Moira tells Vivien has real power, real fear and empathy behind it. It’s not exactly surprising to find Moira a believably sympathetic figure for action here—we’ve been cued to find her (the older version, anyway) sympathetic from the beginning—but it’s still a nice release to see her operating outside the agenda of the house for reasons other than the promotion of her own release from the bondage of the afterlife. (I’ll get back to this in a minute.)


But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning. “Rubber Man” is marked by unusual alliances (Tate/Nora, Chad/Patrick, Ben/Vivien, Ben/Violet, Moira/Vivien, Violet/Vivien, and Hayden/Nora), acts of reaching out (and their opposite, a refusal to do so) and a final, striking image of a connection not made which results in an eternal short circuit.  And speaking of connections not made, one of the things I missed on my first swipe with this one was perhaps the most obvious and important one, the whole reason why the episode is entitled “Rubber Man”—the function of the suit itself and what it means for the two people who wear it here. Initially, to me the whole scene in which Chad is seen seeking out the advice of the attendant in the S&M shop just played like Murphy’s shot at rubbing Middle America’s nose in yet another aspect of sexuality that might conceivably make them uncomfortable, not unlike the unfortunate line that comes later when Patrick rails against Chad’s controlling nature and shouts, “It’s no wonder I don’t want to stick my dick in you anymore!” (That’s a clunky line, coming from either the hetero or the homo perspective.)

In seeing it again, I realize that I completely missed, or at the very most disregarded the fact that the S&M milieu is profoundly uncomfortable for Chad too. He looks at the store’s inventory of spikes, ball stretchers and “the ultimate ass-lock, also known as the Apple of Anguish” and is understandably unnerved. Purchasing the Rubber Man suit becomes an act of attempted conciliation, a compromise between his fears, his reticence and his desire for control and Patrick’s more outré desires. The clerk even describes the suit’s appeal for couples as one of deliberate dehumanization, the reduction of one partner to the level of life-sized sex toy in pursuit of and deference to the pleasure of the other. Chad’s willingness to allow himself to skirt the boundaries of his own definition of debasement in an attempt to get his relationship with Patrick back on track is what makes Patrick’s rejection and humiliation of him so surprisingly powerful. It also makes Tate’s use of the suit in relation to these two unfortunates ironic—he employs it as a disguise in the act of murdering them, yet the suit can be seen here as the symbol of Chad’s last-ditch attempt to rescue their lives coming back to (in Patrick’s case especially) bite them in the ass.


However, the suit resonates for Tate too. It makes less sense that he would want to disguise himself from Chad and Patrick—his identity is meaningless to them at the moment of their murders and it’s never made a point that they would somehow continue to be unaware of who  did them in once they start roaming the halls of the house as ghosts. But as a means to deceive Vivien into believing she’s having sex with her husband so as to get her pregnant with the child that might appease the longing spirit of Nora (and, as it turns out, of Hayden) and bring some peace to Tate as a facilitator of life--- such as that life may be-- it’s perfect. Further, the suit also functions precisely for Tate as the clerk said, as an implement of detachment, a way to dehumanize himself and steel himself for the second assault on Vivien that Hayden convinces him to go through with, even after he tells her that because of his connection to Violet he’s no longer interested in hurting people. I always figured the whole concept of the Rubber Man, from seeing it in the show’s advertising and even through seeing how he first appears to us in the pilot, was simply a vehicle for disorientation and exploitative shivers. I never expected that it would (whoever is actually inside the suit) end up being one of the show’s most potent metaphorical devices, a rather brilliant stand-in for the entirety of the experience of the afterlife for all of these bastards born into spectral existence without the benefit of the real freedom physical existence affords.


Nuts. I’ve rambled on and allowed myself to run out of time before I even really got to a proper recap of this week’s episode, so distracted was I by what I managed to miss before.  But let me linger long enough to say that on a plot level alone “Rubber Man” satisfies in a way that we haven’t seen from this show since the “Halloween” episodes, and it really does pave the way for the momentum that delivers a well-conceived, not entirely expected wrap-up to what’s come before in episodes 8-11. We see here the seeds of Nora’s entry into the awareness of her ghostly existence, not only through her appeal to Tate’s empathy but also in Hayden’s eagerness to step in as sort of the brutally frank sister-in-arms who gives Nora the straight shit about her situation and begins to manipulate Nora’s pain and longing for motherhood to her own ends. I am so glad to see the return of Hayden, absent since her ignominious demise in “Halloween, Part 2”—I really dig the thundercloud of energy and righteous fury that Kate Mara brings to Hayden, who seems simultaneously outraged by her situation and turned on by the weird wrinkle of freedom it provides. “What is it about being dead that makes me so horny?” she opines, after rage-fucking and then brutally stabbing Constance’s undead, dallying husband, the one who was offed along with young Moira, who then sits up and carries his bloodied shell off to the kitchen for a post-coital beverage. Hayden also gets to taunt Moira and be the vehicle for a little more exposition about what exactly is going on with the ghostly population of the Murder House (“If we’re supposed to ‘fix our issues,’ we never can. It doesn’t stick.”) This exposition could be annoying and clunky, but as she’s on one level trying to orient the hysterical Nora there’s room for a little bloviating, and Hayden/Mara makes it work. (Damned if she doesn’t make undead sexual arousal sexy in itself in the process too.)

And what Moira has to say about that word “hysterical,” huh? She explains to Vivien its origins in the Greek word for “uterus,” a subtext for a history of (deliberate?) medical misdiagnosis of female maladies used to justify the subjugation and marginalization of women, and Frances Conroy manages to make it come off like a real character moment and not a history lecture. (I love our awareness, in this scene, of Moira’s lost eye, which is also Conroy’s—no prosthetic makeup involved for this woman.) Again, I really liked the scene between her and Vivien in which it becomes clear that Moira is putting aside her own vested interest in exposing Ben’s deeds (and perhaps her own corpse, buried so close to Hayden’s) in deference to the kinship she allows to come out regarding Vivien’s situation. This is the type of scene in which a female character rails against the indignities of men that, in smaller doses and smarmy sound bites hasn’t worked quite so well before.


But here Murphy, through Moira’s invocation of The Yellow Wallpaper, a novel whose story of a woman locked by her doctor husband in a bedroom where he hopes she’ll  recuperate from a run of  “hysterical” behavior she relates to Vivien, makes the same points as before. The difference here, to me, is that Moira is given some room to actually contextualize that indignity and make it resonate dramatically, though admittedly through the show’s tendency to speechify rather than more eloquently dramatize. Nevertheless, the moment when Moira says “That’s what men do—they make you think you’re crazy so they can have their fun,” illuminates what must have been this woman’s difficult past and gives shading to the fact that, as a version of a young succubus self she presents (or is forced to present?) to every living male character who encounters her, she’s dealing in the same appeal to baser instincts and madness herself. And of course this all echoes off the walls of the rubber room that Vivien herself is being prepared for and seems on the path to residing in by episode’s end.

Gee, Simon, I apologize for the scattershot nature of this recap, which hasn’t been a recap at all in actuality. But there’s just so much more to talk about in this episode than I would have ever anticipated—I haven’t even touched on Ben’s conversation with Violet, in which its revealed that she hasn’t been to school for two weeks now (hmm….); Violet’s apparent attempt to engage the Infantata in the basement; Hayden’s instigation of terror against Vivien (Hayden, Hayden, Hayden! I love her!); and the emotionally devastating image of Chad reaching out to Patrick in a repose of death and not quite making the connection between fingertips, Tate providing the bitterest of eulogies as he hovers over their corpses—“It’s kinda romantic, isn’t it? Now they’ll be together forever.” This is one of the few single images that the show has even allowed to resonate with real meaning for me, distracted as I usually am by the generally panicked pattern of disoriented editing that has been a hallmark of American Horror Story. So much more left to say, it seems. What say you, good sir? Did you miss Constance at all?

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Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and me by clicking on the following links:


"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #4 
"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #3
"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #2
"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #1

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #2
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #3
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2 POST #4

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #2
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #3
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #4

"MURDER HOUSE" POST #1
"MURDER HOUSE" POST #2

"HOME INVASION" POST #1
"HOME INVASION" POST #2
"HOME INVASION" POST #3
"HOME INVASION" POST #4

PILOT EPISODE POST #1
PILOT EPISODE POST #2
PILOT EPISODE POST #3
PILOT EPISODE POST #4
PILOT EPISODE POST #5
PILOT EPISODE POST #6

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