Friday, June 29, 2007


I saw It Came from Beneath the Sea on TV one Saturday afternoon around 1965, when I was but about five and the movie around ten years old. My parents, sister and I lived in the suburban Sacramento neighborhood of Citrus Heights, a mere 80 miles or so from San Francisco. As I watched the movie’s climactic action sequences, terrified, stealing glimpses from between parted fingers, I asked my mother, who was busily doing housework and attempting to ignore the television altogether, whether or not our relatives, who lived in the East Bay Area, specifically Oakland, were likely to survive such an attack. She, of course, assumed I was speaking theoretically and laughed my inquiry off the way mothers do. But I insisted, and it became clear enough to her that I wasn’t speaking theoretically. I was asking her if our relatives had survived this particular attack. I remember thinking, while watching the giant octopus take down sections of the Golden Gate Bridge, that our proposed family trip to San Francisco would probably have to be called off, as the city would surely be devastated. I also remember being glad that Citrus Heights was far enough inland that a giant octopus attack on our neighborhood was highly unlikely.

Of course, I knew what I was watching was a movie, but I was still young enough to be able to take that imaginative leap and spin a mental web that made room for the possibility that this terrifying occurrence might have some basis in fact. It would be several years later on before I connected that afternoon showing of It Came from Beneath the Sea with the name Ray Harryhausen, who, I would discover, also rattled my spine and piqued my imaginative curiosity with other films I encountered in much the same way, films like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Mysterious Island (1961), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), First Men In The Moon (1964), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) and One Million Years B.C. (1966), a movie that, thanks to star Raquel Welch, piqued my interest in ways that had nothing to do with dinosaurs. The first Harryhausen epic I actually saw on the big screen was The Valley of Gwangi (1969), a cowboys-and-dinosaurs tale that used, as many movies of this ilk had before it, the original King Kong (1933) as its template. I would later read all about how the creator of that film’s groundbreaking effects, Willis O’Brien, would mentor Harryhausen’s career and usher in the delights and horrors that Harryhausen and his grand imagination would unleash. And I would also be lucky enough, thanks to a re-release sometime in the mid ‘70s, to see Harryhausen’s masterpiece, Jason and the Argonauts (1963), for the very first time on a theatrical scale. Of course, it was a revelation—scenes that I had experienced only on truncated Super-8 Castle Films versions came roaring to life. Harryhausen, whom I had imagined I’d outgrown, had captivated me all over again, and during the era that would soon render his handmade stop-motion techniques allegedly too unsophisticated for audiences who now held Star Wars as the gold standard. Looking back from the vantage point of today, 26 years after he made his last movie, Clash of the Titans (1981), it is the very handmade-ness of Harryhausen’s movies, the imbuement of his fantastic characters with the unpredictable currents of life, that separate them from the untouched-by-human-hands sheen of most modern CGI special effects. His is a lost art, as far as the trends of Hollywood go. But fortunately, for those of us who remember, and for those of us who care to pass on his legacy to our children as a touchstone of real movie magic, his movies remain.

Happy birthday, Ray Harryhausen!

Sunday, June 24, 2007


So here I am, up early on a Sunday morning, sitting in my parents' house in Southern Oregon, basking in the afterglow of an incident-free, upbeat and enjoyable 30th high school reunion, and I decided to do a little surfing before I take my daughters out for a swim at the local park. I made my way over to the Shamus' digs, and after reading his latest post on the new Traveling Wilburys collection ("At its best, The Traveling Wilburys was a labor of love, and a lesson that all art doesn't have to be overthought and overwrought"), I scrolled down and found out that Bad for the Glass had been rated "R" by someone or other, and there was an invitation to click on the icon to find out what my own blog would be rated.

Of course, this was an invitation I could not resist. Thanks, Shamus! It turns out that Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule has had the following rating attached:

Online Dating

Whoa! Me and Henry and June, Showgirls, Cronenberg's Crash, The Dreamers and six or seven other movies (not including Hostel Part II) since the rating was established in 1990.

But what I liked were the criteria for slapping my blog with such a harsh and forbidding certificate:

"This rating was determined based on the presence of the following words:

Gun (5x) Dead (4x) Porn (3x) Dyke (1x)"

So mentioning George A. Romero movies or Kim Morgan's blog or that controversial tag recently coined and applied to a certain variety of gruesome horror films has garnered me an NC-17. Or was it that darned Mary Poppins post, in which I dared mention the name of Julie Andrews' chimney-sweeping co-star, that tipped me from a hard "R" to the land of no-advertising-in-family-newspapers? (What am I supposed to do if I can't advertise in family newspapers?)

I guess I could go back and make the necessary cuts, but that would tarnish my artistic integrity. I'll just have to count on my readership to distinguish this blog and its contents from association with the kind of material that once ruined the "X". You know... p-o-r-n. Whatever. I invite anyone and everyone, including zombies, smut peddlers and arms-bearing lesbians into the fold, and I look forward to somehow living up to my newfound notoriety. NC-17 and proud!

Monday, June 18, 2007


From Mountain Man Dance Moves: The McSweeney’s Book of Lists (2006):


“Oh, he’s going to stop for gas.”



Junkie jazz singer sees self in back of spoon; uses telekinetic powers to bend it until it snaps in two.

Actress who clawed her way to the top catches reflection in pond; uses nearby backhoe to drain pond.

Woman who married for wealth rather than love looks at photo on driver’s license; goes to DMV to ask for new photo.

Politician who has forsaken his grassroots values discovers potato in shapes of own head; mashes it.

Burned-out rock star looks down at himself during out-of-body experience; refuses to go back into body “until we start seeing some changes around here, mister.”

Aging supermodel has plaster cast made of face; backs over it in SUV.

Alcoholic author looks at reflection in a tumbler of Scotch; drinks Scotch; pours another to see if he looks any better in this one.



Chlamydia Johnson

Pussy Notsomuch

Gloria Abortion


Plenty O’Hep

Jenny Arthritis


Star Jones



Original Version: Get outta there, you rassa-frassin’ fur-bearin’ critter!
Censored Version: Get outta there, you wrestle-freezing, forebearing creature!

Original: Ya no-account, bushwhackin’ barracuda!
Censored: Ya NorCal, tush-spankin’ barracuda!

Original: Great horny toads! I done dug myself clean to Chinee!
Censored: Great happy toads! I done dug myself clean to—Is this Asia?

Original: Cut the cards. Not that way, you idjit!
Censored: Cut the cards. Not that way, you widget!

Original: Now, you racka-frackin’ carrot-chewin’ varmint, get a-goin’!
Censored: Now, ya really freaky, parrot-screwin’ charmer, get a-goin’!
Recensored: Now, ya rack of funky, garrote-spewin’ varnish, get a-goin!

Original: Listen here, galoot! I’m the rootinest, tootinest outlaw in this here West!
Censored: Listen here! Salud! I’m the fresh ‘n’ fruitiest outlaw in this here West!

Original: If they make me jump off that diving board one more motherfuckin’ time, I swear to God—How many takes could they possibly need?!
Censored: Oooooooh! I hates rabbits!

Censored: Consarn it!
Censored: Daaaaaaayum!


Had enough? No? Then click here.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


"Bring Me the Heads of Five Bloggers..."

When I started this blog in November of 2004, the last thing I expected was that anyone outside of my own circle of friends would actually read it, and even then I figured I’ve have to employ some sort of weaponry or base tactics or combination of both to ensure that they did.

Nearly three years later, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule still doesn’t exactly have the readership of Entertainment Weekly, or Ferret Monthly for that matter, and I’d bet that a lot of those family members that read the site occasionally out of a sense of obligation (or a fear for the lives of their family pets) probably gave up on it a long time ago, the exceptions being Thom McGregor, Blaaagh and Murray—thanks, loved ones! But it does get read by a lot more people than I would have ever imagined possible, thanks to folks like Peet Gelderblom, who contacted me early on and asked if he could publish one of my articles on his fantastic criticism site 24 Lies a Second, and David Hudson at Green Cine Daily, who found his way here around the same time and has, thankfully, kept me in some very heady company with regular highlighting of this blog in his daily list of links ever since.

And I feel fortunate to have gotten in on the ground floor of the Blog-a-Thon movement with the notorious Showgirls Blog-a-Thon, at the invitation of one of my favorite bloggers, Brian Darr, who runs the awe-inspiring San Francisco-based Hell on Frisco Bay like a delightful spinning top of information about the city’s revival and festival scene. Brian got me in contact with a whole passel of fun and super-smart bloggers and film writers and got a ball rolling which has yet to show any signs of stopping, even during a period in my life when I have seemingly less and less time to devote to writing. By the end of 2006, David Hudson was writing about the phenomenon of the Blog-a-Thon as a significant development in the widening landscape of Internet film criticism:

“These informal, self-organizing symposiums are as vital as the academic sort, only, for better or worse, depending on your point of view, far less academic. They turn up fresh insight into the subject at hand while introducing like minds to each other (and sometimes not-so-like minds), making that afore-mentioned loosely connected community a little less loose.”

And Matt Zoller Seitz, in a long, tangled, fascinating conversation with Keith Uhlich on Matt’s blog The House Next Door (an online film writing phenomenon in itself) a few months back, gave me one of the most heartening name-checks this blog has yet received when the two of them got around to the subject of how film criticism is changing:

“What you see when you read Internet film criticism is criticism that is not constrained by word count. You don't have to cram it into 30 or 60 seconds or less, like a lot of TV-based reviewers do. The presence or absence of a still picture illustrating the text, or the decision to run the piece on the front of the section versus inside -- none of this stuff has any bearing anymore, it's all about the content of the piece. Not only can you go long if you want, you can do multiple posts on the same film, or on the same director. You can write about a movie that's 30 or 40 years old and connect it to something today, and nobody can say boo to you. You can illustrate your essay with frame grabs, to indicate visually exactly what it is that you're talking about. Or you can refer readers to YouTube if there's a relevant clip up there. Or if you have a lot of server space you can pull your own clip and hope the studio doesn't sue you.

What we're talking about here is an ever-evolving experience of media. You don't so much consume it as dip into it. It has no beginning. It has no end. It has no past. It has no future. It is in that continuous present that you talked about in your Miami Vice review. For an internet critic like, say, Dennis Cozzalio, an old film directed by Robert Aldrich and the new Peter Jackson version of King Kong are equally present-tense. Dennis is a little bit older than me—he just has the reckless adventurousness of a college kid in this respect. Internet-based criticism doesn't just encourage this type of thinking, it demands it. To be an Internet-based critic is to be free of previous paradigms -- except the new ones that you can't see right now, because you and other Internet critics are actively in the process of constructing them.”

Matt is a critic I’ve been reading for years, so that was doubly exciting for me to read, as well as an excellent example of the specific kind of encouragement that is, I think, unique in this loosely-tightly-knit community of bloggers—the sense that everybody seems to be in it for the good work and the exchange of ideas, not just for the recognition and who can get blurbed in the ad for Georgia Rule. I thank Matt for creating a site that is a locus for perpetuating that good work as well as the creative encouragement to nurture it as well.

And now this. For the first time, I’ve been tagged for a meme, and it’s a doozy.

Andrew Bemis, proprietor of Cinevistaramascope, one of my favorite blogs, was given a “Thinking Bloggers Award” and commissioned to include five sites to which he would pass the award onto. Mine was one of them. But in order to accept the award, the blogger who receives it must in turn provide a list of five other blogs to which he/she would give the award. It’s a great way to bringing new (and perhaps even familiar) sites some extra exposure (like Andrew’s wife’s blog, You Struck Me Dumb Like Radium, which has all the markings of a real keeper), and I thank Andrew for the spotlight he’s thrown on SLIFR. It seems there are rules, however:

1) If, and only if your blog is one that is tagged on my list below, you must write a post with links to five other blogs you like that consistently make you think (hence, the Thinking Blogger’s Award).

2) Link to this post so people will know whose good idea all this was.

3) Proudly display the “Thinking Blogger Award” logo with a link to the post you wrote.

As I told Andrew, as I gaze to my right and peruse the blogroll I’ve amassed over two-and-a-half years, picking five will be a lot easier than whittling it down from 35. But here I go, five blogs I love that regularly make me think. They are all excellent sites devoted to film, pop culture, and a couple occasionally even tread the realm of politics. But the thing that unites the blogs I had to list is the very personal sense I have, from reading them and from communicating with their authors, that I could spend long hours with each and every one of those bloggers, be it in some dusty cantina on a distant planet, or a low-lit bar with heavy, high-backed leather chairs and cheap whiskey, or at a comic convention, or roaming the aisles of a top-notch video store, or hanging out drinking coffee at a film festival somewhere far from the world I live in, basking in the love each of us has for film and the exchange of ideas, thoughts, and enthusiasm about it. They are all smart, personable, generous and, best of all, I consider them my friends. Who wouldn’t want to share that? Here they are, in alphabetical order based on their names. And thanks again, Andrew, for giving me a reason.

Is there a blogger out there with a more encyclopedic knowledge of the nooks and crannies of classic Hollywood, combined with the energetic sensibility attuned to investigating the subject with such playful third-person authority, as the Self-Styled Siren also known as Campaspe? If so, I don’t know about them, and if I did I doubt I’d want to replace her with them anyway. She’s just too damn sharp, and she’s so lacking in pretense and puffery that luxuriating in the deep-dish, but oh-so-readable posts she offers up with astonishing regularity is just too much of a temptation to resist. The SSS has become one of life’s necessities—in just the past month, for crying out loud, she’s written about Charles Laughton’s Javert (my wife and I did the subtitles on that one and the Milestone version, Campaspe!), Kiss Me, kate, Elia Kazan, Hollywood and the Afterlife, Dana Andrews and Jean Negulesco and even Hostel Part II, for cryin’ out loud! It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t like Once Upon a Time in the West-- a writer this good makes you enjoy the differences as well as the eye-to-eyes, and the chance to reexamine your own passions through another reflection. And believe me, a leap through this looking glass is what anyone who loves the movies needs to take right away.

Sometimes I think my whole blogging career has been about me discovering that certain someone who makes my previously supposed expertise in movies, and certain genres of movies, look pale and pathetic in comparison. Kimberly Lindbergs is the hostess with the mostest when it comes to horror and science fiction, especially the European variety, and she simply knows more about those genres than anyone I’ve met this side of Forrest J. Ackerman. Her site, Cinebeats: Confessions of a Cinephile, is an amazing cornucopia of inquiries into horror style, genre, fashion, gore, comic books, Mario Bava and just about anything any horror fan who wants to expand their horizons could possibly desire. But that’s not all—Kimberly’s own self-description of the site reads like this: “Cinebeats chronicles one woman’s love affair with 1960s and 1970s cinema.” (Calling Kim Morgan!) She even turned me on to an old Claudia Cardinale movie I’d never heard of before! Cinebeats took a long breather last year, but Kimberly is back, and it looks like she’s gonna stay this time. Thank Prince Sirki (and Barbara Steele) for that!

On May 11, 2006, about a year and a half into the SLIFR project, I got the happiest surprise of my resurrected writing career when Jim Emerson devoted an entire post to my Professor Van Helsing Spring Break Quiz at his blog Scanners. I remember that entire previous week being one of the most frustrating of my life—I had spent two years attempting to secure a job in Portland, Oregon, and I saw it all unexpectedly go down the drain, along with a lot of hope I had for the future, when the deal I was working out with my soon-to-be employer fell apart for reasons I still don’t understand. Jim, of course, had no idea about any of this, but when I discovered his post I also discovered an unexpected source of validation, which was all I needed to send me away on a cloud of renewed hope. Hey, a writer I really like took note of something I did without any prompting on my part! Suddenly my troubles seemed (for the moment) a little less haunting, and I felt like even though pursuing my writing may not ever result in monetary reward, it was paying off in terms of putting me in the path of people with whom I felt connected intellectually, experientially, emotionally. And Jim, one of the most generous and encouraging folks I’ve ever met (who I’ve yet to actually meet!), has become over the past year and change a fast friend whose site remains, along with Green Cine Daily, at the top of my list of daily must-stops. Jim sports a voluminous, swooning, critical and fiercely articulate talent, without the need to seem cutting-edge by going against the grain for the sake of showing off his tastes, which makes him exactly the kind of critic I not only crave to read, but also the kind of critic I hope to become. Never mind that we do happen agree on a whole lot—we share a favorite movie (Nashville) and a passion for Tex Avery, Barbara Stanwyck, Miller’s Crossing and Elizabeth Pena. The disagreements are part of the fun too, and there simply is no more inviting table to be called to sit at than the comments under one of Jim’s posts. His threads are the kind my own site aspires to as well—thoughtful, civil, giddy, serious and uber-fun to read and participate in. You probably already know about Jim and Scanners, but I honestly couldn’t have excluded this blog for a dumb reason like familiarity. It’s been too important to me to do anything other than celebrate it.

Sunset Gun and the MSN Movies Filter blog are just two of the places Kim Morgan calls home on the Internet. I discovered Kim’s writing last year, around the time that Jim Emerson began his Opening Shots Project, when my wife handed me an article written by her that she thought I’d enjoy. To say she was right would be an understatement. Kim and I established an e-mail connection not long after that, and when I began reading Sunset Gun regularly, I was delighted to discover someone of the female persuasion who shared my enthusiasm for classic Hollywood film noir, horror films and, most particularly, the down-and-dirty thrillers of the ‘70s. (I leapt for joy when she posted an enthusiastic bit about one of my favorites, Race with the Devil.) Kim is one of those rare writers who isn’t afraid to post her feelings, passions and even peculiarities on her sleeve and make explicit connections between her own personality and the films she writes about, and she has a punchy, accessible style that fits those methods perfectly. She’s a University of Oregon homey too! And she recently sat in for Roger Ebert across the aisle from that guy who seems afraid of anyone whose taste strays even slightly off the beaten path (she mopped the floor with him, of course). What’s not to like?

In his blog Bad for the Glass, the man formerly known as That Little Roundheaded Boy now regularly trolls the mean streets of American pop culture, past, present and occasionally the future, in a trenchcoat, smoking unfiltered Chesterfields, and asking only a nominal fee plus daily expenses. The Shamus has a long memory—he knows his ‘60s-‘70s music inside and out, he’s sharp as a tack on all kinds of films (though he don’t like horror) and often he’ll rattle off 100 great things about John Wayne as easily as some of us can order lunch—and he has a short fuse too—he’s one of the rare bloggers who’s not into archiving old material or even latching on to one particular template for long, so if you read something of his you like, print it out, because it may not be there next week. He and I will occasionally duke it out over a movie like V for Vendetta or an inescapable phenomenon like the Oscars, but it’s always with mutual respect. The Shamus (TLRHB) is one of my original blogging friends, and he’s always a delight. (Oh, and a look at the image the Shamus uses to represent himself ought to give you a clue as to the meaning of the title of his blog, if you haven’t already figured it out.)

And I know I’m breaking format, but here's one to grow on: Damian Arlyn’s Windmills of My Mind. Damian is a video store manager in Corvallis, Oregon, and his writing and ambition have really been a pleasure to experience. The two of us can’t agree about certain movies, but Damian has a real seeker’s sensibility about him and an openness to other points of view that is refreshing, even if he can’t be beaten and humiliated into submission and agreement! Damian’s blog is definitely one to watch as the summer progresses, because he’s cooked himself up a doozy of a challenge—he’s giving over the 31 days of August to a career retrospective of his favorite filmmaker, Steven Spielberg, a massive undertaking that should be loads of fun to read and participate in. Windmills has plenty of other goodies to enjoy too, so get to it! And Damian, that 1941/The Boys from Brazil double bill is a standing date for when next I get to Corvallis, Oregon!

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Truth be told, I didn’t really want to like Hostel Part II. It would have been easier if I could have just dismissed it with a wave of the hand, or with a wave of nausea, as just another offensive, fumble-footed horror homage, along the lines of director Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever and Hostel. In fact, Hostel had a promising premise—ugly American backpackers for sale to the highest bidder as victims in an underground Slovakian murder ring—which never transcended its basic outline because the characters we were meant to identify with were painted with such broad strokes of derision, strokes equal to those with which the amoral, venal flesh dealers, and the blood-lusting murderers themselves, were rendered. Roth demonstrated a talent for building dread—we all knew what lay in store for these poor, horny, tactless bastards, and each mysterious new encounter with all-too-eager Eastern bloc babes or smirky desk clerks sporting glances that lingered a beat too long brought us closer to the charnel house with a satisfying turn of the screw.

But once inside Eli’s Body Shop, the air quickly leaked out of Hostel as it became more apparent that there were no more clever tricks up the director’s sleeve. The tenuous connection to any real world situation vis-à-vis the tarnished perception of the American presence overseas, and the extreme, violently rationalized reaction to it, is a circumstance with which the movie could claim association by proximity only. It certainly never felt imposed on the narrative or engaged with in any meaningful way by screenwriter-director Roth (despite his overactive spin control in pre-release interviews). He’s there in that filthy dungeon of dismemberment for one reason only: the dirty thrill of turning said screw until it bursts through and pierces flesh. When it became clear that the movie could only indulge in a series of gratuitous set pieces (featuring a whole bunch of people screaming and begging while decked out in ghastly-silly makeup appliances meant to gross us out) before trying, like the unlikely hero figure played by lone backpacking survivor Jay Fernandez, to wriggle out of the very difficult dead-end situation it creates for itself, it was hard for me not to give in to indifference.

The improbable escape and confluence of coincidences that allow Fernandez (and the audience) some measure of vengeful release for all the previously endured abuse finally tipped the scales way too far in the direction of absurdity, and Hostel turned out (not without some measure of relief on my part) to be an experience of much less intensity and effectiveness than I had imagined it might be.

So it wasn’t much of a surprise when Hostel Part II (Roth hopes that “part” will get you thinking more Godfather than Grease) grabbed hold of me in the much the same way that the first one did. We follow a trio of, again, obnoxious American backpackers—this time young women—as they’re led along the trail of bread crumbs that inevitably ends in a room in that darkened industrial warehouse where they will be separated from their dignity, their limbs, and their lives. These women are on a par with their male predecessors in terms of sheer, petulant obnoxiousness—frosty yet empathetic Beth (Lauren German), a trust-fund princess with a sense of decency just waiting to be splattered; earthy, lusty Whitney (Bijou Phillips), whose party-hardy philosophy and fundamental bitchiness make her a likely candidate for decapitation; and treacly sweet Lorna (Heather Matarazzo), whose overmodulated wide-eyed openness and vulnerability (a mistake on the part of actress and director) undermine our stake in her unfortunate fate, played out in the movie’s grisliest and most overtly stylized set piece.

Hostel Part II is no more a purposeful or reflective consideration of the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Darfur, or a finger on the pulse of post-9/11 anxiety, than was Part I. Again, the notion that a movie takes advantage of a premise involving an especially bloody and aggressive outgrowth of capitalism, spearheaded by characters that look like they could have come from deep inside the beltway of George W. Bush’s America, doesn’t mean that the movie profoundly engages with that premise on a political or sociological level. And hearing Roth pontificate in interviews about how he drew inspiration for the movie after pondering the aftermath of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina really is opportunism at its most shameless-- post-production rationalization designed to distract the mainstream press from the ghoulish play he’s really up to. No, Hostel Part II departs from its predecessor into the realm of a truly effective giallo-influenced thriller through sheer craft and skillfully achieved empathy for those pitiful specimens who find themselves in the death chair. Roth has become a better director, better able to take advantage of the dank creepiness of his locales, inside and outside of that slaughterhouse; better able to set up visual jokes that play upon-- and indict-- the audience’s desire to see more than even this plasmatic director wants them to see (late in the film, a guard at the warehouse obscures our view of a video monitor just at the point a particularly gruesome death is delivered); better able to convey far more storytelling skill than was on display in the previous gross-out. Roth’s happy-horseshit interview persona may be cynical, but his instincts for how to deepen the experience beyond a showcase for the talents of makeup wizards Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero have served him well in this sequel.

The biggest chance Roth takes is affording a sobering, satirical glance at what might underlie the impulse for a rich businessman to get him or herself tattooed and travel halfway around the world for the privilege of running a Skilsaw over someone’s screaming face. The movie intercuts the travels of the female protagonists with those of two American executive types who have won an intense bidding war over the right to disembowel our heroines. Roth introduces them in a very sharp split-screen montage sequence which shows us a vast pool of CEOs and other outwardly reputable types surreptitiously consulting their buzzing cell phones during business meetings, family breakfasts and, of course, golf matches. We might mistake their multitasking behavior as typical hard-core white-collar breadwinning, until we get a glimpse of those cell phone screens with images of Beth and Whitney, and those ever-escalating dollar figures. The privilege of stress-relieving, no-questions-asked murder falls to a type-A middle management asshole (Richard Burgi) who imagines the bloody experience as the ultimate extreme sport, one that will give him an inexplicable aura and edge (Eye of the ripper?) when he returns to the competitive business world. Along for the ride is another suit and tie (Roger Bart), a far more uncertain and reticent one who harbors an unstable sense of decency that will do him absolutely no good when the heavy doors of that abattoir slam shut and he realizes that someone must die. Roth teases us in clever ways as these two strands of the story dangle ever closer to each other, and they give Part II a definite psychological edge that enhances the squirm-inducing dread, the fear of the moment when steel meets, and rends, flesh, a fear that Roth unashamedly exploits for all the suspense and audience identification he was unable to locate in the first movie.

There has been some debate as to just with whom the audience is meant to identify, however. Many of the folks eager to chime in on the movie before they’d even seen it seemed convinced that, by making a movie about a torture-and-murder-for-profit organization and placing young, relatively attractive people in it, the movie was somehow advocating actual torture. (The tone of some of these arguments suggested to me that these detractors didn’t realize the horrors of Hostel Part II were the product of movie fakery.) At the very least, was Roth positioning the movie as some sort of vicarious geek hard-on, advocating bloody vengeance against all the pretty folks who, in the world outside this grisly fantasy, wouldn’t give said geeks and nerds the time of day? Some have even suggested that this misapplication of sympathies—with the perpetrator of evil and against the innocent victim—is the standard M.O. of horror, as if to say that we all identified with Freddy Krueger instead of Heather Langenkamp or poor Amanda Wyss. But that’s a tack (one seen coursing through a lot of the comments beneath David Poland’s well-publicized reaction) that’s as dishonest as Roth claiming the Hostel movies are some sort of cultural corrective to Gitmo. A casual glance at the plot mechanics, and a more observant consideration of the general tone of the film’s arterially-sprayed set pieces, ought to be enough to reveal that while Roth’s point of view is clearly not one of repulsion, neither is it one that suggests we should in any way be identifying with the impulses that spur these wealthy murderers on along their crimson-stained vacations.

We are, however, invited to identify with the transgressive frisson of being taken into a pact with a skillful and, yes, occasionally irresponsible director and shown some very ugly things in the service of what can only be described, with or without shame, as a successful genre entertainment. And, folks, it happens all the time. Individual sequences in movies as disparate in subject matter, quality and chronology as The Witchfinder General (a.k.a. The Conqueror Worm; 1968), Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), Lamont Johnson’s Lipstick (1976) and Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999) all contain imagery and/or sequences far more upsetting to me than anything in Hostel Part II, and that has everything to do with factors as variable as my own personal level of tolerance and repellence and, more to the point, the director’s seriousness of intent.

The fact is, it was entirely within my range of response to the movie’s most notorious scene, the Elizabeth Bathory-influenced evisceration of Lorna at the hands of a sexually gratified female assailant, to find it simultaneously horrifying, disgusting, a clever infusion of giallo-influenced imagery (films which often achieved a similar level of seemingly indefensible ghastliness), and an opportunity to face up to my own negative feelings about Heather Matarazzo’s performance and the way Eli Roth apparently directed her to once again channel Dawn Wiener, only heavily sugar-coated this time and turned up to 11. Facile genre subversion aside (it’s usually the dowdiest of the group that ends up standing in for the audience and making it to the end of a picture like this), I think this scene, the locus of David Poland’s emotional response to the movie, probably has to be added up to a directorial misstep, a grossly overindulgent moment in a movie admittedly full of them that, ironically, was made more endurable for me by just the kinds of aesthetic disconnects mentioned above, disconnects that viewers like David Poland were unable to achieve. (By the way, Poland reviewed the movie off of a bootlegged DVD made from a work print, and he reports Matarazzo screaming pathetically for her mommy in the version he saw. Unless my ears completely failed me, Roth apparently decided against this bit of business, because I never heard it.) I don’t, however, think that Roth can be held accountable if a certain sexually inexperienced and/or disturbed element of the audience gets its rocks off on watching a woman writhing in ecstasy beneath a cascade of blood, any more than I believe that Martin Scorsese should be held accountable for supposedly encouraging John Hinckley to shoot a gun.

However, the vilest scene in the movie, from a directorial point of view, is not the Matarazzo murder. Roth, during the course of the action, reintroduces us to the pack of young (average age, about 10) street thugs from the first film that serve as the director’s roving visual reminder of the anthill scene in The Wild Bunch. These are formerly innocent children driven by poverty, disease and lack of proper adult guidance to spend their time robbing and harassing the unlucky tourists that cross their path. At one point Beth, attempting to escape the clutches of her murderous captors, stumbles upon the children and is nearly beaten to death by them before being “rescued” by the steely-eyed CEO of the killing corporation. After carting Beth away, the man holds a loaded gun to the forehead of each of the boys (and one girl), before one boy is pushed to the forefront and coolly capped in full view of the rest of the gang. We do not see the spray coming out of the boy’s head; we see only the slumped, lifeless body in the foreground as both the killer and the children depart from the scene. I’m at a loss to imagine how this scene adds anything to our understanding of the brutal economic web by which the killer, his victims and these children are ensnared. Nothing gets thrown into stark, painful relief by this callous act except the director’s compass momentarily spinning completely out of control.

The movie got its claws right back into me, though, and held its grip throughout an extended sequence of carnage and, yes, even some pitch-black comedy once we finally return for one last tour through the charnel house. It’s here that the red-meat American businessmen come face to face with the fulfillment of their sickest fantasies, and, of course, the unexpected psychological short-circuit that comes along with it, and it’s here that the movie achieves the kind of grindhouse glory that eluded the first movie in its haste to pace through its third-act plot points. Say what you will about Eli Roth’s motivations and the audience’s relative lack of health for wanting to be subjected to the final result, but Hostel Part II has, along with a coarsely underground sensibility that suggests that a wide release for this bucket of blood was never the way to go (it’s why no one ever called for the heads of Mario Bava or Lucio Fulci), the simple courage of its twisted convictions. Maybe we’ll look back in 20 years and see more clearly that Hostel and this sequel were part and parcel of a communication between a movie and the culture that surrounded it, in the way that movies like Night of the Living Dead and The Wild Bunch, to name just two, were informed by and reflective of the tragedy in Vietnam. I suspect probably not, and that’s okay—there are plenty of good, nasty movies in this genre that have gotten by simply on their good looks (irony alert), and there ought not to be any shame in enjoying them as such. Instead, when we look at Hostel Part II in 20 years I think we’ll see pretty much what we see now—the work of an over-hyped hotshot director who, if he and we are all lucky, will have fulfilled some of the promise that he finally got around to indicating in the dank, moldy hallways of this ruthless, surprisingly effective shocker.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


In the past week, no less august a publication than the Los Angeles Times has joined in, in their own ambivalent manner, of course, with the anticipatory parade of publicity paving the way for this weekend’s release of Eli Roth’s envelope-pushing sequel to his own button-pushing horror movie, Hostel. Patrick Goldstein spends several column inches wringing his hands over whether the deliberately revolting and disturbing advertising campaign created for Hostel Part II is exploitation or art. (Decide for yourself.)

Goldstein makes some interesting observations near the end of the piece regarding our eagerness to geek out on charnel fare like Roth’s movie, while government censorship and our own tendencies to avoid grim reality keeps us from more important, long looks at real-life horrors happening in Iraq and other devastated parts of the world:

“Art can often make us squeamish, whether it's high-minded social commentary or squishy horror porn. What I find depressing is that while Hostel: Part II will play at multiplexes everywhere, the disturbing images of carnage in Iraq are largely hidden away from view, in part because the Defense Department refuses to allow them to be shown, in part because the public acts outraged whenever the media put them on display.”

This is the Los Angeles Times, however. The fact that you’ll see that aesthetically compelling ad featuring Heather Matarazzo hanging upside down while grimacing right there in the Times movie pages alongside ads for Shrek the Third is given its token nod of ambivalence. And the gist of Goldstein’s piece is the kind of have-it-both-ways attitude that has become all too frequent in the paper’s movie coverage— yes, those posters are sickly beautiful, and we know there’s gonna be a lot of interest in this movie, so we have to give the public what it wants by covering it, but you should know we don’t approve, and by the way, aren’t you kinda sick for being interested in it?

The obligatory Sunday feature on Eli Roth was a much more straightforward, easily digestible puff job designed to prop up the back story of this up and coming bad boy of horror. His parents—Father was a psychiatrist, Mother a well-regarded painter—often took him to see horror films without much worry that their son would become deranged as a result. There’s the story of little Eli at his bar mitzvah being sawed in half by a nervous magician who was horrified when the little imp began screaming as though the blade was actually ripping into him. (See where it all comes from?!) And the article gives Roth plenty of space to quote the usual stuff about social commentary regarding his own movies as well as classics from the likes of George A. Romero. “People were killed and turned into zombies and just by habit went to the mall and (looked) for living things to consume,” says Roth of Dawn of the Dead (1978). “It was about American consumption and dehumanizing effects of technology and corporate America.” Of his Hostel series, Roth says in the Sunday piece. “You look at the war, you look at 9/11, you look at Abu Ghraib, the things going on down at Guantanamo—these are real horrors and we are all scared. There’s no place left to scream in public. I think these films help people deal with the real world.” Even Roth’s dad, being a psychiatrist, gets a few words in on analyzing his son’s motives: “It’s as Plato said: ‘Bad men do what good men dream.’ My son puts his dreams on the movie screen.”

(And just for the record, the Times piece feels it's important we know that Roth, no ordinary horror geek he, was named “fittest director” by Men’s Fitness magazine. For a glimpse of Roth’s own self-image, however parodistically rendered, check out this Diggler-esque fantasia from New York magazine’s Web site.)

However disturbing they may or may not be as indicators of any kind of trend in horror films, I think the Saw films, particularly the last two installments, had some genuine daring in them as far as they were willing to acknowledge that there might be some sinister logic worth following behind Jigsaw’s moralistic nightmare scenarios. But I’ve yet to be impressed by anything from the Eli Roth oeuvre, with the giddy and ghastly exception of the hilarious Thanksgiving trailer he concocted recently for Grindhouse. Despite Peter Jackson’s endorsement, I found Cabin Fever as brainless and numbing as the ‘80s splatter opuses to which it was a deliberate throwback. And though I approached Hostel with dread, I did indeed think the first half was genuinely effective. Whether Roth mined suspense or a much less complex sensation of simple dread in the opening hour of the film, it worked—the audience knows, like we knew of Hitchcock’s bomb under the table, what was coming, and we squirmed like little guinea pigs in anticipation of the arrival of the gruesome sights and sounds to come. But once Hostel gets inside that darkened abattoir, all the fear drained out of the movie for me. There was no sick feeling in the pit of my stomach; just disappointment that after being so skillfully led to the bowels of hell, all there was inside was lots of yelling and bad makeup applications and an increasingly preposterous scenario of escape.

Those Hostel Part II posters are brilliantly demented, and they must account for whatever desire I have to see the movie—and I do, despite my dissatisfaction with Roth’s previous work, want to see it. But I question the implication of articles like those puff jobs in the Times and other entertainment vessels that seem to be so eager to bestow upon Roth the role of none-too-reluctant leader of an aggressive movement into a new age of, as David Edelstein would have it, torture porn, or in the Times’s own coinage, gorno. (Could you hear my eyes rolling on that one?) True, when no less an expert than Quentin Tarantino puts his name on your movie and dubs you “the future of horror,” who’s to be shocked when the entertainment press just blindly jumps on board and offers up no considered resistance to the idea? Personally-- and I’m speaking as a moviegoer, a critic and a fan of the horror genre—Roth’s own idea of what a horror movie should be seems a bit too limited for one who’s supposed to be the genre’s future. In the Times, during one of the many comments in which the director seems a little too pre-New Flesh Max Renn for comfort, Roth likens his audiences to ones who go for roller-coasters over merry-go-rounds. “If you’re going to see a movie like Cheaper by the Dozen, at the end you’re supposed to feel good,” Roth claims. “The point of a horror movie is you’re supposed to feel bad.”

The problem I have with that rather limited assessment is the problem I have with Hostel in general. Roth is eager to take into account and indulge the most ghastly elements and implications and garish displays of the horror genre. But by defining your aesthetic as being one intended solely to make the audience feel bad, I think he’s exposed himself as having a pretty narrow understanding of what has appealed to fans of the horror genre from Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera straight up through The Bride of Frankenstein, Cat People, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Psycho, Tales from the Crypt, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing. The universe of Hostel, after all, is a pretty narrow and humorless one. Where are the influences in Roth’s movies of emotion, humor, true empathy, cheeky satiric intent and, most of all, full-throttle craft that movies like the ones cited above, as well as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead pictures, Stuart Gordon’s Re-animator, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive and Bad Taste, Don Mancini’s Seed of Chucky and Ronny Yu’s Freddy vs. Jason have in spades? And Hostel’s self-serious relentlessness isn’t a ragged patch on something organic and vital and terrifying like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Neil Marshall’s The Descent, let alone the stylistic orgasms of Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

I remain open to the possibility that Hostel Part II might go to some unexpected places, and if it does, and they are places worth going in this context, I will be, I guess, grateful. But I really wonder, can someone who thinks the point of a horror movie is simply to make the audience feel terrible really be the future of horror? And if Eli Roth really is the future of horror, will it continue to be a genre worth following?

UPDATE 6/7/07 11:30 p.m.: The Lionsgate people must be in anticipatory cash-cow heaven right now. They've just successfully pulled the wool over about $6 million worth of ticketbuyers' eyes with the advertising on Bug (only about 2% of those ticketbuyers likely had any real sense that what they were paying to see wasn't the as-advertised post-Cronenebergian horror romp), and now they await the inevitable arterial spray of big money returns on this coming weekend's release of Hostel Part II. And as Damian and Cinebeats, among others, in the comments below have noted, there hasn't been any lack of conversation about the movie, either in the positive or the negative. If you desire a thorough updating, here's a list of links provided by Damian that should get you up to date on what will surely be the watercooler topic of conversation come Monday morning, once everybody's had a chance to actually see the movie:

Some have suggested that Roth's movies, like a lot of transgressive horror (and punk rock, and fashion), are really about "freaking out the squares." Consider Jeffrey Wells and David Poland officially freaked out.

The Reel Fanatic and Moviezzz are foaming a whole lot less at the mouth over exposure to Roth's latest contagion, but they seem concerned nonetheless.

Damian Arlyn has been thinking long and hard about the Roth phenomenon, and his conclusions aren't very pretty.

Unfortunately for the timing of my own discussion post (with further comment to come later this weekend once I've actually seen the movie myself), Damian seems kinda burnt out on the topic, but he's jumped in the fray below anyway. The same goes for Cinebeats-- she agrees with Damian that the topic may have already peaked in terms of fascination (SLIFR, behind the curve again!), but that's about all she agrees with. Cinebeats, perhaps one of the foremost authorities I know of when it comes to the horror/sci-fi genre-- that is, a woman with an open, intelligent mind who couldn't be in any way brushed off as a slavering fangirl-- is a big fan of Hostel an has a great post about the return to the genre of actress Edwige Fenech.

Cinebeats also points out another very smart man in the Hostel Part II camp-- Michael Guillen gushes about the movie at Twitch and links the movie up to its various giallo roots, giving Roth's newfound awareness of Italian horror the credit for the sequel's success. And D.K. Holm likes it too. Boy, does he ever!

Other positive takes on Roth can be found at The Bleeding Tree and from Harry Knowles.

Damian, thanks a ton for all the links and for making me aware of how much discussion has already gone on about Hostel Part II. My own late arrival stems not from a lack of interest-- as I said, even though I didn't much care for the first movie, the advertising and the awareness of a different narrative tack in the sequel makes me at least hope there might be something to chew on this time around. Really, I just didn't have much to say, not having seen the movie, until I read the two pieces in the Times, which spoke to concerns that I could legitimately express without firsthand experience with the new movie. That will hopefully come this weekend, at which point I hope that the discussion can start anew.

UPDATE 6/9/07 3:59 p.m.: Well, I bought my tickets for tonight's 9:45 Hostel Part II show at the Arclight in Hollywood, so I'll have something more than speculation and/or reaction to Roth's other movies to add to the discussion below very soon. In the meantime, here's the Shamus on five terrifying movie characters and Kim Morgan, gearing up for her own thoughts on Hostel Part II, with a couple of pre-show thoughts and a round-up of the good, the bad and the ugly reactions to Roth's opus.

UPDATE 6/12/07 9:54 a.m.: Well, the arguing rages on even, when the movie didn't do particularly well over the weekend, and here I am, ready to sit down and finally write about Hostel Part II. But for some reason, I am suddenly unable to access any Blogger-based sites, including my own, from any of the three computers I have at home. (I'm writing this at work.) So, until I get home tonight and can sit down in front of Microsoft Word and do a little writing, my thoughts will have to wait. If Blogger magically fixes itself and I can post tonight, I will. If not, I'll bring it in and post from here tomorrow morning.

Until then, here's a couple more essential links to the argument swirling around Roth's rumpus.

SLIFR friend and all-around great blogger and film aficionado Campaspe checks in and does not worry about being perceived as Crowtheresque in her negative reaction to the whole Eli Roth phenomenon. Her terrific piece is called "You Think I'm Hostile Now..." (and stick around for the comments!)

Neil Sarver has more to say (and to link to) at his blog The Bleeding Tree.

And Christopher Stangl has some of the most intelligent and passionate commentary you're likely to read anywhere, regarding not so much the movie, but the reactionary response to it, as capsulized by the term "torture porn." Many thanks to Chris for writing such a smart post which addresses, among other things, the assumption by a lot of folks who don't care for Hostel Part II, or horror movies in general, that there's something a little bit wrong with those of us who do. You'll find it at his great site, The Exploding Kinetoscope-- it's called "Critical Disconnect: The 120 Days of Hostel Part II".

Finally, if you're tired of Eli Roth altogether (and who isn't honestly, at this point?), Peet offers up an altogether more pleasant alternative topic of conversation. And he has pictures too! Suddenly I feel much better about the world.