Would Somebody Make a Decent Vampire Movie, Please?

Civilizer

So here’s something I didn’t see coming at all – the zombie long tail.  After the good Romero movies petered out, ushering in a decades-long drought of cultural indifference, Danny Boyle made 28 Days Later in 2002.  The great lurch leap forward in that movie?  Sprinter zombies.  Definitely why I liked that movie so much – Romero’s movies are cool (assuming you can push all that annoying sociological subtext out of your head and just enjoy the claustrophobic terror and matter-of-fact gore), but I always had this problem: I’m not afraid of a movie monster that I can literally stroll away from.  When Michael Myers is on your ass, you will carjack a pregnant lady just so you can take her wheels and speed away.  People in the Halloween movies are jumping out of third story windows just to stay one step ahead.  Romero’s zombies, on the other hand, couldn’t run down a dehydrated tortoise.  I’m sitting there watching these movies, and the protagonists are worried about how they’ll get away, and I’m thinking, “Hey, here’s an idea – why not a light jog down the street?”  I always thought that one of those movies should have ended with helicopter shot of a big group of old people making a dramatic, 3 mile per hour getaway on their Rascals, a lumbering mass of zombies giving futile chase.  The 28 Days Later zombies are a decomposing horse of an entirely different color (putrescent green, if you’re scoring at home) – in the Danny Boyle zombie apocalypse, the only survivors are Jamaica’s 4 x 100 relay team.

As always happens in Hollywood, something made money, prompting producers to strike upon the genius idea to make more movies (wait…for…it) about that thing.  But to give credit where credit’s due, we got some pretty good stuff for the next couple years, with the wave seemingly cresting with 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake.  That movie kicked ass, and if you don’t think so, then you’re one of those people who sees Katherine Heigl movies on the first weekend.  And we can’t forget Shaun of the Dead, though I prefer my horror pure and unadulterated rather than cut by a bunch of yuks, clever and satisfying yuks though they may be.

The Great Aughts Zombie Revival really should have started to short out after Shaun.  Usually parody is the first symptom of the exhaustion of public interest (I know…then 2008’s “Superhero Movie” should have heralded the end of the superhero genre, but clearly it hasn’t.  The rule doesn’t apply because nobody except paid focus groups saw that movie, effectively neutering any impact it had.  Also, it was not a “parody” so much as a “shitty movie”).  But the Revival didn’t short out…just when it looked like it was about to thanks to the disappointing Land of the Dead, 28 Weeks Later comes out and gets things kick-started again.  At this point, something truly surprising happened – instead of just taking for granted the fact that Americans will pretty much watch anything with zombies in it and churning out derivative film after derivative film, we actually get several more years of good zombie moviesSo not only does the Zombie Revival far outlive its cultural expiration date in terms of sheer production, it also does so in terms of the quality of its content.  [Now is the point in the post where you’re probably expecting me to make some sort of half-assed pun drawing a parallel between the seemingly unkillable zombie genre and the zombies themselves.  Well, I’m not going to.]

Don't pitch a fit about where I put "Dead Island." Nobody would have noticed that game if it wasn't for the trailer.

I’m certainly not complaining – my life was significantly enriched by the Bill Murray cameo in Zombieland.  But this is all a long-winded way of saying, what the hell man.  Zombies put it back together for a 10+ year run, so where’s my Vampire Decade?

Please don’t start in on me about all the money that a certain “vampire” franchise has made over the last several years as proof that we are living in a vampiric renaissance – let me just tell you, if you think you’re on “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob,” think again.  You’re on Team You Should Be Embarrassed to Go Out in Public.  What we’re getting now are not vampires.  These are vampires:

You'll notice none of these guys are wearing a henley

Gary Oldman there on the far right might have been guilty of some narratively dull flights of romantic longing, but that’s ok.  Know why that’s ok?  Because Dracula, like the guy with the piranha mouth on the far left and effin’ Valek next to him, is a predatory satanic ghoul, a creature who is entirely dead inside, whose soul has long since been displaced by a spiritual and existential void which can only be filled by a deluge of human blood, but is empty once again much too soon, this eternal emptiness shaping the vile undead monster into a thing driven by an all-consuming, single-minded craving for blood and for murder.

And they’re nowhere to be found.  Instead, we’ve got this nearly uninterrupted run of barista vampires.  To be fair, it’s harder to get vampires right.  You have to write dialogue for them, and I think that’s where the scriptwriters go astray.  They assume that because a figure in their script can talk, they have to turn it into a “character.”  It has to have contemplative, revealing thoughts.  It has to have feelings.  It must have an inner life.  And that…is so…stupid.  You try and humanize vampires in an attempt to make them more interesting, and you utterly, irretrievably blow it.  Vampires are inherently interesting because they’re vampires.  They sleep in coffins filled with the earth of their ancestral homeland, they arise in the night to suck the blood of the living for sustenance, they can turn into a bat, a wolf, a rat, they can exercise telepathic mind control.  A dominant feature of their lore, more than any other monster, is that they are willingly, enthusiastically allied with evil – their very existence is an affront to the Christian God, making their narrative antagonism in any story inherently interesting in a culture such as ours!  And yet everybody writing a show today goes “Eh, screw that.  What if they gazed wistfully out their window for hours at a time, bemoaning their lonely, dark existence while they listen to Arcade Fire?”

Diarists, maybe. Vampires, certainly not. Nice scarf.

If this is what I can expect from here on out, then the return of the vamp was over before it began.  Even when you take the genre out of the tween milieu and do something in a more mature setting, you get a contrived, boring, flat bunch of melodrama that a real vampire would never be a party to.  Remember The Gates?  I love Rhona Mitra, but seriously.  That show sucked (I don’t mean to use that as an easy pun.  That’s just the only appropriate word.  It sucked.)  You like a chillingly scenic eastern European castle, shrouded in mist and surrounded by howling wolves?  Tough shit, here’s a gated community full of witches, werewolves, and vampires!  Watch them juggle the vagaries of everyday life with the challenges of their secret occult lifestyles!  They’re kind of just like us! True Blood is the same story, just more boobs.  The vampire in “John Carpenter’s Vampires” is named “Valek.”  In True Blood, it’s “Bill Compton.”  Wow.  I don’t know why the zombie grabbed all the best writing talent, but it did, and the vampires got all the ones who are still stewing over the fact that their Dawson’s Creek spec scripts were rejected.  It’s a shame.  A damn shame.  The television and cinematic landscape is all the poorer for its lack of night stalking and neck biting.  Oh, and did you see Daybreakers? The vampires wore suits and ties and worked in a fancy office building. It was like watching a dimly-lit 90 minute Charles Schwab commercial. You never knew if the vampires were going to bite somebody, or starting talking up a Roth IRA.
All of this is just a long-winded way of saying, read “American Vampire.”
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Southland Tales: I Just Dunno Man

 Civilizer

***DISCLAIMER – The definitive review of Southland Tales can be found here***

I visit Ain’t It Cool News on a pretty regular basis, so I’d heard the rumblings about Southland Tales for a while preceding its “release,” if you want to call it that (out for 5 weeks in 63 theaters, made under $375,000 worldwide).  As a devoted fan of dystopias, to the point of not hating Waterworld, I remember being intrigued.  Then it flew like a lead balloon at Cannes, it didn’t even come out where I live, and I forgot all about the film.  Until a few weeks ago, when the DVD was at Target for $15.  I looked at it for a second and then repeated a line that has often brought me into a movie theater – “What the hell, The Rock’s in it.” 

I finally had a chance to watch it recently, and I gotta tell ya:  Richard Kelly set out to make a sprawling, trippy, acidic piece of agitprop.  And he missed it by      T                                       H                                   A                                    T      much.  I think I liked it, but I’m not entirely sure.  Not because I’m still deciding, but by the time the ice cream truck that served as a shop on wheels for an arms dealer played by Christopher Lambert, the Highlander, was caught up in a psychedelic vortex caused by a rift in the space time continuum, while Sean William Scott in a dual role encountered a version of himself from the future inside said truck, while a random kid fired a rocket launcher at a floating mega-dirigible from on top of this same truck, I was completely bewildered.  The movie can, I think, be best illustrated in the form of this quote, from The Rock’s character, Boxer Santaros:

“This is an epic Los Angeles crime saga…it takes place in the near future.  The basic concept is this;  I play an LAPD cop who isn’t what he seems.  He’s a paranoid schizophrenic, who has a supernatural gift.  He sees things…And he senses a change, you see…My character, he realizes that the apocalyptic crime rate is because of global deceleration.  The rotation of the earth is slowing down at a rate of .00000006 miles per hour each day, disrupting the chemical equilibrium in the human brain, causing very irrational criminal behavior.”

In the context of the film, The Rock, along with porn star companion Krystal Now, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, is pitching this concoction as a film to Sean William Scott’s cop character.  However, what The Rock has described is actually happening in the alternate universe of Southland Tales.  The United States is on the precipice of economic ruin, society has become a crumbling facsimile of Orwell’s Big Brother-dominated Oceania.  Following nuclear attacks on El Paso and Abilene, Texas, the PATRIOT Act has been strengthened, creating an all-seeing surveillance program called US-Ident.  The principal underground resistance movement is a group called the Neo-Marxists (populated by 3 female Saturday Night Live alums), who hatch a plan to stage a double-murder perpetrated by a racist city cop as a way to inspire a rebellion against the encroaching police state and tip the balance of the coming presidential election (the Democratic ticket being Clinton/Lieberman, natch).  All of this guerilla intrigue is taking place against the backdrop of the new economic power called Liquid Karma, a new  scientific process developed by a scientist named Baron Von Westphalen that uses tidal energy to create the world’s first perpetual motion machines, generators that eliminate our need for oil.  Liquid Karma is the thing that is causing the rift in the space-time continum stumbled upon by Boxer Santaros, who is an action movie star married to the Republican president’s (played as cretinous stand-in for President Bush, how original) daughter.  Boxer is reduced to a frightened, babbling paranoid amnesiac for most of the film, due to the fact that he was sent through one of these space-time rifts and ended up time-travelling.  Sean William Scott’s character also went through a rift, came out the other side, and now there are two of him walking around.  When they meet in the arms dealer’s ice cream truck, it starts floating into the air and the two Stifflers could shatter our dimension.  Or something.  Again, I’m not sure what happened in this movie.

Also, it’s narrated by a disfigured Iraq War veteran played by Justin Timberlake, who also, when not narrating self-indulgent Richard Kelly movies, deals some sort of hallucinogenic drug.  He gets the coolest scene in the movie, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot of the film:

   

This was not a well-done movie.  It’s incredibly long – approximately 17 hours.  The pacing drags like a Pontiac Vibe going uphill with a 747 hooked to the bumper.  There are about 3 spots in the final hour where the movie could have comfortably ended, but didn’t, and instead veered off in another direction.  Here’s what watching this movie is like:  imagine you’re in the passenger seat with a buddy, and you’re just getting home from a long car trip.  He pulls up into your driveway to drop you off, stops the car, puts it in park, and just as you’re unfastening your seat belt, he throws it back into drive and guns the car around the garage, through your back yard, and starts joyriding across your neighbors’ grass.

But for some reason, I enjoyed watching this, and would probably recommend it.  Again, I like dystopias so take this with a grain of salt.  But overstuffed though the movie may be, it attains a near-hypnotic quality about half-way through, and the plot is so bizarre that I really did want to see where it was going.  Weirdo sci-fi stuff notwithstanding, the decrepit scenery that is the fallen, once-clean and mighty United States, as well as the broken society inhabiting it, is unsettling stuff; the government might still be trying to cling to power and enrich itself, but they’re clearly not governing anything.  I’m certain that I’m giving Kelly a more coherent point than he earned, but the film seemed to say that if we abdicate our role as thinking citizens in a democracy and let everything be done for and to us, if we let the government turn into nothing more than a self-sustaining circle-jerk of the rich and powerful, then who knows what kind of crazy shit shows up to fill the vaccum?  It won’t cause a rift in the space-time continum, but if we’re left to be led by morons like the Neo-Marxists, or technocrats like Baron Von Westphalen, we may be free but we’re just as screwed.

Obviously, You’re Not A Golfer

Vodpod videos no longer available. from www.youtube.com posted with vodpod

Barack Obama may be narrowing the gap in Pennsylvania, but one thing’s for damn sure after this sorry display of throwing the rock:  He lost the Lebowski vote.  Forget it Senator, you’re out of your element.

You Wanted Superheroes, You Got ‘Em

ross-captain-america.jpg Super-Civilizer

I have written 93 posts on this blog.  Almost half of them have been about politics.  I have tried to illuminate at least a tiny corner of the blogosphere regarding topics as timely and varied as the 2008 presidential election, energy policy, Russian and Venezuelan malfeasance, and environmental developments.  Nevertheless, as I examine the search engine terms that lead people to this blog, far and away the most popular are not “Vladimir Putin” or “green energy” or “Barack Obama.”  No, they are instead “Silver Surfer” and “Cloud Strife,” superheroes from the Marvel universe and Final Fantasy VII, respectively.  Cloud is putting asses in seats because of my post explaining why he could kick Legend of Zelda’s Link’s ass in a fight.  I haven’t even blogged about Silver Surfer, I just put up a picture of him sailing the galaxy on his surfboard to cleverly illustrate the fact that I was at “50 posts and still cruising.”  I’d say that the Silver Surfer and Cloud have composed about 2% of this site’s total content.  And yet, if it weren’t for these two completely imaginary characters, my site traffic would probably be just 3/4 of what it is.  But rather than obstinately doubling-down on the political coverage, I’ve decided I’m going to go where the hits are in a blatant attempt at riding the Silver Surfer/Cloud Strife train all the way to the page-view jackpot.  You wanted Silver Surfer and Cloud Strife, interweb, then you’ve got ’em – the rest of this post will be nothing but a bunch of pictures for your clicking pleasure.  But let the record show that I am very disappointed in all of you.

annihilation-silver-surfer.jpg    rise-of-the-silver-surfer.jpg

cloud.jpg    cloud-with-buster-sword.jpg

the-silver-surfer.jpg    silver-surfer.jpg

cloud-in-advent-children.jpg    cloud-strife.jpg

All Things In Their Place Is Saddened By The Passing Of Heath Ledger

heath-ledger-joker.jpg

Rest in peace, you freaking genius.

Ass-Kickery On Tap

 A little taste of the awesome due in theaters during the next 12 months.

John Carpenter’s Vampires: Like Citizen Kane, Except Much Better

jcv-poster.jpg

Ever since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally enshrined Black Sabbath in 2006, the Kennedy Center Honors have taken its place as America’s greatest artistic charade.  In 2006, the honorees were Zubin Mehta, Dolly Parton, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Steven Spielberg, and Smokey Robinson.  The Honors purport to recognize Honorees “for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts— whether in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures or television—are selected by the Center’s Board of Trustees.”  KCH goes further to say that “the primary criterion in the selection process is excellence.”  

This is a farce.  A farce.  And will remain that way until the ivory-tower arbiters of performing excellence who annually deign to lower the drawbridge and allow an honored few passage across the fetid pop-culture moat into the splendid manor of artistry extend a long-overdue invitation to one John Howard Carpenter

Carpenter is best known for a group of movies he directed in the late 70’s/early-mid 80’s, beginning with the yet-to-be-topped original HalloweenHalloween introduced the world to the greatest slasher-movie boogeyman in cinematic history, Michael Myers.  Far superior to wisecracking pedophile Freddy Krueger or mama’s boy Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers is a silent, indestructible gore machine who stabs first and asks questions later.  Actually, he doesn’t even ask questions, he just stabs.  Carpenter followed Halloween with The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, the truly wonderful Big Trouble in Little China, and then ended the ’80s with They Live, starring the great Rowdy Roddy Piper, one of the legendary heel personalities in professional wrestling history.  While about very different things, each of Carpenter’s movies were characterized by a B-movie budget and overall sensibility (especially in the dialogue) combined with a politically allegorical undercurrent that recalls Romero’s “Dead” trilogy.  Uniting these elements was the gleeful touch of a guy who clearly loves making horror movies.

It’s conventional wisdom in scary movie circles that Carpenter doesn’t make ’em like he used to.  During the 90’s and early part of the 21st century, Carpenter offered up Memoirs of an Invisible Man, In the Mouth of Madness, Village of the Damned, and Escape from L.A., a sequel to Escape from New York that’s highly enjoyable but admitedly not as good as the first Snake Plissken adventure.  In 2001, he rolled out Ghosts of Mars starring the inimitable thespian Ice Cube.  All of these, I feel, are quite a lot of fun to watch (with the exception of Memoirs)…they’re not the highbrow “psychological horror drama” that you’d find in the ouvre of M. Night Shyamalan, but are instead bloody, gritty, violent, and often suspenseful movies that do a satisfying job of blending action and horror.  Girls don’t like them.  Ghosts of Mars, for example, is about a police force in the 22nd century who are charged with transporting a highly dangerous prisoner named Desolation Williams (seriously) across the planet Mars, by now a terraformed mining outpost.  Upon arriving at the mining town where Williams is being held, they discover the town is apparently deserted.  It’s not; instead, it’s full of ghouls who used to be the miners but are now possessed by the spirts of an ancient Martian civilization that they released in a mining accident.  The possession turns them into bloodthirsty and mindlessly violent creatures who are really into body-mod.  From there, of course, the heroes have to safely blast and maim their way out of there.

Movies like this earned Carpenter the criticism that his movies were becoming goofy and unfocused.  You can watch his body of work and judge for yourself, but he did make one movie before the 20th century expired that is far and away the best of his 1990’s lot:  John Carpenter’s Vampires.  JCV is a single film that embodies everything I love about Carpenter:  a pulp comic plot, blood-drenched visuals, monsters, and an unlikable anti-hero whose every bit of dialogue is marked by a sardonic nihilism.

 jcv-slayers.jpg

In Vampires, that hero is Jack Crow, played by the also unlikable James Woods.  Crow leads a boozy team of vampire slayers who roam the isolated and decrepit parts of America looking for bloodsucker “nests,” which they storm, SWAT-style, in daylight.  Once they’ve breached, they kill every vampire (“goon,” in the movie’s parlance) in the place.  The movie opens with such a raid and really sets the tone as far as blood and gore (wooden stake through the forehead, anyone?).  Probably my favorite slayer weapon in the film is the crossbow with a bolt that’s attached to a tow-cable.  Once fired into a vampire’s center mass and lodged in the flesh, the slayer outside with the truck turns on a winch and reels the vampire out of the house into the sunlight, where the creature promptly bursts into flames.

Here’s the best part about the slayer team:  they are bankrolled by the Catholic Church!  I’ll say that again:  John Carpenter’s Vampires is about a special forces-style team of hard-drinking vampire slayers financed by the Vatican.  If that isn’t a solid-gold idea for a movie, I don’t know what is.  In any case, the team eventually stumbles upon a plan concocted by the alpha vampire, a “master” named Valek, to take control of the Cross of Berziers, or “Black Cross.”

valek-cross.jpg 

He seriously wore these clothes the entire film.  Whole thing, never changed once.

The plan is, obviously, to perform a kind of “reverse exorcism” ceremony that will allow Valek and his ilk to walk in the sunlight.  At which point, I presume every population center on Earth becomes a sort of all-you-can-eat buffet.  Aiding Crow’s team is a prostitute played by Sheryl Lee who has been bitten by Valek and therefore has a telepathic link to him; she acts as a kind of closed-circuit surveillance camera as they try and prevent him from getting the Cross.  Along the way there’s all kinds of carnage, double-crossing, and human vs. vampire combat, plus a few instances of Crow brazenly questioning Valek’s sexual prowess. 

Aside from a disappointing decision to costume Valek in the tired euro-trash vampire fashion (all black, pants from Express Men, long hair), this movie hits all the rights notes.  Other than the clothes, Valek is a really vicious antagonist, biting people and slicing throats with abandon.  Crow is equally brutal when given the chance, and his band of merry lowlifes are altogether agreeable and funny. 

With such an outrageous plot and over-the-top characters, the only way to make this film right is to have an all-in, full-speed ahead and damn the consequences attitude, and thankfully, Carpenter does.  At no point does the director commit the sin of treating his subject matter too seriously, or try and invest his gory vampire romp with a “message.”  JCV is pure story, and a hell of story it is; I’ve watched this movie dozens of times and have never tired of it…it’s like a favorite toy.  Check it out, just don’t follow it with The Godfather or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  After you’ve had prime rib, a Wendy’s hamburger just isn’t as good, you know?

An addendum:  a sequel was made, not directed by John Carpenter, but still called John Carpenter’s Vampires: Los Muertos.  Jon Bon Jovi is the vampire hunter.  Don’t see it.