Saturday, June 16, 2012

Experimental With a Tail Grab

Last weekend I was sitting around unwinding after a long day at work using an ancient relaxation technique used by wise Tibetan monks living high in the Himalayan mountains who, forsaking all earthly possessions to achieve spiritual enlightenment, developed a method to achieve oneness with the universe and transcend the boundaries between the corporeal and the ethereal otherwise known as getting shitfaced.  Ahhhh, that smooth, smooth, alcohol goes down easy.  Gin, gin, gin, ginny gin gin.  But anyway, all of the sudden through the haze I heard the ring of the doorbell rattling around my skull.  As I stumbled towards the front door I heard the dull ruble of thunder and I realized I had drifted far from the eye of the storm.  There was an ominous feeling of impending doom as I opened the door, and I know now that I should have followed by gut instinct and barricaded all entrances and readied myself with my latest batch of homemade TNT.

I unlocked the door and eased it open when suddenly a gust of wind stole it from my hand and slammed it wide open to reveal Ryebone silhouetted by an appropriately timed blast of lightning.

"Wassssssssuuuuuuuuuuuuuppp?!?" Ryebone screamed into my face.

I wasn't sure how, but he had somehow tracked me down despite my having moved to a different city and changed my name.  I briefly considered beating him to death with a hammer I kept near the door for just such an occasion, dismembering the corpse in my bathtub with a skill saw then disposing of the body parts in a barrel full of lye in an abandoned warehouse across town.  But it was getting late, and my brain was shredded from the cocktail of chemicals I had been ingesting that night.  Instead, I dropped the hammer to the ground and mumbled something like "Don't trust the Doritos," then retreated back up the stairs and into my head.

My wife, upon hearing Rybone's scream like some demented, 90's catch phrase spewing banchee, had left the living room to lock up any valuables, ensure there were working fire extinguishers close at hand, and hide any and all materials that might be used to fashion a shiv.  Ryebone jaunted into the living room and shoved his hand in my face.

"Talk to the hand, bitch."

"Your hand smells like shit," was all I could think to say because his hand did, indeed, smell like shit.

"Yeah, my asshole was itchy," he informed me before sticking his hand back down his jeans.  "So, whose dick do I have to kick to get some hookers in here?  Also, where do you usually bury your dead hookers?"

I immediately realized that Ryebone's presence all but guaranteed the kind of bad trip you're more likely to find in the lawless wilds of Tijuana or Shanghai where after a night of drunken debauchery your odds of waking up in some random hotel with a splitting headache, a mean hangover, and a pair of thoroughly soiled underwear were about equal to ending up in some fascist prison with the kind of vicious scum you've only ever read about in fine publications like the Disemboweler and Savage Anal Rapist Quarterly and never being heard from by the civilized world ever again.  I had to act fast if I wanted to maintain even the slightest chance of staying in Darwin's good books.

"There's beer in the fridge," I fumbled hoping to buy some time.

As he went to get himself a beverage I hurriedly searched through the couch cushions for the remote and began feverishly sorting through the library on Netflix.  I needed something, anything to distract the beast and ensure that no more of my internal organs ended up on the Chinese black market.

"Hey man, later we should try this choking thing all the teenagers are doing.  I heard that shit really gets you high.  It's da bomb yo!"

Oh my god!  Fine something quickly, you desperate swine.

"... all that AND a bag of chips."

"Wait!" I practically shouted, my forehead and back drenched in panic sweat.  "Wait, I, uh, think I, well, there's a movie we should, you know, could watch, before we embark on the, uh, you know, potentially suicidal behaviour..."

"What the fuck ya got for me, dog?"

"Just, uh grab a seat.  Over there.  On the couch.  Across the room."

"Whatever," he squeezed out alongside a foul-smelling belch that smelled like rancid ranch salad dressing.  Luckily, Netflix delivers nothing but the bare bones, so I didn't have to sweat through any trailers wondering if he Ryebone might lose interest and involve me in his twisted brand of chaos.

"Where's those Doritos at?"

"I'll grab them," I said as I stumbled to the kitchen.  I went to the cupboard, then remembered that in an earlier attempt to open the bag, it had burst sending the orange powder-dusted triangular chips flying all over the room.  I had subsequently swept them up, so I grabbed a handful out of the trash can, threw them in a bowl and delivered them to Ryebone just as the movie title came on screen: THE EXPERIMENT.

"Fuck these are good Doritos."

"Nothing but the best," I said before cranking the volume hoping to discourage or drown out any more of his demented ravings.

I vaguely remember hearing something about THE EXPERIMENT some time ago, never mind how long exactly.  The basic premise was that a bunch of random volunteers signed up for a two week long psychological experiment in exchange for a some kind of momentary reimbursement.  Upon arriving at an isolated compound the group was broken up into two groups to simulate a prison environment.  Some of the volunteers were designated as guards and some were designated as prisoners.  To ensure full participation they were told that if any one person left, then all of their payments would be forfeit.  There was to be no violence.  The "guards" had to maintain order while ensuring that the "prisoners" got fed and had some exercise and whatnot.
"... OK, but what happened to your pants?"

Of course, what seems like a simple experiment quickly spirals out of control and in a matter of just five days the whole thing goes to shit, the "prisoners" riot, and the whole scenario is stopped before both groups rip each other to bloody shreds.  While parts (read: most) of the movie was very exaggerated, the basic premise was actually based on a real psychological study, the Standford prison experiment, which actually took place in the basement of the university and involved students.  Although there was not a riot in the "real-life" version, it still only managed to last for five days of its originally planned two week schedule due to the "guards" becoming overly aggressive and violent and the "prisoners" suffering from psychological meltdowns.

THE EXPERIMENT, while certainly not a masterpiece, presented an intriguing scenario and was just good enough to hold my attention, although believability was certainly strained to the point of breaking several times.  What kept it together was a short running time and the talents of Adrien Brody as Travis, one of the "prisoners," and Forrest Whitaker as Barris, one of the "guards."  There's also a bunch of other people you'll probably recognize from stuff, as well as Maggie Grace who appears at the beginning and the end as Brody's love interest.  I'd like to get Lost with her... Wait, where was I?
"Why would the smoke monster want me
to take off my shirt?"

Ah yes, THE EXPERIMENT.  While not exactly a deftly handled examination of the intricacies of the human experience, the movie does attempt to address some interesting concepts.  I'll boil it all down to basically two things the movie dealt with.

The first major theme of THE EXPERIMENT was the concept of socialization and the tendency of people to follow the most readily available cultural scripts depending on the specifics of their particular social position.  That is, the "guards," who were put into a position of extreme authority, began abusing that authority by continually testing how far they could go before the experiment was stopped and escalating their disciplinary measures through increasingly violent and depraved means (The old philosophical conundrum: is peeing on people technically considered violence?). The "prisoners," on the other hand, began to feel disempowered and emasculated and dealt with it by alternately succumbing to bouts of depression and dejection and trying to fight for some lingering shreds of human decency through varying degrees of defiance.  I suppose the purpose of the experiment (both in the movie and in the "real world") was to shed some light on the psychological effects that the standard Western prison system has on its occupants, both law abiding and otherwise, and that the institution itself might be an aggravating factor in some of the negative aspects of prison life.

In the larger scheme of things, though, what the experiment in THE EXPERIMENT demonstrated was the tendency we all have to live up to perceived societal expectations associated with a specific role.  A simplistic interpretation might be that if you're treated like a piece of shit, you're more likely to behave accordingly.  I am a big proponent of Free Will (at least in some capacity), however we cannot deny the effects of socialization, and so how we perceive the various social roles we occupy is of the utmost importance.  It shines light on the fact that identity is not something inherent, but rather a construction based on the interpretation of the experiences we have.  That is not to say we can ever escape the social scripts we follow, but at the very least if we are aware that our identities are constructed both by the people around us, society as a whole, and by ourselves then we become more cognisant of those forces and we can, at least to some degree, choose the social scripts we follow and take a a more active role in the construction of our own identities and become more aware of the choices we make and why we make them and hopefully make better ones.

The other related theme is related to the old axiom that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  What THE EXPERIMENT shows is both how powerful and how fragile social expectations can be.  The "guards" take quite a while to switch into full douchebag mode.  They are only held in check as long as they are (only five fucking days, which is rather frightening) by societal expectations of decent, moral behavior.  It is only the lack of continual reinforcement and fear of repercussion or reprisal from a perceived authority figure that eventually allows them to succumb to their base urges.

Which leads me to the second thing that really caught my eye in THE EXPERIMENT, which was the red light.  The "guards" had a red warning light in their office that would light up if the doctors running the experiment saw something (through a series of video cameras) that violated the rules they had been given or placed one or more of the participants of the experiment in physical danger.  So after a situation which bordered what they thought was unacceptable behaviour in the experiment the "guards" would gather around and wait for the light to go off, and as things began escalating and the light continued to stay dim, they forgot about the light and started doing things their way.  I don't know if it was intended by the filmmakers, but the simple image of the unpowered light on the wall was the most poignant and insightful part of the whole movie.

What the red light represented was authority, or rather the archetype of authority which is manifested culturally in many ways but perhaps most significantly in the concept of a deity or deities.  Basically, the red light represented God.  The participants of the study were told that if they violated any of the commandments, then the light would blink, and they would be punished by not receiving their monetary reward.  I think this interpretation is pretty clearly founded.  The light in the movie was positioned high up on the wall so the "guards" had to look up to wait for Its message.  I mean, the religious subtext was so clear that they might as well have gotten a bunch of candles and kept vigil and then fucked a bunch of young boys.  But I mean, it was the perfect representation of both God and organized religion.  God is a red light that never turns on.

Ironically, though, this red light offers more tangible and meaningful interaction than the traditional God or gods that people tend to worship.  It reminded me a lot of the "God booths" in THX 1138 (one of George Lucas' forgotten gems) where people like Robert Duval would go to have a chat with their electronic deity who would spout off random, preprogrammed responses from It's databanks.  This, of course, was supposed to represent a disconnected and uncaring authority, but, again ironically, this God computer interface was more interactive and offered more feedback than the God that people worship today.  The gods in both THE EXPERIMENT and THX 1138 are more tangible and significant than any that people actually worship today because the gods in these movies A) Actually exist and B) Have the ability, or at least the potential, to give their worshipers feedback because of A).

The red light also represents what I like to call the Santa Clause effect (for more see here) where people tend to behave according to social conventions of propriety and decency when they fear that any violations of these rules will result in reprisal from some authority figure.  Basically, it's only illegal if you get caught.  Which, incidently, was Ryebone's personal motto.

So one movie and thirteen beers later Ryebone was passed out on the couch and I had gotten through one of his visits without severe bodily injury and property damage under $1000. (He later ended up standing on the front lawn naked, screaming something about "the goddamn Doritos" and smashing most of my dinnerware on the driveway.  Still, a small price to pay.  I consider myself to have gotten off lucky.)  He was later arrested and I spent most of the next week ducking his calls asking me for bail money.  Anyway, THE EXPERIMENT exists in that strange amorphous zone of not being a cinematic masterpiece but still being  entertaining enough for me to want to add it to my Blu-Ray collection.  It was a pretty tight, unique little film, and it left me with the same kind of feeling as HOSTAGE, which also wasn't great, but which I still really enjoyed for some reason and felt the need to shell out cash for.  Final verdict: THE EXPERIMENT gets a 6.5/10 = One Shaved Urine Soaked Prisoner's Head

Also, because I can:
"So, are you sure Jack said the only way to get off the island is to have sex with you?"


Sunday, June 03, 2012

A Dark Place in the Woods and the Temptation Towards Oblivion. Cabins, and Scientists, and Zombies, Oh My!

Let me be perfectly clear right off the bat; I am not in any way a fan of Joss Whedon.  I don't understand how he built up such a hardcore cult following with shit like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly.  Yeah, I know from his IMDB page that he did some writing work for the original TOY STORY (along with five other dudes), and he did ingrain Sarah Michelle Gellar as a sex symbol in the brains of an entire generation of geeks, and he's tried his damnedest to give Nathan Fillion some much deserved work and recognition over the years which is pretty cool.  But for the most part everything he's done has been shit and in my mind his popularity among fanboys defies all logic.  His main claim to fame in my mind is the hypnotic effect that his shitty TV show Buffy, and the totally, totally unnecessary spin-off Angel, seem to have over the intellectually unstable and weak-willed.  For me, understanding why people enjoy Whedon's work is like trying to understand the inner workings of the mind of a serial killer, or the logic behind the decision of any politician who ever lived (hint: there isn't any).  I know he's done a bunch of other stuff, but I'm not inclined to go near the it, not even with a twenty two and a half foot pole (I don't know, it was supposed to be a Grinch reference, but I can't remember the actual lyric).  I'll tell you what, Whedon: consider this an open invitation to suck my six and a half inch pole.

Actually, before I watched THE CABIN IN THE WOODS I wouldn't even have let Joss Whedon suck my dick if he paid me to.  And his nothing to do with any kind of homophobic hang-ups.  I simply wouldn't have wanted his mediocre lips wrapped around my shaft or his completely sub-par tongue tickling my balls.  His second-rate-dialogue-spewing mouth could never have kept me hard long enough to blow my load all over his pasty, white face and scraggly ginger beard.  And even now I'd be a little hesitant because Whedon was one of the two writers of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, so I have yet to enjoy anything he's actually directed (looking like THE AVENGERS might bump Whedon up to full dick-sucking duties, but only time will tell).  Unlike Whedon's deluded disciples I went to see THE CABIN IN THE WOODS not because of his involvement but in spite of it and only because I was in a small town with a shitty record when it came to new release variety and LOCKOUT wasn't playing yet.  And I have to say, I actually enjoyed THE CABIN IN THE WOODS.  Don't let it go to your patchwork-bearded face, Whedon.  Redemption isn't a statistical anomaly.  Time will tell whether THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is a sign of better days to come or a blip on the metaphysical radar.

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS really worked for me on two levels.  The first was the "twist" on the horror genre that the media kept hinting at.  The genre twisting to which they were referring was the fact that this movie was a satire of the horror genre.  I believe the quote from Whedon was that it was a "loving hate letter" to modern horror movies.  Whether or not I misquoted him here or not, the statement is an eloquent way to sum up the movie as vaguely as possible.  Unlike some stupid shit like the SCARY MOVIE franchise which is just... I mean... is there a word in the English language to describe how terribly awful and soul-sucking those movies actually are?  The only thing the DVDs that the SCARY MOVIE franchise were distributed on are good for is wiping your ass after a massive diarrhea, and even then they'd probably break into shards of broken plastic that would shred your asshole causing massive internal and external bleeding.  Yet those kind of potentially life-threatening injuries are still infinitely more entertaining than any entry into the franchise.

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS did what the cock smokers in charge of the SCARY MOVIE chain could only dream of doing if their heads contained brains instead of donkey spooge and the rotting carcasses of dead dreams.  No, this movie was able to deconstruct, analyse, interpret, and provide intelligent commentary on all of the horror stereotypes and archetypes that plague the modern horror flick.  Not only that, but it's able to do this all while still being an entertaining horror film in and of itself which was the second of the two levels I mentioned on which THE CABIN IN THE WOODS worked for me.  I really felt that I almost got two movies for the price of one, because of the structure of the narrative and the framing device used.

The movie opens with Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford (you'll fucking recognize these dudes when you see them, trust me) as a couple of dudes or scientists or something gearing up for some big project at the facility/company they work at.  For the astute movie goer who saw a bunch of spoiler-ish trailers with giant holodeck style walls it might be assumed that these guys are pulling some strings, and that movie goer would be correct, though thankfully the movie will turn out to be a lot smarter than that movie goer will have given it credit for and the larger context cannot be entirely deduced and is a welcome surprise.  Jenkins and Whitford steal the show in a lot of respects and bring the right mix of humour and pathos to a couple of middle-management types who are going through the routines and trying to get through the daily grind while at the same time witnessing (and, I suppose, inflicting) some pretty grizzly shit.

The movie then shifts gears and we get introduced  to the usual gang of teenage idiots (some of them extremely hot) who tend to populate horror flicks.  They're all getting ready for (get ready for it) a weekend trip to a creepy cabin in a secluded section of wilderness somewhere in the United States of Generica.  Right from the get go the audience is let in on the fact that the whole thing is a set up with concealed agents and cameras keeping tabs on the gang of youngsters.  As for the kids themselves, the only ones I recognized right off the bat were Chris Hemsworth (of THOR fame, though this movie was actually made several years ago) and Jesse Williams who chicks and their browbeaten husbands and boyfriends will recognize from Grey's Anatomy.  Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, and Fran Kranz (actually a dude) I didn't recognize, though Hutchison (pictured left) was smokin' hot and Krantz does a great turn as the token stoner of the group.  It must be noted that this movie depicts one of the coolest and most multifunctional bongs ever depicted on screen.  Overall the cast was great and seemed to have an onscreen chemistry and played well off (and on) each other.

The real fun of the film, though, comes from THE CABIN IN THE WOODS examination and deconstruction of all of the horror cliches that plague today's (supposedly) scary movies.  The five teens represent five horror archetypes -the whore, the athlete, the scholar, the fool, and the virgin- and when they fail to live up to these roles they are manipulated by Jenkins' and Whitford's characters from behind the scenes.  One of my favourite little jabs was the use of drugs pumped into the cabin to disorient the teens and get them to split up at a key moment after they wisely decide to stick together after they are besieged by a "zombie redneck torture family."  They also pump in some pheromones and help set the mood to elicit the requisite horror film nudity.  Later when Connolly's "virgin" character is on the run from the zombie terror she's holding a knife she drops it after it delivers a small electric shock (the old why-the-fuck-didn't-you-take-the-weapon-with-you conundrum). The surprisingly clever rhetorical trick used here is the reversal of using rational explanations to explain away otherwise irrational behaviour.

There's also a bunch of nods to other films in the genre.  The cabin that the group goes to looks so much like the one from THE EVIL DEAD that I'm pretty sure I saw a couple frames where they forgot to digitally remove Ash from the scene.  Later the zombie attackers themselves (the Buckners) are reminiscent of the deadites, though they also kind of reminded me of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE as well, what with the disturbed family and all.  When Marty (Kranz) and Dana (Connolly) make their escape to the facility where all the nightmare creatures are kept (held by some mysterious magic?) and the subsequent slaughter that ensues once they are all released contains references to almost every horror film ever made.  There's the standard ones like werewolves, ghosts, and vampires and giant snakes and whatnot.  Then there's a killer clown (IT), saw blade head guy (HELLRAISER), doll mask murderers (THE STRANGERS), twin girls (THE SHINING), some crazy little girl with a giant mouth filled with razor sharp teeth instead of a face (???????), a merman (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON), and a classroom of Japanese girls dealing with an evil spirit (THE GRUDGE, THE RING (or the originals JU-ON and RINGU)).  The last one, the Japanese girls fighting (and winning, proving that characters in North American horror films are often less effectual than thirteen-year-old girls), is extremely important as it is shown to the audience via a live video feed from Japan and ties in the the framed narrative of the movie.

The whole idea is that there are these beings called The Ancient Ones that need to be appeased by human sacrifice or else they'll rise and destroy the world.  This is a clever idea for several reasons.  First, there is the blending of archaic, ancient, tribal, primal horrors and rituals with the modern socio-industrial complex.  There's a sense of the uncanny by blending the ancient and the modern.  Secondly, there's the idea of ritualized and institutionalized killing (I'll leave you to draw your own cultural parallels) which seems a lot more horrific than some lone nut or even a legion of the undead or demon from the bowels of hell.  There's something intensely disturbing about being tormented by an unfeeling, uncaring, corporate, industrial machine because that's the kind of nightmare you don't wake up from or escape.  Zombies and demons and chainsaw-wielding maniacs can be defeated or maybe escaped from, but how do you run from a social institution you are complicit in and where everybody except you is in on the conspiracy?  (Coincidentally, that's also the reason the presidency of George W. Bush was so terrifying.) 

The conceit of the film is that every year the human race has to make a human sacrifice in order to appease these Ancient Ones and that this has presumably been going on since the dawn of human history.  There are also some very specific guidelines.  First, the group of sacrificees have to willingly choose to proceed with the ritual despite being warned by this creepy dude who works as a gas station attendant also known as The Harbinger.  The sexy teens then have to choose the method of their own sacrifice (via a series of objects in the basement of the cabin... kinda curious what would have been summoned if one of them can found a cursed dildo... death by snoo-snoo!) and not only that bu they also have to die in a certain order.  This really fucked with me, the idea that we choose our own destruction.  For me, this wasn't just a commentary on horror films, but a general commentary about the nature of humanity itself.  We are our own worst enemy and we seem determined to proceed down whatever paths we want to follow despite all evidence that it will lead to some seriously fucked up shit (like that one time you answered that classified add looking for the third member of a threesome and showed up to find two chicks but they were both wearing strap-on dildos and you end up with a sore ass, the taste of molded rubber and a bunch of strange feelings you've never felt before...) kind of like a a more complex version of the old "you are your own worst enemy" shit.

If THE CABIN IN THE WOODS was indeed intended as a "loving hate letter" to the horror film genre, then I think that for once there was a strong correlation between intent and result.  The film is at once an homage to and entry into the horror movie genre.  It is also a sarcastic critique that filmmakers so rigidly and dogmatically follow the cliches of the genre that it must be for a higher purpose, like, to save the world from total annihilation.  So, we have to endure the same old garbage film after film because the Fate of the Entire World depends upon it.  Why else would filmmakers keep pumping out the same tired shit year after year, right?  It's a stunning indictment of the modern horror flick which has become a victim of its own cliches and de-evolved into the realm of torture porn rather than genuinely intelligent explorations of the darkest parts of our collective psyches.  For that, I'm willing to give THE CABIN IN THE WOODS a solid 8.5/10 = One Merman Head Chowing Down On the Collective Intestines of Mankind.  I'm far from being sold on Joss Whedon's shit, but I'm also not one to not enjoy something to prove a point.  So grudgingly I'll have to admit that Whedon has won this round, but I'm hoping that in the future my hate will definitely be proven right.    

(Just as a quick postscript, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS was also one of the best pro weed smokin' flicks I've ever seen what with prolonged use of the ganja counteracted the drugs that the dudes in the facility were using to fuck with the minds of the five teens.  In this case marijuana literally freed the dude's mind.  Fuckin' A.  Fuckin' A.)