Category Archives: Review

10 Years Later: Revisiting the Village

It’s always around this time of year that I break out my Halloween movies. Nightmare Before Christmas. Trick r’ Treat. Sleepy Hollow. And, of course, The Village, which has in past years grown to be one of my fall staples. And it was in watching it just tonight that I wanted to type up a blog defending this movie, and encouraging any readers to revisit it if it’s been a while now.

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The Twist

Now, first off, I want to dive into this blog by talking about why so many people didn’t or don’t like this movie. What it seems to repeatedly return to is, well, it’s a Shyamalan movie, and his time was coming to a wane. Shyamalan, after breaking out with the Sixth Sense, and following with Unbreakable, Signs, and later the Village, he quickly established himself to be a really talented director with a knack for twist endings… twist endings that start to weigh on people. And it’s the Shyamalan gimmicky twist that seems to be what bothered many reviewers, especially after quickly perusing Rotten Tomatoes.

Why do people hate twists? Well, they’re gimmicky, and they’re an easy way to startle audiences. Want an emotional reaction in a thriller movie? Pull the rug out from under them at the end. The problem with this is fairly obvious. The twist often is easy (IT WAS ALL A DREAM!), but it worse, it undermines the work the movie had done leading up to it. If the whole movie was a dream, all the conflict and drama and themes are often left discarded completely.

By the fourth twist-ending movie from a director whose name actually started to mean something with his breakout first movie, the meaninglessness was quickly attached to his name. And it didn’t help that after the Village, starting with Lady In The Water, Shyamalan’s talent seemed to utterly dissolve. This only fueled the belief that if there was a twist, it was simply a gimmick: that Shyamalan had been fooling us all along.

But, here, I want to look at the twist itself, and try to get away from writing the movie off because it had a twist, and because Shyamalan has quickly become a gimmicky household name associated with no skill and cheap tricks. Because he certainly didn’t start out that way. And here, with the Village, he actually had something good going.

The twist of the Village is that the quaint, sleepy, early 19th century town that the movie focused on was not actually located in that period of time, but was actually hidden away in a nature reserve of modern time, unbeknownst to the residents. And the scary monsters stalking the woods? A farce put on by the town elders to maintain their secrets and maintain their town’s innocence and ignorance about the darker ways of the world.

A bit ridiculous? Sure. Could something like that ever happen? Sure, probably not. But we’re in thriller genre. Movies are often about the unrealistic. But that’s not a bad thing. No, a big part of the ridiculous conclusion here is because it was presented as a twist, and people rolled their eyes at the gag, at the man behind the curtain, and left disappointed, failing to consider it as much beyond a twist.

But this is where I encourage viewers to watch the movie a second time. Because the pitfall of the twist movie is that it makes the movie worthless. But with the Village, the twist added a new layer to the story, and it was a layer that had been there all along. Shymalan wasn’t fucking with us for a gimmick, he was telling a story that changed levels throughout. Indeed, the very first lines spoken on-screen were about whether the elders had made the right decision to settle there. Though you don’t know it, the dialogue that had been happening the entire movie was always about the twist. You just didn’t know. Each time the elders discussed the “Ones We Don’t Speak Of”, it’s loaded. It’s ambiguous and layered with a deeper meaning. This is a facet of the good twist movie: it adds new value and multiple layers to a story already told. And a great twist movie doesn’t stop with the two layers of meaning, but it makes you think further about the very premise.

On the first layer: Monsters are attacking the town, what do we do?

On the second layer: We’re pretending to attack the town, what do we do next?

On the third layer: How far do we take this farce and is it even moral and right to do so?

But to write the movie off as bullshit because of the twist is to miss those deeper conversations that were actually happening the whole time.

Did I once think the movie was better when I liked only half the movie: the half when it treated the monsters as real? Yes. But to leave it at that: a movie about a town dealing with a monster problem… it’s simple. It has potential. But it’s simple. How many times has the good little town/group of friends/strangers battle the evil invading force, though? How many times does that plot turn into most of the people dying, with Evil being defeated (or at least, leaving just enough left over to come back for a sequel)?

Here, Shyamalan took the story to a new level, examining the nature of innocence, of lies for a greater good, of the way those lies, which were in good faith, can turn right back to the very evil they were attempting to avoid. In a very post-9/11 movie, this was an examination of governmental lies, order, intention, backfired intention, conspiracy, innocence, and endurance. Especially reflecting on the Village as a post-9/11 movie, there’s something that really comes alive here.

The alternative though, the one without the twist… it’s probably just another random, meaningless thriller with some monsters.

The Frights

The other problem the Village quickly runs into, on the heels of it being a Shyamalan film, is that it’s a thriller. It deals with scary elements. And, as I’ve discussed in many a review before, scares are hard on critics. People go to scary movies to get scared. Everyone is scared by something different. And so, movies or television shows judged on their scare merit alone are apt to have a very divided audience.

I, personally, thought these monsters were very effective. Shyamalan’s monster imagery was great. Hooded, red-cloaked beasts with strange quills coming from their backs, slowly stalking a sleepy town, lit by torch-light amongst the spindly tree branches? I’m in. And, to boot, Shyamalan shot it very effectively, showing just enough to make the monsters frightening, but not so much that we saw too much and lost our suspension of disbelief.

Now, that effect was lost toward the end, when Adrian Brody Monster did his sprint toward Bryce Dallas Howard. A little too tribal-looking. A little too much shown. But first, that thing was fucking creepy before the sprint, when it stood, hunched, while we waited to see what it would do. When too much was shown, we were only moments from learning that it wasn’t as it seemed anyway.

And certainly, while looking at the scares, I have to consider my earlier viewpoints, yes, maybe having a second twist was bothersome — how many times does Shyamalan have to twist it for us? It seems more gimmicky when it’s real — nope, not real — real — just kidding, not. And look, now it’s the modern day!

But when you’ve moved past the first screening, and you go along with the story rather than watching for twists, it actually works.

It works because Shyamalan is actually a really good writer (or used to be). Here, he wrote a movie that took its time, with each scene and shot being both gorgeous and deliberate. His use of parallelism was what tied this movie together so nicely.

The Filming

Examples: The scene in which Ivy and Noah had a footrace: simple, fun, you got to know these two’s relationship. It was paralleled at the end as Noah-Monster, mentally challenged and playing a prank, tried to lure Ivy into another footrace.

The elegant, creepy, torch-lit scene in which Jesse Eisenberg stood with his back to the forest to test his bravery against his imagination? Paralleled by Ivy later standing with her back to the monster, testing her own bravery as to when to move, finally killing Noah-Monster. Indeed, Ivy and Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) even discussed how Lucius held the record, and how Ivy longed to be like a boy, to be able to test it herself. Well she got her chance.

And how powerful, the way Shyamalan framed this little town against the eerie woods. His return to very specific and intentional use of color. Was Red being the “bad color” ridiculous? Perhaps, but, like the Sixth Sense (and, I’d say, not so much like the Sixth Sense that it was discredited), there was symbolism there. The symbolism of blood. The way the community tried so hard to avoid it. The use of yellows to balance out the red, creating such a lovely autumnal feel. The way he filmed Ivy, often out of focus and close up, to put the viewer in her experience of her blindness, especially in the suspense scenes when it mattered as much for her as it did us.

These are very intentional decisions that work for movies. They’re designed to keep a movie tight, effective, meaningful, and deliberate, and they’re sadly too often left out of most Hollywood releases today.

But it’s not just the film-work, but the writing and acting combined with that. Lucius, the shy, awkward, but somehow bold and fearless faux-main character. Perfectly played by the awkward-but-noble Joaquin Phoenix, and in a way that was different enough from Signs that both roles worked, despite their similarities. But how much more moving were those two moments in which he took Ivy by the hand in times of danger? I’ll admit it, they were powerful enough to make me shed some fluid from my eye holes. Maybe it’s a taste thing, but I found it spot on. That’s good directing. When an actor can come out of nowhere, grab his costar’s hand, and at least one audience member cries? That’s successful filmmaking.

But how smart as well, ten years before the feminist dialogue has really taken off online, we see Shyamalan twist his story to strip down his shy-but-fearless male hero, substituting a blind woman to brave the woods. While she might’ve had insider info, she was still terrified (Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance was fantastic). Did the two young men keep up? Sure didn’t.

In a time when movies feel the need to spoonfeed us old cliche’s in the first ten minutes so that we can get to know characters with the least possible amount of engagement in order to get to the action, here we have Shyamalan both taking his time to illustrate these characters, this town, this place of innocence, and following the well-shared advice to show and not tell.

Look at the way Ivy tells Lucius how she knew he liked her because he wouldn’t touch her? His confirmation was silence. Shyamalan’s confirmation was when Lucius shared the same information with his mother a scene or two later, confirming to us that Ivy had shared a truth about him, in that he’s now sharing it to his mother. There are no tired tropes here to establish the relationship. This was one that took its time and hit its beats in a subtle way. Maybe too subtle for some reviewers, who found character depth to be fairly flat.

And last, but not least, the score. James Newton Howard knocks it out of the park. One of the most gorgeous film scores I’ve ever heard. It carries through the movie like a breeze in a creepy forest.

Conclusion

So what do we have here? Ignoring the Shyamalan legacy, and treating this movie on its own, ten years later, through my eyes, we have a gorgeously filmed movie. It’s eerie. It’s autumnal. It’s smart and takes its time. The scares are subtle and goooood (my substitute for “frightening”, since I know this movie too well to recognize if its scary anymore). The twist has a good reason. And the themes are intriguing enough to chew on.

That’s a damn good movie, in my opinion.

Maybe there are parts of this you would like to nitpick, or feel differently about, and that’s fine. Each has their own tastes. But, knowing the twist, I encourage you to watch the film as what it is: a movie about a town that’s faking a monster problem to ensure the innocence of its citizens. That’s an interesting premise. And it’s one that holds up, especially on the second, third, or fourth viewing.

Move beyond the gimmick, and watch it enough to let it all settle over you at once, and I hope you’ll find the depth and value in it. Then we can all go back to wondering just what the hell happened that every movie after The Village sucked so much.

Karl Pfeiffer is the author of the books Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and  worked briefly with the Ghost Hunters International team. He now lectures about approaches to ghost hunting across the nation, leads the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, and works as a portrait photographer. You can find more at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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Gotteskritik and Noah

So I haven’t done a movie review in a while (mostly because the horror angle dries up considerably in the spring season), but I feel compelled to write something about Noah.

I’m not sure it’s really to convince anyone of anything, but it’s a movie that stuck in my mind after seeing it, and I feel compelled to write about it. And, as usual, if you haven’t seen it, my reviews try to get at the themes and heart of the movie, so there are spoilers if you haven’t seen it.

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Outlook:

I went into Noah open minded, but worried. I knew a few things: 1) I love Darren Aronofsky. Black Swan and The Fountain are in my top five all-time favorite movies. 2) This was a big-budget feature that needed to make its money back. 3) When I saw this movie being advertised in the commercials for Nascar, I began to grow concerned. Nothing against Nascar audiences, but generally speaking, I saw this as an emphasis on reaching the Biblical audiences rather than the Aronofsky audiences. Knowing what I do about marketing, I wasn’t prepared to assume one thing over another about the movie by the marketing, but I was a bit wary. I also knew, 4) that the movie was drawing generally favorable reviews while also bothering Christian fundamentalists alongside atheists alike.

This final point was perhaps the most encouraging, because that’s exactly where I tend to fall. Generally, I am not a religious person. I grew up Methodist until my folks grew unhappy with the more modern slant that our church was moving, and they’ve spent the last fifteen years or so “searching for a new church”. Needless to say, that never really went anywhere. But I’d always enjoyed the security of — at least hoping — that there were greater forces in the universe. My drive toward paranormal research manifested in college, where I took courses in Religious Studies (examining mythological texts and their religious aspects) and Philosophy of Religion (in which arguments for and against religious propositions are considered). These classes have come to define my religious outlook. Because of my research into the paranormal, I am inclined to believe that there’s a possibly-spiritual component to our world largely unrecognized, and that through very similar pursuits into mysticism, there seems that these boundaries overlap, and suggest there to be a kind of divinity beyond the physical world we make up.

And for the most part, it stops there. I’d like to pursue a more personal mysticism more in the future. Mysticism is the practice and attempts to have a direct and personal spiritual experience, possibly of divinity, where much of our western religions (read: Christianity) tend to minimize the mystical component in favor of a dogmatic component. Many people tend to connote “dogma” with something negative, and it can be. But functionally, dogma is when you’re told to take a certain belief as true rather than learn it for yourself. Science has dogmas. Religions have dogmas. Christianity puts weight on them specifically because they believe that faith is their biggest point of salvation, and that the act of having faith is far more important than a path to knowledge, given that it tests you in different ways. I’m a bit Gnostic in the sense that I think knowledge is very important, and a bit Zen in the sense that I’d rather be put in a position to experience something than being told about it, especially given how fallible interpretations of spiritual experiences tend to be.

What this boils down to is that I’m very much a religious pluralist. I do think it’s very important for religious practitioners to select one religion and follow it because, if left to their own devices, people tend to pick and choose the easiest elements of each religion, where it’s often the hardest components that can be the most revelatory. My leanings toward pluralism come in that I think spiritual experiences are inherently ineffable. I think that they come from a realm outside of our physical construction, and so can’t be encompassed by language. Therefore I think that when people try to distill such an experience so far beyond them, they inherently build an explanation that’s heavily weighed by their culture and their limited language. In this way, I’ve always loved the metaphor of the three blind men touching the elephant, where the one who touches the tail believes it’s a rope, the one touching the legs believes it’s a tree, and the one touching the trunk believes it’s a snake. Taking these experiences back to their homes, each man is going to construct a wildly different interpretation of the same thing.

That being said, I fall into a strange blend where I love science (I think that there are avenues toward spiritual experience that can be explored scientifically), I have a deep respect for the spiritual and components of the religious (as I explored above), but where I’m also very heretical to some religious folks (in that I challenge many religions assertions that there is only one “right” way).

But it’s this blend between perspectives that put me in a very unique position to watch Noah.

The Theater Experience

A lot of reviewers are talking about what a spectacle this movie was, and how you should really go see it in theaters. I’m in between. I think that it’s an experience demanded to be seen in theaters. It’s  larger than life and it’s a movie about the destruction of the world. That’s big. You should see it big. But there are many moments where, because the CGI is so extensive through the whole movie, that the graphics are a bit disappointing, even ripping me from the immersive experience. Aronofsky also tends to direct his movies in very specific and beautiful ways, with shots that are often lost if you’re gazing up at the screen. Black Swan for instance, is a very different experience at home than it was in the theaters. Not that one is necessarily better over another, but there’s reasons to see it in theaters and to wait.

Formally

This movie was excellently filmed (other than the CGI hiccups), and excellently acted. Russell Crowe was an excellent Noah, playing the blend between warm and fatherly with just the right amount of rugged, hardcore, batshit crazy. The other actors I think did their jobs well, but I wasn’t ever all that blown away.

Thematically

So. With all that front-matter out of the way, I want to dig around inside the film a bit on a thematic level, which is where movies do their truest work for me.

This movie, while clunky at times, especially in the pacing, was very much a movie that built upon itself. We begin with this predilugian world that’s different from our own. This may well be a part that turns off many atheists, as it very quickly plunges you into a world that echoes, again and again, the “Creator” (read: Old Testament God). The bad guys are the ones who live in excess and violence and arrogance, and the good guys are the pious and the environmentally-minded who maintain a reverence for the Creator.

You can see how this is quickly divisive. Many more right-leaning Christians are immediately turned off by the very Granola-feeling “save the environment from the polluters” theme, and many Atheists are turned off by the overt God-centric world the characters are living in.

But the mindset you have to put yourself in, for the more Atheistic thinkers, is that this movie is in a fantasy world, where there is magic and rock-creature-transformer-angels and spark-rocks that make epic fire, and seeds that can grow an entire forest overnight. For the more Christian thinkers: if you make it through the movie, you understand that the tree-hugging theme is really one of respect, and sets more a tone for the premise than it does the conclusion. It returns a perspective to the Edenic perspective, of the innocence that many Christians idolize, in which a kind of harmony with nature was idolized, in that sense that we were unaware of good and evil, and very much just another animal ourselves.

Later in the movie, there was another potential turnoff for fundamentalists, in one of the most gorgeous and Aronofsky-esque sequences in the film, where the creation myth was told overlaying a very evolutionary sequence of the creation of the earth, a perspective I’ve always loved. Of course, I come from a religious-studies background, in that I have a very heavy respect for the cultural myths that were told about creation as purely that: stories. But, as an English Major, stories that talk of a deeper truth, and consider rich meaning.

Just like this one, in fact. This movie is art. It’s a fictional illustration of deeper meanings. And if you’re so literal that you can’t appreciate the dialogue happening underneath a sequence that suggests a non-literal interpretation of Genesis, well, that’s unfortunate. I’m not sure this review will mean much to you if you made it this far anyway.

But I loved that sequence, because it reflects an important blend of different beliefs (a theme Aronofsky explored extensively in The Fountain).

The deepest heart of the movie though, once we move beyond the places where believers and non-believers alike would be turned off, is in the emotional and ethical struggle DEEPLY RUNNING through this entire story.

Most of us know the story of Noah, whether we were taught in Sunday school or just through the society we live in, where such mythos are common. God wants to destroy the wicked. He entrusts Noah to build an ark to save the innocent. Noah builds it. Floods come. Everyone dies. Bird comes back with a sign of land. Noah and family repopulate the earth.

It’s a story I’ve shrugged off dozens of times. But I mean, holy shit. That’s HEAVY. God, the Creator (in hindsight, the God who’s supposed to be all-loving and benevolent and all that) is going to WIPE OUT THE EARTH, women, children, innocent, good, evil, wicked, WHOLE CULTURES in one go, because we’ve become so bloodthirsty and wicked.

People are dying. People who it’s VERY much up to debate may indeed be good-hearted and innocent. How much good is in a person to require their salvation? How much evil for their damnation? When is it decided that a person is so evil they’re not worth saving? That they can’t be rehabilitated? Are human beings inherently evil? Should any be saved?

I mean, if you’ve seen the movie, you know that these are the big questions and themes that really become driven home by the second act. But they’re themes that are very much at the heart of many Old Testament stories, but left for discussion and inference, as the Bible isn’t really big on fleshing out these ideas, but as illustrative and conversation-inspiring.

Anyone who can appreciate being placed in the context of this magical, God-structured world, and who can appreciate the severity of the ethics in the story itself (these questions are implicit right there in the Bible, they’re just less dramatized), should absolutely see and chew on this movie (yes, I’m saying you Atheists, and you Christians).

Because these are great questions. Weighing the amount of goodness or evil in a human being, and then discussing how seriously we should take a punishment for such evil… that’s fucking huge.

And Aronofsky handled this very deftly.

I said on Twitter after seeing the movie that I wasn’t sure it was great or just really goooood. I’m still leaning toward not-great. I was worried the movie wouldn’t be very deep as it started. I wasn’t seeing the themes or a real dramatic manifestation of these themes at first, but they came on like the deluge by the end, and that much I loved.

Watching Noah buckle under his ethical dilemmas was wonderful. Watching him get drunk in a cave by himself because the weight of whether he’d failed his god and/or failed humanity was extremely powerful. He did it because of Love. And whether that decision was a wrong decision was very challenging, because, I mean… what does that say about God?

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GOD.

My perspective on God is that, if there is such a being, he’s a kind of consciousness and energy. I feel that many interpretations of him are a personification. We’ve made him into a character, a kind of manifestation of themes and ideas, and in so doing, we’ve created an idea that can be interpreted and critiqued. I don’t feel that God is a bearded old man on a cloud, but to consider him as such, a human-esque character, we can weigh these ethics and themes in a more tangible discussion.

I understand that that’s very heretical for many religious types, but I feel that it’s important to discuss these things.

And here’s where I loved the subtlety of the movie. And perhaps where some sharp Christians may have started to falter. Because the movie asked some hard questions about God. They were subtle. They were respectful. God was a presence in the movie, but was never overtly a character, and this was a really wonderful choice by Aronofsky.

I, for one, really love critiquing the character of the Christian God. Because it’s a very complicated one. We have so many different visions of God, even in this one religion, and many are at odds with each other, and for such an encompassing figure, these are really big discussions.

The problem of evil, for example: How could an Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent (read: all knowing, all good, all powerful) allow evil? If he knows of it and doesn’t do anything about it, he’s evil. If he knows of it and is all good, he’s impotent, and if he is all powerful and good, then perhaps he doesn’t know about it. It’s an important problem, and one that’s been discussed for hundreds of years, with excellent arguments on both sides. So here I don’t mean to suggest it in any way antagonistically toward Christianity, but in Religious Philosophy, it’s a big and important issue.

And it comes to manifest frequently in the Old Testament. We have a very wrathful, vengeful, emotional God who dishes out punishment right and left. Some of these for SERIOUSLY NO REASON. The psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung has a fascinating breakdown of this God Character, in which he blends very Eastern ideas (who see good and evil as halves of a whole, rather than polarized the way we see them in the west), and he makes a very interesting argument toward God being a totality of good and evil seeking to balance the two.

If you’re a deeply Christian person, much of what he says comes across as very blasphemous, but I for one love it, if not simply for the interpretation of how such a god could do the things done in the Old Testament. He continues his analysis by suggesting that Christ was a manifestation of himself as human so that he could understand human suffering, as well as understand himself by having a second perspective. Christ dying on the cross was then, in Jung’s vision, a sacrifice to not save humanity from our sins, but to save God from his own.

Radical, challenging stuff. I know.

Now, I’m not trying to convince anyone or offend anyone with this. But I wanted to illustrate how challenging this Old Testament God-Figure can be in ethical terms, and how this movie very much explores that. What makes it brilliant is that it’s exploring it in a very subtle and dramatic way. It’s easy to watch the movie as a story about Noah’s own personal struggles with both faith, as well as ethics.

But the brilliance lies in the parallels between humanity and God. I don’t believe it’s in error that it was mentioned so many times that humanity was created in God’s Image. And that if we’re to be destroyed for being too inherently evil, that’s a very focused dialogue about the nature of God himself then. After all, who created the snake in the garden? (I’ve always been fascinated by the proposition that if God knowingly created the tempter, then obedience to him was more important than utopia).

But I digress. Consider though too, where Noah’s  ethical dilemma of killing his grandchildren falls. It’s very much a parallel to the later Christ story. Noah is in a position of whether or not to kill his grandchildren for the sake of ALL CREATION. God himself had, it would seem, a similar dilemma all those years later with his own son on earth, dying for the sake of ALL HUMANITY. Less genocide, different stakes, but a similar ethical choice.

Look at the temptation of the middle son, Ham, to kill his father in order to save all of humanity.

Though we never really see a positive side of his tempter, Tubal-Cain, he isn’t in an obviously evil situation when he convinces Ham to kill his father in order to let humanity continue to flourish.

How different is a son killing his father to save all of humanity from the later story, in which a father sacrifices his son in order to save all of humanity?

These are delicate dialogues and parallels happening below and within this movie. I would argue (and not just because I’m more open minded to Gotteskritik than most) that they’re not blasphemous, but posing ethical questions on a archetypal Old Testament story, one loaded with ethical and moral dilemmas. The dilemma of punishment, of genocide, of elimination of evil, of the nature of evil and the human being, of the nature of God himself.

Conclusion

Part of me wishes there was a bit more exploration of these themes than really the second half of the movie, but I understand that there was a certain amount of buildup to these themes that was important. The construction of this predilugian world, and the audience’s acceptance of it, was a very important narrative construction that needed to be ensured before we could be challenged in the second act.

And, while upon first viewing, the movie seemed almost disappointingly straightforward (humanity tries to get on the ark, Noah wonders if he must kill his family off too, and Ham must decide whether to kill his father), these things, upon analysis, were very BIG situations that were VERY thematically loaded, particularly as they extended to God.

Maybe this final element, the criticism of God — or, even less severe sounding: the questioning of God — will turn off many religious folks from the movie, but I hope it doesn’t. This is what made the movie for me, because it went BIG, but it did so very subtly. Noah’s story has always demanded an ethical illustration and discussion of one man’s handling of the need for genocide, but what’s always been there (more overtly in the story of Job) is God’s same handling of such a need. Any religious Christian has studied the story of Job and had discussions around why God would punish a man for no reason. And the story of Noah is very much a less challenging but no less BIG story of why God would punish man for GOOD reason. Asking questions about whether God was right, why he made his decisions, and the significance of the implications of such decisions is important for any religious follower, and certainly does not imply a path to rejecting God.

It’s cause for this movie staying very carefully to the Biblical story. It’s posing the questions that have always been there in dramatic fashion. Questions that make us FEEL, questions that make us cry, questions that make us scared. That’s art. Those are questions that need to be asked. And, I think, why Noah was really brilliant.

Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the book Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and worked briefly with the Ghost Hunters International team. He now leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, lectures about the paranormal and religion across the nation, and shoots portrait photography in Northern Colorado. 

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American Horror Story: Coven – “Boy Parts” Review

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Following the smash premiere of the third season of “American Horror Story” (the numbers registered at five and a half million viewers, more than doubling season two’s finale), episode two, “Boy Parts,” hits the ground running, as the season’s plots begin to take off (like a witch on a broomstick, perhaps?). But I’m already starting to wonder… what’s on the way? Check out the full review over at ParanormalPopCulture.com  http://www.paranormalpopculture.com/2013/10/american-horror-story-coven-recap-boy.html

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Conjuring Review

Sorry I’m slow on this one. The review should have been up last Thursday, but I was finishing up another job, and just today got to the theater.

So!

Initial Review:

Like all the movies I review, there are two levels of analysis happening here: there is the analysis for the experiential moviegoer, and the thoughtful moviegoer. The Conjuring, for the experiential moviegoer, doesn’t go wrong. It doesn’t go terribly right, but it’s a good horror flick. Jump scares. Good ghost story manifesting in a good frightening possession. I can see why most people are liking it here in its first week.

For the thoughtful moviegoer… well… if you don’t know me by now, that’s where my discussion comes in.

The-Conjuring-BannerAs always, it helps at this point to have seen the movie, because apt discussion comes best when we can discuss the meat and potatoes of a movie, regardless of spoiler-worry, and in a way that puts us all on the same page.

This review is going to hit on a lot of the topics I continually hit on when writing reviews on supernatural-movies, because this movie generally failed in the way most of these supernatural-type movies fail.

Premise:

What makes the horror genre brilliant is that horror is dealing with extremes. These extremes take us out of our comfort zone, both emotionally, ethically, morally, and philosophically. Most horror movies get stuck in the first category: the emotional one. If they can scare you, they believe that they’ve done their job.

Many movies run in the same trend. Romantic Comedies have real potential to rip apart conventional social standards and dig around inside. Action movies can make larger commentary on the workings of government and politics and science-fiction. You name it. It’s usually the movies that push their boundaries, in whatever genre, that are reaching for real depth, and find themselves redefining the genre in the first place. Those are the brilliant movies.

Horror is not unique in that capacity, but it is closer to my heart.

This oftentimes is where I get frustrated with possession movies, because possession movies seem to always start with a beautiful layout of themes at the heart of their premise. These themes range from crises of faith, to the existence of a god, to the evil inside us, to the nature of insanity, to the nature of evil, to the pros and cons of religious systems–you name it. But in 99% of the execution, they fall into simply bloody messes and shark-jumping.

I suggest that the real tension–the real drama–of a horror movie comes from these themes and their emotional manifestations within the movie. The same way that my all-time favorite movie, The Dark Knight, manifests these themes in character, letting them play out on a symbolic level, I expect the demons and the ghosts and the things that go bump in the night to be manifestations of the same types of themes.

This hope alone goes back to philosophy, to Jung in particular, whom I love. He structured the way for Joseph Campbell, who wrote the Hero’s Journey. Jung took a mystical approach to storytelling, and charted the recurring tropes of stories on an international scale to be indicative of a kind of Platonic, mystical depth, where each trope was a manifestation of some spiritual consistency.

Regardless, this play between symbol, theme, and emotional, dramatic tension is, for me anyway, the heart of any brilliant movie. (These can be manipulated across the board, of course. Symbol and theme can be sacrificed for an emotional tension that reveals deep, deep inner truths. And by the same coin, emotional narrative can be sacrificed for pure exploration of theme and image, branching into very post-modern, abstract filmmaking. But it’s all along the same spectrum: dealing with deeply human issues.)

So here, in a genre that is–at the very least on a spiritual level–screaming for thematic discussion and tension, we have movies that just seem to ignore it.

And unfortunately, The Conjuring seems to have ignored it.

The Conjuring: 

The Conjuring takes its emotional tension from the situation: (whether you consider the main protagonists to be Ed and Lorraine Warren, or if you consider them to be the Perrons) there are angry ghosts, and the angry ghosts create a mess.

There’s nothing more than that. At best, there are themes hinted at: the importance of family and… well… the importance of family. Really, that’s it.

Even with that theme, a pretty decent one: there’s no stress put on it in any kind of executable way. Even with the risk of having their daughter put in jeopardy because of their need to help the other family, the Warrens’ argument is instead about Lorraine’s safety rather than their daughter’s. The question at the very heart of the movie, whether to continue to help one family at the expense of another, is never even discussed. The writer’s didn’t seem to recognize the very tension in what they had already wrote, let alone the potential for more.

Really, past all that, it’s just a succession of tropes. And there were so many: creepy imaginary friend; creepy doll; creepy cursed object; clocks stopping at 3:00; creepy basement; creepy blindfolded hide and seek game; family dog dying; birds crashing into the house; spirit with unfinished business; team investigating the house; exorcism; eye of the hurricane lull… the list goes on.

I think the reason so many people liked this movie on the surface was that it presented all these tired tropes in a way that didn’t suck. Which is only really celebrated because in most movies they do suck.

I was hoping that even with the steady progression of tropes, that the director of Saw and Insidious would have some style up his sleeve to give us a bit of spectacle with them. But really… just a creepy house. That was all the atmosphere we got. I can only recall one shot in the movie that really stood out to me in any kind of creative, atmospheric capacity.

Really, this film falls perfectly on the spectrum of mediocrity.

It wasn’t as laughably bad as 2012’s atrocious The Apparition, which couldn’t even execute a cliche trope to save a life. But, by the same token, when compared to the masterpiece Spanish Del Toro-produced Orphanagewhich heaps on many of the exact same tropes, but with a skillful execution thoroughly mindful of atmosphere, genuine frights, and depth of theme, The Conjuring just flounders around in average mediocrity.

It was just hitting its beats.

And yeah, maybe that was exactly what this movie was supposed to be. It didn’t pretend to be more than what it was. It was a summertime frightener. But really, can’t we get some effort out of a horror movie these days? Especially one that so heavily leans on the treasure trove that is Ed and Lorraine Warren.

C+

Karl Pfeiffer won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, works with investigative teams across Colorado, lectures across America, and leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

 

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Early Review of NBC’s Siberia

TL;DR Review: Tons of great potential, shaky execution, flat first episode, boring characters, intriguing — though very contrived — plot. Will probably flop. But I want to see it be brilliant.

* * *

NBC, on July 1st, is airing the pilot episode of its new summertime series, Siberia. The official press release describes the show thusly:

In 1908, a meteor hit deep into the remote Siberian territory of Tunguska. Now, more than 100 years later, 16 contestants descend on Tunguska unknowing of the land’s mysterious past. When a contestant is badly injured and no help arrives, the contestants are met with the chilling realization that the strange occurrences are not part of the show. With their safety threatened, competing contestants must band together in an effort to survive.

The pilot episode is now streaming on Hulu and NBC.com, and I checked it out today to bring my thoughts to you guys.

My first thought: these people could be a part of the biggest interdimensional cross-rift since the Tunguska blast of 1909! 

Concept:

My second thought: there is tons of potential here. I was caught up in it the moment I saw the first promo spot on NBC. Perhaps I’m biased because I’ve been playing with a number of concepts about the same kind of idea recently, myself (reality television and, well, reality), but this sounded like a wonderful idea.

See it with me? A reality show that breaks down around the contestants, constantly playing with the idea of whether or not what’s happening is indeed reality, or is indeed reality television set up as part of the game. That tension could go a long way in a series such as this. Especially with the introduction of potentially supernatural elements, we further have play over what is “really” happening.

Here, I’m a bit bummed that the studio didn’t try more to treat the presentation of this as actually real. I think that with a concept such as this is not only a chance to play with fundamental concepts of modern-day television, but also with the modern-day audience. I’m a fan of playing with the lines of reality when it comes to storytelling, of involving the audience as deeply as possible. That’s the heart of post-modernism: breaking the barriers of classical storytelling in order to make some thematic use of that breakdown. If it’s seeing the strings and behind the scenes, use it. If it’s destroying conventions to unsettle your viewing experience, do it.

Leak a news story a couple months early about a reality show going terribly wrong where it was filmed in the remote areas of Siberia. Perhaps a shady article about a cast member who died accidentally, and the fallout from that.

Get some hype for the show before it releases. Get some people discussing the ethical components of airing a reality show where it actually becomes strikingly, and graphically, real.

And then when it airs, let the audience hinge for a while before we come to the realization that it’s a scripted show.

Unfortunately, with most of the press on Siberia, many articles and blogs are quick to jump on emphasizing and underscoring the fact that it’s scripted. In less of a way that’s about reassuring their audiences (which would be missing the point entirely, as I see it), but in a way of chest-thumping: “Ha! Hollywood didn’t fool me with another Blair Witch! I knew all along it wasn’t real! It’s so not real! Ha!” Which feels childish.

Execution:

That aside, the pilot episode itself was a bit dry. I can’t really stand reality competition shows because they feel phony, it’s hard to find likable characters, and the over-produced nature just feels like that fake sugar coating that reeks of distrust. Siberia keeps that sugar-coated feel here, with that kind of Apprenticeesque crescendoed music and the perfectly-staged interview setups. I’d have liked for a bit more of a gritty feel. The candy got too sweet. And making it through the first episode was a bit of work, because I just didn’t care.

That said, I think the show needed to start this way. It needed to get itself grounded in the reality feel. It needed to hit all the mindless reality show tropes that characterize the genre. It didn’t make it much fun, but it all needed to happen.

It’s in the second episode of the show where the real potential will start to unfold. The plot takes off slowly in the pilot, but when it does, it’s compelling and holds my interest. I can only see that such plot will unravel more and more in future episodes. Which makes me want to stay.

This quote, from the producers, also intriques me:

“The concept of survival, when mysterious elements are at play, makes for a compelling show,” said Jeff Bader, President, Program Planning, Strategy and Research for NBC Entertainment. “We believe a scripted series that offers an insightful behind-the-scenes view of how a reality concept comes together – especially when things don’t go according to plan – will connect with our audience in a very satisfying way.”

Lost

Before getting to the good stuff in this quote, I have to talk about Lost. Everyone who knows TV is going to compare this show to Lost. It’s a bunch of stranded people in the middle of nowhere, trying to survive, who begin to interact with mysterious elements (particularly seemingly-large beasts who make lots of noise in the night while everyone huddles around a campfire — familiar?). Indeed, those who really know Lost even know that it’s the same as the original concept for Lost, that of a survivor-type reality show going off the wheels when it comes into contact with mysterious forces.

But this doesn’t bother me. I think that Lost was a different show, with different goals, and a different endgame. However, the one real comparison to Lost here will come in Siberia‘s vision and characterization. What made Lost strong was in making friends with the characters, and trusting the mystery (when we could). We need that here too, or Siberia will fizzle. So far, I’m not seeing much of the characterization yet.

What I am seeing, though, is a feeling of real people in a situation. And that’s important. Playing with the mysterious and possibly supernatural in a way that demands a re-envisioning of both reality, and television, for both the characters and the audience, is very good for dramatic and thematic tension.

There’s always a kind of separation in supernatural horror movies because you know it’s fake. You know, with every camera-shot, that there are people behind the camera. Horror movies try their absolute hardest to make you forget about the cameras and engage with the story. That’s the goal of most classical cinema: to have a good emotional experience.

But Siberia sets itself up to go beyond this classical experience of television. It sets itself up as a way of breaking that fourth wall between the audience and the film. It tries to go to the heart of the experience (the way that Blair Witch Project and the found-footage genre that followed do), in a way that makes it real for the audience.

This is why I was immediately disappointed that the studio couldn’t slip this one secretly in as being more real than we’ve already learned that it is. If they could have, they would have had an even greater play with audience’s experience of the real thrills. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this was the first and biggest opportunity to recreate the Blair Witch experience here, fifteen years later. It’s already been done in the movies. We’ve already had the experience of a fast-one pulled. But on television? Television is changing so fast that this types of storytelling can still be pulled on us if done properly. And here, it wasn’t. Worse, given that this is the first time this concept will be truly novel, we may never see such an opportunity again.

But away from that, I want to point out what an incredibly difficult task it is to play this line of reality and experience for the audience. We have to trust the actors more. We have to trust the filmmakers to give us both an immersive experience, but also a believably real one, a balance that — if you’ve ever compared novel-dialogue to real-life-dialogue, you know is hard to strike.

But that’s what the show promises. And that’s the bar that it’s set for itself. The comment Bader makes, above, also gives me hope, in that, as they move the cameras back to show the strings of the reality show, they fully embrace showing that behind-the-scenes element that would be so compelling for audiences. The moment at the end of the Siberia pilot — when the producers and other camera guys dragged off the injured camera-man — that immediately captured my interest, and not just because I’ve been on reality television before, where seeing behind the scenes is refreshing. I think the television-watching audience at home wants to see that too. We want something fresh. We want to trust the show by the show trusting us.

The same way that Syfy’s Ghost Hunters got a feel of deeper reality when the normally-very-skeptical camera guys would interrupt with experiences, here, we trust stepping back and showing the strings, because that’s when the audience feels that they’re on the same page with the show, when the show recognizes that it’s a show.

This, in addition to Bader’s promises that this will not only be a behind the scenes look at the making of reality television, but also in the process of executing a concept, we could be in for a meta-aware, metaphysical, thrill-loaded treat.

Given the nature of network television today, I can’t expect that kind of execution. But I can hope for it.

Siberia premieres July 1st on NBC at 10pm EST.

Karl Pfeiffer won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, works with investigative teams across Colorado, lectures across America, and leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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Man of Steel: Why and How It Fell Apart

So let’s talk some Supes.

I’m going to split this blog into two parts: The quickie review. And the discussion. It’s best if you’ve seen the movie before reading the discussion.

Quickie review:

A thoughtful, fully realized, emotionally powerful, beautiful film that continues to get itself run over by trying to outdo the action and destruction in the Avengers. That said, if you’re not particularly concerned about the emotional and intellectual powerhouse that the movie tries and fails at being, it’s still a BIG, action-packed, beautifully filmed summer blockbuster that finally does Superman right.

I loved Henry Cavill. I loved the way that it at times felt like an alien invasion movie instead of a superhero movie. I loved the beautiful moments.

Like everyone else, if you dig epic action movies; go see it.

But I have to agree with the critics. This movie, despite its list of successes, still fell apart in every emotional and intellectual way it could.

* * *

Let’s talk about this trailer first.

This first trailer was everything that was working for Man of Steel on the most beautiful and emotionally-driving level. Every time the movie went to one of these moments, it was easily the strongest part of the movie. What was working here was on the thematic level. With the help of Christopher Nolan (who worked on the story with David Goyer. Goyer then went on to pen the screenplay), we have again the Batman effect that made the Dark Knight Trilogy (emphasis on the second installment) so brilliant.

This effect is not, I need to point out, the dark and gritty nature of the superhero movie. The effect is infusing the emotional and intellectual themes of the movie into the very characters themselves. (FilmCritHulk discusses this idea–and how the modern blockbusters are failing at this–far more in depth in his recent review of Star Trek: Into Darkness over at Badass Digest, which I’ll be drawing on as I consider Man of Steel. Read it. It’s astounding).

The fully realized and beautiful nature of the Man of Steel was in the way that Nolan and Goyer decided to hone in on Superman as an outcast, as a god-like power who can either be accepted as one of the people or taken away, studied, treated as, well, alien. This point, to be sure, was browbeating us for the entire movie. The overt nature of it did detract, but I still adore thoughtful and thematic movies, so I was willing to let my suspension of critique go for a bit longer.

But the problems come in the manifestation of these themes. What worked for The Dark Knight was in how the very essence of Batman infused his every action. His dramatic and emotional dilemmas came from his thematic and moral stance. And his nemesis, the Joker, stood for the exact opposite, locking them in a morally and thematic tension throughout the movie.

Here though, with Man of Steel, these themes that are stood for are lacking in follow-through. Do we ever see a moment in this film in which Superman must make a decision? Even his decision to turn himself in to the government and General Zod was so underplayed it didn’t even seem to be very important, despite the entire thematic build-up of the first act depending on it. How will the world accept him? Will they reject him or throw him to the dogs?

Um. We’re not really even sure. The only perspectives we get are Lois Lane’s and the occasional high ranking military official. For the entire dramatic tension of the first act, the brilliance underlying Superman’s very character, it’s forgotten, completely overwhelmed by threading General Zod’s plot in to make some sense of the epic destruction to come later.

My biggest letdown keeps coming around and around again to the execution. The themes were there (to which I suspect we have Christopher Nolan to thank). But after that… the script falls apart in the second act. And the filmography?

Director Zack Snyder is a man who loves beautiful filmography on the most epic of scales. And it’s his working of the camera that makes this movie so heartbreaking. In the scenes where we settle down, where we study Clark at his moments of insecurity and confusion, the film work is beautiful. Cranking in with the shallow depth of field and the sunset studies and the way the water crashes and the Alaskan lighting. It was perfection.

It was perfection in every sense. The dialogue was loaded with thematic and philosophical questions that spoke to the heart of our character’s natures: consider Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) in his encouraging of Clark to make the hard decisions to protect himself as an outsider. (Terrible advice, but deeply consequential and realized). The way the characters were driven by these motivations was genuine and tragic. The moment where Jonathan holds his hand up to Clark to keep him back was a true success. It was when inaction in the most tragic of way was met with the deepest emotional drives of a person. That’s dramatic movie-making on an EPIC scale.

Not crashing through buildings.

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But it seems that these moments were rushed through as quickly as possible to get to the action, especially being presented as snappy flashbacks.

People who love a great action film will disagree with me that this movie fell apart here because, for them, this film was crescendoing.

But seriously. After the flashbacks and the character building seemed to be enough, Superman slapped on the cape and it was all wonton destruction and action footage and how hard two aliens can hit each other. The entire movie got lost in watching Superman rip through skyscrapers.

The core heart of this movie (the emotional tenderness of an alien individual protecting a society he loves, who has rejected him even before he’s revealed himself) is utterly eclipsed by useless, meaningless violence. Now, we can consider the violence as meaningful. These are two GODS fighting it out, right? Humanity will see Superman as a God. That dynamic, of sharing in the human condition and being godlike? That’s equally as ripe and easily piggy-backs off the themes of acceptance discussed earlier. And what a wonderful presentation of this nature of these two gods clashing it out if not with violence so BIG that it dwarfs humanity below it.

Which I’d be on board about, except, well. It went so big that it forgot about humanity at all. The only glimpse we get is Perry White running about down below.

Not to mention, the emotional core of this movie–how much Superman should or shouldn’t care about these people–is totally forgotten as we watch him angrily hurl himself and General Zod through skyscrapers for thirty minutes, killing unknown hundreds–if not thousands–if not hundreds of thousands–in a matter of minutes. And Supes barely bats an eyelash at this until Goyer remembers to put another nod at the end to his human struggles as Supes tries to keep Zod from lazer-eye-cooking a couple folks at a museum.

Now, the scream that followed: oh, that scream was perfect. But so brief. And so overlooked. In that scream, his frustration and his sorrow at the loss and the destruction, his realization of never being included even as he’s the savior, it was all there. But all tacked on. Hardly an afterthought. And it was rushed to get to a moment of romance with Lois Lane (which, let’s be honest. Where did that come from? Love at first sight? They had no back story together. I couldn’t believe any of their romantic moments).

But what most astounded me was the utter obliviousness Snyder as a filmmaker had to the very imagery he was working with. It doesn’t even seem to occur to him that he’s dealing with imagery that’s DIRECTLY the deepest and most culturally resonant for our generation of Americans (if not many other places in the world): the image of the burning buildings toppling.

9/11 was the most horrific thing our country has experienced in half a century, and that was in watching only two buildings burn and finally topple.

The work that can be drawn upon from such a simple image as that, for a filmmaker, should be rich. To take such a simple image and play with what that means to our hero and the cultural zeitgeist. But it’s as if Snyder and the writers said, oh, 9/11, that’s SO ten years ago. Let’s bring down the fucking city

Was it only a few short years ago that masterpiece The Dark Knight made us care about two ferries full of people on a harbor?

In Man of Steel, the destruction was on levels so vast, so mindless, that there was never a moment in which the movie stopped and considered the horror of what was happening. Perry (Fishbourne) was running around, covered in white dust–imagery so resonant that it was hard for me to watch at times–and what does the film do with this image? Nothing, really. They outrun falling buildings and get lucky. There was no emotional resonance there at all.

It was borderline sickening. To so obviously take these images and then give zero consideration to where they came from and what that MEANS is a disgrace.

But let me back up from my rant.

It’s a superhero movies. Stuff blows up. Destruction happens. Somebody had to go bigger than the Avengers, right?

Fine. I’ll let that go, given its genre.

But what bothers me most in terms of filmmaking was that the movie utterly lost itself in such meaningless destruction. It could have worked. If Supes had for more than a second considered the damage. If he’d looked out on the destruction and been overwhelmed by what happened–or worse! that it in many ways ties was because of his very existence–if he’d for a moment had some kind of choice, or realization, or emotional experience other than the one scream, far too late and far too overlooked, I’d have felt more satisfied with the destruction.

To think what could have been done, too. The themes were there. The plot was there. To give Superman a true decision, to encapsulate this idea of saving the very people who rejected him all his life, to put him in a position of godlike power over the people who might not even deserve salvation… I’d argue that such a decision was what the entire movie was building to. And the fact that they overlook this? 

Lazy filmmaking.

Superman just hugs Lois and knocks a drone out of the sky with a chuckle, in a cheap play on recent headlines.

Superman went through a change in this movie. He started as a child who couldn’t handle himself in the world. He couldn’t handle himself against bullies and those who were cruel. And then he went to Alaska, learned of more bullies, and somewhere in between there and putting the suit on, he became peaceful and confident and Zen. He had a journey up there, and it was the truest heart of the movie, and we skipped it. It was about finding his place in the world. But the revelation was that he found his place on another world. How he came to find his place on our own? That was the other core of the movie. And it, too, was utterly overlooked.

I don’t want another Batman Begins. But if we’re rebooting Superman with an origin story, I’ll tell you what: THAT was the story. That change. That need to find his place? That was the heart of this film. And they let it go.

Would it have been so bad–would it have been rejected by audiences–to have in Superman’s origin movie his very enemy being mankind itself? And his victory over it, instead of tearing down buildings, in becoming accepted as the symbol of the truest essence of humanity?

What dialogue! What emotion. What ripeness!

But no. We needed to blow shit up.

SO:

Even as the dust clears on my own rant, I don’t want to hate on this movie. I said the b-word. I called this movie beautiful, and even amidst the clunky, rushed, convoluted pacing of the first half, the beautiful moments were deeply so and spoke to the heart of the film, and that’s more depth than most superhero movies ever achieve.

It just so utterly lost itself in a way that went so big, it squashed the very premise of the movie entirely.

Now, that all said, they finally did Superman right.

Henry Cavill was a WONDERFUL Superman. He stood for everything he was supposed to stand for and didn’t make it cheesy. He was sexy and confident and symbolic and Superman. (And he looked like the perfect Hollywood-levelling-up of Tom Welling–anybody with me on this?)

After the movie, there was a smattering of applause. I very intentionally didn’t join in. But I was glad that there was applause.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, but you made it this far, go see it. You’ll probably like it. Just don’t think too much.

B-

Karl Pfeiffer won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, works with investigative teams across Colorado, lectures across America, and leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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Dogville, an Analysis

The awkward thing about a blog such as this is that I don’t think you should read it.

Which is to say, it’s a discussion of the movie Dogville, by Lars von Trier, and if you haven’t seen the movie (which is likely most of you), I suggest that you watch it first. Suggestion seems too light a word. Really it should be kind of mandatory.

Lars von Trier is the director of the Depression trilogy, which features the deeply-disturbing Antichrist, 2012’s much-hyped Melancholia, and the forthcoming Nymphomaniac. Dogville is the first of his America trilogy, the second film of which is called Manderlay. 

Here I’m only focusing on Dogville, but, whatever you do, don’t pull the Fight Club card like I did in high school and let the end be spoiled for you because you’re sure you’re never going to see it.

It’s the kind of movie that you must know nothing before going into. Don’t even go googling for a trailer. If you do choose to watch it, sit through the entire movie. For the first two thirds, you may well feel like turning it off or doing something else, the only thing I can say is watch the whole movie.

Unfortunately it’s not on Netflix instant at the moment, so it’ll take more legwork, but if cerebral movies are your thing, it’s incredible.

Go watch it and then come back. I’ll wait.

* * *

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For the rest of you lovelies, I want to talk about this movie, because it demands talking about. The first time I watched it was a year ago, early in the morning, with my filmmaker buddy AJ, and by the last twenty minutes, I was sitting up on my bed with my hair in my hands in shock.

The second time I watched it was last night with my girlfriend, and the experience was no less profound, but far less visceral. The shock of the town’s descent and, later, the film’s abrupt left turn into allegory had fallen, and instead I could watch the development of the philosophy and commentary happening within.

Perhaps many of you were more toward my girlfriend’s level of engagement and expectation, where she laughed afterward that she’d have been very disappointed if they didn’t machine-gun the town. But I was along purely for the journey, with a kind of lack of expectation or suspension of disbelief that registered in manifested shock by the final forty minutes of film.

A quick perusal of online reviews of this movie — a very quick perusal, I should point out — seems that what most reviews are discussing is the success or failure of the film as a critique on America. There’s a sense of discussion, not of the themes dissected, but more of whether the film deserved consideration as an anti-American film, and whether it was a bad film because of it. Released in an altogether post-9/11 world, attacking America in any way shape or form, cinematic, politically, or philosophically, constituted an echo of the violence of two or three years before. Though America quickly turned back on itself in the years following, there was still a certain mindset of community that would turn on outsiders butting in with an upheld index finger and a curt “this is our discussion right now, please.”

Von Trier presents the town of Dogville in a claustrophobic, campy, allegorical sense of something bigger than itself. Despite being located in the Rocky Mountains near Georgetown, Dogville could be anywhere. As Henry Sheehan’s underwhelming review attempts to get at, and placed in wonderful terms by the New York Times: Dogville is stripped down humanity. As the Times points out:

[…]there aren’t any walls. Nor are there any trees or houses or enclosed physical structures of any kind. There is nothing, in short, to mark Dogville as a place, American or otherwise.

Which isn’t to say that it’s not America. Dogville is very specifically within America, and very specifically begins von Trier’s planned America trilogy for a reason. The town of Dogville is very intentionally placed in the Rocky Mountains, that quintessential staple of the west, in a place characteristically defined by the gold rush of barely a few decades earlier, in the timeline of the film. Indeed, the provocative credits sequence makes the American distinction quite clear, as is discussed in reviews over and over again.

But I would suggest that for one thing, we have a better position to consider such a critique of America now, a decade after the film’s release. Regardless of your belief as a conservative, liberal, or otherwise, the decline in popularity of the Bush Administration’s final seven years following the events of September 11th, along with two decidedly controversial wars, reeled America back into a heated critique that quickly came to counter the unity found in the short months following September 2001. This national wariness extended into the Obama Administration’s takeover, counterbalancing his projection of hope and clarity to make up for the decade’s confusion prior. Any extreme, supported or otherwise, is going to meet a distinct amount of critique. Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on here, whether elephant, donkey, foreigner, or otherwise, the point is that American solidarity, even after the uniting events of 2001, has again began to crumble.

And by 2013, we’re again open to reception of criticism. Take the virality and boldness of the opening scene of 2012’s The Newsroom. 

[Love that video… except for the whole worst period generation period ever period. Every new generation is the worst period generation period ever period to the old generation. If he were a teacher who got to deal with the parents of our worst period generation period ever period, I think he’d start to understand why we “all” think we’re so entitled. That said, there’s obviously blame to go around, and we’ve got some issues. But I digress.]

So, now that we’ve learned to accept critique not as an attack, but for exactly what it is, critique, we can get to the real heart of Dogville, and we can stop nitpicking whether or not it was a deserved attack on American culture, or whether it should be written off as an “anti-American” movie by a filmmaker who at the time had never even been to the country.

That all said, it is absolutely necessary that Dogville both be located in America and representing America.

This is because America, popularly, is the pinnacle of Western culture. Whether it’s deserving of that title or even on any less fragile a pedestal because of such standing is irrelevant. America, structured by a thousand years of crescendoing Christianity and ideology focusing intensely upon the individual, with its sudden rise both as an ideological powerhouse and a relatively successful one, is the perfect canvas for deconstruction of those themes.

In the New York Times piece, they illustrate von Trier’s reaction to the point:

What makes ”Dogville” so fascinating, and so troubling, is the tension between the universal and the specific. ”You mean, why not just call it Denmark?” Mr. von Trier responded, mockingly, when asked about his choice. Because, of course, it couldn’t possibly be Denmark. It’s America.

Earlier in the article too, von Trier specifically pointed out this idea of America as a canvas, when referencing Franz Kafka having never visited America either, before writing his story Amerika.

“I must say I’m very fond of this idea that Kafka didn’t go to America,” Mr. von Trier said. ”For me it’s about America, even though it’s about what he had seen in Europe. Somehow America is a canvas that you can use.”

America is the pinnacle of the individual, and hence is the pinnacle of selfishness and greed. Our entire economic system runs on the idea of greed and competition. You don’t have to visit America to be familiar with greed and competition, and it’s not an insult to America to use it as a canvas to illustrate such abstraction taken to the extreme. The entire point of the film is to illustrate how communities that claim or even function as a single unit in an individualistic society can succumb to selfishness and, ultimately, when given the right circumstances, evil.

Is this ultimately a kind of discussion between the Capitalistic, individual-centric west versus a more socialistic east? Yeah, kind of. Von Trier even said,

”I can’t deny that I am by heart a socialist, and therefore the American system as I see it would make a situation like this more probable, maybe push people more quickly to the wrong side. My primitive view is that if a system is partly built on the idea that you are the maker of your own happiness, then of course poor people are miserable in the sense that they failed completely. Whereas in other countries, you might look at that more as a failure of the society.”

The delicate line that von Trier walks with a movie such as this is between labeling an entire country (one that inherently defines itself on pluralistic values) by a single allegorical situation, and using an abstraction of a country to present a discussion between ideologies. The former borders on insulting (especially given the post-9/11 world it premiered to), and ignorance, in that obviously characterizing a whole people with a single allegory is a narrow viewpoint. But! The latter, illustrating what a country (or religion, or philosophy, anyone so-defined by their fundamental ideologies) stands for–well, isn’t that art?

Is Dogville anti-American? Perhaps. But that’s skipping straight to the conclusion, and in so doing misses the point entirely. Good art is about the conversation. What would it mean to be anti-American, anyway? The knee jerk reaction is to think that “they (he, whoever) hate us.” I identify as an American, and so they must hate me. But America is a way of thinking and a way of life. It’s a compound of beliefs and practices, and even though we started as a melting pot of the world’s cultures, even though if you put a liberal and a conservative at a table and had them duke it out, we have to recognize that there are fundamental issues at the heart of our country, and it’s these issues that are examined in any smart American critique. Before we condemn them for condemning us, we have to clarify what’s being condemned (or, if we relax, discussed) in the first place.

Where Mr. Sheehan concludes that Dogville wasn’t particularly provocative save a few moments, I would argue that the entire premise is provocative. To watch “good, honest people” fall into the depths of human evils and utterly justify it to themselves is an incredible experience to engage it.

The tools the movie employs are directly related to its study of both this altogether western human experience and theme. The other most popular talking-point about the movie, aside from its critique of America, is the design of the set as wall-less and stark. The wall-less, staged nature is at once Campy. Camp being the style–primarily in theater–that focused on artifice. Though often Camp is presented as a kind of silly commentary on the nature of various social constructions, Dogville is aware of its Campy nature, but applies it in a refreshingly serious way. The most notable scene in the movie being when Stellan Skarsgard rapes Nicole Kidman in sight of the entire town as the rest of the town goes about its business, completely oblivious.

The lack of walls goes on to suggest a variety of commentary on the nature of community, on the nature of what is seen or understood but socially denied, but also it speaks toward a kind of essential humanity. There’s a play here on the nature of privacy. Privacy is a curious beast because its very nature depends on this essential Western ideal of individuality. We see ourselves as inherently different from everyone else. This as a direct counterpoint to the more Eastern beliefs epitomized by Buddhism by way of Fight Club, if I may, in which emphasis is placed on the fact that we are not beautiful and unique snowflakes. We are the same living, breathing organic matter as everyone else. At the end of the day, we are all simply human beings.

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You’re the all singing, all-dancing crap of the world.

Consider cameras in every room of your house. The discomfort of being watched at every moment, of having your privacy revoked. These things then that we want to hide, or keep private, come curiously because most of the things that we hide are either altogether natural acts (sexing, shitting, showering–most inherent in the way we clothe ourselves, the way we consider nudity a private affair) or the actions we are ashamed of (crimes, betrayal, or secrets). Hiding the former is ultimately kind of odd, as there’s nothing to be particularly ashamed of. As the popular children’s story asserts, Everybody Poops.

Between those things we want to hide, the latter becomes far more complex, and begins to bleed into the issues illustrated by Dogville. Are there absolutes in private crimes? Crimes designed purely out of malevolence? Dogville’s premise alone begs the question as to whether there are crimes that are purely malicious, or whether everything is a strange blend between self-disillusionment coupled with selfishness and a lack of community consequence. Indeed, much of the violence in the film is an illustration of precisely this: evil that can occur anywhere given the right circumstances.

And much of the situational drama that nuances the movie begs the question as to whether community accountability is the best treatment for such selfishness. Because ultimately, these crimes in the movie are at their essence selfishness. Self-justified acts on selfishness inflicted on Nicole Kidman as Grace.

It’s ironic then, how in the film, those acts most selfish (and by the end, most twisted) are justified by the need for comfort in another: a need for community. Skarsgard as Chuck tries to kiss Grace because he feels lonely and sexually unsatisfied. Ben, in much the same way, needs the company of kind women and sexual satisfaction. Indeed, even Paul Bettany’s Tom ultimately wants companionship. The irony falls in this dynamic between wanting comfort in another, lacking respect for that other person because the desire is so high, and a lack of community accountability because of such blind selfishness, which may well provide a substitute for such comfort.

If there’s a critique of Western society here, it’s in the emphasis on the individual. That even individual interests as a part of a societal whole restrict empathy and true understanding of others. Illustrated to their extreme when these issues are brought to the community as Tom pushes Grace to come clean with the group, there is no accountability because everyone in the town is so absorbed in their own selfishness.

Indeed, the critique extends to the way we manifest this individual in our political process. Consider the moments of democracy in the film. Every decision the town makes is based upon a vote of the townspeople. Our moral code in America is decided by the collective. If enough people deem something as acceptable, it is not morally wrong. What tension then, when we consider issues like the morality of abortion, of gay rights, of smoking marijuana, or the death penalty. If there’s a law for it, it’s morally permissible, if there’s not, it’s not. Von Trier takes this to the logical extreme, in which a town collectively decides it’s acceptable to keep an outsider as a sexual and indentured servant.

In fact, the commentary goes farther to consider the position of America on immigrants. Grace, in the film, comes from a place foreign and far, finds herself in the town, and in their struggle as to whether or not they should accept her as one of their own, puts her to work. How easily that becomes exploited when it’s suddenly acceptable to force someone into such labor, and it’s in relatively little time that her work is doubled, her wages cut in half, because of a perceived wrong. A wrong in large part based on the communities own navel-gazing and a treatment as different. As an outsider.

Now, certainly the film doesn’t dive into the justice system and whether such an “objective” system helps prevent against such individual selfishness, but that should be taken less as an oversight of von Trier and more as a separate issue entirely. The town forms its own justice system, a microcosm of the modern, hyper-structured, rule-filled system designed by the populace in the first place. The film’s focus is on the individual’s role in a community and how we treat each other. And the movie is long enough as it is.

But I want to get back to this idea of human nature and those crimes we’re ashamed of. Where before we considered whether crime comes from a community’s self-delusion, we on the other hand have to consider the other premise of the movie: whether malice is human nature, whether we can extend this reflection of private crimes to instances of Clockwork Orange-type violence. If such malice is in any individual’s nature, it would suggest a malicious undercurrent wrapped up in our own collective human nature.

Grace and her father discuss the issue in the car during Chapter Nine:

Father: Rapists and murders may be the victims according to you, but I–I call them dogs. And if they’re lapping up their own vomit, the only way to stop them is with a lash.

Grace: But dogs only obey their own nature, so why shouldn’t we forgive them?

Father: Dogs can be taught many useful things, but not if we forgive them every time they obey their own nature.

But von Trier studies the strange blend between the two, and considers whether selfishness is human nature. Perhaps that’s the film’s conclusion: that malice isn’t inherent, but selfishness is (at least in a culture that idolizes the individual), and look what that can lead to.

The question of the necessity and right of an individual to privacy (and as an inherent part of freedom) is one for another time and so I want to move on from this question of privacy, shame, and human nature, and start to move into what’s absolutely the most provocative part of the film, that of Chapter Nine, the dialogue with the father figure (or “big man”), and the religious connotations within.

One of the remarkable distillations of this moment is in recognizing that Nicole Kidman’s Grace is actually of a kind of Anti-Christ nature. This of course is not in the sense of the Antichrist as Satan incarnate to bring about the end of the world, but as a kind of second coming of Christ–or a more modern day re-envisioning of the Christ story.

This of course hinges upon this idea of the father figure, the “big man” figure as a symbol for God. He’s all-powerful and holds deep responsibilities, hands out judgements and destruction, and hails from a “city” of opulence and wealth, dreamt of by the townspeople, who are altogether separate from it. And Grace is His daughter (God’s Grace, get it?), who then acts a direct counterpoint to Christ, who was God’s incarnate son. Grace’s entire character arc is of a high-born woman who finds herself, after running away, amongst townspeople–human beings. And over the course of the movie, she seeks to understand them and ultimately, God-willing (har, har), become a part of them. But she’s separate from them. She’s pure. In this manner, the film is a kind of imagining of that “what if God was one of us” situation. The age old question as to what if Christ returns as a homeless man on the street? Would we help him?

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“Well, my gut says ‘no’, but then again, my gut’s made of an advanced polymer, and it doesn’t know what the hell it’s talking about. Stupid gut.”

In the God symbolized by the father figure, the head gangster, we have also symbolized the Old Testament, and the God that goes with it. Oftentimes in today’s changing world, many nu-Christians (like, nu-metal, anyone? anyone?) consider the New Testament as an updating of the Old Testament. From Carl Jung to modern day, progressive Christians, there’s an idea of a wrathful, jealous, emotional, un-empathetic God coming to terms with humanity through his son, Christ. In Jungian theology, this Christ figure died on the cross not for our sins, but for God’s sins, in order for God to fully understand the human condition through his experience as an incarnate human being, with emphasis on the suffering humans go through in the physical realm. But on a less controversial level, the more progressive Christians consider Christ as God 2.0, an update who brings peace and understanding, where the Old Testament God gives way to this more fully realized God.

In Dogville though, we see illustrated this deeply empathetic New Testament offspring-of-God-figure engaged in–finally–a conversation with the Old Testament God Figure. The story follows this idea of Grace telling him what she thought of him, then running away, treating the analogous Christ story as less God’s intention and more Christ’s. As her father says, “Our last conversation, the one in which you told me what you don’t like about me, never really concluded, as you ran away. I should  be allowed to tell you what I don’t like about you.”

It’s as if the crucifixion story was paused to allow God to come down from the heavens and discuss how Jesus should best handle the situation.

In Dogville, we finally have a dialogue between the judging, powerful Old Testament God (“I… I call them dogs.”) with the New, empathetic one (“Why shouldn’t we forgive them?”). The discussion of arrogance, of the worth of humanity, of human nature, of what’s best for the world, unravels between them. Eventually, Grace gives in that she’s “arrogant because I forgive people,”. The conclusion here being of the importance of holding standards, about punishment and mercy in order to raise people to their best, rather than forgive them constantly.

“You do not pass judgment because you sympathize with them…” The Father figure says. “Does every human being need to be accountable for their actions? Of course they do. You do not even give them that chance. And that is extremely arrogant.”

This echoes even the alchemical, mystical sense that I like to speak of, in which it’s suffering that’s the method toward purity (see boiling dirty water or tearing down muscles to rebuild them stronger when working out). It brings back ideals of tough love that are echoed throughout antiquity.

The culmination of their dialogue leads to Grace’s revelation that the town’s actions were indeed wrong, and that no matter who committed such actions, there needed to be punishment. To be made an example of, in a sense. As the narrator says:

“What they had done was not good enough. And if one had the power to put it to rights, it was one’s duty to do so. For the sake of other towns. For the sake of humanity. And not least for the sake of the human being that was Grace herself.”

Grace then makes the decision to kill the town and to burn it, echoing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra. What’s fascinating here though is the reversal from the earlier New Testament Christ story. Where in that story, Christ sacrifices himself in order to save humanity, so sparing his wrong-doers, here, with the influence this Old Testament God-Figure, Grace makes the opposite decision, coming back around to the Old Testament ways, destroying her captors explicitly for the sake of “other towns…of humanity” and “not least for the sake of the human being that was Grace herself.” Where in Christian mythology, Christ was sacrificed by tyrants and ultimately saved all of humanity, here we have a reversal, in which our Christ figure instead sacrifices the tyrants to save humanity

The emphasis on the end of the quote, toward the importance of her decision on herself as a human being speaks toward God’s revelation in his manifestation as a human being. Where Jung understood this manifestation as His coming to terms with the nature of suffering on the physical plane and a kind of self-recognition, here this manifestation is about coming to terms with the necessity for punishment. It’s like an episode of Undercover Boss in which the boss realizes his employees don’t need extra reward, but a good spanking.

"What's this, Chuck? You raped all our customers? I've decided to give you $5,000 for your kid's college, and a free trip to Hawaii for you and the missus."

“Chuck, you’ve been doing such a good job down in that apple orchard, I’ve decided to give you $5,000 for your kid’s college, and a free trip to Hawaii for you and the missus.”

It’s in this way then that she’s the anti-Christ in the sense that she’s Christ’s opposite in action, not his opposite in essence  She is herself a messiah figure, but one who ultimately comes to understand humanity and the Old Testament God at once. From this perspective then, it would seem that Dogville could be more aptly titled Antichrist than von Trier’s 2009 movie was of the same title.

But the religious allegory doesn’t stop there. Without stretching it, there’s a commentary extending to the broken figure of Stellan Skarsgard Chuck as the embodiment of Satan. Midway through the movie comes the revelation to Grace that Chuck was from the city once, and that he rejects her because he can’t stand the reminder of everything that he came to Dogville to find. Chuck also tries to tempt her in the orchard, and devotes his life to harvesting apples.

Where Grace is a revision of the Christ figure, Chuck serves as a reflection on the far-earlier-fallen Satan, who ran from Heaven because he was upset with God. A re-envisioning of Satan then, in that he didn’t run to the humans in order to corrupt God’s most favorite creations (and what good would that do, as they’re already corrupt enough and God is all to happy to punish them when they transgress), but he ran to them in order to find something genuine and pure, but was mistaken in much the same way that Grace was.

Exactly the same way as Grace was, in fact. Consider if Grace decided to stay? Perhaps eventually she would be accepted, in strained terms, until she made a defeated life with Tom, had five kids and the white picket fence, picking apples in the orchard all day, and utterly down-trodden with the life she leads. This narrative then reverses the old ideals, that it was humanity that was corrupted by Satan, and instead suggests that maybe it’s Satan who was corrupted by humanity.

Satan then, in this allegory,  is no more the manifestation of evil than Christ. Simply speaking, he’s the broken product of evil and misguided hope. Satan is a long-defeated Christ.

So what’s the use of this religious allegorical nonsense? Particularly how it interacts with the other heart of the film: that of the American critique.

I could ruminate on the way that American culture, yet in its infancy, embodies both the roles of the Dogville community and the Old Testament God figure, dishing out judgement and punishment to the rest of the world. I could reflect on the thusly ironic and pessimistic question of the film, in that if America really is such a godless society, who will give us the punishment we need? I could continue into some sort of conclusion about whether this conclusion really is anti-American and whether or not that’s truly warranted by the end of it.

But I won’t elaborate on these, or seek to answer them. Because these are the questions left for the individual. These are the questions any one of us need to ask ourselves, not only as part of America or as part of Western culture in general, but as human beings who are inherently given to our selfish natures, who inherently must look out of only one pair of eyes for our entire lives.

Whether there’s truth in this commentary is not a success or a failure of the film. It’s not an argument in the philosophical sense, where it can be proven wrong by logic and so devalued. As a film exploring these issues in a way that not only makes us feel deeply, but in a way that makes us think deeply, Dogville is truly an achievement.

Karl Pfeiffer won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, works with investigative teams across Colorado, lectures across America, and leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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Evil Dead. Gratuitous and Brilliant.

I was having nightmares about the new Evil Dead movie a week before I even saw it.

It wasn’t a particularly frightening trailer and I only ever have nightmares every few months. But obviously something about this movie was doing work.

I won’t read into it.

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Even still, I didn’t have very high hopes going into this one. A remake of a gratuitous and campy B-movie classic that looks like an utter squirm-fest for the squeamish. But I love the Evil Dead trilogy. And reviews have been relatively positive. And. Well. Jane Levy. 

But five minutes in and I was blown away.

The camerawork was phenomenal. The shots were gorgeous. It started out atmospheric and moody and was happy to linger within the setting before diving into the violence.

What impressed me most was the confidence of this film.

In a time when most horror films are any director with a camera with a camera who’s seen a jump scare or two and may (or usually not) have a good script (Cough…. Cough.), this guy, Fede Alvarez, stepping behind the camera for his first full feature, knows what he’s doing. He keeps the camera on his scares. He knows his atmosphere is well-constructed enough that it breathes and seethes. He knows that his scares are violent and hard. He has the confidence of a good script and story and it’s an epic story to tell.

Which is refreshing, not simply because horror movies suck these days.

But because this is a remake.

Well. Companion movie.

Well. Sequel.

Evil Dead is a strange blend of what’s come before, and what’s new, and what’s rebooted. A different movie, different characters: same story. In much the way that Evil Dead 2 was sequelesque to the original The Evil Dead, Evil Dead is sequelesque to them both.

And it’s so elegantly done. In fact, it’s where half the genius of the work comes from. How does a writer/director adapt a campy b-movie classic to the modern screen? He blends the perfect amounts of gratuitous violence and gore with echoes of what’s come before. What better way to make the (let’s be honest, distinct) Exorcist references blend with the modern? Make Regan put a razor blade through her tongue.

Every moment you got to see the strings (which is to say, every time it felt too over the top) was a seamless nod to the original. The reboot nods right and left to the originals (molesting trees, the infected-arm, the chainsaw-hand) exactly as you’d expect and hope. 

The dialogue was–bear with me–perfectly terrible. The director more than made up for it, and the cheesy, flat lines (“I’m not going to become Hell’s bitch!”) added flavor without taking away from the intensity or suspense.

I didn’t believe it was possible. But there you have it. A blend of the lovably-terrible classics with a modern vibrancy.

When no one in the audience laughed at the yawning POV shot through the woods, I knew they’d done it absolutely right.

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Yes, I would have preferred a bit more pacing, a bit more atmosphere, a bit more milking before hitting the fan. But you know, it’s not that kind of movie.

Yes, I would have preferred a little more philosophy and depth as always. But it’s not that kind of movie. It’s too busy being GODDAMN EPIC.

Yes, the violence was stomach-churning. The camera refuses to look away (that confidence bit, remember). And the Evil Deads were always known as blood-fests. But where before it was camp, today it’s real. It’s visceral. And it has to be to keep true to what came before it (while staying fresh, do you see?)

This movie, for what it was (a reboot of a classic b-horror movie directly in line with the possession/slasher movies of the last forty years), was ASTOUNDING. and BRILLIANT. and hands down a MASTERPIECE. It fully realized the genre, embracing everything that came before it and elevating it to another level.

This film gets an

A+

BUT! Should you go see it?

Maybe not.

If you’re not into the old Evil Deads, if you’re not into modern slasher movies, or violent tongue-splitting, arm-cutting, cheek-slicing, eye-stabbing, hand-ripping movies: Don’t go see it. It’s disgusting and there’s little else to redeem it for you. It’ll seem like blood for the sake of blood.

But if you’re familiar with the classics, if an epic power-punch of a visceral, raw, bloody, fiery horror film is up your alley. GO FUCKING SEE THIS MOVIE.

(Note: I’d say wait two weeks though. Go on a Tuesday night or hit up one of the cheap theaters. See it by yourself or with a close buddy. It’s not a Friday night drinking comedy with your buddies like the original trilogy. This one is for taking seriously. Don’t go on a night with a packed house and a row of 25 theater kids who think they’re groupies because they have Evil Dead hoodies from that one time they put on the Evil Dead Musical at their school.

When only THREE people in the whole theater cheered when she picks up the chainsaw, I WAS OFFENDED. When the girl in front of me said she was scared to watch this because she’s terrified of zombies, I WAS OFFENDED (it’s a possession movie, dammit!). When homeboy laughed at EVERY establishing shot, funny, scary, or otherwise, I WAS OFFENDED.

If any of these things would offend you too: GO SEE THIS MOVIE).

Karl out.

Karl Pfeiffer is a writer, ghost hunter, and blogger/vlogger. He won the first season of the pilot reality series Ghost Hunters Academy, and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team on the same network. Since then he’s lead the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, studied religion and writing at Colorado State University, and published his first novel, Hallowtide, in October of 2012. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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Dark Skies Review

Two thirty AM Friday Morning, review time, let’s do this!

So it’s been a stale winter for horror flicks–not that I much blame them. Coming off of that autumn would dampen anyone’s spirits.

Saw Dark Skies and I have to say I’ve got to agree with those folks giving early tweets about it. It wasn’t stunning but it was damn suspenseful.

Pros: The alien genre is still a largely untapped market. I know we’ve had our space monsters for decades and decades now, and the old classics still pave much of the way for how we like to think about little green men (“skinny grey men” may one day catch on). Where in possession movies, you’re used to screaming and contorting and the occasional atrocity; in haunted house movies, you’re used to the crescendo of strange unseen activity… in alien movies, you never know what you’re going to get. There’s the blend of the seen and the unseen. Especially with the more recent poltergeist/possession style crossover with the alien abduction genre (which I’m still a HUGE fan of, somebody please astound me), we have a whole toolkit of possible things to startle us around every corner.

And startle they do. There’s a jump scare in this one that had me twisting, which alone gives it my stamp of approval. And there’s a perpetual tension that even as it seems cliche, music escalating fittingly, loud sound about to startle, it’s easy to feel, well, Un-easy.

The acting was good, the character development wasn’t particularly mind-blowing (but I mean, Jesus, thank Breaking Bad for setting that bar too high for anyone to match these days) but it was solid and worked well.

They did great with their aliens for most of the movie. Props for keeping it underplayed. Horror flicks have been showing too much lately.

And though there were only two or three elements that I actually picked up on, there were subtleties that went below the radar for the first half of the movie, which I LOVED. Thank you for not beating us over the head when you do something clever (at least until we get to the flashbacks at the end reminding us of scenes we saw forty minutes before, but ya know).

The cons are the typical cons. There was no originality and little depth. While I mentioned that the suspense was an achievement because of the possibilities for surprise, it was still your pretty classic step by step alien movie. There was little happening on a philosophical level to chew on, or even much to give alien enthusiasts/horror buffs much new to mull over (the way The Fourth Kind did actually manage, despite the atrocity of a plot along with it).

And there was no style. The first hour felt like a montage of various alien/horror movies, running the gamut from ET to Poltergeist to Signs to the more recent Paranormal Activity flicks. (They missed a great chance to throw a nod at Ghostbusters in the third act, which pained me, considering). And by the time the plot took off, it was really standard. The two most recent alien flicks that come to mind are Signs and Fourth Kind, both of which, (despite varying levels of success) had very distinct flavors and styles. This one was boring. The only interesting shot in the whole film was during one of Josh Hamilton’s job interviews. I mean, would a little spice kill you?

That all said, and nitpicking aside, no, it wasn’t brilliant. But was it suspenseful? Absolutely. I think it echoes October’s Sinister, but with far better suspense (if in exchange for a weaker payoff.)

I was satisfied, which is at least better than I’ve felt after most horror movies lately. A solid B. 

Karl Pfeiffer is a writer, ghost hunter, and blogger/vlogger. He won the first season of the pilot reality series Ghost Hunters Academy, and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team on the same network. Since then he’s lead the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, studied religion and writing at Colorado State University, and published his first novel, Hallowtide, in October of 2012. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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Mama Review

Not going to lie to you, I was damn excited for Mama. Watching the trailer suggested to me that this was going to be a gritty, well-filmed horror flick that hopefully took its time, dug at the psychology and creepiness of feral children, and maybe even a bit of philosophy to boot.

Unfortunately it wasn’t really any of these things. But I’m not going to say it was bad either.

10-mama-poster-726x248What Mama had going for it:

Fantastic acting by the two young children, particularly Mini Maggie Gyllenhaal, er–Isabelle Nelisse. Downright creepy and charming and totally understated. 

The story was very well written. While lacking in much depth, with characters who felt a bit more like plot-puppets than plot-drivers at times, and an end that unraveled in a way that was so clunky compared to the relative intensity of the first 90% it seemed almost to be a different writer completely, the overall story was solid.

The end, though with laugh-inducing CGI and, as I said, with an undeniable clunkiness, it was mostly satisfying (a trait altogether lacking in most horror movies these days). One half of me says yeah, maybe the end was a bit too, ah, storybook–in a way that contrasted the promised grittiness–the other half says it actually worked in a kind of Del Toro way that blends a bit of childlike magic with–well, creepy fingers.

The movie was genuinely unsettling for the first three quarters, until they put the glasses back on the camera lens and decided to show you the monster–It’s movies like this that prove the adage, KEEP YOUR MONSTERS IN THE GODDAMN SHADOWS. And save the cartoons for Saturday morning.

The cinematography was nothing to remark upon, and right out of the gate threw distracting amounts of CGI in what was otherwise a rather normal crash-while-driving-in-the-snow scene. In a movie that demanded reflection of the very grittiness of a childhood in the wild, the CGI made it feel fake, and cheapened a kind of genuine horror experience.

The glimmers of philosophical dialogue were forced and clumsy and only really applied in the most rudimentary of ways to the plot. (Is it a spoiler to suggest that the ghost has unfinished business?) After what could have been a far deeper play between reality and imagination, between psychological trauma and the nature of ferality, in the dynamic between mothers and daughters, and the timeless American horror play: between the wild and civilization, we instead get a kind of extended monster-of-the-week story. Disappointing, but not altogether unexpected these days.

Now, I can’t promise you won’t shake your head and laugh a time or three during, that you won’t turn to your ladyfriend after the movie, as I did to mine, and with a half-frown say, “I guess it wasn’t… bad.” But I can promise it’s a good ride. It’s certainly better than Sinister, The Apparition, The Possession, and half the other half-assed horror movies from the fall months in 2012. In fact I’d go so far as to say this movie could have been brilliant if the right director got a hold of this script thirty years ago.

But saying it’s special would be a lie.

B-

Karl Pfeiffer is a ghost hunter, novelist, and blogger/vlogger. After winning the first season of the reality spinoff series Ghost Hunters Academy, he went on to work briefly with the Ghost Hunters International team. He published his first novel, Hallowtide, shortly after graduating Colorado State University where he studied Creative Writing and Religion. He now works at the Stanley Hotel leading the weekend public ghost hunts. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com