Tag Archives: entertainment

AHS: Freak Show – Monsters Among Us Review

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After months of speculation, fan-made promos, teasers, and hauntingly beautiful official promos, we’re finally met with the premiere of the fourth season of the anthology juggernaut, American Horror Story, this year in the Freak Show.

If it’s not already abundantly clear, I’m a huge fan of this show. But because of that, I hold it to a very high standard. First season was excellent. Smart, well-filmed, challenging, and stylized. Second season started to lose me in the near-mess of horror tropes thrown at the audience. But it regained my trust in the final few episodes, which, while to some fell a too-rapid shift in tone, for me it brought together the themes the season played upon in an elegant and subtle way. The aliens were stand ins for divinity and the achievements of science, the asylum stood as a sad pinnacle of religious corruption and our lack of progress at the time. Together, binaries were fuzed and meshed and reversed and the entire season came off a huge artistic success.

Then, of course, season three hit. True to form for third-season-ruts (see: Supernatural), Ryan Murphy and co. decided to lighten the show’s tone after Coven, which I was fine with. The shots were still beautiful. The eeriness blended well with the synth-heavy musical score, given a fresh, modern feel on the witches genre. It worked. Until it didn’t. The first episode gave us a taste of what could have been to come: female empowerment, reversal of race issues, sexuality (as always), the struggle against mortality. It was trimmed down from Asylum, sleek… and then it just stopped. Halfway through, the season became witches being bitches, and the race dialogue was lost in throwing away our black characters because the plot ran out. It tried to pull an Asylum and save it in the final episode, but the big themes were pushed aside. Literally, too little, too late.

Now, I know, some were fans, and some were not. Indeed, that’s my first point going into this review of Freak Show today. Horror is a tricky genre because everyone approaches horror with different tastes and expectations. What scares one person won’t phase another. Some want to simply be scared and entertained. Some want to be intellectually challenged.

So before going into Freak Show, I want to set my expectations of the show. After seeing how smart a show it could be from the moment I hit first season, and the moment Asylum floored me, I knew this show was brilliant. The very premise, even, that in the horror genre, yes there are frightening monsters, but the most frightening issues are the societal ones. Boom. That’s it. There’s our one-sentence show pitch.

But along the way, AHS picked up some brilliant cinematography and editing. The show is a breath of fresh air compared to much of television in its uniqueness of style. The acting was great, with Jessica Lange perennially stealing the show. And the scares, well, like I said, everyone has different triggers. But compared against most of TV? It’s happily in the horror genre.

SO: Freak Show.

If my rambling prologue there wasn’t indication enough, the first episode is usually strong. The show has history with getting rough as it gets going. So the first episode review should only be taken as far as you can throw it.

That said, I mostly totally dug it.

The cinematography was still gorgeous. I love the wide angle shots that have become staples. And the twilight carnival shots with the lights… well that hits me right in the feel goods. That’s my sandbox right there.

The acting, of course, is always exciting to see how the actors mold to new characters, and it was done well. Good to see Jessica Lange staying steady as the manipulative matriarch with some well-buried brokenness.

Twisty the Clown was trending all Wednesday night on Twitter, and I can see why. web_ins_gallery_detail_series_dsktp_ahs_01

He’s probably the scariest clown I’ve ever seen. I’m not scared of clowns, myself, so perhaps some folks would disagree, but he’s creepy as hell. Perhaps overdone? But dirty, dark, gritty, murderous, and with secrets yet to be revealed, I like it.

I thought it was a curious decision, but one that I wound up liking, to reveal Twisty first in daylight. It seems to me that this speaks to the team’s confidence in their creation sustaining scares no matter what the time of day. It worked for me. The creepy Louisiana (okay, “Florida”) wilderness tied to a violent illustration of just how dark humanity can be was very reminiscent of HBO’s True Detective, which I was very okay with. In the end, yes, the folks who don’t like clowns aren’t gonna like Twisty, and he’s dark enough that he could literally scare some away, but I’ve never gotten the impression AHS cares too much.

The real heart of the show though is the themes. And AHS has seemed to strip this season down to, literally, just freaks. What makes someone a freak. What physical deformity means socially. How freaky are human beings in general. What’s the appropriate response to social marginalism.

Of course, some won’t have it. Some will. And likely there’s gray space in between where the show is actually operating. I watched headlines before the premiere about what a terrible show it is to exploit the disabled as horrific. I just read a Buzzfeed article about how AHS isn’t as progressive as we think. And it goes on.

For the ones who won’t have it: AHS, as I said above, is about reversing many illustrations of what’s monstrous. There’s always extremes (usually the big bad murderer) for the scares, but the heart is in reframing what should be scary. If it fails, a la Coven, and winds up reinforcing these social issues, then yeah, it should be held to that. But I think the intentions are here, it’s a matter of the skills of the writers, and so far, given the pilot episode, we have a lot to work with. The deformities are played upon, but that’s of course the AHS style. It’s always right in your face.

Ariane Lange’s Buzzfeed piece was accurate. If AHS is as progressive as we think/want, it needs to do more than normalize the inner human of the disabled, and instead examine them as abnormal, but abnormal because of society’s treatment and their experiences due to that treatment and to the disability.

To which I say, A) give it a chance. we still have 12 episodes yet to see if Murphy and co. will move beyond the “they’re just people too” theme. But also… B) I think it’s already going beyond that. If we want to examine the true ways that “freaks” are abnormal, which is to say, who they’ve become because of marginalization and efforts in a world that doesn’t provide for them, then this is an excellent space for it. Right off the bat, we have two murders by the “freaks” (three more if you count Twisty), and an instant questioning of where those murders fall on the morality line. I think that by reframing “freaks” as “normal” so quickly that we can jump right into looking at the moral nuances that their situation provides, AHS is already being relatively progressive. I very much don’t expect to find the conclusion of the season being that freaks are freaks and normal people are normal.

We’re not in AHS’s sandbox until we’re questioning everyone and watching the plot unravel because American culture is really, really good at being freakish and horrific. That will again and again be the attempt of the theme of this show.

Now, of course I’m worried that there’s not going to be enough to chew on to stretch this out for a season. Already in episode one we’ve had emphasis on society’s sad treatment of the “freaks”, we’ve had illustrations of their experiences and humanity, and we’ve got the classic AHS plays on what’s freaky, what’s justified freaky, what’s extreme freaky, what’s human, and how much of the horror is in our nature.

All those things I want to see twisted and reversed and changed and explored further, but I worry it’ll be tired by January.

But also, I hope. I hope that with all that time, Murphy and Co. will address those issues that Lange points out, and progress a good, dark, Asylum-level dark (but smart) story.

That’s one that time will tell. But there’s more than enough here at the start to keep me on board and happy… even if they always start that way.

Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, went on to work with the GHI team. He’s the author of Hallowtide, and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He contributes to the TAPS Paramagazine, leads the weekend ghost hunts and the Stanley Hotel, and shoots conceptual and portrait photography in Colorado. More can be found at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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Future Seasons of American Horror Story

I wrote a post very similar to this one after the end of Season Two and, while I kept that post updated, it’s beginning to fall a bit out of date, and so I wanted to revisit the post with some new ideas and sexier photoshop work.

So, a bit of a recap, shall we? American Horror Story is a show defined by iconic marketing imagery, a frantic-yet-elegant cinematic style, an ensemble cast that’s always excellent, pitch perfect thematic studies, and interwoven anthology plots.

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In season one, we visited the Murder House. The setting was a haunted house in California, and it allowed the writers and directors to study such American Horrors that the supernatural horrors are only caught up within: the real horrors — the way people react to and perpetuate social issues. Adultery. Abortion. Gay rights. The 21st Century family. School shootings. Depression. Teenage romance. Bullying. The themes that circle the home.

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With second season, we had a big switch, moving into the Asylum. Though first season was dark, it was so in a sexy, elegant, nature. The scares crawled around inside your head a bit. But with season two, Murphy and Co. turned it up to eleven. The sexiness was out the window. The show was a period piece for the 60’s, a time that’s beginning to seem almost pre-historic to us. The setting and time period allowed the writers to explore the big issues of the time (many that are unfortunately still very prevalent), and what made the season brilliant by the final episodes was the way the writers spring-boarded from social issues to philosophical issues. Women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, the role of the Church in the world and within institutions, the treatment of the mentally ill, the ways science can twist and corrupt, and the ways science can redeem. We got some supernatural scares, but not so much of the ghostly, super-powered variety. We saw aliens as a brilliant stand-in for God, we saw possession unrecognized in a place of god, and of course we saw our seasonal historical murderer.

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And then season three happened. Drawing mixed reviews from critics, season three moved us down south, with Coven. Coven aimed to iron out some of the kinks with Asylum: to give the audience a breath of fresh air from the deep darkness of the Asylum, to shave off some of the abundant themes and plotlines that slowed the second season in the middle of its run. They went after feminism and racism in the south, tracking the split of two witch clans and the battle between them as it was reignited. The first episode was a powerhouse, but the show stumbled along after that, missing the opportunities to sneak in genuine frights, and, sadly, instead of deconstructing many of these themes, wound up reinforcing them by season’s end.

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And now, in the late summer of 2014, we move into the fourth season, where we’ll step right up to the Freak Show. I’m utterly pumped for this season (and utterly disappointed in myself that I never thought of the carnival/freakshow idea in my earlier blog post: thanks commenters!) Where Murphy first confessed he was going for a lighter tone and a funny feel the way of Coven, he realized as he got into the plot that this season was, in fact, darker than Asylum. And, I hope, more on track with its thematic study of the nitty gritty. The promos are already exceptional. The clown is going to be scary as shit. And for the first time in more than half a century, we’re really going to get a piece of film/television that digs around in a very much overlooked piece of American history: the sideshow carnival. Looks for more civil rights type issues, post-WWII racial scares, and another season where the monsters are never the monsters.

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(And of course, the alternate title card used with the actual-footage teasers)

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So where do we go from here?

Ryan Murphy has on multiple occasions mentioned that the season following Freak Show was going to be followed by something very much out of left field. While I’ve got a few good ideas, I don’t think any of them are quite as out-of-left-field worthy for the fifth season as Empty Space. Space has a myriad of setting-style titles, so it could be tough for fans to guess this subtitle. But space is a rich American horror soil, and very much do-able for Murphy and Co. I have regular debates with my good buddy CJ about the possibilities of such a season. He argues that aliens shouldn’t make an appearance to throw viewers, whereas I think they can. Granted, AHS has already done aliens in Season Two, but they were brief and very much an image-centric stand-in. They could easily do some creatures heretofore unseen. But with the potential for deep space survival, fear of unknown planets, rebellious robots, rebellious other ships, and with a wealth of horror-movies to nod to and reference, I think we can count on seeing Empty Space in the near future for AHS, hopefully as near as Season Five.

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Almost equally as obvious and overdue as space in the AHS franchise as my vote for Season Six? I’ve subtitled it the Woodlands. (Part of me fought with debate over calling it “Sticks” — a play on the folk phrase for the backwoods mixed with the River Styx from Greek mythology, a thematic allusion very much up Murphy’s alley). The Woodlands locale is rich for AHS. It’s the setting of many in the classic staple of American Horror: the Slasher film. We set this at a cabin or lakeside retreat, and let havoc play out. We’d get the classic slasher killer (likely somebody historical), but there’s room here to play with more modern manifestations from the woods, like Slenderman or cryptid beasties. Murphy has spoken in recent interviews about the nature of death on television, and how it’s different than in movies. Because of the way a 13-episode television run connects you with characters for six times longer than the average movie, you become far more attached, and so those deaths are more meaningful. While in many ways this can be a deterrent for a slasher season, I think it’s territory to play with those losses as the horror that they are.

Thematically we’ve got play by looking no further than Lars von Trier’s disturbing film, Antichrist. Von Trier, in interviews, pointed out that one of his main thematic goals with the film was to explore the dichotomy between the woods currently illustrated in Romantic tones, as a place of peace and finding one’s self, as a Walden, but whereas historically, the woods are a terrible, terrible place of darkness. That’s where you go to fight for your life, where the food chain spins endlessly, and human wit is tested against animal ability.

So I say, let’s do that. Let’s pit the humans against the wild. (And don’t even get me started on what a gorgeous season that would be to watch, cinematically).

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THE season I’ve been waiting to see from Murphy. This show had better not run dry by the time we make our detour into Lovecraft Country (perhaps a better subtitle, but it’s clunky). Innsmouth of course is the setting of HP Lovecraft’s classic tale, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, about a small community of inbred and hybrid creatures living on the coastal shores of Massachusetts. Lovecraft has been one of the most defining characters in modern horror, introducing us to Cosmic Horror and a strange philosophical place of Nihilism and mysticism. This topic is hot right now after being constantly hinted at in HBO’s first season of True Detective, so I think it’s time for something more overt to hit the airwaves. Certainly themes are easy enough to play out. Let’s look at science and religion, cults and isolation, the power of nature, sprinkle in some Storm of the Century and tales of epic sea monsters for flashbacks, and we’ve got one of the tightest, darkest, rainiest, and creepiest American Horror Stories yet. Perhaps the topic will dry up by Season Seven, but I doubt it. Lovecraft never leaves us.

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Okay, fine, Maize isn’t a setting, but it was the best I had, and I loved the play on Maize meaning corn, as well as the wordplay of Maze. Look no farther than the Shining for the maze/minotaur trope in classic horror. Mash it up with Children of the Corn and we’ve got something special. Now, though Murphy says he has as many as 13 different settings in mind, I’m worried themes come less varied than settings, especially if he continues to pack them in the way he did in season 2. Eight seasons is already a bit long, but I think these are the quintessential settings that absolutely have to be covered, and the Maize season would be the quintessential finale, wrapping us up for season Nine. The Native American connection brings the end back to America’s beginning. Dig around in America’s roots, explore the monsters in the soil,  Native American legends, the horror stories from before the genocide, then toss in some Dark Romanticism and Sleepy Hollow, maybe pepper in some Celtic Halloween roots to stir the melting pot, and we’ve got an incredible finale to an incredible show.

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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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American Horror Story: Coven – Premiere Review

FX_AHS_ImageGallery_0000_02Catch the premiere of American Horror Story: Coven last night? Spoiler: it was fantastic. Still trending on Twitter, if I saw correctly. So where’s the season going? What’s working and what’s worrying? Check out my review up at ParanormalPopCulture.com:  http://www.paranormalpopculture.com/2013/10/american-horror-story-coven-recap.html?spref=tw

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Found-Footage: Gimmick or Genre?

I stumbled across a trailer today for the upcoming horror flick, Skinwalker Ranch.

And, as I watched it, I was torn, almost scene by scene. Part of me rolled my eyes. The handheld IR footage shot, running through the night. The screams. The setting up of DVR cameras in the corners of rooms to capture “ghosts.” People getting blown across a room. The tagline “Inspired by True Events.” But the other part of me was gleeful.

Much of that response comes down to the found footage aspect of the movie. Found footage being the hand-held, shaky, everybody-dies-and-someone-later-publishes-the-footage type movie.

The Rise and Goal of Found Footage

What made found-footage brilliant was in the way it minimized the line between reality and fiction for the audience’s experience. Which, particularly as it applies to horror, is instrumental in milking the visceral response to a movie.

This advent was primarily due to the movement toward smaller, digital cameras. Though designed first for the public, and sneered upon by much of Hollywood (who produced high quality movies on film, firmly establishing the difference between amateur and “PROFESSIONAL”), many more avant-garde filmmakers were dabbling in the wide possibilities that shooting on digital cameras could open up in terms of creativity, particularly in terms of breaking down the separation between audiences and films. The goal was to make the experience as immersive as possible, to not only translate ideas, but to translate experiences. This is more specifically explored in Keanu Reeve’s documentary film Side by Side.

It was arguably 1999’s Blair Witch Project that brought a household awareness to the found-footage style, which offered the perfect blend of reality and fiction. Releasing the movie independently, with some early internet hype further confusing the lines between the produced nature of the movie, audiences were utterly thrown as to the reality of the movie. How much more frightening, that this could be real?

The Goal of Horror Movies

Now, the horror genre falls into two main categories of intention: to challenge a viewer intellectually, and to scare the shit out of people. The latter is usually the goal. Which is unfortunate because horror provides opportunity to introduce us to new ideas, new extremes: to unsettle us, to challenge us, to stretch the human condition to its limits.

As we explored before, the found-footage style makes a movie seem more real because it feels like it could be a home movie that anyone we know could have filmed. It could have happened next door. This helps scare the shit out of people.

Many people love to harp on found-footage because it doesn’t scare them. As with any popular fiction that plays with this reality between lies and truth, people are fairly desperate to assert themselves in the midst of controversy. It’s very important to people to not be wrong, and to not be scared.

Manly, right? You have to be tough. You have to be hard. You can’t be scared at a movie. And you knew what was real. You weren’t wrong. You were right all along.

I’m widely generalizing, but that’s the layer of our society that horror films provoke as a reaction. This is exactly why so many horror movies are so widely received, with some people loving them, others hating them. Everyone has different fights that make them tick, and many people like to bad-mouth them because the movie either didn’t make them tick, or because they want to sound tough.

Ever been to a midnight horror flick with a bunch of college kids? They talk the whole way through the movie because they’re trying to be too tough to shut up and engage: to be scared.

So, with any challenging way of telling a story as true, there’s going to be backlash that one: it wasn’t scary, and two: i knew it wasn’t real all along.

Because found-footage now is associated with a kind of truth, but no longer seriously pretends to be true, audiences are very reactionary, finding it more annoying than inventive.

The Nuance of Found Footage

This is where the nuance comes in. Some people can very easily get motion sick, staring at a large screen, too immersed. Like 3D movies, some people physically can’t handle it. Which is fine. For the rest of us, we can experience that okay, so long as it’s done right.

One of the popular lines of critique in the found-footage style is an easy backswing against the original intention. Because it originally felt so real, because it felt like it could have been made by any Joe on the street, now people think that, seriously, any Joe on the street could make such a movie.

Which, of course, is relatively inaccurate.

Not everyone can make a movie. It’s hard work and there’s a ton of technical know-how.

This is not to confuse the fact that many people can make a bad movie. This is altogether common.

But the fact that so many bad found-footage movies exist is not to be confused with the found-footage style being inherently bad. That’s what they call a logical fallacy.

The nuance comes in that found-footage movies can still be artistic. They can still have beautiful shots, even if that footage is “accidentally” or “unintentionally” captured by some bamboozling character. The cutting and filming of the movie can be done in a way that looks haphazard, but is intentionally filmed in a way that doesn’t upset the audience until the filmmaker wants it to.

One of the great nuances of film is in where and when to cut the film. Many times in a poorly cut piece of video, you find yourself annoyed with the camera for lingering on one shot when you’d rather have it on another.

A recent example: this IGN interview from Comic Con this year, in which Jane Levy and Fede Alvarez discuss the magnificent Evil Dead remake.

At around the minute forty mark, the interviewers ask Jane Levy their first question, while the trailer plays. Inserting a trailer into an interview is fine, but the viewer has a few ingrained expectations. There are certain elements that need to be established. The first time Jane Levy speaks, I want to see her speaking (and not just because I find her insanely attractive). It grounds the audience in an association, and we can learn how the nuances of speech relate to action and presentation. We get a complete picture. But in this clip, when we finally get done with the trailer, we linger uncomfortably long at 2:00 on the interviewers, who aren’t speaking, and we still haven’t gotten a shot of Jane speaking.

Which I’m sure is a technical issue. They probably were trying to swing a camera to get her on the shot. It was a likely amateur mistake. Shooting live video is hard. The point here isn’t the poor quality of sixty seconds of interview footage. The point here is that audience expectation drives the shot, and if we don’t see what we have been taught to expect to see, it will drive us crazy. We want to see a character when they speak. Every shot has to be chosen against all other possible shots. We have to know that what we’re looking at is the most important component of the scene, whether that’s the character speaking, a character responding, or a shot that illustrates some kind of developing action in the background, we have to trust filmmakers, and most times we do.

But this can also be used to great effect when it operates against our expectation. How many times do you find yourself sitting in a horror movie, pissed as hell because the character is stumbling around in the dark, and we’re only give a tight shot of her face, and we can’t see what’s behind her — we can’t see what’s on the other side of the door — we, like her, don’t know what’s coming. But all we want to do is scream at the camera to pull wide and give us a bit of security.

That’s good filmmaking. It’s a bit of a standard example, but that’s one way of building tension literally through the shots that you choose.

And the found-footage style, particularly in that it’s becoming a facet of horror-films above all else, is extremely dependent on this type of thinking. What is seen and what is unseen, in terms of the shot, is crucial to building dread and tension. Debatably it’s even more crucial in this genre, because the camera shot is what the character is experiencing

Genre or Gimmick?

“Gimmick” is one of those words that has layers of pejorative meanings. It can be spoken of as both positive and negative. Usually, we tend to speak of a gimmick as a bullshit device that has no purpose or meaning other than drawing attention.

In terms of found-footage, most people have concluded that it’s a gimmick because it’s a cheap way to make the audience unsettled and nauseous, and a cheaper way to provide jump scares (back to the idea about the nuances of shot).

Found-footage has become transparent. Singly, it’s because there have been SO many movies that employ this technique. What used to be clever (the lines between real and lie, the nuance of shot, etc) have now become expected and dry.

But I don’t think that makes something a gimmick. That makes it gimmicky in the sense that it’s a device that’s become meaningless, but you can make that argument about almost any aspect of film. Any genre can be overdone to the point of being predictable, dry, transparent, and only as an attention-grabber.

I’d argue that found-footage as a style is not inherently meaningless, and can be used as a very intentional device. And, if it can be used as meaningful, it’s not inherently a gimmick, and can be applied with skill and purpose.

See, found footage in its first incarnation was used to break down the lines between lie and reality, which is a big deal in art. As we go, it became a compelling device for a fresh take on presenting a story. It made its way to television, primarily in the comedy genre, manifesting as a blend of mockumentary in order to make the “real-world” situations as “real” as possible which in turn enhanced the awkwardness. The perceived reality of the footage has the exact same emotional effect as horror. JJ Abrams used found-footage as a storytelling device shockingly well in Cloverfield, cutting back and forth between “real-time” footage and old, recorded footage being taped over, which strung along a story in flashback and realtime deftly, and with meaning. The Last Exorcism, though going off the rails by the end, used the genre both for scares, but also as a way to illustrate artifice, to bring the audience’s attention to construction and truth while examining the “reality” of possession amidst fakery. Most directly, Grave Encounters used it — albeit shallowly — to play with reality and artifice on ghost hunting programs. The Fourth Kind used it to study truth behind lies (behind more lies) and the artifice of a Hollywood movie.

Despite being a perfect gimmick for jump scares, the found-footage style is a perfect device to illustrate possibility. And so long as you’re operating within a genre (supernatural films), a big recurring theme is possibility. “What if this could happen? How bad could it be and what would it look like?”

Paranormal Activity used it, brilliantly, to not pretend to be real, but to make a fake haunting feel like a “real” haunting. Though horror movies have moved so far beyond it (with their shock-scares and gore), many people are terrified in their own homes at the smallest sounds and sights. Paranormal Activity, instead of pretending to be real, employed the found footage device to emulate a reality that struck home much more effectively than a standard shot-by-shot movie. Paranormal Activity reminded us that even though we know the found-footage style is no longer real, it still feels more real, which is exactly why we’re seeing so many of these types of movies right now, from [Rec] to The Chernobyl Diaries to V/H/S to Troll Hunter to Chronicle and more. 

It’s a Genre

To have so many movies operating under this one artistic style, a way of presentation, a form, a subject matter, and in doing so with such variety, found-footage has been too intelligently used, and with too much variety, to write it off as a gimmick.

And to suggest that there’s nothing original left to be done in the genre is to discredit the smart filmmakers out there. Sure, we’re going to get crappy, generic, found-footage movie after found-footage movie, but the same can be said of horror movies in general. Or RomComs, or dramas, or comedies.

So I don’t write off movies when I see from their trailers that they’re found-footage. I know they’ll probably suck. I know they’ll probably not do anything innovative with their gimmick.

But I’ll still watch them if they look good. I’ll still be on the edge of my seat in the theater, waiting — not for the next jump scare — but for that hint of brilliance that could yet change everything.

Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the books Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and occasionally contributes to the Paranormal Pop Culture Blog. He’s the winner of the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, he’s appeared on Ghost Hunters International, and he lectures across the nation about paranormal phenomena. More can be found at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com

 

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How the Series Finale of Dexter Was Brilliant and Why it Sucked

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(Needless to say, there’s gonna be spoilers)

Let’s just get it out of the way first, shall we?

Why Dexter was so Awesome:

1. The final shot. The buildup and crushing rejection of Dexter’s entire growth as a character for eight seasons.

2. Both the thematic potential of Dexter’s new-found family and the parallels with his old family.

3. The way he killed Debra. It had to happen. And it was poetic.

Why Dexter was so terrible:

1. The final shot was unearned. Dexter’s decision came out of nowhere and barely made sense.

2. The family-figures were meaningless. Man of Steel all over again. Simply shells with unearned emotions.

3. There was no tension in the first 11 of 12 episodes in the final season.

* * *

That all said, I want to go a little more in depth on exactly why this episode was brilliant, and how it was equal parts such a godawful letdown.

I want to start with the final shot: Dexter, sitting down in a logging cabin. Isolated. Gray. Alone. Hard.

Though many online took up arms to make fun of Lumberjack Dex, the moment itself was incredible.

The brilliance of this shot came first in the filmography. For a show that fell apart at the seams in the final three seasons in terms of technical appearance (look no further than those godawful Florida skies in the final episode, which could have been photoshopped by the kid who played Harrison), this final shot was commanding and moody and emotive. The symmetry. The careful camera motion. The lighting. It all spoke toward the darkness we know as Dexter.

The only problem with it was the whimpering fade-out rather than a hard cut.

But the emotion was astounding, if overlooked.

One of the staples of old-school television is that the characters don’t change. Networks want to hook an audience and keep them. By changing their main characters radically over the course of a show, the network model believes that this will ultimately alienate the audience that grew attached to such a character in the first place.

Not only does this give little credit to the audience, but it limits the range of good storytelling. Any basic writing class will emphasize that, in short work or long form, the character has to undergo a change.

Dexter has been quietly at the forefront of the changing landscape of the television industry because Dexter himself has been undergoing a radical change for years. He’s becoming a human being. He’s learning that he’s not so much a sociopath as he thinks. This wasn’t just an abandoned season eight plot point, it’s been developing since season one.

Season One: Dexter learns that his need to kill may be less genetic so much as born from his childhood trauma. Season Two: Dexter learns that he can have feelings. Whether that’s in a relationship, in sex, or in the thrill of being on the run. Season Four: Dexter learns that by pretending to be a father, he actually likes having a family. Season Five: He learns empathy, and that trauma-based dark passengers can be lost. Season eight: He learns that he might not even be a sociopath, and that he’s capable of truly loving.

The writers had two places they could go with this progression: they can either let Dexter go off on his happily ever after and embrace the fact that he’s finally human. Or he reverts back to the stone-cold Dexter of first season.

As we watch the final shot push in on Dexter at the end, we see that this is again the Dexter that we’ve always known: the cold, calculating, closed-off Dexter that nods to us in the opening credits each week.

And this feels very right, to see Dexter back here: alone, cold, but back full-circle (a lot of finales seem to love this idea of coming full circle. TV is a very cyclical beast, it would seem). It might not be very happy or pleasant. But it’s very right.

Now, even though the writers recognized the right end, they failed to present it well. They didn’t earn this finish, and that disparity threw most viewers. The immediate impression of the last shot felt tacked on rather than right.

On first viewing, it seemed that Dexter’s decision to bail on his new family was out of the blue. Deb died because of a series of badly-written accidents stemming from Dexter’s decisions. And that was enough to prompt him to abandon the only things in his life that make him happy?

It’s a stretch only if you forget that it wasn’t Deb’s death alone–but also due to the loss of his mother-figure, Vogel, and his son-figure, Zack. The problem here is that, well, I actually did forget this.

For having such an instrumental impact on Dexter as pieces of a life he’s trying to build, their deaths had no drama. I was bored as I watched Vogel bleed out. I was unsurprised to see Zack, dead in Dexter’s chair. And of course Cassie, the passing-love-interest-neighbor, was so clearly a throwaway character that I was betting friends against how long it would take for her to be killed off (Seven episodes. There’s twenty bucks I won’t be seeing again).

This is purely a problem in execution. A problem in pacing, in filming, and writing. We didn’t understand whether these people were really important to Dexter. We weren’t convinced that we ever really wanted them around–or that Dexter even really wanted them around. There was no tension, no suspense. No risk.

And so, not only were their deaths relatively meaningless, but they were easily forgotten.

Dexter’s final decision seemed impulsive because we didn’t get to watch him with his struggle. We didn’t understand deeply enough that he blamed himself for these deaths. When we watched Dexter with Hannah and Harrison, we didn’t get to see Dexter questioning whether he deserved such happiness or whether he’d ruin it.

The risks of Dexter’s  lifestyle were never risks to the people most important to him: Hannah and Harrison. His lifestyle was a risk to Deb, and it proved fatal, but he was leaving Deb. The writers had already established that Harrison and Hannah were more important to Dexter than Deb, despite Deb and Dexter’s relationship being the crux of the series.

Instead, for eleven episodes, the characters we had no investment in were the ones experiencing all the risk, and the characters that we actually love, Hannah, Harrison, Deb, and Dexter were only ever at risk due to Hannah’s exploits. And, when it came to risk, those scenes were more awkward than suspenseful, with the final undoing straw being Harrison running on a treadmill and–“Ow. I cut my chin.”

Where’s the tension of season two? Where’s the unraveling of Dexter’s life the way we’ve been waiting for since then? Where’s the edge-of-our-seat tension as we wait for the law to come down on Dexter, as we wait for some master serial-killer to put Dex out of his misery? Where’s the drama of Dexter’s police family unraveling as everything they knew about Dexter crumbles? Where’s Dexter, a wreck, because he’s trying to build a life as it all comes falling down?

Where’s the possibility that now, here, in the final season, literally anything can finally happen?

Instead, the only thing that crashes down–until the final episode–are tacked-on characters we don’t care about.

If we’re going to fully appreciate the final scene, we need to have the appropriate build-up for it. We have to watch Dexter struggle as his world falls around him. We have to watch Dexter’s decision to be a human being crash down far more epically than Deb’s being shot in the stomach. (If not, I mean, at least give us a bit of finesse).

For threatening Deb’s death, did they even bother to take their time with it? To bother with some close ups? Some slow motion? Some kind of emotion in finding Deb shot on the floor of an abandoned hospital?

Nope. Cut to soap opera wide. Deb’s cop family chatting normally about whether they should call Dexter.

The only way that we earned the final scene was in Dexter finally killing Deb. If there were two moments the writers needed to build to in the final season, it was Dexter killing Deb–or vice versa–and the final shot on Dexter, alone and empty.

Dexter killing Deb is massively important because it takes the essence of Dexter (the drive to kill) and puts him in the most dramatic of situations, in which he must finally break his code to kill someone not only innocent, but someone that he actually and truly loves. The flip side is that Deb has to kill Dexter, bending her own morality for the greater good, and in essence becoming the very thing that she’s killing. These types of murderous moral ambiguities have always been at the heart of the show.

Of course, if Deb can’t kill Dexter because we need the final shot of Dexter, then we’re left with the former. And the writers set up a good situation. Deb’s a vegetable. Dexter is forced to kill her to put her out of her misery. If not cliché — with uncomfortably transparent moments for goodbyes and flashbacks — it is a relatively poetic and twisted situation.

Even still, I have to wonder how the show-runners didn’t include a nod to almost every murder from earlier seasons? How did Dexter not run a thumb across Deb’s cheekbone before he pulled the plug? Where he sliced the cheek of his victims as trophies, how did they not allude to this STAPLE of the show in Dexter’s final kill?

It’s oversights like this that characterize the season as a whole. Rushed. Inattentive to the details: pacing; character; the small, dramatic, artistic moments.

The way we earn the final scene is to take our time with these dramatic moments. To pace the play of emotional extremes that are ripping and tearing at Dexter, that push him to turn his back on everything that would make him happy for everything he most truly is. We earn the final scene by watching Dexter make every effort to be human and have those efforts destroy the ones he loves and the life he lives. Have him actually ruminate on the fact that it’s only in his humanity that such hurt stems.

Deb’s death (too little too late, overall) wasn’t enough to convince us. Deb wasn’t Dexter’s whole world. Deb wasn’t enough to make Dexter give up a life. For that matter, Vogel and Zack weren’t Dexter’s whole world either.

As a viewer, I didn’t believe that Dexter’s trying to be a human being would result in tragedy for those he loves. That, single-handedly, is why the ending didn’t work. That’s bad writing. Plain and simple. We have to make that decision with Dexter. But we didn’t.

What could bring us to that decision? What about killing Harrison? What about forcing these moments four episodes before the end? What about giving Dexter some time to deal with the emotional drama of these consequences? Rather than a shot of him standing in front of a thunderstorm, in which we don’t really, fully grasp or share in what is most truly pushing him away from what’s left of the life he tried to build.

By taking our time, by watching Dexter’s world ripped away, only after he loses almost everything–only then would we understand why he’s sitting alone in a logging cabin. This way, we’d understand, immediately, as we slowly zoom in on the beard and the hollow cheeks, as we watch him close his eyes–only then would we see the way he blocks out the humanity he’s discovered. Only THEN would we understand that this is who Dexter truly is: walled-off, flat, hard. And intentionally so. He’s a human being who doesn’t allow himself to love.

THAT’S tragedy. THAT’S drama.

But it seems the writers were more interested in tacking this kind of drama on in the last five minutes and leaving the rest of the season to focus on Masuka’s daughter.

* * *

Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the books Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and occasionally contributes to the Paranormal Pop Culture Blog. He’s the winner of the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, he’s appeared on Ghost Hunters International, and he lectures across the nation about paranormal phenomena. More can be found at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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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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Game of Thrones, Mindless Television, and RISK

Wanted to write a quick blog inspired by a twitter conversation (because I need to blog more and this is exactly the kind of thing that should be blogged).

And so it’s going to be in TWO PARTS!

Part One: I hate you because you’re BRILLIANT.

I was perusing the glorious re-tweets of the twitter account @RedWeddingTears. If you’ve been living under a rock the past few days, Game of Thrones penultimate episode of season 3 rocked the minds and hearts of its fan base with a shocking death. (I suspect its not much of a spoiler to point out that all the hubub revolved around a death).

And though many of the tweets are quite hilarious,

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 3.40.51 PMOthers are quite saddening.

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 3.40.05 PMOf course, I’m instantly reminded of FilmCritHulk’s recent column about spoilers and the different ways of consuming media. Which (spoiler) essentially breaks down as such: There are four types of movie-goer: the ones who go for a good experience, the ones who go for an EPIC experience, the ones who appreciate the thematic and symbolic nuances, and the ones who appreciate the craft and making of the film itself.

I like to think I’m firmly in the third category, with a healthy appreciation of the other three. While I think that a tremendous amount of weight falls into this third category (I’ve had intellectual engagement with films that falls on a level far more profound than a purely emotional one), a tremendous amount of weight falls upon the first two.

And I find it equal parts hilarious and tragic when people say that a show should be cancelled (or that they’re going to stop watching television altogether) because they’ve had such a profound reaction.

To say, through tears, that Game of Thrones is “treacherously written” is laughably ironic.

And not simply for the sake of the unintended “treacherously” (I suspect “terribly” to be more the idea). Eliminating treacherous writing would eliminate all sense of tension at all.

But that in a lot of ways is George R. R. Martin’s whole point. We’re far too used to watching our heroes with the expectation that they’re going to succeed. He’s flipping our traditional notions entirely on their heads. Is that his only trick? I’m not sure that’s the case, but with good writing, it’s a fine single trick to have.

See, the great irony of these tweets is that if writing can force you into a reaction that profound and gut-wrenching, that’s incredible writing. The hardest jobs of a writer is to address the main two categories of consumer: the ones who want to be emotionally moved, and the ones who want to be intellectually moved. Game of Thrones is doing both right now. Emotional, political, and loosely social themes contextualized by painful and wild plot twists? That’s an achievement.

And if you’re watching to not be moved to the edge of your seat, it means that you either want a story that’s predictable and banal, or that the writing has failed in making you care. Right now, Game of Thrones is neither banal nor un-sympathetic.

My twitter conversation then moved into the idea that if such people are threatening to stop watching television entirely, perhaps that’s a good thing.

Which leads me to Part Two: Is television still an evil that’s sucking our brains? 

We’re in what I like to call the second golden age of television right now. Which is to say, despite the advent of reality television and the cut-throat nature of network primetime mostly-procedural television, cable networks have risen and given intellectual, broad-scoping, serial television a place to thrive. This began by their trust in their audience, and the shows that they invite. Breaking Bad is debatably the greatest show on television right now. But Breaking Bad would not have gotten to the place that it is now without having to fight its way through the first three seasons. I only watched Breaking Bad because I wanted to watch the bumbling figure of Walter White in his first season transform into the face on the season four DVD cover.

Breaking-Bad-Season-4-posterA show like that (regardless of the clash in formats) would never make it that long on network television. And yet, here it’s the best on all of TV.

Because of this uprising in cable shows, we’re having this second golden age in television. We’re realizing again what TV can be. And it’s not what we thought it was. Though TV has been reinventing itself for longer than I’ve been alive (even since my birth, we’ve watched the rise of both episodic crime television and reality television), we’ve hit a new age in the intellectual and emotional capacity TV can hold. Game of Thrones is shocking audiences across the world. Mad Men, Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, American Horror Story and others are doing things unheard of and reaping the rewards of smart audiences flocking.

Netflix, in the best decision they’ve ever made, recognized the long-term audience in their publication of old television serials that hook audiences for weeks at a time as well as the success of serial narrative-driven cable television, and they dove headlong into House of Cards, which in my opinion easily rivals the brilliance of Breaking Bad. Of course, Hemlock Grove and the revival of Arrested Development have only driven their success further. 

The point here being that though we’re engaging different parts of our brains, though we look like automatons when our glazed over eyes watch endlessly the dancing images on the boob toob,

tumblr_m7javtQmec1qzguyto1_r1_500there is finally a genuine intellectual and emotional work being done through the medium of television.

Is it a healthy stand-in for reading? Perhaps not as much. But is it finally an intellectually engaging one, challenging us on moral, social, and thematic issues? Absolutely.

And, I’d beg to suggest, if you can’t handle those emotions, or having those things you fall in love with be torn from you, or having the things you take confidence in believing suddenly subverted, I’d stick to reality shows. But if you want to step up and finally engage in something profound, that could change your life, these types of stories are becoming more and more available.

I can only hope that purely reactionary viewers realize that, and that the cable networks don’t become so flogged with competition for viewers’ eyes that they forget that good art takes time.

As a viewer, that’s not always fun. And as a network, it’s not always safe. But that’s risk. And risk is crucial.

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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