Friday, March 31, 2017

Like Jerks to the Slaughter - THE BURNING

Sometimes horror can be an archetypal tale of good vs. evil, life vs. death, innocence vs. corruption.  Other times it can be a bunch of asshole kids getting diced up in the woods.  Either sort has its charms, as 1981’s very unhappy camper THE BURNING can attest. 

The Capsule:
In 1970-something, a group of boys at Camp Blackfoot have devised a surefire prank to get back at the cranky groundskeeper, Cropsy (Lou David).  Shockingly, the prank goes wrong and turns Cropsy into a human torch.  Ha, ha, that will teach you to be mean to over-privileged white kids.  Five years of excruciating physical rehabilitation later, the hideously scarred freak is still holding a grudge.  Grabbing a very sturdy pair of garden shears, Cropsy heads back to Camp Stonewater, which is where all the little asshole summer campers moved to after Blackfoot burned down.  There he finds a smorgasbord of self-involved victims to unleash his vengeance on, such as Todd (Brian Matthews), the dreamy camp counselor with a secret; Eddie (Ned Eisenberg), the smooth talking date rapist; Glazer (Larry Joshua), the delinquent, muscle headed date rapist; Alfred (Brian Backer), the socially awkward peeping tom, and plenty of other horrible jerks way too old to be going to summer camp.  Will anyone survive the overnight canoe trip?  Mostly no.

THE BURNING came out in the early days of the slasher genre, and was in the first round of the summer camp bloodbaths.  FRIDAY THE 13th beat it to the punch, but it managed to grab the name Cropsy before MADMAN could use it.  One of Miramax's first films, it features a cast that ranges from “damn, I know I’ve seen that guy before,” to “holy shit, is that Holly Hunter?!”  

This film is so early, in fact, it predates some of the standard kids-die-in-the-woods tropes.  As slashers evolved, it became pretty easy to identify early on who would be the final girl (or less often, guy).  They had some distinctive quirk, something relatable, maybe a bit of a tragic backstory.  You could root for them to survive.   It’s the Laurie Strode model.  The early camp movies were no holds barred, though, because everyone was, to varying degrees, an asshole.  No one stood out.  People became the heroes by default, because everyone else was dead by the end.  

Nowhere is this asshole principle more evident than THE BURNING.  It starts right from the first scene, with the group of brats planning to scare poor, alcoholic Cropsy to death with a fiery, worm covered human skull.  First of all, where the hell did they get a decaying human skull?  Is there a voodoo camp across the river?  Secondly, did the kid who sneaked the flaming skull into Cropsy’s bedroom not notice his shack was stacked high with nothing but bottles of hard liquor, gas cans, and kerosene lanterns?  That is just bad prank planning.  

It doesn’t get any better from there.  All of the main characters are irritating at the very least, and many of them are seriously problematic.  And while they don’t actually rape anyone, Eddie and Glazer come off as super aggressive and predatory.  Both of them look like they just walked off the set of DEATH WISH II.  When the girl who spurned Eddie’s advances goes missing, the camp counselors’ first assumption is that he murdered her.  That is literally the first conclusion they jump to.  Only after they interrogate him do they decide she must have just gone back to camp (to avoid Eddie).   

Glazer is such a malicious meathead that he would be more at home in prison camp than summer camp.  He spends every waking moment being a douchebag and making everyone else's life hell.  He does have a surprising moment of humility, though.  Sally (Carrick Glenn), the girl he’s been relentlessly pressuring for sex the whole movie, finally relents, only to find his lovemaking skills are embarrassingly inadequate.  One would expect the brute to go into a rage at the ridicule, but he becomes sheepishly sensitive, instead.  Almost charming, in a pathetic kind of way.  Just in time for him to get stabbed through his meaty neck.

Normally, Alfred would be the most sympathetic character.  He’s shy, awkward, and constantly being picked on by Glazer.  But the movie even makes it hard to root for him.  For one thing, unless you are an English butler, don’t go by the name Alfred.  More significantly, Al is a creepy little freak.  I have to side with Glazer on that one.  He’s first introduced lurking behind the curtain as Sally takes a shower.  Then he spies on her from the bushes as she makes out with Glazer.  He never says anything to her the entire movie, he just watches her.  Maybe the director didn’t mean for him to come off like a stalker.  The misguided ‘80s tended to portray such behavior as “mischief” or “shenanigans,” rather than “inappropriate” or “a felony” (cough, cough, REVENGE OF THE NERDS).  In any event, Alfred doesn’t come off like a hero.  He spends most of the last act running panicked through the woods with his arms flailing.  

Not even dreamy Todd is hero material, because he was one of the little punks who burned up Cropsy in the first place.  Granted, that was five long years ago when he was a foolish kid (and a completely different actor in the flashback).  People can learn from their mistakes.  But during the canoe trip he’s telling ghost stories to the kids around the camp fire, and it’s the goddamned story of Cropsy!  Jesus, what an insensitive dick.  He leaves out the part where he was responsible for ruining the man’s life, of course, and claims that Cropsy has been roaming the woods ever since, mutilating campers rather than getting painful skin grafts at the hospital.  Todd even has Eddie jump out with a mask on cue and scare everyone.  Cropsy was probably watching the whole thing from the trees and thinking, “MOTHER FUCKER!”  He hadn’t even killed any of the campers at that point.  If Cropsy was still on the fence about going on a bloody rampage, that performance sure the hell tipped him over.  Thanks Todd.  

Jason Alexander’s Dave is one of the most upstanding characters in the movie.  That should tell you something.  He’s strictly relegated to second banana status, though. He's mostly there for comic relief and to run a black market, supplying nudie mags to the boys and condoms to Glazer (shudder).  It’s weird, he doesn’t seem to be a counselor, but is way too old to be a sleep away camper.  Does he just like hanging out with a bunch of fifteen year olds?  Maybe he is more unseemly than I thought.

There is one contender for a classic final girl, Todd’s co-counselor and girlfriend, Michelle (Leah Ayres).  She’s no nonsense, shows good judgment, and is responsible.  But she never interacts with the killer because she is busy doing the one things she’s done throughout the movie, taking care of the kids.  She is a legitimately good camp counselor, and she makes it to the end with very little emotional trauma.  Maybe the real key to slashers isn’t sex = death, but poor work ethic = death.

Our ingrained horror assumptions actually work in the movie’s favor for its most memorable scene.  After all the canoes go missing, a bunch of kids are put on a raft to get help from the main camp.  On board is Eddie, Woodstock (a super young Fisher Stevens), a couple of girls, and the kid who looks exactly like Jason Lively from NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, but isn’t.  They see a lone canoe adrift on the water and start paddling for it.  This is where we, the audience go, “Nice try, movie, but we know a jump scare when we see one coming.”  As they get closer to the seemingly empty canoe, the suspenseful music swells, forecasting the danger that is surely about to strike.  We roll our eyes and say, “Come off it, movie, it’s just going to be a duck or something in there.”  They get close enough to peak into the canoe and—surprise, motherfuckers!—Cropsy springs up and completely slaughters everyone on the raft in an orgy of blood spurts and severed fingers.  No jump scare, actual scare scare.  Even on repeated viewings, there is something shocking and transgressive about that scene.  It totally goes against all the rules, because the rules hadn’t been written yet.

Cropsy himself is a wonderfully implausible character, running around unseen in the woods while wearing a full black trench coat and fedora.  His POV shots have the nice touch of being blurry around the edges, as if his corneas were toasted in the fire.  A pair of garden shears seems like an odd choice for a signature weapon, but he uses them with style.  It can impale chests, slash throats, slash craniums (!), chop fingers, decapitate (I think), and pin arms to the wall.  In his hands, it’s a murder multi-tool.

Makeup effects master Tom Savini makes sure all the deaths are gloriously bloody and practical (except maybe for Eddie’s comically long neck).  It even made the British Video Nasties list, which is like a gold star for old school horror fiends.  Savini was rushed when creating Cropsy’s burn scarred face and was not happy with the results.  I think it looks fine, and actor Lou David was certainly pleased, since he uses it as his IMDB photo:
Lou David Picture

It’s certainly better than Brian Matthews’ IMDB photo:
Brian Matthews Picture 

I guess he considers the left elbow and calf to be his best features. 

The movie does fall into a few trusty slasher standards.  There are fake outs, bodies popping up unexpectedly, and of course, plenty of nudity (including a bit of skinny dipping that goes awry).  It also includes the old chestnut of the killer who [spoiler] won’t stay dead.  Alfred stabs Cropsy with his own sheers just before he can flambĂ© Todd with a blowtorch (would have served him right).  Just as the survivors are limping away, Cropsy springs back up behind them.  His resurgence doesn’t last long.  Todd splits his face open with an ax, and just to be sure, Alfred sets him on fire. Again.  You’d have to feel sorry for this guy, if he wasn’t responsible for all those senseless killings.  

The movie ends with a new camp counselor telling the updated Cropsy story around a camp fire.  Too soon, dude.  Not cool.

C Chaka

P.S. - For the record, the movie winds up with two final guys, a bunch of final girls, and a final Costanza.  

Friday, March 24, 2017

Future Imperfect - AEON FLUX

I like movies that are puzzles.  Not just in Mysteries, but across all genres.  Movies that explicitly spell out every twist and development can come off as patronizing.  Part of the fun for me is trying to fill in the details and make the connections, right or wrong, myself.  Having to figure it out can make for a more challenging and engaging experience.  The 2005 Sci-fi acid trip AEON FLUX tests the limits of this argument. 

The Capsule:
After 99% of the planet’s population dies of a virus in 2011 (dodged a bullet there, I only had a sinus infection that year), the survivors are herded into a giant city called Bregna.  For the last 400 years, Bregna has been ruled by the Goodchild Dynasty, founded by the guy who cured the virus (because scientists always get all glory).  Things are pretty good in Bregna, except Gestapo-like police sometimes kidnap/kill people for no apparent reason. A rebel faction called the Monican are sick of this shit, so they send their top assassin, Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron) to kill the current chairman, Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas).  Before she can take him out, she is shocked to discover she shares a mysterious connection to the man somewhere in her forgotten past.  The jumble of memories and emotions leaves her, and the audience, confused.  To unravel the truth, she will have to team up with the man she was sent to kill.  Standing in the way of the answers are hundreds of machinegun toting goons, lethal plant based security systems, and her one time partner, Sithandra (Sophie Okonedo), who has hands for feet.  Believe me, I haven’t even scratched the surface of how weird this movie really is. 

I pride myself at being able to piece together—or just completely fabricate—some semblance of logic to the most convoluted sci-fi head scratchers.  This movie is so bugnuts insane, though, even I can’t make heads or tails or hand/feet out of parts of it.  This is partially because director Karyn Kusama ambitiously sought to make a truly fantastic and unique future world.  Mostly, though, it´s because the studio fired  Kusama after she finished the movie and chopped it up to the point of utter incomprehension.  Kusama was brought back in to edit it once their version did not play well for test audiences, but she wasn’t allowed to return the film to her vision.  The result was a complete mess that appealed to no one.  Except me.

You know you are in trouble when the movie begins with a few screens of exposition, followed immediately by voiceover of more exposition.  I was thinking “Well, at least they didn’t throw in a flashback,” when I realized the first ten minutes was a flashback.  Even with all that explanation, much of the plot is still mystifying.  There is an intriguing, if ludicrous, sci-fi premise at its core, but it gets lost in all the muddled motivations, sudden betrayals, and allegiance switches. 

One of the biggest unsolved questions is why the government are such authoritarian assholes.  It’s a counterproductive stance to have.  The society of Bregna isn’t a grimy, worn out dystopia like in BLADE RUNNER.  Everything is clean and shiny.  The citizens seem to be free of class divisions, poverty, and crime.  In fact, the number one occupation in Bregna is apparently just milling about aimlessly.  The Goodchild regime and the police seem to be the only ones with an official function.  Why do you need to have a strangle hold on your population if everyone is so chill?  The only real strife in the city is completely manufactured by the government.  People just disappear sometimes, or get killed by the cops.  There is a secret reason behind it, but the ruling party doesn't even bother trying to cover things up.  No one in the city has a clue what exists outside of Bregna’s walls.  It wouldn’t be hard to explain why people are missing.  “Oh Ted?  Yeah, he moved to literally anywhere else on Earth.  He said he’d send you a postcard.”  Problem solved.

The price for the regime being so heavy handed comes in the form of a secret resistance movement.  They are called the Monicans, presumably after Monica Geller from Friends, judging by Charlize Theron’s haircut.  They have a complex covert operation involving spies, operatives, and assassins, all getting their orders from the Handler (Frances McDormand, looking unsure of what she is doing there).  But just like the government they fight against, the Monicans are very vaguely defined.  Their only goal seems to be to kill Trevor Goodchild, and then later Aeon because she goes rogue.  The government paints them as the major, and possibly only, threat against their rule, but we never see why.  It’s all very elliptical.  The government goes after the Monicans because they fight back, and the Monicans fight back because the government goes after them.

No matter how much of a mess the plot is, there are few things that tickle my crazy sci-fi heart.  One is the gusto with which the filmmakers embrace the absurd future technology.  This is not like ALIEN or even BLADE RUNNER, where the technology is basically identifiable.  Okay, that’s a scanner, that’s a flamethrower, that’s a flying car, got it.  AEON FLUX is like Alice in Futureland.  Things don’t have contemporary correlations.  Government buildings are protected by gardens with hanging papayas that shoot poison darts and blades of grass are actual blades.  The Monicans communicate by using something like a telepathy pill that links their minds together in a virtual meeting hall.  Sort of a mental Skype call.  

Most stuff made sense in function, if not form.  Aeon leaves around a bunch of explosive ball bearings that come rushing to her like trained mice when she whistles.  She can peel off bits of her skin and use them like Band-Aids to close other people’s wounds.  Data is stored in liquid.  Some shit I have no clue about.  She finds this, um, wearable robotic squid in Trevor’s study that either teleported her to a lab or changed the study into a lab, or used a dimensional overlay to… I have no idea.  It made the fight scene more dynamic, so I’ll just go along with it.

Oh, and there’s a part where the Handler gives Aeon a map transferred through pollen coming out of a flower she produces from her mouth.  Because what else is she going to do, give her a piece of paper?  This is the future, damn it.

I’m kind of disappointed they didn’t go all out with it.  There are still basic things you can recognize, like tables and stairs and umbrellas.  Give me chairs growing out of the backs of large turtles, or thermostats that you control by licking.  

The movie does highlight the future of fashion, though.  Aeon is introduced in stylish Business Dominatrix chic, complete with a sheer head stocking.

She also has a negligee made from strings of beads, which seems like it would be difficult to sleep in.   

The best outfit goes to Pete Postlethwaite, who plays a ghost dressed like a cannoli with arms.  He lives in a giant jellyfish blimp. 

The design team put a lot of work into this movie.  Or a lot of drugs.

Compared to all the crazy shit constantly parading across the screen, the actual actors can seem a bit lost.  Theron puts forth a solid effort.  Aeon is no Furiosa by any stretch, but Theron gives her a similarly steely determination and supreme confidence.  Her combination of elegance and physicality makes her a believable super assassin.  The fights are what you would expect for the mid 2000’s, lots of quick cuts and close ups.  The emphasis is more on acrobatics, much like in the original MTV cartoon the movie is based on.  Aeon is constantly diving, swinging, or flipping over somethingShe never just walks into a room when she can do a flying leap into one.  

Kusama creates a very female focused world without being overt about it.  Bregna has outgrown sexism the way it outgrew many of the old social ills (except fascism).  No one underestimates or patronizes Aeon because she is a woman.  While the majority of the government council is male, including Trevor’s brother Oren (Jonny Lee Miller, who we immediately identify as the real villain because he says nefarious things like “we can’t give them the luxury of hope”), the movie is filled with women in positions of power.  Most of the Monicans are women, as is Trevor’s formidable head of security, Freya (Caroline Chikezie).  The longest, most elaborate fight sequences are Aeon against Freya and then Sithandra.  The faceless male troopers can't last more than a few seconds against her.  Don't even start with the aristocratic fops on the council.  Women are the more formidable force in this town.

I would love to see Kusama’s original cut.  I have the feeling it would make much more sense while retaining the crazy bits.  I’d even like to see the studio’s version to see how they stuffed all this into 70 minutes (the theatrical version felt rushed at 93).  As it stands, the current cut is a fascinating vision of unbound ambition hamstrung by studio interference.  Unsurprisingly, the compromised product did not do well at the box office, and we did not get an AEON FLUX 2.  That didn't stop Kusama, who continues to direct diverse and intriguing work, such as the exquisite THE INVITATION, and an incredibly creepy segment of the all female directed horror anthology, XX.   As for AEON FLUX, it can be appreciated for its wild concepts and gorgeous visuals.  No matter what you think of the movie, it has a woman with hands for feet.  Where else are you going to get that?

C Chaka