Monday, December 22, 2014

Happiness Month - Tippett, Berkeley & Berkeley (1992) by English String Orchestra; William Boughton, conductor

I love string orchestra music; something about the masses of like-minded strings passionately bowing in euphonious rapture just gets to me, and there's an awful lot of great music in the medium that doesn't get heard.  That isn't to say that the album I'm spotlighting today is a treasure chest of exotic rep, but the group and the pieces they play don't get nearly enough mainstream attention.  In my article on Wilhelm van Wassenaer I spotlighted I Musici di Montreal under Yuli Turovsky, and today it's the English String Orchestra under the direction of William Boughton.  ESO and Boughton did a number of excellent albums of British classics for Nimbus Records in the 80's and 90's, and for some dang reason nobody talks about them, at least not in my circles.  While I could easily, and joyously, talk about their Gerald Finzi orchestral album or the album with music by Butterworth, Parry and Bridge, only one of their albums was secured by me for a penny, and that's the Tippett, Berkeley & Berkeley disc, just as out of print as the rest of 'em.

The two Tippett pieces are practically standards of the string orchestra rep at this point, rich and challenging throwbackers that show off Tippett's ecstatic approach to counterpoint and modal harmony.  The Little Music is more conventionally organized, cast in four movements including a "Prelude" and an "Air", and proves that you can have just as much multi-movement fun in 10 minutes that most people try to stretch out to 30.  The Fantasia Concertante on a Theme by Corelli, also pining for antique elegance, is much more expansive and surreal, kind of like Britten's Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge slurried up with a fine whiskey and currant bitters.  I was going to say that the bad news is that I can't find the recordings for these on YouTube, but recently some kind of goofy automatic function has created hundreds of "Topics" with the result of dumping nearly the whole libraries of many classical labels onto YouTube for free, a move I can only presume was an early Christmas gift to Mr. Y. Truly.

In fact, scratch that, as neither of the Tippett recordings by Boughton are up (though you can easily hear different interpretations through the same Tube).  Guess Christmas only came early in the "glass half full and/or empty" variety.  The full section is the other two works on the album, and as those are the less known of the two pieces the YouTube gods must know the program here.  The least known and least likely to be a closing piece on a concert or article is a premiere recording of a work by Michael Berkeley, the less-famous son of Lennox (who's coming).  The piece, Coronachis part of a special tradition, of string orchestra works that are dark, full-bodied and rhapsodic, and the forebears in the line that may only exist in my head include Witold Lutosławski's Musique funèbre and Irwin Bazelon's Prelude to Hart Crane's "The Bridge".  It's also a piece clearly written by a young artist, as it can never sit still or form patterns too symmetrical, and is conceived with a passion and restlessness that old age usually dulls.  The key to the ESO's success is their rich, unbridled bowing, and Boughton takes full advantage of this to bring out all the hallowed terror in Coronach - overall a great debut recording and a fine counterpoint to the Tippetts.

To close let's talk about the opener, a piece so full of light and life I can't believe I've never seen it in concert, Lennox Berkeley's Serenade for Strings.  All of Berkeley's music aims to charm and delight and the Serenade is among his best works, starting with a bounding Vivace akin to watching poplar leaves shimmer in the summer sun.  Boughton and the ESO give a rapturous energy to this music where other recordings are either too smooth or too slow.

The following Andantino is diffusely sultry, leaning into sliding major thirds to add a crimson warmth to what was previously oddly threatening.  This menace doesn't get in the way of lyricism, though, the violins arching their backs to secure Berkeley's extended tonality.

The third movement, Allegro moderato, is a good-ol' hunting movement, the ESO attacking every downbow and octatonic charges down the stairs.

Lastly we have a Lento of the most British of stripes, unconventionally austere for a closer but there's some nice satisfying major chords.  It's much like the album, which might not be groundbreaking but was a welcome addition to my library and a great item for Happiness Month.  There's still time to get it for a penny, though not in time for Christmas, but I've at least filled half the glass and there are many other tippett recordings to meet your appetites.  As X-Mas approaches Happiness Month needs to ramp up, so keep the seat of your pants in a nearby chair and don't get too sick on nog.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Disquiet (2008) by Julia Leigh

While I don't have much of an explanation for leaving these blogs bereft of recent content I can say that I've been reading a lot of books recently.  In the past months I've knocked out Crown of Flowers by Joel Kurtzman (sustained alchemical daydreaming by lost adult children), Steps by Jerzy Kosinski (elegantly chilling), Silk by Alessandro Baricco (much better than I was expecting), The Feverhead by Wolfgang Bauer (one of the funniest books I've ever read), Exegesis by Astro Teller (excellent philosophical sci-fi), Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy (like brushing a thistle across your cheek), Catholics by Brian Moore (absolutely terrible), The Flower Beneath the Foot by Ronald Firbank (unmatchable fantasist sitcom) The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski (an extended nightmare with an ass-flattening twist), A Visit to Yazoo by Charles Neider (I just...wha?), Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates (a riveting stream-of-consciousness retelling of the Chappaquiddick incident) and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (brilliantly concentrated life epic) among others.  I recently turned a change jar in my room into an Amazon gift certificate via Coinstar, comparable to a mini Christmas in Whenever for penny-gleaners like myself, and as such some thinner-than-dime delights have made their way to my fold, including this dark beauty.  Australian novelist Julia Leigh hasn't written much since her 1999 debut novel The Hunter (turned into a pretty dang good 2011 film starring Willem Dafoe) and while I've yet to muster the patience to watch her sole writer-director effort Sleeping Beauty (a 2011 film critics tried desperately not to call "sleep-inducing") I can enthusiastically proclaim her sophomore novella, Disquiet, is a silvery black hole of subtle horror, weaving familial madness into an enthralling canopy of suspense (if my mixed metaphors don't fail me).

Unfolding at a vast estate in rural France, Disquiet follows Olivia and her children Andrew and Lucy as they drop in on Grandmother, having left their Australian home under mysterious, abrupt circumstances.  While doing a good job of not talking about what happened they are joined by Olivia's brother Marcus and her wife Sophie - toting the body of their stillborn daughter in a pink blanket.  Their secrets fester and surface in strange ways, mostly crystallizing in strangled socializing and facade ruptures, such as the continual disturbance by the staff at the fact that the body of the baby is being kept in the kitchen freezer.  Themes dovetail and intertwine, and while a climax occurs the uneasiness is left undisturbed, the reader shaken in a sustained imperceptibility.

Eschewing traditional monsters and suspense tropes entirely, Leigh relies on a small but potent toolbox of ideas in the hopes of plucking strings deep within the psyche, and dear lord does it work.  Leigh is a master of concision, reducing her language so deftly that the reader feels each scene as if watching a film.  The characters, while sometimes acting strangely, are all strikingly realistic in the off-kilter house they inhabit, their pained reactions to metaphoric horrors in the spirit of keeping the most socially acceptable face for the good of the upper class, and it's always much more affecting to witness distressed people try their hardest to pretend nothing is wrong than to embrace maudlin fluff.  In many ways Disquiet mirrors the cracked, damp mirrors of José Ramón Larraz's nearly lost horror gem Symptoms, a wonderful piece of Psycho-Aestheticism I wrote about many moons ago at View from the Paperhouse.  Both works hinged on psychological burps reshaping perception in a mansion but Disquiet plumbs even deeper into corners we wished weren't revealed.  While not Leigh's doing I can't let this article go by without mentioning the exquisite design of Penguin's paperback edition (by the cartoonist Jen Wang), a minor masterpiece of thin lines, elegant combinations, color transitions and glowing negative space.  The blue is metallic, alluding to a reflection too dull to be truly clear.

You might have guessed that you'll have to read the thing to really understand what I'm talking about, and the good news is that not only can you get it for a penny but it's only a scant 121 pages with semi-large print, giving you just enough time to track it down and read it before Halloween.  It's one of my favorite recent reads and in a sane world every library would have it in stock for those curious of the heart's macabre foliage.

(Early cover concept)


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Blood Mania (1970), directed by Robert O'Neil

It's been some time now that Rhino hasn't been a player in the DVD market but, dangit, that still stings a bit.  Mostly remembered now for their incredible Mystery Science Theater 3000 box sets (many of which I have), Rhino started out in the 80's as the destination for lovers of vintage music and dubious cinematic and televised entertainment.  Rhino certainly knew what kind of goofy hook to throw at disposable incomers and they knew full well that an obscure horror flick from 1970 called Blood Mania would get a man of my curious disposition lowering my newspaper for a closer look.  I was still a bit unsure considering I'd never heard of the director, writer or anyone in the cast but then I found a copy for a penny and your reading the history that became the rest.  Let's find out if Rhino blundered in paying money to release this, even though it's got to be better than House of the Black Death at the very least.

CLANGBANGTWANG!!!  Brilliant post-Iron Maiden heaviocity segues into a neglige'd woman of excessive cup size pitifully skipping around in multicolored fog.  FREEZEFRAMESCREAM!!!  Crude animated hands drag the title down across the screen.  Already this is the greatest movie ever made and I have no idea what's going on, especially when hairstyling was done by "Jimie" and painting was achieved by "Mendij".  It turns out that was all the dream of a man who wears yellow pseudo-Neru shirts to his recliner bed and haphazardly nails ugly hunting trophies to the wall.  He's being taken care of by his daughter Victoria, though their relationship is defined by underrehearsed insults like "I could choke on my coffee and you wouldn't shed a tear!"  Victoria does have a neat hippie dress, though.  In another house, the father's doctor Craig (co-writer and co-producer Peter Carpenter of Point of Terror...fame?) is too lethargic to get into a bathtub with his wife, presumably because of the amazing rotating crystal nitelight on his nitestand.  Not for long though: "As a matter of fact, I'm tingling with great expectations!"  My worries that this wouldn't have a plot were quashed by the cartoonish cheetah and monkey figurines at the edge of the bathtub, but a hideous edit jostled me back.  Back at Victoria's house, a shirtless young man has to get his keys from the bottom of the pool, and Victoria responds in the language of stripping.  PSYCHEDELICBOOBZOOM!!! (Pool boy: "I've heard of people like you!")  We're only fifteen minutes in, blood maniacs.

Man, Victoria gets really pushy when she wants to sleep with every man in town.  The director thought we needed more bra shots to get through another hilariously stiff soap-opera pissing contest between male leads, in case you didn't have enough grease on your hands.  Pretend you care about blackmail and you'll get the picture...oh, wait, that's terribly dull, isn't it?  Right, right...though the blackmailer does a great job of jutting his jaw out while rocking that cigar.  The synth score closes the scene by farting.  JIBJABSNOOZE!!!  "Gotta get that money though...someway...somehow..."  Nurse: "Didn't you know?  I'm listed in the yellow pages under 'sex'."  I get the feeling Victoria is poisoning her father's meals, or maybe she's just overly attached for the sake of vague sleaze.  Finally, we see a weird candle and nude Victoria stuff a broach up nude Craig's nose as if it was a smelling salt, which makes him slump into a guitar-'n'-glockenspiel stupor.  God, I love fake slo-mo sex scenes in the negative zone, don't you?  "You'll probably live to be 110."  "Why's that?"  "Only the good die young."  With lines this good you won't believe acting this bad.  Good thing there's only four minutes between sex scenes and no plot propulsion.  Joint on a set of scales = symbolism.  And the blackmailer is a jerky date rapist.  At a certain point one has to wonder if amyl nitrate would really make Victoria thrust her bare breasts into a mirror.  Fortunately I fell out of my chair laughing when the dad abruptly sat up in bed with blood around his lips and the look of a man whose junk has been seized in the jaws of an alligator.  

Yeah, yeah, Victoria cops to the murder immediately but she at least delivers her lines with the most sidesplitting stoned performance I've seen since Rinko Kikuchi in 47 Ronin.  "Don't swear...please...don't swear...", and Victoria strips once again as if trying to get into the Church of Satan.  Craig: "You bitch.  Come here, bitch."  Victoria fuffs the will reading with primo screaming akin to a grandmother giving birth to a porcupine.  It's a good thing that a Renaissance fair montage came by just when the plot pulled the dragshoot or else I wouldn't have gotten to see Craig and Victoria's sister swing heavy bags at each other while mimes laughed their asses off.  Craig cheats, Victoria paints hideous red splotches on her already hideous painting.  Fireside sex on a zebra rug and ZOMBIEBITEINSERT!!!  After more narrative wheel-spinning, I remembered that the poster and DVD case promised that the climax would be shocking - good thing Victoria chose that very moment to club her sister and the editor to death with a candlestick.  Craig (crying): "Why?"  Victoria (hammy): "Why?".  Me (dying of laughter): "Best penny ever spent."

Where has this masterpiece been all my life?  It should be apparent at this point that Blood Mania will knock your socks off.  The score alone would've made the film, a dense slice of sloppy psychsynthloaf surpassed only by Kent Bateman's divinely warped The Headless Eyes.  Fortunately, the combination of stupidly melodramatic plot, technical sloppiness and head-shaking acting makes sure that there's never a moment the viewer isn't wetting their pants in joy.  While the content (lame blackmail melodrama masquerading as horror) is similar to Peter Carpenter's other writer-producer-star flick from a couple years later, Point of TerrorMania blows that movie out of the water by letting a steady stream of jaw-dropping ineptitude flow from the screen.  Sure, I could have been a bit insulted when Craig romanced Victoria's sister for absolutely no reason, but then psychedelic freakout inserts with a man with ash for facepaint brought me back home.  At least it wasn't the five-minute flashback from Point wherein the main character ran from a school bully through a field until I started clipping my nails.  Whenever you think the novelty is about to wear thin in Mania something gut-busting or just plain idiotic pops into frame, leaving the viewer fighting for air in disbelief.  Even the prop department was having a goof on set, apparently in a contest with Chester Novell Turner's Tales from the Quadead Zone to see how many wacky props it can burn into my retinas in the first 20 minutes.  If only MST3K aired on premium cable so they could keep in all the nudity and Mania could've gone down as one of the campy greats.  Thankfully DVD collectors have plenty of options - if you don't want Rhino's solo disc you can pop for Code Red's double feature disc with Land of the Minotaur (the only 70's Satanic cult flick with a Brian Eno score) or Mill Creek's Gore House Greats 12-flick'r.  Yes, this was well worth the penny and shipping, and yes, you need to see 1970's most delirious soap opera right this minute, lest Victoria unleashes her DD cups in front of her dad again.  PSYCHBLOODLAFFS!!!

Twisted souls of insanity!


Sunday, May 11, 2014

Greetings from Burkittsville by Sisyphus

Whether or not you like The Blair Witch Project it's hard to deny that it's one of the most important horror films of the past 20 years, setting the stage for the found footage genre and creating uncommon power from its hyperreal, less-is-more aesthetic.  It's one of my favorite horror movies of all time and I'll defend it to the ends of the Earth, but I'll also be the first to tell you that its sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, is an utter kick to the nuts for any serious horror fan.  I was reminded of Book's frustrating botched potential when I watched the Nostalgia Critic's comedy review of it, and out of curiosity I trundled to Wikipedia in search of answers.  Much to my surprise, I discovered that there was actually a whole slew of media as part of the Blair Witch "franchise", mostly made with little-to-no input from the original directors of the movie, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez.  Sure, there's plenty of unnecessary franchising for horror movies from all times (and I should know, as I have the novelizations of both Videodrome and Halloween III: Season of the Witch on my shelf), but The Blair Witch Project is notable for being made by no-name directors on the skins of their teeth.  Part of its enormous success is its brilliant marketing, tauting itself as a documentary/snuff film and claiming its "subjects" (actors) to be missing, and the overwhelming buzz it got before its release (helped by its excellent, and in some ways essential, TV mockumentary tie-in, The Curse of the Blair Witch) and after pushed its novice authors into the big time.  As the two of them had no idea how much of a money-maker their $25,000 experiment would be, they took little part in the larger Blair Witch "universe", leaving the sequel in the hands of Joe Berlinger, the director of the invaluable Paradise Lost documentaries, and have spent the last 15 years eking out separate careers in independent horror with respectable results.  Berlinger had a few good ideas for Book of Shadows but the movie itself is an insulting cock-up, and as it fades from our memory the rest of the franchise media will fade even faster (if it was ever known at all).  The spiderweb includes:

The Curse of the Blair Witch and Shadow of the Blair Witch, an awful TV tie-in for Book of Shadows
The Massacre of the Burkittsville 7, an excellent half-hour TV special expanding on a minor detail of the first film's backstory
The Blair Witch Project: a Dossier and Blair Witch: Book of Shadow, two "found documents" books by "D. A. Stern" - the first one is excellent, BTW
+ D. A. Stern's Blair Witch: The Secret Diary of Rustin Parr, a faux-diary from a backstory character from the first film
+ A photonovel adaptation of the first film
+ Three different comic book attempts
+ A trilogy of computer games
+ An 8-part series of young adult novels called Blair Witch Files
+ A stand-alone novel, Blair Witch: Graveyard Shift, also by D. A. Stern
A set of trading cards from Topps
+ A die-cast toy car for Book of Shadows by Johnny Lightning (did ANYBODY buy that?!)
+ A Blair Witch action figure set by Todd MacFarlane as part of his Movie Madness line
+ Not to mention various tie-in giveaways like t-shirts and baseball caps and other etceteras

Somebody ought to review every piece of Blair Witch paraphernalia, but as I'm not a gamer, toy collector or young adult novel tolerator I won't be touching on a lot of these any time soon, though as I got a copy of The Secret Diary for a penny it'll appear on these shores soon enough.  For now, we need to talk about one of the stranger pieces of the Blair Witch mosaic, a mysterious CD under the title of Greetings from Burkittsville.  It touts itself as one of those "Music inspired by..." soundtrack CD's with one of those irritating info stickers that's attached to the plastic wrap and requires itself to be thrown away after you open it:

Music inspired by the legend of the
Blair Witch.  The soundtrack
recording to one of the most talked
about horror films of the 90's.
Enhance your viewing experience.

"Music inspired by..." CD's are usually bad news, often hastily-thrown-together cash-ins that have nothing to say about the movie and feature music you'd either want to forget or can find on better albums.  A notable exception is Songs in the Key of X, an ambitious X-Files tie-in featuring songs written for the album by some of the most admired alt-rock artists of the day, but not only is Greetings from Burkittsville nothing like that album it's also nothing like any other CD of the "inspired" variety.  The Allmusic entry notes how it sounds like an alternate soundtrack to the film, and my hand immediately shot up to tell the Allmusic professors that The Blair Witch Project had no soundtrack, just the diagetic sounds of the forest.  That was part of the gag - the film purported itself to be real raw footage from an ill-fated documentary, so any hint of cinematics, such as a musical score, would've killed the "could it be real?" vibe.  There is one piece of composed music, but it only plays in the end credits when the mockumentary guise is dropped, and it doesn't sound like anything on Greetings from Burkittsville.

I hate to tell you this but I haven't a single YouTube example from this CD, though considering how ambient the tracks are you can just go to the mp3 album Amazon page here and play the 30-second previews - you'll get the gist of the thing.  The music is a very late-90's/early 2000's brand of ambient electronica, most likely influenced by Aphex Twin's two Selected Ambient Music double-albums and cozily rubbing elbows with the likes of Voodeux and Slang.  There are some really good ideas in here, both in terms of color and keeping things consistently soundtracky, but I can't say any of it reminded me of the movie. The titles certainly seem to think it should, considering monikers like "Slate at Coffin Rock", "How About East?" and "Something Out Here".  The music is quite atmospheric, building off buzz-warbling electric guitars and basses weaving in and out of each other, along with vacant punctuation from percussion and keyboards as well as a host of strange electronic creatures.  The harmonies are airy and distant, implying an eerie lyricism behind the atmosphere.  One of the most beautiful tracks, "On the Trail", is reminiscent of a glass harmonica played at the bottom of a valley which the listener can only peer into from above.  Many of the tracks can't stand to sustain their fermata'd emptiness for their whole length, and trip-hop drums-'n'-bass often fill the supposed void.  A lot of mileage is gotten from echoing piano notes (most likely ripped from these voices), or at least Sisyphus thinks it is, as that trick appears in a great deal of the tracks to varying degrees of success.  The synths don't succeed in sounding like anything but synths, but I've got no problem with that if it works and here it definitely works, like the cavernous sus-chord reverbs in "Morning".  Even tracks that kick the proceedings up the proverbial notch like "Evacuate" are still wrapped in the frozen, vaguely cackling* vibe from before, resulting in an experience consistently pleasing to the ears of horror geeks like me.  Horror geeks like me will also be glad to hear that the creepiest tracks are saved for last, and far be it from me to spoil a perfectly good horror ending.

Actually, I take that back about not having YouTube examples, because I can show you just won't be from the album.  There's two things this album most reminds me of:

Silent Hill is one of the most acclaimed and influential horror video game series of all time, and its soundtrack is revered among the all-time great video game soundtracks for its innovative, atmospheric post-rock sound and vacant bluesiness.  Less well known is the 2002 film The Mothman Prophecies, in which Richard Gere investigates the urban legend of the Mothman in Point Pleasant, West Virginia.  I think it's one of the most underrated horror films of the 2000's, overshadowed by the similarly urban legend-themed The Ring (which was also excellent) and not helped by the anti-charisma of its star.  Among its many wonderful qualities is its soundtrack by tomandandy, a duo who mostly do soundtracks and had previously worked with Mothman's director Mark Pellington on Arlington Road.  It's here that we see a lot of that trip-hop drums-'n'-bass I was talking about earlier, a style firmly rooted in the late 90's and early 2000's that might seem dated to some but feels like an old friend to me.  The X-Files might have given this style a lot of exposure some years before, but there's also acts like Portishead and Massive Attack to take into consideration.  Either way, it's the best kind of era signifier - instantly timely and seemingly timeless in its appeal.  However, there's still the nagging fact that none of this, and I mean NONE of it, sounds like The Blair Witch Project.  The film has none of the chilled artistry of these soundtracks - in fact, one could call it artless in its adherence to its invented reality.  It's trying its hardest not to appear like a movie, so as much as I appreciate Sisyphus's alternate soundtrack it seems blasphemous to consider putting any of it in the film.

If drawing its intentions from the music and packaging seems difficult, you should know that its authorship is an even bigger mystery.  The artist, Sisyphus, is only credited to this one album, and looking at the credits page on Allmusic (as no names are written in the liner notes) reveals two names, Mark Scheltgen and Kurt Starks, and their forking musical collaborations are so disparate I'm not sure if the different projects are by the same people.  On the one hand they helped out on the chillout electronica album New Green Clear Blue by Dan Hartman (who?), and on the other they appeared to be the main guys of a comedic Christian rock group called Room Full of Walters.  I found Kurt Starks on Facebook and saw that he had a new group called Sunshine the Bunny, and I sent him a message to confirm or deny his authorship of Greetings, but he has yet to get back to me and might not go on Facebook much.  Asking the label, the obscure and most certainly unaffiliated-with-the-filmmakers Invisible Records, is seemingly out of the question, as their website says "new website coming soon!" and only has links to their Facebook page, and that's only for a guy named Martin Atkins, so I don't know WHAT the Sam Hill is going on over there.  It's a lot of loose ends that all suggest that the album was released in cash-in mode, and I don't think I'll ever get to talk to the filmmakers for comment.

Come to think of it, maybe it's better that I don't know.  The movie thrived on the mystery of its occurrences and even its very existence (for those of you who know, think about how the footage was found), and like so many horror movies part of the eerie thrill of viewing the thing is how it seemingly came from parts unknown.  The artist credit for Sisyphus is nowhere on the front cover or spine, and you have to look at the very bottom left to see it buried next to the copyright info, as if the makers wanted to downplay its authorship as much as possible in order to create that priceless air of the unknowable (a "colour out of space", if you will**).

Do I recommend Greetings from Burkittsville?  If you like stuff like the Silent Hill and The Mothman Prophecies soundtracks and other stuff from the era I recommend it wholeheartedly.  It's not the most innovative or surprising album I've ever heard but it delivers in glassy autumnal creeps in spades, and that's exactly what I wanted from it.  There's plenty of copies on Amazon of the thing for quite cheap, so if you're taking an early stab at planning your next Halloween party I know a little disc that'll make a home in your CD player.  It's a Penny Dreadful in the best possible way, so spin and hear to your horror-heart's content.


*"It was total cackling."

**Apologies to Lovecraft, of course.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Dark Heritage (1989), directed by David McCormick

If you frequent the same b-movie review sites that I do (Bleeding Skull, Critical Condition, The Cinema Snob, etc.) some titles keep popping up with little context or explanation.  Horror is a fly-by-night genre, attracting unexperienced filmmakers with the promise of profiting from low-budget productions and just as easily letting them slip back into their day jobs.  The ease with which these movies can be made makes sure the market is always fresh with cheap, unknown movies that seemingly come out of nowhere, and not all of them have attracted any kind of cult fandom.  This makes them a mixed bag in terms of renting - some of them could be unsung masterpieces (like Lindsey Vickers's The Appointment), and some of them could be completely worthless (like The Amityville Curse, which can't even be saved by its decent theme music).  Dark Heritage is a movie that I'd heard about a few times, each time comparing it to the works of H. P. Lovecraft, a Pavlov Bell for a whole race of horror fans.  Adapting Lovecraft's byzantine cosmic horror universe to film has proven difficult, and while two excellent movies come to mind - John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness and the 45-minute neo-silent The Call of Cthulhu - those are few and far between, and the Carpenter movie isn't even an adaptation, but more like an homage.  Fans sometimes resort to praising mediocre movies to make up for the lack of good ones, like Stuart Gordon's swing-an'-a-miss Dagon, and the decent reviews I saw for Dark Heritage made me suspect another case of fandelusion.  You've got to admit - that's a pretty cool cover.  I have a bias towards the thing because its drawing style and content is heavily reminiscent of the wonderful young adult novel The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs, and I've been wishing for a movie adaptation of the book for YEARS.  Alas, no dice are in sight, but it did get me to drop $0.01 (plus shipping) on the suspicious-looking DVD.  What I got was surprisingly solid - certainly a bit amateurish and cheap, but well-conceived and endowed with some nice touches.

A couple is hanging out in a small trailer when they are mysteriously attacked by people, or beings, with black rubber monster hands during a thunderstorm.  A reporter is assigned to investigate an old house nearby to the campgrounds the trailer was parked on, as the head of the paper thinks there's a link to the murders and a local legend of murders connected to the house stretching back a hundred years.  The house is abandoned, but the reporter insists on videotaping the team while they sleep - not that that saves the guy on watch from getting butchered.  The police suspect the reporter and he gets booted off the case, and while doing research at the local college he meets a pair of parapsychologists (naturally).  They discover in records that the house was owned by the mysterious Dansen family, who came to America in the 1790's and seemingly vanished after rumors of odd rituals and flashing lights in the house. As they investigate, one of their team is attacked and shockingly mutated (you gotta see it to believe it) by an unknown figure, the reporter has strange dreams of the dead coming back to life, and they find a tunnel system while unearthing a grave of a Dansen member, suspecting that there are many tunnels all converging at the Dansen house.  All of it points to a conspiracy of otherworldly creatures and dealings with dark forces, as well as cut-rate Creatures from the Lovecraft Lagoon.

OK, so this is far from perfect - it was clearly a homebrew production and none of the actors had ever been in a movie, nor would they go on to anything else.  Oddly enough, the director, David McCormick, went on to be an editor for a lot of Aardman Animation stuff, including the Creature Comforts TV series and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, but what really gets me is that he was an editor on Zastrozzi: A Romance, the Channel 4 mini-series produced by Lindsey Vickers, the maker of The Appointment.  While this factoid made my head explode, this doesn't mean that McCormick has Vickers's eye and ear for direction and storytelling.  The film doesn't look or sound terribly distinctive, just like a decent direct-to-video flick, which is exactly what it is.  The story is what's great in Dark Heritage, and it appears to have been lifted from Lovecraft's "The Lurking Fear", though there's no credit for Lovecraft in front of or behind the movie.  The history and deepening conspiratorial mystery of the Dansen clan is quite original and the movie does a good job of drawing the audience into the plot without spoiling any important details too soon.  The actors are really trying despite their lack of experience, and what special effects are present are pulled off pretty well for a low-budget movie.  The results of the aforementioned attack/mutation are frightening by conception alone, and a dream the main character has in the middle of the movie has a seriously creepy, Carnival of Souls vibe.  It doesn't use much, but what is present is unsettling in an impressive way, a reminder that small details can be more creepy than big, thundering horror tropes.  The house is a grand setting, full of dark corners and trashed decor like a good abandoned mansion should.  The music is a slowly pulsating electronic score much like in a host of excellent 80's horror movies, giving the film a dream-like quality that sparks the nostalgia of watching a horror VHS after midnight and falling into a Casio hypnagogic state.  The ending is a little disappointing, though, but what can you do?  I might be giving the movie more of a pass than I should considering how unprofessional it looks compared to a Hollywood production, but you have no idea how awful some of these movies can be.

However, the real elephant in the room is the DVD release from Peacock Films, which is now officially the chintziest, most slapped-together DVD I own.  The sound balance is so bad that the music and sound effects frequently blow out the balance, and the levels were so high to begin with that it's probably the loudest DVD I own, too.  The menu system is a complete joke, and on one screen they actually misspelled the title, parking me at the play option for some movie called Drak Heritage.  HOW IN THE WHOMP DO YOU MISSPELL "DARK"?  I should have known from the box, which advertises "Interactive Menus" as a special feature despite being released in 2003, and also features this gem:

That's the sign of a truly cheap DVD company - they can't even afford to use the real DVD logo.  In researching this movie I heard that the company didn't pay the filmmakers a dime to distribute the thing, and I discovered something even more chilling - I know these people.  The worst DVD I ever purchased was the Miracle Pictures release of British z-movie director Michael Murphy's Invitation to Hell, a baffling, but very entertaining, 50-minute mess of a Satanic horror flick.  The DVD was unwatchable, featuring blaring, incomprehensible sound and pixels the size of golf balls.  I thankfully only got it at a thrift store and got rid of it soon after, but I never forgot the company logo animation that came before the menu, with the name in bland block letters on a CGI rock island.  That very same animation is used here for some company called Passion Productions, and I'll be damned if they're not the same guys behind the Invitation to Hell DVD.

If you're not in the demographic for low-buck horror movies you'll probably not think much of Dark Heritage, but for weirdos like me it's a good night's rental with real heart and soul behind it.  You'll be fine as long as you don't make a big point of tracking it down, though if you do try go for the original VHS release.  The Peacock Films release is pretty awful and it reeks of seedy corrupt-dollar-store distribution practices; I only bought it because it was for sale from an unrelated third party seller for a penny.  The only reason I can imagine you wanting to own it is for bragging rights, or if the full YouTube upload I've included below is taken down by its uploader or the filmmakers.  I doubt it though, because the YouTube account is owned by people who are making a prequel to Dark Heritage called Night of the Darkness, and the fact that somebody is making a prequel to a movie this obscure is pretty astonishing.  Maybe that factoid is enough to get you to give Dark Heritage a shot, and anything I can to do catalyze curiosity is A-OK.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Solaris, written and directed by Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh has had a lot of ups and downs as a director, coming to a momentary halt after his underrated neo-noir The Underneath failed to grab audiences and dollars (the cap to a string of near misses after sex, lies and videotape), and most recently announced his retirement, only for his IMDB page to list an upcoming miniseries under his direction.  Only half of his movies ever made money, or at least broke even, and one of the more unjust cases is Solaris, a movie remarkable for having been made less than 15 years ago with George Clooney of all people at the helm...and its DVD has gone out of print.  Normally an out-of-print studio movie from that soon ago means big collector value, but oddly enough there are acres of cheap used DVD's that sellers just can't get to move.  Not even GEORGE CLOONEY's bubble-adorned face, as well as James Cameron's name stamped on the top, can get people to spring for the thing, and of all the movies of his to slip through the cracks this one is among the most tragic (considering that The Underneath and King of the Hill are getting the royal Criterion treatment).  I've heard that the failure of Solaris has been attributed to poor advertising, which pitched it as a love story IN SPACE...and feature hideous light rock music in at least one trailer.  The actual movie is one of the best and most thought provoking sci-fi movies made in the last 20 years, and it deserves a hell of a lot more exposure than its piss-poor marketing campaign secured.

Set a few generations into the future, Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, a therapist who is contacted by Dr. Gilbarian, an old friend of his (Ulrich Tukur, The Lives of Others) whose mission to the distant planet of Solaris has gone mysteriously pear-shaped.  While Gilbarian doesn't specify what is going on, the company who funded the mission wants Kelvin to go out there and try to convince the crew to come home, as their previous rescue attempts have failed.  Upon arriving, Clooney finds Gilbarian and another crew member dead, the scientist Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis, Prisoners) locked in her room by her own choosing, and Snow (Jeremy Davies, Lost) at a loss to explain exactly what's happening.  After a day of stonewalling Kelvin goes to sleep and dreams of his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone, feardotcom), and is shocked to find her sitting on his bed when he wakes up.  This is doubly shocking considering that his wife has been dead for some time, yet here she is.  Frightened and confused, Kelvin tricks her into crawling into an escape pod and sends her away, hoping that he was just seeing things.  Unfortunately, the truth is much more unnerving - each of the people on the ship has been visited by a kind of apparition of a loved one, usually dead, and the planet seems to be the culprit.  Nobody knows why the beings appear, but they seem to be fully aware copies of those people, created from the memories of the ship passenger and for all intents and purposes an actual person.  This doesn't sit well with Dr. Gordon, who plans to destroy her "visitor" using a higgs boson cannon (imagine that at your local gun show), a task Kelvin is none to motivated to perform on Rheya.  This doesn't stop Rheya from trying to kill herself, a character detail from Kelvin's memories, though she always comes back to life, ready to love Kelvin and eventually destroy herself.  As Kelvin's marital flashbacks, as well as questions of identity, ethics and alien motivation swirl and beckon, the viewer almost forgets about that ominous bloodstain in the ceiling of the infirmary, or what they're going to do about the apparition of Gilbarian's grade-school-age son.

Solaris was originally the breakout novel of Soviet sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem and was adapted to film twice before, first as a 1968 TV movie and Andrei Tarkovsky's three-hour 1973 film.  I'm going to be perfectly honest - I don't have enough time in my life for Tarkovsky.  I tried watching Stalker and felt like I was trapped in a special relativity time drag, and considering that Soderbergh makes a perfectly fascinating, already slow 95-minute movie with his version makes me dread the thought of watching a three-hour version with worse production value.  Soderbergh's pace is calm but steady, and the use of static shots and slow dissolves is a style that works to the movie's credit, allowing the exquisite cinematography, sparse-yet-detailed production design, excellent performances and haunting music envelop the viewer.  The ideas as presented in the movie are fascinating, questioning the nature of human identity and our inability to comprehend an alien universe on human terms.  The balance of elements is so flowing, and the pacing is so tight, that it'd be hard to imagine it being any longer.  Heck, Soderbergh was concerned that audiences would have trouble getting interested in his version, saying that if they didn't like the first 10 minutes "they might as well leave."  It's movies like this that make overlong art really seem overlong, and that good storytelling is what lets the ideas really come to life.  I was fortunate enough to see Solaris in the theater, but sadly I appear to have been one of the 15 who did, and there aren't any plans for a Blu-Ray or even a new DVD, which is frankly baffling considering those GEORGE CLOONEYs, JAMES CAMERONs and STEVEN SODERBERGHs on the box.  The good news is there are tons of supah-cheap copies of the widescreen DVD, many of them for a onepence and waiting for your DVD player t accept them.  Instead of playing you the trailer, I'll give you a sample of Cliff Martinez's elusive, haunting soundtrack, the drug that allows the viewer to slip fully into Solaris's crisply unsettling future.  Give Solaris a chance and I'll see you on the far side of the cent.


Penny For Their Thoughts - a Mission Statement

"Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!"
~Batman, Batman: The Motion Picture

Amazon Marketplace is arguably the largest used media store in the world - their selection of products and prices is staggering, and if housed in one place would probably cover an area the size of the Mall of America.  As a frequent AM shopper I come across items of a huge variety of prices, and the most mysterious ones (aside from enormous prices most likely borne from a misplaced decimal point) are the items listed for $0.01.  $0.01 is the lowest allowable price on AM, and the thought that immediately comes to the mind of most shoppers is that these are items the seller can't even give away.  These are items the seller just wants to get out of their building as fast as possible and sees that it has little to no collector value, so Rock Bottom listing it goes.  Even with $0.50 items you can imagine it on the shelf at your local library's book sale or on the We Don't Care If You Steal This rack on the street in front of a Righteous Record Rodeo.  Pennystuffs, no dice - this is the Please Steal This box that inevitably gets kicked into the gutter by passerby.  A lot of this stuff is just overstock, and you can find pretty much any big studio movie made in the last 10 years on DVD for a penny just because thousands of the things were printed and they have to go somewhere.  The Penny Ranks are an online landfill with the benefit of cataloging, and collecting them all together would make an impressive library, though not necessarily a quality one.

Penny For Their Thoughts is a blog dedicated to reviewing movies, music and literature that has been purchased by myself for the paltriest of Amazon sums.  The one question is a simple "why?", and a few guidelines will help keep the proceedings interesting.  Firstly, I'm going to avoid getting a new, bestselling item simply to avoid overstock blitzes.  This will also keep things at least a few years old so there's a chance the reader will discover something new.  For the same reasons I'm going to avoid items for sale at a penny but not actually purchased by me for that price, because otherwise I could just review copies of American Pie and The Godfather, and where's the fun in that?  Because I have to actually buy the item, the last provision is that I'll only do things that I wanted to buy in the first place, things that at least seem interesting from the viewpoint of an internet shopper and aren't just outright crap.  When applicable I'll also talk about the condition of the item, because sometimes you get sent plastered with library stickers and sometimes you get stuff that looks like the previous owner drove over it with an RV.

If you too want to sail the Seven Seas of Thrift, here's an easy trick: find the category you want in the search bar and press enter with no text entered, or just the letter "e".  You'll be shown every item for sale in Music or Movies & TV or whatever.  Next, go to the "Sort By" drop-down list and select "Price: Low to High" and BAM!  You now have a very long list of items for $0.01 in no particular order.  The order will be different every time you do it, so if you go through a bunch of pages and find nothing just try again a little while later and you'll get a brand new trough to snort through.

Will it be a grand adventure or a mild dig through the donation bin at Goodwill?  There's no way to know but go forward, so join me on my journey through the media adorned with the Scarlet Price.  Suggestions are encouraged, of course, so your secret favorite album may end up as an article someday.  Above all, Penny For Their Thoughts seeks to make life a constant adventure of art and culture, and what better way is there to spend a penny?