Joseph Ruben’s The Stepfather is a competently executed slasher flick that hits all the expected plot points and thrills at all the right times. Witness the gradual reveal of stepfather Jerry Blake’s murderous psychosis! Identify with his new daughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen) as her complaints of Blake’s creepiness go unheeded! Salivate (or, alternately, cringe) at the gratuitous display of Schoelen’s boobs in a pointless shower scene! At the appropriate moments, it’s easy to yell, “Don’t go in there!” and “Run, stupid, run!” and “Get him, get him!” and mean it, despite the fact that the ending is predictable. There’s nothing new here—The Stepfather is a Reaganomics retread of Night of the Hunter—but it’s an enjoyable exercise in genre. It’s pure popcorn.
The one thing that does make The Stepfather unique is Terry O’Quinn. His portrayal of serial killer stepdad Jerry Blake is a masterful performance. With the subtle timing of a smile used to cover a grimace, or an errant look of fear that comes before an outburst of rage, O’Quinn takes what could have been a typical slasher baddie and makes him sympathetic, even poignant. Blake will settle for nothing less than the perfect, all-American family and all its attendant values—which, of course, explains why he keeps flying into apoplectic rages, as real families are anything but. He makes a fascinating, nuanced character study of Blake, and his slow build towards explosion over the first two thirds of the film is unforgettable.
O’Quinn’s talent is all the more surprising because everyone else in the film is terrible. Only Schoelen, who comes across as a bargain basement Jennifer Connelly, has a few winning moments. Despite her wooden voice, I liked that her character Stephanie has a serious tough streak. She gets into clawing fights with other girls at school, and I loved how bossy she was when a boy asked if he could give her a ride home on his scooter: “Only if I drive!”
The absolute worst, though, is Stephen Shellen, who plays the brother of a woman Blake killed at the film’s beginning. A thin growth of hobo beard on Shellen’s laughably pretty, square-jawed mug—he’s TOO INTENSE to shave!—isn’t enough to make us root for his frenzied vigilante search for Blake. His blundering through the subplot is hilariously bad, and everything from his douchemobile to his douchey demise is filled with unintentional hilarity. I almost like the guy as much as O’Quinn, since he attacks his role with such uniform douchiness.
I’ve always been drawn to characters who struggle with narcissistic personality disorder, and The Stepfather is a great example of the disorder taken to its bloodiest extreme. Though nothing is explained, hints are dropped at Blake’s strict childhood, and one gets the feeling that Blake’s incessant attempts to join a perfect family covers a bottomless well of shame. His line “Who am I here?” isn’t just evidence of his increasing sloppiness at pulling off the serial killer game. Under his Waltonesque exterior, he doesn’t know (or, moreover, doesn’t want to know) who he truly is. The film’s most bone-chilling scene is not at the film’s bloody, stabby climax, but the moment when O’Quinn stares, unblinking, straight into the camera lens for an excruciating amount of time. It’s a quiet scene, and yet we see the howling void at the center of Blake’s soul. There are few things more frightening than the suspicion that our attempts at happiness and goodness are for naught—that under what we hope is a likable self, there is nothing at all.
Knitting Factory records signees Phantom Family Halo will be performing their upcoming studio release, When I Fall Out (street date Feb. 14 2012 on Knitting Factory Records), for the first time in its entirety this Sunday, November 27 at Death by Audio; showtime 9:30 pm. The band is the…
Wish I could go see this. Instead, I’ll just have to wait for Valentine’s Day for the rekkid. I have a good feeling Phantom Family Halo will be around Austin for SXSW though.
“I remember once reading an article in a magazine about the rapper Coolio being a huge fan of Pern, it was a really funny interview because he was SO serious about trying to find one of her books where he was touring (Coolio asking the bookstore clerk, “Where the f**k’s ‘The White Dragon’?” was the most memorable quote ever).”—
The opening of Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire thriller, Near Dark, is like a Coke commercial, an ad for blue jeans, a rock and roll song about two kids named Jack and Diane—or, in this case, Caleb and Mae. Clad like James Dean in Giant, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) rolls up in his Chevy, tips his cowboy hat to his hayseed buddies in front of the bar, and lights a cigarette (a Marlboro, surely). He’s the picture of Western, masculine cool…until he opens his mouth. He’s all of nineteen, maybe twenty. His voice squeaks when he rebuts insults from his friends.
His eyes are caught by yet another arresting vision of Coca-Cola sexuality: sloe-eyed Mae (Jenny Wright). She sways the aimless, bored dance of idle teenage girls everywhere, and she knows exactly how alluring she appears as she licks her soft serve cone. (Later, it becomes ironically apparent how much that ice cream cone was just for show; vampires get sick when they try to eat normal food.) Perhaps too predictably for Mae’s taste at first, Caleb takes the cold, sweet bait, and soon they’re riding through the night in his truck. And, as so often happens to young men who chase after women who say things like “The night, it’s deafening, it’s so bright it’ll blind you,” Caleb is in for way, way more than he bargained for. (Indeed, he’s headed into “The Danger Zone,” if the wailing guitars in Tangerine Dream’s score are any indication.)
In one of the more subtly sinister moments in the film, a Winnebago with blacked-out windows swerves over dusty fields towards Caleb as he stumbles home. Caleb is suffering from the worst case of sunburn in his life, though it’s only dawn, and his kidnapping by the Winnebago comes in the nick of time. Mae has come to his rescue, but her family is none too impressed with her choice in a mate.
Aside from the eternally prepubescent Homer (Joshua Miller), the other members of Mae’s ersatz family steal the movie right out from under Caleb and Mae’s turgid romance. Fresh from James Cameron’s Aliens, Bill Paxton (Severen), Lance Henriksen (Jesse) and Jenette Goldstein (Diamondback) have an electric ensemble chemistry that is impossible to beat, and watching them get into all kinds of shitkicking trouble is way more fun than enduring Pasdan’s wooden sweating. Wright, who also played the nameless, yet unforgettable groupie in Pink Floyd The Wall, has a restive, sad beauty that is lovely to behold, but she’s barely in the picture once Caleb’s mission becomes apparent. To join this vampire gang, he must kill or be killed.
I have to give special credit to Paxton here, who chews the scenery to bloody bits in the performance of his life. Unlike the other vampires, Severen takes a special glee in being as evil as possible, and the film’s dark heart—the gang’s arrival at a biker bar—is owned by him alone. One gets the feeling that he’s the only one of the gang who wasn’t hoodwinked into vampirism, or who sold out his morals in exchange for immortality. No, Severen is the real deal, a character unchanged by his vampiric lot in life, and his terrible élan is so unstoppable, I nearly expected him to emerge Terminator-like from the wreckage of his showdown with Caleb. The other vampires are conflicted about their fates, and thus are more like us. Severen, like the Joker in The Dark Knight, is terrible and fascinating in his evil purity. I hope to never meet his like on this side of the screen.
As in the slick and exciting Point Break and The Hurt Locker, Bigelow executes Near Dark with style, and she’s at her best when she lets the ensemble cast loose on an unsuspecting populace. It’s an easy, thrilling ride, and for those who want intelligence along with massive explosions, you can’t go far wrong here. But, similar to Strange Days, Bigelow sets up great characters and ideas, and then doesn’t quite know what to do with them by the film’s close. Near Dark concludes with one of the lamest, most internally inconsistent solutions I’ve ever seen, though I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that Caleb and Mae finally get their happily ever after on Caleb’s farm. Theirs is a Coca-Cola story, all corn syrup and bubbles. It’s just hard to swallow such sweetness after one’s had a taste of blood.
“I find that the sensation of myself as an ego inside a bag of skin is really a hallucination. What we really are is, first of all, the whole of our body. And although our bodies are bounded with skin, and we can differentiate between outside and inside, they cannot exist except in a certain kind of natural environment. Obviously a body requires air, and the air must be within a certain temperature range. The body also requires certain kinds of nutrition. So in order to occur the body must be on a mild and nutritive planet with just enough oxygen in the atmosphere spinning regularly around in a harmonious and rhythmical way near a certain kind of warm star.
That arrangement is just as essential to the existence of my body as my heart, my lungs, and my brain. So to describe myself in a scientific way, I must also describe my surroundings, which is a clumsy way getting around to the realization that you are the entire universe. However we do not normally feel that way because we have constructed in thought an abstract idea of our self.”—Alan Watts
I had recently traveled to Iquitos, a Peruvian city on the Amazon River, to investigate the use of ayahuasca, a much-storied hallucinogenic tea prepared from botanical ingredients native to the tropical rain forest and used by indigenous tribal peoples for purposes medical, magical, and ritual. Iquitos is quickly becoming one of those mythic places like Jerusalem, Dharamsala, and Rome, where hardy seekers repair in hope of spiritual renewal or ultimate and eternal truths. Many drink ayahuasca at ceremonies conducted by local shamans, often at one of the rapidly proliferating “healing retreats.” In the archive of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew I’d gone through the journals of the Victorian explorer Richard Spruce, who’d first identified and given the ayahuasca vine its scientific name. I read and listened to all I could on the subject—William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Sting, Paul Simon, Oliver Stone, and Tori Amos, among others, have all written or sung about their experiences with ayahuasca. While in Iquitos I’d observed a ceremony—but no, I had to admit, I’d never “drunk before.”
Melancholia opens with eerie, dream-like, slow-motion scenes: A woman clutches her child as she trudges through wet ground on an immaculate golf course, another woman watches as wisps of energy leak form her fingertips, and a…
Despite my Von Trier allergy, I’m very intrigued by this film. I want to see it though I’m scared that it’ll all be emotional torture porn like several of his other films I’ve seen.
Mostly, I just want to see what happens when one planet collides into another.
“Damn,” my friend T said as we were halfway through Nobuhiko Obayashi’s frenetic debut, House. “I wish I’d brought my bong.”
This is a very logical reaction to the lysergic charms and horrors of House. The film—especially in its recent American revival on various midnight movie circuits—is justly famous for being trippy as shit. Save for 3D (which I suspect he was prevented from utilizing, in an effort by the Japanese government to protect its filmgoing citizens from total psychotic breakdown), Obayashi throws together every film technique at his disposal in a Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python-meets-Kwaidan-meets-Sailor Moon maelstrom that is less a movie, and more of an experience. Having various illicit substances at hand is necessary not in order to appreciate the film, but to take the goddamn edge off. The jazzy J-pop score is constantly at odds with the alternately cheerful and horrible action on screen. Despite the film’s relentless pace, time becomes meaningless during a summer evening that seems to last for 18 hours. Many scenes are too silly to be scary, while others are too gory to be funny. I, personally, am not entirely sure I enjoyed House, but I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
The thing that entertained me most about House was its glimpse into the lives and desires of teenage girls. Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, the film pantingly views its seven young protagonists through a lolicon keyhole, marveling at their nubile beauty, feverish obsessions, and unselfconsciously homoerotic rituals. Unlike Peter Weir’s languid lovelies, however, the girls of House aren’t always the mysterious Other who can never be grasped. Like in the popular girls’ manga and anime, Sailor Moon, House manages to titillate adult moviegoers with teenage T&A while also giving female preteen viewers characters with immediate personality hooks and adventures. (It was Obayashi’s 11 year old daughter, Chigumi, who came up with the story of House, after all.) The girls are a typical Saturday morning cartoon jumble of archetypes: the fat one (Mac), the brain (Prof), the jock (Kung Fu), the beauty queen (Gorgeous), the dreamer (Fantasy), the musician (Melody), and…whatever Sweet was (the nice one?).
While one couldn’t call these characters complex, they allow preadolescent female viewers an easy way to pick a favorite. The ladies of Sailor Moon each had powers and battles they fought which aligned with these archetypical personality traits, and eager fans listed the birth signs, magical elements, and blood types of each character like boys memorized stats on baseball cards. One thing I appreciated about Sailor Moon was its attention to costuming detail; each of the girls had a specific look, and as the show progressed, they wore different outfits for each day, just as girls do in real life, details which almost all American cartoons ignore completely (not coincidentally, there aren’t that many American cartoons for girls, starring girls, in the first place). House, in its more limited way, is no different—each girl has her own unique (and totally, fabulously 1970’s) look, and each has her own archetypal role to enact.
My personal favorite was Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), who is fearless and possessed of wicked-ass ninja flight. She completely steals the show from boring, indifferently pretty Gorgeous, the leader of the clique. In one scene, Kung Fu is out merrily chopping wood when the logs fly into the air, burst into flames, and attack her (in this house, it’s best to assume that that which appears inanimate is anything but). Kung Fu whips off her skirt and kicks the logs to cinders, then spends the rest of the film running around in her panties. It’s gleefully gratuitous, yes, but with her, you get the feeling that worrying about dignity ain’t no thang when your nickname is Kung Fu.
Contrary to the victories of our sailor-suited heroines, however, the unlucky girls of House all meet gruesome ends, each according to her archetype. Only fair Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) escapes death, but at the cost of wandering like a zombie in the hungry, loveless dimension of her demonic aunt (Yoko Minamida), where she is bound to repeat the vampiric murders required to slake the bloodlust of Auntie’s haunted house. For, just like the girls, Auntie too has an obsession, a keening desire for love—only her desire was so badly thwarted that she is stuck in limbo, endlessly fantasizing about her wedding day in a case of psychospiritual arrested development.
House sends up too many things to be a horror movie, and yet it explores girls’ bodies and desires in ways too arresting to be a satire. One scene in the film, where poor Kung Fu’s disembodied head floats in a hellish collage-like dimension filled with the unattached legs, eyes, and breasts of her murdered friends, had me wondering if there was some kind of bizarre feminist point to the violent goofiness of House.
I’ll climb out on my unabashedly feminist limb and claim thus: the house in House is a metaphor for what sexist films do to the bodies of adolescent women. A young girl—both protagonist and female viewer—enters the house, hoping for a fun escape, a vacation from her dull, regular life. While she can have exciting battles to fight and tasks to achieve, ultimately the house consumes her, separating her into so many separate, fetishized body parts, which are digested and transformed into the dream of everlasting youth, of being a young woman forever—the only type of female that perpetually lives in the male gaze’s spotlight. And thus the cycle is perpetuated. Realistically, I doubt little Chigumi Obayashi knew what tools were needed to dismantle the master’s house, but she gives us a precocious understanding of its pitfalls nonetheless.