A Questionable Faith You Cannot Question

Many people have attempted to interview the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. Attempted is the key word here. It is comprised almost entirely of the family of an old patriarch named Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas. Today much of their infamy has died down largely because people have stopped caring and stopped giving them attention. Several years ago this controversial church was in the news quite a bit. They got famous for staging angry protests at funerals (among other things) all across America. Muslim funerals, Jewish funerals, gay funerals, soldier funerals, everything. They got a deal to do an interview just so they wouldn’t protest and torment the family of those poor murdered Amish girls awhile back. They are famous for the catchy slogans such as “God hates fags,” “God hates America,” and many other inflammatory sayings they post on signs, banners, etc. They even have a countdown on their website that states how many days Matthew Shepard (a homosexual victim of a deadly hate crime) has been in hell. Why do they do all this? Simply put, they want everyone to know that they are all going straight to hell and that God hates them.

[The Westboro Baptist Church is not an accurate representation of Baptists, churches, or Kansas].

One reason why public interest has died down is because people might be finally connecting the dots. The Westboro congregation is few in number, narrow in thought, angry in spirit, and purposely instigating the public. Despite several prominent members of the “church” being lawyers they have proven time and again in every interview I have seen (from Fox News to Tyra Banks) that they are beyond consistent logical responses. Many interviewers have just become angry and resorted to attempts of out-shouting them. It’s like arguing with a three year old. You can’t win the argument because a three year old is too simple and stubborn to engage in the debate at your level. Perhaps people have finally learned that these folks are more of a mindless nuisance than an actual threat. They do cause emotional pain and try to incite angry responses (to prove that they are the only ones who are truly saved), but giving them attention is giving them power. Anytime you acknowledge a bully (or a bullying pseudo-religious fringe movement) you are appeasing them. When you give a microphone to a crazy person you can’t think that you will trip them up and reveal them for the whack-jobs they really are. The Westboro Baptist folks have no shame and love the attention and love the opportunity to spread their particular brand of crazy.

“I’m not with her.”

So why bring up this backwards cult now? Two things: The Most Hated Family in America (2007) and its more recent followup America’s Most Hated  Family in Crisis (2011). Both are BBC documentaries featuring British journalist Louis Theroux and both are quite fascinating. Mr. Theroux is by far the finest journalist to ever interact with this nutty family. His demeanor is cool and collected, yet he’s up front and forward about his contrary positions. As he interviews screwball after screwball and gets wildly offensive (yet casual) response after wildly offensive response he maintains a gentleman’s decorum. This is the only approach to have. Fox News butchered almost every interview they had with them (not a huge surprise). Another thing that makes the Theroux interviews so much better are his goals. Rather than try to prove them wrong or out-logic them he simply means to figure out who they are and to humanize these people. Theroux uses his time with the Phelps family to find the humanity within them that they are trying so hard to remove. It seems they do not wish to be human because to be human is to be of the world and to be of the world is to be the servant of Satan. During each interview I was actually moved and saddened by the walls they had put up around themselves. They only hear what they want to hear. It appears they are afraid to show any emotions outside of anger or an unnervingly disingenuous happy facade loaded with smarminess.

They treated Theroux very well, I thought. The Phelpses were cordial and open with him while maintaining all the while he was only a stone’s throw away from being the left hand of the antichrist (who is Barak Obama, by the way).

For the first documentary Louis Theroux is simply trying to get to know them and understand why they feel so set apart and how they can be so sure that they are the only people who are right. He even gets a fleeting interview with Fred Phelps himself and sits in on a few sermons with them. The sermons are bizarre harangues of hate, fury, and insanity. I suppose it’s fitting because according to Westboro’s interpretation of scripture, God is a hating and hateful person who only wants to bring about destruction on his creation…which begs the question of why anyone would choose to worship such an intolerably odious and scornful deity. The answer seems to be fear for most of the members of the church. They are scared to death that God will kill them and send them straight to hell. They have to spread their message of hate to avoid being punished just like he’s punishing American troops for defending a country that gay people live in.

I do wonder why they don’t home-school their kids or why they would buy clothing and food from mainstream American retailers. If you only ever saw evil and damnation everywhere you looked (but yourself), would you send your children out into the world and would you support it by purchasing its goods?

“Is it possible you’ve gotten more weird?”

The followup 2011 interview finds the Westboro Baptist Church dwindling in numbers and becoming even more bonkers, deluded, and cold. Several people have left the church and their families have disowned them. The Phelps family is coming apart and the remaining members have become increasingly strange and mean. When Theroux presses them about their fallen members the Westboro folk tighten up and avoid responding in a way that would betray emotion or feelings. They are all living in fear of their god and in fear of their own emotions. They fear the weakness of their own humanity and they fear a malevolent supernatural force that they cannot see but is always surrounding them and is always poised to strike and punish. You begin to see that everything they do is a deeply psychological defense mechanism. They are not well. They have been brainwashed and cannot deviate from what they have been told lest they be killed by god or they come to terms with their own evils. It is a terrifying corner to be in for anyone. They lash out in anger and hate and rejoice in the misfortunes and deaths of others but deep down within themselves they are walking tragedies…and some of them finally realized it and left.

Louis Theroux was the perfect man for the job of interviewing the Westboro Baptist Church. I have enjoyed many of his specials with many weird, wild folks. His calm and droll manner was the perfect counterpoint to their circular belligerence. I found both documentaries to be fascinating, entertaining, and informative and I would say he succeeded in getting closer to their humanity than any other reporter has dared dream.

The common impulse to the Westboro Baptist Church is to reciprocate in hate, but an eye for an eye still makes the whole world blind. I look at them and I can only pity them. They are so lost and so confused and with each turn their world becomes darker and harder to escape. I can never condone their actions, but I can advocate that we have compassion for even the most vile of people. “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). We know hate cannot destroy hate, but maybe love and understanding can. Stand together and protect and love the victims of their hate, but wonder about and pray for the monsters who are blindly throwing the stones.

One more thing I must say regards to faith in general. To tie everything in with my title, if you do not feel welcome to question your faith then it is a weak faith. Westboro Baptist Church folk dare not question their faith. Fear of finding a truth that is at odds with your beliefs is a poor moral excuse and dangerous road indeed. If what you are believing is true then that faith can only be bolstered by the answers you find. Question everything, but don’t stop there. Actively search for the answers. It can only lead to the revelation of the truth.

http://step2inspire.tv/newspost/louis-theroux-americas-most-hated-family-in-crisis/

http://www.ovguide.com/tv_episode/louis-theroux-special-episodes-season-2-episode-2-louis-and-the-most-hated-family-in-america-1404331

I’d Wear a Turtle-neck if I Were You.

*creeeeeaaaak*

*creeeeeaaaak*

In a previous article, I praised the awesome splendor that is Frankenstein and I mentioned how iconic Boris Karloff’s image as the infamous Monster had become. I also mentioned another, possibly even more iconic character: Dracula. Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi, is practically synonymous with Bram Stoker’s legendary Count. Lugosi (White Zombie, The Black Cat, The Island of Lost Souls, Son of Frankenstein) made a career of playing evil and supernatural villains with an aristocratic air. He played twisted doctors, cursed men, and many other grotesques, but it is his role as the charismatic Count Dracula that keeps him alive in the public’s eye. Bela Lugosi gives a spooktacular performance making Tod Browning’s (Freaks, The Unholy Three) classic film Dracula (1931).

Edward van Sloan as Prof. Van Helsing raises a crucifix to a cringing Lugosi.

Edward van Sloan as Prof. Van Helsing raises a crucifix to a cringing Lugosi.

I love the original Dracula and Bela Lugosi is my favorite Dracula (second would be Christopher Lee), but I am saddened to see this version get crapped on so much. People say it is overrated, hammy, and a clunky transition out of the sound era. Well, it is technically all of these things, but it is so much fun. I admit my bias: I love Tod Browning. Frankenstein is the superior film in many ways simply because it has actual action and complicated character relationships, whereas Dracula is all mood and rich atmosphere with zero action. It’s about watching Lugosi gracefully interact with his unwitting victims and waiting for the moment to strike. The sets, costumes, and wonderful matte paintings are all exquisite as well. Even if you see it as being terribly dated, it is still a charming time capsule and swell pulp.

Matte paintings adorn the background as Renfield makes his way to Castle Dracula. He should have listened to those gypsies. Now it's too late.

Matte paintings adorn the background as Renfield makes his way to Castle Dracula. He should have listened to those gypsies. Now it’s too late.

Before Lugosi donned his famous cape, however, there was another great movie vampire. Haunting up the silent cinemas in 1922 was Max Schreck as Count Orlok in F. W. Murnau’s (Faust, Sunrise) Nosferatu. Orlok does not resemble your average vampire. Unlike Lugosi’s Dracula, which everyone copied from Christopher Lee to George Hamilton, Nosferatu looks bizarrely alien and unfamiliar and—as a result maybe—more unsettling. With his naked skull, pointed ears, high shoulders, tall stature, long spindly arms and fingers, gaunt features, demonic eye-brows, and jagged incisors, Max Schreck’s vampire is in a class all his own. When Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man) directed the remake of Nosferatu in 1979 they made up actor Klaus Kinski (Aquirre Wrath of God, For a Few Dollars More) to look exactly like the sinister bloodsucker from the original and it really worked. Both versions of Nosferatu are sure to delight with fright, but I strongly advocate seeing the 1922 version first. So iconic and genuinely chilling. The Nosferatus feel like you’re running in slow-motion in a spiraling uneasy nightmare.

My stars. Monsters are such interesting people.

My stars. Monsters are such interesting people.

Both Dracula (1931) and Nosferatu (1922) follow pretty much the same storyline.  A mysterious aristocrat (a.k.a. Vampire) is visited by a hapless solicitor. By the time the visitor learns the truth it is too late and the Count is soon on a voyage to more urban environs (Renfield is played by horror favorite Dwight Frye in Dracula). Once established in his new home the Count begins to feed. This is pretty much all you need to know for either film. Beyond this there are many differences. Dracula is more outgoing than Orlok for instance. While Dracula mingles with oblivious socialites, Orlok lurks in the shadows. Since Orlok looks more like a malnourished rodent than a human being it makes sense he wouldn’t be as charming and seductive as Dracula. Dracula has a strange sensuality about him that Orlock could never hope to pull off.

Lurk...lurk...

Lurk…lurk…

It has been said that the Spanish version of Dracula that was made using the same sets (they shot at night while the Americans filmed during the day) is a better film from a technical standpoint. I couldn’t disagree, but Carlos Villarías is no Bela Lugosi. I like both versions, but it’s all about the casting of the Count and Lugosi is it for me.

Ya caught me.

Ya caught me.

I hope in 50 years people will still picture these classic characters whenever they hear the word ‘vampire’ uttered around Halloween. What a travesty of tragic proportions if our children should imagine only Edward Cullen. The horror.

Apparently Dracula is Mormon.

Apparently Dracula is Mormon.

I am a big fan of both films. They have the old, spooky castles shrouded in spider webs and that aura of Old World mystery. They have immediately recognizable villains that we catch ourselves rooting for. Both films suck you into their own Gothic fantasy and don’t let go.  Dracula also features the fantastic horror treasure, Edward Van Sloan (Frankenstein, The Mummy) as Dr. Van Helsing, an added bonus to be sure. Where monsters like King Kong, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster are all misunderstood outcasts who are never truly evil and may be presented more as victims, it is refreshing to see an unapologetically wicked character that has the world seemingly wrapped around his finger and delights in his sly mayhem. Unlike future vampire movies, which would try to portray vampires as tormented pariahs, Nosferatu and Dracula make no bones about their vampires’ evil nature (not including the Herzog remake). They relish the kill and this is what makes the Count so engaging and horrific. There is only one goal: suck blood. Simple? Yes, but it works.

Screw it.

Screw it.

Herzog’s Nosferatu is more of a tortured soul who sucks blood for survival and he might be falling in love with a human woman. It’s a slightly different approach, but he is in no way sissified. Kinski gives another spookily unhinged performance, but you can tell he’s channeling a lot of Max Schreck.

Come with me if you want to die.

Come with me if you want to die.

Nosferatu and Dracula are two masterful classics of the horror genre with fantastic atmosphere and enchanting performances. Need I bother telling you what a magnificent double-feature they would make? Celebrate Halloween this year with a few awesome Counts.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 20, 2009

A Spastic in North Korea

North of the 38th Parallel. It is one of the most peculiar, enigmatic, and isolated corners of the world. Nobody knows what really goes on in there. What is their culture and society really like? What is their population? How does their economy function? Nobody ever goes in and nobody ever comes out. It must be run by Oompa-Loompas.

That's our kingdom, son. As far as the eye can see. Except for the parts that the sun touches.

That’s our kingdom, son. As far as the eye can see. Except for the parts that the sun touches.

Seriously though, North Korea is one of the strangest places on earth. It’s another planet! It is a fascinatingly hidden, cult-ish culture shrouded beneath an overcast sky and the beaming benevolent portraitures of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il [and now Kim Jong-un]. All media is government controlled and they are suspected of countless Human Rights violations. Even if you get in, you better watch your step and still you’ll only ever see and hear what North Korea wants you to see and hear. Great difficulties arise in any attempts to document and fairly assess this 46,528 square mile mystery. Difficulties, yes, but some have attempted nevertheless. The Vice Guide to Travel did an excellent piece on North Korea (watch it here), and there have been many more incredible amateur docs, but Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger took a slightly different approach with his Borat-esque documentary The Red Chapel (2009).

The hop-marching is kind of weird. I wonder how menacing ten thousand soldiers walking like Groucho Marx would be.

The hop-marching is kind of weird. I wonder how menacing ten thousand soldiers walking like Groucho Marx would be.

Brügger’s film would take both himself and two Danish-Korean comedians, Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell, deep into Pyongyang under the guise of a theater troupe that would be performing a traditional Danish comedy play as part of a cultural exchange for the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In actuality, Mads really only seeks to expose North Korea as the soulless dictatorship he believes it is.

Simon and Jacob showcase their knack for ridiculous performance.

Simon and Jacob showcase their knack for ridiculous performance.

 

Another twist is that Jacob Nossell is a self-proclaimed “spastic” (he has a severe speech impediment and occasionally requires a wheelchair). This twist serves several purposes. Firstly Jacob can say almost anything in Danish because between the language and his vocal distortions he will be unintelligible to the North Koreans who will be examining all of the footage they take. The second purpose is to test the North Korean rumor that infants born with genetic maladies are euthanized (as reported by several physicians who have defected). Mads suspects the Red Chapel’s embarrassingly bad show is allowed to continue because the North Koreans seek to dispel this grim rumor and so Jacob and the Red Chapel’s show is to be used as propaganda. Brügger does admit that he is probably guilty of using Jacob for his own manipulative means as well.

Like a spastic in North Korea we're wheelchair bound.

Like a spastic in North Korea we’re wheelchair bound.

The Red Chapel alternates between informative tourism and comical rehearsals where the North Koreans gradually deflate Denmark’s play and replace the entire story with even more convolutions, bizarrities, and pro-North Korean ideological propaganda. The irony is that the Red Chapel was compelled to agree not to incorporate any ideological or political themes in their performance and yet by the end of the movie the Red Chapel performers must conclude their show declaring, “One heart. One mind. One Korea. Together we fight. Together we die.” Another big alteration made to their show is the diminished role of Jacob. He must be in a wheelchair the whole show and only communicate via whistle squeaks while Simon does most of the act himself, and at the end of the show he must stand up (but not speak) so the audience will think he was only pretending to be handicapped. In this topsy-turvy world where Simon and Jacob must don Korean uniforms and regurgitate propaganda for a “cultural exchange,” they are constantly micro-managed by their DPRK tour guides who must evaluate, deliberate, and confer amongst each to other to ascertain the possible political themes of every move they make. For instance, what does the “pussy” in “pussy-cat” truly denote? Might it be dangerous to the North Korean government?

Mrs. Pak.

Mrs. Pak.

Several humorous, subversively subtle and ballsy events pepper the movie just to keep the comedy going. At the revered statue of deceased but eternal president, Kim Il-Sung, Mads Brügger requests to read a silly poem as a (rather absurd) sign of respect and as an offering to the great leader in the spirit of cultural exchange. They also present a pizza paddle to be given to Kim Jong-Il. For all the humor and fun being had, whether Simon is leading an impromptu rendition of “Hey, Jude” on guitar, or Jacob is making insightful quips regarding the vacuous horrors of all the emotionless enthusiasm, what really got me about The Red Chapel were the moments of naked humanity. Most of the evil rumors are never put to rest one way or another, but we do see real people. Mrs. Pak, their tour guide, is one of the most fascinating and compelling people on the screen. She is only allowed to smile and be happy (and keep the boys out of trouble). She cries at the statue of Kim Il-Sung, but Brügger tacitly wonders if she is crying out of love, out of fear, or for memories of pains past. After only a few hours of knowing Jacob, Mrs. Pak is embracing him and calling him “like my son…more than my son.” Tearfully she says ‘it is not mother’s work to send a boy like him away’. There appears to be much conflict within this woman at times. I found Mrs. Pak to be more fascinating an example than all the ghostly vacant streets and empty shops of Pyongyang. Does she know she lives under an oppressive government? Would she call it that? Does she truly know what the rest of the world is like? Is she brainwashed or is she really just that gung-ho? In a land where the only images you are allowed to see are propagandistic, can you not still choose to love it of your own volition? I found her presence and unwitting contribution to the film to be incredible. She genuinely wants to show the Red Chapel all that North Korea has to offer, but is her devotion derived out of cultural pride or fear? We may never know.

Cheery.

Cheery.

The constant lying and games of deception—on both the part of the filmmaker and of North Korea—takes its toll. Jacob has a nervous breakdown early on. During a gigantic celebration (that condemns the United States for attacking them in 1950 unprovoked, of course) Mads and Jacob—pushed in his wheelchair by the motherly Mrs. Pak—wind up marching down the square and having to cheer. Jacob alone defies this command and moans complaints unintelligibly. It is an extremely surreal and tense moment that puts the beads of sweat on Mads’ forehead. Beyond Borat, there is far more danger if their agenda is discovered and their charade is uncovered. They are mocking possibly one of the most dangerous, dehumanizing, and restrictive governments in the world. We never see the death camps or horrific prisons for political threats, but the possibility remains and the danger is always there.

Today we will march up and down the square!

Today we will march up and down the square!

On a tour of a school, the boys see doll-like children performing robotic paroxysms all to the glory of their leader. Il-Sung’s and Jong-Il’s portraits eerily hang in every room just to remind everyone that everything is all doubleplusgood in DPRK. Big Brother is watching. They smile and clap as long as the foreigner’s camera is pointed at them. The children practice and perform acts of programmed artistic perfection reminiscent of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride. When anyone is asked how they are or how anything is, the response is always one of hyperbolic ecstasy and joyous exaltation. In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea no one is unhappy. North Korea is always portrayed as the most prosperous nation in the world. Everyone is in unison and the parades of thousands are never out of step. If Kim Jong-Il is as big a film-lover as is understood (so much so that he kidnapped director Sang-ok Shin and his wife and held him hostage to make movies for North Korea) then I just bet he’s a fan of The Stepford Wives. Watch excerpts from their famed Mass Games and you get a glimpse of their frighteningly awesome precision. People are pixels here.

Grand Mass Arirang Games of North Korea

Grand Mass Arirang Games of North Korea

As with The Vice Guide to Travel: North Korea [and their several followups with Dennis Rodman under Jong-un’s rule now], one never gets to see what lies behind certain doors. Movements are carefully planned out and must never deviate from the government controlled itinerary. One only gets to see what North Korea wishes to be seen and that is always maintained to be the very best. The sad, twisted irony of it all is that if what they show is North Korea’s best it still leaves much to be desired. There is a hollowness and a stifled melancholy about this country in its all-too flattering representation of itself. Perhaps I am revealing too much personal bias as an American [and one who lives in South Korea]. Coming from a country where differences are relished and celebrated and where many cultures and perspectives are encouraged and appreciated and where it is considered strange if everyone is the same and there is no dissenting voice, it is quite a culture shock to get a glimpse into North Korean society. Maybe we’re all just misinformed and it’s not bad or wrong at all, but whatever it is, it is the opposite of the American ideal of individualism.

The boys pose with some locals.

The boys pose with some locals.

I enjoyed The Red Chapel immensely. It may not offer more than a familiar peek into North Korea like some other documentaries, but it has a personality all its own. Following Mads, Simon, Jacob, and Mrs. Pak around in this dystopic world is worth the price of admission. For anyone interested in North Korea this is a must-see comedy documentary.

Creepy.

Come to me, my children.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 16, 2011

Jim Henson is the Story Teller

Great TV seems to be a rarity these days. Especially in the realm of high-end fantasy. In times like these (dominated by “reality,” shockers, and wanton crassness) I find it refreshing to revisit older television shows. Jim Henson’s The Storyteller (1988) is a welcome oddity from the past. Only nine episodes were made, but they are fresh and fun. Four more episodes were made for Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Greek Myths (1990).


Jim Henson gets a lot of credit as the creator of the Muppets and Sesame Street (1969-present), but few seem to realize that he was much more than a simple puppeteer. In addition to performing as Kermit the frog, Rowlf the dog, and Dr. Teeth, Jim Henson was a pioneering innovator in the field of modern puppetry, animatronics, and special effects. The Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (which was developed for films like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth) was responsible for some of the most memorable movie monsters of the past few decades (including The Witches, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Babe, The Flintstones, Dr. Doolittle, MirrorMask, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, etc.).

John Hurt (A Man for All Seasons, The Elephant Man, Watership Down, Alien, Hellboy) stars as The Storyteller, a wizened old man who sits in a tatterdemalion chair at the best place by the fire. Brian Henson (Return to Oz, Labyrinth, Monster Maker) performs the voice and puppeteers the role of the Storyteller’s dog. Together in an old and mysterious castle they huddle by the fireside and tell stories from ancient European folklore. The hallmarks of the show are that the tales told by the Storyteller are very obscure and each episode is assured to feature some new makeup, monster, or prosthetic from the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Some familiar faces do make appearances in the stories themselves. Sean Bean (Ronin, Fellowship of the Ring), Bob Peck (Jurassic Park), Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Evita), Miranda Richardson (Blackadder, Sleepy Hollow), Joely Richardson (Event Horizon, 101 Dalmations), Alison Doody (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), Bryan Pringle (the butler in Haunted Honeymoon), Robert Eddison (the knight at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), Philip Jackson and Pauline Moran (Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon from Agatha Christie’s Poirot), and a few others all play roles in these bizarre fables, but the real stars are the innovative special effects.

A high fantasy children’s show about obscure foreign tales with grandiose production qualities featuring spooky and distorted monsters and hideous makeup was doomed to be short-lived from the beginning it would seem. When one of your episodes features a hedgehog monster-man who rides a giant rooster, marries a princess who fears him, and removes his skin every night to hang out with barnyard animals naked you know you don’t have a typical mainstream smash hit on your hands. The stories are dark and unforgivingly strange and cryptic at times. The puppets, animatronics, and makeup and indeed even the tone is sometimes enough to make one uneasy, but after almost a decade of dark 80s films for kids (The Black Cauldron, Watcher in the Woods, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Gremlins, Black Hole, Return to Oz, Time Bandits, etc.) I don’t see it as anything the young ‘uns couldn’t have handled.

The two episodes Jim Henson himself directed “The Soldier and Death” and “The Heartless Giant” were probably the best. “The Soldier and Death” I found to be particularly good and actually surprisingly complex..not to mention the great creepy devil puppets and death too. John Hurt must been having the time of his life as the Storyteller. He plays the role with such grizzled vigor and in the episode “A Story Short” he actually becomes the central character in his own narration. The filming is fun and imaginative, featuring many expressionistic touches and collage and silhouette techniques. The puppets are great (perhaps a bit odd at times, but it’s all good). Sea monsters, devils, griffins, giants, wolves, trolls, magical lions, and other creatures speckle the landscape here. Major props to the clever writing as well. The Storyteller does not Disney-fy tragedy or strangeness and keeps the morals relatively ambiguous, favoring just being thought-provoking and entertaining over being clear about morality. It is admirable that a children’s show would respect its audience to the degree The Storyteller does. It does not offer easy answers to anything.

Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Greek Myths (1990) features a new narrator. Brian Henson returns as the dog and Michael Gambon (The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover, Toys, Gosford Park, Harry Potter, Fantastic Mr. Fox) is the new storyteller. This time the tales are not so much more dark as they are more sad and hopeless. This short series does not water down Greek tragedy for a younger audience. At times narrator, Gambon, seems to be delighting in horrifying his dog sidekick with unhappy twists. The monsters are still cool and scary. Medusas and minotaurs galore! Classic Greek myths come to life as you see stories of Perseus, Icarus, Theseus, and Orpheus all rise and fall. Derek Jacobi (Brother Cadfael, Hamlet, Gosford Park) plays Daedalus in the first episode.

Both series are quite unique and unforgettable. The original Storyteller intro might be one of the best TV intros ever (it’s almost reminiscent of Tales from the Crypt). What I really liked about the stories they selected are not only that many were new to me, but that it says something of culture and history. Ancient Greek myths are a completely different beast from early European folklore. The rules and flow are different. We don’t really tell stories the way they did back then. As a master storyteller and master in special effects, Jim Henson was just the man to tackle this idea. Henson really did think outside of the box. Yes, his wonderful, iconic Muppet characters will undoubtedly be loved and cherished for years to come, but he was much more than a puppeteer. Revisit the Storyteller series and while you’re at it, the old Muppet Show too (still arguably one of the finest and cleverest variety shows ever put together). Fraggle Rock? The Muppet Babies? Have at it. And fans of all that Henson did might also be interested in revisiting another short-lived favorite from my childhood: The Jim Henson Hour (1989).

picture references:

ign.com

muppet wiki

Nobuhiko Obayashi and the Original Monster House

Now, that's encouraging to a fragile girl's image.

Now, that’s encouraging to a fragile girl’s image.

I forget where I heard first of House, but I definitely remember the first time I saw it. It was several years ago that I first saw it and, naturally, I was ecstatic to learn when it had finally come to be available in the US.

Lucy?

Lucy?

What the currently uninitiated do not yet comprehend is that House is unlike any other movie. Beneath the standard guise of your typical haunted house movie plot are the gears and cogs that frenetically pulse like some sort of mad offspring between psychedelic manga, Dario Argento, Ken Russell (in full-on Lisztomania mode), a bad LSD trip, a fifth-grader’s collage for art class, and a fun-house from hell.

Initial knee-jerk reaction to my first acquaintance with House: no one would ever make a movie this way! The second time I watched it: thank God someone made a movie this way!

Abandon hope, ye who enter here.

Abandon hope, ye who enter here.

House was the feature film debut of Nobuhiko Obayashi, a seasoned commercial director and experimental filmmaker. It seems as though House was designed to be the anti-movie. It is an assault on the senses. Its cinematic style is unprecedented and wild. Although the story is simple enough—Japanese schoolgirls get eaten by a haunted house—Obayashi found ways to film it in a completely unique way. Obayashi and his film crew employed a manic mixture of archaic and cutting edge special effects to heighten the fakeness and surreality of it all. Brightly colored cartoonish matte paintings glimmer in the background, while people dance in frames within frames in a nonstop barrage of collage effects and then random things will become cartoons themselves. The intent seems to have been to create something totally absurd, but at the same time realizing the immense untapped visual freedom of the film medium. House is the wild and visually experimental sort of film that Georges Melies would have been making had he lived long enough to experience the sixties.

I want chicken. I want liver. Meow Mix, Meow Mix, please deliver.

I want chicken. I want liver. Meow Mix, Meow Mix, please deliver.

As I’ve said, the story is fairly rudimentary (but not unsatisfying on its own per se). Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), your stereotypical Japanese schoolgirl, is excited for summer vacation and looks forward to spending time with her friends and her father. A cruel twist of fate should wriggle its way into her life, however, when Daddy reveals his plans to remarry. Furious, Gorgeous decides to spend the summer with her maternal aunt in the country. She invites six giggly schoolmates along with her; Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Mac (Mieko Sato), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), and Sweet (Masayo Miyako). You begin to comprehend the saccharine cotton-candy campiness they were going for with character names alone. Everything is rainbows and butterflies. You half expect Hello Kitty to make a cameo appearance in the first act.

Over the river and through the woods, to Auntie's house we go.

Over the river and through the woods, to Auntie’s house we go.

Well on their way to visit old Auntie, the seven victims *ahem* protagonists titter giddily as they are introduced to Auntie’s sad backstory. Apparently her fiance was killed during the war and she’s been waiting for him ever since. The girls can never know the pains of losing a lover to the horrors of war and may never understand the grim specter of the atomic bomb mushrooming over Japan (as evidenced by their giggling and comparing the cloud to cotton candy), but maybe they will get a taste of supernatural evils. Oh, who am I kidding? They get jacked up by this freaking house!

Auntie dance.

Auntie dance.

Old and wheelchair bound, but strangely ethereal and entrancing, Auntie (Yoko Minamida) welcomes the girls into her home. The film almost seems to be playing a cruel trick on these happy-go-lucky schoolgirl caricatures by trapping them in this dark and sinister spider’s web. If the movie is a light-hearted Disney cartoon before the house, then once within the house it is Scooby-Doo on crack…and the ghosts are real. They certainly get some mileage out of the infectious theme song (which is almost as innocent and catchy as the theme song from Cannibal Holocaust). The music weaves through your head on repeat as a mysterious white cat dances across a keyboard, first forward and then back like the film itself is possessed. Mac (the fat one) is the first to go missing, but her decapitated head is eventually pulled out of a well like a chilled watermelon. It proceeds to float around for a scene and bite a girl on the buttocks. Later on everyone enjoys some watermelon with human eyes in it, and strangely enough Auntie no longer requires her wheelchair (“Mein Führer! I can walk!”).

Don't lose your head.

Don’t lose your head.

If the crazy style did not turn you off by the 30 minute mark then be prepared. The severed watermelon head nonsense is peanuts to what happens to some of the other girls. Mattresses attack, girls are trapped inside bleeding grandfather clocks, a ceiling lamp bites a girl in half and her severed legs fly through the air in classic kung fu pose to dropkick an evil blood-spewing painting, and more. Most famous of all perhaps, is the scene where the piano eats one of the girls, but I digress. It is not the way people die in this movie that is so weird, it is how it is all filmed. House is a film without rules. The colors are brighter, the deaths crazier, and grown men can transform into cartoon skeletons or piles of bananas without explanation. The piano scene is truly an incredible moment in the annals of horror. Everything seems to be juxtaposed onto something else. Chunks of the human body float and spin in place while other pieces claw and flail out of the piano and said piano flashes different colors and a multicolored lightning border circles every ludicrous frame…also a skeleton waves its arms like a disgruntled marionette in the background. It is noisy, raucous, wild, inventive, cheesy, silly, macabre, horrific, and funny. This actually describes most of the film. House mixes comedy and horror to such innovative effect that even at its most quiet it conjures mixed feelings of both dread and delight.

At least you can still play the kazoo.

At least you can still play the kazoo.

More than a horror film and more than a comedy, House is an arty and extremely experimental addition to cinema psychedelica and a vibrant exploration of what the medium of film is ultimately capable of. I look at it like this; most movies I can imagine experiencing (albeit somewhat differently) in book form, but so much of House is so purely cinematic that it defies written description…begging the question, why write a review, bonehead? Well, I wanted to. So there.

Bwahahaha!

Bwahahaha!

Back to the plot or something. Gorgeous becomes possessed with the soul of her Auntie who is really already a spirit or whatever and more weird stuff happens. The girls are bumped off one by one in increasingly cartoonish and trippy ways. The teacher Fantasy is in love with tries to rescue them or whatever. There’s an evil cat doing stuff. The floors fall apart revealing pools of acidic blood stuff. Auntie gets younger. There’s occasional nudity (pretty sure no one’s over 18 so I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that) and there’s tons of googly special effects. The stepmom from the beginning shows up later and more stuff happens. Basically the film is crazy. The traditional mechanisms that hold the plot together and the characters in their place are wholly secondary to the wild inventiveness of Obayashi’s camera.

I love lamp.

I love lamp.

Next Halloween I’m going to have to watch this with The House On Haunted Hill, Hold That Ghost, and Monster House. In many ways House is the ultimate haunted house movie, because just as ghosts do not have to abide by the laws of the real world, so House refuses to abide by the laws of the normal movie world. Ghosts don’t make sense to us and House doesn’t make sense if you’ve seen other movies. Anything goes. It is bedlam, mayhem, pandemonium and it knows it and revels in it and I loved it. For a psychedelic movie about a haunted house that eats a bunch of Japanese schoolgirls, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House is everything it needs to be and so much more. Thank you, Criterion, for releasing this insane Halloween treat.

Taz spin.

Taz spin.

Top 10 Reasons to Watch “House”

1. It’s definitely unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

2. Although it is a horror movie it is never too proud to incorporate happy upbeat songs (performed by GODIEGO).

3. It’s like Pringles. Once it starts the fun don’t stop.

4. Even the obligatory expository non-horror bits are directed with pizazz and zany rhythm.

5. It’s pretty much an all girl cast and maybe you like that.

6. Many of the ideas for the story and wild things that occur therein were developed by Obayashi’s young daughter.

7. Although the story is formulaic and derivative of other haunted house movies, I would argue that never before has a film had this much fun with formula.

8. Not that there’s a huge list of films in this category, but it is grade A horror-fantasy-comedy.

9. It might even be weirder than Takashi Miike’s Happiness of the Katakuris. Maybe.

10. It’s finally available on home video in the United States so you’re out of excuses.

Well...The 5 fingers of Dr. T. anyway.

Well…The 5 fingers of Dr. T. anyway.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 3, 2010.

Mickey Mouse is Watching

Disney Chicks are like Trekkies. They are bizarre and insufferable and make whatever their prospective obsession happens to be appear terrible and soul-devouring.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Disney movies and I like Star Trek. I can say things like that because I am a nerd myself.

Maybe I’m just bitter Walt Kelly never got an amusement park.

Scene from "Escape from Tomorrow."

Scene from “Escape from Tomorrow.”

I’m sorry for the hostility in the first bit there. I’m just testy because I’ve lost a few friends to the mind-numbing positivity that is Disney. You know the ones I mean. They’ve been indoctrinated and have only love, admiration, and fear for the Mouse and zero tolerance for anyone who didn’t particularly care for High School Musical.

I recently read [skimmed] a book called Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member by Kevin Yee. For some reason, perhaps it was the title and the seemingly ironic uber-happy cover, but I was somehow under the impression that this memoir was going to be a dark examination of the seedy underbelly of Disneyland. I was expecting some mad ravings from a deranged, disgruntled, and disenfranchised former employee. I thought it was going to be the unmasking of the Mouse. A shameless deconstruction of the Happiest Place on Earth. Totally biased and skewed, but entertaining! This was not the case.

As I wearily perused the remaining chapters, I was hoping for something good tucked away. It soon became clear to me that Mr. Yee had no intention of staining his former employer. I thought, well there’s a big man. He can walk away with respect for the Man and he can take the time to collect his thoughts and share with us what he learned. It was not this either.

Then I thought maybe it was gearing up to be an account from a male Disney Chick (we’ll call them Disney Dudes). It would be a super-happy-saccharine-cotton-candy-sweet-tooth-deluxe-eat-it-up ad nausea ode to the One with the Round Ears. Totally biased again but in the reverse thrust. So delighted and positive it would prove dishearteningly hilarious. Again, not the case.

Instead what I found within the pages of Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member was one of the most tepid and toothless accounts of anything anywhere in existence. I was astounded at how boring it all was. Yee hasn’t recorded naughty backstage stories. He has compiled his work schedule, the minutiae of his shifts, and a list of the random events the park threw for its workers. And no feeling behind any of it. This was not a memoir but the account of a single cog in a monstrous contraption. I hadn’t been this disappointed in literature since I read Amberville.*

I might actually be more inclined to go if they still looked like this.

I might actually be more inclined to go if they still looked like this.

There was no mouse trap at all. There was nothing. When Yee comes close to something that might be interesting he completely handles wrong. There are passages that explain the importance of good customer service and then there’s the part where he tells of how of he had to inform people the elevator was broken and the time where he talked with Henry Winkler that simply states he “had a long chat with Henry Winkler, a real down-to-earth guy.” This is a man who had worked in Disneyland for 15 years and most of his stories feel emotionally distant and monotonously robotic…which I find even more telling.

The damp writing style reminded me of how I imagined the inner-monologue of one of my old managers at Barnes & Noble must have played out in his head. Everything is like looking through a foggy View-Master but it doesn’t really matter because it’s all about providing quality customer service. Total bureaucrat. It’s like the teleplay to a “Welcome to Wal-Mart, New Employee!” video. Why write this book? Who is the audience? Who could possibly find any of this entertaining? Then it all hit me. Almost everyone I had ever known who had worked for the Mouse on a peon level had become this. This was not the Kevin Yee that existed before Disneyland. This was aftermath. If you ever wondered what someone without a soul would write like, check out this book. It’s a disturbing horror story of what clean employment can do to a man.

Disneyland suckers you in with its pristine everything-is-always-perfect approach. It gets almost everybody. Some are repelled by suspected phoniness, smelling a rat. Others embrace it as the Atman joining with Brahma. Still others see it simply as a business that tries really hard to uphold a quality reputation. Whatever you think it really is, the cold fact lays before us: Yee has joined the Mouse. It is too late for him. It will undoubtedly be years before he can readily relate to normal society. He writes this memoir with the last strength he has to tell the truth, but the Mouse’s hold is strong and his words are mangled and his purpose is lost. A telling account indeed.

No Jews.

No Jews.

I feel bad for ragging on the one guy like this. He’s a victim here too after all. I’m sure he’s a splendid guy. Probably loves his kids. Pays his taxes. Don’t worry. He’ll get his soul back. The cog doesn’t see much of the rest of the machine, but his ambivalent and dim perspective, although familiar and tedious, might just give us a glimpse of something truly chilling at work.

A part of me does want to give him the benefit of the doubt. One of my roommates pointed out while I was yelling at the book that it’s exactly the sort of thing I would do. I would bill my book as a tell-all memoir but only write boring passages about what I had to eat on a given day and what the weather was like. I would do that because I would find it personally humorous and delight at the expense of my idiot readers. I would do that. Might there be other comedy sociopaths like that out there? Maybe Mr. Yee just pulled a fast one.

*Amberville by Tim Davys so did entice me. A hard-boiled detective novel except all the characters are stuffed animals? It was irresistibly askew in premise…but mind-numbingly disappointing in execution. All but totally devoid of wit or irony. Sad day for stuffed animals everywhere. All this being said, there’s no such thing as bad publicity go out and enjoy these too awful books, you schlubs.

It’s STILL Alive…

For anyone who hasn’t been meticulously following my reviews in the past, I am a fan of classic horror. One of my favorites, nay, dare I say two of my favorites (“yes”, quipped he to himself, “let us be greedy today and make it two”) are James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

In the original script the confused Monster was to attempt to rescue the statue of the crucified Jesus thinking it was a living person, but the censors felt it was blasphemous so Whale rewrote it as the Monster toppling over a statue of a bishop.

In the original script the confused Monster was to attempt to rescue the statue of the crucified Jesus thinking it was a living person, but the censors felt it was blasphemous so Whale rewrote it as the Monster toppling over a statue of a bishop.

Whale also directed Claude Rains in The Invisible Man (1933), which was based on the classic H. G. Wells novel (easily one of Wells’ best), to great effect, as well as the winking Old Dark House (1932), but it is his adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s famous work that remains the more shocking and spectacular—in the humble opinion of this reviewer.

Even people who have never seen a movie that was made prior to 1990 know exactly what the Frankenstein monster looks like (Dracula too, but that will be the subject for another article). All the popular caricatures are based off of Jack Pierce’s amazing makeup from James Whale’s films. When asked to recall a film incarnation, most people—who have not even seen the movie—will have no trouble recalling Boris Karloff in grim makeup. So why am I talking about another movie everybody already knows about? Because I don’t think everyone has seen it, and I wish to change that.

I love all the fake science in these movies.

I love all the fake science in these movies.

Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has locked himself away in an old, spooky, castle-like laboratory in the hills (the perfect haunt for any mad scientist). He and his wild-eyed, hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (the ubiquitous Dwight Frye), are hard at work on something Henry was warned about by his professors long ago: playing in God’s domain. In his mad quest to create life, he stitches together bits and pieces of fresh corpses to manufacture a living man. The result is the infamous Monster (Boris Karloff): a physically powerful being with a criminal’s brain, limited communication skills, a longing for love, a short temper, and no understanding of his place in the world. The stitched together corpses of several dead men operating under the consciousness of one villainous but infantile brain realizes all too soon that there is no place for him in this world, and when his creator and father, Dr. Frankenstein, is repulsed by his creation and shuns him in disgust and embarrassment the Monster escapes and roams the countryside looking for human connection…he winds up murdering several people accidentally, obliviously, or purposefully before he decides to punish the real cause of his torment: Dr. Frankenstein.

I liked to show this scene when I was young and my parents were about to leave me with a baby sitter.

I liked to show this scene when I was young and my parents were about to leave me with a baby sitter.

The doctor, however, has decided to forget about his creation and return to his family and marry Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). The Monster eventually finds his creator and his lovely fiancée. The terrified townsfolk band together with pitchforks and torches to go on a monster hunt. The whole night culminates in the grand finale of Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster of his own making battling in a burning windmill.

frankenstein10

Every inch of this film is steeped in classic elements of horror. Expressionistic angles, cock-eyed tombstones, stark skies, tight little village streets, funerals, castles, evil machinery, lightning storms, chases, hunchbacks, dead bodies dangling from gallows, murder, and macabre humor. The infamous scene where the Monster accidentally murders a little girl even inspired a great Spanish art-house film decades later, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). This film has got it all…but, wait, there’s more.

The sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, is one of the best sequels in movie history. Picking up where the original left off—but not before Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) and Lord Byron can summarize the events of the previous film—the angry mob of villagers dwindle down to just one poor, victimized couple waiting by the smoldering ashes of the windmill’s remains…their tragic fate gave me nightmares when I was a kid. As the wounded Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is rushed home with Elizabeth (now played by Valerie Hobson), trouble has already begun to brew. Surprise! The Monster’s not dead. Not only that, another truly evil mad scientist, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), comes to call on the good doctor with a proposition. The gaunt and sinister Dr. Pretorius wants Dr. Frankenstein to join him and perfect the creation of a man-made monster. You guessed it: it’s a woman this time. Frankenstein wants nothing to do with this quack, but this quack doesn’t always play fair.

Easy on the crucifixion imagery, James.

Easy on the crucifixion imagery, James. We get it.

The Monster (Boris Karloff) meanwhile wanders the countryside once more in search of love and understanding. This time around the film shows him a little more compassion. All of his murders are either accidental or in self-defense. He just wants a friend, but when you look like he does and have the reputation he does, people tend to shoot first and ask questions later.

See no evil, speak no evil.

See no evil, speak no evil.

Drawn to the sad melody of a blind man’s violin the Monster stumbles upon a cabin in the woods. The blind hermit (O. P. Heggie) takes him in without pause or prejudice. We learn that the blind hermit has been praying for a friend and that he believes the Monster to be an answer to prayer. The Monster and the blind hermit do indeed become friends. They share food, smokes, music, and then the blind hermit teaches the Monster how to speak. We learn more about who the Monster really is from these few brief scenes than we might have expected and we learn to really love him and understand him beyond pity or grotesque curiosity. Too bad it doesn’t last because soon enough two hunters (who see with whom the hermit has been hanging out with), take the hermit away and burn down his cabin in the hopes of killing the Monster. (One hunter is played by John Carradine).

Truly broken, forlorn, and alone after coming so close to being truly alive, the Monster, in light of this freshly witnessed cruelty, develops a new outlook: he knows he is dead and hates all things living. Enter the wicked Dr. Pretorius who divulges his plan to create a woman friend like him. So enchanted by this idea, the Monster agrees to kidnap Elizabeth so Pretorius can blackmail Frankenstein into aiding in his evil experiment. The Bride of Frankenstein (Elsa Lanchester again) is born, but she doesn’t exactly get off on the right foot with Frankenstein’s Monster…that means it’s time for an explosive finale.

Kinky.

Kinky.

Bride has a sharper wit and some kinda surreal special effects, but its horror is no less potent. In many ways Bride is a bit of a parody of its predecessor and it works on multiple levels. Karloff didn’t get to do much in Son of Frankenstein (1939). Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, and the loopy expressionistic sets are the real stars of the third film, but it’s such a step down after Bride. After Son Karloff stopped playing the Frankenstein Monster and actors like Lon Chaney, Jr. (meh), Glenn Strange (awful), Christopher Lee (pretty good), and Robert De Niro (disappointing) took on the character and some say the Monster lives on today.

Dr. Pretorius is so evil he keeps a miniature Satan in a jar.

Dr. Pretorius is so evil he keeps a miniature Satan in a jar.

The mad scientist sub-genre of horror doesn’t get any better than this. Monstrous men made from dead bodies creating havoc while competing ideologies of what the limits of science should be, all wrapped up in a twisted morality tale of what it means to be human begging questions of humanities’ relation to the divine? Who could ask for anything more? Boris Karloff is really good as the iconic Monster and the rest of the cast does a great job as well. Character actress Una O’Connor makes an appearance in Bride and Thesiger’s Pretorius is one of the most fiendishly memorable mad scientist villains of the silver screen.

Do yourself a favor and host a double feature of these two solid classics. They just don’t make ’em like this no more. Don’t miss horror at it’s finest this Halloween. Hey, you might even understand just what makes Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) is so funny after watching these puppies. See Karloff in the original The Mummy (1932) too while you’re at it. For people interested in James Whale the man, Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf!) played him wonderfully well in Gods and Monsters (1998).

Hide your kids! Hide your wives!

Hide your kids! Hide your wives!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 13, 2009