Friday, September 26, 2008

An 'Unspeakable' Book Trailer

Here is the official book trailer for Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet, an anthology of 23 queer horror tales I co-edited with my friend and frequent collaborator Chad Helder:

The trailer is produced by the brilliant crew over at Circle of Seven Productions. The book will be released on December 1st.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Jeepers, Creepers, Peepers, and Queer Sequels

Once in awhile, a traditional monster movie comes along between the slashers and trendy horror of the day (torture porn, J-Horror, remakes) and revives the classic sensibilities of the genre. On Labor Day weekend of 2001, Jeepers Creepers crept into theaters with little advance fanfare and made a big splash despite a scandalous behind-the-scenes brouhaha involving the film's felonious writer/director.

Following a stark black and white opening title sequence and ominous music, the film opens on a two-lane highway cutting through what appears to be endless Midwest farmland. We’re introduced to Darry (Justin Long) and Trish (Gina Philips), brother and sister on their way home from college for spring break. After some realistically ornery sibling banter and a few license plate games, the teens experience a frightening roadway encounter with a battleship monstrosity of a truck with a blaring horn that sets every hair on end. Mood is ably further established when Darry and Trish debate the validity of an urban legend involving a couple named Kenny and Darla, who disappeared on the same stretch of road on their prom night back in ’78.

Shortly after, the teens spot the same truck parked outside an abandoned church and spy a tall figure throwing something bulky, wrapped in a bloodstained white sheet, and tied with rope down a pipe. Soon it’s more Creeper road rage à la Duel as the armored truck is in hot pursuit, ramming the teens’ car repeatedly from behind and eventually running them off the road. Not sure of what they saw, they double back to the church—fearing that whoever was dumped down the chute may still be alive. Cue the audience groans. With post-Scream self-reference, characteristic of the time but used judiciously here, writer/director Victor Salva dismisses any annoyance the audience may have by both acknowledging the teens’ poor choice and negating it when Trish—holding her brother by the ankles as he peers down the chute—says to him, “You know the part in scary movies where somebody does something really stupid and everybody hates them for it? This is it.”

The moment of post-modern humor is short-lived though as Darry predictably slips from his sister’s grasp and slides down the chute. A tense sequence follows as Darry finds a victim momentarily alive in the Creeper’s underground lair. Long does an admirable job conveying wide-eyed horror as he takes in the human wallpaper and discovers that the Kenny/Darla urban legend isn’t just a campfire tale.

Wisely, the siblings flee and take refuge at a roadside diner. There, Darry receives a puzzling call on a public telephone from a psychic who delivers a cryptic warning about a “house of pain,” lots of cats, and an urgent plea to run if he hears the titular song. As Darry and Trish relate their surreal story to the skeptical local authorities, the diner patrons move toward the windows in the background in a marvelously executed scene. Outside the diner, the teens find Darry’s clothing scattered on the ground as a waitress hesitantly informs them that she saw someone sniffing them. Cue goose bumps. It’s here that the audience gets its first hint of an aerial element with a terrific shot panning up and away from Trish as she looks skyward.

With a police cruiser escorting them, Darry and Trish head back in the direction of the old church, which we learn over the cruiser’s police band—in alternating scenes between the two cars—is now engulfed in flames. This is a terrific sequence in which Salva uses the contrasting interiors of the two vehicles to expertly build tension. While the audience is focused on the momentum of the conversation between Darry and Trish, they’re soon interrupted by movement atop the police cruiser roof. Through the rear window of the teens’ car, the audience learns that the Creeper can fly just as the familiar strains of an updated version of Jeepers Creepers comes over the teens’ car radio.

The Creeper dispatches with the police officers, sending the cruiser helter-skelter across the road and plowing into the teens. In a genuine gross-out moment that borders on high camp, Trish and Darry watch in horror as the Creeper—whistling that same tune—picks up one of the officer’s severed heads off the roadway, sniffs it, French kisses it(!), and rips the tongue out with its teeth. They hightail it outta there, and end up stopping at the home of a crazy gun-toting, cat-loving recluse (Eileen Brennan) to use the phone. Darry experiences a moment of déjà vu as kitty cats scamper all around him. On cue, Creeper arrives and exhibits some feline allergies that enrage shotgun-cradling cat lady. Creeper versus PETA card-carrying old cat lady; you figure out who wins.

The Creeper takes to the air and a roadway game of cat and mouse ensues, during which we learn of both the Creeper’s surprising agility and its powers of regeneration. Finally reduced to road kill, Darry turns to Trish and asks, “Do you think he’s dead?” Trish, in the film’s second moment of self-referential indulgence, responds “They never are” and proceeds to drive over the Creeper repeatedly until it’s pounded into dust. It’s a classic moment meant for audience cheering in a crowded matinee.

The sibs make it to a busy police station, where they’re promptly met by Darry’s phone psychic, Jezelle (Patricia Belcher). She tells them of a demon that “gets to eat” for 23 days every 23rd spring. But only certain things from certain people: “Lungs so it can breathe, eyes so it can see.” She further relates that whatever it eats becomes a part of it and that there’s something in its victims’ fear that it can smell to determine if he or she has anything it can use. The scene quickly escalates when the police station is plunged into darkness and phone communication is cut off. Jezelle pleads with the teens to run, saying that “he finds you in here.” She starts to sing the Creeper theme song and then says that in her visions she can hear the song playing on an old phonograph while one of the siblings is screaming, “screaming down in the darkness somewhere, screaming the last scream you’ll ever scream.” Belcher delivers the lines with histrionic glee.

The Creeper appears and Darry and Trish are pursued through the police station. There’s a great bit using two-way glass in an interrogation room before the Creeper has both brother and sister by the throat and sniffs them up, down, and sideways to determine who has the goods. A selfless act of sibling love is followed by a classic monster movie moment in which the Creeper crashes through a window and takes flight with the chosen sibling. The scene with the surviving sibling running across the police station parking lot screaming for the other that’s shot as if from the perspective of the retreating winged creature is a surprisingly poignant moment in an otherwise creepy finale.

The cinematic epilogue brings Jezelle’s premonition to life as the camera pans across, and then through, an abandoned factory where the familiar strains of the titular tune co-mingle with the screams of the chosen sibling. In the final frame, the significance of the theme song, always suspected by the audience, is confirmed.

Jeepers Creepers 2

The film’s domestic haul of $38 million guaranteed a sequel. No surprise, then, that in 2003 Salva was back with Jeepers Creepers 2, which would again open on Labor Day weekend and would again break that weekend’s box office record—previously held by the first film. Like the sequels to other surprise hits like Halloween and Alien, Jeepers Creepers 2 tried to go large—larger setting, larger cast, larger body count, more action. And, like Halloween II and Aliens, it both succeeded and suffered at times for its loftier ambitions.

The sequel begins by reminding us of the 23/23 feeding cycle of the Creeper, opening on the penultimate day of the creature’s feeding frenzy in a scene awash in rich gold tones as a farm boy named Billy hangs scarecrows in the cornfield. His father (Ray Wise) is nearby struggling with a piece of machinery called the “Post Pounder” that you just know is going to come into play later, while his older brother (Luke Edwards) works under his car. In a harrowing scene reminiscent of the “taking flight” climax of the first film, Ray Wise’s character’s motivation is firmly established.

The film flashes ahead to the following day, the last in the Creeper’s feeding cycle. While it’s not entirely clear if the demon can stash bodies away like a squirrel preparing for winter hibernation, the Creeper seems particularly hungry this time out, setting its sights on a busload of chanting high school jocks and cheerleaders returning from victory at the State’s basketball championships. Quicker than you can say “I betcha I know what’s gonna happen,” the bus blows a tire, stranding the group in the middle of farm country-turned-Creeper hunting ground.

Again, Salva shows talent for establishing mood and a sense of isolation in these early scenes. As news reports of the events of the first film come over the bus radio mentioning “a human tapestry of torture and sadism,” the three lone adults—a lady bus driver and two coaches—ponder the lack of radio communication and lost cell phone signals, as well as the mysterious spiked object found in the blown tire that appears to be made out of tooth and bone. Still, it’s hard to feel too much dread when half the basketball team promptly strips to their waist to sunbathe atop the school bus.

Now dark, the bus limps back toward town on the flattened tire. Salva’s limitations as a screenwriter show most noticeably here during his attempts at cursory character establishment. Even some intra-team rivalries that hint of racism and homophobia aren’t given much breathing room and do little to solidify the characterizations or help the audience distinguish one young character from another.

Channeling some of Jezelle’s leftover psychic abilities from the first film, one the girls, Minxie (Nicki Alcox), has a dream-vision of Darry from the first film. Both he and a bloodied Billy from the prologue sequence are jumping up and down and pointing into the cornfields where the Creeper runs, shoots, and scores another direct hit. Minxie wakes just in time as the bus lurches violently to the side after a critical second tire blows and the bus is fully disabled. When Scotty (Eric Nenninger) later says to Minxie, “You were waving pompoms at people this morning! Now you’re the psychic hotline?” he seems to be echoing the audience’s thoughts about the lazy plot contrivance.

After one of the coaches goes outside to light flares, he’s quickly Creeper-snatched. (Fun stuff when the group goes outside and his lit flare falls out of the night sky!) We barely have time to attach names with faces when lady bus driver goes airborne right before everyone’s eyes, setting off panic onboard the bus. The remaining adult is also quickly dispatched and the teens are left to fend for themselves. One of the best shots of the entire film is when the camera slowly pulls back from the rear of the bus, where the teens are pressed up against the glass and looking up as the school bus lights flash endlessly.

Unfortunately, the film deteriorates from there. Ray Wise is monitoring the police band and traces the Creeper’s location to a neighboring county. With his remaining son and a geri rigged piece of weaponry (more fitting for a Tremors sequel) strapped to the back of his pick-up, he sets off for some fatherly vengeance. The teens argue (there’s even a feeble attempt at social commentary on classism) in between being picked off one by one by the Creeper before scattering. Even the Creeper is less scary here, decidedly more playful when it hangs upside down at bus windows, winking, smirking, and pointing out its intended targets with campy abandon. The finale involves car crashes and some cornball theatrics during which Ray Wise tries to spear and reel in the winged man-creature with his post-punching, giant fishing pole thingy. It’s actually hard to keep track of who lives and who dies—even harder to really care.

The flash forward epilogue falls flat, with Ray Wise now an old man who sits in armed watch over the crucified remains of the Creeper while his now middle-aged son collects five bucks from local kids who want to see a genuine demon.

Queer Subtext

There’s a faint homoerotic vibe to Jeepers Creepers, with the clearly male-gendered creature focusing primary interest on Darry, the film’s teenage male protagonist. But aside from a tantalizing glimpse or two of Justin Long’s taut, tattooed tummy beneath his strategically ripped t-shirt, the most overt homoeroticism occurs when the creature sniffs the boy’s jockey shorts.

If Salva went for subtlety in the first film, he lets loose in the sequel. The queer subtext is decidedly stronger here, beginning with the casting of Nenninger, a Queer as Folk’s Randy Harrison lookalike, right through to the proliferation of ripped abs and constant gay speculation between the jocks. (One character whose sexual orientation is in question is named Izzy, to whom his teammates refer to him as “is he, or isn’t he?”) Nenninger’s Scotty, in particular, seems to be toting some heavily repressed baggage when he taunts another player and repeatedly asks if he wants to be “cock of the walk.”

Like the archetypical slasher movie heroines who either shower or walk around in some state of undress before their inevitable on-screen demise, these boys urinate together, lay around shirtless, and exchange gay barbs. Even Dante’s (Al Santos, whose character was also the object of his predatory TV dad’s sleazy affections in the short-lived 90210 spoof Gross Pointe) headless corpse is displayed seductively post-mortem—shirtless, with jeans tantalizingly unbuttoned. (I won’t even go near the subtext of what the creature does with Dante’s severed head; suffice to say it lends new definition to the idea of “giving head”!)

But there’s something even creepier at work in Jeepers Creepers 2, an example of how life can infiltrate art. Salva—who is a convicted pedophile and registered sex offender following felony conviction and serving a baffling 15-months of a three-year jail sentence for engaging in oral sex with a 12-year-old child actor on the set of his first film, Clownhouse, and videotaping the act—seems to be commenting (consciously or subconsciously) on his own predatory nature here. The Creeper seems to be lavishing an almost voracious sexual interest on the basketball players, licking its lips, winking, and gesturing seductively at them at one point in the film. The boys, in turn, are horror-struck when it identifies them as worthy targets of its own perverse affections.

Not knowing Salva’s real-life history, one might be inclined to categorize this as the director ably capturing the fear that some boys and young men have of their gay counterparts. The personification of homosexual panic, perhaps. But taking into account the man behind the lens and the fact that Salva seems to bestow the same lascivious attention on his young male actors, with his predilection for shirtless torsos and homoerotic innuendo, it may be more accurate to say that he’s successfully captured the portrait of a sexual predator in this Creeper.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Joke of the Day...

Let's skip right to the punchline:

Log Cabin Republicans.

They endorse the McCain/Palin ticket and end up revealing their own self-hatred and personifying internal homophobia as a result.

Call Elton John. Call Melissa Etheridge. I demand that their membership cards be revoked!


Sunday, September 7, 2008

Governor Palin...Meet the Little Girl Who Lost Her Laugh

This election season, listen carefully and think long and hard before casting your vote. And if you're one of those people inclined to vote based on a single, self-centered interest like the price of gas or tax cuts, err on the side of innocence and remember little girls (and boys) like the one you're about to meet.

Author and former actress Meg Tilly shares a letter from Dr. Astrid Heppenstall Heger on her blog:

"Maria had driven to Tijuana with her mom, sister and little brother to buy a special dress for her aunt's wedding. This was the most beautiful dress she had ever owned—no the most beautiful thing she had ever seen—and she hung it on a nail pounded into the wall of a garage in Bell Gardens that they called home. Every Sunday she tried on the dress, anxious for the time to pass when she could wear it to be in the wedding. But this past Sunday the dress had become too small, her mother could not fasten the small white buttons. Her mother rushed her to the emergency room fearing the worst—cancer.

I was summoned to the Emergency room to evaluate Maria. She was sitting in the corner of the windowless exam room with tears running down her face. Her mother had fled the room leaving her to fend for herself. A tiny 10 year old, she looked much younger than her age, and now dressed in a too-big dress handed down to her and wearing black Mary-Jane shoes and bright white socks she looked translucent—a shadow of the girl that might have been.

At age 10 she had just been told that she was pregnant. Pregnant by her father who had been raping her for over two years. We spoke and I comforted her. On examination, we found her to be 16 weeks pregnant, and because she was so small her womb was now pushing down her vagina making intercourse impossible so her father had been raping her anally. Her sister when asked about whether the little brother had been sexually abused, said 'No, he still laughs.'

So last night when the Republicans welcomed with thundering applause a woman who believes that all abortions must be outlawed, my heart stopped in my chest at the very idea that we as a Nation would ever consider taking away the rights of women and children—my patients—raped, abused and violated in the most horrific ways. How careless we are with the lives and souls of those who are less fortunate.

I am moved to tears at the thought of the precipice that we are approaching. I could spend hours on poverty, loss of the medical class, no health care, etc. But sitting there that day in that stark, cold clinic room with a little girl whose only hope for survival was an abortion, I was glad to have that option. Of course I would love to see a time come when everyone knew to practice abstinence, or even birth control, or a time when rape and incest were words we did not understand and women had the right to say no and have someone hear her, but apparently none of these words—abstinence, birth control, rape or incest—has penetrated the isolated, cold world of Governor Palin.

Tell me where to go to be heard. I cannot believe that women across this country—who understand what violence against women and children really means—will not stand up to be counted."

Astrid Heppenstall Heger, M.D.
Executive Director
Violence Intervention Program
1721 Griffin Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90031

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Trouble with Horror Movies Today

Modern horror movies have lost their innocence. Sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s true. Gone are the days of wide-eyed awe at creatures that defied explanation and dazzled with their improbability, monsters that sprung forth from our internalized fears onto the screen. The modern horror film is less thematic and more about…well, everyday horror.

Trouble is that genre films today are more focused on the depiction of horror where horror films past concentrated on the personification of horror. Horror once spoke subtly, using allegory and metaphor and symbolism to convey the horror at its core. Horror spoke to you through the back door; it whispered in your ear. Headlines of the day were cloaked in comforting doses of filmmakers’ imagination—monsters and make-believe terrors. You escaped with horror to indirectly deal with broader societal issues that terrified or confused you—communism, war, racism, sexual liberation.

With its propensity for horror that’s ripped from the headlines, the genre now clobbers viewers over the head with the same reality they’re trying to escape. Home invasions, torture abroad, organ harvesters. There's little symbolism, little metaphor, little allegory. It’s all on full, graphic display, and there is no escape. Horror films today force us to confront visceral depictions of the stories we hear on the evening news. Our reality is met with reality masquerading as escapism on the screen. As a result, the horror movie experience is less cathartic, less therapeutic. It reinforces instead of relieves our fears. It's less roller coaster, more carousel.

Perhaps we’ve become too sophisticated for the simple cinematic metaphor, too jaded to buy into the personification of evil, too numb to bloodshed and violence. We know what evil is—we’re inundated with its images and affects 24/7 on streaming newscasts. There seems to be so little that shocks us that the boundaries in modern horror cinema have been stretched to their outer limits. And now that the concept of community is a fading aspect of our culture, there are few collective fears. Tapping into individual fears is a taller order for filmmakers, so they opt for depiction over personification. Moviemakers cop out and recycle ideas instead of creating the next creature from a black lagoon or the next thing from another world. Studios opt for remakes that spit in the eyes of the source material and reimaginings that have less to do with actual imagination and more to do with wringing as many dollars from old ideas with as little effort or artistry as possible. The fun has been zapped from modern horror movies, and we’re often left to suffer through joyless celluloid creations that lack passion for the horror at their core—slick eye candy possessing all the substance of a vacuous blond sipping cosmos at a bar. There are exceptions, of course, but those are few and far between the dreck.

Even the horror movie experience itself has changed drastically. With the fading of community, the collective viewing experience of Saturday afternoon matinees is on the decline. People opt for the comfort and sanctuary of their own home theaters and the resulting experience is heavily dulled down. No longer is there that marvelous shared fear, tension, and anxiety of a hundred people all simultaneously tensing and cowering and jumping and screaming in a crowded movie theater. The enchantment of greasy popcorn and musty theater seats is quickly approaching antiquation as studios contemplate ways to make quicker, bigger bucks by releasing films simultaneously to multiplexes and home viewing markets. We’re developing cultural immunity to our once beloved horror movie experience.

Worse, we’ve created a generation numb to horror films. Their reactions alone—laughter, mockery, derision—bespeak the failure of the modern genre film. Imagination in our young has been replaced by the instantly gratifying images of interactive video games and other high-tech fare that spell it all out on high-definition monitors. There are no spooky walks through the woods, no backyard sleep-outs, no summer camp rites of passage to tantalize and tickle those dark spots in our subconscious. Folklore that once fueled imagination is on the decline, with yarns about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster and the Bermuda Triangle reduced to tabloid fodder and ridicule from even the youngest of minds. Campfire tales and urban legends have been replaced by sensationalized newscasts. In our scientific world, everything has a rational explanation and there’s little room left for the possibility of things unknown to us. We’re arrogant in our knowledge as a society, and the simplicity of horror cinema has suffered. Sometimes ignorance is bliss—at least when it comes to our horror movies.

Note: This essay originally appeared as part of a group article by the League of Tana Tea Drinkers at Blogcritics Magazine.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Listening Booth: Alison Moyet

This installment of The Listening Booth coincides with the subject's announcement of her first US tour in 14 years - and the procurement of my own 2nd row seats to see her live on October 10th. I'm talking about, of course, the incomparable Alison Moyet.

If you grew up in the early 80's, you doubt heard this incredible UK songbird's pipes, first, as one half of the synth-pop duo Yazoo with Vince Clarke of Depeche Mode and Erasure fame, and then as a brilliant, award-winning solo artist. Her 1984 debut album, Alf, spawned several hit singles in the UK, including "Invisible", "Love Resurrection", and "All Cried Out". After her follow-up, 1987's Raindancing, which featured the pop gems "Is This Love?" and "Weak in the Presence of Beauty", she stepped back and began the long struggle to regain artistic control of her career. But while 1991's Hoodoo and 1994's Essex were the start to that creative independence, an unsupportive Sony Music and subsequent protracted legal battle brought an eight-year hiatus to Moyet's career.

She eventually won, signed with Sanctuary Records, and re-emerged in 2002 with Hometime. That was followed up the sublime The Voice, a flawless collection of covers including "Windmills of Your Mind", "Cry Me River", and "Alfie". In late 2006, she signed with W14 Music, a new Universal Music Group imprint, and released The Turn in August of 2007.

Sadly, Moyet isn't as well known here in the States outside of her Yazoo affiliation as she is in England and other parts of the world. In the summer of 2008, she reunited with Clarke for a series of well-received, sold-out reunion dates. And, now, she's coming right back to the US with her first solo tour in over a decade, promising to perform songs from most of her catalog (the inclusion of the pop-slick Raindancing material is still in question).

I was only fortunate to see Moyet live once. It was back in the early 90's right after the release of Hoodoo. She performed out here on Long Island on a Tuesday night (September 24th, to be exact), as part of WDRE’s Modern Rock Fest ‘91 at a little sports bar called Mulcahy’s. Although sharing the bill with The Innocence Mission, The Judybats, and Richard X. Heyman, it was altogether clear just who the audience was out to see as shouts of the British songbird’s name permeated the air throughout the night. After a rousing set by The Judybats (which was capped off by a raucous tribute to New York women called "All I Wanna Do Is Fuck Your Hair"), it was announced that there would be a change in the evening’s line-up; Moyet was reportedly feeling “under the weather” but would still be performing. Sandle-footed and garbed in head-to-toe black, Moyet took to the stage ahead of The Innocence Mission to perform an acoustic, five-song set.

Opening with the autobiographical "Ordinary Girl" (from Raindancing), Moyet thrilled her fans with selections from Hoodoo, including "Wishing You Were Here", "Rise", and "It Won’t Be Long". The unexpected high point of the set came as Moyet treated the audience to a mesmerizing cover of Jacques Brel’s "Ne Me Quitte Pas". Moyet is truly a seasoned live performer (in her heyday she sang to sold-out audiences at Wembley Arena) who knows how to captivate a crowd. It is a confident performer who dares to push their voice, stripped down to the most basic acoustic accompaniment, to the forefront, and only a remarkable voice could withstand such raw scrutiny. Alison Moyet met this challenge with seeming ease and gave a flawless, albeit much too short, performance.

But one thought always remained following that abbreviated performance one rainy night in September back in '91: if that was how Alison Moyet sounded live while feeling under the weather, I could only wait with baited breath and hope that it wouldn't be long until she’d be back on stage with a full-length show and feeling 100%. Well, I've waited 17 years for that opportunity and will find out on October 10th when she brings her tour to the old Westbury Music Fair (now called North Fork Bank Theater or something equally as commercial and bland).

So, here's a little taste of this luscious vocal powerhouse, whose marvelously deep and husky voice rattles your emotions and makes every hair on your arm stand up!

Her mesmerizing rendition of "Windmills of Your Mind" from The Voice:

Also from The Voice, "Cry Me a River":

From her debut solo album Alf, the smash "All Cried Out":