Sunday, April 23, 2006

"Crash" - my last comments, I swear...

From my new column at, titled "The Critic's Critic"...

This column is devoted to movie critics - and skewering them for writing what I feel are off-base, misguided or entirely idiotic opinions of films past and present. While I will attempt to remain committed to logical argument and avoid infantile name-calling, I must caution you - some critics really deserve it.

Perhaps the most fitting first target of this column is the king of kings amongst mainstream film critics, Roger Ebert, and his review of the 2005 Best Picture Oscar winner, Crash. Like many critics, Ebert overwhelmingly loved Crash and awarded it four stars in his May 5, 2005 review.

To summarize, Ebert lauds the film’s suggestion that racial conflict will inevitably produce progress towards a more harmonious multi-cultural existence. Decent enough message, I agree, although I feel the film’s success at projecting that message was greatly compromised by writer/director Paul Haggis’ blunt-as-a-medieval-anvil storytelling. Therefore I feel Ebert’s praise is largely undeserved.

Ebert begins his review by summarizing the film’s plot, in my opinion structured as MTV-meets-Shortcuts, before adding the first observation that prompts me to choke on my Chinese food:

Haggis writes with such directness and such a good ear for everyday speech that the characters seem real and plausible after only a few words.

Directness? Yes. Real and plausible? Not even close, precisely because the dialogue is too direct. The racial slurs arrive with the force and frequency of a gatling gun, almost reaching hyperbolic levels with Sandra Bullock as the wife of Brendan Fraser’s district attorney. Her heavy-handed opening salvo of racist dialogue was an immediate blow to the film’s believability.

She screams of a Hispanic locksmith working in her home, “Tell them next time we’d appreciate it if you didn’t send a gang member…the guy in there with the shaved head, the pants around his ass, the prison tattoos…and he’s not going to sell our keys to one of his gangbanger friends? Your amigo in there is going to sell our key to one of his homies.”

Now on to Don Cheadle’s character, who wonderfully sustains the film’s detachment from reality by calling his Hispanic girlfriend a Mexican. She responds, “My father's from Puerto Rico. My mother's from El Salvador. Neither one of those is Mexico,” and he then replies, “Well then I guess the big mystery is, who gathered all those remarkably different cultures together and taught them all how to park their cars on their lawns?” Must every character in this film take every opportunity available to spit out any racial stereotype or slur that comes to mind? Is that how contemporary middle- and upper-class Los Angeles really functions?

At these moments I didn’t feel like I was watching characters existing in the same world as me. Rather, Crash plays like the ham-fisted result of a screenwriter who’s too afraid of being subtle because he’s too cynical towards what he apparently feels is an oblivious audience - one that won’t understand after the first fifty racial slurs that his movie is about - yes, racism.

Next on Ebert’s review:

For me, the strongest performance is by Matt Dillon, as the racist cop in anguish over his father. He makes an unnecessary traffic stop when he thinks he sees the black TV director and his light-skinned wife doing something they really shouldn't be doing at the same time they're driving. True enough, but he wouldn't have stopped a black couple or a white couple. He humiliates the woman with an invasive body search, while her husband is forced to stand by powerless, because the cops have the guns -- Dillon, and also an unseasoned rookie (Ryan Phillippe), who hates what he's seeing but has to back up his partner. That traffic stop shows Dillon's cop as vile and hateful.

But later we see him trying to care for his sick father, and we understand why he explodes at the HMO worker (whose race is only an excuse for his anger). He victimizes others by exercising his power, and is impotent when it comes to helping his father. Then the plot turns ironically on itself, and both of the cops find themselves, in very different ways, saving the lives of the very same TV director and his wife. Is this just manipulative storytelling? It didn't feel that way to me, because it serves a deeper purpose than mere irony: Haggis is telling parables, in which the characters learn the lessons they have earned by their behavior.

Here Ebert actually gets it somewhat right where other critics and viewers fail. He realizes that Dillon saving Thandie Newton - the same woman he molested on the side of the street - from a car crash is not senseless irony yet not a clean-sweeping act of moral redemption either. But Ebert seems to buy into Haggis’ suggestion that because Dillon has a crummy home situation we should at least reconcile his vile behavior towards Newton. However, the moral scales just don’t balance. It takes much more than deep-seated frustration with your home life to act with that kind of cruelty towards a complete stranger AND her husband. In this respect I couldn’t help perceiving Dillon as anything more than an inherent monster aggravated by circumstance. And saving Newton from the crash? It’s his job and people were watching. Any genuine interest he had in saving her life felt entirely undeserved after the malice he showed forcibly finger-banging her roadside. If Haggis did desire to depict Dillon as Ebert interpreted - someone who overcompensates outside the home for the powerlessness he feels there - then the writer/director chose a sickeningly heavy-handed way of doing it. Furthermore, if Dillon’s character was truly a decent man he wouldn’t have intimidated his partner into keeping his mouth shut about the incident. Next:

(Crash) shows the way we all leap to conclusions based on race -- yes, all of us, of all races, and however fair-minded we may try to be -- and we pay a price for that. If there is hope in the story, it comes because as the characters crash into one another, they learn things, mostly about themselves. Almost all of them are still alive at the end, and are better people because of what has happened to them. Not happier, not calmer, not even wiser, but better. Then there are those few who kill or get killed; racism has tragedy built in.

The ham-fisted poetic nonsense of “crashing into each other” aside, Ebert once again fails to truly engage the film. Did the characters really earn their emergence from its - oh, I’ll buy into it - wreckage as truly better people? The transformation of Sandra Bullock’s character comes about with so meager an impetus that in her story, the film continues to abandon any attachment to reality. No one is that damn fickle. So yes, she is an undeservedly better person by the end of the movie.

For Matt Dillon’s reprehensible character, saving a life as a consequence of doing his job is perhaps one degree of moral improvement - about as significant as a one degree rise in Antarctica’s temperature. And Dillon’s partner, played by Phillippe, probably emerges from the film the worst off. If he had truly been “bettered” by his experiences with his partner and Terrence Howard’s character, he wouldn’t have acted so coldly towards his African-American hitchhiker or blown him away out of baseless suspicion. Oh, but there was a base of suspicion - a stereotype of black people as gun-toting, cold-blooded killers. When he discovers that his passenger was reaching not for a gun but a guardian angel medallion similar to the one he carries in his car, Phillippe’s character doesn’t learn from or atone for his tragic misjudgment. Instead, he hides the body and fails to own up to his crime. Real moral improvement there.

Ebert concludes:

Not many films have the possibility of making their audiences better people. I don't expect “Crash” to work any miracles, but I believe anyone seeing it is likely to be moved to have a little more sympathy for people not like themselves. “Crash” is a film about progress.

No, “Crash” is a film about hopeless stagnation. The film is more a circle than a straight line - or even a zigzagged one that ultimately ends up ahead of its beginning point. It’s a hyperkinetic cross-section of multi-directional racism in contemporary Los Angeles with vogue photography marked by an oversaturated color key. It fails to say anything about the issue of prejudice except for brilliantly pointing out that we’re all subject to it. Well of course we are - it’s human nature and evolutionary. If I wasn’t prejudiced in some way, I’d have no qualms about walking down dark and smoky alleys at night or opening the bank door for men in ski masks. Although this message is indeed lost on people sometimes, Haggis is too busy with his sledgehammer-strength manner of storytelling to express it with any artistic subtlety. No, Paul, really - there were BLANKS in the gun? No f’n way!

As for Ebert’s remark that the film will move viewers “to have a little more sympathy for people not like themselves” - if anything, Crash inspires less. The film’s caricatured depiction of the racist and prejudiced invites much more scorn towards those people than sympathy for their targets. In other words, Crash breeds intolerance for the intolerant. Even Roger Ebert fails to crash into this truth.

(photo courtesy of

Thursday, April 13, 2006

V for Vendetta (warning: here be SPOILERS)

Viva la revolucion, bollocks to everything else. "V for Vendetta" fizzles with subversive rhetoric about as empty-headed as the lobotomy wing of your local insane asylum. For all its compelling images, swift fight scenes and breakneck pacing, the film fails to realize itself as little more than a stylized battle cry of "we're not gonna take it; no, we ain't gonna take it anymore."

Since I'm by no means compelled to write with any element of originality in here blog, I'm just going to paste the plot synopsis from and add commentary here and there:

Set against the futuristic landscape of totalitarian Britain, V For Vendetta tells the story of a mild-mannered and elf-eared young woman named Evey (NATALIE PORTMAN) who is rescued from a life-and-death-and-rape-in-a-grimey-alley situation by a masked man (HUGO WEAVING) known only as “V.” Incomparably charismatic, fatally long-winded, and ferociously skilled in the art of combat and deception, V ignites a revolution when he urges his fellow citizens to rise up against tyranny and oppression through his all-too-quotable and alliterative aphorisms. As Evey uncovers the truth about V’s mysterious background, she also discovers the truth about herself – she's a non-sexual masochist, and emerges as his unlikely ally in the culmination of his utterly selfish and idiotic plan to bring freedom and justice back to a society fraught with cruelty and corruption and a long-suppressed hard-on for explosions.

With their screenplay - adapted, transposed and/or inspired by/from Alan Moore's graphic novel of the same name - the Wachowski brothers unabashedly rape the gloomy dystopia of Orwell's "1984" while Saussure and other semiologists jerk off in the corner. Of course by extension perhaps Moore is just as accountable for the film's unproductive mishmash of ideas, but alas, I have not read the novel or comics. This film didn't boost my motivation to do so either.

In "V for Vendetta" the Wachowskis take Orwell's oppressive England of the future - including the government's media manipulation and historical re-writes - and then replace Big Brother with Chancellor Sutler's (John Hurt) barking head. Next, they throw in some exhausting monologues from V that frisk the idea of sliding signifiers and meaning as a product of interpersonal construction. Of course these concepts are delivered in a "Saussure for Dummies" format through phrases like, "Behind this mask is an idea, and ideas are bulletproof."

Being the progenitors of the wretched "Matrix" sequels, the Wachowskis and director James McTeigue (1st AD on "The Matrix" films) must also deliver an action quotient. Therefore V is not only a carnivalesque demagogue but also an expert with explosives and knives - then again, that's kind of carnivalesque of him as well. Thankfully the wire-fu is kept at a minimum, which makes for some appetizing fight scenes in "V for Vendetta." It's the main course of glib political rabble-rousing that induces the film's nauseating aftertaste.

V defines his ideology in opposition to those of Britain's ruling party; he doesn't seem to embrace any cause of his own. In other words, he's kind of like today's Democrats - no true agenda, but you can be damn sure it's far away from that of the Republicans. But bollocks to the hordes of critics who label him a terrorist with whom sympathizing is impossible. The government V attempts to overthrow is indeed vile and venal and all those other v-words. Although he doesn't seem to pretend there'll be no "collateral damage," he is no mass murderer. He doesn't attempt to terrorize the citizenry, but to rally them.

Yet V's insurrection and theatrics thinly mask what V literally stands for: vengeance. As a subject in a bioweapons test gone awry, V is out to get the government for torturing and disfiguring him. The fact that his enemies are part of an evil totalitarian regime is convenient, because it makes it easier for him to garner allies. But would V wear the likeness of Guy Fawkes (the Briton who attempted to blow up Parliament in 1605's "Gunpowder Plot") and start the all-too-romanticized revolution if he wasn't so pissed off that the government damaged him dermatologically? Probably not - and that makes for one selfish, tunnel-visioned revolutionary with no cause, but rather an anti-cause.

The likely retort to my criticisms will be that V's lack of an agenda stems from his desire to empower the populace to start their own government and rule themselves fairly. While an admirable goal - hey, down with dictators - it's too bad V seems to forget something: that NEVER works. The revolutionary spirit will persist after the revolution, the inevitably unhappy will continue to revolt, and stagnation will ensue. Leaders - however democratic but by necessity authoritative - are needed.

V would be the most likely candidate - hell, by the end of the film half the country is wearing his garb like 4th graders on Halloween. But V seems to foresee the chaos that will ensue after Parliament is blown to bits and true to his irresponsibly revolutionary and selfish spirit, he effectively commits suicide after etching the names off of his "To Kill" list. Because vengeance is his, V doesn't stick around and lead the masses through the wreckage of the revolt he started. We aren't left to worry about that wreckage either, because in "V for Vendetta," all that matters is revolution for revolution's sake.

(photo courtesy of

Monday, April 10, 2006

Fake Blood, "Blair Witches" and Low Budgets: Independent Horror Films

Independent horror films are among the scariest, funniest, and most disturbing works of cinema ever to meet the eyes and ears of an audience. The clever and uncompromising "do it yourself" (DIY) ethic of independent horror filmmakers has resulted in a massive, self-perpetuating body of work that continues to thrive today in films like "Hostel" and "Shaun of the Dead." But what defines an independent horror film? What sets one apart from a conventional, "studio" horror film? An examination of "Night of the Living Dead," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Evil Dead," "Dead Alive," and "The Blair Witch Project" will highlight defining characteristics of independent horror films as well as the pattern of growth that this category of films has experienced over the last forty years. These five films have been selected on the basis of their pervasive influence, widespread popularity, and exemplification of key traits of independent horror cinema.

Although silent films like Wiene’s "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and the hokey science fiction movies of the 1950s indeed laid the groundwork for horror cinema, George Romero’s "Night of the Living Dead" (1968) was a watershed of independent horror movies for multiple reasons. Romero’s film depicts a zombie infestation of a pastoral town. Surviving humans are bottled together in an isolated old house, where they argue over how best to stay alive as they ward off their undead would-be devourers. The end of "Night of the Living Dead" is wholly in the vein of independent film and similar to that of "Easy Rider" - the protagonist is killed, but not by zombies. In a not-so-subtle example of racial profiling, the rescuing law enforcement brigade shoots the sole black survivor of the zombie onslaught without first checking to ensure that he wasn‘t a zombie. Romero denies that the ending was intended to communicate any social messages and insists that the actor (Duane Jones) was cast not because he was black, but because he was the most qualified man for the part. The director’s point is believable; given Romero’s tight budget, it is difficult to imagine that he had hundreds of actors to choose from. But the decision to write the zombies as cannibals, made because of the shock value of eating human flesh, was indisputably an anti-mainstream move on the filmmakers’ part. Therefore this quality of "Night of the Living Dead" and the film’s bleak conclusion - ostensibly devoid of all hope for the human race - comfortably position Romero’s film within the canon of independent cinema.

"Night of the Living Dead’s" meager budget of $114,000 certainly tied Romero’s hands, but he proved to be an unparalleled escape artist by using many of the film’s crew to serve as actors in the film. Their performances are indeed awkward and stunted, but they do what is necessary: they scream, bicker, and in the case of the actors performing as zombies, groan and stumble. Writer John Russo portrayed a zombie and also assumed the duties of a stuntman - he volunteered to be set on fire when no other cast member would do so. Karl Hardman, who played a survivor languishing in the basement of the house, also served as the film’s makeup artist and sound engineer. Pulling double duty in this manner underscores the devotion of the crew to their project and, by extension, their similarity to other independent filmmakers.

The zombies in "Night of the Living Dead" exhibit the "DIY" approach of independent horror cinema to the fullest. Their make-up is indeed sparse and the black-and-white photography likely was an asset to the filmmakers in this respect by sparing them the difficulty of working with a color palette. Playing the role of bloody flesh was fried ham covered with Bosco chocolate syrup, and a local butcher provided authentic blood and guts where necessary in exchange for his own small role in the film. The house was lent to the filmmakers by an owner who had intended to bulldoze it after production, so Romero and company were free to destroy it to their liking. The dissonant music score was borrowed from the Capitol/EMI Records stock music library (the copyright of which was in the public domain) and thus cost the filmmakers only $1,500 to use.

Filmmakers tried, and failed, to reach distribution deals with Columbia and American Independent Pictures, who passed because the film was black-and-white and not upbeat or romantic enough, respectively. "Night of the Living Dead" was ultimately distributed by the Walter Reade Organization, who publicly advertised taking out a $50,000 insurance policy for any viewer who died of a heart attack while watching the movie. At its 1968 premiere in Pittsburgh, the film received a standing ovation only to suffer from a subsequent Christian backlash for what conservatives perceived to be Satanic themes. But the strongest influence of "Night of the Living Dead" was felt by filmmakers in the following decades who would draw inspiration from Romero’s film in order to make their own contributions to independent horror cinema.

One of those filmmakers was Tobe Hooper, who along with Kim Henkel would write "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" in 1974. There would likely be no Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers without this film and its psychotic Ed Gein-inspired terror, Leatherface. For this reason the film is almost equal to "Night of the Living Dead" in the magnitude of its influence upon subsequent horror cinema. It depicts a group of college students heading through scenic Texas to visit the desecrated grave of one of their grandfathers. After being horrifically slashed by a deranged hitchhiker, they stop at a dilapidated house nearby, wherein resides Leatherface, his psychotic cannibal relatives, and a ghastly interior pieced together from the family’s human trophies.

The cannibalism in "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is even more appalling than that depicted in "Night of the Living Dead" because the cannibals are not dead or devoid of human consciousness. Indeed, Leatherface and his relatives are biologically - albeit not necessarily psychologically - human beings. A living human conscionably killing another human and devouring their flesh is much more difficult to wrap one‘s head around than a zombie infestation. The characters’ roots in the true life story of serial killer Ed Gein make the cannibalistic elements of the film even more horrifying, because audiences familiar with Gein’s story are having their faces rubbed in the disturbing figments of the film’s truth. Hooper’s disregard for the audience’s comfort level is indicative of the type of intractable vision and anti-mainstream attitude that marks many independent filmmakers.

Unlike the majority of mainstream film stars, the cast of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" truly suffered for their art and placed their well-being in the hands of a slipshod crew. While being chased outdoors by Leatherface, actress Marilyn Burns suffered enough cuts from shrubs and tree branches to visibly stain her clothes with blood. Another actress who appeared to be strung up with a meat hook by Leatherface was actually placed in a great deal of pain by a nylon cord that was tightly wrapped between her legs. And Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface, repeatedly banged his head against doorways and other raised objects because his peripheral vision was so limited by the prosthetic mask he wore. The interior of the house was adorned by dead animals, rotting food, and real human skeletons imported from India - all of these ingredients combined to make for a putrid and unbearable smell on the set. Vietnam veteran Edwin Neal, who played the hitchhiker, claimed that filming conditions on "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" were worse than those he had experienced during the war - so miserable and wretched that he would kill Hooper if he ever saw them again.

The film’s mainstream reception, or lack thereof, is also the stuff of which independent cinema is made. Sneak previews were met with numerous walk-outs, while censors in Britain and Australia wouldn’t allow the film to screen until years after its initial release. But the film’s weighty influence has been felt universally, in the barrage of imitative slasher films, the parade of sequels, and the recent remake produced by James Cameron.

Sam Raimi’s "Evil Dead" (1981) and its higher-budgeted revision, "Evil Dead 2" (1987), would expand upon the independent horror film formula devised by "Night of the Living Dead" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" by crystallizing their inherently humorous elements and bringing them to the fore. Meanwhile, the films’ bloody excess reaches a pitch not even hinted at by its independent horror predecessors. Like "Dead" and "Chainsaw," "Evil Dead" occurs in a small deserted cabin and its surrounding desolate wilderness. When a group of twenty-something vacationers happen upon a crusty old book labeled the "Necronomicon," they blithely recite its contents and unwittingly raise literal hell in the process. Suddenly undead creatures attack the cabin and convert its residents into fellow soldiers in the army of darkness. These brutal events force the sole survivor, independent horror icon Bruce Campbell in the role of Ash, to take action against the evil engulfing him.

The independent spirit of "Evil Dead" is evidenced in Bruce Campbell’s frequent busting out of his lead actor credit to assist director Sam Raimi with ornate camera movements, such as the creature point-of-view shots that careen across the ground and water. Like "Night of the Living Dead," the majority of makeup effects in "Evil Dead" are culinary in substance. The unsightly white liquid bled by the maimed dead is actually 2% milk; creamed corn was dyed green and used as zombie guts. The actors were by no means in the hands of the most professional makeup artists - Betsy Baker, who played Linda Williams, lost her eyelashes when she removed her "zombie face." The opaque white contact lenses Baker wore while battling Campbell with a dagger rendered the actress effectively blind. These consequences of "Evil Dead’s" production could be expected on its measly $50,000 budget.

"Evil Dead" and, to a much larger degree, "Evil Dead 2," were two of the first independent horror films to demonstrate the humorous elements of the genre. But they were by no means the very first: the 1978 sequel to "Night of the Living Dead," "Dawn of the Dead," also contained some Swiss Family Robinson-like humorous elements in its mall location. In "Evil Dead 2," Campbell’s battle with his possessed hand ranks with Buster Keaton’s movies as some of the greatest physical comedy caught on film. Replacing his severed hand with a chainsaw was not only a nod to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," but another hilariously absurd moment in "Evil Dead." The sheer volume of blood and guts spilled in each version of "Evil Dead" eventually numbs the audience to the gore and leaves them with no other option than to laugh. Despite the levity, Raimi did not neglect to include the type of horror that marked "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" in "Evil Dead." A sequence featuring a female vacationer being bound, lacerated and raped by tree branches was excised from the film by order of censors in some countries.

"Evil Dead" and "Evil Dead 2" reinforced the ghastly qualities of independent horror cinema while cementing its capacity for horror. Peter Jackson went even further than Raimi with "Dead Alive" (1992) by upping the fake blood ante to record-setting levels while including enough humor to bring the film to the verge of a comedy classification. The film tells the story of a milquetoast young New Zealand man named Lionel whose mother is bitten by a rabid "rat monkey" at the local zoo. As Lionel attempts to pursue a romance with an attractive woman named Paquita, he is forced to confine his raving blood-thirsty mother to their basement. Despite his efforts, mum manages to infect a growing number of neighbors. The rising tide of the undead living below him brings Lionel to overcome his reserved instincts and take action against the crowd of zombies infesting his basement.

"Dead Alive" is perhaps most notorious for its conclusion, when Lionel confronts the zombie hordes in the lobby of his house and uses a lawnmower (lifted up and used like a buzz saw) to decimate them in a brutal orgy of blood and guts. The fake blood was pumped at 5 gallons a second to bring the total tally of blood used in the film’s final moments to 300 liters. True to the DIY ethic, maple syrup was used as the crimson substance, while pork fat, latex, polyfoam and human hair were combined in varying degrees to create fake guts and limbs. On the whole, the film is believed to have used the most fake blood in movie history during its production, but an accurate measurement of this statistic is no easy task.

Like many independent horror directors, Peter Jackson’s filmmaking was full of both passion for his film’s schlocky story (written by Stephen Sinclair) and taut efficiency while making it come to life. The final cut of "Dead Alive" featured no deviations from Jackson’s original screenplay and the film even finished $45,000 under its budget of $3 million. Jackson used the remaining money on a two-day shoot in the park that featured Lionel and Paquita.

The hilarity of "Dead Alive’s" absurd surplus of gore was indeed lost on censorship boards. In Germany and the U.S. the film was cut from 104 minutes to 85, while Australia and the United Kingdom exhibited the film in full. In Jackson’s native New Zealand, where "Dead Alive" was filmed, the film grossed more per screen than "Batman Returns," the box office smash of that year. Aside from its financial success, "Dead Alive" demonstrates both the comic zenith to which independent horror can ascend and the influence of "Evil Dead" and other independent horror films in areas as removed as New Zealand.

After Jackson and Raimi pushed blood and guts to the limit, "The Blair Witch Project" (1999) represented a redirection of independent horror film by committing to an ethos of "less is more." Indeed, after Raimi and Jackson’s torrential bloodbaths, writer/directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s depiction of the horror you can‘t see was far more frightening than any rotting zombie or chainsaw-wielding maniac. In fact, the scariness of "Blair Witch" can be demonstrated by comparing two shots from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," one of which features Leatherface fully lit while the other depicts only his silhouette. Indeed the silhouette is scarier - mystery trumps gory detail. "The Blair Witch Project" demonstrates just how scary mystery can be.

Shooting for eight days on a $22,000 budget likely made the minimalist approach all the easier. It worked. "Blair Witch" doesn’t look cheap or humorous. Indeed, as a "home movie" depicting the forest journey of three college students the film looks uncannily realistic. The film begins in Burkittesville, Maryland, where filmmakers Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard interview townspeople about the legend of the Blair Witch. Young children have been disappearing into the Black Hills Forest since the 1940s and residents of the small Maryland village have blamed the Witch for the unexplained phenomena. The three inquisitive students take cameras and camping materials deep into the forest only to discover piles of stones whose arrangement is altered every time the campers see them. Unending passages of unusual noises accompany the night sky. As Donahue, Williams, and Leonard grow increasingly distressed, their chances of escaping the Black Hills Forest grow dimmer. A year after their trip, the students’ video cameras are found and their footage is pieced together to form the movie.

The documentary aura surrounding "The Blair Witch Project" is perhaps its scariest quality - although documentaries are not the exclusive property of independent cinema, the type of ingenuity that would give birth to such an idea is the mark of a independent filmmaker. Myrick and Sanchez were so committed to the authenticity of their idea that the actors actually filmed the movie. Further, "The Blair Witch Project" was filmed with spontaneity that runs counter to the rigid planning of Peter Jackson. Donahue, Williams, and Leonard improvised all of their lines and their preparation for the film came solely in the form of a 35-page outline of the Blair Witch mythology. They entered the woods unaware of what phenomena they would experience and thus their reactions to the eerie noises and bizarre occurrences are entirely extemporaneous.

Unbeknownst to the actors, Myrick and Sanchez were the ones who shook their tent. The townspeople interviewed by the students were planted by the directors, and their responses to the students’ questions were met with surprise by the unprepared actors. To make the them genuinely agitated while filming the later days of their journey in the woods, the directors gave the actors decreasing quantities of food. Although Donahue, Williams, and Leonard didn’t experience much physical pain while filming "The Blair Witch Project," the psychological torture they endured is easily on par with that sustained by any cast in the history of independent horror.

In addition to their sadistic treatment of their actors, Myrick and Sanchez’ devotion to their subject is evident in the way they presented it. Namely, they claimed the Blair Witch legend was true. Even the actors wouldn’t learn until after the film’s release that the legend was pure confabulation on the part of Myrick and Sanchez. The myth extended into the internet, where the three actors were listed as "missing, presumed dead" on the Internet Movie Database.

"The Blair Witch Project" represented a redefinition of independent horror. Eschewing buckets of blood and armies of zombies, it instead reaches for the real as its source of horror. As the cheapest of the five films examined in this analysis of the genre, it is also perhaps the most independent. Yet it is the most successful: the film grossed $240.5 million. Still, Myrick and Sanchez’ film is somewhat rooted in the traditions of independent horror - it is experimental, its filmmakers possessed a bold and determined vision, and it was wildly popular with audiences.

So what defines an independent horror film? After analyzing "Night of the Living Dead," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Evil Dead," "Dead Alive," and "The Blair Witch Project," many criteria immediately arise as defining characteristics. Perhaps most salient is the low budget: even the most expensive of the five films, "Dead Alive," was made with such an efficient DIY ethic that it finished $45,000 under budget. A humorous detachment from macabre subject matter is also common, but not as ubiquitous as humor prompted by the film’s exposure of its cheap means of production. Physical and psychological actor punishment stemming from the low budget is another recurring feature of these films. Also, independent horror shares with independent cinema at large a disavowal, conscious or not, of mainstream conventions. The happy ending and the euphemistic glossing over of nature’s darker elements have no place in independent horror cinema. Lastly, perhaps the most trenchant fixture of independent horror cinema is the cultish appreciation these movies have engendered in audiences. The tradition of independent horror has been self-sustaining in this manner - members of those cultish audiences have often been the ones who would go on to contribute their own films to independent horror cinema.

(photos courtesy of,,,

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Star Wars: Battlefront II

This is a "try-out" review I wrote for Rochester's insider weekly, and it's probably not going to go anywhere else, so here it is:

"Star Wars: Battlefront II" takes players through the galactic civil wars of the saga's history as soldiers laser-blasting their way through the trenches of planetary conflict. But this is not another storm trooper in the army of "Star Wars" video games - "Battlefront II" is as mighty and majestic as Darth Vader himself.

Like its 2004 prequel, "Battlefront II" features more than a dozen classic "Star Wars" locations, including the ice world of Hoth and Luke Skywalker's home planet of Tatooine. Their graphical resemblance to the films is tighter than Chewbacca's grip. The lush, sun-sprinkled forest landscape of Endor is even more breathtaking in "Battlefront II" than in "Return of the Jedi." The size and detail of the environments is nearly endless - in the midst of battle one can stop at Yoda's tree trunk cabin on Dagobah or visit the detention blocks on the Death Star. But there's battle to be done and Rebel scum to destroy (or defend, if that's your thing).

Leading the charge are Jedi Knights and other major film characters such as Princess Leia. "Battlefront II" improves upon its predecessor by allowing players to strap on Boba Fett's jetpack or Han Solo's holster and play as the films' heroes. You can't play as those cuddly Ewoks, but you certainly can blast them into the next star system.

"Battlefront II" also features space combat - another feature criminally absent from "Battlefront." Unfortunately - with the exception of different nebulae and nearby planets - each space level is pretty much the same. But what do you expect, it's space.

Characters and locations from the recent "Star Wars: Episode III" film bring a completeness to "Battlefront II" that the first game didn't possess. The result is added battlegrounds like the Hellish volcanic world of Mustafar and new characters like General Grievous, the droid Jedi slayer. Indeed the saga is complete in "Battlefront II," and that includes Grievous' non-stop wheezing.

Completing the levels in "Battlefront II" is like shooting your way through a flurry of TIE Fighters. The computer is no easy opponent but it never puts up too tough a fight to win. The controls require a few minutes of adjustment but once you learn to run and shoot at the same time, "Battlefront II" becomes as addictive as death sticks.

Playing "Battlefront II" is like playing through the "Star Wars" films themselves. John Williams' unmistakable orchestral score likewise serves as the soundtrack to your planetary conquests. And if there's any piece that should accompany "Battlefront II," it's Vader's menacing "Imperial March."

Star Wars: Battlefront II
5/5 stars
Parental rating: Teen for mild language and violence
Manufacturer: LucasArts
Platforms: PlayStation 2, Xbox, PlayStation Portable (PSP), Windows PC
Retail price: $49.99
Features: Up to 24 players with a Network Adaptor
Longevity: Roughly six hours to play through every level in the game, 20 minutes each
The final boss: "Battlefront II" is an absolute blast of galactic combat and a thorough video game player's guide to the "Star Wars" galaxy

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