Triskaidekaphobia: How 2013 Taught Me to Stop Worrying and Love The Blob

Evil Dead

The title of this post is misleading. I’ve always loved The Blob. Since I was about five, the concept of a large gelatinous mass striking terror and fear into the hearts of an entire city was nothing short of hilarity defined. When it came to other horror films, I was a devout practitioner of abstinence, lest I micturate in my trousers.

I couldn’t make it through Laurel & Hardy’s Babes in Toyland because of the scene with the “Boogey Men” or The Goonies because Sloth made me cry. I could handle the Halloweentown movies on Disney Channel but just barely. One time, I rented Ernest Scared Stupid from Blockbuster and underwent what I would still describe as severe psychological trauma.

Growing up, I wore GoodNite diapers for a length of time I would never bring up on a first date. Or any date really. I remember one night where I slept in my parents’ bedroom because I kept thinking of the bassline from Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Yes. I was afraid of a bassline. This happened when I was around, I kid you not, twelve years old. I was on the floor of their room though, so don’t get weird about this. Imagine how I held up to the DVD covers for A Nightmare on Elm Street and Child’s Play.

But then I met Elizabeth, my girlfriend, when I was 20, who’s into all the things I am and horror movies. Now, I’m not one to recommend changing yourself for a significant other but, regardless, I decided dating Elizabeth was the time I’d finally conquer my fears of all the monsters which haunted my youth. At 20 and now 21, I’d finally learn how to walk into a Spencer Gifts without enduring a minor panic attack whilst near the Jason Voorhees action figures.

Bloody Elizabeth

Before we’d taken to the Facebook officiation of our relationship, I watched The Evil Dead so we could have something horror related to talk about. And I watched it on my computer in the day time with my finger over the mute button so I wouldn’t jump out of my skin when I felt like something was about to pop out. And, shockingly, I made it through and enjoyed myself, damn it! The gore, the monsters, the occult references: it wasn’t scary anymore. It was fun.

The first time she came to really hang out my house, we watched Evil Dead 2 and Re-Animator. Evil Dead 2 has a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and, by God, does it deserve it. Before I knew it, I’d become a believer in the power of campy horror. Midway through the movie, I was actively contemplating how to procure a chainsaw hand, a fake shotgun and copious amounts of fake blood for an Ash Williams Halloween costume. To top it off, I fell asleep during Re-Animator. Which is to say I did not stay up all night thinking about and fearing Re-Animator but instead fell asleep during it. Fear was conquered and I felt like a demigod. Please hold your laughter.

They Live

But what of horror films without the cheap, low-budget splatstick like the aforementioned? What about the really scary ones? I still haven’t voyaged into the world of The Exorcist or Sinister or anything like that and it’ll be some time before I feel comfortable doing so. But, hey, I have seen Hellraiser and clips from Child’s Play. And, more importantly, I made it through The Shining.

So what does it all mean? Why the sudden indulgence into horror films? For many, watching this sort of material is either still off limits or something they’ve been doing since they were tiny. As a recent convert, I’m enthralled by the breadth of a genre I’d previously written off. Like hip-hop, there are so many nooks and crannies to explore.

The horror films I’ve watched run the gamut from unsettling to comical (sometimes intentionally, mostly unintentionally) and this grab bag of material is only drawing me deeper. Do I think any of these movies are of Oscar caliber? No, but then I haven’t seen Psycho yet. Nonetheless, they’re certainly entertaining and thought-provoking in a way I never thought they’d be.

The Shining

When blood splatters, when the dead rise to kill, when dads go mad and try to kill their families, it all points to how askew the universe we live in really seems to be, if only by metaphor. Things are not as they seem, things go bump in the night and we are helpless to stop it to a great degree. Watching horror movies typified living in the year after the world was supposed to end. On December 21 of last year, we didn’t all die and it might’ve been more refreshing if we had.

2013 proved we’ll be around for a while longer and sometimes even greater than the fear of death is the fear and confusion living brings around. The campy horror movies are entertaining because they show the real world to be far more frightening than the worlds we see on the screen. Waking up in the world of drone strikes and economic chaos is almost more terrifying than falling asleep to be visited by Freddy Krueger. The really scary movies are horrifying precisely because of how close they are to reality to begin with. No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh will always be a more terrifying antagonist than someone named Pinhead or the Toxic Avenger.

For the longest time, I thought life was best lived without horror movies. This year, I conquered my fear. I’m working my way through them all if I can. At least the eighties ones. Because if you tried to make me watch Sinister, I’d still spontaneously combust.


Gravity: Never Mind the Bullocks, It’s a Metaphor

Gravity Title Card

For a film called Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s latest gets most of its weight from visual spectacle. If you’ve got any film buffs on your Facebook or Twitter feeds, you’re bound to have seen many, many, many variants on “OMG GRAVITY THE VISUALS SPACE SPACE SPACE WOW SO MUCH PRETTY SO INTENSE!” But the movie makes for an interesting case study: can a film survive on surface alone? Admittedly, Cuarón’s “surface” is perhaps the most visually innovative and truthful take on the cosmos since 2001: A Space Odyssey. But do the scales’ balance turning away from storytelling to kaleidoscopic vision cause the film to, tee hee, lose its gravity?

I’m in the minority when it comes to offering any kind of critique of this movie. On Rotten Tomatoes, its ratings are about as far from disarrayed splatter as possible. Oscar buzz is generating and both critics and everyday viewers are talking about Gravity like it’s the latest addition to untouchable cinematic gospel. For the most part, I’m with them. I was never bored because, without exaggeration, I was enthralled from start to finish. Cuarón succeeded admirably at creating a more attention-grabbing take on the same cinematic playground Kubrick helped build decades ago.

Gravity Bullock

But let’s get the bad news out of the way first. The acting and writing is too inconsistent with the dramatic situation to be generating such high praise. When Sandra Bullock is on 8% oxygen, Clooney keeps bantering with her, exuding charm and filled with levity. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I was almost out of oxygen, I’d become more of an introvert than I ever was before. Later, when Bullock’s flipping between radio signals, trying to find any help she can, she ends up hearing from a Chinese man and his dogs. She then proceeds to howl at the moon along with these amiable mutts. Given her impending mortality, I’m concerned with her thinking animal imitation should be on the top of her priority list as a means of comfort and/or killing the time. It’s a cardinal storytelling sin to create characters inconsistent with the plot they’ve found themselves in. And it’s a sin I can’t absolve Cuarón of as a viewer.

Good news: it really is as visually compelling as all those people on your news feeds are saying. You do, beyond a shadow of a doubt, feel like you’re in space. The absence of sound and presence of weightlessness is executed masterfully. The long takes, the close-ups, the perspective shots, the spacescapes, it’s all more than enough to fill you with awestruck wonder.

Cuarón made a great decision in continuing his partnership with Emmanuel Lubezki as his cinematographer. Lubezki has done cinematography for Terrence Malick’s last three movies as well as five of Cuarón’s other films; the man is a master of stunning your eyeballs. For someone with The Tree of Life under his belt, it’s a real accomplishment to say this may be his best work yet.

Gravity Tether

In Gravity, the protagonists races agains time in space. On that level, Gravity succeeds as a very poignant visual metaphor. On earth as it is in heaven, man’s greatest struggles are against space, time, each other and themselves. Bullock and Clooney’s predicament is more anxious because they are up against a backdrop we’ll never be able to stack up with distraction. In space, cities can’t go up, advertising can’t permeate, and artwork can’t plaster the walls. As these astronauts orbit the earth, their danger is eye-opening. Cuarón’s greatest genius lies not in his awe-inspiring visual work but by his insistence to use space not as an escape but as the greatest possible reminder of our own physical and philosophical predicament as mankind.

Gravity shows us as we really are. Stripped of civilization, we are all of us engaged in a battle in which space and time will crush us. There is no star baby in Gravity, no insistence man will one day succeed to match the earth’s power. Space and time are more powerful than any of the characters in this movie and any person watching it as well. Kudos to Cuarón for making such a true viewpoint palatable and engaging.

Watching Gravity will press you down with your own smallness and mortality and the things we do to ignore them. What is the reason for all this trouble? Another satellite has shattered and the debris is coming to kill our heroes. It’s our own rebellion against our supposed place in the universe which eventually becomes our undoing. It took man’s brilliance to get us into space but Clooney and Bullock’s eventual survival or lack thereof (no spoilers here) once they’ve arrived up there is more reliant on chance than their own wits. If anyone gets home, it’s because of sheer grace. Whether that grace is found inside or outside our universe is up to the viewer to decide.

Donnie Darko: Fate and Meaning Down the Rabbit Hole

Donnie Darko

(Spoilers are in here, so don’t get mad!)

I don’t understand Donnie Darko and you don’t either. Even Donnie Darko doesn’t understand Donnie Darko. I’ve read the Jake Gyllenhall interviews to prove it. Darko stands out as a film whose allure is both obvious and mysterious. The obvious draw is its mystery and the mystery is its obvious draw. Why is it that cult followings establish themselves around movies which tend to ask big, existential questions wrapped in intricate, nothing-else-like-it plot lines?

There’s an irresistible pull towards mystery teetering on the edge of reality. We are a people who loves surreal reminders the universe and planet we inhabit is on the brink of insane apocalypse at any given moment. Like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia or any Terry Gilliam movie, Richard Kelly’s magnum opus is a reminder of the strange things which happen all the time. Entrenched in reality yet sopped in possible illusion, Donnie’s struggle to understand his fate is relatable even in the face of being totally unique.

Given the myriad of questions raised by the film, it’s surprising the ones which resonate the most have more to do with Donnie than Frank the Rabbit. You’d think we’d all be trying to figure out how the giant, creepy rabbit fits into all this. And those questions are inevitably raised but only as a means to an end. It’s a testament to the acting, script and direction’s power that Donnie is more mysterious and worthy of inquiry than the frightful bunny plaguing his thoughts. The central thesis of the film (plug your ears here if you haven’t seen it, because spoilers are a-comin’) is though Donnie’s visions guarantee his death, the viewer is left to decide whether he ended up saving the world as a result.

As Donnie sees it, the search for God is absurd. At least, that’s how he puts it to his psychiatrist. And God here means meaning, justice, self-satisfaction, wisdom and understanding. Walking for a while in his world makes it easy to discern just why he feels that way. Everyone around him acts and speaks irrationally, without regard for social norms or logic, at least to some degree.

Donnie Darko 3

At his school, in particular, it seems like his teachers and Patrick Swayze’s hilariously simplistic motivational speaker are intent on putting black-and-white constructs on reality. There’s some truth to the ideas Swayze espouses. Most actions are located somewhere on the spectrum between fear and love. Freud’s behind that idea too, even if his idea of love largely revolves around what Donnie and Gretchen get up to at the Halloween party. But Donnie is too shrewd to think the world and human action is that easy to understand. Black and white constructs don’t really do much for you if your evenings are generally spent rendezvousing with Harvey from Hell and your days are spent pondering a book about time travel by an old lady with David Lee Roth hair.

Complicating it further are the bubbly streams of fate emanating from everyone’s chests. Donnie alone can see these streams in all their mystery. The terror he talks about with his psychiatrist is more substantiated by these visions than those of Frank. Frank, at least, gives him a mysterious sense of fearful purpose by taking him down the proverbial rabbit hole. But imagine seeing the trajectory everyone was on and realizing their “fate” seemed to be a stream of irrational, absurd actions without any end goal in mind. The wise among us have raised the same idea as probable throughout history — destiny and free will are themes which stretch all the way back to Homer and the Bible, the gods orchestrating events without much referral to purpose — but Donnie’s just got the visuals to prove it.

Donnie Darko GIF

What makes a hero? A hero is someone who sees the same things everyone else does but gains enough objectivity to want to change those things. Donnie is a Christ who can’t find God and Frank is a terrifying, supernatural sense of duty leading him to a sacrifice which will save the world. It’s either that or Donnie’s just caught up in his nightmares, occasionally dreaming of a world in which his purpose matters. Whichever way you read the movie, Donnie either has to come out a savior, a prophet or both. Whether it was all a dream or the seemingly improbable themes of time travel, fate and otherworldly visitation are meant to be taken as real, the end of the film finds a young man fulfilling a fate which is hard to understand but no doubt necessary.

The riddles the film presents us with are difficult to solve. When the protagonist and the actor who plays him can’t come up with a this-is-what-it-means interpretation, we’d be foolish to act like we can. Given all the data, Donnie laughs at the end of the story. “We all die alone,” he fearfully says earlier on. But when he dies alone himself, it seems he knows it’s coming. And whether or not it saves the world, whether or not it was all a paranoid, schizophrenic dream, a prophecy or a mission from God, he laughs all the same.

At the end of the film, a storm or time vortex gathers and, after Donnie has apparently found a reason to live and then lost it in Gretchen, he gains an even greater sense of meaning by weathering the storm. Absurdism says life is laughable because we will all be cut down by death and, thus, life has no purpose. Donnie Darko says life is laughable because we will all be cut down by death and life surprisingly does have purpose after all.

Prisoners: Justice, Violence and The Spaces Between


Nonviolence is not an easy thing to make fans of. Pacifists can hear the question coming before they even fully open up about their viewpoints. “Nonviolence in all cases, huh? What if someone threatened your family?” The latest film from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners, fearlessly voyages into the possibility of an answer.

Within fifteen minutes of Prisoners starting, Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard’s daughters go missing. Child abduction isn’t something anyone is going to take lying down, especially not if you have the physique of Wolverine. The first likely suspect is Paul Dano playing a mentally stunted character whose screen presence is inflected by an almost otherworldly sense of eerie quietness. Jake Gyllenhall is the detective running the case, who concludes Dano simply couldn’t have been responsible. Jackman has reason to believe otherwise and goes by an “eye-for-an-eye” ethic which would have Jean Valjean frowning. After abducting Dano, the Guantanamo-Bay-on-steroids style questioning begins.

Prisoners is a film whose title wraps inside, outside and around its message and characters. After the daughters’ abduction, it becomes apparent everyone in the film is a prisoner. Some are imprisoned by the legal system, some are imprisoned by a fearful and protective sense of duty while all seem to be imprisoned by a web of awful actions. Jackman is a victim who becomes a perpetrator, convicted by his own resolve to set things right in a world gone mad. Gyllenhall is shackled by his pride (he’s never not solved a case), his precinct’s bureaucratic ensnarements and Jackman’s vigilanteism.

Villeneuve hits on a theme often whispered in cinema but here stated with a much higher decibel range: often, evil is the product of entrapment. Isn’t imprisonment, to some degree, the Christian doctrine of sin anyway? Sin is willful action only insofar as it is dominated by a disposition towards evil to start with. We must learn to do good because evil comes easy.

But what of the types of situations presented here by Villeneuve? What of violence in the face of innocence’s robbery? Jackman’s character here is no guiltier in his actions than the Psalmists are in their language. When your daughter is stolen, can you be blamed for taking action? The legal system works when the circuits are closed but, in this story, the wires are live and electrocuting everybody. Do not repay evil for evil, certainly, but Jackman thinks he’s doing good. Dano is dehumanized to begin with, even more so by the torture, and Jackman realizes midway through that the process of violence is taking a toll on his own wellbeing too. In the cause of justice, especially justice done by violence, you’ve got to know your suspect is a villain and not just another victim.

Terrence Howard’s character is the other side of the coin. He’s a bystander who doesn’t quite know what to do with the evil around him. His greatest stride towards justice is his fragile faith it will be done, independent of his actions. He tearfully admonishes Jackman for not knowing whether what he’s doing is right or even if Dano knows where their daughters are to begin with. What a fearful thing to have that kind of blood on your hands if you’re wrong.

Prisoners’ brilliance lies in its ability to do away with traditional conceptions of heroes and villains in the face of abduction, violence and the search for what is just. Men are not moral imperatives. Their decisions will always be plagued by imprisonment because, to some degree, our souls are in solitary confinement. Justice is so hard to do in the world of Prisoners for the same reason it’s so hard to do in our world: we are imprisoned by fear, afraid of anything resembling the precarious freedom of faith, and our actions are dominated by this take on reality.

Jackman sits beside a boarded up shower he’s made to pour only scalding hot or freezing cold water on to his prime suspect. As he recites the Lord’s Prayer, he can’t muster up the ability to finish the corollary: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.

The film really gets a handle on the difficulty of nonviolent acceptance of circumstance when anything like agnosticism remains. If the cosmos isn’t reeling towards justice and all we have to protect ourselves and our families is our own intuition, then we must renege on all the beautiful principles laid down by Jesus, Gandhi and MLK. But if our whistling in the dark is heard by justice personified, then we can rest assured our forgiveness or our reliance on the means of peace is not in vain. As Prisoners concludes, it is random chance circumstance or benevolent, purposeful fate that solves the mystery and sets its characters free. And given the spiritual undertones of the film, the latter seems more likely. “‘Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord.”

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