Fair warning, there are mild spoilers in this review.

As most people of my age who have an interest in genre film, I’m a fan of John Carpenter. Granted, his work has occasionally been hit-and-miss, but he has also provided us with classics such as his “apocalypse trilogy” (PRINCE OF DARKNESS, THE THING, and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS). Carpenter eased back from feature film directing after the often panned GHOSTS OF MARS (2001), a fun horror film rammed into a truly original (at the time) science fiction film resulting in a mish-mash of material that never quite came together.

So does THE WARD signal Carpenter’s triumphant return to feature directing? Or is it a fluttering exhalation from a dying career?

Sadly, it’s neither. Not astounding enough to match Carpenter at the height of his powers, THE WARD is equally not bad enough to reach the hilarious depths of his mis-steps. Instead, at the end of the 90 minutes of THE WARD the viewer is left with the taste of bland mush. We’ve tasted this fare before, and it comes across like a mess of pottage.

Which should not detract from the highlights of the film. Carpenter is, if nothing else, an incredibly talented eye, and it shows here. His direction is generally top-drawer, even when he’s assembling scenes that any horror fan would be able to recognize with their eyes shut in a darkened basement squeezed into a small footlocker. While the final product would come across as workmanlike under the stewardship of any other director, THE WARD’s rather banal sequences nevertheless show the artistry that a true master of the craft is capable of.

Not that Carpenter is alone, here. Yaron Orbach’s cinematography and photography direction is amazingly deft, particularly in the use of lighting and how shadows confuse an observer’s sense of space. Patrick McMahon’s editing keeps the film moving at a lively pace, though some choices of cut left me scratching my head; there’s a time and a place for holding beats slightly longer than need be, especially in furtherance of suspense. Unfortunately THE WARD misses almost every opportunity for ratcheting up tension by simply sustaining a given shot.

The casting is fine and good — Amber Heard stars as Kristen, a young woman sent to a psychiatric institution after inexplicably burning down a remote farmhouse in 1966. She brings a strong physicality to the role, which is appropriate, but her strongest note is the expressiveness of her face. Given the almost inevitable comparisons between THE WARD and other asylum-centered films such as ONE FLEW OVER THE CUKOO’S NEST, Heard’s ability to convey convincing emotive states through a glance or a lingering expression is a boon and reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in the aforementioned drama.

Starring alongside Heard is a cluster of fellow patients, each one of them strikingly attractive and possessed of telegraphed manias that their characters revolve around. The actors carry their roles well, but the problem is that by grounding their characters in their psychiatric disorders the screenwriters have taken a pathetically lazy approach to characterization. Rather than interesting, fully developed personalities who are suffering from afflictions grafted onto and eclipsing their core selves, what we are given is a series of neuroses that happen to have arms and legs. This is not how one constructs a set of well-rounded protagonists, and frankly the authors should be rather ashamed of themselves.

Jared Harris, apparently on hiatus from MAD MEN, appears here as the confusing Dr Stringer. Though Harris is of course an excellent actor, he doesn’t have all that much to work with in this role. Much of Dr Stringer goes unexplored, to the film’s detriment since a vast amount of fascinating storyline could have been teased out of the paper-thin hints we receive of his history within the hospital he directs. Especially frustrating are exchanges he has with other staff, particularly head nurse Ms Lundt (Susanna Burney delivering a somewhat phoned in Nurse Ratchet impersonation), which hint at real conflict within the institution itself that threatens to undermine the hierarchy therein that we would naturally assume to be stable.

So, a talented cast, crew, and cast, all plagued by banal elements hampering their very best efforts. Ultimately the problems with THE WARD come down to the writing. Mysteries are either under-developed or over-explained. Tired and easily recognizable elements are not brought to bear with any sense of innovation or original thought. Characterization is weak, at best, and frustratingly absent at worst. Lazy choices (why is this a period piece?) abound, betraying the viewer by hinting at what COULD have been accomplished if the scriptwriters hadn’t shied away at the last hurdle. Genuine frights are co-opted by standard jump scares, and a progression of natural tension is undercut by pedestrian execution that plays to cheap anxiety rather than challenging unsettling of surety in assumptions.

THE WARD is hardly the triumphant return to feature directing that John Carpenter deserves — and is abundantly capable of. The film is well worth seeing for viewers who are interested in seeing technical masters work their craft, or are intrigued by talented actors doing what they can with a mediocre script. For horror fans, there have been significantly better ghost stories and haunted house stories coming to DVD and theatres over the past few years. If psychiatric thrillers combined with tawdry spook stories and an ASTOUNDING number of jump scares whet your appetite for cinema, then enjoy. But for viewers who had hoped for something more original than refried plots and unconvincing characters, I’m afraid that you’ll have to look elsewhere. Or, like me, keep waiting for Carpenter to hit his high water mark once more.

On a scale of one to ten THE THINGS, I give THE WARD a two.

On a scale of one to ten SAMURAI COPs, I give THE WARD a one point five.

Midas Is King

January 22, 2010

After a tumultuous holiday season, I’m back. Managed to survive Christmas with the in-laws, crossing the border twice and flying three times, plus driving up in blizzard conditions for my birthday and New Year’s with my friends. Work rushed back in, as it is wont to do, distracting me further, and if that wasn’t bad enough I got broken into last week. Bastards stole my laptop and a bunch of other things, and I lost at least a week’s worth of work (truth to tell I’m still not sure how much I actually lost). Thankfully I was able to hit the ground running and, I think, I’m back up to form now. So no worries.

More fiction tomorrow, depending on how much I can get written tonight. Meantime I suggest all you Americans out there barrage your congressmen with e-mails and letters to protest the recent decision to remove the ban on corporate sponsorship of federal elections. This isn’t a decision that appraoches justice or equanimity! It’s nothing more than a re-opening of a door to graft and corruption that had been wisely shut for some years. So get your asses out there, proverbially speaking! Don’t let corporate interests get the idea that your elections are for sale! Remember lobbiests? This would be one-hundred times (exactly, scientifically measured and tested) worse at the very least! SO DO SOMETHING.

Take It To The Limit

December 14, 2009

I just watched Clive Barker’s Dread. I’m a huge Clive Barker fan. Have been for years. His recent work (since Coldheart Canyon) has left me a bit off, but I still consider him one of the best working writers today (let alone horror writers). So why do adaptations of his works always fall flat on their faces? It’s not like his work is particularly arcane or opaque. The stories are relatively clear and straightforward, generally speaking. So why is there always such drastic deviation from the source material? And it’s not even the big things that get changed. No — generally the hard stuff gets filmed and then they screw up on the little things that, when aggregated through the narrative, make or break the story.

It’s like how Midnight Meat Train deviated from the source material drastically in the last five minutes and that — I think — actively ruined what could have otherwise been a phenomenal adaptation and the best horror movie of the year. Dread is in the same boat as Midnight Meat Train. The ending is so fundamentally different from the short story that I actually felt ripped off. I’m usually not a stickler for adaptation’s felicity to the original. Hell, Blade Runner is a brilliant movie despite not being anything like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. But in this case what I watched wasn’t Clive Barker’s Dread it was Some Other Guy’s Movie About Fear That He Wrote After Reading The Books of Blood.

Seriously. Dread is a tight, terrifying story. The movie sets up the premises and characters well enough (despite some pretty deplorable dialogue). And then it drops the plot within sight of the finish line. It would have been a good ending, too, if it were some other film. But it’s not some other movie. It’s Dread and as such it’s a total disappointment. I can’t recommend it to anyone. And I was watching it as charitably as possible!

More fiction tomorrow.

Zombie

December 10, 2009

The thing about the zombies was that they were a total impossibility. The English language is full of constructions that let the speaker concieve of paradoxes and logical scenarios that could not happen. But language is never the world; it is only an abstraction. A representation at best. It turned out that when an actual impossibility rose up in the world people could not handle it. The world suddenly slipped their conceptions and capabilities, and the results were chaos. Rafid himself had never seen a zombie, not directly. Plenty were shown on the news and over Internet broadcasts that he had scrambled to recieve on his handheld. And there were the scores of them that he had come across in the streets and the hills. But he — like most everyone else — had found it impossible to actually look at a zombie directly. The brain simply couldn’t process the reality of the impossible thing in front of it. The best comparison that Rafid could come up with was that looking at a zombie was like looking at a heavily blurred photograph. Or heat-haze rising off of blacktop. Or a phantom shape in the dark blindspot of his peripheral vision. Whatever zombies were, they could not be there. And the mind knew it. So it would prevent them from being observed. The subtle freedoms of language were no defense.

•••

Rafid walked carefully up to the mailbox. The street had looked clear from his vantage point up on the rooftop of the gas station two blocks away, but you could never be sure. The movies had always given conssistent rules about zombies and their behavior but Rafid had quickly discovered that rules didn’t matter very much in this new world. He thought that maybe films were all concerned with conceits like that, as though everything could be wrapped up expained and presented in neat forms. Easily consumable, digested quickly in two hour bites. In reality zombies could be fast or slow, stupid or frighteningly cunning. Maybe it had something to do with lividity, Rafid thought, or rates or decomposition. But there was no way to tell — the zombies were not corpses and they were not alive. And whatever mechanisms they followed were determinedly their own.

It was overcast and the sound of the great lake’s waves rolling up on the beach was deafening. Rafid hoped that the sound would mask his presence. The open parking lot made him much more visible, and he didn’t like that, but at the same time it gave him lots of avenues of escape if he had to run. There was a brief moment of panic when he caught himself thinking about salt spray fine in the air impacting on the sturdy metal sides of the mailbox. But then he remembered that the great lake was fresh water and everyrhing was back to business, although he felt like an idiot.

The mailbox itself was thick, squat, all red steel except for the ubiquitous blue and white logo on the top. The cardboard sign listing times for pickup and transit had decayed badly despite its plastic sheath. Rafid smiled grimly at that, knowing that it was unlikely that there would ever be any more pickups. But that was alright. He pulled open the protective lid slowly so as to avoid as much noise as possible. God alone knew if the zombies would be attracted to the screech of unoiled metal or the bang of an improperly balanced lid.

Once the lid was open Rafd took a slender manilla envelope out of the inner pocket of his weathered army surplus jacket. The envelope was wrapped entirely with fine packing tape to keep out the element. Whoever opened it, should anybody ever find it, would have to slice the whole length of it with a sharp edge in order to get at the contents. Rafid hoped that they wouldn’t inadvertantly rip the pages he’d stored within. Each was thickly covered with fine clear printing in a variety of inks. The thought of his pages being torn so uncerimoniously filled Rafid with a despair that he hadn’t felt since the first few days of the new way. Still he girded himself, allowed a slow blink, and carefully closed the lid of the mailbox. His envelope was whisked away into darkness manmade but nevertheless profound. And it was done, Rafid thought, or maybe started.

Rafid knew that the mailbox was basically impervious to anything short of explosives. The elements would not get in to foul his papers; animals people and zombies would likely stay away. But when the new way went back to the old way or became an unforeseen new way his papers would still be there. Ready to be discovered, and read, and understood. A monument of comprehension in an indecipherable world. For all he knew the mailbox would outlast everything and would stand vigilant over the dust and ashes of their society. Although Rafid didn’t like the thought of the mailbox as a tombstone and his papers an epitaph, he could appreciate the humour in it all the same. Fuck it, he thought, let the ants have it. Let the aliens come down and figure out our memory.

Ducking down into a now familiar crab-like run, Rafid turned and headed for the deserted gas station to bed down for the night. He felt oddly naked, exposed to himself and the world.

The night was a long one, thick and dark. There were few streetlights left despite the power grid still being up and active. Whether this was due to weather happenstance, human agency or zombie hunting tactics, Rafid didn’t know. Did zombies hunt? Rafid considered the question. Maybe they did but at the same time that suggested a level of animality that simply did not apply to them. They seemed to hunt but maybe they were just attracted to fresh meat the way that some plants moved towards water or sunlight. There was no way to tell — the zombies were almost impossible to understand much less predict in a reliable fashion. Rafid thought he heard a small pack of them scuttle by in the watches of the night, but the sound was directionless and faded quickly. There was something that sounded like a car horn around three in the morning, deep bass and sustained as though some large beast had just stumbled into quicksand. Rafid heard it, but ignored it. He’d learned to do so.

The waves rolled in and out all night. Ordinarily they would have lulled Rafid to sleep, but now they kept him awake. He was never so lonely as when he could hear the muted roar of the surf.

The sun came up early, around five in the morning. But the day was just as overcast as the previous evening and Rafid couldn’t bring himself to stir before six. At least Rafid thought it was six. His wristwatch still worked — a solid steel piece of German craftsmanship that he had worn since his teenage years. On the back was an inscription, but Rafid refused to think about it. Besides he’d painted the brushed steel of its exterior with a thick coat of black paint in order to eliminate the chance of reflection. Standing slowly, joints long used to the stiff pain of a night spent sleeping on hard surfaces, Rafid covered and tightly folded the slim sleeping bag he had brought with him. He didn’t want dew to get into the fabric; the last thing he needed was an infection brought on by mould exposure.

Walking across the uneven tarmac roof Rafid selected a corner at a lower elevation than the corner that held his meager belongings. Then he voided his bladder. A thin, weak stream that was still colored healthily but smelled, Rafid thought, as though it were running light on standard mineral and vitamin components. Malnutrition was a disinct possibility — Rafid had never been the most discriminating eater and now his choices of diet were fewer than ever ever before. At least no one could fault him, he thought, what with the zombies being the new standard for lack of discrimination.

Memories of watching zombies eat, though ‘eat’ was obviously a misleading word, crept unerringly through Rafid’s mind as he straddled the black steel fire escape and lowered himself down to the main floor of the gas station. He tried to suppress them but mental control was much more difficult in traumatic circumstances than action movies had lead him to believe. Rafid was distracted most of the time no matter how hard he tried to focus, and when he was distracted the memories of his life in the new way filled his head.

Oddly more disturbing than the memories of the zombies attacking a person was the memories of stumbling across the remainders of said attacks. Human remains sometimes no more massive than a fine slurry puddling on a sidewalk, sometimes as much as a whole limb or even a masticated torso. A taste of slick copper filled Rafid’s mouth as he hit the simple switch on the gas station’s automated coffee maker. He hit the icon for a full pot and tried to take a more distanced perspective as the machine softly clanked through the process of preparing a filter package and boiling water for delivery. What made the victims of the zombies reanimate? Something in the zombies? Or was it something in the environment that effected them all and only waited for the right set of circumstances ro activate and take them over? Rafid couldn’t say. He couldn’t even see any reason why zombie victims would sometimes wake up, and sometimes not.

Rafid stirred his large travel mug of coffee while remembering how he had seen two remainders of exactly the same size react differently to whatever it was that created the zombies. One would come back while the other would remain still. Rafid had even seen parts of remains, a hand or a leg, scrabble back to the state that was neither life nor death, though these pieces posed no threat having no sensory organs. Not that a zombie’s senses could function in the first place — at least not in any way that a human could conceive. As Rafid swallowed a mouthul of the bitter coffee his stomach rumbled in complaint. He hadn’t been able to find any food on his way into town the day before and this gas station had been cleaned out of anything even vaguely appetizing.

The only food he knew for certain was nearby was held in massive coin-operated vending machines in the parking lot. Rafid had debated breaking into these monoliths of sugar and fiber but he knew that they were almost as impenetrable as the mailboxes he relied on. Warily he’d checked the cash registers the night before for change but the drawers were all empty. Maybe the float hadn’t been prepared before the change hit, or maybe other survivors like him had already had their run of the place. It didn’t matter what had happened any more than when it had happened. All that ever mattered — forever — was the moment at hand. Either way Rafid needed coins.

Not that there wasn’t abundent supplies elsewhere. This was the First World after all, in a time of automated plenty. In a town this size there must be easily three or four grocery stores brimming with food, water and sundry items. But Rafid didn’t like foraging when he didn’t have to. So far Rafid had survived by solving problems as they presented themselves, one step at a time, as few steps per solution as humanly possible. Right now Rafid needed food, food was right outside but needed coins, so Rafid needed coins.

And last night in the darkness Rafid had seen the lights of antiquity shining glumly for only his eyes. A video arcade.

There were dozens of reasons why this was a bad idea, but Rafid knew he wasn’t rational at the best of times (and neither were most others he would wager). Realistically running across a few small-town streets might be no more dangerous than the week he spent living on bags of two-day old doughnuts thrown out into dumpsters behind recluse coffee shops. Realistically it might be a whole lot worse. But, he thought, fuck realism. Life wasn’t realistic eighty percent of the time. So the arcade it would be.

Rafid spent a few minutes deciding what to bring with him before crab-walking carefully across halogen infested streets and then a few minutes more worrying that he hadn’t brought what he would need. This wasn’t an uncommon set of mental polarities for Rafid to swing around. One of the biggest questions — before and after the change — was what one would need to survive. Rafid had frankly no idea, then or now. A hammer? How about a crowbar? Batteries? Potable water? Antibiotics? Reading material? The movies Rafid had gone to offerred a bewildering array of items that no one could possibly carry in their entirety, but which were all fundamentally necessary to living more than just one more day.

Frustrated, Rafid had settled on taking a soft hammer and a small pry bar. Neither would be all that useful as weapons, but at least they remained relatively silent in the canvas bag he had brought to catch whatever coins he could harvest. The arade was not dark, which was good because Rafid had not thought to bring a flashlight. Lights of all colors reflected off of dozens of lustrous video game cabinets, providing enough confusing light to navigate by. The back of the arcade, where an attendant would sit ensconsed behind bulletproof plexiglass and begrudgingly dole out change for bills, was swallowed in darkness.

Rafid selected a small row of machines closer to the front door than to the enshadowed back. He did not like leaving himself with two points of exposure, but there wasn’t any choice. Besides, what was he, a commando? Even one point of exposure was too many. Thankfully the games all had their volumes turned down for the night — Rafid was fairly certain that he would hear anything approaching him to attack.

Crouching Rafid put the canvas bag on the ground, pulled out his hammer and pry bar, and started hammering on the locked coin door on the front of a game cabinet. He hit each strike as quietly as he could but even the lightest taps still fell with a thick thudding sound. On the fourth strike the cabinet’s lock sprang free and the door swung open slightly.

Moving gingerly Rafid reached inside and removed the tub that caught coins deposited into the slot. Rafid was gratified at the weight of it — he supposed that the change must have happened just prior to the weekly emptying of the machines by the company that leased them out to the arcade. Vaguely, as he emptied the tub carefully into his bag, Rafid wondered if the mob sill ran operations like this, like they had with jukeboxes and novelty machines back when Rafid’s grandparents were young. This idle thought almost cost Rafid his life, or something very much like it.

As Rafid was elbow-deep in the game replacing the tub (why he was doing this was unknown to him — it was more a reflex to orderliness than anything else) somethig jostled the cabinet sharply from the side facing the darkened back of the arcade. Something that whistled, almost like a moan but also like gravel thrown onto frozen tarmac. Rafid cried out from the pain of the coin door snapping back shut on his arm, and something started to lean or move around the game’s side. It walked into view as Rafid jumped back,scraping the inside of his elbow badly. It was almost tall and had a tuft of red. There was a shiver there, somewhere deep, and then Rafid was up, bag in hand but foresaking tools, turning and running for the front door.

Interestingly, Rafid had not even thought the word “zombie” until he had crossed over the threshold of the arcade entrance.

I’ve recently been listening to a lot of nerdcore hip hop. Not that I’m new to the genre — I discovered the Rhyme Torrents compilations some years back. But I never really dove headfirst into the various bands and thoroughly checked out their back catalogues. I’m glad I have recently, because my random appreciation for various artists has mostly been validated. MC Frontalot, Beefy, mc chris, YTCracker, MC Lars, I’m looking at you.

Apparently there’s been — shock horror — upheaval in the nerdcore music community in the past few years. Which I managed to completely miss and am only now finding out about. The whole thing makes me sad. I’m talking about mc chris’ various rejections of nerdcore, of course, but also MC Lars’ blog post of some time ago that proclaimed “NERDCORE IS DEAD” along with an Ebaumsworld video of nameless thirteen year old boys embarassing themselves.

Let’s talk about that. Want to do a critique of nerdcore as a genre of music and the expectations of the artists making the scene as well as the fans embracing it? Fine. But why take a video pretty clearly mocking the participants as your starting position? Last I checked getting made fun of and having our various nerdy proclivities highlighted by others was one of the things that most of us hated about high school and — hopefully — left behind us when we left it. Also, how could random thirteen year olds screwing something up make us think that there’s a problem aesthetically or culturally with nerdcore? It’s not like we automatically assume that thirteen year olds are going to be good at what they’re attempting. Basically judging nerdcore based on that video is like judging free verse poetry based on what I wrote in high school. Not a very good idea.

Of course now just watch. Those two kids will turn out to be two of the great contributors to nerdcore or something, and in my blissful ignorance I’ll just be highlighting my… blissful ignorance. Er.

Some posters around the tubes have linked MC Lars’ arguments back to the Jello Biafra clip in Nerdcore Rising. The venerable Jello gives the viewer a warning about a gimmick becomming a prison, and I think the point is a valid one. Jello warned us about punk becomming just another stale cartoon, after all, and he was certainly right in more ways than can be counted. But there’s a difference between delivering a warning in the fashion that Jello did and harshing on people out of some sort of genre complaint about acceptable artistic expression. MC Lars, I think, crosses the line from the former into the latter.

Which is a shame because MC Lars self-identifies in his records with post-modernist expression and new modes of thinking. I would’ve imagined that he’d be all for the explosion of amateur artists within the scene rather than complaining about staleness and the need for a reinvigoration of “authentic” expression. Stating that nerdcore should be about being who you be, to quote Beefy shamelessly, is one thing. To then go and argue that there’s some sort of essential artistic spark that only the elite few can grasp, transcending genres in pure artistry, is quite another. It’s little more than the same tired elitest argument that signed the deathknell of the decadents and got the modernists into so much trouble when the avante garde came around.

And it’s why I think mc chris’ mini-rants about there being exactly one good self-proclaimed nerdcore artist out there are fairly bogus. Elitest presuppositions of art or strong rejection of genre classification belong in mainstream music; they’re qualities of media that I come to the independent scene specifically to avoid. Feuding in the manner that Monzy and MC Plus+ do is one thing, but to blatantly fall into the same patterns of behavior that the mainstream musicians do is, to my way of thinking, bad form. I don’t care about whether or not a musician I’m listening to is an authentic artist any more than I care about the size of their bank accounts, and I don’t care about whether the genre they’re coming from meets with my expectations of acceptability. All I care about is if the music is good and engages me in some fashion.

If I really wanted to rip it apart I’d critique their scansion, or something.

So forget the feuding, ignore the protestation of classification, and don’t give credence to the proclamations of a genre’s death. Nerdcore is alive and well, even though  I’m late to the party. Check out any of the musicians I’ve mentioned in this post — you won’t be disappointed. Some of them even have brand spanking new albums, and they’re all amazing.

Back to grading papers. Hopefully some fiction will be going up tomorrow if I figure out how to transfer it from my ‘pod.

Addendum Connundrum

December 8, 2009

I’m also wondering how or why this site is all that different from Livejournal or any other social networking utility. The only real difference that I can see is the theme utility and the ability to gauge external traffic. Which would be neat, I suppose, if one weren’t a single voice shouting into a hurricane.

First Conundrum

December 8, 2009

Welcome to a semi-experimetal blog. I’ll be posting more as time allows — I’ve got term papers to grade right now and I’ve spent far too much time today reading about how mc chris hates nerdcore.

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