Gettin’ There

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Forget interactive movies. We’ve entered the world of interactive Peak TV series.

In The Last of Us Part II, we get another of Naughty Dog’s unique cinematic adventures, laden with scripted events, lengthy cutscenes, and exaggerated set pieces. Its focus is a single-player, stealth/shooting campaign set in post-apocalyptic America.

So…what’s the big deal? This is nothing we haven’t seen before. Why all the gushing, why all the buzzing, why the hate, review bombs, and death threats?

Well, that’s the interesting part. For what I think is the first — though likely not the last — time, we are seeing backlash against a game not because of it has bad graphics or poor design (this game has some of the best of these ever seen in fact), but because its story and themes are simply too challenging for people to handle.

Warning, spoilers.

The original Last of Us had a powerful story of its own, about an infective outbreak that enveloped most of the world, turning people into violent and dangerous beasts. The federal response was an unsurprising clampdown, so smuggling rings were formed to get needed supplies across checkpoints. One such smuggler, Joel Miller, was tasked with an unusual bit of cargo: a little girl named Ellie, who was to be brought to a group of survivalists called the Fireflies.

Ellie was special in that she was immune to the monster-making disease, and in her biology lied the possibility of a cure. During the trip, Joel, who had lost a daughter years earlier, became attached to Ellie, and when the Fireflies revealed that their exploratory research would kill her, he wouldn’t have it. In a climax that was surprisingly powerful for a video game, Joel slaughtered the survivalists, murdered their lead surgeon, and effectively destroyed any chance at ending the pandemic. Ellie, who was unconscious at the time, had no clue about any of this, and the game ended with Joel lying to her face about the whole thing. It was a particularly impressive ending as it required players to remain Joel’s agent even as he did questionable things, forcing them to pull the trigger and see it through. Maybe said players didn’t agree with Joel’s decision (I did), but they had to go along with it, or else be trapped in narrative limbo.

In Part II, Ellie, now grown up, must face the continuing ripples of Joel’s actions, as must the players. The material here takes on a life of its own, examining its characters, expanding its world, and exploring the different manners of human adaptation. The infection is reduced to little more than a backdrop, but that’s okay, as the horror in this survival-horror game lies elsewhere.

Joel and Ellie have been living in Jackson, Wyoming, a small mountain community developed by Joel’s brother Tommy. It’s rustic, but they have electricity, food, and other leisures. The monster disease is still rampant, so Jackson’s citizens run regular patrols to clear out the infected where they roam. This relative peace has attracted folks from all across the country, and one of them is Dina, a bisexual Jew who is madly in love with Ellie.

Aaaaaand this the point where Naughty Dog invited trouble. Supplanting the former protagonist — a hulking, white, gun-toting Texan man — with a skinny lesbian was the perfect way to make right-wing reactionaries feel threatened, and the usual, scornful accusations flew. Obviously another game developer had been subsumed by the forces of woke-ness, and was using this game to push its evil agenda on us.

Agendas, for God’s fucking sake. Okay, listen, people: the only agenda the entertainment industry has, or has ever had, is to fucking make money. That means capitalizing on trends, shamelessly titillating, and deliberately pissing people off. They’re a troupe of entertainers, a traveling circus, the pushers of make-believe, the original attention whores. They’ll do anything to pull an audience. The more you bitch and moan about how they’re out to destroy your way of life, the more attention– and money — you end up drawing their way. So why don’t you just shrug it off instead of throwing a tantrum? The surest way to destroy a piece of entertainment, after all, is to ignore it. Maybe you should admit that the real reason you’re whining is that you want people to give their attention to you.

Besides, I also think there’s a bit of pandering going on here, but I can look past it, because there’s still a lot of good stuff happening beyond it.

See, what really bothers me about Ellie at this point isn’t her sexuality, it’s her transformation to a self-centered adolescent. Now that she’s securely on the base of Maslow’s pyramid, Ellie is free to linger on dopey teenaged concerns like “omg she kissed me what do I do” and “can’t wait to score some weed.” Her journal is full of angsty poetry, and her personal pastime is plucking out wistful 80s songs on her new guitar. Ugh.

An early scene shows Ellie and Dina discovering a sort of pot house during a patrol. Instead of moving on, they stop and help themselves to some of the crop. After that, they strip down and screw, because as Orange is the New Black, Counterpart, and Game of Thrones taught us, you can’t have a mature story without a little girl-on-girl happenin’. Of course, they’re doing all this when they’re supposed to be working, and I felt like I was watching a couple of Crystal Lake camp counselors tempting fate. After playing as the no-nonsense Joel in the first game, I was incredulous about how stupid Ellie was being — and not for the last time.

Now, despite the bad behavior and obvious titillation she brings about, I really don’t hate Dina. My only problem with her is that she’s too sweet; she cloys me with her little flirty jokes and adorable glances. I realize that she’s meant to symbolize love and hope, a chance for the drifting Ellie to do right, but as such, it’s plain that she’s doomed to a life of victimhood.

The catalyst for this doom is one Abby Anderson, the other horrible blight Naughty Dog unleashed upon the world. Abby just might be one of the most reviled fictional characters in recent history, for some of the most head-shaking reasons. Due to her impressive physique, idiots online assumed she was transgender, tossed in as a token to the woke crowd, and as another attempt to devastate the American way of life. It’s always the end of the west when a woman is strong and capable, after all.

Abby does not, in fact, owe her muscularity to a now-removed penis, but to a strict diet and disciplined workout regimen. Imagine that, huh? She is part of a military-like faction called the Washington Liberation Front that has occupied the CenturyLink Field in Seattle. They eat the meat that they raise on the gridiron and make good use of its gym.

Sadly, this still isn’t a sufficient explanation for those post-apocalypse PhDs you find online, who argue that “it wouldn’t be possible to look like that in this world!” Of course, it’s not possible to turn into a flesh-eating mushroom from the inside out either, but that never comes into question. Exploding fungus people? That’s fine. Women with muscles? Gimme a break!

The other reason people hate Abby is more understandable: early on, she and a crew of her WLF buddies seek out and murder Joel, right in front of Ellie’s eyes. It’s an uncomfortable, vicious scene, but even as I watched it, I knew that the man had it coming. No one could just walk away clean from a past like Joel’s.

It turns out that Abby is the daughter of the Firefly surgeon that Joel killed, the one who could have stopped the pandemic and saved the world. Abby, hurt and haunted, is merely exacting justice. She doesn’t explain this to Ellie, though, so all we know at this point is that she’s a bloodthirsty invader with bulging arms and bitchy eyes. I can understand why people would hate her.

That doesn’t justify, however, the death threats against Laura Bailey, the actor who voiced and motion captured for her. Yep, that’s right: just like with Anna Gunn, who played the similarly disliked Skyler White in Breaking Bad, a horde of “fans,” who apparently can’t distinguish fantasy from reality, hustled online after playing this game and felt completely okay with threatening another human being’s life over the happenings of a fictional story. It didn’t even matter that this human being had nothing to do with the writing of that story.

It seems unbelievable, and I guess it’s possible that Naughty Dog’s PR department overstated the situation to get the game some extra attention, but…I don’t know. People are pretty fuckin’ dumb.

I can’t say I’m surprised at the ever-lowering depths of human stupidity, but I am impressed that it could be riled by a video game. As depressing as they are, these death threats stand as a testament to the game’s effective storytelling. Naughty Dog clearly did something right in order to get these people to react so strongly. I just hope that they played through the rest of the game, and learned a little about what such blind hatred actually earns them.

Anyway, Ellie and Dina decide to ditch Jackson and hunt Abby down. They trail her to Seattle, where they’ll spend the worst three days of their lives. You, as the player, will get to see those days from two angles, as the game switches perspectives, goes back in time, and lets you spend those days as Abby. With any luck, this will help you to understand Abby’s motivations.

So what do you actually do in this game, besides watch the story? Well, mostly you walk around and try to find your way in and out of buildings. You’ll gather supplies, build traps and tools, upgrade your abilities, but really it’s an exploration game. There are lots of little crawl spaces and locked doors to maneuver around, and you’ll spend a lot of time figuring out how to get from here to there. The attention to detail is wondrous: every location has a story. Not all of these stories are unique — you’ll find plenty of suicide notes, for example — but it’s pretty amazing that Naughty Dog took the time to put a tale behind every family, every store, and every room.

It would be pretty boring if you didn’t experience some of the dangers that made this world, though. The real challenges of the game are the groups of creatures, soldiers, and guards that you’ll need to sneak or shoot your way past.

The game tries really hard to unnerve you in these situations, but certain things trip it up. You’ll kill lots of people, people whose friends will wail out their names upon discovering their bodies. You’ll murder folks who are subdued and no longer a threat to you. You’ll even have to kill a dog or two. Now, I know these details were added to make me feel guilty, but it didn’t really work. After hearing baddies cry out, “Oh no, they got Omar!” about a dozen times in one play-through, I found it more funny than sad. After getting my face ripped off by an angry German Shepherd a few times, I was more than happy to reenact Old Yeller. And when a tense and lengthy stealth section went south because some fucking guard randomly turned around just as I was about to pounce on him, I was glad — glad, I tell you! — to disintegrate the fool with an explosive arrow. God, that shit pisses me off.

It’s all very Peckinpah, and the gorgeous, lifelike graphics slam the carnage home with maximum detail, but the simple human desire to beat the game overrides any personal or spiritual misgivings that the imagery is meant to provoke. As the game’s final trophy says, you do what you have to do.

But is it really what Ellie had to do?

In my first play-through of this game, I counted at least three instances when Ellie crossed dangerous lines, and completely without need. At times, I wondered if she even cared about living anymore. Having been robbed, as she sees it, of her purpose, she’s come to lead an aimless existence. As compared to her peers, Ellie comes off as shiftless, irresponsible, even trashy. Although we’re stuck with her as our main protagonist, the sad truth is that Ellie is kind of a mess.

Consider Ellie’s qualities, especially in comparison to the (slightly) more respectable Abby. Abby is rigid. Ellie flows. Abby follows the rules. Ellie follows her thoughts. Abby embraces structure and schedule. Ellie forgets to change clothes. Abby’s body is a temple, and she sets goals to improve it. Ellie gets smashed and tokes up. I suspect that Ellie would abuse other substances, too, were they available.

I think that upon learning the truth about Joel’s encounter with the Fireflies, Ellie’s emotional development stalled. Her future was erased, stolen, so she became mired in the past. She tied her own destiny inextricably with Joel’s, and all her actions from that point on became about him as well as herself.

So Joel’s death begins a continuous spiral of destruction, repeated by recklessness and hate, as Abby and Ellie tear each other’s lives to pieces. People are tortured, pregnant women are killed, and in time it becomes plain that there’s just no saving these two: you’ll begin the game rooting for Ellie, and then switch to rooting for Abby, and then stop rooting altogether. There was a point in their first major clash when I had to hammer the Square button to make Abby choke Ellie. As Ellie’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she began to slide to the floor, I felt the urge to drop the controller and save her. I wanted them both to just stop. The game would have caused me to lose if I’d done that, though, so I hammered on, feeling a little defeated about it.

This clash seems to end on a merciful truce, and the game continues, apparently months later, in an idyllic scene suggesting that Ellie and Dina could actually live happily ever after. News of Abby’s resurfacing, however, opens the old wound, and Ellie, again, throws a good life away for the sake of revenge.

It turns out that Abby and her friend Lev, while searching for a rumored Firefly base in Santa Barbara, have been captured by a gang called the Rattlers. Now, up to this point, the game has been pretty even-handed about its characters. It’s been fair about showing both their flaws and virtues, but when it comes to the Rattlers, there’s nothing good to show. These are irredeemable bastards who keep slave labor and taunt the infected for fun.

So when Ellie discovers Abby tied to a pole and left to die, I couldn’t help but think of the climactic reunion of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in “Felina.” In that instant, hate, history, sadness, and sympathy all intertwined in a low, pitiless place. It was an emotionally hefty scene that The Last of Us Part II succeeds in evoking.

Ellie cuts Abby free and leads her to a motorboat where salvation awaits, but then, she fucks it all up again, and demands another showdown. It’s a jaw-dropping moment. In spite of Abby’s miserable state, after all she has already suffered, Ellie refuses to let go. As a player, I felt betrayed — I now had to follow Ellie down this awful pit, all the way to the bottom. There is some hope to be grasped in Ellie’s sparing of Abby, even if it’s a symbolic gesture of forgiveness for Joel, but when she returns home after the encounter, she finds that the price of revenge was very high indeed. Almost everything she valued is now gone, but it feels appropriate and just. As Ellie trudges off for greener pastures, we can only hope that she has learned a lesson.

This whole Santa Barbara sequence is a pretty ballsy move on the part of the writers. Not only does it defy the game’s established plot structure, it unapologetically strips Ellie of all heroism, and reveals her as the lost soul that she is. After everything I’d already experienced in the game, I was tired of all the killing. I was disappointed in Ellie for pursuing further death, and the gameplay almost felt mechanical. When the fight on the beach began, I got the sense that Ellie was as exhausted as I was, and was only acting out of a desperate need to believe that her personal crusade still mattered.

I know that sounds grim, but I’m actually pretty pleased about it. I’ve played hundreds of violent video games, from Doom to Smash T.V. to Grand Theft Auto, so for Naughty Dog to make one that makes me feel something must be commended. They managed to sidestep the deadening effect of continuous video game violence by way of great writing and direction. The story could have been ripped straight from the pages of The Walking Dead, but as a video game, it’s presented in a way that makes it fresh. Since it’s lengthy and well-told, we get to know its people on an intimate level, and a slow-burn effect takes place, much as it does in today’s Peak TV series. After spending so much time with Ellie, I couldn’t help but feel sad as she descended, although I was, in essence, the one making her do it. There’s a peculiar sense of tragedy here.

Sure, there’s been some backlash about the story, and the decisions Ellie makes, but it’s not esoteric video game backlash, it’s a fundamental fan backlash, the sort usually reserved for pop culture phenomena like Lost, The Prisoner, and especially Star Wars.

“That’s not the way my favorite character would act! This is bad writing with poor character arcs! These people have ruined the franchise!”

Yeah yeah yeah. Well, sometimes artists have different things to say than what we might want to hear. Get used to it.

Now, I can’t say I’m not guilty of impugning a video game for taking its story in a direction I didn’t care for. I was appalled at Metroid Other M when I saw how it perceived the character of Samus Aran. In every Metroid game before it, Samus was a bounty-hunting badass, cool as a cucumber, all business and tough as nails. There were moments when rays of pain or empathy shone through her icy shell, but they were brief and restrained. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s good Terminators, or Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Samus was a killing machine with a good heart, and I loved her for it.

But no, Yoshio Sakamoto had a different idea. He decided it was time to knock Samus down a peg, and present her as as typical anime heroine: self-absorbed, bratty, and due to be subjugated. Now, I know that it’s anime tradition that the tough female character must be brought low at some point, so when I heard that a story-heavy Metroid was being developed by Team Ninja (makers of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball no less), I should have expected this. I also reminded myself that this was an origin story, meant to reveal how a distrustful war orphan became the alien-slayer I admired. It didn’t work, though. I just couldn’t stomach it. The treatment of the character was too off-putting, and to this day, I haven’t played a minute of Other M.

This isn’t fair to the game or its creators, of course. Why should my preconceptions about a fictional character enter into my judgment of the product? For all I know, the game might actually be a lot of fun. What I have to realize is that every great hero, fictional or not, is flawed, and has said or done things that would damage their mystique. That’s why we should never meet them, as they say.

So, if this is who Nintendo says Samus is, all I can do is grow up and accept it.

Yeah. Grow up. Right.

A coda: I actually really like it when my favorite characters do wild things. I’m totally serious. Whenever a Peak TV protagonist, following hours of rational, restrained behavior, just flips out and does something completely off-the-wall, I get a big smile on my face.

I smile because I see these moments as sober reminders that these are not statuesque idols holding the world together, but little human beings flailing to make sense of it. There’s more to them than the heroism that the story requires. Being the rock wears on them, just as it would anyone we know, and at some unexpected point, the death drive spills free, to the consternation of everyone who depends on them — their fans most of all. It’s provocative, thrilling, and it sounds a note that most of us, in our grasping, success-driven culture, are hesitant to acknowledge. To espy the Unspoken Desire is, I feel, the purpose of all drama.

And that’s the success of The Last of Us Part II, really: that it brought believable adult drama into the realm of video games. Its material may be derivative, but by banking on realism, it moved people, shocked people, and hurt people nonetheless. It also got them talking, though maybe not about the things Naughty Dog was expecting. Most impressively, the game revealed some of the ugliness we face in reality, an unpleasant but necessary deed that only the greatest entertainers can pull off. In accomplishing this, video games have truly turned a corner as a medium, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next generation of hardware is due to bring. They have a hell of a standard to live up to.

Top Non-Cartoons: Creepshow

Clear the roaches outta the pantry and unpin those voodoo dolls; it’s the best horror film of all time!

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Well, okay, that’s not true. The Exorcist is the best horror film of all time, but that doesn’t mean it’s my favorite. To me, Warner Bros.’s Creepshow is, and will always be, the scary movie to top all scary movies. It’s not just freaky, it’s funny. It’s not just scary, it’s silly. It’s not just fantastic, it’s fantabulous. It gushes with blood and shakes with shivers, but it knows it’s all in good fun. You can’t afford to take this movie too seriously, as the trash man at the end of the film — a hilarious cameo from makeup artist Tom Savini — reminds us: “IT’S A COMIC BOOK!”

And as you might have guessed, this is precisely why I love it.

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From left to right: Stephen King (writer), Tom Savini (makeup artist), and George Romero (film director). Nah, I never heard of them either

Creepshow stands in the pantheon of great horror anthologies, alongside Trilogy of Terror, Black Sabbath, Tales From the Darkside, and The Twilight Zone: The Movie (though that one only partially qualifies as horror). As the first collaboration between Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero (R.I.P.) and one Stephen King, Creepshow had a hell of a lot going for it. The creators wanted to make it special, something that would stand out from other horror films. They considered some unique concepts for the movie, such as attempting different visual styles for each story, but they settled on a bright, exaggerated look…a look reminiscent of the classic EC horror comics.

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In the early 1950s, William Gaines developed a series of macabre comics that read like Pulp Fiction Illustrated. Some of them were set in the real world, others were completely outlandish, but they were all decidedly adult, and quite graphic for their time. Murder, sex, and monsters spilled across every page, and they often had disturbing, twist endings.

While the material was not intended for children, the EC crew knew that kids would jump at the forbidden fruit anyway, as it dangled so low in comic book stores across the country. To better reach these kids, EC adopted the “host” concept from scary radio shows such as Inner Sanctum or Weird Circle. These gleefully sadistic characters spun terrifying tales, and introduced them with terrifying puns. The most prominent of them was the Cryptkeeper, a slavering old man who was so diddly-darn delighted to scare you that you almost wanted to hug him. He’d later reemerge on the Tales From the Crypt TV series, in a more ghoulish form than before, but with his arsenal of bad puns intact.

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These hosts came off as freakish grandparents, who stole spooky little moments with the kiddies when Mom and Dad weren’t around to stop them, and said kiddies ate it up. Surely, the thrill of an EC comic was not only in reading the foul material contained therein, but in hiding it from one’s God-fearing, suburbanite parents.

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Without fail, Creepshow maintains this tradition. The movie even uses a frame story about a little boy named Billy who’s been caught with the naughty comic. The boy is played by Stephen King’s son Joe, who’s now a horror writer of some note himself, but I digress.

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The wicked father smacks his son across the face and tosses the “horror crap” in the trash as a wild thunderstorm kicks up. The incensed Billy then wishes death on his father and sinks into his horror fantasyland to escape.

That’s when Raoul shows up.

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“Raoul” was Tom Savini’s nickname for the skeletal phantom who appears at Billy’s window. The creature was built from an actual human skeleton imported from India, and it looks terrific. Raoul assumes the role of the Creepshow comic’s “host,” the Creepshow Creep, and he guides us — wordlessly — from one scary vignette to another in a nifty animated form. Thank Rick Catizone for the excellent animated segments, which are smooth and effective in capturing the style of the EC greats like Jack Kamen and Bernie Wrightson.

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He wants his…well, you know

We start off with “Father’s Day,” which is about a wealthy clan called the Granthams, who have made their dough off of the illegal enterprises of their patriarch Nathan. Seven years earlier, Nathan drove his daughter and caretaker Bedelia off the deep end with his demented ramblings, and Bedelia decided to off him with a blow to the head. The weapon: a marble ashtray with a solemn cherub at its head. It’s a prominent prop in this story, but it also appears in all the tales that follow. You’ll need sharp eyes to spot it, but it’s a fun little easter egg for fans.

Anyway, Bedelia has made a tradition out of visiting Dad’s grave on Father’s Day to expunge her guilt and demons, but this year, ol’ Nate strikes back. With a wonderfully rotted and rock-filled throat, he croaks out his unfulfilled desire for the Father’s Day cake he never received, and then he uses his zombie-powers to croak out everyone on his way to get it.

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This guy directed The Kentucky Cycle

Along Nate’s journey, the film’s comic book style is made apparent. Dramatic scenes are soaked in bright reds and blues, patterned scrims glow behind characters’ screeching faces, and shots are framed with colorful panels. You even see comic book-y banners at screen’s edge, showing phrases like MEANWHILE… and LATER…. More important than that, though, is the appearance of a young Ed Harris, and his spectacular dance moves!

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Your author, ladies and gentlemen

The second, and most divisive, of the stories, is “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” which stars Stephen King himself, in what is basically a one-man comedy show. It’s based on King’s short story Weeds, in which a poor Maine hick and his homestead are overgrown by aggressive alien vegetation. The vile weeds even consume Jordy’s body, sucking the moisture out of him and burrowing into his brain. Any opportunity for serious body horror is blown, however, thanks to effects problems and King’s outrageous acting.

King isn’t entirely to blame for this. Turns out Romero encouraged King to play Jordy like Wile E. Coyote, with huge, bug-eyed faces and goofy hick-talk. What’s more, certain plant/body effects that Savini had in mind, like tendrils sprouting from Jordy’s tongue and fingers, and green contact lenses, didn’t work out for various reasons and had to be cut. Thus, the silliness overwhelms the creepy concept, and “Jordy” ends up a real head-shaker for what it could have been.

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R.I.P.

Now we get to the good stuff. When asked about their favorite of Creepshow’s stories, most viewers choose one of the next two. “Something to Tide You Over” stars funnymen Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen playing so hard against type you can hear the smack of it. Danson is a playboy who’s been sleeping with Nielsen’s woman, so Nielsen lures the two lovers into a particularly cruel death-trap.

The plot’s nothing new, not even for King, but the performances make it work. Nielsen’s character, a manipulative dandy fittingly named Richard, is a playful monster that you can’t help but hate. Danson, meanwhile, is an emotional firestorm, blazing with rage, tension, deference, distrust, and outright panic. You can almost see his brain-box smoking as he seeks a way out of his ever-worsening situation.

The ending, while appropriate, is a little too vague for its own good, but the story is well-done overall. It’s Nielsen that grabs you: he hurls himself headfirst into this asshole-role, and he gives it every last ounce that he’s got. If all you see when you look at the man is Frank Drebin of Police Squad!, prepare to have your eyebrows raised.

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Something not of our ken

Now, this next one…ooh, I love this next one. “The Crate” is the longest and most complex of the five stories, and it’s vintage King through and through. It’s based off of King’s short story of the same name, but it’s told in a very different manner.

It stars two Tony-winning pros of theater, Hal Holbrook and Fritz Weaver, as university professors and best buds. They also both have lady problems. Weaver’s character, Dexter, is a widower who’s taken to dating his grad students, while Henry, played by Holbrook, is married to a dragon named Wilma — but you can call her “Billie,” everyone does.

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Mark Twain and Sherlock Holmes, together at last

Adrienne Barbeau flushes her sexuality down the toilet to create Billie, and her constant, drunken crassness is so acrid that it’s just plain funny. One of her lines was so foul, in fact, that it had to be rewritten and dubbed over before the movie was released. You can hear the change in the recording quality if you pay close attention. I guess that theatergoers of 1982 just weren’t ready for the word “cunt” yet.

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What would we do without her?

Anyway, Dexter stumbles across a strange crate that’s apparently returned from a hundred-year-old Arctic expedition, and decides to open it up. Now, I know I’m not tipping any cards in saying that whatever’s inside isn’t good, but I still won’t go into detail. I’ll just say that the plot travels to intriguing places, and closes with Dex and Henry in a strange sort of standoff.

The Crate stands out to me because it features a wild scenario, and yet it somehow maintains a grip on reality. Holbrook and Weaver behave in ways that are extreme, and yet completely believable. Dex is pushed so far into fright-world that he wheezes, whistles, and breaks down laughing. Henry is meant to be a henpecked milquetoast, but Holbrook adds an unmistakable anger to the role, so his silence looks less like shame and more like wily, patient calm. He’s waiting for something — something that’s coming up fast. Such dips and rises would be impossible for any but the finest actors, and these two men rise to the challenge with supreme confidence. They’re a joy to watch, and I only wish the movie had more scenes of them together.

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What? You got a problem with Rochas?

The final story, “They’re Creeping Up on You!” doesn’t have the length or depth of the two stories that precede it, but God damn, I can’t imagine a better capper for this film. It’s a gross-out episode that plays on that oh-so-common phobia of big, fat, ugly bugs. Cockroaches, to be specific.

Now, I’ve seen a couple of horror films that stab at nasty cockroach scenes, but none of them work so well as this. I think it’s because the setting and characters — er, character — are so effective.

E.G. Marshall plays Upson Pratt, a germaphobic billionaire who’s sequestered himself from humanity in a blinding-white, antiseptic penthouse. His waking life consists of shuffling about, poking at eerie, buzzing devices, and watching his money pile up. His only interactions with other people are over the phone or through a peephole, both of which he handles with gloves. Pratt’s conversations reveal all we need to know about him: he’s misanthropic, he’s unpleasant, he’s a real goat-fucker. The weird thing is — as was the case with Barbeau’s Billie — Pratt’s cruelty is so extreme as to be hilarious. You’d never want to know Mr. Pratt in real life, but on film, he’s enthralling.

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Still, a man this evil is bound to get punished, and Creepshow chooses to punish him not with a mere infestation of cockroaches, but with a full-scale invasion of them.

David Brody and Raymond Mendez, credited as the film’s “Roach Wranglers,” delved into the bat caves of Trinidad to gather over a hundred-thousand roaches for this story. The two men got them past U.S. Customs by stating they were for a Stephen King movie. The shots of the roaches are all quite brief, as Romero explained that the little buggers were natural hiders. He said that you could spill a bundle of roaches all over a white table, and within seconds, it’d be as though they were never there. It wouldn’t matter what surrounded them, either; they’d somehow find spaces to squeeze into and disappear.

It makes you wonder just how hard they had to push to get that finale to work, eh? Heh heh. Oh, it’s something you’ll never forget.

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This is not Joe’s Apartment, fellas

With its devilish kills and saucy spirit, Creepshow is generally beloved amongst horror fans. Just say something like “Meteor shit,” “I want my cake,” or “If you can hold your breath,” and any gore-hound worth his salt will know exactly what you’re talking about. Even George Romero had a soft spot for the film, and spoke publicly about his desire to make another one. A hefty legacy of sequels should have been guaranteed. Strangely, this just didn’t pan out — at least, not in the way that fans hoped it would.

In 1987, low-budget churn-house New World Pictures brought us Creepshow 2, but the movie feels watered-down in comparison to the original. Everyone who made the first film what it was seemed to take a few steps away from this one. The stories are still King’s, but there are only three of them this time, and King didn’t adapt them for the film. George Romero actually penned the script, but he didn’t direct, so the playfulness he worked so hard to inject in the first movie is missing. Director Michael Gornick instead plays it straight: you won’t see any extreme colors, scrims, or page/panel effects here. Composer John Harrison is replaced by Rick Wakeman, who makes a passable effort at an eerie, synthesized score, but the non-synth stuff is bland as bacon. Tom Savini appears in the movie as a different — and less appealing — incarnation of the Creepshow Creep, but he didn’t handle any of the major special effects. The frame story is a fully-animated fable about Billy having a run-in with bullies, but the quality is uneven throughout. I’ll grant that the finale is effective, though, what with all the children screaming for their lives.

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Then there’s Creepshow III, which is completely divorced from the series’s illustrious creators, and is absolute junk. I don’t know how or why the morons behind this film got the rights to the once-proud Creepshow name, but they did it no favors in attempting to revive it. Hell, could have written a better Creepshow than these guys…and I did, in fact, try.

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I called it Creepshow: Fourth Printing. Three of its stories are originals, while the fourth is an adaptation of King’s The Moving Finger. I shared the screenplay with a few friends, and all of them told me they liked “the finger story” the best, which doesn’t say much for my own storytelling skills. I don’t know if I’ll ever sell the dang thing. I don’t even know if anybody wants it. It was fun to write, though, and I think it stands as a testament to my love for the first movie.

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And I do love it. I loved it from the first time I watched it…when I was around three or four years old. My parents either had considerable faith in my discernment between fantasy and reality, or else they found the movie so cartoonish and over-the-top that they didn’t think it would affect me. Well, it turns out that it did affect me, in that it taught me how much fun a horror movie can be, and in that it inspired me to eventually write my own. Maybe, after the obligatory rewrites, you’ll get to see my nauseating novellas in the theaters yourselves! Hey, one can always dream, right, kiddies?

Who would be best to animate a cartoon version of Creepshow? I’m not sure such a project is necessary. The movie’s entire purpose is to be a live-action cartoon/comic book. If it had to be done, however, Romero already found the right man to do it. Rick Catizone is the only one who could ever animate Creepshow. His unique style oozes freaky fear, but it’s appealing enough to enthrall children (like myself). Catizone says he was inspired by Ray Harryhausen, which sounds about right. Harryhausen brought some spooky monsters to life, and instilled wonder in imaginative little kids the world round. Now Catizone has done the same. He’s produced animation for many commercials and even kids’ shows, but he also did stop-motion work for Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. The dude’s got range, and we need more productions like his.

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Until next time

Top Non-Cartoons: 12 Monkeys

Today, I’d like to write about Non-Cartoons. I’m not sure that the term needs definition. Does it? What do you think?

Well, okay, I’ll do it anyway. A “non-cartoon” is a live-action film which, I feel, was made with the ambitious scope, and the careful physical attention, that I associate with animated films. I’m not talking about superhero or Star Wars films, which are practically cartoons already, nor am I talking about dry, adolescent anime films, which would probably turn out the same if they weren’t animated. No, I’m talking about films that go broad: they’re grand in scope, and they deal with very huge characters. They’re extreme, they’re over the top, and yet their live actors somehow keep them from sailing off into space. They are weird, but they would not work if they weren’t.

In this venture, I feel I must start with 12 Monkeys, a film directed by Terry Gilliam: an animator.

Terry Gilliam is the guy who did the Monty Python cartoons. You know, the goofy paper cut-out stuff that bridged the sketches:

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Terry Gilliam is known for his outlandish, ambitious movies, and the boiling water they throw him into. Studio executives hate his works, which often feature bleak and authoritarian settings, strange, cheap-looking props, and dark, ambiguous endings. His most successful movie, Time Bandits, is a whimsical children’s story. Its cast made it attractive — it features John Cleese, Michael Palin, and Sean Connery — and it has some of the most dazzling imagery that I’ve yet seen in a film. I think Gilliam used that marketability to sneak in his trademark cynicism, but he couldn’t get away with that twice. His next film, Brazilwould be his greatest struggle.

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Brazil is another Top Non-Cartoon, one that I would like to write about later. I bring it up now because it is the unrestrained portrait of Gilliam’s vision. It’s weird, it’s silly, it’s frightening, and it’s funny. Different people could call it fantasy, sci-fi, action, horror, art film, and comedy, and they’d all be right. Here’s a movie that’s impossible to categorize, impossible to forget, and, I daresay, impossible to like completely.

12 Monkeys is another one.

This is a time-travel story about a deadly epidemic that’s wiped out eighty percent of the population, and a science team’s efforts to stop it. Forced to live below ground, they send convicts up to the germ-ridden surface to find clues about how everything fell apart. James Cole, played by Bruce Willis, has proven himself to be one of their best investigators, so the scientists offer him a full pardon if he’ll go back in time to find the virus’s source.

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The prison facility is a hellhole with joint-crunching cells and terrifying interview rooms. The scientists exchange sentences in a comic fashion, and they observe Cole through a jittering orb of monitors and cameras. Sorry for bringing it up again, but it’s all very Brazil, and all very Gilliam.

The time-travel scheme doesn’t go well. First off, the scientists accidentally send Cole to the wrong year. Second, Cole’s story and violent behavior land him in a mental institution before he can get anywhere. When he explains himself to a panel of therapists, even he seems to realize just how loony it sounds. So he’s trapped, spending his days in a thorazine haze, and his nights reliving a murder he witnessed as a child. Life sucks in a nut house, especially when you think you don’t belong there.

Cole’s foil is a person who’s owned his craziness: one Jeffrey Goines, a string of firecrackers given Oscar-nominated life by Brad Pitt. I fucking love this guy.

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Pitt was chosen for the role in an effort to deflate his “pretty boy” persona, and boy does he succeed. Goines is balls-out wacko. He spews manic monologues. He flips everyone off. His laugh is a dopey croak. He’s that weird kid down the street that your parents didn’t like you hanging out with, and that you weren’t sure you liked hanging out with, but you did it anyway because you were kinda scared to say no to him.

He’s also a ton of fun to watch. Fast-talking and fast-moving, he’s like James Woods on crack. With his wild antics and anti-establishment speeches, he is the original Nolan Joker. Don’t let anyone tell you different. In the movie’s best shot, a desperate Cole pushes Goines against a third-story balcony railing, and holds his head over the side. The camera is held above the two, so we can see the frightened onlookers from the floors below. Goines doesn’t react in any rational way: he just cracks up laughing, and thrusts a fuck-you finger in Cole’s face. It’s a total Batman/Joker moment, only without the stupid costumes and makeup. It proves the superfluity of the superhero movie.

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So Goines is a force of nature, but he’s also a red herring, and the movie kinda limps to its finale after Goines leaves the picture. It gets reflective and melancholy when it really needs to get up and get moving. Threads about sanity and the Cassandra complex wrap up long after we’ve lost interest in them, and the romance doesn’t feel believable. The language of time-travel movies is so familiar by now that there’s no surprise to the ending at all (this was likely intentional, but that makes it no less boring). There’s an excellent, chilling moment involving David Morse’s character, but the rest feels low and saggy.

Now this brings me to the TV show.

For some reason, the SyFy channel felt the need to expand 12 Monkeys into a series, one of those things that makes no sense to me. The movie may be flawed, but it got its point across, and serializing it won’t do its slower elements any favors. I call it “The Sopranos Syndrome,” and you see it everywhere now. The Peak TV philosophy seems to go like this: stretch a plot until it’s ready to snap, bloat it with tired themes, provide no answers or resolution until the mad rush of the finale, and boom, you’ve got yourself a success. Even South Park is doing this now, and it drives me nuts.

What’s more, the producers decided to cast Emily Hampshire as the Goines character, and one of the first things she says is, “Look at you; you can’t take your eyes off me!” Ugh.

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Already, this new Goines has told us that she knows she’s hot. Come on. A great character shouldn’t have to fall back on hotness. There is nothing sexy or even sexual about the original Goines, and that a sex symbol plays him underscores that fact. In the movie, Goines is Daffy Duck. In the show, Goines is Catwoman.

This doesn’t work for me. I’m not saying this because of any feminist leanings; I just don’t find the “small, cute, and catlike” look to be especially threatening. There are plenty of women in cinema who’ve done crazy and terrible without any eye candy. Look at Misery. Look at La Femme/Inside. Look at The Ring! Perhaps it’s the nature of our culture, but it does seem like this equation of menace with attractiveness is more common among female villains. Is there any male villain like that? Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast, is the only one I can think of.

Anyway, 12 Monkeys is a true Non-Cartoon, not only because of Pitt’s character, but because of the peculiar setting, wild concept, and crooked camerawork. I think its musical score is beautiful too. I believe that animating it wouldn’t damage it, if it was provided the right animator. In this case, that animator is Peter Chung, creator of Aeon Flux. His character designs are freaky and weird, and his settings are eerie and monolithic. I can totally see him doing this movie justice, but I would keep him far away from the show.

A Pain in the Brain

The mental pain that I experience during and following a panic attack is always the same. There’s a sense of anguish, a physical reaction that’s not far removed from the reaction to physical pain. It’s frightening to know that thoughts can sear as effectively as any fiery brand.

What I believe is happening is a clashing of philosophies. Throughout my life, I’ve attempted to juggle two diametrical modes of thought. I’ve considered describing them as “conservative” and “liberal,” but I think a more accurate terminology is “Shore” and “Ocean.” They are armies at constant odds, columns of artillery continually shelling each other, but there’s never any attrition. One side or the other merely retreats and regroups, and then makes another charge with full force. The only possible casualty in this conflict is myself.

I charted some of this out. Perhaps I’m naive to think that I can make sense of it, but if there’s anything I can make sense of in this world, I’d like to think that it’s my own mind. There are many rivers of thought and possibility flowing through both sides, so I’ve had to filter and condense many of them. Here’s how I broke them down:

The “Shore,” or “Western” nation, fights on the side of culture. It is masculine, hierarchical, goal-oriented, and irrevocably sold on the immortality of the human empire. The motto of the Shore-dweller is “Suck it up, Nancy!” On the shore, you put your head down, you accept your position as it’s assigned from birth, and you collect things (artificial ones) to soothe yourself. The mark of success on the Shore is the accomplishment, or the creation, or the purchase of something “valuable,” as determined by the Shore’s inhabitants. By the Shore’s standards, if you labor long on a work that only has value to yourself, you die a failure, a sad little person who is soon forgotten.

Sounds pretty horrible, doesn’t it? Yet, this is the mode that many people not only accept, but embrace. It thrives, not because it is the truth, but because it only needs money to keep it going. The more money that is pumped into it, the bigger and more intrusive it gets. It analyzes us, seduces us, and makes us feel secure. The Message is so pervasive, at all phases of our lives, that it becomes familiar, and therefore comfortable.

Recent events prove that this mode is outdated and dying. Once-sacred institutions are undergoing entropic failures, but more importantly than that, we are aware of these failures. We know that our idols are false, and yet we continue to erect new ones, because we don’t know how else things can work.

We’re scared to leave the Shore.

The “Ocean,” or “Eastern” nation, fights for the individual. It doesn’t believe in boundaries or categorization. It doesn’t believe in grinding and burning one’s life away in a box for a machine. It seeks opportunity and fights for it, usually at great material risk. Money is a minor concern to those on Ocean; meaning is what matters to them. Any activity that doesn’t reap fulfillment or personal satisfaction is wasteful and pointless. Instead of seeking to collect, the Ocean seeks to prune. It asks, “What can I do without? Where can I simplify, reduce my encumbrance? What shall I release, and what shall I nurture?” The Ocean does not trust in artificial structures built to corral large groups. It takes pride in refusal.

Most profoundly, the Ocean-dweller accepts the possibility that there is no “real” answer, no promise to be kept at the end of life. It clings to nothing, and fluctuates at all times. It knows that humanity and all its creations are finite, and that life is a cycle of birth and destruction. It does not need the opinions of culture as they relate to “lasting” or “enduring” value. The “why” of the universe may never be revealed, so the Ocean-dweller simply hunts for occupation and joy wherever it might occur.

This mode of thought sounds pleasant and idealistic, even heavenly, but the rub is that it demands immense, unshakeable courage. The Shore-dweller dismisses the Ocean-dweller as a loser, a looney, a whack-job…unless he or she makes a lot of money.

The root of my anxiety lies in the conflict between these two ideologies. I’m sure that a philosophy major would tell me that I’m not making any revelations here. I’m sure that I’m just inadvertently repeating the positions of Nietzsche or Heidegger or Plato or some such person. Still, while I’m sure that studying the works of these gentlemen would improve my articulation, I also think that I’d do better to develop my own ideas, basing them on my own personal experience.

From the Journal

Dear God, Angels, Spirits, or Whoever’s Out There,

My brother, father, mother, and grandmother are all suffering right now. My sister-in-law and close friends are having personal crises too. We need your help. I feel that a massive shift is happening, something that will change us all, and I am frightened and nervous.

I just have to trust that things will be okay, possibly even better than they were before things went wrong. I just have to trust in you. I know you’ve answered prayers of mine, and prayers of my Dad’s, and I’m grateful for that.

I hate to say it, but we need your help more than ever right now. We are all in scary places, waiting on answers or results that are slow in coming. Please help us to find ways to douse that fear hanging over our family. We miss the peace and stability we once enjoyed.

Of course, I understand that we’re are only now confronting the conclusions of events set in motion long ago: I with my depression, Mom with her retirement, Dad with his bad back. Getting through them will be challenging, but somehow, I know it’ll be worth it in the end. It just has to be.

With Hope,

Daniel