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.

Concerning Creepshow: The Series

Well, I’m glad it’s back, anyway.

The internet adores Shudder’s new Creepshow series. It seems to have set new ratings records for AMC’s horror streaming service, and its success has seen it renewed for a second season. I’m oh-so-glad for this, because I’ve loved Creepshow, the movie, for most of my life. To see it rise from the grave to warm adulation just jolts my jaded little heart.

So why do I feel that it’s lacking somewhere? What’s wrong with me? I want to enjoy it, and there are parts of it that I truly do, but when I watch it, I can’t help but pick it apart.

Part of it is in the direction. The show makes many missteps, even in its very first episode. Gray Matter, the short story by Stephen King, is a small-town suspense tale on the lines of Weeds, and it’s extremely simple. There are some terrific actors in it, including Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito, but they don’t have much to work with. They have no time to develop as characters, and so they feel wasted. In The Crate and The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill, there are some actual dynamics going on. Henry Northrup changes from milquetoast to confident killer. Jordy turns from happy hick to suicidal alien food. There’s a change of some kind happening in Gray Matter, but it’s really just a jerk becoming a different kind of jerk.

Gray Matter also suffers from a poor ending. Where the short story ends on a note of uneasy dread, the show goes for exaggerated panic, and it doesn’t work very well.

The follow-up act, House of the Head, shares this problem. It’s a neat little story about a dollhouse that becomes the site of a figurine murder mystery. The premise is intriguing, and Cailey Fleming, who plays the little girl watching the weirdness unfold, gives an endearing performance. The suspense builds beautifully, setting us up for a shocking surprise ending…and then it just stops. Boo. Boo, I say!

Many times, it feels like the makers tried to cram too much story into too little space. The worst offender here is Times is Tough in Musky Holler, which really needed a whole forty minutes to itself. It’s basically one long execution scene, with its setup told in comic-book flashbacks. We’re supposed to relish the suffering of the assholes being condemned to death, but it’s not all that satisfying when we only have glimpses of their crimes.

It’s also very predictable. Most horror fans are familiar with the EC formula by now, so nothing Creepshow throws at us is capable of surprising. We know that someone innocent will suffer. We know that the asshole responsible will be punished for it, and we know that the creature/supernatural element is going to do the job. What we’re waiting to see is how it happens. The sad thing is that it often plays out exactly as we expected it to (The Silver Water of Lake Champlain), or else the show is frustratingly vague about it (Bad Wolf Down). Then there are times when the ending doesn’t make any sense at all! I’m looking at you, Night of the Paw.

What’s more, we don’t get a whole lot of that Creepshow feel. The vibrant, comic-book styling of the movie is rare, though sometimes it’s used to cover up sequences where actual visual effects would have been too expensive. It sure would have been nice to see those werewolf transformations, instead of a cheap flip book effect!

The music is weak, too. Where the score in the movie was haunting and thematic, the music in in the series is painful in its mediocrity. None of the stories has a theme of its own, and there’s no synth! What the hell, man?

Then there’s something else that bothers me. Now, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I feel like the series doesn’t take itself seriously enough. Heh, crazy, right? I’ve been of the mind that modern television is far too grim these days, and needed some lightening up, and now I’m turning on myself. Maybe that’s why people love this series so much: they, too, are tired of all the self-serious bullshit on the tube, and are ready for something mature, but irreverent.

I can dig that, but I don’t think that pure irreverence works for Creepshow. It was great for the Tales of the Crypt series, which this new Creepshow seems nearer to than anything else. The movie, though, for all its silliness, still had an edge. It picked up on primal human frights, and forced us to look at them. Creepshow had people buried to their necks, struggling to keep their breath as relentless ocean waves battered their faces. Tales from the Crypt usually had people getting hit in the head with axes.

The two standout episodes of the series, The Finger and Skincrawlers, don’t lean on simple shock imagery. They present situations that are freaky, and yet relatable. What would you do if you discovered that your beloved pet started doing horrible things? What would you do if you had the opportunity to shed the body you’ve always hated, and become skinny in an instant?

I should note that these two stories also work so well because they feature run-down shlubs who hate their lives. These characters don’t need a lot of time, or deep, rich performances to make us feel for them. Not that DJ Qualls or Dana Gould do a poor job; they’re both great. There are wells of real emotion in them, and we want them to make it out of their situations alive. Still, they’re no match for the late Fritz Weaver and Hal Holbrook. Those two guys took a crazy story like The Crate and made magic out of it, simply by playing it straight. Most of the lesser actors in the Creepshow series don’t have the skill or experience to provide such effortless depth, and the whole show suffers for it.

Creepshow, the movie, succeeded because it found the spirit of the old EC comics: it slugged us in the gut before it gave us a hug. It hurt us because it loved us, and we couldn’t help but love it back, even though it left a bruise. Creepshow, the series, never quite hits that chord. It’s a little too playful, and it meanders around too much. It comes close, though, and I’m glad it’s going to be around to keep trying.

Tits and Erudition

Man, movies and TV take themselves way too seriously these days. I can’t pinpoint the timing of it, but someone pulled a switch, and turned the Idiot Box into the Auteur’s Monolith. The programming is as stupid as it’s ever been, but none of it really knows how stupid it is anymore. Think about it. The Living Dead is now The Walking Dead. Most X-treme Elimination Challenge is now American Ninja Warrior. The movie Westworld is now the series Westworld. Producers are now “show-runners.” Aquaman is now…ugh…Aquaman.

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Grr.

So it’s good that we have people like Joe Bob Briggs to bring us back to reality. To remind us that television’s purpose is to patronize, pacify, and pander to us, but so long as we remain aware of it, it’s really not so badrksven.jpg.

Briggs is the latest and greatest of the classic horror hosts, a family that began with Maila Nurmi’s Vampira (though Joe Bob has some contention about that). A comic essayist featured in newspapers and magazines, Briggs was so funny that he was eventually given a series on TMC called Drive-In Theater.

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What’s interesting is that, while most horror hosts came off as cheerful psychopaths, Joe Bob was a down-home country boy who shared bemused reactions and obscure trivia with a Roy Rogers-like folksiness. He had flair and pizzazz, but he was also dry and cynical, like a carnival barker who knows that you know he’s running a scam.

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Audiences loved him, and he kept the Drive-In going for nearly ten years before TMC decided to can him. The official story was that the channel was changing formats, but I suspect that its owners just wanted to be taken seriously as presenters of fine cinema. An intellectual in cowboy boots, showcasing cheap-o blood orgies just wasn’t in their interests anymore.

It was far from the end for Joe Bob, however. Four months after his firing, the wily Texan found a new home. The cable channel TNT needed a new host for its Friday-night horror-fest Monstervision, and Joe Bob fit the bill perfectly. He turned the show into a casual, Talk Soup-like hang-out, complete with trademark bits. He joked with his crew, who were often heard laughing, and did poorly-acted, silly skits with his guests. Such guests included stars from the very films he was showing, or else experts who provided commentary on the realism of those films. One night, he got both Rhonda Shear of Up All Night fame, and Joe Flaherty as SCTV’s Count Floyd, to hang out and ad lib with him.

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He also featured viewer mail, which was usually brought in by a sexy babe in hot pants, fresh from America’s finest correctional facilities. Joe Bob was well aware of his awful time slot, and he reveled in the fact that his prime demographic was, in fact, prisoners. He encouraged his “captive audience” to send in their prison cafeteria menus, and even provided facts about the jails that they hailed from.

His most famous bit, however, was the “Drive-In Totals,” a list of every cheap trick the upcoming film had loaded in its chambers. The list always began with a body and breast count, and always included some kind of “Fu” — a play on the Kung variety — based on the themes of the movie’s action sequences. My favorites include Senior Citizen Fu, Curling Iron Fu, and Intestine Fu. All told, MonsterVision with Joe Bob Briggs was campy fun, but it felt real, like Joe Bob and friends were there on the trail with us, sharing life’s downtime and poking at its absurdity.

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Then, in another effort at “format changing,” TNT cancelled him. As the channel inched away from its initial trove of Turner films, in order to schedule newer, big-budget Hollywood films, it seemed that seriousness would once again topple silliness. In 2000, Joe Bob was fired, and MonsterVision continued without a host for a few miserable months, before fizzling into oblivion.

Seventeen years passed, and horror languished into grim, predictable fare like feardotcom, Don’t Breathe, and The Conjuring 2. But now, in another miraculous 90s resurrection, Joe Bob is back, and he’s bringing the good horror with him. True to his word, Mr. Briggs has refused to let the drive-in die.

The Last Drive-In is a mini-series on the horror streaming service Shudder. Amazingly, it’s the same damn thing as before: full-length, old-school horror films interspersed with trivia and commentary, complete with Drive-In Totals and mail calls. The movies are mostly bad (The Prowler, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama), or extremely niche (Legend of Boggy Creek, Daughters of Darkness), but there are some classics sprinkled in there (Hellraiser, Sleepaway Camp). God bless ’em, though: they’re all shamelessly exploitative, and that’s all that matters. We don’t come to the Drive-In to see deep, critical darlings (though there are still some fascinating ideas in these movies), we’re here to laugh at some cheeseball stinkers, and the myriad methods they employ to disgust, frighten, and appall.

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The Last Drive-In originally aired as a 24-hour live-streamed marathon, but it’s now available for subscribers to watch in separate episodes. It’s not expensive to sign up: just five bucks a month. It’s totally worth it, and you get a lot of other horror series too!

Joe Bob is, expectedly, a little fat and creaky now, but his style and good humor are unchanged. In fact, now that he has no censors to worry about, I daresay he’s livelier and funnier than ever. The old man lets the “fucks” fly, and shoots straight about the touchiest of topics. From smartphone addiction to L.A. subways to transgender rights, nothing is safe from Joe Bob. He’s as sharp and fun to watch now as he was in the 90s, and it’s a little sad when the party finally ends.

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There were some troubles with the initial stream, of course. Anyone who remembers the disastrous debuts of Diablo III, healthcare.gov, and Amazon’s Prime Day won’t be surprised to learn that The Last Drive-In suffered from lengthy server outages as a result of overwhelming demand. Most folks who tried to sit in on the marathon simply couldn’t. That’s okay, though, because despite Joe Bob’s insistence that this was his final bow, Shudder quickly recognized his value to their service, and renewed him for another go-round. Let’s hope they’ll be prepared this time. We need more stuff like this.

I’ve already given my reasons for why we need more stuff like this, but I can’t compete with the man himself. Before The Last Drive-In was recorded, Joe Bob wrote a brilliant essay explaining his success, and it tops anything I could ever put out on the subject. Daniel says, check it out.

Now, there’s something else I wanted to mention.

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The whole reason I’m even talking about Shudder is that I found an interesting tidbit of news recently. Turns out that master monster-maker Greg Nicotero, whose work can be seen in Evil Dead II, Day of the Dead, and The Walking Dead, is working to revive the classic horror film Creepshow. He’s building it as a series that will appear on none other than Shudder, hopefully in 2019. He’s quoted as saying that he wants to recover the stylish, comic-book feel of the first movie in honor of the great George Romero. Here’s hoping he pulls it off; the horror whores are watching!

Oh, and Mr. Nicotero, in case you somehow come across this goofy little blog post, I beg that you retain John Harrison for the show’s musical score. If that’s not possible, I recommend the great Franz Falckenhaus, (a.k.a. Legowelt), who specializes in lo-fi, scary synth. The music of Creepshow is critical to its effect; don’t fuck it up!

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 Cartoons: Gary Larson’s Tales From the Far Side

vid’s been taken down, sorry 😦

Like its creator, Tales From the Far Side is a misunderstood creature. A lot of people just don’t get Gary Larson, and I don’t think they got this show either. It was one of just two animated specials based on the popular comic strip, and the only one that aired in the United States. It’s a lovely bit of animation, but I think that director Marv Newland, creator of the haunting Black Hula and Bambi Meets Godzilla, pushed things a little too far into Halloween-Town for most audiences. His vision is clear right from the beginning: the score is a cloud of gloomy guitars and eerie er-hus. The camera glides past smoking farm animals and dead people before settling on a reanimated bovine. This queen of the night tells us with an piercing bleat that she’s bringing us somewhere that we might not like to go, and she doesn’t give a damn how we feel about it.

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That Newland’s direction is matched with Gary Larson’s off-center perceptions doesn’t aid the accessibility factor. In keeping with the spirit of the strip, the show is a series of disconnected jokes, many of them conceptual, so if you never dug The Far Side, you’re not going to dig this. I once watched this show with a non-fan friend, and the loudest, angriest question to come up was, “So what happened to the cow?” She was frustrated that the show had ditched the Franken-cow from the opening, and had never come back to it. She didn’t understand that The Far Side was never about the traditional, long-term payoff. Larson is foremost an idea man, and in his world, the punchline is in the premise.

We get some throwaway gags lifted straight from the funny pages, like a crow scraping its meal off the street with a spatula, but there are also more elaborate setups. My favorite is the insect airline, where the business class is packed with worker bees, and the in-flight movie is The Fly.

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There are also several “role-reversal” scenarios, not unlike Paul Driessen’s The Killing of an Eggin which arrogant humanity suffers for its transgressions against nature. Presented in the innocent pictures of the comic, this dark theme was leavened. When bolstered by motion and sound, however, it turns downright devilish.

I think it’s terrific, but most critics of the day did not. They admired the slick presentation, but found the material simple and one-note. I’m really not sure what they expected from a show based off a one-panel cartoon. I think Tales From the Far Side is the perfect amplification of the comic strip. Just watching Larson’s dumpy, bell-shaped characters take motion is a lot of fun. The animators clearly had a great time with it: everything bounces and wobbles and wiggles in a delightful fashion that suits the visual style. There’s very little dialogue, which is odd considering that the comic could be quite wordy, but I think it works. Too much speech would soften the show’s concepts, and extract us from the uncomfortable un-reality that we’re meant to be visiting.

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Some of the sequences could use a little trimming, and the finale is a big letdown, but I still think that Tales From the Far Side is a marvel. Like A Wish For Wings That Work, it’s a comic strip special whose material simply can’t cater to everyone, but that’s precisely why I love it so.

Top Cartoons: Gummi Bears – For a Few Sovereigns More

 

In my previous post, I mentioned that Cubbi, one of the kid bears in the Gummi Bears cartoon, annoyed me. The pink scamp, always armed with a wooden sword, dreams of a life of swashbuckling adventure, and his hyperactive antics just rub me the wrong way. Here’s a Cubbi-centered episode, however, that I like – if only because the cheeky brat gets hit with something uncommon in kid’s cartoons: disillusionment.

Duke Igthorn hires Flint Shrubwood, an emotionless bounty-hunter, to capture a Gummi Bear, promising twenty gold sovereigns as pay. The job turns out to be pretty easy for Shrubwood, as he tracks and snatches Cubbi with little trouble. When Iggy welshes on the fee, though, Shrubwood decides to take the duke captive as well. Thus one of my favorite cartoon scenarios is spun: a threat from outside the usual formula interferes, forcing the good guys and bad guys to work together to defeat it.

Shrubwood is a terrific threat, too. The show introduces him with some badass acoustic guitar strums, cues that are never used anywhere else in the series. As his name and the episode title suggest, he’s a squinting, soft-spoken caricature of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, and he has the quick draw to match. Even a platoon of Igthorn’s massive ogres can’t stand up to him. He flutes a signature four-note theme to announce himself, and to inspire panic in his quarries. To put it simply, he’s a far more competent villain than Igthorn could ever be, and that’s bad news for everyone.

What really makes this episode stand out, however, is the forced cooperation of Igthorn and Cubbi, who are chained together like The Defiant Ones. Amid the context of their mutual hate and distrust, they have conversations about where Igthorn went wrong as a knight, and the talent of Cubbi’s animators registers that a lesson is being learned: the world is not as simple as the little bear thought it was. At the climax, Cubbi has to make a big decision, and the scene is admirably subtle in its power and sentimentality, an impressive achievement for a Saturday morning cartoon. It still moves me when I watch it, and that’s why this is one of my favorite cartoons ever.