Friday, October 31, 2008

Move Your Dead Bones!

So as not to go into one of my favorite holidays on a wholly negative note, I give you a nice bit of Halloween dance party fun- the music video for "Move Your Dead Bones" from the DVD for the DTV feature BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR (which was better than I expected- I really need to review it some time.)

To the producers of this film: Why is this song not available for download on iTunes or a similar service? Or even just free? It's a catchy number and nice publicity for the film, you're missing out.

To everyone else, Happy Halloween!

Random Movie Report #57: The Beyond

BEYOND DVD cover and Amazon link
From the sophisticated to the, well, not. I knew that going from Dario Argento to Lucio Fulci would be something of a downward step, but THE BEYOND genuinely disappointed me. Fulci may be more of an overt schlock filmmaker, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I thought ZOMBIE was a fun bit of insanity. THE BEYOND delivers the director’s trademark unrestrained splatter and disregard for plot coherence in the face of cool ideas (I honestly think Italian genre cinema subscribes to the Rule of Cool more than Hollywood, or at least does so more openly.) However, it doesn’t deliver on its potential coolness; it’s the classic grindhouse movie that promises the gates of Hell opening and gives you a few shuffling zombies. It feels half-realized, like something that could have gone further and been genuinely horrifying instead of just campy. There’s definitely cheese appeal, but not a lot else.

The film takes place in Louisiana, at a hotel that is apparently rumored to be seated over a gateway to Hell. Back in the twenties, an artist/cultist who liked to paint hellish landscapes was lynched and murdered by locals, and now the intermittently British Liza Merril (Katherine MacColl) plans to reopen the property. Of course this somehow stirs up dark forces lurking in the basement, a plumber gets attacked by the dead artist’s corpse, both bodies end up in the morgue and somehow knock Joe’s wife dead, Liza is haunted by visions of an ancient book and the prophecies of an enigmatic blind girl (Cinzia Monreale), and more grody stuff happens leading up to the inevitable opening up of the netherworld. Which basically results in a lot of zombies wandering about.

In a clear sign that election news has permeated my brain, I first heard the name of the male lead- a town doctor played by David Warbeck- as “John McCain”. It’s not (the name is McCabe), but when another character was introduced as “Joe the Plumber”, for real this time, I was starting to think I was being punk’d. Fortunately the female lead is not named “Sarah Palin” or any permutation thereof, and I did not have to shut off the DVD and head off to the local Catholic church in search of holy water.

Sadly, that is the closest to genuinely disturbing the movie gets. For most of the rest of the running time, we’re aware that a big evil force is about to be set loose on the people of whatever town this is, and are essentially waiting for it to get moving. There’s horror in anticipation, but when you draw it out too much it just becomes boredom. Fulci punctuates things with a few really grody interim attacks, but they’re more gross than scary, and actually border on funny for their ludicrously extreme nature.

A key example of this is a scene where some character I’m not even sure we’ve been properly introduced to looks in the town archives at the plans for the hotel. He sees something shocking that we never figure out, is pushed off a ladder by some high force or just his own disbelief, and is paralyzed. A group of tarantulas creep up to the unmoving victim and proceed to do what movie tarantulas do to helpless victims. Which would be much creepier if so many of them didn’t have obvious rubber stunt doubles and if they weren’t making much more noise than spiders generally do. That still sounds damn creepy, but in execution it becomes just silly. It takes work to mess up something like that.

After a while, Fulci seems to check his watch and realize we’re close to the end and the gates of Hell arbitrarily open right then. What does this mean? Well, zombies. Now, I like zombies, but I was hoping for more than just that after so much buildup, and the zombies don’t even get to eat that many people. Beyond Eliza and the Doctor, there are a handful of characters who aren’t even developed to the stereotypical level seen in one of the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, and the zombie rampage is criminally short on victims. And all this builds to a total non-climax; indeed, the movie stops just as soon as we see something that has the potential to be really interesting.

THE BEYOND is one of those for-fans-only things; it’s got a few notable touches, like a cool theme and some nice visuals, but seems more a nice idea for a horror movie than a complete experience. Fulci is a filmmaker I can’t fully write off, as sleazy as some of his work is, and if you don’t expect much more than a zombie film this might be fun. Seems like a waste of potential, though.

Story by Dardano Sacchetti
Screenplay by Dardano Sacchetti, Giorgio Mariuzzo, and Lucio Fulci
Directed by Lucio Fulci

Grade: C+

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Random Movie Report #56: Opera

Link to OPERA DVD on
Dorian at Postmodern Barney has Dario Argento Week up and running, and it inspired me to take a look at one of the Italian horror meister’s films. The most appealing one on the local video store’s shelves was OPERA, a giallo thriller from the late 80s that’s among his better regarded pictures. It’s a break from the supernatural stuff I’ve been watching, but no less eerie and still pretty fun. It occupies a space between suspense thriller and outright slasher flick, often being both at the same time, and it’s comfortable territory for the director.

The action centers around a production of Verdi’s operatic rendition of MACBETH, which like its non-singing counterpart is apparently cursed. (Unlike the play, you can’t circumvent the curse by calling it something else- at least, nobody tried.) At least that’s what it seems like when the female lead, storming out of the theater, is hit by a car. Taking over for the injured soprano is Betty (Cristina Marsillach), a young understudy following in the footsteps of her diva mother, and finally getting her big break. But she’s attracted the attention of a crazed fan, who not only begins killing the people around her but making her watch, capturing her beforehand and taping needles under her eyelids so she can’t close them. After each killing he sets her free, but always manages to track her down again. He’s masked, so obviously she can’t identify him, but she recalls seeing a memory or dream of seeing the figure when she was a little girl and her mother was alive. Whatever it is, it seems a vital clue to what’s happening now.

This is a murder mystery, at least partly, and on that level Dario Argento plays pretty fair. There aren’t a whole lot of suspects and this doesn’t seem to be the kind of mystery where every scene contains a clue to the killer’s identity that in retrospect should seem obvious, but it’s definitely possible to guess who it is. The script doesn’t cheat, and everything gets enough foreshadowing that when it actually appears or happens, it doesn’t seem like it’s been pulled from nowhere. The revelation of the killer is done without much work from Betty herself, and his motivation quickly delivered in a way that’s not wholly satisfying, but then, I’m a fan of big revelation scenes and had higher expectations than most.

As a slasher picture, OPERA plays around a lot with convention. The typical set-up for a slasher movie death involves the victim being isolated and stalked; here, everyone is in the most danger when they’re close to Betty. She has to be captured before the actual killing can take place (with at least one exception), and this lends each death scene a sense of performance that ties in with the operatic motif and the whole idea of horror film as voyeurism that film critics have been writing about since REAR WINDOW. Argento, more than anything, is known as a stylist, and here he manages to find a plot justification for making the murders so staged- the whole thing is a performance, and in that context nothing stretches plausibility too much.

Okay, there’s some business with a bunch of ravens I’m not sure I entirely buy, but it’s kind of cool.

Key to the film working as well as it does is Cristina Marsillach, who is ideal for this kind of role. She projects a very innocent beauty, seeming innately vulnerable and sweet, so of course she’s being preyed upon by some random psychopath. (Argento has an eye for this kind of lead; see also Jessica Harper in SUSPIRIA and Jennifer Connelly in PHENOMENA.) It almost goes without saying that the movie looks good, with the kind of polished elegance that was becoming common with late 80s horror as it distanced itself from the grimy carnage of the first part of the decade; there’s a lot of very pretty monochromatic work, and it goes without saying that blood red shows up quite a bit too. The music score is an interesting blend of opera, mood pieces, and Italian trash rock.

So I liked this one. It didn’t completely draw me in, for whatever reason, but it had a few surprises and, despite a slow start, achieved an energetic tone. It can be enjoyed for Argento’s style, for the story, and/or for the metacommentary contained therein, so it’s a film with a few layers to it. Sort of a giallo version of tiramisu, though I’m sure I’m indulging in a patronizing and ethnocentric cliché by comparing an Italian film to Italian food. Whatever. I’ve received my own punishment because now I’m hungry for tiramisu.

Story by Dario Argento
Screenplay by Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini
Directed by Dario Argento

Grade: B+

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Random Movie Report #55: Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Nosferatu DVD cover
Werner Herzog is a filmmaker I need to follow more than I do. I saw some clips of his work in a film and television class in high school, and was struck by how intense it was, but- I honestly have no excuse for not having seen anything of his in full until recently. AGUIRRE is in the queue, honest. In the meantime, I’m going to continue the Club’s informal Halloween celebrations with Herzog’s remake of NOSFERATU, the samizdat Dracula classic of silent cinema. I’ve seen Murnau’s original, and this is an interesting companion piece, very similar to it in some ways yet very different in others. It’s also a really moody and impressive horror story in itself, and gives Herzog many opportunities to show his unique talents.

The story is roughly similar to DRACULA, except that the action has been relocated from London to Wismar, Germany (and a few decades earlier). Johnathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), who works as a real estate agent, is sent to Transylvania to close a deal with Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski), a pale and disfigured creature whom the locals seem to fear with good reason. Sure enough, Dracula is a vampire, and Johnathan barely escapes with his life, only to find that the Count has moved to Wismar already, bringing with him a horde of rats and a rash of mysterious deaths that are attributed to the return of the plague. In a change from Bram Stoker’s story, Johnathan is bordering on undead himself and Dr. Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast) is a skeptic, so it’s up to Johnathan’s wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) to put an end to the Count’s predations.

(People who have read DRACULA (or seen the Universal movie, or the Coppola version, or most roadshow productions, etc.) will recall that Johnathan was actually in love with Mina in the original story, and Lucy was another woman killed by the Count to demonstrate to the reader what he was capable of. This wouldn’t be worth more than a footnote if not for the fact that the same year, 1979, also saw the release of another film version of DRACULA starring Frank Langella, in which Lucy and Mina also switch places for no reason. The coincidence is enough to merit a parenthetical. End of digression.)

The first thing that struck me about Herzog’s NOSFERATU was its realism. Much of this was shot on location in Central Europe, not quite Transylvania proper but very close. Most film versions of the Count’s environs have been very bleak and stylized, following on from the Tod Browning film, but this film’s Transylvania is lush and alive and fairly authentic, but never lacking a sense of something horrible lurking in the clouds above. There is a magical quality to the scenes of Harker trekking towards Castle Dracula, walking alone because nobody will drive him by carriage or even sell a horse. Herzog enjoys lingering on landscapes, and when they’re this amazing I can’t blame him; that this is the kind of place where the vampire legends first spread lends the story an eerie reality.

Some of the intensity is lost when we move back to Wismar, but as in the original, the use of plague imagery and the association of the Count with the disease bearing rats (to be fair, this time they seem just to be patsies so Dracula can kill loads of people without anyone getting suspicious) is creepy and effective. Klaus Kinski’s Dracula, his appearance based on Max Shreck’s Count Orlock in the original, is a cold and inhuman figure, seemingly lacking in romantic qualities; he kills to feed and doesn’t seem to enjoy that either, expressing a dulled resentment of his own immortality. But Lucy is very appealing, and possesses a passion he has long since lost. There’s little that’s romantic about this, but it’s played very well.

This is not a fast-moving picture, though at 107 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Herzog relies a lot on building mood through static shots and the use of highly atmospheric music; the soundtrack contains some original work by Popol Vuh along with quotes from Wagner and Charles Gounod, and most notably the piece “Brothers of Darkness, Sons of Light” performed by Vuh and written by Florian Fricke. That piece in particular, an amelodic choral hum, is used as the main theme and establishes just the right sense of unease.

I find that this year I’m interested in horror films that create a sense of another world. With so much going on in the here and now, the idea that there’s more, that there are parts of the universe beyond natural comprehension, is almost comforting even when their inhabitants are threatening to kill us. NOSFERATU, like most great vampire stories, isn’t just about someone sucking blood- it’s about a netherworld of magic and danger that lurks out of our view, with Dracula as its emissary. Before I go overboard and start writing Goth poetry, though, I’ll conclude by saying this is a uniquely unnerving experience. I’d recommend seeing Murnau’s film first, but you can’t go wrong either way; it’s hard as Hell to make the Dracula story seem at all fresh after eleventy billion adaptations, but Herzog creates something unique while still paying homage to a classic.

Based on the novel “Dracula” by Bram Stoker (sort of, wink wink)
Written for the screen and Directed by Werner Herzog
Grade: A-

Monday, October 27, 2008

Random Movie Report #54: A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

Link by Amazon, poster by
I’m trying to get more into the Halloween spirit, since politics have been distracting me. And I decided to dip into a franchise that I’ve only been casually acquainted with thusfar, the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series. I’d seen the first film, and parts of others, but the sequels are arguably their own thing. After A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE, which wasn’t so much a horror film as a campy allegory for a teenage boy’s struggle with his latent homosexuality (seriously), original creator Wes Craven returned to the franchise to co-write this installment and get back to the mythology he was working with. With direction by music video vet Chuck Russell and writing contributions by Russell, Bruce Wagner, and Frank Darabont, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS is an imaginative and vibrant horror film that manages to throw a few surprises at the viewer.

Patricia Arquette stars as Kristen, one of a number of Springwood teenagers suffering from vivid nightmares and incarcerated at a local mental institution. They’ve all been terrorized in their dreams by undead serial killer Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), and Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), survivor of his rampage in the first movie, comes to work at the hospital and sees that she may have to confront him again. She discovers that Kristen has the ability to pull other people into her dreams, and suggests that by getting the teens together they may be able to fight him. Their actual psychiatrist, Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson), is extremely skeptical, and further deaths at the hospital don’t help make her case, but he is haunted by visions of a white-habited nun (Nan Martin), who knows Freddy’s history and suggests that he cannot be destroyed until his remains are properly interred. Unfortunately, Freddy Krueger was burned alive and his bones hidden by the parents of Elm Street, and they’re keeping mum.

What really makes this a shift for the series is the way that dreams are used. In A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, the dream sequences weren’t much different from the rest of the picture, a stylistic choice that allowed Wes Craven to play with audiences by leaving them unsure of whether they or the characters were safe in the waking world or at Freddy’s mercy. Here, the series starts to explore dreams as subconscious mirrors; one girl, who aspires to be on TV, is killed by a television set coming to life, while another patient’s crush on a cute nurse is used to lure him into Freddy’s clutches. There’s something innately terrifying about the idea of using peoples’ hopes, fears, and passions to undo them; it was always something that scared me about Freddy when I was younger.

In practice Freddy’s Freudian murders aren’t quite as terrifying as they could be; the television death features cameos by Zsa Zsa Gabor and Dick Cavett (both of whom managed opening credits billing), and it, like all other attacks, provides Freddy an opportunity to make really bad puns. He cracked wise a little in the first film and what I saw of the second, but this perhaps marks the point where it became his major shtick. Robert Englund does a decent job selling this and it’s not too pronounced a problem just yet, but you can tell that the series was going to get worse about this.

Some of the characters suffer from a lack of definition; most of the troubled teens have one or two major quirks that define them, which is enough to tell them apart but makes the psychological material rather shallow. The acting is solid enough, though (Lawrence Fishburne has a small role as an intern) and generally the troubled teens are likable enough that their deaths matter. The film’s also good about dealing with the consequences of the deaths; nobody’s just there to be cannon fodder. The story takes some interesting turns; it doesn’t adhere to standard slasher structures, probably a good idea as that genre was dying out by 1987.

Though DREAM WARRIORS never becomes truly terrifying, it’s a creative and engaging story. Russell’s music video training serves him well here, and the film’s visuals are especially impressive given that the budget was only five million dollars. Truth be told, I don’t demand a horror movie scare me so long as it holds my attention, and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS did just that.

Story by Wes Craven and Bruce Wagner
Screenplay by Wes Craven, Bruce Wagner, Frank Darabont, and Chuck Russell
Directed by Chuck Russell

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Random Who Report: The Green Death (1973)

Buy THE GREEN DEATH from Amazon hereTHE GREEN DEATH is very much a story of its time, dealing with issues raised by the newly active environmentalist movement, the computer revolution, coal pits closing, etc. This is typical of stories from Jon Pertwee’s time, as writers began to engage with social issues a little more directly (perhaps reflecting the show appealing to a more mature audience.) However, it’s also very modern, developing characters and setting up arcs in a way that foreshadows how the new DOCTOR WHO does things. Though not the most coherent of stories, THE GREEN DEATH is consistently engaging even at its goofiest, and has some scary and touching moments too. It also marks the departure of Katy Manning as Jo Grant, and as companion send-offs go it’s pretty strong.

The bulk of the story takes place in Wales (see what I said about new series foreshadowing), in a remote town whose name I forget that’s having its coal mine shut down. The generically-named Global Chemicals promises that their new facility will produce plenty of jobs and money; they’ve got some way of refining oil that’s ultra-efficient and only produces a small amount of hideous green mutagen that kills people and makes maggots grow to giant size, honest. This upsets a local environmentalist hippie group under the leadership of Professor Clifford Jones (Stewart Bevan), and when one of the last miners out of the pit turns all green and dead, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) gets called in to investigate just what is going on. The Doctor is temporarily unavailable, having nipped off to the distant world of Metebelis III to steal a valuable gem just because he can, so Jo goes off to meet the handsome young Professor and starts investigating what’s in the mine. Turns out that yes, Global Chemicals is dumping a lot of green muck down the old mine shaft, and not only does it cause a toxic infection in humans, it’s also spawned a bunch of maggots the size of dauchsunds whose bite spreads the killer slime. On top of this, everyone at the evil generic chemical company is acting very weird, which has to do with the fact that their boss is a giant computer that was programmed to have human inefficency and creativity and as such has gone batshit plumb loco.

This story is most fondly remembered as “The one with the maggots”, which is also the title of the greatest FRIENDS episode never written. But the maggots evidently weren’t enough to sustain a six-part story, so they threw in an evil computer, poison sludge, and the Doctor running off to an alien world. This last bit is a particularly surreal sidetrek scattered at various points throughout the first episode; we see brief scenes of the Doctor wandering about a dark and smoky landscape, menaced by stock footage of snakes and the giant claws of some offscreen monster. All to get a nice shiny blue crystal which does end up serving some plot use later on, albeit mostly by happy chance. What’s interesting is that this also serves as foreshadowing for something that would come an entire season later; PLANET OF THE SPIDERS, the third Doctor’s final story, dealt with some unforseen repercussions of the jewel heist, leading to the Doctor sacrificing his life to stop a great evil in what is apparently a Buddhist allegory (I haven’t seen that one yet.) The series had tried some of this light foreshadowing in earlier years- the Pat Troughton story THE INVASION is basically a test run for the Jon Pertwee UNIT era- but it was still the exception for WHO rather than the rule.

Jo Grant gets a superb exit, especially after poor Liz Shaw was written out off-screen. Jo was introduced as, to put it politely, a less intellectual companion compared to super-smart Liz, in order for the Doctor to once again have someone to explain everything to. Jo wasn’t dumb, really, but she tended to act very silly and impulsive and to scream a lot. She gets to do more this time around, and her romance with Professor Jones is well played if still firmly in the realm of genre melodrama. (There’s even a scene where she lounges by the fireplace in a dress straight out of a romance novel cover. Not that I can complain.) On top of that, the first episode, with its elements of the Doctor going off to another world while Jo has to investigate trouble at home, foreshadows her parting ways and striking her own path. The final scenes of the story are very touching.

In its disjointed way, THE GREEN DEATH provides a lot of neat touches. The commune/laboratory where Professor Jones and his fellow hippies work isn’t exaggerated quite as much as these things often were in popular media; there’s not much psychedelia or reactionary fear of Those Damn Kids Today, just a bunch of quirky people in fairly dingy housing making do with what they’ve got. (Of course, by this point hippiedom itself was becoming a bit more subdued.) For all the serious issues this story deals with, there are quite a few funny moments, intentional and otherwise. The maggot effects are quite good, though their adult form is unconvincing even by WHO standards.

THE GREEN DEATH suffers from the curse of nearly all six-parters, in that it’s not really a big enough story to justify the length (there’s some particularly obvious padding when the Doctor and friends raid Global Chemicals just to get some wire-cutting tools.) But if it suffers from a lack of focus, the individual parts are never dull. Quite entertaining, and just the slightest bit ahead of its time.

Written by Robert Sloman (with uncredited assist by Barry Letts)
Produced by Barry Letts
Directed by Michael E. Briant

Grade: B+

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Bookshelf: Season of Peril by Michales Warwick Joy

Buy Season of Peril from Amazon here
, by Michales Warwick Joy, is a book I picked up at a science fiction convention in Columbia, Missouri in either 2004 or 2005, and have now just gotten around to reading. For me, that’s good turnaround time. It was published by Tigress Press, a small Columbia publisher, so it’s probably not gotten a lot of exposure on shelves. But more people really do need to know about this one; it’s an intense swords-and-sorcery actioner that harkens back to the days of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, back when fantasy books didn’t have to have a map in front. Lean, suspenseful, and surprising, this is a page turner that anyone interested in fantasy literature should pick up, because it’s the sort of thing the genre ought to do more often.

There’s something stalking the streets of the Walled City; some horrific creature killing people in brutal ways. Margar, formerly employed by the city’s Prince to drive out a cult of wizards, is enlisted to catch the thing or things responsible. A disastrous hunt one night reveals that there’s more than one of these strange monsters about, and Margar teams up with a professional monster hunter, among other people, to try and put an end to the menace. It all has something to do with the caverns under the city, and why it was built in the first place, and why nobody can enter or leave...

The “monster story” is more common than you’d think in fantasy, and the basic premise works well for the genre; it’s an obvious hook familiar from countless B-movies, and provides excuses for scares and brutal violence. Joy delivers this quite effectively, with sharp writing that conveys the immediacy of the action in a way that’s surprisingly easy to follow. (This is always something I have a hard time with as reader and writer, so to see it done so well is a real surprise.) Of course, extending this premise beyond a short story requires a lot to be lurking beneath the surface, and you should be prepared for some truly outrageous plot twists. In some ways this is a work of two halves, and the transition from one to another is disconcerting at first. Somehow the author ties it all together; a lot of thinking has gone into this backstory.

Still, the premise is accessible enough that in 265 pages we still have room for quite a bit of character development. Margar is the sort of figure you would expect to see in a modern cop drama; scarred, weary, and uncertain about his future after a life of service. He values the friendships he makes even as he’s suspicious of everyone. The other characters are well drawn in the brief space that we know them, though Okogawa suffers a bit from so obviously being from “Fantasy Japan” despite the rest of the book’s lack of geographic and ethnic parallels. The relationships of the characters are believable and develop in interesting ways; there are always more secrets to be revealed, seemingly for everyone.

I actually find myself at a loss for words simply because the book is this good. There isn’t much to harp on, and so much of what makes it work is simply in being well-written, in exhibiting the kind of economy and momentum you’d see in a good horror movie. The brevity of the work probably made it a tough sell for publishers, but stretching it out any further would have ruined things. Even the tone is right; it’s dark, and the action can get very gory indeed, but we don’t become bogged down in the grimness. The story’s denouement drags a little, mainly because there’s a lot to tie up, but even though this clearly isn’t the kind of Extruded Fantasy Product where you have to commit to three or more books to get the whole story (not that there’s anything- well, too much of anything wrong with that), it leaves the door open for similar adventures.

In short, SEASON OF PERIL is a book you should read. I’d meant to get around to it for a while, and it more than delivered on my expectations. Maybe if we get more word of mouth going on this thing it’ll find the audience it deserves. I hope all twelve of you bear that in mind.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Stage Review: The Rocky Horror Show

Rocky Horror showtimes and such at the Eubank Productions websiteI don’t get to the theatre very often, for whatever reason, but on hearing from a friend about a new production of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW over at the Off Center Theatre (in Crown Center), I decided to take it in. I’ve seen the film several times, of course, but never the original stage show, and this thirty-fifth anniversary revival of Richard O’Brien’s cult horror musical is a nice seasonal selection. I have to say, with absolutely no credentials as a theater critic whatsoever, that it’s a good production. It’s got the intimacy the show needs, is well paced, and you can drink in the theater, which is a positive for any performance but fits this in particular.

The plot is as it always was. Brad Majors (ASSHOLE!- and also, Evan White) gets engaged to his best girl Janet Weiss (SLUT!- er, Katie Karel), and the two head out to meet their ex-tutor Dr. Everett Scott (Noah Whitmore.) However, they get a flat tire and seek help at the castle of Dr. Frank N. Furter (Doogin Brown), a sweet transvestite mad scientist who is about to unveil his latest creation, the beach blonde muscleman Rocky (Brian Shortess). Brad and Janet find themselves tempted by forbidden fruit, and though Frank is eager to help them along to corruption, he’s insanely jealous when it comes to his new toy.

As you can imagine, any production of ROCKY HORROR nowadays has to contend with the fact that much of its potential audience knows the film and its audience participation ritual by heart, and there’s a good chance they’ll play along with the stage version. Director Steven Eubank has chosen to head them off at the pass by throwing a few ringers into the audience and having them lead the commentary, even eliciting responses from the main cast. It’s as funny as it’s always been, and a few topical jokes have been thrown in. With that integrated into the action, the show starts to play more with the fourth wall- in particular, Vanessa Severo plays Magenta as an increasingly bored actress who at one point reads her lines off her hand.

The program indicates that the music has been futzed about with a bit by Eubank and musical director Daniel Doss, and again, having not seen the stage show before I’m not sure how much is different there. In comparison to the film, the songs are more consistently up-tempo, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t- “I’m Going Home”, “Once In A While” and “Science Fiction Double Feature” really work better slow (or at least without such noticeable percussion.) That said, the music is consistently good and there’s some enthusiastic dancing.

The show is very nearly stolen by Bill Pelletier as the Narrator, who plays along with the vulgarity and cat-calling more than you’d expect him to; indeed, he arguably sets the tone for the show. As Frank, Doogin Brown is as enthusiastic and overdramatic as he needs to be, though not as sexually overpowering as one would hope. As mentioned before, Vanessa Severo’s performance is twistedly inspired, and Price Messick gives Riff Raff a nice Peter Lorre vibe. Katie Kalahurka is a nicely bouncy and bratty Columbia, and Brad and Janet are as broad and dorky as they should be. Brian Shortress doesn’t make a huge impression as Rocky, but he can dance better than his screen counterpart.

The Off Center Theatre has a very small stage, so there’s not much room for decoration, but the creative team does its best. The burlesque elements outweigh the cheesy horror film elements somewhat, and I would say that bits of the costume and set design look too much like the film, but there are some nice touches. The costumes for the climactic floor show are particularly inspired.

Overall it’s a fun show, much zippier than the movie, though this comes at the expense of some of the story’s weird pathos. (Then again, my take on Frank N. Furter as tragic hero may not be the consensus reading.) It runs through the second of November, so catch it if you’re in town.

Grade: B+

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Comics Page #18: Order of the Stick: Start of Darkness

Amazon link for START OF DARKNESS
It’s common for a webcomic to move from simple gag strips to intricate dramatic plotlines that require we suddenly care about the characters. What’s rare is for a strip to do this without completely falling apart. ORDER OF THE STICK, written and drawn (after a fashion) by Rich Burlew, has managed to achieve a careful balance between jokes about DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS rules, character banter, and genuine plot, resulting in what may be one of the best webcomics currently going. To be fair, it got into plot business reasonably early, and has never abandoned its metatextual roots, so it may not be a shift so much as a predetermined blend. Giant In The Playground has released a few trade compilations of the webcomic, but START OF DARKNESS is one of two print-only prequels delving into the surprisingly layered backstory of a stick figure fantasy comic. THE ORIGIN OF PCs deals with the origins of the actual Order, while this delves into the series’ overarching villains: Xykon the lich, Redcloak the goblin priest, and their pet, a fearsome monster lurking perpetually in the darkness. Burlew recommends reading NO CURE FOR THE PALADIN BLUES, the second compiled volume, before this one because this spoils some of the backstory, and that story begins roundabout here if you’re curious. For those already up to speed, START OF DARKNESS marks a change of tone but still shows off what the strip does well, blending sharp comedy writing with solid comics storytelling and a genuine interest in its characters.

We first meet Xykon as a young boy, one who has suddenly developed mystic powers, which he uses to re-animate his dead dog, kill and re-animate his family, and basically to set out to become the most powerful and most evil spellcaster that ever there was. Meanwhile, an entire clan of goblins is slain by the Paladins of the Sapphire Guard, and a survivor, an acolyte of the Dark One (the goblins’ default deity), inherits the Crimson Mantle of the High Priest, and with it knowledge of a great plan to wreak revenge on the “civilized” races that have plagued them since their birth. Taking his younger brother with him, he meets up with Xykon and a partnership is born. Naming himself Redcloak (because Xykon doesn’t have the patience to learn his real name), he persuades the not-yet-undead sorcerer to aid him in taking control of a mystic gate that could give them both the power to rule the world. Things do not go as planned.

The moral dimensions of this story are apparent from very early on, with the ostensibly (and, by the game rules which the strip follows to the letter, objectively) good paladins massacring an entire village of goblins. Further complication is added in the backstory, which implies that the goblins, orcs, bugbears, and hobgoblins of the world were created solely to be killed for experience points by patrons of the good gods (the Dark One having ascended to his position from among the goblin race.) Anyone who’s read a good amount of fantasy has no doubt come across this sort of inversion before- heck, play a Horde character in WORLD OF WARCRAFT and you’ll encounter it. But Burlew doesn’t simply let us off the hook by putting us firmly on Redcloak’s side, either. His quest for justice for the goblins starts to turn into one for vengeance, and Xykon’s growing corrupting influence helps to drag it down even further. Xykon himself is Just Plain Evil, without any redeeming qualities, but he’s still well-rounded; he’s got a short attention span, no head for strategy, and a determination to enjoy life and undeath through causing the suffering of others.

Through this, it’s still funny, and the interesting thing is how broad the humor is allowed to be without obstructing the serious business. The simple artwork makes it easy for us to accept a D&D-esque fantasy world with diners, action figures, and taco joints. Burlew also likes to break the fourth wall a lot, which is particularly fun if you’ve been reading OOTS for a while.

Burlew uses more or less the same page format that is employed for most of the strip, but while the online strip is in full color, this prequel is mostly in black and white (presumably to save on printing costs, but he gets some good gags out of it too.) The art, as mentioned, consists of stick figures in a fairly simplistic 2-D environment, but is surprisingly expressive and carefully rendered.

This is a good fast read, one which depends on familiarity with the strip but not too much. (The main strip’s still free anyway, so why complain?) Obviously it’s a dark chapter, with inevitable tragedy by the end of it all, but at the same time it opens up a lot of possibilities as to where the story will go in the end. For fans of the online strip it’s a must-buy, for everyone else, start reading those archives.

Grade: A-