Monday, October 12, 2020

The Quest (aka Frog Dreaming) - A Forgotten 80's Horror/Adventure Flick for Kids

 When most people think of actor Henry Thomas they think of the movie E.T., and rightfully so. It is by far his most well known role and the movie is a classic. My mind, though, produces images and scenes from another movie that is a good bit more obscure. I think of a VHS case with said actor standing in black, inky water, a rifle in one hand and homemade scuba gear strapped to his back. Behind him a creature raises out of the depths, long neck and jaws dripping with slime and moss. In typical 80's fashion, the title The Quest is scrawled in thick, paint-brush-swipe font with neon pink shadowing.

The movie made an impression on me. It was one of those that my mother probably rented in the late eighties when I was less than ten years old, and I devoured it as I had so many other movies that cycled through the VCR from the rental stores during those times. In my thirties I still remembered bits and snippets of that movie, like the muddy water of the abandoned quarry where it was filmed, the isolated setting, the thought of some hidden monster hidden in the murk, and the bubbling and frothing from the center of the pond when the beast was about to make its appearance. I remembered the title The Quest.

Some twenty years after I first laid eyes on that movie, though, I found it hard to locate. You would think in the vast reaches of the internet that any and every movie you could think of would just be a couple of clicks away, but that wasn't the case. At least not at first. Over the years I would search Google for "The Quest" and it would turn up with a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. I did locate a VHS copy through ebay that I quickly snatched up. Eventually I discovered that the movie was only titled The Quest in the U.S. In it's native land of Australia, where it was filmed, the movie's title was Frog Dreaming.

I didn't know what the hell frog dreaming meant, but once I learned that it was the title I searched on Amazon. Sure enough it popped up (as of this writing it is available for free on Amazon Prime). I bought the digital copy there for around four bucks, and sat down to relive my childhood.

Maybe nostalgia overpowers my other senses, but I felt the movie held up really well. It's basically a kids adventure movie with an eerie twist. Henry Thomas' character, Cody, is a fourteen-year-old inventor. He's a bit of a rebel, but a likeable one that tests the limits of his endurance with his own brand of science experiments (a more subdued version of Data from The Goonies comes to mind). He and his friends stumble upon an abandoned quarry while exploring the dense forests of Australia.

This quarry creeped me out to no end as a kid. In the very first scene in the movie, before we meet Cody, a man is resting in a rowboat on a pond. Cliff faces surround him. The place is still. Frogs hope from lily pads at the bank, disappearing into the brown water. A ramshackle hut sits near a small dock, and a rusted windmill twitches in a light breeze. When I saw the windmill more memories came back. Yes! The windmill! It will start turning faster, it's squeaks changing from lazy squeals to a continuous, high-pitched rattle and as it does, the still surface of the pond will begin to roil and bubble. And it did. Something impossibly big sloshes around, and the windmill announces the creature's presence. The man in the rowboat manages to get out of the water (after his boat capsizes) but sees something so terrifying that, we find out later, he dies of fright. 

The pond is the centerpiece of the story, and the main source of mood and atmosphere. The underwater scenes throughout the film are eerie and unsettling. One other scene, though, brought back memories of watching as a child. Cody decides he has to know what is going on at the quarry after he and his friends catch a glimpse of the beast. He goes on a trek that takes him downriver from the coast to find a man called Charlie Pride, who knows of a legend called donkegin. The local people take him to see this man, and Cody ends up at a boat dock at night. It is about to storm. Thunder and lighting crack in the distance. Charlie Pride reveals himself on the dock, where a veil of mist drifts along the river and casts a feeling of spectral mystery over the scene. Cody, who doesn't frighten easily, approaches the man and asks him about donkegin. Charlie points to the end of the dock, and tells him to "dance with the devil," and then he'll know about donkegin. Cody looks, and at the dock's far edge a shape moves and twitches. It is backlit, and the light casts its limbs as elongated shadows that reach out into the fog. Again, great setpieces, and great atmosphere. When Cody reaches the end of the pier he finds that the figure isn't a devil. It isn't a living thing at all. It's a prop hanging from the ceiling, no more than a scarecrow, and it is attached by an arm to a boat moored at the dock. As the boat sways, the creature moves. It's an interesting piece of foreshadowing for the climax of the movie.

The movie's ending, though not quite filled with the monster magic it implies, was still memorable to me. In fact if there were two moments that always stuck out to me as a kid, it would be the first scene in the quarry when the mystery of donkegin first makes itself known, and the ending. 

Cody is a cool kid. He devises his own, homemade diving gear in order to search for donkegin in the bottom of the pond (I always wanted to do that afterwards). When he uses his equipment and goes missing beneath the surface, his friend has to run home and tell everyone he's trapped or, more likely, drowned. The authorities begin draining the pond. We discover the donkegin, like the "devil" at the end of Charlie Pride's pier, isn't a creature at all; Cody is trapped inside an old mining crane underwater. The long neck and head of donkegin are the jib arm and shovel bucket of the crane covered in seaweed, mud, and slime. The windmill somehow activates the machine. When raised from the depths it looks like some prehistoric water beast, but the gunk soon starts falling off of it to reveal what it truly is. The image of the thing, roaring its rusted metal roar, was burned into my brain the first time I saw it. With how far we've come today with graphics in movies, the effects of this are probably considered laughable. Still, if you can look past some of those shortcomings there are a lot of thrills to be had.

It turns out the term frog dreaming basically means cursed. I'm not sure if this is a real term or one made up for the movie. Cody explains it early on when he tells his friends the whole area is filled with frog dreamings, which are like sacred sites or haunted places. Weird name for a haunting, and a weird name for the movie itself, but I guess The Quest isn't exactly a memorable title either.

One thing I suppose I should mention is the probable political incorrectness of some of the language in the film. I'm not sure of how volatile race relations are in Australia but if they're anything like the U.S., some people won't be happy with some of the words used. The terms "blackfella" and just "blacks" are used several times, and though it doesn't seem overly derogatory in context it does seem to imply a separate entity - i.e. they are them, and we are us. Kind of like separate but equal. I didn't take it as intentional disrespect to the people of aboriginal descent (which I did not know were considered black until I looked this up), but I did learn that among some it is considered offensive to use the term "blackfella". Other web pages suggest that blackfella is a common term used to describe a certain way of life in Australia. I don't know enough about it to make an educated stand one way or the other, so I'll just mention it here and let the viewer judge for themselves.

All in all, the movie was still a lot of fun all these years later. It wasn't exactly scary, but the air of mystery that pervades it was enough to keep me interested even today as I watched. I held onto memories of that murky pond and the crane monster for over thirty years until I found it again. I feel that it lived up to the hype of my childhood mind. 

Long live donkegin!

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

RAD: The Classic BMX Movie From The 80's Finally Get's Its Due

Breakin' the Ice
by Luke Whaley

It's summer, 1989. I'm eight years old. We've just come back from the video rental store with a stack of VHS movies, and the first one my siblings and I feed to our VCR is a movie called Rad
My very own, well-worn
 VHS copy of RAD

The minute the movie finishes, without even stopping to hit rewind on the VCR, we're out the door. At the end of a cement walkway a two-foot piece of scrap wood is propped on a cinder block, creating a ramp. Trees in our yard become obstacles. The concrete pad that slopes from the carport to a flat parking space is the starting line. Before you know it, with a little imagination and a couple of worn out bikes, we're ready to recreate the Helltrack scene. We strap on any helmets or knee pads or gloves we can find that make us feel like we're wearing professional gear, and we're off. The song "Thunder in Your Heart" is on repeat in my head as my feet force my bike into action. The grass slows us down. Our legs burn. The sun hammers sweat from our skin. I hit the downhill slope of the driveway and feel the wind on my face. My older brothers are in front of me, but for the moment I'm not Luke anymore, I'm Cru Jones. I'll catch them.

Through my early teens we did this, or some iteration of it, every time we watched Rad. The movie was a staple of my childhood, an anthem for the small town anykid that wanted to follow his dreams, and it featured some of the coolest bike stunts I'd ever seen. It was an underdog story on par with The Karate Kid and Rocky to me.

When DVDs began to take the place of videocassettes and all my favorite movies got the digital upgrade, inevitably I thought about Rad. Once or twice a year I'd scour the internet to see where I could find a DVD. Amazon didn't offer it except in a bootleg disc that was, I read, just a scan of the VHS. I had created a scan with my own VHS copy years ago and didn't want to pay someone for video quality I already had, so I never bought it. An official DVD was nowhere to be found. I signed up to be notified by Amazon when the DVD would be released but that notification never came.

Blu Rays replaced DVDs, and then 4K came along. I was beginning to think that I would never see a high-definition release of the film when I received an email from an obscure company called Vinegar Syndrome announcing its release in 4K. I was skeptical. Vinegar Syndrome specializes in exploitation movies of all kinds, from silly, B-grade horror movies to smut films from the sixties through the eighties. It did not seem like a likely home for a family movie like RAD. Despite my skepticism I pre-ordered the movie.

Boy am I glad I did.

It is by far the most well-produced and comprehensive release of a cult movie that I've ever seen. This, it seems, is where Vinegar Syndrome really shines. Such care and attention to detail went into the packaging of the disc that it felt like a special edition release of a big-time summer blockbuster movie. The slipcase features the classic VHS cover art, lenticular on the front and holographic on the back. Inside the slipcase the movie disc case includes the original artwork. Also inside the case is a folded poster depicting the Helltrack obstacle course. 

The transfer of the film is as nice as could be expected. There is some grain here and there, and one or two weird transitions that felt a little more drawn out than I remembered, but all in all Rad has never looked better. I have to admit I was a little nervous watching it again after I'd gone six or seven years without a single viewing, but I was not disappointed. There is a certain amount of cheese to it, being a typical, lower budget 80's film, but I was surprised at how it held up. The magic was still there. Maybe it was nostalgia, but who cares? 

I was equally impressed with the special features. With a movie like this that has hovered in the realms of obscurity for years to all but the die hard fans, a blu ray release would normally consist of the movie, a theatrical trailer and maybe, maybe a commentary track. This release has three commentaries, featurettes on director Hal Needham and writer Sam Bernard, archival interviews, the music video to the song "Break The Ice" by John Farnham, an original theatrical trailer, and more. 

The 4K release of Rad is my favorite release of this year. Its only competition will be the Friday the 13th Collection: the Deluxe Edition that will be released in October by Shout! Factory. As excited as I am about that release (which will FINALLY feature the real 3d version of Friday the 13th part 3) it will be tough to beat out Rad.

Here is the full list of special features for Rad:

-    Brand new commentary track with lead actor Bill Allen
-    Brand new commentary track with actress Talia Shire and Robert Schwartzman
-    Archival commentary track with: actor Bill Allen, actor Bart Conner, writer/co-producer Sam Bernard, and various BMX stunt riders.
-    Interview with director Hal Needham
-    Interview with writer Sam Bernard
-    "Rad 25"- The 25th anniversary event (footage from filming locations, autograph sessions, etc)
-    Multiple archival interviews with cast and crew
-    "Break The Ice" music video
-    Original theatrical trailer
-    Extensive behind-the-scenes still gallery

    **    In a quick update to this blog entry, I am sad to inform readers that this particular 4k edition is out of stock at Vinegar Syndrome. It is going for ridiculous prices on ebay and Amazon. At some point I read to keep an eye out for distributors of Vinegar Syndrome's titles. There may be a few copies that crop up from time to time. One I know right off the bat is Diabolik DVD, but I know there are others. While the 4k is not available at this time, DVD's are available through Amazon.

You can rent or buy a digital copy here.

While you wait for that ultimate 4k to re-appear, check out a couple of these Rad items you can find online:

Helltrack face mask from TeePublic
Cru Jones Jersey from 80s Tees
Rad Racing Tee from Etsy

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Ridiculous Moments In Horror 01: - Evil Dead 2 - The Possessed Hand


Ash Battles His Hand 

This segment is the first of what will be a continual stream of ridiculous horror moments sprinkled throughout this blog.  I'm starting with an easy one.  First, though, a little backstory. 

I’ve been fascinated with the spooky side of cinema for as long as I can remember.  The earliest horror movies I saw were from the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises, and as a youngster I took the movies seriously.  I was literally scared of Jason and Michael.  The slashers were at the tip top of all movies in my eyes, and nothing could surpass them.  At some point when I was about thirteen I bought a book at the local Blockbuster called Movie Psychos and Madmen.  It chronicled the history of villains in movies, and the reason I bought it was because it had a chapter on slashers.  I remember reading a passage from the book basically stating that the slasher movies were not to be taken seriously, because the killer is supernatural and therefore not as realistic as, say, Norman Bates from Psycho.  As much as I hate to use this word in the overly sensitive times we live in, I was offended.  Ridiculous, but true.  

I was offended because, at the time, I had not made a distinction between skillfully crafted movies (like the aforementioned Psycho, or The Exorcist) and the type of movies you watch just for the thrill of being scared.  Movies like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street or the Halloween sequels.  I loved those movies, and in my pre-teen mind I took it as an unfair criticism to imply that I shouldn’t take them seriously.  

About a year later I stayed over at a friend’s house.  At the time we were going through a massive horror movie phase, searching out every movie in that section of the rental stores and watching them one after the other.  He had a movie called Evil Dead.  He owned it, and it was in a blank white case that gave no clue as to the contents of the videocassette inside.  He gave me the backstory about a guy who fights demons in a cabin in the woods, and how in part 2 he has to cut off his hand and replace it with a chainsaw.  Oddly enough I recognized what he was talking about.  My mother had rented a movie she thought I’d like called Army of Darkness months earlier.  I remember watching it and not quite understanding what I was seeing.  It was horror, sure, but it was also funny and a little bit weird.  I didn’t know how I felt about it, but it stayed in my mind for all that time afterward.  So I mentioned it.  My friend explained that Army was actually part 3 of this Evil Dead movie!  I decided I needed to watch it.

I did watch it.

I loved it.

It wasn’t until we rented Evil Dead 2, though, that I began to realize something.  As I watched the hero - Ash - beat himself silly with his own possessed hand, it all started to make sense.  This movie wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.  It had some spooky moments, but it was basically a slapstick comedy dressed as a horror film.  It really drove that point home when the severed hand flicks the bird at Ash before scurrying into a rathole (Check out the hand battle below, before and after it is dismembered).

After watching something like this it became clear to me that some movies, while artistic and creative, are meant to be taken lightly.  Certainly the Friday the 13th films fell into this category, and the A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels.  You don't exactly watch these movies to see Oscar-nominee performances, you watch them because they are fun.  They're eye candy.  If the whole realm of cinema were a theme park, these movies would be the roller coasters and the haunted mazes.  Though it took me a while I finally realized that wasn't a bad thing.

To this day Evil Dead 2 remains in my top five favorite horror movies.  It sets such a beautifully wonky atmosphere that keeps you questioning: Am I supposed to be afraid or am I supposed to laugh?  If you’re reading this as a horror fan you most likely know this movie all too well.  What was your first experience with the Evil Dead franchise?  Sound off below in the comments.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Robert McCammon Book Signing

    This past weekend author Robert McCammon had a book launch in Homewood, Alabama for his new book Cardinal Black.  I had known about the event for weeks.  One of the nice things about Facebook is that you can mark that you're interested in events and it will remind you when the event draws near. I hadn't kept the exact date in mind so thank God for that Facebook reminder.
    Still, I almost didn't go.
    I like what I've read of McCammon's books, but I'm fairly new to his work.  I've read Boy's Life and one or two short stories.  After finding out about the recent book signing, and having what I thought was a few weeks to spare, I wanted to tackle another book of his and decided on Swan Song.  Problem is, big book stores like Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble didn't seem to carry it.  Even my local used book store, Deb's Books, didn't have even a worn out old paperback copy of it.  I found half a dozen other books by Mr. McCammon, but couldn't find a single copy of Swan Song.  I could have ordered it from Amazon, sure, but there's something about going to a book store and scanning the book spines on the shelves, and your eyes settling on a book that you've sought for a long time that is supremely satisfying.  It's the thrill of the hunt that makes book shopping so fun to me.  I finally found a copy of the book at my local Books-A-Million (I swear it hadn't been there the last few times I'd checked) and I bought it immediately.
    It was that night that I received the Facebook notification telling me I had an event coming up that weekend: Robert McCammon's book signing.  Damn it, I thought, as I looked at the 800+ page novel sitting on the arm of my recliner.  I like to read a lot, but I'm a slow reader and there was no way in hell I was going to complete such a large book in a day and a half.
    I was not prepared.  Worse still, my wife wasn't too keen on going and I, being introverted and thus a tad on the antisocial side, didn't want to go alone.  Saturday came, I mentioned I'd like to go, she shrugged it off as uninteresting, and I decided I should't spend the money.  The more time went by, though, the more I though about it.  I'm not a Robert McCammon expert, but I did love Boy's Life and wanted to read more by him.  Not only that, but I'm an aspiring writer myself.  As my thoughts stewed about the possibility of meeting such a successful writer, I decided that more than anything I wanted to meet him so I could ask him what was the best advice he could give to an aspiring writer.  I guess I brought it up a few too many times and my wife, being the good woman she is, changed her mind and agreed to go. 
    When we got there and parked I started to get cold feet.  He was supposed to do a reading from his new book, and a Q&A session, as well as sign the books.  What if we had gotten there after the signing, and he was in the middle of a reading when I walked in?  What if everyone looked up at me as the door closed behind me?  What if there was an hour of Q&A left?  I couldn't stand in the store for an hour while my wife sat in the car with our baby in the backseat.  Was I even in the right place?
    Eventually my wife told me to nut up and do it.  It would have been ridiculous, I admit, to drive an hour to get to a place just so I could sit in the parking lot for five minutes, overthink the situation, and leave with nothing to show for it.  So I inhaled, opened the door, and stepped out of the car.  Luckily there was a guy in a Slipknot shirt walking out as I made my way across the parking lot, and he took notice of my Jaws t-shirt.  We stood and talked for almost five minutes.  That dude actually loosened me up quite a bit.  Sort of set my nerves at ease.  As we parted ways I sighed in relief, and made my way into the Alabama Booksmith shop.
    The line was thirty deep at least when I stepped inside.  I bought Cardinal Black at the counter that was immediately adjacent to the entrance, and stepped into line that started just past the checkout counter.  The line spanned the length of the building, which is a tiny, house-like shop filled with signed hardback editions of books for sale, most of them at normal list price.  The line moved slowly, and being a veteran of many horror movie conventions over the years, I was accustomed to waiting.  I only hoped our daughter wouldn't wake up and start crying in the car, where my wife sat with her.
    When I made it to the table, I had already planned what I wanted to say and for the most part, aside from a little nervous babbling, I stuck to my script.  I told him I loved Boy's Life, said that it reminded me a bit of Ray Bradbury's work, and that I looked forward to reading more from him.  As he finished signing, I dropped the question I'd come there to ask.
    "What would you say is the best advice you could give to an aspiring writer."
    He paused for a moment and leaned back in his chair, trying to gather his thoughts.  He then leaned forward.  Here's what he said.
    (I'm going to paraphrase here, but it covers the main point.)
    "Finish your work."  Those three words alone held a ton of meaning to me, being a big starter of projects that will eventually find their way into the heaping pile of unfinished work stashed throughout folders all over my computer.  He did elaborate, though:  "Always finish your work.  Believe in it and give it everything you have.  You are your story's number one fan.  Its first fan.  It must speak to you, and keep your undivided attention.  Give one project all your attention because it takes so much focus to complete a story.  If you bounce around from project to project you'll never get anything done."
    After he gave this advice, I thanked him and he thanked me and wished me luck on my "work."  It was nice to hear my unfinished novel be referred to as "work."  I know it's work, and any writer knows just how much work it is, but it was nice to have an established writer refer to the work I was doing.  It gave me a sense of validation in some way.  I may not be a published writer but damn it I work on my writing.  See?  Robert McCammon said so!  Probably a silly thing to get hung up on I guess.  Either way, I learned a bit from my short time talking to Robert, and he was an incredibly gracious and humble guy that seemed very thankful to all his readers.  He allowed me to get a picture with him.  Check it out!

    I walked out of that store with my signed edition of Cardinal Black and a newfound determination to finish my work.  Our baby was still fast asleep in the car, and my wife had been content to scroll through social media apps while I received this motivation from Mr. McCammon.  I could barely contain my excitement as I told her what happened.  I had stepped outside my comfort zone and received something valuable in return.  I received determination.  And now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to my work.  This novel ain't gonna finish itself!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Pet Sematary (2019) Trailer

    My mind works like this:  I watch a trailer for a remake of a classic horror movie, and I’m ticking checkmark boxes mentally as the trailer plays.  I’m assessing the mood, style, acting, and story, and seeing if it’s on pace with the source material.  When I watched the second trailer for Pet Sematary (2019), a couple of check boxes were missed. The animal mask that Ellie wears and the ceremonial burial seemed like a forced attempt a being scary, and there were certain things that just rubbed me the wrong way. When the big twist to the original was revealed I thought, “Well this is dumb.”
    I watched the original Pet Sematary shortly after it was released on video back around 1990, and it became the stuff of legend to me, easily the most terrifying movie I had seen up to that point.  I found the paperback novel for sale at Wal-Mart a few months later, and convinced my mother to buy it for me.  I was in fifth grade at the time and though it took months, I eventually finished the entire book.
    I’m thirty-seven years old now.  Since the first time I picked up that book, I’ve read it at least four times at various points in my life, and have seen the movie easily fifteen times.  Probably way more than that.  After my latest reading of the novel, having become an adult and father of two kids, I can now more than ever appreciate how horrific the story is.  There’s no wonder King himself hid the manuscript away once he’d finished, assuming no one would ever want to publish such a thing.   
   In the book, Ellie Creed is the inquisitive daughter, the one that gets mad at God when she realizes her cat could possibly die, the one that stirs the tension between her parents without even knowing it, the one that brings the subject of death to the front and center of the story.  She is also the one that is telepathically linked to Victor Pascow, the “good ghost,” that tries to warn the Creeds when things start going wrong.  Gage on the other hand is a blank slate, the picture of uncorrupted innocence.  The kid’s so cute in both the book and the movie that you can’t envision anything bad happening to him at all and, once it does, you get the feeling that there is nothing safe in the world anymore. 
    That brings me to my point concerning the Pet Sematary remake coming in April.  The twist that I thought was dumb was that the filmmakers switched which child is killed.  Now, it’s the older sister Ellie that is struck by the eighteen-wheeler. When I realized this, my first thought was that Gage is supposed to die because he is innocence personified.  While losing either child would be equally catastrophic for the parents, the loss of a child that is barely more than a baby has more power as far as storytelling goes.  It's more shocking.  When Gage comes back in the novel it is almost blasphemous it is so horrific.  He is a disfigured shell, being driven by an evil force that makes him speak of disturbing things that no child would ever know to say.  That’s how we see the wickedness of the Micmac burial ground.  It has led this innocent child into the road, knowing that Louis’s bereavement will drive him mad enough to bring the child to it.  It is using this poor innocent being as a puppet to carry out despicable deeds.
    For the most part, even within the horror genre children are largely left alone.  You can pretty well bet when you see a kid in a horror movie, especially a younger kid under the age of ten, that they will escape any dangerous situation a horror movie throws at them (there are, of course, exceptions, but I’m talking about the majority here).  Stephen King is not afraid to fight dirty when he’s telling you a story, and that’s why his fans love his books.  Despite the supernatural elements that pervade most of his works, his stories are about real people and real life, and in real life sometimes the worst possible thing happens to ones we least expect to be harmed.  In the case of Pet Sematary, it also turns that innocent life into a foul-mouthed killer demon that likes to play mind games with its victims. 

    I read interviews from the filmmakers that explained why they changed the story, hoping as I read that I would find something to ease my concern, but their justification  made it even worse.  There were a few reasons it was done, but chief among them were the fact that working with a toddler in such intense situations would prove too difficult.  They likened it to the movie Child's Play, which uses and animatronic doll for the majority of Chucky's screen time. The idea was that we've seen that before (after which I thought "We've seen a killer in a mask stalking people in a house before, too!")They added that the older child, Ellie, would understand what happened to her, and would be able to play mind games with the parents because she was more developed.  
    That line of thinking, in my opinion, is where their version could go wrong.  The entity from the Micmac burial ground that influences the dead is an invader of the corpse.  There is nothing left of the living being that once existed inside that body, and because of that it doesn't matter if Ellie understood that she had died.  She doesn't have to be old enough or clever enough to play mind games, because the entity is clever enough.  That's the horror of this thing: the person that comes back isn't the same person.  They may look like that person, but they aren't that person.  Something else is running the show now.  In my opinion it's way more horrifying to have a toddler's dead body possessed by this thing.  The demon can play head games just as easily with the four-year-old as with an eight-year-old, but it is so much more dreadful to do it with the younger one.
    Having said all that, I do understand that filmmakers need to make changes to tell their own tale.  I get that people are affected by different aspects of a story.  Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, for example, is so different from the book that Stephen King himself didn't like the film, though it became a horror classic in it's own right.  I love The Shining.  I hold out hope that, if the filmmakers of Pet Sematary have toyed with the themes of this story as much as I suspect they have, it will still be an entertaining movie in it's own right.
    I'll even secede the point that maybe the older child will add a new dynamic that will pleasantly surprise me.  She has more character development in the book and the 1989 film than Gage does, so maybe the audience will become more emotionally invested in her character.  Ellie's character is the one that is the most concerned with death, except maybe her mother Rachel (*fingers crossed* please let Zelda be creepy, please let Zelda be creepy...), so maybe there is some logic in having her die instead of Gage. There is a lot more physically that can be done with an older child as well, as her size will prove to be more menacing than a toddler. In the end, though, I just don't think her intelligence or cunning or size should really have anything to do with it.  The place beyond the Pet Sematary is evil.  The force that lives at the burial ground is what we should be afraid of, no matter what corpse is harboring it.

Watch the trailer for yourself below, and feel free to discuss!


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Eraserhead: A Casual Analysis

ERASERHEAD: A Casual Analysis

I believe it was after high school when I decided to start reading classic books that I had never been assigned to read.  To this day, Moby Dick is one of my favorite books, most likely because I read it without having someone tell me what it was really about.  To tell you the truth, without taking an hour to really dig deep and remember all I can, I couldn't tell you a whole lot about what symbolized what in that book.  When I think of it, though, I can picture the Pequod in choppy seas, an immense, white glossy mass plunging into the water ahead of her, and Captain Ahab at her helm with a look in his eyes so steely you'd be afraid he would rust in all the salt spray.  I think of the poison in his resolve to seek vengeance and the grandeur and pain and discomfort and beauty of life at sea in the 1800's, and even the cetology of the time and the mechanics of whaling.   Who needs a college professor to describe what one should take away from a book like that?
A good story entertains you, a better one teaches you, and the best kind lingers with you in the way a deceased loved one does.  You find yourself thinking about it, questioning it at random points in your day perhaps weeks or months after you experience it.  The stories that can accomplish this are few compared to the amount of stories we read, see, and hear each day.  Most are trash.  Every now and then one comes along, though, that stops you in your tracks and makes you pay more attention to it, whether you want to or not.  One of those stories is the 1977 film Eraserhead.  I present here my analysis of this eccentric movie. 

Full disclosure: I am not a film critic.  This is only my interpretation of what I took from the film.  I could be completely off base with everything I understand to be true about this movie.  Mr. David Lynch might curse me for being so dense as to perceive his movie the way I have.  But this is my interpretation, people.  Go get your own.

There are some movies that you watch and think to yourself: What the hell did I just watch? Eraserhead is actually not one of these to me.  I have no doubt that if I sat my dad or my brothers and sister down to watch this movie they would definitely be asking that question, but right from the start something settled in my mind as I watched a rocky planet floating in space before a scatter of stars and a malevolent looking man pulling switches as sparks spurted with an electric hiss at their base: this movie was a riddle.  More to the point, a riddle that didn't have any one good answer.  It was the type of movie that, while a certain percentage made no sense to me, I felt the deeper meaning slowly slink  its way into my subconscious.  The imagery was poetic in a disturbing way, and while the basic plot is moderately easy to follow, it is evident from the opening frames that there is a sea of subtext swirling beneath. 

As mentioned before, the movie starts off with a planet, or some rocky heavenly body suspended in a blanket of stars while our main character Henry's permanently confused face is superimposed over it.  Henry opens his mouth and, well, something falls out.  This thing looks to be living tissue, or tissue that was at least once living and is composed of a bulbous, wrinkled "head"  and a long twisted tail.  I got the distinct impression that this thing resembled a sperm cell.  It cuts from this to a house with a huge hole in the roof.  To me, this may symbolize the coming destruction of the world Henry is used to.  We later learn that Mary, his girlfriend, had become pregnant with what I can only describe as a "deformed" child  (more on that later).  I think this rocky sphere floating in the sky is not a planet but a meteor, and it has impacted Henry's home.  This may be too easy for symbolism, but I get the feeling this meteor and its impact on the house is a metaphor for the unexpected pregnancy and the imminent emotional and social damage it will bring to Henry's timid world. 

This world where Henry lives is gritty.  Shadows and light are constantly at battle in the  black and white cinematography, and shadows usually win.  The setting is industrial in nature.  When Henry is outside walking, there are the sounds of steam hissing or trains rolling over tracks or the whir and squeak of heavy machinery.  The living quarters for any of the characters is bleak at best.  Mary's family lives in a tiny apartment with an invalid old woman and a dog that has just given birth to a large litter of puppies.  Henry's apartment Isn't much more than a bed, a desk, and a shelf or two.  Beside the bed is a radiator that plays quite a critical role for Henry.  At times he sees a "Lady in the Radiator" as she's credited.  She appears on a lit stage, her face deformed with oversized cheeks.  I believe she is a daydream to Henry, sort of a comfort zone his mind goes to when at his apartment.  This is further validated to me in that the radiator is the bringer of warmth, and warmth means comfort. 

Early in the movie, Henry goes to Mary's house to have dinner with Mary and her parents.  This scene is intriguing.  The whole thing is uncomfortable.  At one point, Mary's father asked Henry to carve the chicken, and when Henry begins to cut into the bird blood starts spurting from it.  I haven't exactly figured the bleeding chicken out yet.  I wondered as I watched if anyone else at the table sees the chicken bleeding as Henry is trying to carve it.  If they do they don't seem to mind, at least not at first.  The whole scene seems to show a sort of disgust for the mundane features of life: going to dinner with the parents, carving the chicken, listening to the mind-numbing story Mary's father tells about his injured arm.  This is also when we hear of the imminent arrival.  With the insistence of Mary's mother and Mary herself, Henry agrees to marry her. 

The marriage begins with these rocky terms, and once the movie cuts from that uncomfortable dinner to Mary caring for her newborn, we see that happier times are not ahead.  The newborn is not recognizable as a human baby.  In fact, the face is almost reminiscent of a horse fetus with no ears, or perhaps an alien.  It's body is wrapped in gauze, and the sole purpose of this thing's existence is to issue an incessant cry that is tinny and grating to the extreme.  Think baby's cry mixed with the whine of an injured cat, over and over again.  It cries so much that Mary begins to be resentful of the baby-thing, and of Henry as well.  During a stormy night she finally has enough of the thing's cries, and leaves for her mother's.  Henry is left to care for the newborn by himself, and he is obviously not prepared to do this.  He suspects the baby is sickly and takes it's temperature.  When everything seems normal he turns his back, opens the door, and begins to leave.  The thing begins shrieking.  He turns and sees that, from the time he stood up and opened the door, the baby became covered in boils.  He then sits down and cares for the creature, all while staring into the distance, an expression of extreme boredom on his face.  The baby, meanwhile, is once again at peace.   This creates the very real feeling that this thing is in need of constant care.  For Henry to take his eyes off it for just a moment is to risk harm to the baby-thing.

The main theme of the movie seems to show itself here.  I gathered that the movie is really commenting on parenting, family life, and the banality of it all.  It paints a dark picture of the uncertainty and frustrations of parenthood.  How are these two people supposed to care for this newborn creature?  It is so fragile that it is covered in bandages, and can only whimper and whine for food.  It's mere existence seems to be torture to the couple.  Once Henry is left alone with it, his only respite is fantasizing about the lady in the radiator. 

The fantasy, I believe, is a sexual one and perhaps even masturbatory, like a wet dream.  As she dances slowly across the stage more of the things Henry had earlier expelled from his mouth drop around her.  She steps on them one at a time, and white ooze squirts out of them onto the stage floor.  She giggles as she does this, and after she has stepped on a few the scene cuts to Henry waking up in bed in his dismal apartment.  Mary is lying beside him, twisting uncomfortably in bed and bumping against Henry's back.  He is being pushed further to one side of the bed.  He is confined, and you can't help but get the impression he is trapped.  He finds  these giant sperm-like things from his dream beneath his covers and, disgusted, throws them away from him.  This speaks again to the misery and despair of the human condition, especially in this desolate world. Not even the sex dream is enjoyable, and whatever pleasure he does get from it is ripped away when he awakens to the dwindling confines of his side of the bed.  In frustration, he keeps grumbling "Move over!" and shoving her to the other side of the bed. 

Mary disappears from his bedroom in the following scene, and one could assume some days have passed.   There is a knock at his door, and deep echoing hum fills the soundscape.  Henry answers the door to find the neighbor, whom we've seen before earlier in the film.  She is a beautiful woman, and speaks in a slow, seductive tone when she tells Henry she has locked her keys in her apartment and needs a place to sleep for the night.  Another common issue in relationships rears its head: adultery.  The scene moves to Henry and his neighbor having sex in a small pool of milky liquid that has inexplicably formed in the center of Henry's bed.  Like many scenes in the movie, we are seeing what Henry is experiencing through the filter of his own subconscious.  They sink into the milk, the neighbor pulling him down beneath the surface.  Immediately we see another asteroid-like rock and the neighbor presumably leaving, being withdrawn into the darkness with an uncomfortable look on her face.  The radiator lady appears and I assume Henry is asleep and dreaming.  She sings "In heaven, everything is fine.  In heaven, everything is fine..."  Henry is asleep, satisfied for the moment.

However, the dream lingers as Henry steps onto the stage with the radiator lady.  She disappears, and we are treated to a surreal and disturbing nightmare.  Among other seemingly random occurrences Henry's head seems to be pushed off from within by a long cylindrical object that is not unlike a penis in shape.  The penis-like head remover seems to be a manifestation of guilt, giving literal imagery to the term "thinking with the wrong head."  From his neck, the deformed baby's head sprouts forth, whining uncontrollably.  The baby's whines are louder and more shrill than ever, and the fact that the baby's head replaces Henry's is symbolic of Henry's obligation to put the baby before himself.

In true dream fashion, the head falls through a pool of blood and lands in the street where a young boy picks it up and sells it to a pencil manufacturer, who drills a sample from Henry's brain and uses it in his pencil making machine.  The core sample is formed into erasers for the pencils in this conveyor belt.  The machine operator tests the eraser, and confirms that the materials - Henry's brain - is "okay."  Then he sweeps the brain remnants from the desk with the flick of his hand.  This, to me, is Henry's attempt to accept what he has done.  As odd and elaborate and as probably steeped in symbolism  as the dream is, I believe it is really about Henry's guilt and his attempt to erase what he's done from his memory.  Again, the pencil machine operator  reinforces it to him it in its simplest terms: "It's okay."  Then he brushes the shavings aside, scattering them to the winds.  Henry's mind has been cleared.

When he wakes up the next morning, he goes to his neighbor's door and knocks.  Mary has seemingly gone for good, he is alone, and perhaps he now sees this as a new opportunity to be with someone.  No answer.  The baby-thing lets out a raspy giggle at Henry's misfortune.  This baby seems malevolent from the start, intent on ruining the lives of Henry and Mary.  When he hears the neighbor returning, he rushes to the door only to find that she is with another man in the hall, and Henry is left alone with his baby.  The neighbor gives one final look of repulsion at Henry, and the image of him flashes to the dream version of himself with his baby's head.  She must have decided that the malformed baby is too disturbing, or at least that is how Henry perceives the situation. He's got too much baggage.

 In the end, Henry can no longer live with the malevolent creature that is destroying his life.  He cuts the bandages from the baby's body, revealing its internal organs.  He stabs at one of these organs and blood spurts forth.  Lights flicker, we see an image again of a malformed man operating switches while sparks fly about, and the dying baby's head appears so large it takes up the whole side of the room.  The guilt of killing his baby is filling his mind, physically confining him farther into a corner of his small apartment.  When the deed is done, and the thing is obviously dead, the screen goes a hazy white.  Through this fog, the lady in the radiator appears, and hugs Henry triumphantly.  Henry, still with a confused countenance, has found the comfort he has desperately needed.

As mentioned before, the main theme of the movie is one of struggle and desolation, and an ultimate hopelessness.  It deals specifically with these qualities as they relate to marriage and parenthood.  David Lynch had a young daughter at the time of the filming of this movie.  He also lived with his wife and daughter in a bad part of Philadelphia, and those difficult times are almost certainly the inspiration for the gritty industrial setting.  There is no comfort to be had in the world in which Eraserhead takes place.  You get the sense of being cornered, trapped in an unending loop of misery.  The steaming streets, the thugs attacking one another in the background, the apartment window that faces nothing but a brick wall, the dead plant jutting from a heap of dirt on Henry's night stand, the tinny whine of the baby creature, the high contrast cinematography, all serve to enhance this claustrophobic feel of dread and hopelessness.  The scenes between Henry and his wife, Mary, almost always portray the worst parts of married life.  Most people who have been in a relationship have had these same moments: The petty arguments, the spiteful glances, the guilt trips.  In this world, though, the issues seem all the more inescapable.  The only amount of contentment Henry receives is from staring at his radiator and fantasizing about a lady on a stage.  But let's face it, with the lady's grossly deformed face smiling gleefully as she prances around the stage, even that daydream is no prize.