Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Dead Set (Television) - 2008/2010

Oh Britain and your zombies, what am I going to do about you?

I feel like I'm the only person in the horror circuit who didn't fall head over heels for the British five part mini-series "The Dead Set", that aired on IFC Halloween night. I'm not saying that I hated it or anything, I'm just saying that I don't really feel the need to move to a quaint little house in the country and pick out lacy curtains either.

Now here's where I'm going to get a little more un-popular. I am not the hugest fan of zombies. I KNOW I KNOW. What sort of self respecting horror blogger am I if I'm not all:


If that was the sort of talk you were expecting out of me, well, then now is your time to disown and turn your back on me. Because that just isn't the case. I'll understand if you do this, I really will, but I was hoping that we could at least still be friends...

But before you hold this all together against me, let me explain to you my side of the story.

Some of you might already know this about me, but I really don't scare. My friends, and especially my roommate, think that I am overly desensitized to horror, and who knows, maybe they're right. However, one of the only things that can get to me is cannibalism. I can't help it, the idea of being eaten while you're still alive is, in my opinion, that absolute worst way to die. Seriously, I can't even deal with it.

This is why I generally give movies like 'The Hills Have Eyes' and 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' a wide berth. So, obviously, this is a statement that extends to Zombie films. It's only been the past couple of years that I've really been able to make myself sit down and watch zombie films without getting nauseous and generally a bit freaky.

It's really only on account of films like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and Fido that this girl was able to ease into the zombie genre.

Now that I've rambled about me, as I am like to do, Let's actually talk about The Dead Set.

The premise of The Dead Set revolves around the ever-popular British Reality Series Big Brother. Which, for those of you not in the know about this sort of thing, Big Brother is a show where a group of people are kept in a house together, secluded from all contact with the outside world. There are cameras installed everywhere within the house, so that the inhabitants are constantly being recorded, and there's also a "diary room" where people sit and talk into a private camera, generally about who in the house that they hate.

Every so often certain inhabitants are nominated to be "evicted" from the house, and the British public gets to vote for who they want out. Whichever housemate lasts through the series without being evicted gets a cash prize. In a creepy George Orwell-ian tribute, there is a giant glowing eye in the house through which a voice reminds the inhabitants that 'Big brother is watching you'.

I don't get it, but hey, my only real experience with the Big Brother franchise before this was an episode of Doctor Who.

So the heart of The Dead Set revolves around the fictitious group of current housemates, and the people who work behind the scenes producing and what have you.

The heroine of the series is arguably Kelly, who begins the story as a 'runner' on the show. Kelly and her boyfriend are in a bit of a tiff, which shouldn't be anything we care about, except that the boyfriend, Riq, is to become the window into the world outside the studio... so it's a little bit relevant.

It's eviction night, so tempers and what have you are up, everyone is stressed, inside and outside of the house. But the people in the studio are too caught up in the night of Big Brother that they entirely ignore the impending Zombie Apocalypse.

There is even a monitor that the backstage crew is watching, that has the news, showing what is happening outside in all its gores detail. Yet, the main concern is that 'Big Brother might be getting bumped for the news. Oh noes.

So, of course, no one knows/cares that there is a herd of zombies headed towards the crowd of Big Brother fans clustered outside the studio. So as the crowd is turned into flesh eating monsters, the zombie army quadruples, and really at that point it doesn't take much work at all for them to blunder, flailing, into the studio.

There aren't a lot places to run, hide, or make quick getaways to within that building, so the crew starts to drop like flies.

Kelly, in a feat of admirable Bad-ass-ery, manages to fight her way through the waves upon waves of former friends and coworkers, armed with only a large pair of scissors, until she makes it into the 'Big Brother' house.

To more or less set the majority of the case up to not be missed as they start dropping like flies, the housemates are pretty much idiots when Kelly comes stumbling into their house covered in blood and whispering about "the things outside".

In a fit of being a complete asshole, the one contestant not only starts to call Kelly, essentially, a dumb bitch, but then goes on to start impersonating the brother from the beginning of 'Night of the Living Dead' ; Lurching towards her with his arms out and saying "THEY'RE COMING TO GET YOU BARBRA!"

Because in that film, being a complete douchebag and saying that sort of thing ended so well for him.

People are dumb.


After mocking Kelly incessantly, that same douchebag decides to open the door that empties into the studio, letting a zombie into their former safe haven.

Smooth move Exlax.

I'm sure you can guess that it all goes even further to Hell in a hand basket past that point.

One thing that 'The Dead Set' tackled pretty well in its storytelling was the look at the human psyche, and what people are willing to do or act like during a crisis.

Prime examples come in the form of when the housemates finally realize that Kelly told the truth, as they look out at the flood of zombies behind their wall, and one of them says

"Does this mean that we aren't on telly anymore?"

Then there's Riq, and struggle to make his way to the studio, and to Kelly. Furthermore is the woman he teams up with along the way, who tells him that he hasn't had to do anything to survive, and how she had to shoot her best friend in the face in order to stay alive.

And there's always Kelly's boss, Patrick, who is more than willing to damn all the other survivors if it gives him the remotest chance of getting out of the compound alive.

So it could be argued that theme of 'The Dead Set', is that humanity is being destroyed by its own vanity. Which would make sense, given that zombie films have, in the past, often been means of conveying social commentary through the horror medium. And it's not as though there weren't many homages to George A. Romero throughout the mini-series anyway.

Unlike the Romero zombie franchise, however, the zombies of The Dead Set seem slightly more akin to those in 28 Days Later, in the sense that they can seriously run like hell.

While not a huge zombie fan, I take issue with this. In 28 Days Later it made sense, because it was more of a virus film than a zombie one, and it was virus that made you essentially rabid. These aren't rabid humans though, these are your run of the mill zombies, and anything that is pretty much hunks of un-refrigerated dead meat should not be impersonating Flo Jo.

I mean, because really, they are these rotting, festering things. Shouldn't they be too busy decomposing and taking on the traits of rigor mortis to be doing a 5k jog? I could be wrong, but it just doesn't make sense to me.

Also, I was amazed that Britain, which usually shies away from graphic violence, went so all-out with the gore of this thing. Really now, it was the sort of thing I would expect from Eli Roth or Rob Zombie, not my good friends across the pond.

There was a scene where a man is ripped apart and eaten, and the whole time he is bellowing at the zombies. And oh yes, the camera shows you everything in gut-wrenching detail. I was overjoyed. That was sarcasm.

So here's the thing kids; I think that if you were a dyed in the wool zombie fanatic, this just might be your cup of tea. If you're squeamish, you should probably just shuffle away as fast as your little legs can carry you.

Okay, so I don't want you to go away from this thinking that The Dead Set is merit-less. There are some definite good things about it.

For one, it has absolutely stunning cinematography. Once you get past the gore factor involved here, they framing and coloration of each scene is done in such perfection that the arty film nerd in me wanted to kiss the camera man and the editor of this thing.

There are also some EXTREMELY funny moments inside this. Sure, some of them are jokes that you feel like an eight year old boy for laughing at, but they are laughs all the same.

And there are a few characters, mainly Kelly and Riq, who you genuinely like and have sympathy for. You really want those kids to make it through the nightmare. And truly, a production is nothing without a hero or heroine that you can get behind.

I also have to give props to 'The Dead Set' for its realistic non-Disney ending.

In closing, let me just say, that 'The Dead Set' is only for the zombie enthusiast or those with extremely strong stomachs. If you had to shut your eyes during either Saw or Hostel, you'll really want to skip it all together. And if you don't, well, you were warned so don't come crying to me when you upheave your dinner.

So that's that I guess my darlings.

Until I get around to another of the 45165484798 reviews I'm behind on writing I'll just say:

Love and kisses

Spooky Pie

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Funhouse (1981)

So, a little while back I saw over at The Final Girl Film Club that the new movie to review was Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse. And I thought "Well, heck, that's in my netflix queue anyway." So, to the top of the queue it went. I will admit that I had more than a little bit of trepidation in watching this one. I know that I am in the horror fan minority here, but I'm really not the biggest fan of Mr. Hooper.

With the exception of Poltergeist, which only sort of counts since it was largely Spielberg's baby, I haven't really liked anything he did. I know, I know, everyone will swear up and down that Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a milestone in the horror genre, and that it has such iconic scenes associated with it.

Sorry guys. I just don't like it. I will be honest, however, and tell you that I pretty much automatically dislike anything that has cannibals associated with it. I can't help it you guys, everybody has their thing, mine is cannibals.

But we're getting SO far off topic now. Enough about Tobe Hooper's other productions, we're here to talk about The Funhouse right now. Which, I'm going to go out on a limb here by saying, is my favorite of Hooper's works. Excluding Poltergeist, but we already covered that.

The Funhouse is essentially a Brother's Grimm-esque coming of age tale, modernized, and hidden under the guise of being a typical slasher film. Like the titular funhouse itself, the film is all about what goes on as far as the surface, and then the gritty things happenings that are hidden beneath that.

At first glance, The Funhouse is almost formulaic.

Step 1: Get a group of teenagers together.

Step 2: Introduce some sex and drugs into the mix (with the exception of the mandatory virgin)

Step 3: Teenagers come upon some sort of danger/madman/hillbillies/undead killing machine

Step 4: Said danger will then pick off teenagers one by one

Step 5: Token Virgin goes up against the Big Bad, with some sort of blunt instrument.

Step 6: The virgin escapes alive, older, wiser, and in need of about thirty some-odd years of intense therapy.

Throw in some insane carnies, a weird-ass dark ride (if you don't remember what a dark ride is, shame on you, and go back and refresh your memory), tons of jiggling boobs, and you have the outer shell of The Funhouse's infrastructure.

I'm not saying that escaping terrifying, potentially inbred, carnies is not a key factor to the film. It is. And if you don't really want to have a long think about things and watch the violence, that is potentially enough. However, there is so much more to this film than simply running through plywood sets whilst dodging the Elephantman's ugly cousin.

You just have to know where to look.

To fully understand the heart of the film, you have to understand the film's heroine. Meet Amy Harper.

Amy is in that frightening state of her teenager years in which she is uncomfortably sandwiched between her need to "grow up" like her "cool adult friends", and the crippling fear of what dangers will befall her as soon as she shirks the mantle of childhood in exchange for that of a grown woman.

As much as she wants to be a woman, so much that goes along with it essentially scares the crap out of her. But our little Amy is willing to put on a brave face and stride forward into the great unknown, despite the urge to puke from sheer terror at any moment.

The subtle workings of an after-school special are at work here as well. In the opening, as we see Amy primping for her date, in the background her father tells her how he "doesn't want her going to that damn carnival". Her mother, on the other hand, is busy voicing her disapproval of 'Buzz', the boy who will be taking Amy out.

Basically, Amy's parents tell her "SEX WILL KIIIIIILL YOU"

It was a lot like the Sex Ed bit from Mean Girls

Amy more or less tells her parents that they are full of it and flounces out of the house in her nifty wedge heels. We can wag our fingers and tell her that she should've listened to her Daddy until the cows come home, but if she did then we really wouldn't have a movie.

The aforementioned boy, Buzz, is picking Amy up so they can meet their friends Richie and Liz for a double date at the ominous carnival. I'm not really sure how Buzz fits into this group, because he looks like he's in his late twenties. But whatever. Liz, who I believe is Amy's best friend, is in an established, sexually active relationship with Ritchie. It's fairly evident that Amy not only looks up to Liz, but that Liz's opinion holds a fair amount of sway. I.e. if Liz is doing something, Amy wants to as well.

It's obvious how uncomfortable and inexperienced Amy is where sex is concerned. She shrinks away from Buzz when he starts to come on too strong in the car and is fairly rigid when he attempts to charm her while the four teenagers travel through the carnival. However, after a discussion of her virginity and "saving herself" in one of the Carnival's derelict bathrooms with Liz, Amy seems almost determined to loose her virginity. Even though it's not so much that Amy wants to because she genuinely likes this Buzz fellow, but because it's something that would make her more like Liz.

Sex scares Amy, but she's going to give it the old College Try. So she becomes progressively chummier with Buzz, even thought there are numerous moments where you can still see that she is a timid little girl in her facial expressions. Much like the other instances of Amy's susceptibility to peer pressure, when Ritchie makes the ludicrously moronic genius suggestion that they spend the night in the funhouse ride, Amy foes along with it. Despite the fact that it's, you know, a really really bad idea.

Especially since it becomes apparent that the only reason Ritchie wants them to stay the night in the funhouse is that it seems like freaky place to, well, get your freak on. So to the funhouse they go, and our happy couples are in the process of getting down to the nitty gritty there is a general disturbance from beneath the floorboards. Our merry band groups together and peers through the floor boards where they witness probably the creepiest part of the entire movie.

One of the carnies, dressed in a Frankenstein mask is propositioning the less than fresh fortune teller by means of grunting and waving money at her. It's a short lived encounter, as our boy Franky is not exactly a sexual dynamo, but the woman is still planning on keeping the hundred dollars she, pardon the pun, squeezed out of him. This makes hulk mad, and he murders the dumb broad to get back said cash.

Further proving to dear, sweet Amy that, oh yeah, SEX KILLS.

Needless to say, our band of heroes goes from "Hey look! It's Live Freak Porn!!" to "HOLY CRAP! THERE'S A KILLER TROLL ON THE LOOSE!". Except with way less panic then that, because they only make a fairly half-assed attempt at escape, despite having just witnessed a murder and knowing that there is just no way that this is going to end well.

So after some unenthusiastic shuffling around wiggling door handles, they decide that the best plan of action is to go back to the scene of the crime and sit on their asses doing nothing. Because that is OBVIOUSLY the best decision. After some time Frankenstein boy comes back with his angry hillbilly daddy in tow.

His daddy is pretty "hey man whatever" about the fact that his satanic offspring has offed a woman until he realizes who she is. And then he goes a bit apeshit because she's a fellow carnie. If she'd just been a local girl then, you know, who cares. But since she's part of the freakshow THIS IS WAY BAD LIKE WHOA.

Ritchie, being the fine specimen of humanity that he is, of course, manages to give the chillun's location away. Because he's awesome, and so, of course Hillbilly and son know that the only way to handle this situation is to eliminate all witnesses. Which, of course, leads to our intrepid heroes flailing around the freakish insides of the ride whilst being chased, and picked off by some of the most bizarre characters to grace the slasher genre.

But here's where The Funhouse deviates from the general slasher film. Because Amy manages to not be our general slasher film heroine.

Generally speaking, the Final Girl of any horror film's general arc is that she makes the progression from the victim to the empowered hero. Notice I used the term hero and not heroine. That is because, as nearly any text book on horror will tell you, the Final Girl's genesis has a tendency to stem from her taking on more masculine traits and leaving behind being a scared little girl. That is not the case in what happens with Amy. And that is a big part of why I don't consider Amy in the usual class of Final Girl.

If you will recall, at the very beginning of this entry I said that I viewed The Funhouse as "essentially a Brother's Grimm-esque coming of age tale". This is largely because Amy is more of a Grimm's Fairytale Heroine then a Final Girl.

For my money, Amy is an almost perfect parallel to Snow White.

She is essentially innocent, and despite the frequent opportunities that arise to sully her innocence, she escapes the tale with it intact. And like Snow White, the temptations to corrupt Amy's innocence are also potential threats to her life just as much as to her vulnerability.

In the original tale of Snow White, the Queen tempts her with more than just the apple. First there is a corset - meant to give her an adult womanly figure- or suffocate her, as it turns out. Then the poisoned comb to make her look pretty an appealing to the opposite sex. Things that are supposed to make Snow White appear as an adult woman, further more, Snow White is being pressured to appear as such. These trials we can almost think of as being embodied by Liz and Ritchie, Amy's pressures to lose her innocence.

Whereas, the poison apple can be the analogy for Amy's pressure to lose her virginity to Buzz - and in a more biblical sense, to the apple of knowledge that Eve ate - to gain the knowledge of adulthood.

Also, like Snow White, Amy must deal with the abandonment of her parents in the face of grave danger. After Snow White's mother dies, for the rest of the tail her father pretty much checks out, and no point even tries to help his daughter. And in one scene in The Funhouse, Amy's parents actually arrive at the Carnival to collect her younger brother. Amy sees them through a fan vent in the side of the funhouse and calls out to her parents. While her little brother appears to see her, the adults don't even glance in her direction. Like Snow White, Amy is on her own, no adult is going to help her.

Like is the case in most Grimm fairy tales, Snow White is not self rescuing. She does not take up a sword, march on the castle, and have a showdown with her Wicked Stepmother to reclaim her rightful thrown. In turn, Amy does not have the usual Final Girl moment of heroism, where she finds a large blunt object and stamps determinedly towards the villain to bash his brains in and save the day.

In this respect, Amy is not only like Snow White, but, honestly, like many of us would really act thrown into this situation. Your first instinct is not always to go into "Badass" mode. Most of use would behave just like Amy. We would run into the night, screaming like a banshee. Furthermore Amy doesn't, really defeat the villain, it's more dumb luck than anything else that saves Amy. Which, really, is more relate-able. That's normal, that's human

And while further delving into the symbolism that we can link to Snow White, Amy's suitor, Buzz, can almost be cast as the role of the Huntsmen. Buzz is, initially, a danger to Amy, he is older and more mature than her. Further linking the theme of sex and death, The Huntsmen initial role is to kill Snow White, and initially Buzz's role is to defile Amy.

Neither of these men perform their initial function. The Huntsmen cannot kill Snow White, and Buzz does not taint Amy's innocence. Both, however, essentially put their necks on the chopping block so that the innocent girl is given a chance to escape her would-be killer. Buzz takes on the Hillbilly brigade single-handedly so that Amy can make a break for it, in a scene that is almost direct remake of the forest scene in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

The biggest difference, for Amy, is that at the end of this tale there is no prince to rescue her. There is no glass casket, or seven dwarfs. However, whereas in Snow White, her death-like sleep and awakening is the symbolism of her coming into herself as an adult, Amy's voyage through the funhouse can be scene as such.

Also unlike Snow White, there is no Happily Ever After storybook ending for Amy. Nor riding off on a white horse into the sunset. Amy's "happy ending" is that she gets to limp out into harsh light of the morning after, clothes torn, and on the verge of nervous collapse.

But not everybody can get that Disney ending right?


So, fairy tale allegories aside, The Funhouse is not perfect, though enjoyable. The special effects makeup is a little wanting, our lead villain is ... interesting looking, but by no means something realistic. Also on the subject of the villain, you don't really understand enough about him to feel anything towards him, empathy or otherwise, and to have a truly good villain, you have to actually like them a little bit.

There are points in which the characters actions make less than no sense, but that's a common trait in slasher. As is the fact that they really are not all that fleshed out. But still, I like to care a little bit about someone, you know, so I can be at least a little disappointed when they kick the bucket. I like to root for people even when I know that they're going to drop like flies.

On the other hand, Tobe Hooper artistically outdid himself in this one. It's beautiful to look at. The colors are rich, and there are some scenes that are shot so well it is almost jaw-dropping. So, really Mister Hooper, good job there. I may be alone in this, but I feel like The Funhouse kicks Texas Chainsaw Massacre's ass and takes its lunch money.

So that's what I got babies, even if you don't want to sit down and look at the film in an academic sense, it's good to just look at. Basically, it's a decent night in.