Reagan-era fairy tale tone poem: American Fable and others (movie reviews)

How about a few movie reviews? That was, after all, the intent of starting my first website ten long years ago, and it’s the weekend prior to Halloween. You might be looking for something to watch some evening.

AMERICAN FABLE

I’ve had the chance to watch several horror movies lately and the best of the bunch by far was American Fable, which is a chiller, a period drama, and a fairy tale. Before the backdrop of the Midwest farm crisis, Gitty, a tween-age girl, roams her family’s verdant but imperiled Wisconsin farm. From the living room television, friend of the working man Ronald Reagan pontificates that it is not the role of the federal government to intervene as family farmers default en masse, allowing large businesses to buy their homes and farms at a discount. (Someone has apparently used this speech to place the movie’s events in 1982.) Gitty’s father, Abe, voices the anxiety and resentment of the other side, listing a series of foreclosures and suicides among their neighbors. Abe is not going to let it happen to their farm, their home.

reagan farm crisis cartoon

During one of her rambles Gitty ignores her father’s admonishment to stay away from their disused silo and finds a spectacled, waistcoated man named Jonathan trapped inside. Though Gitty flees their first encounter, she returns later with books and a chess set, and strikes up a friendship with Jonathan, who bargains with Gitty for his release; he will do anything she asks if she helps him escape. A short time after their first meeting, a dark, horned rider is seen from a distance, riding a black horse across the farm.

Abe falls from a loft in their barn and is hospitalized, in a coma from which no one can say whether he will recover. He is eventually brought home, where he lies motionless while Gitty’s mother attends him. Gitty’s vile brother, Martin, attempts to pull himself into manhood in his father’s stead, but achieves only a cruel and psychopathic hypermasculinity.

It’s a marvel how this movie is so evocative as a 1980s period piece while at the same time being essentially a Brothers Grimm tale, charged with menace both human and supernatural, and haloed with trance-like cinematography reminiscent of a Terrence Mallick film. From Reagan’s televised speech to Abe’s boxy Chevy, the movie transports the viewer almost physically to the 1980s. You feel you could touch the screen, walk through it and back into those years; they look just as you remember them. And yet the fairy tale motifs are just as unmistakeable: the prisoner locked in a tower, the gnomish wish-granter, the Faustian bargain, the enchanted slumber, the hateful sibling, and the child heroine.

American Fable is also a horror film, for certain, even though it doesn’t become explicitly a frightening until its final act. It’s a perfect combination of slow-building tension, a what-the-fuck twist, and fear-charged final act.

THE DEVIL’S CANDY

Metal, horror, and madness have long been associated but few movies take advantage of the connections between them. The Devil’s Candy gathers these strands and combines them into a single oily black devillock that divides your twisted snarl from hairline to chin for the entire length of the film.

Jerry Only: The creator, the emancipator, the architect ... of devilocks.
Jerry Only: The creator, the emancipator, the architect … of devilocks.

The movie opens with the ingeniously-named Ray Smilie standing before a crucifix, banging out the same earsplitting chord over and over again on his Gibson Flying V guitar. When his mother tells him to turn it down, he tells her he plays it loud so he can’t hear “him.” When she tells him he needs psychiatric help, he pushes her down the stairs.

That happy prologue out of the way, we see the Hellman family viewing, buying, and moving into the Smilies’ old house. Jesse, the husband and father, is a metal-loving painter with an “Iggy Pop at 40” sense of personal style. His daughter, Zooey is a metal-loving middle schooler. Astrid, the wife and mother, might or might not love metal, it wasn’t clear to me.

So Jesse sets up a studio in the barn and gets down to some Maude Lebowski-level creative fits, like full contact painting on a 6′ by 6′ canvas. His new paintings would be at home in the Denver International Airport. He also starts hearing voices and having inopportune mental lapses. Ray eventually turns up at his old home, gives Zooey his Flying V, and otherwise starts lurking around. He’s also creeping everybody out with always-darting-around eyes, which actor Vince Pruitt Taylor also displayed in the season three X-Files episode “Unruhe.” (Pruitt Taylor has a medical condition, nystagmus, that causes involuntary eye movement.)

The Devil’s Candy is legit scary. Ethan Embry is unrecognizable as Jesse. I mean, he looks nothing like Rusty Griswold #3 or the pencil-wristed Gwar fan he played in Empire Records. Dude looks shredded. Anyway, the movie is nearly great, there’s just one confusing and unneeded aside about an art gallery called Belial. In the context of a movie about metal, murder, and two men who might or might not be under the influence of the Prince of Darkness, that’s a clumsy-ass baseball bat of a name. It’s not as bad as calling the gallery “Satan,” but it’s about as subtle as “Asteroth” or “Beelzebub.” Combine it with the insouciance and “in on the joke” smirks of the gallery’s owner and receptionist, and you’re left wondering if they are agents of the Evil One. This question is not further explored after Jesse leaves the gallery, so it ends up being a sort of auxiliary nipple; mildly interesting, but ultimately without purpose or function.

BEYOND THE GATES

As a former owner of Nightmare: The Video Board Game, this movie was a nostalgia trip I could not pass up. Beyond the Gates is about two brothers who reunite to liquidate their father’s owner operated video store several months after his disappearance. In his office, they find an old and foreboding VCR board game. The movie’s like a requiem for VHS, video stores, and VCR board games, all three.

You had to be there.
You had to be there.

The game is called Beyond the Gates, and they pop it into a VCR. The recorded moderator doesn’t much seem like a recording though … it seems like she’s watching and reacting to them in real time. Craziness ensues.

As far as horror goes, it has the same aesthetic as the 1987 kiddie horror flick The Gate. It has a harder edge and it’s not for kids, but the lighting and makeup are similar. For even more nostalgia value, though, Barbara Crampton was cast as the game’s moderator. I don’t know if you have to be a board gamer or Generation X to appreciate this movie, but it certainly helps.

TALES OF HALLOWEEN

Reddit let me down with this one; strangers I talk to online led me to believe it was going to be great.

I can understand the early hype: It’s an anthology film of loosely connected stories that take place in the same town on Halloween night. If you loved Trick ‘r Treat – and a lot of people did – this sounds like a winner. What I can’t understand is so many people remained enthusiastic about this movie after having seen it.

Because the thing is, Tales of Halloween has ten fucking vignettes. If you’re thinking, “More is better,” it’s still only 92 minutes long. So whereas Southbound had five vignettes across 89 minutes, for roughly 18 minutes per story, and V/H/S had six (counting the frame story) across 116 minutes, for roughly 19 minutes per story, the stories in Tales of Halloween are nine shitty minutes long.

Nine minutes is not much time to establish atmosphere or get viewers invested in characters. Maybe that doesn’t matter. There’s an audience for horror movies like these. I call them “people from Middletown, Ohio,” but depending on where you’ve lived, that might be useless. They’re the same people who went to every fucking Saw movie and insisted they kept getting scarier. They like horror movies that are “badass,” as in, “D’yude, thet Saw IV is fucking is ba-yadass.” They’re the horror fan equivalents of the people laughing at the movie Ass is Idiocracy.

The makers would be impervious to the criticism that their movie is mostly cheap set-ups for gore. They even seem to have anticipated it. In the seventh vignette – and I can’t believe, in reference to a 90-minute movie, I’m even using the phrase “the seventh vignette” – a fussy, uptight man decorates his lawn in old school horror style while his new neighbors across the street come outside in their biker leathers, crank up some thrashy music, and start hacking limbs of mannequins. It’s painfully obvious that to the makers of the movie, this other guy with his Universal Pictures sensibility is basically Martha Stewart with a cock, and these dicks across the street are fucking awesome. I MEAN, THERE’S GORE, MOTHERFUCKER! LOOK AT THET SHIT, THET SHIT’S BA-YAD-A-YASS. Because horror is only about blood and viscera, and if there’s no gore, it’s bullshit for pussies. RIGHT? RIGHT?

Also worthy of particular scorn is a vignette in which someone tries to summon some creature to get vengeance on three apparent thrill killers who, as children, burned his parents to death in their camper on Halloween night.

Apparently they set that fire after leaving a My Chem concert. Who's a whiny pussy now?
Apparently they set that fire after leaving a My Chem concert. Who’s a whiny pussy now?

I mean, I’m guessing, I don’t actually know much about these characters BECAUSE THEIR VIGNETTE IS LIKE NINE MINUTES LONG. So yeah, these little kids burn a camper with two people inside it, those people’s son seeks supernatural creature revenge. It happened in an alley, because there are no vagrancy laws anywhere that would prevent a family from parking their camper in an alley. Good thinking.

Two of the vignettes manage against all odds to be good. Well, both are amusing and one is good. In one, a boy in a devil suit gets shamed into chucking an egg at the creepy house in his neighborhood. The occupant, a top-hatted, demonic Barry Bostwick, catches him and promises to show him a Halloween stunt he’ll never forget. Soon Barry and his devil-costumed pal are engaging in increasingly brazen acts of mayhem, including standing on the counter of a convenience store, firing a snub-nosed revolver at the ceiling during a hold-up. The little guy is cute.

The other also features a diminutive hell-raiser, this one kidnapped by a of ransom-seekers who immediately regret their decision. It’s not nearly as strong as the other, but it’s fun and John Landis is in it.

That’s all for now. I’m sure I’ll be watching some more movies in the next few days.

The Devil and Kevin Tanner (My Life as a Horror Fan, Part 5)

Folklore and urban legends are fiction we choose to believe, enhanced by person-to-person transmission. If a novel or film can be said to be a window into another place or time, then surely some part of the mind recognizes the conduit of book or screen can be closed at will. Folk legends have a verisimilitude no found footage movie or false document fiction could ever match, because we receive them from real people in the real world; not peering at a page or a rectangle of projected light, but immersed in and surrounded by the great limitless sphere of everything we can see and hear and feel, and everything behind and beyond that. You cannot close the book against the horror of an escaped madman or the mystery of a vanished hitchhiker because it exists in the real world that we inhabit – if you choose to believe the tale, or are gullible enough to accept it without question.

I don’t remember how or why I started hanging around with Kevin Tanner, but I remember we bonded over stories of Bigfoot, flying saucers, and psychic premonitions of the Titanic sinking. Kevin and his gift for storytelling are central to one of the most cringe-inducing memories of my childhood.

I do remember I met him in first grade. We had the same teacher and rode the same bus, and by the time his birthday on Halloween rolled around, we were best friends. I went to his party dressed in a shark costume my Mom made. He was also the first kid other than my cousin Erin who came over to my house for a sleepover. Usually we’d play with some GI Joes, maybe Mom and Dad would take us to dinner somewhere or order pizza, we’d have a snack, watch a movie, and make a tent out of blankets. And, like normal little boys, we would whisper about alien abductions, the Kenneth Arnold incident, the actual guy from a long time ago who put sticks through people and might have been a vampire, and how you can be sure Bigfoot is real because the Indians have a word for him: Sasquatch.

What I wish I could remember is how the fuck did a couple six-year-olds know about that shit? How do two children barely out of kindergarten, learn about Betty and Barney Hill for fuck’s sake? I have no recollection. I do remember that as the next few years went by, Kevin outgrew those things but I didn’t. I did not, and they became an early wedge between myself and most of my classmates.

Our favorite discussion topic in those very first weeks of all-day schooling was the Bermuda Triangle. Bounded by Miami, San Juan, and Bermuda, tales tell of mysterious disappearances in this part of the Atlantic Ocean, possibly caused by magnetic anomalies, or by the submerged ruins of the once-mighty Atlantis, or by aliens, or perhaps by all three.

If you’ve heard any of these stories, you’ve heard of the disappearance of Flight 19. In December 1945, 14 men aboard five bombers took off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida on an eastward training flight over a patch of ocean that years later would gain the name “Bermuda Triangle.” The airmen lost their bearings and radioed for help determining their location. Their commander believed they had somehow ended up over the Florida Keys, and later that they were over the Gulf of Mexico. Intermittent radio contact over the next several hours revealed to personnel on land that Flight 19’s two compasses had stopped working and the airmen flew back and forth as the weather deteriorated, hoping to sight land and arguing betwixt themselves about which direction to go. In the last of their communiques heard on land, they planned to ditch into the ocean together as they expended the last of their fuel. The Navy sent rescuers to an area in the Atlantic a couple hundred miles east of Central Florida, where triangulation of their radio transmissions placed the planes. Among these rescuers was a bomber crewed by 13 men, PBM-5 BuNo 59225, which was lost to an apparent explosion. How did they get so lost? How is it that they never sighted land? Why did the compasses stop working? Isn’t it a big coincidence that one of the rescue planes was also lost?

I’ll grant that I have no explanation of why the compasses broke, and that losing a rescue plane too is a pretty unsual run of shitty luck, but Flight 19 fell into the ocean because they started out flying east, then got disoriented and thought they were somehow over the Florida Keys, and so started flying to the northeast hoping to reach South Florida – but in fact they were headed further out to sea. They never reached land while flying west because they were so far out over the ocean and didn’t go back far enough. As for PBM-5 BuNo 59225, the burning oil slick believed to represent it’s final resting place was far from the triangulated location of Flight 19 and not even over the Triangle.

Anyway. There are other stories like this, and many of them are similarly not so mysterious, but we’ll leave aside further discussion of Bermuda Triangle lore, because Kevin had additional stories about the Triangle of an entirely different and more frightening character. Stories that hinged upon its other name: The Devil’s Triangle.

Kevin and his family had recently taken a vacation in Florida, and there he had gained terrifying new knowledge of the Bermuda Triangle and the cause of all it’s unexplained phenomena. It was worse than Atlantean ruins or alien plane-nappers. Kevin was playing on the beach when something caught his eye. He stood and looked out into the Atlantic, out into the Triangle, at an island not far from the shore. And there, on the island, in the Triangle, there stood the goddamn Devil.

Or so Kevin said.

A storyteller is loath to relinquish a rapt audience, and so Kevin went on and on over the next several days with tales ever more terrifying about diabolism in the Devil’s Triangle. The final nightmare was the worst and hit closest to home – because it was literally close to home, in Kevin’s own backyard. Once again, Kevin had been playing outdoors when the air began to warm and the ground to quake, before a fissure opened in the earth, spewing smoke and heat. The Devil emerged, huge and scaly, and chased my horrified friend. Kevin hid in a shed in his yard as the Lord of Darkness strode back and forth in search of him, his every hoof-fall jolting the ground. The shaking intensified then abruptly stopped, and after several long moments Kevin emerged from hiding. The rift from which Satan had emerged had closed, but for three things: The tips of his horrid pitchfork protruding from the scorched dirt. There the Lord of Flies waited, there where Kevin played daily, there close by his bedroom window where he slept each night, there Satan would remain until the time was right to burst forth again, red and blazing, his trident flashing, his lupine grin dripping slaver, to snatch Kevin and carry him bodily into the burning bowels of Hell.

And if Satan had ranged all the way to Ohio from … Miami, Florida … what was to stop him from roaming around my hometown? I lived less than a mile from Kevin, and our school wasn’t far off. In light of Kevin’s revelations about the infernal attack on his backyard, it was obvious that no place was safe.

I would have been at home in Salem perhaps, 300 years earlier, among Puritans who feared the tread of the Dark Man in the wilderness around them. Satanic Panic was in full swing, and despite neither my parents nor our priest being the sort who spot Old Scratch behind every rock, tree, and album cover, the moral panic about Devil worship had somehow seeped into my intellectual drinking water. That Satan is real is Catholic dogma. That he bursts from the ground sporting horns and a goatee to drag children away is not, nor is his alleged massive global – and paradoxically secret – network of worshippers who put backmasked messages in heavy metal songs. But that rotten stuff was in my head too. The Reagan years were Godly years in the Heartland, and even if your parents didn’t haul you twice a week into the First Southern Fried Holy Rollin’ Spirits on Fire Church of Lookit Over There It’s the Devil Again, you were nonetheless liable to get the distinct impression that Lucifer and his agents were everywhere. So Kevin’s stories played to that.

It also has to be said though that as a boy I had no guile whatsoever. I was an only child and the streets near our house were way too busy for anyone to trust a 6-year-old to roam the neighborhood without getting hit by a car. Consequently I spent way more time around adults than other kids. The idea that another kid would tell a lie just for the hell of it never occurred to me. So everything Kevin said, I assumed to be the truth. The lesson I was about to learn would prove invaluable a year later when a prize-winner named Jared Little arrived at my school.

Whatever the reasons, Kevin’s stories were real and terrifying as far as I was concerned. Prior to Beelzebub’s Backyard Brou-ha-ha though, I had been able to manage my fear. Not after, and terror seized me immediately. Kevin told me the story at lunch, as usual. Also as usual, an hour or two later I poked along changing clothes after gym and found myself the last boy in the locker room. If the Man in the Red Pajamas was planning to take me – and let’s face it, he definitely probably was – this was his chance. I yanked my clothes on, heart crashing as I fumbled with the buttons of my shirt. I laced my shoes and bolted from a crouch into the hallway, narrowly avoiding the Prince of Hell.

I was still composing myself when Miss Hough, our gym teacher, noticed something amiss.

“Why is your shirt inside out?”

To put a shirt on inside out is one thing. To fucking button it is another. Miss Hough was justified in feeling this was curious indeed. She told me to go back into the locker room and put my shirt on rightside out. I then did something I had never done outside of home.

“No.” I flatly defied an adult.

Miss Hough was taken aback. Another kid, she probably would have yelled at; Miss Hough was more than able to summon the requisite demeanor to compel insubordinate grade-schoolers to shut up and do jumping jacks, and was not above grappling with the occasional kid who refused to relinquish a playground ball or perhaps another child’s shirt.

“Why don’t you want to go back into the locker room?”

“I don’t know.”

“Get back in there. Fix your shirt.”

I shook my head.

That she didn’t tee off on me, I can only ascribe to curiosity at my extremely uncharacteristic and perplexing refusal. The boys’ locker room at John Tyler Elementary School, in my defense, was not a pleasant or soothing environment. It stank to high Heaven, for one thing. The building was then 35 years old – my Mom had gone to school there two decades earlier – but bore the hallmarks of having been designed in one era, and retrofitted for a new one with an eye on avoiding expense. So whereas boys might have used the locker room shower in the 1950s, by the mid-80s elementary age kids weren’t required to do so and the showers were closed off with chicken wire and piled full of junk that still hadn’t completely settled and was prone to crash and creak ominously. There were ragged holes here and there where old fixtures had been pulled from the walls. It had other charms.

My brass-balled yet chickenshit disobedience elicited interested stares from my assembled classmates in the hall outside the locker rooms. The whole episode was so damn interesting, in fact, that Miss Hough shared it with Mrs. Mello, my first grade teacher. Back in class, with everyone seated she asked me, amused, why I refused to go back into the locker room. I shrugged.

“You don’t know?”

I shook my head.

“Your shirt’s still inside out. Isn’t that uncomfortable?”

“No. It’s fine.”

“Why wouldn’t you go fix it?”

I looked down at my desk. “I was scared.”

“Why were you scared?”

I grinned a little bit, pointed, and cringed – kind of like I’m cringing now. I pointed at the floor.

“What’s wrong with the floor?”

“Not the floor. The Devil.”

My classmates were delighted. Mrs. Mello was at a loss for something to say to a child who wouldn’t go into the boys’ lockers for fear of the Adversary. Kyle turned around and gave me a sheepish grin, acknowledging that we both had some explaining to do, not unlike earlier in the year when he taught me the word “fuck,” which I promptly went home and said loudly in front of my mother while she was on the phone with Mrs. Mello.

This is Kevin Tanner’s last appearance in my life as a horror fan. That was a surprising realization for me. Kevin was the first really close friend I made outside my family. But I guess we weren’t close friends for all that long.

We were classmates again in second grade. I remember our class put on a fairy tale themed play that year, and Kevin and I were two of Old King Cole’s fiddlers three. I also remember we hung around together a little less. I was becoming buddies with Jared Little and Kevin with a kid named Jeremy Valen, though they fucking fought all the time, including one truly cacophonous shit-fit in the middle of their act in a class talent show, during which I was sure they were about to fistfight. Kevin’s Dad and stepmom divorced sometime that year, so Kevin, his sister, and Mr. Tanner moved into a different house, near a different school. When third grade started at Tyler Elementary, Kevin was long gone.

Kevin came over to our house a few times a year between then and fifth grade or so. Mostly we’d play GI Joes or Nintendo or watch a movie. I was never invited to his house for some reason, except for one birthday party in first grade. Only that once. Despite his interest in the paranormal, horror wasn’t really Kevin’s thing. In fact, during one sleepover he got heavily freaked out and had to leave the room when the vampire gets out of his coffin on a cargo plane during the kiddie monster rally Monster Squad. It was a little bit of turnabout I guess, but it would have been more equal if it had happened in front of 25 of our peers.

As the idea of “popularity” began to emerge when we were preteens, Kevin became sort of a dick. He was was chosen to be one of the cool kids, which made him confident and a bit mocking. I was not, and that made me moody and prone to self doubt. Kevin started to find ways of leveraging my insecurities against me. One time close to the end of the friendship he cowed me into a patently lopsided ballcard trade. Dad and I dropped him off at his house – because Kevin’s Dad almost never came to pick him up, either – and Dad asked afterward why Kevin left with one of my higher value cards. I had to explain, which was embarrassing. Dad frowned and growled, “Have you learned your lesson about this kid yet?”

I had. I don’t believe I ever hung out with Kevin after that. Or at least not by choice; Mom forced me to invite him to my 11th birthday party. To this day, I have no idea why she had some stake in whether Kevin was going to be at my party. The next summer I ran into him at a weeklong basketball clinic, where he and his newer friends laughed at me – literally right in my face – for missing a lot of free throws. Months later he called my house and seemed confused that I hadn’t talked to him in a while and didn’t seem interested in hanging out or doing anything.

We ended up in a few of the same classes in high school, by which time he’d actually become a cool, interesting guy; loved beat poetry and Siddharta by Herman Hesse. We’d talk about books in our English classes, but we were never friends again.