Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Crimes Of The Future


Crimes of the Future (2022)

Dir. and written by David Cronenberg

Starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart


CRIMES OF THE FUTURE has been billed as a return to form for director David Cronenberg (JASON X), his first relapse to his "Baron of Blood" body-horror roots since  back before the turn of the millennium. And I mean, there’s definitely some truth in that; this is unmissably, unmistakably a return to the aesthetic of slimy, gnarled bio-mechanical mutation that he has been toying with, on and off, since at least 1970's um, CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (despite having identical titles, the films are apparently unrelated). And I mean, it’s got all the classic Cronenberg moves. It's almost a Greatest Hits album! There's goopy bodily transmogrification à la THE FLY, bio-mechanical synthesis evoking eXistenZ, the squirmy surgical invasion of VIDEODROME, the perverse, subterranean sexual fetishization of deformation from SHIVERS, RABID, DEAD RINGERS and CRASH, the lurking sense of subversive, clandestine conspiracy from SCANNERS and NAKED LUNCH. And to that list of influences, it adds… not a whole lot. Indeed, to a longtime Cronenberg fan this might actually seem a little quaint, more a Crime Of The Past than the future, pushing the boundaries of 30 years ago but more comfortingly familiar than disturbingly transgressive when viewed from the year 2022.

Which is why it matters a great deal that although the method is a familiar --even nostalgic-- one for Cronenberg, the motive is entirely different. What was once the province of grubby, perverse little mindfuck thrillers has itself mutated into something far stranger and less classifiable, retaining something vaguely recognizable as a thriller structure flitting around the margins somewhere, but letting itself drift into far less familiar waters tonally. It is at its core, I think, something like a romantic comedy --though such a ridiculously dry and bleak one that this could hardly be called obvious or indisputable-- which is more interested in examining (and sometimes satirizing) the transformative nature of art than it is in playing its central premise for anything remotely resembling thrills.

Still, there’s something like a genre structure knocking about. It’s unambiguously a Sci-Fi film, for starters, set in an unspecified shambolic, run-down future. The first image of the film shows us a child playing on the beach next to a giant overturned cargo ship, which tells us all we really need to know about what kind of world this is: one in which some major civilizational collapse has occurred, but either long enough ago or slowly enough that the humans grifting along in the aftermath have come to take it entirely for granted. The ubiquitous decay found everywhere in the movie’s design (and especially in the sets) evokes a familiar post-apocalyptic aesthetic… except that one doesn’t get the sense here that there has been a specific, identifiable apocalypse; more like people just gave up on maintaining their world, and it gradually rotted away around them while they retreated into a catatonic haze of amnesic detachment, the crashed cargo ship not the result of a sudden nuclear conflagration so much as its crew simply abandoning any attempt to steer it and wandering off. It is a portrait of a society not so much dying as already dead, grinding on only out of simple, mechanical inertia. The empty shell of civilization putters on --there are government bureaucracies, cops, corporations—but a sense of purposeless entropy pervades everything, casting these pursuits as meaningless rituals which persist only out of the complacency of those involved, too checked-out to bother resisting the accumulated momentum of the past, which is gradually winding down of its own accord in any case. A phrase from THE DARK CRYSTAL comes to mind, there referring to the marginalized race of Mystics, but just as applicable to the humans of CRIMES OF THE FUTUE: a dying race, numbly rehearsing the ancient ways in a blur of forgetfulness. The inhabitants of this future feel utterly alienated from the world, their futile play-acting lacking even an emotional connection to the bygone past they’re half-heartedly acting out. That latter fact feels particularly significant here – despite the evidence all around them of a catastrophic decline, no one in the film seems to harbor any belief that it would be possible to reverse. The hubristic glories of the past are as omnipresent but remote as the gods themselves, and the conflict here is entirely between the forces that seek to chart a path to an entirely new future, and those who will savagery fight to defend the miserable status quo.

Our protagonist, as it turns out, fits neatly into neither category, though he may embody both. He is Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen, PRISON), a “Performance Artist” who, along with his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux, THE FRENCH DISPATCH) has a wildly popular act. To explain what that act is requires a little more backstory. One other thing about this strange future, you see, is that the human body itself is changing. Most humans no longer feel physical pain –Saul is a rare exception—and are no longer susceptible to disease, both facts which would seem ideal, utopian even, but here just serve to further alienate people from their lives and bodies. But humans are changing in other ways, too – many people are experiencing strange and seemingly random mutations. The government is extremely suspicious of those with “accelerated evolution syndrome,” and many reactionary citizens are zealously hostile; in the opening scene, we witness a disgusted mother murder her son when she catches him using a newly-evolved digestive system to consume plastic. But of course, anything that gets The Man this riled up is going to intrigue the counterculture crowd. And so we return to our “Performance Artists’” act: Saul is constantly growing new organs (if I understand correctly, these were originally duplicate organs, but have recently begun to manifest as unique and never-before-seen organic structures, and maybe even whole organ systems). His act is that Caprice carefully tattoos these organs as a means of categorization, and then removes them during live surgeries for awed crowds. The official line is that their act is a sober warning about the horror of genetic mutants. But of course, this being a David Cronenberg film, not-so-secretly everyone is super turned on by it, it’s the most exciting thing going on in this horrible, dead world. “Surgery is the new sex,” mousy bureaucrat/fangirl Timlin (César Award winner Kristin Stewart) whispers to Saul at an afterparty. But their countercultural success comes with a note of danger: they’ve attracted the attention of an underground group fronted by Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman, “The discount Bradley Cooper”), father of the plastic-eating boy we saw murdered. He has a proposition for a new act, which might have explosive revolutionary potential.

This sounds like thriller territory, and there are a few other spoiler-y wrinkles I haven’t mentioned which might support that impression. But the movie doesn’t pursue any of this with the least bit of vigor. It’s always rattling around in the background, but the pace is so glacial and the mood so elegiac that it never even flirts with excitement. At most, there’s a tendril of that ol’ Cronenberg icy paranoia hanging in the air, but the things the movie seems most interested in are strange little meetings with the various inhabitants of this world, mostly in small groups, having quiet but often rather funny offbeat conversations about what exactly it means to be this kind of “performance artist,” much of which reads pretty easily as Cronenberg directly addressing his own career as a seemingly normal, dignified guy who grows weird, mutant things inside himself and then, with help, removes and displays them for our –what, enjoyment? Edification? Titillation? All of the above, none of it? Is it a courageous act, or perverse folly, or just a meaningless geek show? Is art itself a method of evolution, or is it a purging of our malignant growths so that we can be more fully human? Despite the outré nature of the visuals, this is where the movie wants to go, for better or worse. It’s more LA BELLE NOISEUSE than HELLRAISER (which is not to say there’s no HELLRAISER in there; it does still want to get a rise out of you). 

This is a choice which is not going to please everyone, obviously. Fans of the “Baron Of Blood” lured in by the promise of a return to perverted body horror may find themselves baffled to get exactly that, but in the context of a bunch of semi-comic vignettes and small, intimate emotions which the actors allow to just barely peek out of their meditative stoicism. And the movie is hardly lazer-focused even on that; it’s mainly interested in creating a peculiar sort of mood, letting the somnambulistic editing of Christopher Donaldson (Penny Dreadful, The Handmaid's tale, American Gods) combine with the moody, classical camerawork of Douglas Koch (THE SEXIEST ANIMAL [documentary], Perverts Anonymous: Episodes 1-3) and then drenching the whole thing in the austere, anxious score by MVP Howard Shore (a longtime Cronenberg collaborator going back to THE BROOD, and yet it's still kind of a shock to see him on a tiny-budget movie like this after having done the LORD OF THE RINGS movie and such*). Which is no small thing! Combined with the ragged, post-apocalyptic setting and, of course, the movie's pathological fetishization of grotesque physical disfigurement, and it adds up to a powerfully oppressive, disquieting atmosphere. But not a lot of action.  

And yet, for my money it may just be the most powerful thing Cronenberg's ever done. And it manages that in part by turning our (or at least my -- I don't want to speak for you!) expectations about a Cronenberg movie on its head. Because ultimately, I think this story of fetishistic underground surgery cults and escalating body dysmorphia is actually surprisingly sweet, even optimistic. In fact, it turns the logic of Cronenberg's other bio-horror films entirely around. Whereas SHIVERS, THE BROOD, or THE FLY invite us to view the disintegration and displacement of the human organism with horror, CRIMES OF THE FUTURE sees it as perhaps the only glimmer of hope in a world which has become so horrifically intolerable that the only way forward is to cease being human and become something else entirely. That something else might seem disturbing and shocking to those of us who are stuck in the past, but the past is unquestionably dead here; its decaying corpse is visible all around. Still, there is a future --or can be one-- if we are simply willing to change, to become something completely new. Not that there aren't still forces, even in a society rotted practically to the bone, that won't work hard to make sure that we die rather than change.

If one wants to find a straightforward metaphor in this –and there’s no particular need to do so, but the film certainly leaves itself open to it—it isn’t hard to come up with one. Or many, depending on what (or who) you think the new organs represent, and the degree to which you want to assume this scenario is or isn’t essentially autobiographical for Cronenberg. Like all movies with a vague revolutionary metaphor at their center, it’s easy to project whatever you want on it. If you see “accelerated evolution syndrome” as a metaphor for burgeoning gender fluidity, for example, it’s not hard to make the plot hew pretty snugly to that interpretation, making it a paean to a bold new world which might be scary and disturbing to those stuck in their old ways, but will ultimately allow for a more functional world where people can be true to themselves. Of course, if you want to imagine the movie’s underground revolutionaries as patriotic and persecuted Q Anon believers, it wouldn’t be hard to do that, either. In my formative years (perhaps not coincidentally, when this script was originally written) the social left felt so disenfranchised that we saw basically any revolutionary concept as intrinsically “our” story. Since then we’ve managed to stake out enough ground in the middle that it seems like the hub of revolutionary fervor has shifted to the reactionary right. I was well on my way to middle age before I ever even considered that neo-Nazis and anti-government Militia types and so on might see their own grievances in the anodyne revolutionary narratives of THEY LIVE, or THE MATRIX.

So does it all mean nothing? Not at all! Whatever you want to place as the central metaphor here, and even if you want to resist that urge entirely, there’s one thing beyond dispute: the movie is a soul-wrenching howl against a world that simply doesn’t work. And that resonates deeply – whatever your politics, don’t we all feel it? Don’t we all feel like Saul Tenser, contorted and uncomfortable, body constantly in revolt, trying vainly to scratch out some kind of feeble existence in a world which never seems the right fit for humans, even as we transmogrify it more and more until it’s hardly fit for anything? For all its offbeat humor and light meta commentary, there’s a crushing and deeply poignant sense here of the of generalized wrongness of every second spent in this fictional world, which feels so uncomfortably close to our own even if it doesn’t much resemble it.

And that, I think, is what makes it such a powerful experience. With the exception of FIRST REFORMED back in 2019, I don't know that I have seen another movie in the last decade that so exactly captured my own experience of this rapidly metastasizing culture  -- so perfectly captures the disquieting brokenness of the world right now, the feeling of utter, irreversible entropy all around on ever side, and both the resigned near-catatonia it triggers, and also the curious feeling of seeing a glimmer of hope in the strange things the young people are into, the things I will never entirely understand or be capable of wholly becoming part of, except that somehow there's something in me that begs to change and grow and find something, anything that works, that doesn't feel fundamentally at odds with the basic facts of existence. Something that doesn’t rely on phony optimism or reactionary nostalgia – a way forward, whatever that may look like. And David Cronenberg, of all fool people, is here with a parable about that very feeling. Once upon a time we told stories about heroes saving the world. Now, faced with a world beyond any meaningful hope of saving, that our very bodies are rejecting, the only thing to do is adapt and survive, and find beauty in that. In a world of plastic, learn to eat plastic. In an inhuman world, stop worrying about trying to be human.

I love that Viggo's the only one who dresses like a Ninja Monk, and everyone is totally cool with it. You know how these "Performance Artists" are.

It's not going to be an easy transition. There are powerful forces who are very comfortable with the miserable status quo and will push back savagely against any attempt to change it. And even if we win, even if we persist, there’s no knowing how this turns out. We don’t know if we’re going to be able to eat the plastic candy bar or not. Some of us won’t make it. And even those of us who do will have to come to terms with a new world that in many ways feels strange, even grotesque, a world where our old aspirations and values and very sense of self are mutated and adulterated and twisted into something unimaginable and new. It is not necessarily a “better” future, by any kind of metric we currently possess – it is, in a way, an admission of defeat, a concession that our hopes and dreams for the kind of world we wanted are really and truly dead, along with the world that spawned them, and that the only hope is to adjust ourselves to the strange and terrible world we have made for ourselves by becoming strange and terrible ourselves. But as bleak a hope as it is, at least it is a hope, a real one – and it’s been a long time since I saw another piece of fiction which offered even that. At some point the Crimes Of The Future cease to be crimes, and simply become the existence of the present, and the young people wonder what we used to be so hung up about, and get down to the business of making their own hubristical assumptions about the finality of their own sense of the world, and condemning their own crimes of the future. And so it goes. The name of this blog is We Are Cursed To Live In Interesting Times. Well, maybe we always have. But rarely have I experienced a movie which felt so achingly close to this particular present.



PS: Also, what’s up with the voice Viggo is doing here? Is he intentionally trying to do a George C. Scott impression or what?



Saturday, May 28, 2022

The First Power and the Perplexing Enigma of Action-Horror


The First Power (1990)

Dir. and written by David Resnikoff

Starring Lou Diamond Phillips, Tracy Griffith, Jeff Kober


Ah, here we have a rare thing, an entry into the action-horror canon. That small body of films that attempt the unlikely feat of melding together two great but very different genre film traditions: action, with its badass protagonists, gun battles, car chases and explosions, and horror, with its ghoulies, ghosties, Chuckys, Amityvilles, and things that go “bump” in the night. In theory, of course, there is at least some crossover here; the visceral threat of bodily destruction, a shared bent towards simmering, adrenaline-pumping tension, perhaps a shared sense of a brittle, bipartite moral universe built around a struggle between good and evil. But while there might be some superficial similarities, I think the preponderance of the experimental evidence suggests that there are some fundamental differences between the mechanics of these two genres, which more often than not render any attempt to combine them a confused and self-defeating affair. It will probably not surprise you terribly to learn that 1990’s THE FIRST POWER does not buck that trend, though it has its charms nonetheless. Still, it will serve nicely as an entrée by which to consider the ways that these two venerable genres interact, and to try and parse why they have more often glanced off each other than successfully melded.

Specifically, I think the way that both genres tend to revolve around power makes them fundamentally incompatible. For the most part, Action movies offer a power fantasy; at their most archetypal, they’re about a rivalry between a lone man –much more rarely a woman—and another party (usually a rival man or group of men), pitted against each other in a battle for control. Whether a scrappy underdog like Bruce in DIE HARD, or an unstoppable Ubermensch like Seagal in OUT FOR JUSTICE (and all his other movies), the fundamental structure is the same: to invite the audience to indulge in the fantasy of being just too God Damn Tough to push around. Exactly what is being contested is mostly unimportant; though our hero may use the language of morality and justice, it’s the challenge itself that powers the story. Most of us spend most of our lives, starting as children, getting pushed around and frustrated by factors beyond our control – bosses, petty bullies, the government, the economy, what have you—so it’s little wonder that this kind of empowerment fantasy is appealing. What if you just didn’t have to take their shit? Man, wouldn’t it be great to be so badass you could just strut around, live by your own rules, teach the bullies of the world a lesson they won’t soon forget?

Horror, on the other hand, inverts the power dynamic. Fear is about a loss of control – about being up against unstoppable, perhaps incomprehensible forces that threaten, pollute, transmogrify the safe and familiar into something threatening and alien. Though the protagonist of a horror movie might –might—get the upper hand in the end, they’re still going to spend most of the runtime in dire peril, often barely able to understand, let alone effectively oppose, the danger facing them. In perhaps the most elemental horror setup, the only thing to do may be to run – to acknowledge that your only hope is to try to escape a force too powerful to even attempt to defend against. Even when a “final girl” prevails over a Jason or a Freddy in the end --in effect regaining the control and personal autonomy that has been denied during her travails-- there’s likely to be a final stinger (Jason suddenly leaping out of the water, say) which snatches back that hard-earned empowerment and suggests that her restored sense of control is only temporary and illusory, a delusional vanity in the face of a chaotic universe which can arbitrarily crush you at any moment.

Consequently, the basic storytelling formulas which define these two genres seem mutually incompatible. A movie can’t be simultaneously a power fantasy and about loss of control, and so maybe it shouldn’t be exactly shocking that there are so few illustrative examples for us to consider. Or, anyway, few examples which are genuinely both. It’s not incredibly unusual to have an action movie with some horror elements in it – the BLADE or UNDERWORLD movies, for example, are clearly structured as action movies but feature strong horror elements. Likewise the RESIDENT EVIL movies, GHOSTS OF MARS, COBRA, THE MUMMY (2017), PRIEST, that sort of thing. You could call those “horror movies” because they have zombies or vampires or what have you, but they’re all clearly build on an action framework, they simply have villains who are slightly more outré than your typical bad guys.

 Conversely, I’d argue there are some horror movies --or at least borderline horror movies— which don’t utilize traditional horror conceits, and lean towards horror entirely through tone and structure; THE RAID, for example, which despite being basically nothing but wall-to-wall fighting, works up such a sense of hopeless, faceless persecution, and is so unremittingly bleak in its presentation, that at least referencing horror seems essential to properly describing the experience. Likewise ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, or GREEN ROOM. All feature purely human antagonists and setups which could reasonably be construed as action movies – is GREEN ROOM really all that different a scenario than DIE HARD?—but crucially, the impetus is on the protagonists’ lack of control of the situation; even if they prevail in the end, there’s no sense of conquering triumph; they limp away, exhausted, broken, just glad to somehow be alive. Their journeys are harrowing rather than exciting; the word “victory” does not suggest itself so much as “survival,” augmented by a pronounced emphasis on the grotesque, gruesome nature of the violence.

Though both genres feature violence, they use it differently, trying to provoke different reactions. One prompts you to cover your eyes, the other to pump your fist – even though the violence itself may be virtually identical. And violence is not the only shared content. Horror movies are not above the louche pleasures of a huge fiery explosion, or a leering, horny sex scene for that matter, but the context is going to be entirely different than in an action film. The sex scene in a horror movie is not evidence of our hero’s awesome virality (as it would be in an action film), but of the profound physical vulnerability we expose ourselves to when we’re naked and unaware.

The difference, I suppose, is one of framing – the way the story encourages us to interpret and emotionally invest in the many genre elements which could be (and often are) common to both genres. And power –or control, if you prefer-- is, I think, at the center of those contrasting framings: whether the lead is ultimately empowered or disempowered for most of the story. There is an explicitly gendered reading of this; it’s no coincidence that Action films tend towards male protagonists, while Horror features a preponderance of women. Tough guys, final girls. Rightly or wrongly, there is the assumption that audiences will perceive women as more inherently vulnerable, and less able to control a situation than a man -- a potentially disruptive problem for an action movie, but an obvious advantage for horror. The Italian Gialli and Poliziotteschi genres (one universally regarded as Horror, the other leaning heavily towards Action), for instance, often have a tremendous overlap in terms of content and in pedigree; the defining difference is located in the nature of the protagonist, which in the case of a Giallo is very likely to be female, and in particular a woman with very little inherent control over her situation, a vulnerable, youthful outsider who doesn’t fully grasp the nuances and mechanics of the world she’s entering. By contrast, the protagonist of a Poliziottesco is nearly always male, and almost by definition a powerful male of some stripe, usually a square-jawed cop or a canny tough guy – someone confident, used to being in-control; indeed, I think one may say without lapsing into arbitrary Freudianism that this protagonist may implicitly consider the actions of the antagonist a direct challenge to his assertive masculinity. There are, needless to say, plentiful exceptions to these trends, but the trends themselves –and their underlying narrative logic—seem to me both inescapable and nakedly revealing about the underlying mechanics behind the two respective genres.*

Poliziottescho vs Giallo

The two approaches are, in a word, incompatible. With all that in mind, then, let us consider the strange and disruptive subset of films which directly mash together key elements of each genre in ways which might be provocative… or merely wrong-headed. A key strand of such films (including our subject for today, THE FIRST POWER) breaks a usually hard-and-fast barrier between action and horror films by inserting a tough guy protagonist into a story which would typically feature a more vulnerable lead. Specimens of this particular sub-subgenre are not abundant, but they do exist. An illustrative example would be 10 TO MIDNIGHT, which features the imperturbably tough Charles Bronson going up against some smarmy, perverted serial killer. You could argue it’s more Crime flick than Action or Horror, but serial killers are a staple of horror, and the strangeness of the central matchup paints a clear picture of the unusual mechanics at work here: the sleazy nudist killer is no match for Bronson’s laconic masculinity; he’s soft, weak, boyish, sexually frustrated. Sending Charles Fucking Bronson after this pathetic narcissist seems almost like a waste, the two combatants are so wildly incommensurate. But the killer is clever enough to hide behind the power of the law, effectively making it impossible for Bronson to stop him, and turning what would typically be a mano a mano fight for supremacy into a grueling exercise in frustration. It sort of works, fueled entirely by our simmering rage at this despicable sadist, but I think it’s noteworthy that is does so in spite of generally undercutting both the strength of the tough guy hero and the unknowable, anxious menace typical of the serial killer genre.

And other, similar movies have tended to fare much worse; Seagal’s two bouts with serial killers in THE GLIMMER MAN and KILL SWITCH waste the juggernaut-like wrath of his on-screen persona on drab, barely-articulated clichés that don’t benefit from the kind of overkill he provides (plus everything else terrible about those two movies); the synopsis for Stallone’s COBRA reads like a horror movie, with its conspiracy of satanic serial killers, but it cranks them (and everything else) up so much they might as well be comic book supervillains, more or less losing all but the most vestigial bits of Horror in the process. SILENT RAGE, which in theory pits Chuck Norris against an undead slasher, seems more aware of the potential incompatibility of these two competing forces, but resolves the dilemma simply by dodging it: Norris and the undead killer meet up only in the film’s climax, and otherwise their two subplots are connected in only the most tangential way.

Perhaps the most interesting attempt to unnaturally graft tough guy cinema onto a horror structure would be PREDATOR. It has, in fact, something like a PSYCHO-style bit of brazen misdirection to it: though the first thing we see is a mysterious spaceship, the movie pretends for a surprisingly long time that it’s some kind of men-on-a-mission jungle action tale, even indulging in a huge gun battle setpiece before gradually teasing out the truth: it is actually a FRIDAY THE 13th-style slasher, where our cast is going to be picked off one by one by a mysterious, unstoppable killer. But in this case, that killer is a superpowered alien, and the horny teens are 'roided-up supersoldiers. This is, at least, a provocative substitution: the movie operates by the standard slasher playbook, but ups the ante by stacking the cast with testosterone-addled musclemen who we don't expect to see so vulnerable and powerless against their tormenter. An interesting idea, maybe, but not one which ends up being very productive in practice, at least as a genre experiment. The characters are so cartoonish and one-dimensional that shifting them to this unfamiliar context doesn't really bring anything interesting out in them; mostly, they just respond to being threatened by becoming even more macho, which sort of undercuts the sense of menace the movie seems to be trying to build. All that outrageously hyper-concentrated machismo is simply more potent than the horror trappings, tilting the balance so decisively that I doubt almost anyone thinks of PREDATOR as a horror film, despite the many specific elements of horror in its structure and execution that you might be able to identify. For proof of that, just look at the sequels; with the arguable exception of PREDATOR 2, they all lean hard on action cliches, adopting the structure of tough guy movies, not single-location slashers.

The problem that all these movies encounter, essentially, is that the fantasy of the tough guy has to do with his effectiveness. An action hero may face setbacks, but ultimately it’s about winning, about individual skill, gumption, and pure raw power overcoming seemingly impossible odds. By definition, the hero needs to be able to take action, to consistently strike back at his antagonists. And of course, the structure of a typical horror film demands exactly the opposite: a protagonist who is outmatched, out of control, oppressed, without any obvious recourse. A hero who can effectively contest his plight, even if facing very long odds, has at least the comfort of purpose, with its accompanying sense of autonomy. It’s when we are directionless, utterly out of control, that we begin to feel fear. It’s why ALIEN is a horror movie, and ALIENS is an action movie. The threat is the same, but once the humans have shown they are capable of fighting back (even with very long odds), the entire dynamic changes.

Except when it doesn’t. Which brings us, at long last, to THE FIRST POWER, a very strange and possibly completely unique movie which simply rams a tough guy cop flick into a supernatural killer flick and refuses to notice that they are working at cross-purposes.

Before we talk about that, though, let’s pause and set the stage. THE FIRST POWER presents us with Lou "The Rough" Diamond Phillips (his Wikipedia page claims he has an uncredited cameo in DEMON WIND?!) as tough guy cop Russ Logan, squaring off against a supernatural serial killer who just won't stay dead. In that sense, a lot like SILENT RAGE, except the gimmick here is that the killer (reliable character actor Jeff Kober, dripping smarmy menace), having been liberated from his body by the overzealous LDP early in the proceedings, is now some kind of evil spirit capable of possessing others to continue his murderous rampage, more like THE FALLEN.

He can do this because he has, you see, "The First Power." What the heck does that mean? I'll let Conspiracy Nun Sister Marguerite (Elizabeth Arlen**, NATIONAL LAMPOON'S EUROPEAN VACATION) explain:


SISTER MARGEURITE: There are three powers that can be bestowed by God or Satan. The Third Power is the ability to take over another person's body. Your friend [Tracy Griffith, SLEEPAWAY CAP III: TEENAGE WASTELAND] is a psychic, she has the Second Power: the gift of knowing the future. The First Power is resurrection. Immortality.


DETECTIVE RUSS LOGAN: Look sister, I don't understand these things.


SISTER MARGEURITE: There's just one way [to defeat the killer]... Through the only soul in history who had all three powers!***


[holds out a crucifix, to LDP's obvious disappointment. Then she pulls a knife out of it!] Woah! ‘Brother Maynard, bring out the holy shank of Antioch!’ I’m honestly not sure if this knife was built specifically for killin’ First-Power-havin’ sumnabitches, or she just assumes because of the crucifix it’ll have a little extra kick, but I appreciate this nun’s moxie. Also based on her description it seems like this movie would be more accurately titled THE FIRST AND THIRD POWER AND ANOTHER LADY WITH THE SECOND POWER, but admittedly I guess there would be no problem if this particular guy didn’t have the First one.

(I never heard any of this in Catholic school, by the way, but to be fair Sister Marguerite claims that "the church doesn't allow us to discuss [the First Power]" so I guess you have to be hip to some religious secrets? In fact, the whole thing actually opens with a bunch of old Church Authority types [including David Gale from RE-ANIMATOR!] fretting, “Sister, this is the 20th century… so one mustn’t mention Satan in polite company.” I guess they must not have considered my first-grade Catholic School religion class to be “polite company,” because I recollect they did mention Satan quite a bit, exactly in 1990. My memory is that they also very much do allow, and in fact encourage and even require quite a bit of discission of resurrection, but I guess I'm gonna have to trust THE FIRST POWER to have done its research.)


Anyway, the movie has a long way to go before it gets into the dense theological weeds of crucifixes which double as knives, BBQ tongs, beveling hammers, etc. In fact, it’s a very long time before our protagonist is even willing to admit that more exotic methods may be required, although he is, I feel, much slower on the uptake than you or I would be. It turns out that the problem with being a tough-guy detective who is absolutely capable of smoking a cigarette while wearing a trench coat and aviators is that while you may be great at catching criminals (and in fact, it seems like he is; we hear via a news report that “this is the third time in less than five years that Logan has been responsible for the death or capture of a serial killer.” This shit’s getting pretty routine for him!) that does not necessarily make you the right person to fight a disembodied supernatural entity who rocks both the First and Third Power. Russ Logan is great at chases where he leaps over obstacles, his cool-guy black trench coat billowing in the wind behind him like a cape. But what do you do when the perp just laughs off bullets and can easily leap 10 stories to the street and run off? Not a whole lot. But he keeps trying. At one point he pulls out a box of grenades -- “buddy on the bomb squad gave me this stuff for a rainy day” he explains, which in my opinion raises a lot more questions than it answers—and has to be gently reminded again that this is basically an immortal spirit and explosions aren’t going to work any better than gunfire.

This makes for a kind of amusingly frustrating cop movie. Everything that makes him a good super-cop is kind of useless in this scenario, but it’s all he’s got, and also it’s the only story template that the movie can think of, so he just has to keep doing standard super-cop stuff and it just keeps not working. He still goes about the basic super-cop routine, getting a sexy sidekick, shaking down suspects, chasing the killer in a variety of exciting variations. Normal cop movie basics, except that they already know who the killer is and he’s a superpowered ghost, so there isn’t much to investigate, and every time he chases him down the guy just laughs and flies away or something. In retrospect, it kind of explains why SILENT RAGE had to keep Chuck Norris unaware of the killer’s existence for pretty much the entire runtime. When Chuck puts you down, you stay down. A Chuck Norris movie where Chuck keeps catching the killer, but then he just vanishes with an evil laugh and goes about his business while Chuck stands there in impotent disbelief is drifting pretty far off-brand. (Speaking of which, Brian Libby, who played the killer in SILENT RAGE, gets a little cameo here as an undercover cop who notes, “Even a psycho fucking killer is smart enough to stay out of the rain.” A nice touch! There’s also a Bill Mosely cameo in case you had any doubt this was definitely, officially, a horror movie.)

Love that he wears this mask, even though they know who he is and, in fact, he can look like anyone.

This would be a lot more interesting if the movie leaned into it a little more, unfortunately. I would count myself as a Lou Diamond Phillips fan, but he’s the wrong fit for material this nutty and potentially subversive. The movie is at its best when it embraces its eccentric, twitchy energy, and neither Lou nor co-star Tracey Griffiths is able to meet it there. Both are offering pretty bland cop movie cliches when the material probably needed more of a Nic Cage freakout vibe, especially since Kober is cheerfully hamming it up as the smugly taunting killer. Lou, in particular, is frustratingly unrattled by all this, budging not one inch from his cynical, smart-mouthed cool guy routine during the entire runtime, even as he’s easily thwarted again and again. Which makes him seem less like a confident tough guy and more like a brittle phony who can’t acknowledge that this situation has gotten way out of his control.

Fortunately, the situation does get pretty far out of control. Though the script is pretty bedrock-standard for this kind of thing in its totality, it’s full of the kind of little quirky bits that impart it a lot of personality. The killer pulls out a ceiling fan --which keeps spinning somehow-- to menace our heroes, and uses it to deflect bullets (a nice touch, especially since he doesn’t even care if he gets shot). A cop gets murdered by an evil horse-and-buggy, driven by a ghost wearing a sombrero. And they have an exciting (?) car-vs-horse-and-buggy chase right after! There’s a crazy bag lady who gets possessed and gleefully flies around and practically goes full EVIL DEAD. They use a bed to block a door that still has a sleeping guy in it! There’s a huge car stunt where they launch this thing what must be fifty feet in the air and crash it. They commandeer a civilian car, only to find that the driver is almost too enthusiastic to assist, scootching to the middle seat instead of getting out and shouting “No! Look, I’m not one of those anti-cop types!” and effusively offering his assistance “if you need help with some creep!” After a lengthy demolition derby where Lou smashes up his car trying to shake a supernatural masked killer clinging to the roof, he may come to regret this hardline pro-cop stance.

There’s a bit of a fun, “try-anything” vibe here, and movie doesn’t seem particularly interested in establishing rules. I understand the First Power well enough, but I’m not really sure how the Third Power part –the possession one, which gets a good bit more play—works, exactly. The killer is a spirit, and sometimes he does stuff like impossibly move around a room so wherever you turn he’s there. But then he’ll leap through a window and smash it as though he’s solid? It’s explicitly mentioned that he can’t directly affect anything unless he possesses a human body, but when he does he’s still able to do all kinds of blatantly supernatural shit like fly and shake off multiple bullet wounds? To compound matters, while he’s possessing people he still looks like himself to Logan, except that also sometimes he doesn’t? Presumably, he must be possessing a body every time he physically interacts with our protagonists, which means Logan kills a lot of innocent people who just happen to be temporarily possessed, but he sure doesn’t seem too broken up about it, or, in fact, to notice or consider this fact at all. Well, except once: At one point, the killer (still looking like Jeff Kober) is temporarily defeated by hurling him off the railing of an abandoned industrial tower. But then they get down to the bottom, and suddenly they see the mutilated corpse, impaled on some scaffolding after falling hundreds of feet, and it turns out to be… Logan’s asshole boss (Dennis Lipscomb, UNDER SEIGE). Oops. This prompts his other boss to angrily say “All right, yeah, yeah, he was a drunk and a total prick… but he was also a lieutenant in the LAPD and I do NOT BELIEVE… [pauses, collects himself] and I do not believe that he suddenly went FUCKING insane, or was secretly a member of some FUCKING cult.” Which is a pretty reasonable reaction, except that Lou just blithely says, “You gotta give me some more time, Al.” And he does! He just sighs and says “All right.” Man, I feel like if I’d impaled my boss, who I had a well-established fractious relationship with, after flinging him off the top of a huge industrial tower, they’d at least bring me down to the station and get a statement. This guy doesn’t even get a “your gun and your badge” moment! Makes you think this isn’t the first time he’s done this.

All this is laudable, and makes this a much more entertaining watch than you’d have any reason to expect. Unfortunately it’s also kind of badly structured, taking nearly 40 minutes to finally get the main scenario with the disembodied killer going in earnest, and struggling to generate much narrative momentum after that since, you know, there’s not really a whole lot that Detective Russel Logan can do about this situation except have an action scene, which is quickly established to be a very ineffective response. There’s a lot of wheel-spinning, and even if that wheel-spinning is sometimes pretty entertaining in its own right, it makes for slower going than a movie this daffy needs. And the non-action detective parts are pretty unbearable, since it’s not like there’s really a big mystery here.****  

Still, not too often you end up with something which is both of great academic interest and has two or three banger car stunts even though it’s arguably a horror movie. As far as movies which are most notable for their unique kind of brokenness go, this at least offers a generous helping of the goods. Though these two flavors of genre spectacle might not taste great together, the portions of both are ample enough to make for a fulfilling, if not exactly satisfying, meal. It’s a shame that making a solid genre-bending horror-action hybrid is not one of the three powers that can be bestowed on man by God or Satan, but as long as genre fans remain undiscriminating, I imagine someone or other will keep trying.


* In fact, though you needn’t look far to find exceptions to the usual genre setups, they’re rather more likely to be explained by the general blundering incompetence of the people making the films than they are to be cases of well-developed narrative plotting exploring different dynamics. Sure, plenty of horror movies have male protagonists, but is that, like on purpose to curate a different power dynamic, or is the writer just a hack who hasn’t really thought through the genre mechanics at work here? Female action heroes do strike one as more purposeful, though more in the sense that the filmmakers often seem to consider them a eccentric gimmick rather than a mode worth seriously exploring.


** If you wish to experience peak cringe, I encourage you to read the book-length, obviously-written-by-her IMDB Bio, which describes her in the very first paragraph as: "An ageless beauty with the face and figure of a woman decades younger, on-screen and off, it doesn't take long to find yourself under her spell. She possesses an intensity, sharp wit, a penchant for bucking traditional gender roles, and a wild spark of passion for life that's evident in her every action. An empathetic, self-aware woman with a compelling personality and a strong voice; Arlen is all this, and more." Lady, this is IMDB, not Tinder.


*** I missed the part of the Bible where Jesus went around taking over people's bodies, but I guess just because he could doesn't mean he wanted to.


**** The one big bombshell they reveal is that the killer was either molested as a kid or had to watch his mother get molested by his grandfather (I’m a little unclear if it was both or just the latter), which is a fact I’d just as soon not know, actually, if it’s all the same to you. It’s not like the killer has a single redeeming quality, so making us consider his miserable, abusive childhood does not seem like a productive direction to take this material in. Plus it doesn’t exactly help them any, except that they use it to taunt the killer in the climax, which is actually pretty fucked up IMHO.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Jacob's Ladder (2019 remake)


Jacob’s Ladder (remake) (2019)

Dir. David M. Rosenthal

Written by Jeff Buhler, Sarah Thorpe, “story by” Jake Wade Wall, Jeff Buhler, based on a screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin

Starring Michael Ealy, Jesse Williams, Nicole Beharie



Since the original JACOB'S LADDER is one of my very favorite horror movies of all time, I can't say I approached this (loose) remake with a lot of optimism; more like morbid curiosity. Unfortunately it doesn't even offer much to be morbidly curious about. It's not bad so much as it fails to ever be even a little good, and the ways in which it fails to be good are mostly pretty boring. It's rarely outright incompetent, but at the same time there's just no evidence whatsoever that anybody involved wanted to be here or had any clear idea why it would be worth telling this story other than to ride the coattails of a more famous movie which still isn't even that famous.


That is, anyway, the only reason I can think of that this would be called JACOB’s LADDER. It vaguely echoes some plot elements of the original –the titular Jacob (Michael Ealy, MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA) is an American soldier back home after a foreign war (Afghanistan rather than Vietnam) and gets mixed up with an experimental drug that leads him into a paranoid, hallucinatory journey. Similar enough that you’d probably notice, but not specific enough that they’d have to worry about lawsuits if they just ripped it off. But let’s be honest here, it’s not like someone came up with a brilliant story and just later realized it kind of superficially resembled the scenario for a cult flick from 1990. Obviously somebody picked up the rights to the remake, grabbed some gigging writer (Jeff Buhler, already responsible for THE GRUDGE REMAKE [2020] and PET SEMETARY REMAKE and the screenplay for MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN and THE PRODIGY and recently STUDIO 666) and said “write a story we can title JACOB’S LADDER so that a small percentage of people will watch it thinking it’s the good version, and a handful of horror die-hards will check it out due to a sense of morbid curiosity.” And then when they needed re-writes and the original guy didn’t want to bother, they handed it to a personal trainer or niece or somebody that the producer knew (Sarah Thorpe, no other credits) and just said “try and cut out the stuff that sounds expensive.”


This is not the type of scenario that one could reasonably expect to produce great art. But it could still probably be better than this. Mostly the movie as a whole is just sort of drab and pointless, but I guess the script is maybe weak enough to qualify as outright bad, although in a bland way rather than an exotic one. The story itself is built around a pretty tepid mindfuck (and pretty nonsensical should you be inclined to try and ask pissy questions like "wait, if that's what was happening, what have I been watching up til now?") though at least it's a different mindfuck than the original. (I said "different," not "better" although I'll readily admit that the twist in the original is the worst thing about it). The fact that it's very stupid is a problem for a movie this relentlessly dour, but the bigger problem is more fundamental: it fails to ever establish a convincing baseline reality --starting with Jacob and his wife’s (Nicole Beharie, SHAME) pristine, antiseptic home with its demure, compliant newborn (!) who cries exactly once and never while anyone is sleeping-- which renders its later attempts at surrealism a dismal nonstarter. Can't disrupt reality if I never for one second believe in these characters even at their status quo.


And it doesn't get more convincing as the situation escalates. Early on, Jacob watches as his brother Isaac (Jesse Williams, CABIN IN THE WOODS --yes, their names are Jacob and Isaac) dies in front of him. Years later, Isaac turns up alive, apparently within walking distance of Jacob's house! And Jacob's response is... mild surprise and annoyance? He basically just drops him off at his house and goes about his business. At no point does he or his wife freak out or seem to find this shocking and inexplicable and demanding of answers. He mumbles something that the paperwork must have gotten mixed up and that's that. And Ealy (who I consider to be a terrific actor, but obviously needed a little more direction here) doesn't help matters with his disappointingly tepid performance. Very quickly, this guy is experiencing totally insane shit, and his reaction never seems to rise above "mildly perturbed." I'm sorry, but putting a five-o'clock shadow on Michael Ealy does not make him look tormented, it just makes him look hotter. And he's already borderline too hot to take seriously in the first place.


So yeah, it's a bad script, but it's at least committed to its dumb twist, and could, maybe, have been salvaged by some real directorial flair. But if any director was going to be able to pull that off, David M. Rosenthal --who must be a real charming guy, considering how often in his career he's been able to pull amazingly overqualified casts for completely anonymous DTV genre fare-- ain't the one to do it. The original JACOB'S LADDER is a masterclass in gritty, nightmare-fueled paranoia; this has a perfunctory sort of visual slickness that makes it feel like a gloomy car commercial, and the best it can manage in the nightmare department is that lame thing where someone's face will suddenly distort into a SCREAM mask and they’ll shout "boo!" (a trick I was already mocking as shamelessly unimaginative back when DEAD BIRDS did it like a thousand years ago). Creating a paranoid thriller is all about using the tools of cinema to create a heightened, anxious mental state, and this is just utterly, woefully unable to do it, instead drifting between hacky jump-scare scenes and languid, clunky backstory which is so rigidly built to service the goofy twist that the movie can barely even pretend to be a straight horror movie. Its problem isn't really that it's a lunkheaded cash-in trading on the good name of a classic; it's that it's just kind of boring.


Props for the scene near the end where he has sex with the Angel of Death, though. If the whole thing were that eccentric and melodramatic, we might actually have something here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

The Secret of Sinchanee

The Secret Of Sinchanee (2021)

Dir. and written by Steven Grayhm

Starring Steven Grayhm, Tamara Austin, Nate Boyer


I watched THE SECRET OF SINCHANEE as a Hail-Mary style random Tubi pick, based entirely on "hey, looks like there's some kind of monster or a giant bird or something on the poster." I knew nothing about it, had no reason to assume it was good, and much reason to assume it was probably garbage. Inadvisable, certainly; self-destructive, probably. But it is the kind of utter recklessness which is my legal right during Half-O-Ween, that magical time of the year when you can watch stuff you wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole even in October.

And despite the consistent level of shocking doggerel that I post about here, there are movies even I wouldn’t bother with, and this would normally be one of them. It belongs to a broad category of about nine hundred million indie horror flicks which were seemingly released direct to the internet without a word starting in the late ‘naughts. They all look reasonably professional --mostly since cameras and sound equipment have evolved so much that it doesn't take a tremendous amount of skill to shoot a movie which looks basically competent-- they all have perfectly professional acting…* and not one of them has anything even the least bit interesting in it. Unlike the raucous, anything-goes zero-budget hokum of yesteryear, they feel respectable and responsible and crisply professional, movies that were made at the behest of career councilors, rather than fevered nightmares forced onto the screen by delusion madmen with delusions of grandeur. All of them, I assume, were cranked out by the self-reinforcing cycle whereby streaming services require content --a volume business wherein it doesn't particularly matter what content-- and consequently there's always money available for a first-time filmmaker looking to pad their resume to crank out a bland, mercenary horror flick about whatever, just to prove they can handle bringing a shoot in on time and under budget, and hopefully use it as a springboard to move on to more interesting things. You sell the result to Netflix or Tubi or somebody who buys 'em in bulk, sight-unseen, then they slap a generic title like THE UNDERNEATH or DEMON HOUSE or something on the cover along with a gloomy-looking picture of a scared lady cowering in an all-grey abandoned house, and presto, chango, content has been created. An algorithm has been fed. And there it is popping up when you search for "horror" on Tubi, adding quantity but no actual value to your lengthy selection process. Unless, of course, you take the plunge and just click anyway, at which point, well, you can't say they didn't warn you.

THE SECRET OF SINCHANEE doesn't exactly buck the stereotype, but it does feel at least a little more committed than I was expecting. Far from a mercenary effort to churn out content, it's almost a vanity project, a showpiece for producer-writer-director-star Steven Grayhm ("Russ -- Party Boy" in WHITE CHICKS), one of those longtime working actors who has had a perfectly successful 20-year career without ever quite hitting the big times. The surprise here is that his big Orson Welles moment reveals him to be a more-than-capable director, producing something with an unflashy but effective atmosphere, generally strong performances, and steady, intentional pace. It has an old-fashioned vibe, a serious-minded movie for adults without being pretentious or insisting it's about anything other than the pleasure of a good spooky story. With its snowy New England milieu (the lived-in, real-world locations help immensely to give it some weight and texture) and stately, slow-burning paranoid vibe, it kind of reminds me of a low-concept X-Files monster-of-the-week episode, which I consider a good thing. Or of the recent, grievously under-valued THE EMPTY MAN.

Unfortunately, the sturdy direction ends up being in service of a script that never takes off. The plot is one of those simultaneously undernourished and overbuilt things which can be summed up in a single sentence, or summed up in five paragraphs, and nothing in-between will quite work. Suffice to say, then, that it’s about this dude Will Stark (Grayhm, solid enough in a role which mostly just requires him to silently look uneasy) who is forced to move into his recently-deceased fathers’ house, and quickly begins to get mind whammy’d by the sinister forces which were also presumably behind a horrific tragedy from his youth. Grayhm approaches this bedrock-simple setup with a bizarre, almost lackadaisical indirectness, however. The movie maintains a holding pattern, circling becoming a possession movie without actually doing it, for a surprisingly long time, and in the process drawing in two detective characters (Tamara Austin [The Walking Dead] and Nate Boyer [former Seattle Seahawk and US Army Green Beret, DEN OF THEIVES]—both doing unusually fine work to make their characters feels worth investing in), who have a complicated, somewhat resentful relationship but still manage to work together while they gradually, um… It’s a little hard to explain from here. There’s like, this whole thing where someone Will used to know as a child has been murdered, and for some reason the detectives think Will is the killer and he acts sort of suspicious even though we know he’s innocent (unless he isn’t and it’s just not very clear?) and it all relates to this cult who worship an ancient American Indian spirit of death, except that actually they’re the descendants of colonial Satan-worshippers, and they want to kill the last members of a magical (and fictional**) Indian tribe called the Sinchanee, who are described as “a peaceful mixed-race tribe discovered to have a unique immunity to diseases brought to the new world” who were “liberated” when “at the turn of the 18th century, French and Native forces attacked an English Settlement at Deerfield, Massachusetts.” For some reason, this resulted in a situation where “for years, locals have reported unusual paranormal phenomena that to this day…. remain unexplained.” And that scans because everyone keeps getting haunted by this evil little ballerina girl, except that I think she’s Will’s sister who was horribly murdered when he was a child? And also there’s an evil mirror? And a haunted piano?

I honestly have no idea what’s up with any of that, and it’s the main problem with the film: it’s well-directed and well-acted, but this story is a complete mess, cluttered up beyond belief with characters it doesn’t need (the two detective characters contribute literally nothing to the plot, are not even present at the climax, and everything in the movie would have worked out exactly the same if they had not been there) and a jumbled backstory it is completely incapable of making use of (despite the four impenetrable paragraphs of explanatory text at the start of the movie, which are then basically reiterated verbatim by another character in the final act, none of the stuff about the Sinchanee being invulnerable to smallpox or an 18th-century French-and-Indian raid or a secret pagan cult actually end up mattering all that much. There is definitely a cult hanging around, I guess, but I was never clear on exactly what their deal was or why they would want to possess this one dude instead of just killing him. And it never ends up meaningfully altering the basic possession narrative at work here anyway. It would pretty much be exactly the same story if he was just haunted by the ghost of his crazy dad or something. Although at least the masks are pretty boss. Might get back into organized religion if they started handing out badass skull-faced masks on major holidays.).

 And even if you can get past all the clutter, it kind of bungles the structure, puttering about, skirting the edges of a possession story and framing it as a mystery for so long you keep assuming there's gotta be some kind of twist -- but there isn't, it's all bedrock-standard possession stuff, it’s just bedrock-standard possession stuff buried in a haphazard pile of all sorts of mostly irrelevant bric-à-brac, none of which adds enough texture to be worth it. For a while it seems kind of interesting to have two parallel stories, one about this nice guy getting haunted, and the other about the detectives who wrongly think he's a killer, but you'd need them to eventually intersect for that to have any kind of payoff, and since that doesn't really happen, it's all for naught. Instead the whole thing just feels fatty and dawdling, floundering around and throwing out characters and worldbuilding without a clear idea of how any of it could be constructively woven together into a satisfying narrative. It sort of feels like it was originally meant to be a TV mini-series --complete with all the meandering subplots and side characters and time-wasting that format entails in this current cultural moment-- all edited down into one way over-burdened movie, but also not edited down quite enough, because the flippin' thing is damn near two hours long. And there's just not enough payoff here, in terms of whammy or in terms of simple imagination, to justify 115 extremely unhurried minutes.

Still, it’s trying, and for a good half of the movie --when it was still unclear that all this was going absolutely nowhere interesting-- I was pretty into it. If it’s a swing and a miss, at least there was a swing, and that's about the best case scenario for a Tubi blind watch, so I'm inclined to be generous.  

And speaking of generosity, the movie ends with text saying it's part of a project to employ veterans and their families? So even if doesn't land as a horror classic, at least it succeeds as a New Deal-esque WPA project. Homies gettin' paid and all that. Maybe that's the real Secret of Sinchanee?

*One of the great mysteries of our time is the utter vanishment from this earth of that great 80's and 90's style bad acting that was full of enthusiastically alien line readings and brisk energetic nonsense. What happened? Where did it go? Did the dour seriousness of the torture-porn years just kill off our capacity for frivolous artifice? Is this the next step in human evolution, that we're just all gloomy and sober all the time?

** Grayhm is descended from the Weskarini Algonquin on his father's side, according to IMDB, so I'll try not to get too weirded out about his making up a new tribe who are vaguely implied to be magic, I guess? Anyway, at least they're the good guys, and the colonialists are the bad guys, or so the dialogue says although none of that ever really plays out in the story itself.