Category Archives: Video

Neverlake (2013)

neverlake

Neverlake attempts the holy grail of postmodern horror film: to unite the supernatural and the modern into a single narrative where one reveals the other. Despite focusing perhaps too much on “atmosphere” at the beginning of the story, the movie creates compelling supernatural narrative within a very modern plot.

The plot centers on a young English-Italian girl, Jenny, who goes to visit her semi-estranged father in the Tuscan countryside. A self-assured young woman who spends most of her time with her nose in a book, Jenny begins having visions of the supernatural connected to a nearby lake. As her father relates, this lake has been used for three millennia by Etruscans to commemorate their dead… and possibly, much more. The plot then develops in parallel between Jenny’s exploration of her thoroughly modern and dysfunctional family, and her deepening learning about the ancient lake with the help of a nearby group of children recovering from mutilating injuries. During the process, Jenny needles her father for more information about her Italian mother who died when Jenny was very young.

While the word “atmosphere” sometimes takes on a connotation of euphemism for boredom with a soundtrack, it does not fully take on that role here; the movie develops slowly and in retrospect, this is less necessary than the filmmakers thought and probably more intended to lull us into submission. That is an error because the wide pans of the lush Italian countryside tend to do that quite effectively. The first third of the movie sometimes lapses into atmosphere pieces that achieve less than their screen time; instead, a more plausible use of screen time would be to give us more of the geography of the house in which Jenny and her family is living, of which we see two rooms, which becomes disorienting later. The plot is cryptic but not “clever” in the sense of handily tying up a bunch of quirks into a plot that technically makes sense but slips too far beyond known reality to be interesting except as a kind of mental party game or hypothetical conjecture. Sadly, the film is blighted with a title that seems like a broken neologism and film posters that, at least in the US, make it seem as if this movie were about combat with lake-zombies. That poster served to simultaneously attract people who will hate this movie and exclude the people who would enjoy it. It deserves a second look.

Neverlake builds its tension on a solid plot and a mystery that enmeshes its different parts with one another to make a kind of self-referential maze. It reinforces this with music that intensifies the atmosphere and cinematography that brings out the isolation of its characters. The music fits within a strange zone between soundtrack, Dead Can Dance with no solo vocals, and some of the more recent ambient neofolk material. Although written using modern instrumentation, it captures an ancient feel, clearly familiar with both Carmina Burana and Ancient Airs and Dances. Keyboard symphonic music without solo vocals or consistent drumming gives this film the spacious air and gravity that it needs, where throwing in the usual alt-rock B-sides as many horror movies currently trend would have savagely trashed the atmosphere. Cinematography also reinforces the mood; the filmmakers opt for a dense, saturated scene with wide contrasts in color, allowing the lake to dominate like a gleaming life-form and to show people as somewhat washed out, empty and terrified. They do this without over-processing and thus ruining the lush natural detail.

The script for Neverlake strategically builds to a conclusion which is as intense as the earlier part of the film was vacant. This balance seems intentional, just perhaps miscalibrated. Daisy Keeping creates a simultaneously disingenuous and headstrong Jenny who stumbles perfectly into the role set for her by the script, while more mature actors manage to combine creepiness and standard postmodern adult vagueness and incoherence into a single mode, which makes them both comfortingly background and potentially complicit. Combined with the intensifying music and intensely naturalistic filming itself, the plot development helps create a sensation of slipping beyond the modern and known into a world of the ambiguous and threatening, which is then explained through the modern — but questions remain. For those who like a good horror film that is more internal existential and moral terror than chainsaws and centipedes, Neverlake provides a powerful escapist fantasy.

Death Metal Zombies (1995)

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Death Metal Zombies
Horrorscope Productions, 1995. 90 minutes.
Unrated

Those of the death metal persuasion tend to value content over surface. This idea emerges from the basic thought of metal: beauty in darkness through structure, social appearance be damned. As such, the death metal audience tends to ignore the differences that millions of dollars of production bring, and focus on the content of a movie.

Death Metal Zombies is (mostly) such a movie. Its entertainment value matches that of films with much larger budget and media support. However, it is a bit of a mess. Filmed on video cameras in the exburbs of Houston, Texas it features continuity mistakes, sometimes amateurish camera work, and of course non-professional actors, so much so that the directors released an anniversary cut a decade later that halved the film length and re-arranged it to make more sense. This was clearly a project in which people learned their craft, and starts with the almost assuredly marijuana-inspired concept that a cassette tape can contain musical programming to turn people into zombies. However, we have all seen films with far dumber premises that made it out of major studios. Gone Girl, The Expendables, Avengers and Star Trek: Into Darkness come to mind as multimillion dollar tributes to idiocy.

The basic idea of this film is that people in the dead-end middle class outer suburbs of a flat, humid and boring major city (which was nowhere on the news in 1995) have little to live for except death metal, and they find a way to hook up with a “special” tape from their favorite band, Living Corpse. This tape contains thirteen minutes of sonic programming that transform them into zombies who promptly return to their normal lives and act out the fantasies of death, gore and retribution that do not fit into the modern world. This review focuses on the original film, not the edit, which has its charm in that despite some filmmaking ineptitude and a possibly ill-advised metal-centric plot, it captures the lives of its filmmakers and actors and amplifies that experience to a supernatural level. It works perfectly in a post-modern sense as not the focal point of an evening, but a topic of commentary, where the real movie is more the conjecture about it and experience of criticizing it than what is on the screen.

The above-average viewer will spend much of this film wondering what exactly is going on. The filmmakers burn through too much tape setting up scenes, and not enough showing action, which makes viewers wonder what to focus on. This is balanced by relatively strong action scenes with creative (and copious but not overblown) gore, quality violence and a genuinely menacing atmosphere. Were I some kind of film critic, I would loathe this because it insults every pretense of that profession, but as a lifelong media hater who finds most movies to be inane, I see this film as less inane although less technically gifted than your average Hollywood flick. In particular, characters are believable, situations are believable, and the plot — once you get past the somewhat handicapped device — moves forward enough to compel an urge to witness its conclusion.

In addition, there is a death metal angle: Relapse Records allowed use of what looks like its full catalog, so bands as diverse as Incantation, Pyogenesis, Winter, Disembowelment and Brutality play in the background in scenes that are half-MTV and the rest a zombie film designed to be watched through a bong while chatting with friends. The music angle in both plot and background is not meant to be convincing, but enjoyable, and seeing familiar tropes from death metal bands in the characters, as well as having what was probably the only “real” chance death metal had at having videos back in the day is gratifying. There is no way to construe this film as competitive with professional efforts, but the grim fact is that it is arguably less dumb and more compelling than what the big studios dump arrogantly on our numbed brains.

Heavy Metal at the Movies conference issues call for papers

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The Popular Culture Association (PCA) announced the theme for its upcoming meeting on April 1-4, 2015 as “how heavy metal culture relates to cinema.” The PCA issued a call for papers on this topic so that aspiring heavy metal studies scholars can submit writings in advance of the conference.

Held in New Orleans, the conference will allow participants a chance to present papers and network with others in the fields of heavy metal studies and popular culture studies. The PCA accepts a broad range of topics: “Papers on individual films, metal (sub)genres or individual bands are all welcome, as are more theoretical musings on the interrelationship between cinema and metal.” It gives the following sample topic areas:

  • how heavy metal is (ab)used in feature films
  • how documentary films create, expand, and discuss a sense of group identity
  • how cinematic traditions are used in heavy metal culture.

If interested in submitting a paper, please send a 300-word abstract by October 15, 2014 to Gerd.Bayer@fau.de. The official call for papers notice can be found here.

Ferngully: The Last Rainforest

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Although it has little in common with the horror movies and apocalyptic fantasies reviewed here, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest won me over with its themes of humans losing touch with nature and becoming greedy narcissistic dorks who then cause the destruction of rain forests.

Warning: this movie is about 1 hour 15 min long and is children’s animated film, thus can be forgiven its heavy-handed approach since we all know that movies for children are basically propaganda from well-meaning but usually delusional dipsomaniac adults. The soundtrack has traditional folk music that sounds mystical and yet upbeat like Dead Can Dance, and this redeems much of the loss of atmosphere that occurs once any story transitions to cartoon.

The story involves loggers using a leviathan of a machine to chop down trees in the last rainforest and polluting the land as well. A human gets accidentally shrunk by the forest spirit (faeries in this case) and sees the reality of the situation and makes attempts to stop this. This evokes a physical/metaphysical antagonist who is like the Satan of forests. He was trapped in the trees in a long-past age but the churning of the machine inadvertently releases him and he melds with the machine and takes control of it. His intent is to finish his diabolical plot to destroy all forests and the life within them, possibly branching out Antaeus-style to destroy all life after that.

Naturally, our heroic characters launch on a quest in situ to defeat this monster. The intro mentions the pre-history: the humans also used to know of the existence of the fairies and during the black-demon cataclysm a Satan figure called Hexxus was spawned whose goal is to destroy the forest, and while the humans ran away and the fairies trapped Hexxus inside a tree. As you can imagine, a restoration of the magic in the soul brings back the fairies and possibly saves the last rainforest.

You probably do not want to watch this as an adult unless you are so drunk that you have an irrepressible urge to destroy rainforests and need a simple, step-by-step guide to changing your attitude. I mostly recommend this for adults to show to children, who are never too young to be taught the right propaganda — and I think this is probably better than the other options — to program them for zombie-like life among the office towers, fast food joints, sewage treatment plants and arms dumps of the modern world.

Antiviral (2012)

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Antiviral (2012)
Directed by Brandon Cronenberg
108 minutes

Death metal and horror films go hand in hand. Screaming victims, howling chainsaws, death and destruction, subjugation and helplessness, existential angst and nihilistic outcomes. But what about death metal and a film that crosses horror, suspense, sci-fi and disturbingly investigative psychological tension?

Brandon Cronenberg, the son of edge-of-insanity filmmaker David Cronenberg, directed Antiviral which hit the screens in 2012. Following in the family tradition, he peels back the layers of justification and shows us a metaphor for our psychology in this odd and disturbing modern time. Unlike his Dad, Brandon offers more of a sense of personality horror; this is abundantly character-driven in addition to being concept-driven.

In this tense film, which seems to be set in an alternative present, celebrity culture has reached a peak mania. People are so besotted with the celebrity experience that there is a lucrative trade in infections that have their origin in celebrities. A specialized industry contracts with celebs for their diseases, harvests those diseases and then reproduces them so that ordinary people can infect themselves and share an experience with the stars of the big screen.

The biggest of these stars is Hannah Geist, a starlet of comparable stature among the fawning life-dropout masses as Jennifer Lawrence back in our reality. She is worshiped by the herd and represents top-notch product for those who wish to sell diseases. Cronenberg emphasizes this with shots of people who act like slow-motion zombies, lost in an orgiastic reverie of union with celebrities, the focal point of social interest in the culture.

Brandon offers more contrast-based filmmaking than his father. Where the elder Cronenberg relishes the organic, the younger relishes the symbolic and the disturbingly out of place. He films in a kind of breathless patience that is moving full speed ahead to notice everything, which requires a manic (Adderall-like) focus on stillness and the smallest of events. He shows characters confronting their own limitations and fears, and as a result, has characters who do more than act out an experience. They grow, even if in dubious ways.

Much like the fiction of William Gibson, Antiviral is heavily metaphorical and reveals some unsettling truths about our rather mundane world through an exotic one. In doing so, Cronenberg creates an atmosphere of the surreal and disturbing that infiltrates all thoughts of comfort and stability and upends them with a view of the dark rotten core of own celebrity-crazed culture.

Immolation – Live at B.B. King in NYC, 2006

To sweeten the pot of the Hope and Horror EP, Immolation added a live DVD of a show demonstrating material from throughout their career. Pound for pound, this recording is one of the better live video and audio combinations to come out of extreme metal. The sound is a single track extracted from the soundboard, leaving out most crowd noise and faithfully capturing the instrumental sound in a thin but clear quality where optimally guitars would be louder. However, nothing cannot be heard and there are no fade-outs, which makes this a joy to follow along, especially since the videographer specializes in capturing tight shots of the playing of instruments as well as wide pans that show the enormous synchronicity and professionalism of this band. Unlike most videos, there are enough shots of the drummer and they linger long enough for us to see the interplay of hands and feet. The performance Immolation delivers merits quality cinematic treatment because it is technically precise, with medium levels of energy that allow the music not performer aerobics to be the focus of the video, and with none of the unprofessionalism or confusion that can make metal shows drag like extended sentences in foreign prisons. For technical reasons as well as the power of the performance itself this video should be commended.

1. Swarm of Terror (03:09)
2. Unholy Cult (06:25)
3. Into Everlasting Fire (05:27)
4. Dead to Me (04:11)
5. Sinful Nature (03:14)
6. Harnessing Ruin (04:27)
7. Unpardonable Sin (04:26)
8. Crown the Liar (04:41)
9. No Jesus, No Beast (04:45)
10. At Mourning’s Twilight (06:07)
Length: 48:18

Danzig – Archive de la Morte

(Music Video Distributors, 2004, 60 Min, $10)

Few underground bands will achieve a video document of this quality. It consists entirely of MTV-style song videos, professionally filmed and edited, which are either miniature movies in which the band is featured or high quality live recordings. The sound quality is excellent, as is the image quality, but having someone take the time to edit and shape the video experience as one might find in a cinema puts these in a different league. However, this DVD has a weak spot, and it is the choice of material. Where a disc of sloppier and less coherent videos from classic Danzig, namely the first two albums, would be a gigantic hit, there’s only one song from that era on here, and while the material from his later albums is good, it’s also more typical hard rock/heavy metal and thus does not show this band at their most adept and inventive phase. Furthermore, this DVD is literally an archive, and gives us six songs with up to three versions of the video for each, which makes it not only unsuitable for casual viewing but very limited. Couldn’t someone tack on some crappy handheld video of a live set at the end, as, well, that would be more the whole of the Danzig experience than this narrow snapshot? The videos are quite artistic, and feature heavy symbolism and plenty of evil moments. It culminates in “Mother ’93,” which is essentially the album track dubbed over some hammy but expertly edited live video. If you are a Danzig fanatic, this provides you with the videos you saw on MTV and the uncensored versions that you probably wanted desperately at the time. For the more casual fan, this video will probably seem like a hasty and unthinking compilation of material that documents the less triumphant moments of an otherwise influential act.

Bones – “Mayhem on a Cross”

(Fox, Episode 421, 4-16-09)

Covering metal as a setting presents a problem for television because it’s nearly impossible to reveal much about the genre from a mainstream perspective, especially since it’s not the topic of the show. On Bones, the topic is murder and the setting is an underground of black/death/nu-metal bands who use the corpse of a murder victim as a prop. Having followed Temperance Brennan in Dr. Kathy Reichs’ books for some years, I was glad to see the show clarified her character. In addition, this show obliquely tackles the issues at the core of death and black metal. Brennan represents science and rationalism; her counterpart, Seeley Booth, represents monism and aesthetics. The interplay of their characters reminds me of the interaction between Fitzwilliam Darcy (Bones) and Elizabeth Bennet (Booth) in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Much like people in modern society, they assume Rationalism as a basis of reality but find the details overwhelm them. In the course of the show, they explore a desire in parallel between the show and the metal bands represented — how to express the horror of a modern time in a way that makes you like it, and want to use it as a showdown between good and evil, especially evil disguised as good, and how Rationalism — linear, logical, discrete, symbolic thinking — can get in the way of understanding our task of understanding ourselves. Diehards will not be pleased that the genres get lumped together in the bands shown, but will be interested to see the show’s clinical psychologist analyze the difference between the two. However, since the show is not about metal, but murder with metal as the setting, the airtime given to these underground genres is generous and the depiction accurate albeit distant.

Asphyx – Live at Party San 2007


Asphyx – Live at Party San 2007
Ibex Moon Records, 60:32, 2009, $11

Asphyx make that which is heavy fun and compelling. This could be one of my favorite recorded metal concerts because it captures not only the professionalism, but also the minimal set-up and adornment, as well as the different frequencies of energy this band emit. They convert dark empty spaces to ones filled with a new kind of like, like twilight or morning, in which the darkness is never pure, having been converted to the inertia of day. All band members are professional and precise, and while Martin van Drunen gets his share of camera time, in my view it is the workmanlike and intensely concentrating Bob “Mister Asphyx” Bagchus who steals the show with his serious and intense facial expressions to accompany his exact drumming. Wannes Gubbels, bassist/vocalist late of Pentacle, injects a ton of exuberance, while guitarist Paul Wayyans shows us death metal the original way — a science and an art that both has to be kept simple and done so that it all makes sense in the end. These 62 minutes of powerful recording span the band’s entire career but focus on the classics from The Rack and Last One on Earth, giving us a set with career diversity but also a powerhouse of the songs that defined this band. Video is professionally shot with multiple camera angles, and while effects like the high contrast black and white flash, the rising fake flames, and occasional slo-mo are used, they are not distracting. van Drunen’s voice is excellent; I don’t know another metal vocalist who can make the guttural sounds of death vocals while keeping a forced scream going at the same time. He is an excellent frontman who both works the crowd, throwing out his ad libs with perfect rhythm to keep motivation high, and a consummate professional who uses his voice as an effective instrument. I think this should be mandatory watching in schools. This review refers to the DVD included with the release of Asphyx Death… The Brutal Way.

Until the Light Takes Us

(Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites, 2008, 93 min, $16)

If we ask why instead of how an event happened, we find out what made the humans behind it do as they did. “Until the Light Takes Us” explores the why of early 1990s Norwegian black metal. Designed for people with no knowledge of that subculture, the film explains the black metal movement while making its actors emotionally accessible so we feel an urge to understand it. In a time of a sudden interest in metal documentaries, this film stands out by exploring the personalities and ideals that made people invent the music; other films look at the facts of how the music was invented but never the why. We don’t need another documentary telling us millions of people worldwide go crazy for heavy metal so it’s OK if we want to as well. We need to figure out what makes people pick this genre over every other. “Until the Light Takes Us” gets into the why of black metal and the church arsons, murder and media circus that followed. Through fragments of media footage, interviews, and footage of black metal musician Fenriz as he prepares to visit an art exhibit about black metal, this film explores the clash between fantasy and utilitarian modernity that sparked the radicalization of heavy metal. At its culmination, the documentary shows past colliding with present, and a fervent ideal of being against the modern world and believing in a mythic life full of fantasy, adventurous violence and conflict. It is both poignant and literal, like black metal a collision of alienated punk gumption and epic dreams. Like black metal, this film is a study of moods, overlapping in translucent layers, which as they are pulled away show us a simple shape of truth. Although some have bemoaned the inclusion of too much Varg or Fenriz, it became clear from other interviews that musicians are not an articulate bunch and the two who get the most screen time do so in part because they can explain themselves coherently. In the case of Varg, he’s easy to watch: he’s funny, sharp, friendly and his logic is lucid. Fenriz is moodier but his dark sense of absurdist humor commands the film. At the core of this genre, Ewell and Aites find a revolution against consumerism, equality, uniformity, utilitarianism and all other modern concepts by 35-year-old teenagers who never gave up on the idea that life should have adventure, constant discovery and a sense of meaning that unites the entire experience. Unlike most people, these individuals are fully aware of what death means, and when contrasted with the robotic plastic surroundings of the modern world, a parallax shift occurs: we go from seeing them as out of place to seeing their surroundings as out of place or perhaps, irrelevant. This film is a cipher, in that it gives us many entry points to a questioning of modern society and exploration of the ideas of black metal. Among other things, it is obsessed with the erasure of memory and culture, an inspection of the culture of convenience and the isolation it brings, and a hint that we should explore what Joseph Campbell calls “mythic imagination” and Varg calls “fantasy.” Without being socially critical, it is an exploration through the eyes of those who made black metal, and then saw it erased as it became a product with the passage of time.

Metal has been crying out for a movie like this for decades. “Until the Light Takes Us” does what even metalheads cannot do most of the time: it takes the genre seriously as an art form, and peers behind the outlandish behavior and image to try to understand what motivates people to cast aside society for evil metal. For this alone this film should be praised, but it very quietly exposes metal like a blueprint, all while showing us the emotions of the people involved. It is compelling. Clearly these filmmakers knew how to ask the right questions and patiently wait for their subjects to articulate their points of view, then snatch the moments of greatest clarity and present them with impact. Scenes of industrial desolation follow the impact of strident words, and fires of ancient churches melt into shots of the memorabilia and essential moments of a developing genre. Each fan will probably have a wishlist for changing this film, but that only shows how much it seizes the imagination. I would enjoy seeing a comparison between black metal and the European Romantic literature, theatre and music of two centuries ago. Others have commented that less Frost (of Satyricon) might accelerate the latter half, but this reviewer was not troubled by either detail. While much of the material in the movie is well-known in the form that leaked out through the media, rediscovering it through this artfully told history is a dream come true. The documentarians hide themselves and let the characters tell their own side of it. What makes it a dream to which we’d like to return is that it explores the why of this music, and in doing so shows us the fans why we found so much hope and possibility in black metal.