Welcome readers to Pop Culture Destruction, the Schlock Magazine column dealing with pop culture and other such matters of popular import.
Wait, some of you might ask, where has this column been for all these months? I’ll be as honest as I can get in this here segment – I got tired of Pop Culture Destruction. In the end of the day it was little more than yet another straight white male on the internet proclaiming their oh-so-important opinions on movies and such rot on the internet, and if I can’t get myself to care about something of the sort why should expect anyone else to give a fuck about it? But the Hive Mind’s been rather insistent on Schlock Magazine needing something of this sort, so after 5 months or so of soul searching (and/or procrastination) I’m back. And I have friends in tow, too. Either way, PCD is back in town. For now, in any case.
If you are truly tired of this kind of shit I won’t blame you for not reading it though. C’est la vie and all that.
If you’ve been following any goings on in the world of genre/science fiction literature you’ve surely heard of last month’s controversy surrounding the Hugo Awards, which got hijacked by literal fascists in the name of promoting what amounts to little more than right wing propaganda. And that’s before internet scum collective GamerGate got involved. In any case, writer Philip Sandifer has this excellent roundup of the sorry debacle on his blog, to which I can only add that, at this point, the Hugos can only fixed with the application of a bullet to the head.
This week saw the season finale of what’s probably my favourite TV comic spin off, Gotham. Was it any good? Not really. But was it entertaining? Oh hell yes. I can’t wait for the second season of this dumb, beautiful show.
The idea of DC’s doing a super gritty Suicide Squad movie (directed by David Ayer!) is slowly growing on me. Sure, the movie will probably/surely be terrible – as if I’d watch this nonsense with the hopes of it being good – but there’s good chance it’ll be entertaining in a violent Russian dashcam footage kind of way.
You know what I hope will actually be good? Mad Max: Fury Road, of course. This trailer is some good shit, in that I can’t stop watching it. In any case, it’ll be worth paying for the privilege of watching crazy custom trucks destroy each other in the post-apocalyptic wasteland on the biggest possible screen, forever.
Quality reading! I was thinking of writing something about my current gaming obsessions, Bloodborne and Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, but Eurogamer’s Jeffrey Matulef beat me to it. Huzzah for not bothering to write a thing! In any case, both games are by far this year’s best, and I wholly recommend them.
Music for this column comes courtesy of Japanese post-rock outfit Anoice and its 2012 album Black Rain.
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (dir. Joss Whedon, 2015)
So, for the sake of this column, I got around to watching the latest Avengers movie. Yes, that’s despite my issues with the genre1, if not exactly because of them. In any case, Age of Ultron is a generally alright enough film. It is near metronome-like in the precision with which it hits all required beats as it juggles between multiple crescendos involving character drama and high stakes action, and for this Joss Whedon can only be admired, really. That said, “alright” and “precise” are not exactly the zenith of praise, and as such I can safely say it still has more than a few issues. Issues I can neatly boil down near entirely in this screenshot below!
This shot, taken directly from the trailers, comes from Age of Ultron‘s first money shot – a sequence where our heroes take on bad guys somewhere in Eastern Europe2. Cut as a single take, it follows each character as they fight against against the toyetic armies of HYDRA before they come all together in glorious slow motion. It should all be very thrilling and exciting, but instead it’s rather pedestrian, if not outright boring. Why is this initial “wow” moment so damn gray? I really can’t figure out the whys behind Marvel Studios’3 insistence on its cinematic product being so bereft of colour. I suppose the Christopher Nolan take on Batman4 is at least partly to blame, but then again there’s reasons as to why adopt a darker aesthetic when making a Dark Knight movie. In a way one can also explain the similarly dour colour palette adopted by Zack Snyder in Man of Steel (2013) – it’s an aesthetic choice directly related to the fact that this is certainly ain’t your daddy’s Superman5. But Avengers? The only reason it looks murky is because the majority of previous superhero movies look murky, never mind that, when looked at in retrospect, they all blur into a single mush of generic superpowered antics. Admittedly the Age of Ultron‘s colouring improves as film goes on, shifting to browns before settling on a combination of brown and greens, but I can’t stop hoping for a superhero film with colours as eye-searingly bright as those seen in the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer (2008).
Colours aside (not that I think one can really do that, but let’s pretend that’s the case, alright?), the action is otherwise decent, if not too ambitious or spectacular. We’ve seen all of this before, really, and as such it left me cold. Sure, you might say it does not follow the oh-so-offensive Michael Bay school of Bayhem, but while the Transformers films can be rightly described as sticking one’s face into a washing machine full of glass, at least the shards of glass flying right into your eyeballs will make you feel something. In comparison, I’ve had face scrubs more intense6 than the Age of Ultron, even if the finale is pleasing in its having our heroes put some effort in sparing the innocent from the titular Ultron’s dastardly turning of a city into a meteor-to-be.
As for the non-action bits, the writing is frankly as muddied as the above mentioned colouring. Lest one forget, Age of Ultron is just part of Marvel Studios’ multi-year plan in superhero-based franchises. Maybe by 2020 we’ll be able to appreciate the final result as an intricate multi-movie tapestry of epic proportions, but as it stands Age of Ultron is something of a non-standalone mess of multiple subplots and characters appearing for the sole reason of setting up other movies7. Which is a bit of a shame, since Ultron (James Spader) is actually something of a compelling villain, being a representation of arch-capitalist Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) hubris as sprinkled unsubtle religious subtext8. But the evil AI-slash-robot has to take the backseat as heroes have to resolve personal issues, new characters demand introductions and, at the end of the day, it’s all just build up for whichever Marvel movie is coming out next. Oh, and the non-action is where Whedon really betrays his being a TV director – he fails to make any meaningful use of cinematic space, and continually resorts to close ups in order to frame his okay-ish dialogue. Hell, TV might be a better fit to these movies’ serial ambitions, and it’s worth nothing that the recent Daredevil series manages to be more focused and, dare I say it, cinematic, than its big screen counterparts.
So, Age of Ultron. More like Age of… Lukewarm? Or maybe “if you like this kind of thing you might like/derive at least some enjoyment from this.” Enough said, really.
1 Does “superhero movie” count as a separate genre? Send your answers on a postcard and/or the comments below
2 Okay it’s “Sokovia”, probably (surely) because Latveria belongs whoever owns the rights to the Fantastic Four
3 When it comes to the Marvel movies I’ve no doubt every film making decision comes directly from the studio, directors be damned
4 Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), Dark Knight Rises (2012)
5 Or MY Superman, for that matter
6 Have you ever accidently stuck soap in your eyes? That shit stings like the dickens!
7 The most egregious example of this is Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis), whose appearance acts as little more than a reminder that a Black Panther movie is a thing that is happening
8 Schlock Magazine declares its being on #TeamUltron
Now I pass the mic to Friend of Schlock Noel Tanti, who has things to say about a horror dealie he’s watched…
DIGGING UP THE MARROW (dir. Adam Green, 2014)
Adam Green loves his monsters. A glance at his IMDb resume proclaims him as the director of Hatchet (2006) and Hatchet II (2010), an actor in the gloriously titled Gingerdead Man2 : Passion of the Crust (2008) and the producer of zombie baby flick Grace (2012). He’s also everything on Holliston, a TV series about Adam (Mr Green) and Joe (Joe Lynch), a couple of college grads determined to become horror filmmakers.
Adam Green loves his meta moments too.
Which brings us to Digging Up The Marrow (2014). In this mockumentary Mr Green plays himself (again), a horror writer/director/producer who takes on the universe armed with a seemingly endless supply of smug assertiveness. Amidst all the busyness, he is delivered a mysterious missive from a mysterious man who goes by the name of William Dekker (Ray Wise). William claims that he is in contact with real, live, honest-to-god monsters. Adam is intrigued and, braving a torrent of common sense from his colleagues, friends and relatives, he embarks on this fool’s errand.
Now, mockumentaries stopped being taken seriously in 1999 when Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes with The Blair Witch Project. Not that this was the first project to bank on the (sometimes) cleverly orchestrated gullibility of the audience. Mockumentaries have a distinguished pedigree. Amongst others: Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver (1995), Rob Reiner’s classic This is Spinal Tap (1984), Ruggero Deodato’s (not so distinguished) Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run (1969) and also Orson Welles’ infamous broadcast of The War of the Worlds, way back in 1938.
However, Blair Witch was the first one of its kind to break into the mainstream, grossing over $140 million in the US alone. (To put that into perspective, the first Matrix, also released in 1999, made only $30 million more that year.) Also, possibly inspired by the Dogme 95’s “Vow of Chastity” (a film movement started by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in which the visual aesthetic, in terms of technological input, is reduced to a bare minimum), Blair Witch pioneered the found footage fad. Wonky camerawork, rudimentary sound and apparent poor use of mise-en-scène (if any) sustained a general ‘Holy fuck! This is true!’ mindset.
Nowadays found footage is a readily recognisable style and filmmakers don’t try to prank anyone anymore. It’s another way of telling a story, one that winks and prods at its audience, asking not to be taken too seriously. Just enough to enjoy the story.
This is exactly what Mr Green wants out of Digging Up The Marrow. He knows that we’re in on the joke from the very beginning and instead of trying to outthink us, he simply joins in the fun.
Which is why the casting of Ray Wise as the eccentric William Dekker is a stroke of genius. (One that recalls the Bill Murray episode in 2009’s Zombieland.) Mr Wise plays his character straight, delivering a performance that is free of irony and overt wit and one which, frankly, holds the film together. In fact I’ve rarely seen him this good. The juxtapostion of the actors playing themselves with Ray Wise playing someone else acts as a meta overkill that helps converge the focus back to the story, as it should be. (Not to mention the fact, sort of acknowledged in the film, that everyone is rather shit at playing themselves.)
However, this is also the film’s Achilles’ heel. Stripped of its formal and thematic pretensions, Digging Up The Marrow is nothing but a fun trip for horror fans who ‘get it’. I can’t imagine myself enjoying this otherwise. Despite a third act that has genuinely creepy moments, mainly because it reverts to established horror tropes and because the animatronics monsters are creepy in a way that only toys can be creepy, it doesn’t have much to say. Ultimately it’s a camp fire story that is as likely to elicit a groan as much as a yikes.
Play, stop, that’s it.
Teodor is the only guy I know who still reads words printed on pressed wood pulp. Here he writes a couple of such things he’s consumed.
SKULLCRACK CITY (Jeremy Robert Johnson, 2015
S.P. Doyle is a man with a mission, but the mission turns out to be more and more sprawling with each step forward, and it may lead to a fate worse than death.
This would be an offensively reductive though in essence accurate description of Jeremy Robert Johnson’s blistering odyssey of a novel, in which a disgruntled banker (the abovementioned Doyle) decides to take on the corrupt system he forms part of from the inside, armed only with a dangerous amount of the deadly street drug Hexedrine and deluded revolutionary zeal (as you may have guessed, these things are not exactly mutually exclusive).
What follows is the discovery that brain-chomping monsters are on the loose, and that they’re somehow connected to Doyle’s clandestine efforts at undermining the banking conglomerate he once formed part of. But when Doyle is framed for murder, and when the life of his beloved mother is threatened, he realizes that his only hope to emerge from this sprawling conspiracy alive is to put his trust in a rag-tag team of outlaws with a mutual interest in seeing the system go down in flames. Among them is Dara, an eyepatch-sporting crusader haunted by a violent past, and who steals Doyle’s heart at a time when emotional distraction may not be very convenient.
With its sustained streak of paranoia and freakishly malevolent entities of mass control, Skullcrack City recalls the work of Philip K. Dick – to whom Johnson pays an amusing tribute by naming Doyle’s pet tortoise Deckard, after the protagonist of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (known to most by its film adaptation, Blade Runner). Additionally, the novel is given a contemporary punk-ish wash that brings to mind The Matrix via Warren Ellis with some Chuck Palahniuk styling – or ‘choruses’.
But really, Johnson’s voice and mission are entirely his own, a brew that wears its influences on its sleeve but that marches to an assured and steady clip. What’s most surprising is how this bizarro-noir, far from spiraling into the incomprehensible mess that label suggests, unspools with perfect clarity, each perverse plot twist delivered with care and precision, ensuring the loyal reader is kept in the loop throughout. So yes: there’s drug fugues, cyberpunk-Frankenstenian creatures, capitalist monster hive-mind villains… but above all, sharp and hilarious prose and an overarching love of humanity.
There’s a real, finely-shaded griminess to its opening section – a gritty and strangely mournful depiction of drug-fuelled dissipation in a near-dystopian world that lends depth and texture to the multi-genre collage that Johnson is also attempting head-on. But even as the monsters and quack-doctors start piling in – along with the bizarro body-modification and mind-bending transhumanism – it’s Doyle’s voice that keeps it all grounded. With a natural talent for grotesque humour – both linguistic and slapstick – Johnson manages to make Doyle feel like an old friend, without resorting to lame attempts at ‘druggie slacker’ characterization that would have been so easy to succumb to.
An off-the-beaten track thrill ride packed with humour, intelligence and a hard-won compassion.
THE VISIBLE FILTH (Nathan Ballingrud, 2015)
Ever since the release of his impeccably written and uncompromising collection North American Lake Monsters, Nathan Ballingrud has begun to establish himself as a name to watch out for, owing to his potent, carefully crafted horror stories which tend to be set at the margins of society, and in which the supernatural doesn’t break through the mundane to offer salvation or high-spirited adventure, but to plummet things into a further spiral of ugliness.
Grimy but graceful as Ballingrud’s best work tends to be, The Visible Filth is a welcome taster of what a full-length novel by one of the rising stars of horror fiction may feel like.
Will is an affable and content bartender, coasting through life with nary a care in the world save for his growing non-platonic affection to his friend Alicia. But when he discovers a stray mobile phone at the bar in the wake of a nasty fight, his life takes a turn for the uncanny. The grisly contents of the phone – which keep pouring in – gradually begin to infect his life, and even threaten to ensnare his girlfriend Carrie.
Comparisons to Clive Barker on one side of the spectrum, and Raymond Carver on the other, have already been made, and here it feels both genuine and justified on all counts. Ballingrud’s makes-it-look-so-easy depiction of flawed, humane characters is borne out in our protagonist, whose complacency is undercut by – inconvenient – sexual cravings and the central grisly event that propels the novella forward. The fact that both of these elements are on equal narrative and thematic footing for Ballingrud says a lot about his all-encompassing approach to fiction. This isn’t a lurid story sprinkled with ‘gritty’ elements, and neither is it an attempt at high-concept literary fiction that uses supernatural elements as a last-minute crutch. It’s that rare thing: an assured piece of fantastical fiction, as water-tight as a folk tale and as sensitive and cogently observed as the best realistic fiction.
A sense of quiet dread suffuses practically every single page, culminating in a final image of outre body horror that doesn’t ring false because Ballingrud builds to a careful climax. Will is an everyman drifting through life and animated largely by base impulses, and is clearly not equipped to deal with the horror that awaits him. This is the sense of perfect foreboding that Ballingrud exploits to the full.
A must for anyone on the lookout for contemporary literary horror.