Archive for the 'What I’m Watching Department' Category

01
Apr
14

How I finished “How I Met Your Mother”

I have written before — and often — of my love for CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, which ended its nine-year run Monday night. It was a show of true heart, relateable joys and heartbreaks, and outrageously funny characters that have kept me entertained for nearly a decade. I didn’t want to fire off a knee-jerk reaction to the finale — as the internet has proven time and again, that way lies madness. I wanted a little time to ponder, to sort out my feelings, to understand them before I tried to explain them. Now that I’ve thought it through, I think I’m ready.

Be warned. Spoilers ahoy.

To say the ending left me feeling conflicted is an understatement. There were certainly fine moments, and the structure works. At the end, the show is finally given its true context. The framing sequence, when Ted Mosby circa 2030 is telling the children how he met their mother, is really Future Ted’s attempt to explain to his children why — six years after the death of his wife — he’s considering trying to start up a relationship with their “Aunt Robin.” It explains succinctly why the story started with his and Robin’s first meeting, why so much of the story has centered on her, why over the years Ted and Robin  would backslide to one another so often. It makes sense.

Despite making sense, though, something about the finale left me feeling… hollow. And I needed to decide what that was. It wasn’t just that Tracy, the mother, was dead. I didn’t want that, but I’ve also never thought it was fair to judge a story by what you want it to be rather than what it is. And it isn’t that the ending was, at best, bittersweet, because those are often the most emotionally rich and spiritually honest ways a story can end.

My problem, I think, stems from the fact that the final few minutes of the show thrust Ted and Robin back together again — this after years of Ted trying to get over her and finally succeeding just a few short episodes ago. In the penultimate episode, in fact, he underlined that moment, telling Robin that he was not in love with her anymore. To leap, then, from that point to Future Ted returning to Robin’s apartment with the blue French Horn from so long ago… it felt like all the character development had evaporated. I could deal with Robin and Barney’s divorce, sad as that was. I probably even could have dealt with the Mother dying, as such sadness is true to life, is what ultimately makes the moments of joy all the greater. In the last minutes, though, I felt like we bounced back to square one.

In a way, I think the writers trapped themselves. In any long-running story — especially on TV, where the writer’s goals can be derailed by actors leaving, dying, getting arrested… really any circumstances where real-world events can intrude on the storytelling — there has to be room for flexibility. We all know that Aaron Paul’s character was originally slated to die in the first season of Breaking Bad, but Vince Gilligan changed his mind, and thank goodness. Then we have LOST, which initially hung a lot of significance on a 10-year-old named Walt. The mysteries around that character had to be dropped, though, because while only a few months passed on the show, in real time several years passed. The actor aged and hit a growth spurt. Now I remain a defender of LOST, I liked the ending, but I can’t deny frustration at some of the questions that were never answered because nature necessitated putting him on a boat off the island.

HIMYM’s problem wasn’t as dramatic — there was never a question of removing an actor or one of them leaving the show. Instead, the characters moved in a direction I don’t think the creators anticipated by focusing so much of the show of Ted trying to get past Robin, to the point where many viewers (I’m raising my hand here) wanted to just get past that and get on with the story of the Mother.

But the die had already been cast. To avoid “The Walt Problem,” they filmed scenes of Ted’s kids reacting to the end of the story eight years ago, before they had visibly aged from the scenes they shot for the first few episodes. It was a good strategy, but it kind of locked them into the ending, in which the kids gave Ted their blessing to go after Aunt Robin. With no wiggle room, they took an ending that may have worked in season two, or three, or even five, and applied it to characters who — by season nine — had outgrown it. The ending planned no longer rang entirely true.

I don’t hate the ending. There was, in fact, some fine work in there. Lily and Marshall have always been the stable core of the group (save for a brief period in season two), and having them act as a sort of Greek chorus in this finale, shuffling them between Robin, Barney, Ted and Tracy, all rang true.

Neil Patrick Harris, to use a baseball analogy, gets the save here. One of the best aspects of the show for the past few years has been the slow growth and development of Barney Stinson from a one-note character to someone you truly wanted to root for. When he and Robin broke up and he reverted to form, it was heartbreaking. In his case, though, it was not a question of true backsliding, of him becoming the person he once was. Even sadder, he was trying to return to the person he used to be, and with each protest that his friends “let me be who I am,” it was increasingly clear he was no longer that person.

Then he held his daughter and professed his truest, most sincere love. In that moment the old Barney — the Season One Barney, the Barney he put back on life support when he and Robin called it quits — well and truly died. And as sad as his split with Robin was, I don’t think the new Barney, Daddy Barney… hell, the real Barney… ever could have existed without her. It was a phenomenal moment, and although we didn’t get to see much of Barney as a dad, I have no doubt that it was Legend — wait for it…

And finally, Cristin Milioti as Tracy, the Mother. She gets this season’s MVP award. To come into a show in its ninth and final season would be daunting under any circumstances. To do so in such a way that makes the viewers feel for her and care about her as deeply as the five characters the audience has known all this time… it’s heroic. She was simply magnificent. We accepted easily how quickly Ted fell in love with her, because we did too.

I believed Tracy as the love of Ted’s life. Which is initially why that ending felt like a gut punch. upon reflection, though, I think I also see a seed of redemption in it. I can use it for a little perspective. Ted, after all, was the one who turned down Robin when she tried to take him back at her wedding. Tracy wasn’t his second choice, like I felt at first. Even though he didn’t know her yet, he gave up Robin to look for her, and he was rewarded. And it’s not like he ran back to Robin as soon as his wife died — he took six years, a more than respectable amount of time, before he decided it may be worth pursuing. Even then, he put the wishes of his children — Tracy’s children — before his own. Through that prism, I can see it as Robin and Ted finding solace with each other after her unexpectedly lonely life and the loss of his true love.

It’s not what I expected. It’s not how I would have ended it. But it has some truth to it nonetheless.

So while I’m not fully satisfied, I’m not really upset either. I’m certainly not angry. How could I be? For nine years, I’ve been allowed to join in on the adventures of characters right in my own stage of life, allowing me to grow with them. As Ted’s friends married and had children, so did mine. The first time Ted ever heard Tracy’s voice, she was singing “La Vie En Rose,” and as Erin and I prepare for our own wedding, they’ve given us the song for our first dance.

So thank you, show creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, and thank your writers, for nine years of joy. Thank you to Pamela Fryman, who directed nearly every episode of the series (a Herculean feat in and of itself). And thank you to our six incomparable friends, and the countless supporting players, for the pop culture milestone you’ve created.

For robot wrestlers and the Kennedy package. For slap bets and for Swarley, duckie ties and dopplegangers. For never buckling to peer pressure and explaining about the pineapple. (Yes, I’ve heard the rumors of a DVD extra. Shut up.) For making interventions fun again. For extending the cultural significance of the hanging chad by a good 13 years.

For making me cry more than once and never making me ashamed of it.

For blue French Horns.

For yellow umbrellas.

I request the highest of fives.

 

–dary.

Yeah. Totally worth the wait.

11
Feb
12

What I’m Watching in 2012

Just like yesterday’s post about books, I also keep a running list of the movies I watch each year. You know you do it to. Okay, some of you. Three of you? Harvey?

Anyway, for those who are interested, here’s the tally thus far. As with the books, if I happen to write a review of any of these films, I’ll throw up a link. And, should I happen to watch a movie as it’s being riffed by the likes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Rifftrax, or Incognito Cinema Warriors XP, I’ll provide a separate “grade” for the riff.

1. Tucker and Dale Versus Evil (2011), A
2. Little Shop of Horrors (1960), D; RiffTrax, B+
3. Eurotrip (2004), B-
4. Barely Legal (2011), D
5. TransFormers: Dark of the Moon (2011), B
6. Lady Frankenstein (1971), D; ICWXP, B+
7. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), B+
8. Serenity (2005), A
9. Bloody Pit of Horror (1965), F; ICWXP, B
10. Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory (1961), F; ICWXP, B+
11. Cedar Rapids (2011), B
12. Pontypool (2009), B+
13. Atlas Shrugged Part I (2011), B
14. Ghosthouse (1988), F; RiffTrax,  B+
15. The Slime People (1963), D; MST3K, C+
16. The Crucible (1996), B+
17. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011), B+
18. Chronicle (2012), A-
19. Justice League: Doom (2012), A-
20. Timer (2009), B+
21. Tree of Life (2011), D
22. Another Earth (2011), B+
23. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), A-
24. Phineas and Ferb: Across the Second Dimension (2011), A
25. Real Steel (2011), B
26. In Time (2011), C-
27. John Carter (2012), A-
28. My Week With Marilyn (2011), A-
29. The Adjustment Bureau (2011), B+
30. The Help (2011), A
31. Forrest Gump (1994), A
32. The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones (1987), B
33. The Flintstones (1994), C
34. The Hunger Games (2012), A-
35. Hereafter (2010), C+
36. The Task (2010), B
37. Cabin in the Woods (2012), A
38. The Adventures of Tintin (2011), B
39. Win Win (2011), B+
40. Millennium (1989), C
41. Immortals (2011), B
42. Iron Man (2008), A
43. Being Elmo (2011), A
44. Incredible Hulk (2008), B
45. Iron Man 2 (2010), B+
46. Apollo 18 (2011), C+
47. Reefer Madness (1936), D; RiffTrax, B+
48. Them Idiots Whirled Tour (2012), B
49. Thor (2011), B+
50. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), A
51. The Avengers (2012), A+
52. The Muppets (2011), A
53. The Goonies (1985), A
54. Spaceballs (1987), B+
55. Airplane (1980), A
56. Men in Black 3 (2012), B+
57. The Descendants (2011), A
58. Insidious (2011), D-
59. Muppets From Space (1999), B
60. Pom Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011), A-
61. The Swing Parade of 1946 (1946), D; RiffTrax, B
62. Lucky (2011), B+
63. Exporting Raymond (2010), A
64. Alien (1979), A+
65. Aliens (1986), A
66. Prometheus (2012), B
67. I Want Candy (2007), B-
68. Sirens (1993), C
69. Superman Vs. the Elite (2012), A-
70. Drive (2011), C
71. The Wizard of Oz (1939), A
72. Blade Runner (1982), B+
73. Total Recall (1990), B+
74. Rock of Ages (2012), D
75. The People Vs. George Lucas (2010), A-
76. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (2012), C-
77. Brave (2012), A
78. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), A
79. Media Malpractice (2009)
80. Batman Begins (2005), A
81. The Dark Knight (2008), A+
82. The Dark Knight Rises (2012), A
83. Troll 2 (1990), F
84. Silent House (2012), B-
85. 50/50 (2011), A
86. Total Recall (2012), C+
87. The Darkest Hour (2011), C
88. Moneyball (2011), A-
89. The Expendables (2010), B
90. The Expendables 2 (2012), B+
91. Red Tails (2012), B
92. Walkabout (1971), C
93. Finding Nemo (2003), A
94. The Woman in Black (2012), C-
95. The Incredibles (2004), A
96. The Boys (2010), A
97. In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger (2004), A-
98. In the Mouth of Madness (1994), B
99. Act of Valor (2012), B
100. Project X (2012), C+
101. Tales of Terror (1962), B
102. The Birds (1963), B+
103. Hellraiser (1987), B+
104. Child’s Play (1988), C+
105. Looper (2012), B
106. Cinderella (1950), A
107. The Ghost Breakers (1940), B+
108. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), A+
109. Young Frankenstein (1974), A
110. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978), C-
111. An American Werewolf in London (1981), B+
112. Ghostbusters (1984), A+
113. The Toxic Avenger (1984), C
114. Beetlejuice (1988), A-
115. Arachnophobia (1990), B-
116. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), C+
117. Army of Darkness (1992), B+
118. Bride of Chucky (1998), C
119. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), A-
120. Eight Legged Freaks (2002), B-
121. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006), A
122. Slither (2006), A-
123. The Evil Dead (1981), B-
124. Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987), A-
125. Trick ‘r Treat (2007), A
126. Zombieland (2009), A
127. 2016: Obamas America (2012), B
128. The Lorax (2012), B
129. The Pirates! Band of Misifts (2012), A-
130. The Room (2003), F
131. Skyfall (2012), A-
132. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), A
133. Home Alone (1990), B+
134. Finding Mrs. Claus (2012), C+
135. Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009), B
136. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), B+
137. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), D; MST3K, B
139. Santa Claus (1959), F; MST3K, B+
140. Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972), F-; RiffTrax, A
141. Magic Christmas Tree (1964), D-; RiffTrax, B+
142. Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), B
143. Arthur Christmas (2011), A-
144. A Christmas Story 2 (2012), C+
145. Trading Places (1983), B+
146. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), A
147. Nativity! (2009), B
148. A Christmas Story (1983), A
149. Love Actually (2003), A
150. Scrooged (1988), A
151. Die Hard 2 (1990), B
152. Django Unchained (2012), A-
153. Les Miserables (2012), A

–Updated January 5, 2013.

02
Jan
12

What I’m Watching: Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil

So I kicked off my month of filling in the 2011 movies I missed with a film I heard a lot of good things about, Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. There are few things as purely enjoyable as a solid horror/comedy (see my love of Ghostbusters and Shaun of the Dead) and few things as disappointing as those movies that don’t do it well (pick whichever Scary Movie you want as your example). But this movie starred Alan Tudyk (Firefly) and Tyler Labine (Reaper), two wonderfully entertaining performers who can do both comedy and action really well, so surely this little film would be worth it, right?

Oh, so, so right.

Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil, written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Eli Craig, is a brilliant send-up of horror movies that uses the conventions of the genre the way the greatest horror movies always do, with a dash of social commentary. In the film a group of college students on a mountain camping trip run into a pair of hillbillies, Tucker (Tudyk) and Dale (Labine). Although Tucker and Dale are kind-hearted, harmless good ol’ boys, the college kids are creeped out by them and retreat to the woods, where Chad (Jesse Moss) regales them with the tale of a massacre that happened in those woods 20 years ago. Tucker and Dale head out fishing and startle the swimming college kids, accidentally causing Allison (Katrina Bowden) to slip and knock herself out. The boys save her, but her friends flee in terror, thinking they’re kidnappers. The college crew plans a rescue attempt, but one misunderstanding after another causes the blood to flow.

This movie is just fantastic. It works as a comedy, to begin with, with loveable protagonists, clever dialogue and whip-smart situational comedy. There’s a lot of physical comedy as well, although that trends more towards the gory, for those of you who are sensitive about that sort of thing. But it’s perfectly legitimate in the context of the film. (There’s a reason that horror movie aficionados use the term “gag” to refer the a clever death set piece, after all.) The performances are really good as well — Tudyk and Labine are both proven actors, and their skills take characters that could have been dull and lifeless in lesser hands and make them into protagonists you root for with every fiber of your being. Katrina Bowden’s Allison goes on an interesting journey in the course of the film as well. Her fear about the guys goes away quickly, but we get to watch as she grows to understand and like them as well. The transformation is really believable in her hands, and helps give an additional level of heart to movie that could have been purely slapstick. Mild spoilers follow, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you may want to stop here.

As I said, though, there’s a degree of social commentary present here that makes it different from soulless horror/humor mashups. At first, you think you’re going to see a parody of the “cabin in the woods” brand of horror. Instead, though, you get a complete reversal of that trope, with Tucker and Dale becoming the heroes against an onslaught of (admittedly inept) psycho killers who are trying to destroy them for no reason. The college kids attack time and again, getting into situations way over their heads and paying dearly as a result.

The result is what gives us the two layers of comedy here. The teenagers react the way you expect teenagers in horror movies to react: blind terror, followed by the resolve to “get those bastards” for what they’ve done to them. In horror movies, there are usually a couple of survivors after such an onslaught, but in real like that’s a good way to get yourself killed.

The second layer is all about perception and preconceived notions. Tucker and Dale try to get Allison back to her friends the moment they pull her out of the water, but they instead run away. After that, each mishap, each event that leads to one of their deaths, could easily be avoided if any one of them stopped and realized that the only danger is in their own minds. Tucker and Dale are gentle, harmless men (until the awesome climax, but even then, neither of them even approaches the level of violence displayed by the kids who fear them). Our heroes prove themselves better than their tormentors time and again, wanting only to protect Allison and reunite her with her friends, while her friends allow their own prejudices to turn them into the least-effective group of killers in movie history.

Movies that purport to take on racism, sexism, or other -isms are common, and often heavy-handed. Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil is a rare knock against elitism, and an even rarer film that gets the point across without preaching or making you constantly aware of the message, instead just telling you a hell of a story and letting the point occur to you in its own time. It’s a great movie, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if, once all is said and done, it’s earned a spot on my “favorites of the year” list.

30
Dec
11

Choosing the year’s best movies…

Exactly one year ago today, I sat down in an effort to compile my personal list of the best movies of 2010, only to discover, to my horror, that I hadn’t seen nearly enough 2010 releases to come up with any kind of comprehensive list. Undaunted, I decided to spent the next month gorging myself on on 2010 movies via Netflix and borrowing DVDs from people. Ultimately, I managed to create such a list, although it wasn’t posted until February 1 of this year.

I’ve come to realize that, while there’s a natural urge to categorize things at the end of the year, I don’t get out to the movies nearly often enough. I used to — back in the day my pal Jason and I could knock out two or three movies in a weekend, but that was before I had a blog. These days, not so much. I’ve seen a total of 36 films with a 2011 release date, 10 of which would typically be disqualified from a list like this because they were either made for television or direct-to-DVD (although I would put things like All Star Superman and Phineas and Ferb: Across the Second Dimension right up there with the most entertaining films of the year, head-to-head with any movie that got to theaters).

If I had the sort of life that allowed me to take in most movies as they were released, it would be more logical of me to try to compile a list like this, but sadly, I’m not a professional reviewer, although I’ve often wished I was. In this day and age I see movies in the theater, typically, when it’s something I have a burning desire to see that won’t wait for DVD or on those rare occasions when I’m hanging out with friends and we need something to do, something that has happened less and less often thanks to the work and family obligations that seem to hold us all back these days.

So, like last year, I’m going to frontload my NetFlix queue with 2011 releases (now that so many of them are available), then come back in a month or so to let you know what I decided were my favorites of the year. In the meantime, here are the movies I’ve already seen, ranked by how much I enjoyed them. The first few shouldn’t surprise anybody…

 

  1. The Muppets
  2. Super 8
  3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
  4. Captain America: The First Avenger
  5. All-Star Superman (Direct-to-DVD)
  6. Phineas and Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension (TV Movie)
  7. X-Men: First Class
  8. Attack the Block
  9. Thor
  10. Batman: Year One (Direct-to-DVD)
  11. Source Code
  12. The Captains
  13. Green Lantern
  14. Cars 2
  15. Scream 4
  16. Still Screaming (Direct-to-DVD Documentary)
  17. Good Luck Charlie: It’s Christmas (TV Movie)
  18. The Hangover Part II
  19. Limitless
  20. Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (Direct-to-DVD)
  21. Scream: The Inside Story (Direct-to-DVD Documentary)
  22. Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown (Direct-to-DVD)
  23. Contagion
  24. Battle: Los Angeles
  25. Tower Heist
  26. Paul
  27. Cowboys and Aliens
  28. Miller’s Tale (TV Documentary)
  29. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Ties
  30. Quarantine 2: Terminal
  31. Sucker Punch
  32. Unknown
  33. A Fairly Odd Movie: Grow Up, Timmy Turner (TV Movie)
  34. Red Riding Hood
  35. Your Highness
  36. The Green Hornet

 

22
Dec
11

What I’m Watching: Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)

Although I do believe in Christmas miracles, I think most of them are in a small scale, or particularly personal — they’re not the sort of miracles that tend to be remembered beyond those who experience them. But there are exceptions, and perhaps one of the most famous of the last century was the 1914 Christmas Ceasefire, when troops engaged in combat during World War I put aside their weapons for a day and sang songs, exchanged gifts, and even played soccer with one another.

Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) is a 2005 French film that dramatizes that day in beautiful fashion. Set against the backdrop of the ceasefire, this movie explores that Christmas through the eyes of a Scottish priest (Gary Lewis), a French lieutenant (Guillaume Canet) and a pair of German opera singers (Benno Furmann and Diane Krueger). On Christmas Eve, a German tenor sneaks his lover into the trenches to sing to his troops. As the music carries across enemy lines, the Scottish and the French join in, and something amazing happens.

The film works on many, many levels. First and foremost, it is a touching Christmas story, a nice statement on the power of the holiday to bring about peace even to the bitterest of enemies. The movie is a touching monument to a bright spot in the midst of one of the most violent times in human history. It also works simply as a war movie. Although there’s very little action or violence, writer/director Christian Carion puts forth a remarkable vision of life in the trenches during World War I. You feel the pain, the fear, and perhaps more than anything else, the sheer exhaustion and weariness that permeated the men on the front lines. What’s more, it also sheds a different light on history — we’ve all heard about the ceasefire and extolled the story as an example of Christmas spirit striking when it was needed the most. But the film also shows the consequences of that day for the men involved. How easy could it be to go back to shooting at somebody once you’ve shared a drink with him, seen a picture of his wife, or even argued with him about the name of the cat that’s been spending time in both camps? What’s more, what happens when word reaches the high command about how you spent Christmas fraternizing with the enemy?

In addition to a strong story, the film is simply very well made. The battlefield is a bleak, cold-looking place, the costumes are magnificent, and the performances are fine. The one fault, I think, comes in the scenes with the opera singers. I’m not sure about Krueger, but Furmann didn’t do his own singing for this movie, and the shift from the actor’s natural voice to the dubbed singing voice is highly noticeable and does, unfortunately, take you briefly out of the movie. Try closing your eyes at that point, it helps quite a bit.

The characters in the film all speak their native languages, so a lot of the movie is in French or German and subtitled, which doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but if you’re not a fan of subtitled movies that is something to keep in consideration. If you can get past that, though, seek this out and watch it this year. It’s a Christmas movie you haven’t seen before, and its one that I really think everyone should see, particularly in this day and age.

09
Dec
11

What I’m Watching: Community-Regional Holiday Music

As much as I love the regular episodes of Community, the Christmas episodes are really something special. Season one was a nice parody of overreaction to the holidays by both the extreme secularists and the extremely ecumenical. Season two was a stop-motion extravaganza that, at its heart, was about the loneliness of the holidays. And this year, we got Regional Holiday Music, a full-blown Christmas musical episode, a joyful romp diminished only by the knowledge that this is the last episode of the show for the foreseeable future.

In “Regional Holiday Music,” Jeff gets his hated nemesis — the Glee Club — busted for singing copyrighted music in preparation for its Christmas pageant. The Glee director asks Jeff’s study group to step in and take over, as they did once before (it’s very much not what you think). Although the rest of the group blows it off, Abed sees an opportunity to keep his surrogate family together over the holidays and begins a quest to win them over one at a time. In doing so, though, he begins to change his friends into something they’re not… mindless Christmas zombies.

Again, the inherent genius of this show shines through. How many other television shows would make their Christmas show half a parody of Glee, half a parody of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, while still making room to write, record and choreograph musical numbers for almost the entire cast, geared specifically to each character? It was a magnificent episode and a great Christmas special, and it was just what this show needed as it goes “into hiatus.”

Ah, “hiatus.” How TV fans hate that word, because far too many times in the past that’s been Network Code for “Cancelled.” Community, at least, still has a full-season order from NBC, which means we should still get the rest of this season even if the episodes are burned off at odd times during the summer. (Which, by the way, would be a disaster, as one of the show’s many gimmicks is the “realtime” nature — each episode takes place in the week that it originally airs.)

The reason, of course, for the hiatus is that the show isn’t pulling in the ratings it deserves. It’s never been a blockbuster, and now in its third season it has reached the point of a TV show’s natural lifespan where the stories and jokes can be more character-specific, trusting that the audience (and writers) know the characters well enough to make the sort of self-referential jokes the fans love, but that the casual viewer may not understand. The Orphan Gospel Choir that was used to seduce Shirley into the Glee club, for example is something that would largely have been lost if you don’t know what kind of woman Shirley is. And the way Britta kinda sorta saves the day at the end is funny regardless, but a hell of a lot funnier if you know what it means to “Britta” something.

So if you’ve never watched Community –– and I know there are a lot of you, else the show wouldn’t be in trouble — you owe it to yourself to give it a try from the beginning. You’ve got time now, so do it however you can. NetFlix (discs only — this really should be streaming). Hulu (the entire series is there, and in HD via Hulu+.) Hell, come to my house and I’ll loan you the DVDs for the first two seasons.

And if you’re already watching, good. Keep it up. And tell your friends. Be vocal (but polite) to NBC. And do whatever it takes to get more students to Greendale Community College.

Six seasons and a movie, peeps. Six seasons and a movie.

08
Dec
11

What I’m Watching: The Flintstone Christmas Collection

I love the Warner Bros Archive Collection. I’ve you aren’t familiar with this vendor, it’s where Warner Bros sells DVDs of movies and TV shows they know have an audience, but probably not a big enough audience to mass-produce and sell in stores. With DVD-on-demand technology being what it is today, they can burn and package DVDs to order at a much smaller financial risk and sell them exclusively online, on theor own site and on Amazon. I’ve found some old favorites on this site — things like the Rankin and Bass Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, the Chuck Jones version of The Phantom Tollbooth, and the so-bad-you-must-watch-it Legend of the Superheroes special which featured Adam West and Burt Ward reprising their roles from Batman alongside a host of DC superheroes.

But today, I want to talk about The Flintstone Christmas Collection. Now don’t mistake this for The Flintstones Christmas Carol — also a fine cartoon, but it’s been readily available on DVD for years. (By the way, Warner Brothers, can we please agree on pluralization? Why is it sometimes “Flintstone” and sometimes “Flintstones?” Let’s pick one.) This Archive DVD contains two other Flintstones Christmas specials, beginning with 1977’s A Flintstone Christmas. In this special, Fred is summoned to play Santa Claus both by Wilma and by his boss, Mr. Slate. He runs into trouble, however, when the real Santa Claus takes a tumble, gets hurt, and Fred and Barney have to step up and take his place. I really like this cartoon, but I’m almost positive it’s a 60-minute remake of an old episode of the original TV series. I got the complete series on DVD last Christmas (thanks, Mom and Dad), so I suppose I could check, but I’ve got a week of school left before the semester ends and these kids are starting to whine about wanting to “know what they made on the last three tests” or something.

The second special, A Flintstone Family Christmas, is from 1993, and is perhaps the last thing made in the chronology of the original series. This actually follows up two made-for-TV movies from the early 90s in which an adult Pebbles and Bamm Bamm got married and had twins. In the new special, their family (who lives in Hollyrock) is coming home for the holidays, and new grandpas Fred and Barney couldn’t be happier. But things go awry when Wilma convinces them to take in a street kid named Stony who seems to be a bit of a troublemaker. If only he had a father figure in his life to set him straight.

If you know where this is going, it’s because you saw the same thing playing out in the now-infamous Leonardo DiCaprio arc on Growing Pains. And like The Cosby Show‘s Raven-Simone before him and the Simpsons‘ Poochie after him, Stony seems to be a rather blatant attempt to inject a new character in the franchise. Which is odd, as there was no Flintstones TV show on the air at that point. I dunno, maybe they hoped that this special would jump start things and get them back on the air. It didn’t, though, and to the best of my knowledge they stopped going forward in the Flintstones’ personal timeline after this and returned to Pebbles and Bamm Bamm’s years in diapers the very next Christmas, for 1994’s Flintstones Christmas Carol.

The second special is kind of trite, but it’s okay. The first one is classic. And if you’re looking for old Christmas cartoons and movies, hunt around the Archive collection. There’s a lot there to choose from, including a lot of things you’ve probably forgotten.

03
Dec
11

What I’m Watching: Christmas and A Christmas Carol

Being, as you may have heard, a fan of Christmas, I’m always interested in any project that digs into the history behind my favorite holiday. When I heard about this documentary, Christmas and A Christmas Carol, it sounded right up my alley. The DVD was billed as telling “the story of Christmas and of the story that recreated Christmas.”

Well, I love Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as much as I love the holiday itself, so that’s a two-fer. I had to pick this up, watch it, see what it had to say.

As it turns out, not much.

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by seeing some wonderfully entertaining and well-made documentaries lately. But movies like Still Screaming (a documentary about the Scream films) and Never Sleep Again (an exhaustively detailed movie about the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise), not to mention most of the films made by the History Channel, have proven to me that something can be full of information and fun to watch. Strictly speaking, Christmas and A Christmas Carol lives up to its billing — it gives you history of both the holiday and the book itself. The trouble is that it’s presented in the least imaginative way possible: a narrator tells you the history over still images and old film clips. No interviews, no debates, not even a talking head. This is basically a slideshow presentation with voiceover narration.

Even this may be easier to take, except I didn’t feel like the movie gives us any new insight. Everything in here is information I’ve already seen in dozens of other sources — which I suppose is fair enough, you can’t expect the filmmakers to create something from whole cloth in a film like this. At the same time, though, if you don’t have a new angle, a new take, a new statement to make on information that’s a couple of hundred years old, then why bother to say it at all?

And the narrator, frankly, is dull. He’s got a nice enough voice, but he frequently dips in tone making you reach for the remote to turn up the volume, and he doesn’t really bring any energy to the film, making the 78-minute running time feel more like 178 minutes. He even occasionally finds a way to sound condescending towards American Christmas customs (the film appears to be of British origin).

The only thing of real note to this disc actually comes in the extras — the disc includes the Orson Welles radio production of A Christmas Carol starring Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge. This is a cool little bonus if you love the different productions of the story, as I do. But the documentary itself doesn’t get my recommendation.

31
Oct
11

Story Structure Day 35: Saw (2004)

Director: James Wan

Writers: James Wan & Leigh Whannell

Cast: Cary Elwes, Leigh Wannell, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Ken Leung, Shawnee Smith, Dina Meyer, Makenzie Vega, Tobin Bell

Plot: A man named Adam (Leigh Wannell) wakes up in a tub of water in a darkened room. Draining the tub, he begins calling for help, only to find that he’s trapped in an ancient, grimy bathroom with Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes). Both men are chained to pipes in the filthy room, neither with any memory of how they came to be there. In the middle of the room, lying in a pool of blood, is a dead body clutching a gun and a tape recorder. In his pocket, Adam finds a microcassette with “Play Me” written on it. Gordon checks his own pocket and finds not only a tape, but a single bullet and a key. Adam snatches the tape recorder from the body and plays his tape, which contains a taunting message. Gordon’s tape, however, tells him that his goal in the “game” is Adam’s death, that the dead man killed himself because there was so much poison in his blood, that there are “ways to win” hidden all around him, and that if Adam is still alive by six o’clock, Gordon’s wife and daughter will die.

Inside a toilet tank, Adam finds a pair of rusty hacksaws and tosses the black bag that contained them into the tub, out of Gordon’s vision. Adam’s saw breaks and he hurls it in anger, cracking a mirror. Gordon realizes the saws won’t cut the heavy chains, but will cut through their feet. He realizes they’ve been captured by the mysterious “Jigsaw” killer, a man who has been kidnapping people and placing them in horrible deathtraps.

In flashback, we see detectives David Tapp (Danny Glover) and Steven Sing (Ken Leung) uncovering a previous Jigsaw trap. The police find a series of other victims and the traps in which they died, although Jigsaw himself hasn’t killed anybody; he instead places victims in situations where there will cause their own deaths in an effort to survive. At one crime scene, Detective Kerry (Dina Meyer) finds a penlight with Gordon’s prints on it. At the hospital, Gordon speaks to students about the condition of a cancer patient (Tobin Bell), and is interrupted by orderly Zep Hindle (Michael Emerson), who feels Gordon doesn’t care for his patients as people. Tapp and Sing bring Gordon in for questioning over the penlight, and Gordon admits he was with someone else when he the crime was committed. When his alibi holds up, Sing has Gordon listen to the testimony of a woman named Amanda (Shawnee Smith), one of the few people to survive a Jigsaw trap, as she tells how she had to dig a key out of someone else to free herself from a reverse bear-trap. When she frees herself, a puppet riding a tricycle congratulates her for staying alive. In the police station, a broken Amanda  — a drug addict — admits that Jigsaw “helped” her by making her value her life.

Returning to the present, Adam realizes the mirror he broke is two-way and smashes the rest of it, revealing a hidden camera. Gordon begins to search the room for an “X,” as implied by the tape, and remembers the last thing he said to his daughter Diana (Makenzie Vega). Diana believed there was a man in her bedroom, and Gordon reassured her that he was safe and that he wasn’t going to leave her and his wife Alison (Monica Potter). Despite his reassurance, Diana goes to sleep listening to her parents argue in the other room.  Gordon tosses Adam his wallet to show him a picture of his wife and daughter, but Adam instead finds a picture of Alison and Diana tied up with a message written on it: “X marks the spot. Sometimes you see more with your eyes shut.” Adam hides the picture from Gordon. In flashback, again, we see that Diana and Alison were trapped in the house right after Gordon left. Their captor is the orderly, Zep. Through the window, Tapp is observing the house from across the street in a room full of surveillance equipment, photos, and news clippings about Jigsaw: he has become obsessed, and believes Gordon is the killer. We see how he and Sing tracked down Jigsaw to a warehouse, where they find one of his victims trapped and gagged. Rather than free him, Tapp decides to allow him to remain trapped as Jigsaw arrives so he can observe what happens. The hooded Jigsaw tells his victim that he’s going to be a “test subject,” and Tapp and Sing jump out with their guns. Jigsaw steps on a button and a drill begins that will kill the latest victim. While Sing rescues the victim, Jigsaw slashes Tapp’s throat and flees. Sing stumbles into a trap, triggering a rifle that blows his own head off, and Jigsaw staggers away. In the present, Tapp (his neck scarred and voice damaged) is determined to get Jigsaw.

Back in the present, Zep watches the video feed of Adam and Gordon in the bathroom. Adam, reading the message on the photo, suggests Gordon turn off the lights. In the dark, they find an X on the wall behind Gordon in glow-in-the-dark paint. He breaks through the wall and finds a locked box. Using the key from his pocket, Gordon opens the box to reveal a cell phone, cigarettes, lighter, and a note. The note tells Gordon the cigarettes are harmless, and that he doesn’t need a gun to kill Adam. The phone turns out to be useless – it’s rigged to only receive calls. Gordon remembers the night before, returning to his car and feeling he was being followed before being attacked by someone wearing a pig mask. Gordon questions how Adam knew to turn off the lights, and Adam shows him the picture, apologizing for hiding it. In view of the cameras, Gordon dips the cigarette into the poison blood, then shuts off the lights again and whispers something to Adam. Zep’s monitor goes dark and he can’t see what’s happening, and when the lights go back on, Gordon tosses Adam a clean cigarette and the lighter. Adam, unconvincingly, pretends to die after taking a few puffs, and Gordon demands Jigsaw release him, but a jolt of electricity in Adam’s chain quickly reveals him to be alive… and appears to have jogged his memory. Adam, a photographer, was abducted while in his darkroom developing pictures… of Dr. Lawrence Gordon.

The phone rings and Gordon hears the voices of his wife and daughter. Alison warns him to not believe Adam’s lies: he knew everything about Gordon before they were abducted. Gordon calls Adam a liar, but Adam reveals that he knows Gordon wasn’t with sick patients the night before, as he claimed. Adam was in the parking lot, taking pictures of him, and pulls out the bag his handsaws were in. It’s full of photos of Gordon, taken by Adam, who is hired to track rich men who cheat on their wives. Gordon denies the charge and asks Adam who paid him, and he describes Detective Tapp. Looking at Adam’s photos, he recognizes Zep in the window of his house just as the clock reaches six o’clock.

Back at Gordon’s, Alison frees herself just as Zep arrives. She pretends to still be bound and he makes her call Gordon to tell him he failed. As she says it, though, she attacks Zep. The gun goes off in the fight, and Tapp comes running from across the street. All Gordon can hear on the phone are gunshots and screams. His chain electrifies, shocking him unconscious, while Tapp chases Zep to a warehouse.

Gordon wakes and, screaming, uses his shirt to tie off his leg and begins to saw through his ankle. Tapp catches up to Zep, but Zep manages to shoot him. Gordon, now free from his chain, takes the bullet he was given and crawls to the gun in the dead body’s hand. He shoots Adam in the shoulder as Zep walks in. Adam, still alive, knocks down Zep and beats him with the toilet lid, killing him, and Gordon – weakened and delirious — promises to go for help. He crawls away and Adam searches Zep for a key. Instead, he finds another tape. Playing it reveals the truth: Zep was just another pawn in the game, forced by Jigsaw to terrorize Gordon’s family in exchange for the antidote to a poison he was given. As Adam listens, the body in the center of the room stands up. He is John Kramer, Gordon’s cancer patient… he is Jigsaw, and he’s been alive the whole time. He tells Adam the key to his chain is in the bathtub, but it drained away when Adam woke up in the very beginning. John explains why he plays his games… as he is dying, he wants to make others grateful to be alive. He turns off the lights, tells Adam the game is over, and closes the door.

Thoughts: This series is a magnificent example of what TVTropes.org calls “sequel decay.” After the original Saw was a hit for Lionsgate films, they decided to churn out a new installment every Halloween, and by 2010 they were on part seven. The law of diminishing returns set in, though, and seven was (so far at least) the last movie. Which is good, because the sequels spiraled out of control in efforts to add layers of complexity that really just made the entire franchise a garbled mess. And the real shame in that is that it makes people forget that the first film, the 2004 Saw, is actually really good.

The thing that made Saw great is that layer of complexity that future installments screwed up so badly. We begin with what is, in essence, a locked room mystery. We have two men who have to dig through the layers of their own past to discover their connection to each other and to their mad tormentor. Each clue they uncover makes the mystery that much more engaging, finally leading up to a truly memorable final scene. While later movies turned Jigsaw’s traps into a horrific haunted house/maze, forcing the victims to run a gauntlet, this first game basically takes place all in one room.

In fact, the movie really contains two separate mysteries. In the flashback sequences, we see Gordon and Tapp trying to solve the mystery of who Jigsaw is and why he’s placing his victims in these elaborate traps. As a pure mystery it works very well, with lots of different suspects, red herrings, and moments of misdirection to distract us from the real killer and his real motivation. The seeming revelation of Zep is an even better piece of misdirection — once you believe he’s Jigsaw, you stop trying to piece together the rest of the clues even as they’re being spooled out in front of you. The other mystery is more of a puzzle game, a room full of clues and tools that have to be used in exactly the right order to “win” Jigsaw’s challenge. This layer of the film almost feels like a video game, like Myst or one of its many imitators, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the filmmakers were familiar with that new kind of storytelling when they wrote the script. To me, this is the fun part of the movie. Every clue, every weapon, every hint about what’s happening are all right there in the room with Adam and Gordon from the very beginning – it’s just a matter of finding them and figuring them out. This is probably the longest plot synopsis I’ve written in this entire experiment, and that’s purely because it has to be – you need to get each little tidbit in place or the next thing doesn’t make any sense.

Those two layers combine to make Saw enormously different from other horror movies of the time. It’s smart, well-written, and well-structured as both a mystery and a puzzle, that meld together. Furthermore, there’s a great deal of terror inherent in the fact that Jigsaw (in an extremely twisted way) kinda has a point – most people do take their lives for granted. Of course, by placing his victims in ironic traps, often structured to have some sort of parallel to whatever their particular vice is, writers James Wan and Leigh Wannell have returned to the classic horror movie trope of the Killer-as-Morality Police. This takes it to the extreme, even more so than when Jason was chopping up teenagers for having sex and smoking pot, but the idea is similar.

On another level, there’s a fear that comes in when the viewer is forced to question what he or she would do in these circumstances. Jigsaw doesn’t even have the trace elements of the supernatural we got from the nigh-indestructible Michael Meyers – he’s very human, he’s in fact dying (and does die in the third film), and all of the assorted traps and games he plays feel like they have a very strong basis in reality. I’m no engineer, I’m not going to pretend I could rig up a trap like Jigsaw’s even if I wanted to, but do I believe that somebody could? Hell yes, I do. And if it’s possible, even if you’ve never pissed off anybody as much as Dr. Gordon pissed off John Kramer, you are forced to look at each trap and wonder what you would do in that situation, if you could mutilate yourself (or someone else) in order to stay alive, if you could rank who lives and dies in any way that would allow you to live with yourself afterwards. Horrible thoughts, terrible thoughts, which make for absolutely spine-curling horror.

Another thing that really makes Saw different from so many other horror films is the victim pool. Yes, most of them are people John feels have taken their lives for granted, but that’s really the only qualification. The likes of Jason, Freddy, and Michael aren’t above killing anybody, but their favored prey is teenagers, still in those early days of sin when the potential is endless. Jigsaw will take a young adult or an old man or anybody in-between… if they don’t value their lives (in his opinion) they’re ripe for one of his games. So you’ve never been to Crystal Lake or Elm Street, so you’re not a 16-year-old pothead, big deal. Jigsaw doesn’t care. If you’ve been wasting your life, the time has come to fight for it, and in the most horrific ways possible.

Finally, there was the surprise factor. Like I said, nobody was making movies like this at the time, where you’re left questioning so many things about your protagonists. Gordon, for example, denies that he was cheating on his wife, and Cary Elwes is a good enough actor that you believe him, but that does beg the question of what actually was going on. What was causing his marital troubles, and why he was in the hotel room in the first place? If it’s just a case of him contemplating infidelity, that’s kind of anticlimactic, but if it’s anything more than that, we’ll never really know what was going on. And the finale is simply masterful. I’ve watched hundreds of horror movies, a lot of them just since deciding to do this project, and there are very few moments that stand out as being as all together shocking to me as when the dead body in the middle of the room sits up and casually reveals himself to be the mastermind of the whole scheme. I don’t mind admitting I never saw it coming, and that’s what made it great.

As is so sadly, so often the case, however, the inevitable Saw imitators took the wrong lesson from the film. Instead of constructing a morality play combined with a murder mystery, they looked at how the film ticked up the gore level and ran with that. All of a sudden we were inundated with movies like Hostel and Turistas, which were less concerned with story than with turning out scenes of agony and mutilation as graphic and medically realistic as possible. You can pretty much draw a direct line between Saw and the infamous Human Centipede, a film with little redeeming value to it. This film (and if you’re at all squeamish I suggest you skip down to the next paragraph right now) is about a mad doctor who abducts people and connects them mouth-to-anus in an effort to create some sort of horrible mass organism. Any layer of mystery or social commentary is gone, left only with making things as horrible and disturbing as possible. And that’s the tragedy of a lot of modern horror, you’ve got filmmakers who mistake making the audience uncomfortable for actual fear. As much as I liked this first Saw, I’m really glad to see that the franchise tapered off, just out of the hopes that movies like the horrible, horrible imitators are reaching the end of their cycle, and that the annals of horror cinema are again ready – as they always have been in the past – for something new.

But what could that next thing be? There are few candidates at the moment, but that’s usually how it goes. This first phase of Story Structure is over (and thanks for playing along), but that doesn’t mean we’re done yet. Come back tomorrow and we’ll take a look at where horror movies are going, what I’m going to be doing next in this little project, and how you can help me to shape it.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.

30
Oct
11

Story Structure Day 34: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Directors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

Writer: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

Cast: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams

Plot: The movie opens up with a title card informing the viewer that three film students disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994, and that what we’re about to watch is their footage, which was found a year later. Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard (using their real names) pack up their equipment and begin walking around town, asking locals questions about the mysterious legend of the Blair Witch. The locals of Burkittsville – formerly known as Blair — weave a story about a lunatic in the 1940s who kidnapped and murdered seven children, claiming to be compelled by the spirit of an 18th-century witch named Elly Kedward, who was hanged by the people of Blair. The three of them go into the woods to seek out Coffin Rock, supposedly a spot where five men were bound together and murdered over a century earlier. They make camp, and in the morning Josh reports waking up in the night and hearing some cackling sounds from the woods. Friction begins to grow between Mike and Heather – Mike insisting she keeps getting them lost – and Josh tries to play peacemaker. As they wander, they find stones and branches arranged in strange structures that seem to echo something told to them in town by a woman they dismissed as a lunatic. They hear more sounds in the night, and wake up to a rainfall and an angry Mike, who believes locals have followed them into the woods to toy with them. They try to walk back back to where they left their car, but are unable to find it before nightfall and finally make camp. That night, they hear more of the strange sounds outside the tent, and in the morning they find three piles of rocks that weren’t there before. Before they leave, Heather realizes she can’t find the map, and the three of them all begin suspecting each other of taking it. After some time, Mike laughs and confesses he threw the map into the creek, and Heather and Josh attack him in a rage.

Later, calmer, they find figures made from sticks dangling from the trees, and eventually, they decide to make camp and not light a fire, terrified that someone is tracking them through the woods. In the night, there are more strange sounds and the tent begins to quake, driving them out. When they return, their belongings have been rifled through, and Josh’s recording equipment has been damaged. The next day, despite keeping a southern course for 15 hours, the find themselves back at a log crossing a creek they’d already passed, and their frustration and desperation increases. The next morning, Heather and Mike cannot find Josh, and eventually are forced to go on without him. That night they think they hear him in the woods, and in the morning Heather finds a bundle of twigs wrapped in the bloody tatters of Josh’s shirt. She freaks out, but hides her discovery from Mike. That night, alone, she records herself apologizing to her parents and those of her crew, and takes the blame for everything that has happened, certain she and Mike will die in the woods. They hear Josh again and follow his cries to a house in the middle of the woods. As they search, Mike thinks he hears Josh downstairs and runs there with a camera, finding odd writing on the walls. As he walks, there’s a thumping sound and the camera falls. The footage begins again, Heather screaming, until we see Mike standing with his face against the wall. There is another scream. The camera falls to the floor. And the screen goes black.

Thoughts: The filming of The Blair Witch Project has become something of a moviemaking legend. With a mere $20,000, Myrick and Sanchez took three unknown actors into the woods and made a movie that was largely improvised, giving them notes about what to feel or how to behave rather than being strict about the lines they spoke, and often not even telling the actors what they were going to do to scare them, trying to capture a realistic feeling to their reactions. The resulting film made nearly $250 million, making it by far one of the most profitable movies of all time. The film is also notable for being one of the first – if not the first – movie marketed heavily on the Internet. A web page was established that went viral on the conceit that the film was real, with lots of articles, videos and photographs presented to support the film’s premise.

You can really track the legacy of this movie in two ways, neither of them having anything to do with the weak sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Although the film did not create the “found footage” genre – the idea that you’re watching a movie constructed of footage filmed by the characters themselves – it sure as hell made it popular. As is always the case, some of the movies that have used this concept in the years since have been critical successes, some have been commercial successes, and some have been outright flops. But unlike most other films that spawn a rash of imitators, only Blair Witch can lay claim to creating a subgenre that is immediately repulsive to anybody who gets seasick easily.

The second – and, to my way of thinking, more important – legacy of this movie the way it change how movies are marketed. In 1999, the Internet was still relatively new to most people, and nobody quite understood yet the power it would one day have. The Blair Witch website, combined with a few other tie-ins like a Sci-Fi Channel special and a comic book from Oni Press, turned a movie made on a microscopic budget into an international sensation. Now, it would be insane to make a movie that doesn’t have a website, it would be ludicrous to not create viral content that fans can find, enjoy, and share with other people in the hopes of generating new fans. If you were on Facebook earlier today, watching the trailers for The Muppets, try to wrap your brain around the fact that such a presentation has its origin in The Blair Witch Project.

In terms of what actually makes it scary, I don’t think it’s the supernatural elements that do the trick. Yeah, the piles of rocks, the little twig-construction stick figures and the other weird things they find in the woods all help contribute to a culture of fear that exists in the film. What makes it work, though, is the way the characters slowly break down. When the movie begins they’re lively and enthusiastic about making their movie. As the film progresses, they get antsy, they get belligerent, and they begin to turn on each other. The suspicion that infects them, the way their little society completely falls apart after a while is pretty scary by itself, because that could happen to anybody. Strip away the witch, take away the manufactured scares, and look at it just as a story about people crumbling just because they’re lost and scared. And it works. Heather’s breakdown near the end has joined the ranks of iconic horror movie scenes for very good reason.

The Blair Witch Project gets a lot of crap today. Like many things which reach enormous popularity very quickly, there was a backlash afterwards by those who feel like it’s uncool to like anything mainstream, and a bit more by those who didn’t care for the style of filmmaking. (Out of the two, the second is by far the more legitimate complaint.) People complain that they feel like they’re watching somebody’s home movies – which, of course, is part of the point. My favorite argument, though, is those who were angry that we never see the witch. My response to this is simple: what could they possibly have shown you that would be scary enough to match what you built up in your own mind?

And of course, there are also many people who react because the whole “found footage” thing has been overdone. Again, this is legitimate – the third Paranormal Activity movie using the same concept just hit theaters as I write this, and frankly I haven’t found them to be remotely frightening – but I think it’s unfair to put the blame for that on Blair Witch. It’s not the fault of this movie that others copied it badly, and as far as this one goes, I think it does what it does very well. I watch this today and get the creeps just as easily as I did back in college. And to me, that’s what makes a movie memorable.

Tomorrow the first stage of Story Structure (yes, first stage) reaches its conclusion with the most recent film to change the way horror movies are made… so far. We’re going to take a look at Saw.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.




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