Friday, October 26, 2012

Why do we watch scary movies?

My girlfriend, who has little to no tolerance for being scared, recently asked why I watched horror films. How was it that I could derive any pleasure out of films that disturbed me? With Halloween less than a week away, it is a question worth pondering. Why is it that many of us seek out fear whether through extreme activities such as skydiving, going to a haunted house, reading a creepy book or watching a frightening film?

I turned to friends, some who work in the film industry, and asked them what they thought the impetus behind watching scary films is?

Meagan Frappiea, an assistant editor for Ken Burn's Florentine Film, suggests that horror films allow us to "grapple with our own inevitable death" and face our anxieties by putting them into a larger context that makes them less formidable.

"Seeing how warped and twisted the human mind can become gives us a basis of comparison for ourselves and those around us," Frappiea said. "Ultimately, I think reveling in our fears as a form of entertainment makes them less intimate and consuming. It's a visceral emotion we can share. It takes the boogie man out of our head and puts him on the screen."

Frank Farley, a doctor of psychologist at Temple University, discussed in a WebMD article this idea of needing to explore things different from our own life and trying to understand the unknown.

"There's a long history of people being intensely curious about the 'dark side,' and trying to make sense of it," Farley said in the article. "Through movies, we're able to see horror in front of our eyes, and some people are extremely fascinated by it. They're interested in the unusual and the bizarre because they don't understand it and it's so different from our everyday lives."

By exploring things that are different from our life it also helps to make our own lives seem normal and make our own problems pale in comparison to the horrific images on the screen. This perhaps holds most true for people who have to deal with terrible things because of their line of work.

"I think when you see horrible things in real life — like accidents, fire victims, rape victims, literally holding amputated limbs in your hands — you might crave seeing something worse to 'normalize' your own experience," Ben Hammond, whose girlfriend is a firefighter/paramedic, said. "There's a seemingly bizarre embracing of death [in the fire and rescue culture] and its inevitability, evidenced by frequent use of skulls in the fire symbology. As was explained to me, there's no point in trying escape or ignore death, as you face it every day in both your patients, your colleagues and yourself. Instead, it's almost treated as a formidable opponent that demands your utmost respect."

In the same WebMD article Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication at Purdue University, suggested that there is gratification in watching and surviving a horror film.

"It's not that they [horror fans] truly enjoy being scared," Sparks said. "But they get great satisfaction being able to say that they conquered and mastered something that was threatening. They enjoy the feeling that they 'made it through.'"

Leon Rappoport, a professor of psychology at Kansas State University, brought up a similar idea in the WebMD article. For adolescents there's the appeal of horror films being taboo. We weren't allowed to watch these films as kids, so there's a draw to the forbidden.

"Most of these films depict transgressions of conventional values and morality," Rappoport said. "There's an attraction to their 'forbidden' nature, in the same way that many adolescents want to know what it's like to drink too many beers, smoke cigarettes, or drive their car too fast."

That statement rings true to me, and probably just about anyone. While I'm by no means a horror aficionado, there was a curiosity to explore these films as I got older. But I quickly found where my line of interest was.

Beyond mere escapism, I watch films to understand the world around me. There's solace in watching a film (or reading a book or listening to song, for that matter) that one can relate to or that helps make a bit more sense of life. I admire any film that gets some sort of emotional or intellectual response from me, and sometimes that emotion is fear.

Some ideas, the exploration of human nature, for example, can only be addressed by going to dark, frightening places. I find value in going to those dark places, but only if I go there for a reason. Horror films that are gratuitously gory and violent without any meaning or emotional grounding have no appeal to me.

For Blake Merriman, the writer and one of the leads of the forthcoming indie film "Drinking Games" (, the root of our fascination with fear is evolutionary.

"Fear is a very primal emotion," Merriman said. "The reason for its existence seems very clear: survival. Fear keeps us from doing stupid things. Fear keeps us from changing patterns that have kept us alive thus far. I would argue that fear is the strongest, most hard-wired and fundamental emotion we have."

Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft famously said something very similar: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."

Merriman believes modern life is largely one without fear and that we feel as if something is missing without exercising our instinctual fear mechanism. It is through horror films that we are able to activate this most basic part of our reptilian brain.

"The really quality intense thrillers, the really scary movies, like 'Alien,' 'The Shining,' 'Psycho,' etc. engage us, activate that fear, and get our adrenaline pumping," Merriman said. "It's giving our hard-wired, primal fear mechanism a solid workout. Having a full experience from a solid horror/thriller movie often feels the same as having just had sex — another hard-wired, evolutionary mechanism for survival. And, hey, it's safer than jumping out of a plane or engaging in a gunfight."

Friday, October 19, 2012

Affleck's 'Argo' a taut look at a little known part of history

Based on a true story is often a dubious statement. Many films make that claim and take a kernel of truth and expand it to the point of being a mere shadow of reality. In "Argo," Ben Affleck's third film as a director, some liberties are taken in telling an obscure bit of history, but the most absurd elements are the parts that 100 percent true.

"Argo" takes place during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979/1980. For 444 days 52 Americans were held hostage after the seizure of the American Embassy. Six Americans managed to escape before the takeover and were left bouncing between houses before being taken in by the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber). After several months of hiding, it became clear they wouldn't be safe much longer and the United States government needed a plan to get them out of Iran safely.

Here's where life becomes stranger than fiction. Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA agent known for getting people out of high-risk situations, concocted a plan to use his contacts in Hollywood to set up a fake production company and go into Tehran under the cover of a Canadian film producer scouting a sci-fi film called "Argo." The six Americans would take on the cover of the rest of his crew.

The story was classified until 1997 and wasn't made public until a 2007 article in Wired magazine. There was an almost immediate interest in turning the story into a film, with George Clooney initially set to write and produce the film. Clooney eventually just took on the role of producer with writing duties being given to Chris Terrio.

Affleck stepped into the director's seat and he has delivered a near perfect thriller that relies on wit and intelligence over gunfire and explosions. He seamlessly blends archival news footage with a striking recreation of the seizure of the American Embassy. The look of the film emulates the style of gritty 1970s films, which helps in creating an authentic atmosphere.

The pacing of the film is just right, with slow-building tension that reaches a peak when Mendez and the six Americans make their way through the airport. The climax has far more close calls of trying to get past Iranian security than reality had, but it does make for exciting and highly entertaining film-going experience. For the most part, this is a faithful presentation of what happened, and, while Affleck and Terrio do embellish the truth toward the end, they thankfully stop short of going over-the-top Hollywood style.

Terrio's screenplay is light on characterization, but is a precise, well-oiled machine full of surprising moments of wit. The material back in Hollywood has a sharp satirical edge that is enhanced by John Goodman as real life make-artist John Chambers and Alan Arkin as a fictionalized producer.

Goodman and Arkin provide the film with some much needed comic relief that helps to break up the relentless building tension. Affleck doesn't let the humor undermine the seriousness of the situation, but provides just enough to supply a necessary release. Goodman and Arkin are both wonderful.

Affleck, as an actor, gives a quiet, nuanced, non-showy performance. Some could complain he is too flat, but that's the point. Mendez is a man you're not suppose to notice. He simply comes in and efficiently gets the job done. The same can be said of Affleck's performance.

The six Americans are played by largely unknowns and a few familiar faces such as Rory Cochrane, Tate Donovan and Clea DuVall, but no big names. This was the right choice as huge stars may have distracted from the realism that Affleck effectively achieved throughout the film.

Bryan Cranston gets a juicy role as Affleck's boss in the CIA. He provides the film with some gravitas as well as some nice cynical line readings.

This is thoroughly engaging film worth seeing as both a piece of entertainment and as a spotlight on a bit history that doesn't get discussed enough.

12 alternative songs for Halloween

In previous years, I've written articles exploring alternative songs for Halloween gatherings. This time, I've dug deeper to find quirkier and even more obscure songs. So, if you're tired of busting ghosts, mashing monsters and werewolves from London, take a look at the 12 oddities below.

"The Lurch" - Ted Cassidy (1965)
This is a sunny 1960s song sung by Cassidy in character as Lurch from the "Addams Family" TV series. The theme to the "Addams Family" may be a standard of Halloween parties, but this oddball song will be a snappy edition to any Halloween party.

"Drac's Back" - Andy Forray (1979)
A lot of rock stars including Rod Stewart and The Rolling Stones got on board with disco, so why not Dracula? In this song, good ol' Drac is on the prowl at discos, warning that those on the dance floor may not be tipsy, but actually a bit woozy from blood loss.

"The Monster Rap" - Bobby "Boris" Pickett (1985)
Everyone knows "The Monster Mash." It is practically synonymous with Halloween. Few are aware that there was a sequel that attempted to cash in on the blossoming hip hop scene. Here the monster is taught how to speak through the wonders of rap.

"Transylvania 6-5000" - Carl Sigman, Jerry Gray and William Finnegan (1985)
In the 1980s it seemed like every film had a theme song that referenced the movie's title. Most weren't as ubiquitous as "Ghostbusters." The "Transylvania 6-5000" film was a poor horror parody starring Jeff Goldblum. The song is an inordinately catchy lost new wave gem. It is so rare that it can only be heard in the opening credits of the film.

"Anything Can Happen on Halloween" - Tim Curry (1986)
Before there was "Harry Potter" there was the "Worst Witch," another series of books about a school of witchcraft. The books beget a 1986 TV movie which features the fabulous Tim Curry crooning about the joys of Halloween. The song is a hoot with loopy lyrics like: "Your teacher could become a sardine/Your dentist could turn into a queen/Has anybody seen my tambourine?"

"TerrorVision" - The Fibonaccis (1986)
Another song from an obscure 1980s horror comedy — this one is actually enjoyable in a campy sort of way. The song has a 1950s horror movie vibe updated for the 1980s that makes it both creepy and danceable.

"Haunted House" - Elvira (1995)
Elvira is a valley girl version of Vampira who began hosting late-night horror movies in the 1980s. Her branding has spread though to movies, video games and Halloween song compilations in which she contributed her own comic twist on the holiday. This hard-rock flavored song features lines like "Hey, can you ghosts keep it down please? I'm trying to get some sleep here."

"Burn The Witch" - Queen of the Stone Age (2005)
Foreboding hard rock is this band's bread and butter. The song begins with a rasping growling voice proclaiming to "burn the witch" and breaks into a funky, driving bass line and thumping drums. Front man Josh Homme sings such cryptic lyrics as "Ask yourself/Will I burn in Hell? Then write it down and cast it in the well."

"Dracula's Lament" - Jason Segel (2008)
For years, actor Jason Segel attempted to conjure up a "Dracula" musical to be performed with puppets. It seemed that dream would never come into fruition. In the movie "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" we get to see a glimpse of his opus. And it is hilarious.

"Monster Mask" - Pomplamoose (2011)
The popular YouTube duo sings a sweet song about how "Everyone feels like a monster sometimes." It is a heartwarming song, but it also features some excellent use of iconic dialogue from classic horror films that creates a nice Halloween atmosphere.

"Shia LeBeouf" - Rob Cantor (2012)
This song re-imagines actor Shia LeBeouf as a cannibalistic murderer lurking in dark forests. It is absurd, catchy and riotously funny.

"Zombie" - Family Force Five (2012)
A rap-tinged dance track about the ever-popular zombie. The song follows the journey from outbreak to the pleasure of living life as a zombie. The chorus which proclaims "watch me walk, watch me walk like a zombie" will infect your mind and stay awhile.

Friday, October 12, 2012

'Arsenic and Old Lace' offers dark, slapstick laughs

"Arsenic and Old Lace" is one of funniest movies ever made. Directed by Frank Capra from adaptation by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein of Joseph Kesselring's play, the film is a perfect pairing of inspired looniness with macabre humor.

M&D Production is presenting "Arsenic and Old Lace" as part of their dinner and a movie series Oct. 16. Dinner is at 6:30 p.m. with the movie starting at 7 p.m. The menu, prepared by Mark DeLancey, features meatloaf, garlic mashed potatoes with homemade gravy, buttered peas, side salad and assorted desserts and beverages.

Cary Grant stars in the film as Mortimer Brewster, a newspaperman and author known for his diatribes against marriage, who winds up in love and married after all.

The film is set in the home of his aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) with whom Mortimer is excited to introduce his new bride (Priscilla Lane). Instead, Mortimer stumbles upon his aunts secret hobby: killing lonely older men and burying them in the basement.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Mortimer's homicidal brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) and his sniveling plastic surgeon (Peter Lorre) decide to visit the beloved aunts as well.

Poor Mortimer is also dealing with his brother Teddy (John Alexander) who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt and yells "Charge!" every time he runs up stairs.

Director Capra was best known for slices of Americana in which idealistic characters like George Bailey, Jefferson Smith, John Doe and Longfellow Deeds would stand up to and defeat cynicism. Capra was just as comfortable doing madcap comedy as evidenced in such films as "It Happened One Night" and "You Can't Take It With You."

"Arsenic and Old Lace" is his maddest comedy and also his darkest. In terms of direction, in several scenes he creates a creepy atmosphere that relies heavily on shadows. These darker elements form an interesting tension with the overall lighter tone of the material. These more foreboding moments are handled delicately and never overpower the comedy.

Grant considered his performance terribly over the top and called this his least favorite film. It is a shame that Grant wasn't able to see that his acting choices were just right. The performance is indeed over the top, but gloriously so.

In its way, it is very brave performance because Grant went huge in a way that could've been overbearing. Clearly, Grant believed he had done just that, but Grant's wide-eyed facial expressions and manic energy are an ideal match to the material, which blends slapstick, fast-paced dialogue, the absurd and dark humor.

The rest of the cast is equally inspired. Hull, Adair and Alexander all reprised their roles from the original Broadway production and their comfort with the characters is evident. Hull and Adair are very funny as the quintessential sweet, lovable older ladies. They genuinely see nothing wrong with what they are doing.

Massey is made up to look like Boris Karloff which leads to a funny running gag about his appearance. In the original Broadway production it really was Karloff in the role. Massey gives both an intimidating performance that creates great comic tension with the lunacy around him.

The quirky Lorre, the master of whimpering, weaselly sidekicks, is always a welcomed screen presence.

Those who haven't had a chance to see this comedy classic should take advantage of M&D's dinner and a movie night. Tickets are $10. For reservations call 662-7591.

Friday, October 05, 2012

'Looper' is a time travel film full of wit, action and surprises

Writer/director Rian Johnson's "Looper" is a tricky film to discuss. It is a densely packed piece of science fiction with intricate layers. Once you understand the film's logic, it is easy to follow. In terms of the characters' objectives, the plot is simple and direct, but to explain it in too great of detail ruins the numerous surprises the film has to offer.

"Looper" is set in 2044, a time in which time travel doesn't exist, but 30 years into the future it does. The process is illegal, but the mob uses time travel to send back people they want to dispose of. Men known as loopers are hired to be at a certain place to kill these people sent back in time. The victims are always bound with a hood over their head.

These men are called loopers because eventually the old versions of themselves will be sent back and the younger version kills the older. Their services are no longer needed, the loop is closed and the looper gets a big pay day, but he is always aware that in 30 years he'll be killed.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, a drug-addicted looper saving up is money to leave for France for his retirement. Things become complicated when Joe's older version (Bruce Willis) is sent back without a hood and young Joe hesitates at the trigger. Now old Joe is on the loose and young Joe's boss (Jeff Daniels) wants both Joes dead.

That is merely the set up. Johnson's script goes to dark and unexpected places. Old Joe is on a mission in 2044 to protect a loved one in the future. What this mission entails is the latest thing you'd expect a character played by Bruce Willis to do.

The film builds to a final confrontation on a farm run by Emily Blunt and her young son (Pierce Gagnon). Blunt's character doesn't appear until late in the film, but is more than an obligatory damsel in distress or love interest.

Blunt's character made a terrible mistake that she's trying to rectify. She doesn't play the character as weak, but strong and resourceful. How she becomes entangled with the two Joes should not be spoiled, but it packs an emotional wallop that no one is likely to see coming.

Time travel stories are usually filled with paradoxes that create plot holes. Johnson attempts to address that issue in his approach to time travel. One neat trick is that young Joe's action in the present instantly changes old Joe's memories. Any injuries that young Joe endures appear as scars on old Joe. Johnson uses this in clever ways.

The film also gets to play with the question: What if you got to talk to your older self? There's a great scene in a diner between Levitt and Willis. Their conversation is direct. There isn't much time for philosophical musings. Instead there is a barded exchange as the older, wiser Joe literally looks back on his more foolish, younger self. Much of the dialogue of the scene is simply meant to give the audience plot information, but it is written in such a smart way and performed so perfectly by Levitt and Willis that the scene has a real spark.

Both actors are stellar throughout. Levitt, who starred in Johnson's first film "Brick," a hard boiled film noir set in high school, brings a hardened, brooding intensity to young Joe, but also adds subtleties as he slowly connects to emotions he had long disconnected from.

Willis, who has explored time travel before in "12 Monkeys," brings his expected kick-butt action persona to the table, but doesn't merely walk through this role. This is a dramatically heavy role and Willis reminds that in addition to being a great action star he can also be a great actor.

Johnson borrows themes, visuals and motifs from other time travel movies, most notably "The Terminator" and "12 Monkeys," but the film doesn't feel like a retread of previous films. He has fully rendered his world and its rules. The film feels fresh in its approach to time travel.

"Looper" is not merely about the mechanism of its plot though. It is deeply grounded in emotion and ultimately the story is driven forward by real and relatable emotions. The conclusion finds a way to close the loop on the story in a way that is surprising, satisfying and will lead to a lot of discussion afterward.

'Halpern and Johnson' offers a great showcase for Russo and Bownes

CONWAY — Two older men who have been linked for over 50 years by a shared love for one woman finally meet in M&D Productions production of "Halpern and Johnson," a thoughtful, funny and honest rumination on life and love.

"Halpern and Johnson," which opened Thursday, Oct. 4, at Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. and is playing Thursday through Saturday until Oct. 20, began as an obscure 1983 TV movie starring Laurence Olivier and Jackie Gleason. Decades later the author Lionel Goldstein expanded the hour-long film to a two-hour play.

As the show opens, Joe Halpern (Rich Russo) is mourning at the grave of his recently deceased wife as another man approaches with flowers. This man, Dennis Johnson (David H. Bownes), reveals that he had a secret relationship with Joe's wife, Florence, that even predates Joe's relationship with her.

What follows is these two different men — Joe is working class and Dennis is an accountant with a tendency for flowery language — discussing the woman they both loved. Both learn things about the woman they thought they knew and have their views on themselves and life challenged.

Dennis has a distinct advantage over Joe since he has been aware of his existence for 50 years and would talk with Florence about Joe and their life together. Dennis even knows Joe's favorite drink and sandwich.

Joe is understandably infuriated to learn of this decades-long deception. Dennis, after lying to himself for years, sees knows nothing wrong with his relationship with Florence as it wasn't sexual. They simply met "thrice a year" to talk. That certainly is innocent enough, but that both Dennis and Florence decided to keep it secret reveals it isn't pure as Dennis would like it to seem. Emotional cheating is still cheating.

Goldstein's script doesn't paint Dennis as a villain and Joe as a saint. Both men are written with complex shading. Each man has both virtues and flaws and are written and portrayed by the actors sympathetically.

Late in the show, Joe reveals information about his relationship with Florence that makes him no better than Dennis and yet, in a way, it was Dennis' behavior that may have created the atmosphere for Joe's actions.

The play is very dialogue heavy with the burden of that falling on just two. Each actor has a full range of emotions to portray: hurt, anger, jealousy, regret, wistfulness and even warmth and compassion. Russo and Bownes prove more than up to the challenge.

Director Ken Martin gets performances from Russo and Bownes that are credible and honest. Each actor handles their lengthy passages of dialogue with ease, but, perhaps more importantly in a show like this, also seem to truly be listening to each other rather than just wait for their turn to speak. Each actor seems present and engaged.

Russo gives a wonderfully expressive performance. His facial expressions as he listens to the supposedly virtuous relationship his wife had with another man are priceless. He also reveals deep pain during a monologue about his past.

Bownes plays Dennis Johnson as a pragmatic and logical man who uses highfalutin language to distance himself from his emotions as if intellectualizing them will make them less painful. The emotions don't stay in check, though. Bownes makes Dennis' love for Florence seem very real especially as he nostalgically remembers when they first met.

"Halpern and Johnson" may simply be two people talking, but when the conversation is this engaging, revealing and relatable that's all you need. M&D's production of "Halpern and Johnson" is only the third ever produced, which makes the show all the more of a splendid discovery.

For more information or tickets, call the box office at 662-7591.