Friday, October 30, 2009

Frailty

The mystical experiences that often go with religion and can be really scary things. Not when they happen to you—that is understandable, or at least absorbable. When someone else claims to have “heard from God,” you usually wonder: “How do they know it was God?” Or even better, “How can I know it was God?” Because a lot of crazy people have done a lot of crazy things in the name of religion.

This is the story behind “Frailty.” A widowed father of two boys announces one night that “god” has ordered him to kill demons. They look just like ordinary people, and are only revealed to be demons when he touches them. He will be sent to get some weapons, which they will then use to kill the demon-people. The younger son accepts his dad’s vision immediately. The older one understandably thinks it is just wrong and tries to warn the police. Unfortunately, the dad is informed, once again by “god” that the older son is a demon. Instead of killing him, the dad locks him in a cellar until he claims he also has seen “god.”

Who do you trust? Where do you base your beliefs? It is important to know where you stand, because no matter what you believe there is a reality and you need to know that your beliefs are based on more than just a personal (even if mystical) experience.

What makes Frailty more than just another movie about crazed serial killers is the way it explores religious belief—and the way it presents the relationship between belief and reality. It is a hard viewing, but one that makes you think when all is said and done. Why do you believe the things you do? How is that working out for you in reality?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

J-Horror

The Ring (2002) and The Grudge (2004) are products of the (short-lived) Japanese horror craze that was begun by Ringu (1998) brought to the states and remade. (Since American audiences can’t read and no one likes dubbing.) The neat thing about these movies is that they avoided the Hollywood cliché of horror tied to language and breasts. Instead they went for scares, and a scared unlike anything Hollywood had brought us for years. Instead of slashers and jumps, they brought back something that was lost with the old Horror movies and Gothic stories—other worldliness. Particularly the Japanese folk monster: the Yurei. The Yurei are ghosts brought into existence by powerful emotion. They usually exist to right some wrong in the world. Horror should be the sort of thing that makes you think. Instead in Hollywood it has tended toward the instinctive approach. Don’t think. Just go along for the ride.

Still, these movies are scary. Very scary. They always precede the shocking stuff by an obvious prolonged build up that nearly forces you to close your eyes. Turns out, imaginations are far better than anything a movie can come up with. Hitchcock understood this. Keep the really bad stuff off screen and it will be worse. J-horror tends to do this as well. It doesn’t linger over the disturbing stuff. It just gives you a glimpse.

What stays with the viewer after these films (besides the general lingering uneasiness and jumpiness; they are scary!) is the idea of consequences. The things people do have an effect on the world, often negative and often against complete strangers—innocent of the actions that are harming them. Why do bad things happen to good people? The truth is even the best of people do bad things, and some of the worst things are caused (intentionally or not) by flawed people.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Notable Slasher Films: Behind the Mask (2006)

One of the more fascinating forms of storytelling in film is the mockumentary. Especially when it portrays things that are unexpected such as crime or even murder. Drop Dead Gorgeous effectively shocked people early in the film when what seemed to be a comedy about innocent but silly teens and turned murderous. Man Bites Dog is less effective as a film, but tried to tackle the idea of a serious camera crew documenting a criminal serial killer who killed old people to rob them.

It is especially fun when genre film is tackled, as in 2006’s “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.” The crazy premise: the serial killers of slasher films are real. A film student and crew decide to make a documentary about a new “slasher in training” with his cooperation. As things get serious and the killing is about to start, the crew get cold feet and decide to warn the victims, but too late they realize that they have been a part of the killer’s plans all along. As Scream did a decade earlier, Behind the Mask plays with the conventions of the genre. It points out the silliness while still using those silly things to scary effect.

Where this film takes Scream one further is in the responsibility it presents the audience. The crew slowly realizes that they are more than just casual observers. They live in a world where violence and evil exist, often as entertainment. When the reality of what is going on hits them, they have to decide whether to just watch or to do something active against the evil.

Most of Behind the Mask’s audience probably missed this point, but they face the same question. We live in a world where evil ruins lives and hurts people every day. Most learn to ignore it. Some have a fascination with it, like the cars that slow down when passing an accident site. Are we content to simply carry on with our lives if we are fortunate enough to avoid harm, or will we do what we can to help people around us?

Warning: There are plenty of reasons this movie is rated R. Note the "Not a Recommendation" label.

Monday, October 26, 2009

1 Corinthians 6:1-20 (More Issues, Just the Tip of the Iceberg)

One way of reading Paul’s letters (perhaps the best way) is to see them as a missionary training manual. What do we do in the situations that arise in new churches? Paul addresses some issues directly, but not every issue to face every church in the entire history of the faith. So how do we address each new issue that arises? Applying the principles found in scripture. For example:

How do we settle arguments?

When the church does experience disagreements and divisions in the body, they should be solved within the body. We should not take our arguments to a secular court. There should not be arguments in the first place if everyone is operating under the guidance of Love, but if we slip up and they do arise, we should look to wise leaders within the body to judge the issue.

Why is sex outside marriage wrong?

Our stomachs are made for food, but our bodies are not made for immorality. This means that sexual sin is not just a sin, it is unnatural. Many of the desires Satan uses to pull us away from God are natural desires, but sexual immorality is a perversion.

Other issues will come up. When the Gospel expands to new cultures and new times, there will always be new issues that Paul nor any of the biblical writers ever dreamed of. However, the principles of faith, love and hope can be applied in every instance.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Notable Shasher Films: Scream (1996)

In the middle ages, a popular genre of story was the “chivalric romance.” It was the pulp, mass consumed, popular style of its day. The most widely known story of this style is actually a satire of the genre when it was already in decline: Don Quixote. It makes fun of and ridicules the conventions of the genre and even lists many of the books written in the genre, evaluating their worth in a scene where the characters decide if any of them are fit to be spared a bonfire.

While it should never be suggested that any movie in the slasher genre is fit to be valued alongside Don Quixote, Scream fulfils the same role for its genre as Don Quixote did for the romance. It came about as the genre had largely played out, made fun of and analyzed its conventions and managed to be one of the best films in the genre it was satirizing. Unfortunately, it also proved successful enough to inject new life into the genre, spawning a decade of mindless-people-dieing-in-elaborate-yet-plot-less-ways movies.

The plot of this mystery is carefully constructed even though audiences wouldn’t expect one… it’s all about people being killed right? Wrong. This is a horror movie about a group of people who know they are in a horror movie, or at least a situation set up according to the conventions of the slasher genre. So, they know the rules and what to expect. So, while it is genuinely scary, it also makes you think. Why are these movies popular? Why do people like violence and being scared? When will the formula eventually collapse? After all, even Scream spawned a franchise. Are audiences as doomed as the characters of this film? They know exactly where the story is headed and still come back for more.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Notable Slasher Films: Identity (2003)

One film that takes the puzzle aspect of the serial killer/slasher film seriously is 2003’s Identity directed by James Mangold. It even references Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” It has the suspense. It has the scares. It has the violence. But it also has the mystery.

Ten people (a family of three, a newly married couple, a limo driver and actress, a prostitute, and a cop transporting a convict) arrive at a motel run by a strange man in the middle of a storm. The roads in every direction are washed out and flooded, so they are trapped. One by one, they all begin to get picked off, each body “tagged” with a room key counting down from ten. As is the case in all of these puzzles, we are trying to discover: Who is the killer? What connects the characters? Why are they being killed?

On the same night, in the same storm, a judge has been asked to hear a final appeal for a convicted killer who is going to be executed in a matter of hours. His lawyers have new evidence that might prove he should have his judgment changed to a life sentence in psychiatric care.

That is about all that can be said about this film without giving too much away. The problem is that this film is firmly located in the horror genre and comes with all the violence and language that are associated with it, so it is not for everyone.

The thing that makes this film stand out from so many others of its kind is its exploration of reality and perspective. Not quite on the level of something like The Matrix or Dark City, but interesting nonetheless.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Slasher Films: An Introduction

Interesting fact: “And Then There Were None” is the third highest selling novel of all time. It is the best selling work of detective fiction ever. Anyone reading it for the first time today would instantly recognize the sub-genre that it surely helped give rise to: the Slasher film. OK, it doesn’t quite meet all the characteristics of the genre, but we see all the beginnings here: a group of people thrown together with a killer slowly picking them all off in elaborate and violent ways, and everything linked together with an elaborate back-story.

Early on Slasher Films were not just a sub-genre of horror, but also of the detective story. Unlike classic horror, with its often supernatural and philosophical elements, the slasher stories began more as mysteries, albeit intense and scary ones. Over time other elements were added that became standards, but even early on most are in place. Consider Psycho. There is already a complex back-story, the knife as the weapon of choice, and an almost “final girl.”

By the time of the “Golden Age” of slasher films, most of the mystery had been overshadowed with pure violence and terror. In one early example “Black Christmas” the mystery is never solved and the killer not captured. “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” place the audience in the killers POV and the focus is then increasingly given over to mere killing.

Films like “Nightmare on Elm Street” and the other entries in the 80s slasher franchises added variety to the formula by introducing nonsensical supernatural elements and by continually revealing more realistic and bloody ways for people to be killed. The genre looked like it was goring itself to death…

Friday, October 16, 2009

Top Films: The Creature from the Black Lagoon

It is said to be one of Ingmar Bergman’s favorite films. Apparently, Steven Spielberg was inspired by it and it’s sequel when making Jaws. Movies like Aliens and Predator owe a lot to its existence. For a black and white sci-fi horror movie from the 50’s, it holds up incredibly well. In fact, it may be the most enjoyable of the old Universal Horror movies for today’s audiences.

The only thing most people who have not seen this film know about it is not true; the suit is not fake looking. Perhaps later versions and imitators of this film were, but the effects in this one are great. Especially when you think that this was made in the early days of scuba.

It is the typical story of modernity encroaching on nature’s territory and paying the price of its arrogance. The scientists in this movie are not the mad scientists of the 30s and 40s. They are not trying to tread where only God should venture. They simply want to know everything, and to hear them talk they already think they nearly do.

An interesting aspect of this film is its ecological message. No… not the new environmentalism as a cover for communism; simply the good old idea that people should respect nature and other living things. In one scene, the scientists poison the entire lagoon in an attempt to catch the creature. (An ironic aspect of this scene is the way the director cuts between the men poisoning the water and the woman smoking a cigarette. It is especially jarring to today’s audience, especially when she casually tosses the butt into the water.)

This film was successful enough to spawn two sequels: The Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us. They are not as good as the original. The third one is pretty awful, but the second was not so bad as to deserve its being featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Carping Crepuscular

The latest popular literary trend is this thing called Twilight. With four successful books and a series of films in progress, it cannot be avoided as a substantial part of the culture these days. That is too bad, because as far as trends go, this one is insubstantial and unsatisfying.

Perhaps part of the problem is semantics. In much the same way that some Christians saw the Harry potter universe as satanic because it involved “witches,” vampire enthusiasts see Twilight as lame because the Vampires are so wrong. The truth is, both cases are unfortunate choices of words. J.K. Rowling’s’ witches are not what people typically think of when they see that term, and probably could have been called something else. Meyer’s vampires are similar in that they are not really vampires. She admits that she had no clue about vampire lore and didn’t even look into it until her first book was accepted for publication.

The real problem with Meyer’s vampires is that they do not fulfill the traditional role of vampire as a symbol for evil. Or even better, they water down evil to the point that it no longer is recognizable. Meyer herself wants the Vampires of her world to symbolize evil. She has compared Bella’s choice to love Edward with that of Eve choosing to eat the forbidden fruit. In that regard, evil in Meyer’s understanding is something more like crossing the street without looking—bad idea, maybe dangerous, but statistically something you might do a lot and survive.

Honestly though, the real problems with the first book in the series are: a) Meyer does a far too good of a job getting the reader into the head of a teen-age girl, and that is a place no one in their right mind would want to live. And b) you can’t get away from the thought that the whole story is about a guy falling in love with particularly savory hamburger.

What about the movie? Even compared to the light-weightiness of the book, it is silly, forgettable, and cheesy. Would have played better as a half hour program on the Disney channel.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Frightening, Isn't It?

In 1996 Peter Jackson made his first entry into mainstream filmdom with a Robert Zemeckis produced horror/comedy called “The Frighteners.” In the words of on online review with a Christian slant, “The Frighteners is a dark, gruesome… film which many Christians will find objectionable, twisted and disgusting.” True. Others include it among their “guilty pleasure” and place it on their blog under the “not a recommendation” category.

If you like a scary story with a sense of humor and can deal with the objectionable stuff that comes with scary stories and today’s sense of humor, then this is a fun film. It deals with a psychic, Frank Banister who uses his very real powers to con people into thinking they need a “ghost buster.” Coincidentally, a ghost starts to actually kill people around town and Frank is forced to match wits with it.

Mostly, this is a bit of mindless entertainment. However, there are some interesting thoughts brought up. First, there is the way that the materialistic character is treated in the film. Most people today would completely agree with his view of the world. Nothing that cannot be empirically proven exists. The only problem is that in his world, supernatural things do exist. Even when he dies and becomes a purely spiritual being himself, he cannot at first believe what has happened.

The other interesting thing is this movie’s view of the afterlife. Like most postmodern thinking, they are open to considering an idea of heaven and hell, but on really screwy terms. It seems just about anyone gets into Heaven. All you have to do is try to be a good person. Only really bad people are sent to hell. It seems that good intentions are all that is needed. Or is it? That same materialistic character from before had a chance to go straight to heaven when he died. This, even though he was pretty much a jerk in life. The only thing that kept him out of heaven was that he didn’t believe. He didn’t believe he was dead. He didn’t believe in any afterlife.

These are ideas worth talking to people about. How important is it what you believe and when you believe it? How much does reality affect the answer to that question? You might be surprised with how little thought goes into most people’s answers.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you meddling kids"

When I decided that I wanted to be a detective when I grew up, there was one show that might have influenced me more than any other. I suppose the real instigator was the fact that I read Hardy Boys books, but I never imagined my career chasing down bank robbers, smugglers or even something more intense like murderers. I was interested in solving the strange, unexplainable and scary mysteries in the world. I wanted to be like the Scooby Doo gang!

The fact that shows like The X Files became popular after a generation grew up watching Scooby Doo should come as no surprise. We all at one time or another imagined solving the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, debunking haunted houses or perhaps even taking on a “real” monster or two. Of course, the real charm behind the original Scooby Doo was that all those scary things that really did scare us as kids: vampires, mummies and were-wolfs always turned out to be fake in the end. There was a reassuring aspect to the truth that they were always pretend.

Somewhere along the way, Scooby Doo lost its soul. Money is the root cause of its downfall, with endless re-imaginings and new product generated to appeal to new bunches of kids. However, it also lost the heart of the show when the monsters stopped being mysteries to be solved and became real monsters to be battled. There was a certain charm to the idea of high school kids encountering endless conspiracies and crimes masquerading as something scary. Perhaps it was the idea that kids shouldn’t let themselves be scared by something that seemed strange or unexplainable. There was always a truth behind the mask that could be uncovered with courage, determination, and careful deduction.

Monday, October 12, 2009

1 Corinthians 5:1-13 (New Topic, More Reports.)

Here Paul addresses the case of a member of the Church, a believer, who is engaged in sexual sin. Paul’s response to this issue is that the church should judge and expel this member. We are loath to do anything like this today. (Apparently the Corinthians were too.) Our argument tends to be something like: “Judge not lest you be judged,” or “Who am I to say anything? There but for the grace of God go I.” We see a similar reaction in the secular world to the sins of Roman Polanski. In our culture today, we hate to judge. We prefer tolerance.

The problem, for Christians, resides in that very “grace of God.” If we are to embrace the grace and carry on with our sin we are disgracing God. Yes, we all continue to struggle against sin, but that is the issue… we struggle, this person has embraced it.

I was once on a ministry team in which we had all agreed to certain moral standards. One of our members broke those standards, confessed, and asked to be removed from the team—at least temporarily. I was almost the only person on the team of nearly 20 people willing to do so. Everyone else talked of grace and second chances etc. It seems that we have become so lax on our own standards that we feel ill suited to demand any of others.

Part of the Church’s purpose is to build its members up. We are to hold each other accountable. In love, grace, and mercy—yes; but if one of us embraces sin, we are to do something about that as well. The above quote from Jesus’ sermon on the mount does apply, of course, but we have to balance that with what the Bible says here or even what Jesus says later in chapter 18 of Matthew. We can confront each other without being judgmental.

If someone refuses to repent of sin, however, for their own sake they need to be asked to leave the fellowship. Paul’s hope is that they will come to their senses once they are on their own. Certainly the influence of the fellowship isn’t working!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

1999 in Film

1999 was another very good year for movie fans. It has a lot of films that land on my own top 100. On the other hand, there was that tragedy when one of the most anticipated movies of all time defined the hype-not-matching-the-delivery. Before 1999, you could look forward to a movie and get excited, but Phantom Menace took things to a whole new level, and since that time hype and anticipation for some films has exceeded any rational level. Luckily, a couple of years later some movies actually delivered nearly all that could be asked.

In 1999, The Matrix redefined sci-fi (and failed to pull off a decent trilogy later), The Iron Giant brought us what some would say is the best traditional animated film of all time, The Sixth Sense spawned a whole slew of films that couldn’t measure up to its level (including a few by Shyamalan himself), and Sleepy Hollow is maybe the best Gothic Horror movie ever. On the other hand, the movies that got award recognition in 1999 are largely forgettable in comparison to these other that have endured.

Top 10 Personal Movies of 1999
1. The Matrix
2. The Iron Giant
3. The Sixth Sense
4. Sleepy Hollow
5. Fantasia 2000
6. Toy Story 2
7. The Mummy
8. Tarzan
9. The Insider
10. Drop Dead Gorgeous

Bottom 5 Personal Movies of 1999
1. American Psycho
2. Eyes Wide Shut
3. Election
4. The Talented Mr. Ripley
5. The Cider House Rules

Top Movies I still Want to See or Revisit
1. Lola rennt
2. Fight Club
3. The Green Mile
4. Three Kings
5. October Sky

Friday, October 9, 2009

Top Films: The Silence of the Lambs


Say what you will about whether it is a likable film or not, Silence of the Lambs is one of the greats. Demme here pulls off a similar feat to Hitchcock, who took a terrible story (thematically, not qualitatively) and made a masterpiece out of Psycho. It probably should have gotten the Best Editing Oscar in addition to the five big ones it got.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Good Day To Die?

Back in the days when towns (in South America anyway) had just one theater and no one really saw previews so you never knew quite what to expect from a movie, (Boy, those were great days!) a little gem called Flatliners came to our town. Now, my appreciation for this film may be affected by the facts that: a) I saw it late at night as a teen, b) I had to walk my girlfriend home afterwards and she lived behind the city cemetery, and c) it was not too scary, so you were able to take the whole thing in. It is one of those great horror films that get you thinking.

For the handful of people who have not seen this movie, it is about a group of medical students being really stupid. They get together at night and medically induce death for a period of minutes and then bring each other back to life, all to see if there is anything after death. In the course of the movie they discover that there is something else. At first it seems wonderful, but then bad things start to happen to each student who has “gone under.” It seems that they have all done some really bad things, and now those sins are haunting them.

This is where the movie gets a little silly, preachy, and yet… Some of what the story offers has a ring of truth to it. You see, in this movie, they cannot pay for past actions. They cannot make amends. In many of the situations the wronged party has since died. They discover that the only way to appease the things that are troubling them is to seek forgiveness. Sort of the way it is in real life. We all have sins and there is nothing we can do to make those sins right in our own power. All we can (and, in grace, all we have to do) is ask for forgiveness.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Polanski's Guilt

Why are so many people rushing to Polanski’s defense? It is not a matter of loving his art. Art can be appreciated without embracing the artist. And no matter what anyone says, it is not because they think what he did was OK. Child molestation is the worst thing someone can commit these days. It is probably, in most cases, because people today are enemies of guilt. We hate guilt. If we say someone is guilty of doing wrong we have to admit that much of what we do is wrong, so we make excuses. In Polanski’s case you see a lot of justification by suffering: “Look at all he went through, the ghetto, the death of his wife… try to understand him!”

Actually, watching his movies does grant us some insight into his mind. In addition to his pessimistic view of good and evil, we see that Polanski fears the evil in himself. Sure, the Nazis and the Mansons did terrible things to him, but he fears he is capable of the same. He knows that we all are. Sometimes Polanski’s movies work on us like a Dostoyevsky novel. We begin to experience the madness the protagonist is experiencing. Consider his “apartment trilogy:”

Repulsion (1965)
Polanski redefined horror to some degree with this claustrophobic psychological terror. Not much happens, but you are trapped in the mind of the absolutely crazy protagonist as she slowly goes more insane during a weekend alone at home. Its scary because you begin to feel crazy yourself as you watch it.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
In Repulsion, we witnessed a crazy woman’s insanity. In Rosemary, we see a perfectly normal woman thinking she is going insane. We suffer for her as she is convinced that she is losing her grasp on reality. The horror is revealed in the end when she realizes that she was not going insane… the world is indeed as twisted as she thought it was.

The Tenant (1976)
The pinnacle of Polanski’s paranoia came a couple of years after he fled the States to avoid punishment for raping the 13-year-old girl. He cast himself as The Tenant, a man who slowly convinces himself that the world is conspiring to drive him crazy. Eventually he jumps from his high-rise window—twice. Interestingly, Polanski was un-credited in the leading role of this film.

Lacking in a foundation of anything absolute, Polanski has given in to the lie that right and good are pointless and weak in a world full of evil and suffering. Instead of beating yourself up when you succumb to evil, find ways to justify it and call it something else. It seems that many in our culture are in agreement with him.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Polanski's Evil

The disturbing thing about the “vampires as good guys trend” these days is the way that it downplays evil. Vampires have traditionally been one of the most universally held symbols of everything evil. The move to try to understand them and to give them a good side is like, well the equivalent of saying that child molesters and sexual predators are good guys and simply misunderstood. Proof that art is reflecting culture that is precisely what is going on these days as well. Roman Polanski is being defended by a shockingly large amount of “cultural elites.”

There is a difference between admiring an artist’s art and their life. Polanski is a talented filmmaker, but he is also a man who committed a terrible crime. He should face the consequences. Polanski should know better. He has suffered more than the average amount of evil in his life. In fact, his whole worldview, as seen in his movies, seems to be that the world is full of evil and good is weak and helpless against it. Many examples can be cited, but his horror comedies should suffice.

Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
Polanski’s first American film is a dreamy, fairy-tale-ish spoof of all the popular Hammer Horror movies popular in it’s day. While they tended to be classic “good vs. evil” tales where good triumphed in the end, Polanski’s vampire hunters are naïve, easily distracted bumblers. Even though they manage a scheme to escape the vampire castle with the damsel in the end, we are shown that evil ultimately triumphs as a result of their efforts. Good and virtuous people are helpless against the overwhelming evil in the world. Polanski seems to be saying, “Why bother combating it?”

The Ninth Gate (1999)
Thirty years after addressing diabolic evil in Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski returned to the topic in this his most direct look at evil personified. It plays out as a classic noir-ish mystery story where the “hero” spends the entire film chasing down a diabolical book supposedly written by the devil himself. He is ostensibly working for an evil man who wants the book for himself, but we clearly see early on that he will try to thwart this plot. The surprising conclusion, however, comes when he finds the book and actually uses it himself! He did not want to thwart evil at all. He was seduced by it.

Polanski is obsessed with this topic; evil triumphs in most of his films. What does this artistic vision; combined with his history, tell us about not just Polanski but the whole generation defending the man?

Monday, October 5, 2009

1 Corinthians 4:6-21 (Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Discipleship)

All of this teaching about the message and messengers of the cross is not just a local problem in Corinth in Paul’s day, but apply to all time everywhere. Paul and Apollos were just examples. We have others today.

Paul was not simply concerned with the divisions he saw in the church. A greater concern was that the people who were being “idolized” in Corinth were still not being imitated. Those who have been set apart for the Gospel have a challenging life, but would like their example to be followed because: a) that is the pattern Christ set up and b) the rewards are also great.

Therein lies the problem that persists to this day. Instead of believers being discipled by individuals in their local fellowship, masses are turning to celebrity teachers who are not being imitated but merely listened to. Countless Christians today see the spiritual life as an endless accumulation of knowledge. Read the latest book. Listen to the most popular preachers. Learn all you can. The only problem is that the popular teaching ends there. It does not lead to changed lives or an obedient following of Biblical teaching.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Top Films: Bram Stoker's Dracula


(Another excerpt from that crazy book idea. A little longish but…)

This is possibly the best adaptation of Stoker’s novel to date, though it has a serious flaw. First of all, this is the first movie to adapt the novel and retain all of the characters without any name changes. It also follows the story line closer than any previous film version has.

Due to this careful parallel with the novel all of the themes are retained. Evil is seductive and terrifying at the same time. Whenever earlier films tried to portray this, one or the other end of the spectrum was weighted. Dracula and his brides either came across as appealing and not scary, or they came across as horrific and the viewer had to believe the character’s reaction to see any seductive appeal. In Coppola’s vision the vampires are portrayed in a truly sexual and seductive pose, and yet they are terrible and disturbing at the same time.

The need for a community of faith is shown in Dracula as well. In retaining all of the characters the whole of the community is present, and the attempt to protect Mina by excluding her from the hunt opens her up to danger just as in the novel. The movie is careful to follow the action in the book, and each character has their role to play.

The guidance of the wiser, older Van Helsing is present as well. He goes through the steps of revealing the evil, instructing the community in the ritual of destroying it, and leading the community to battle against it. It is a supernatural, spiritual battle. Van Helsing informs the group of the unholy nature of the evil. While he is fully knowledgeable about the nature of the evil, he does not show a lack of fear or respect for it. He is aware of the danger and controls himself so as to not be overcome be its seductiveness.

The major flaw of this film is not what it leaves out of the story, but what it adds to it. Following the lead of Curtis’ 1973 Dracula, Coppola and screenwriter James Hart, add a romantic motivation to the vampire. In a prelude to the story, the viewer sees the cause of Vlad the Impaler’s vampirism. When he losses his wife at her own hand while defending the Christian Church, he curses God and becomes a vampire. It is a punishment from God. Later, in the course of Jonathan’s visit to Castle Dracula, it is revealed that Mina is the perfect twin of his dead wife. Any motives the Count may have had for going to England are now lost in his desire to claim Mina.

This romantic element of the story clouds the evil nature of Dracula. It presents the vampire in a sympathetic light as so many other films now do. It also affects the end of the film as it relates to the novel. Dracula is destroyed and good wins, but there is no view of the rescued world. In the novel Jonathan and Quincey kill Dracula, and Mina is returned to normal and reunited with her husband. The end of the book has Jonathan telling the reader of his and Mina’s son, who represents the next generation who will hear of the community’s story and learn from it. In the film on the other hand, the men mortally wound Dracula, but it is Mina who finishes him off in an act of love. The screenplay has Mina and Jonathan reunited, but the film cuts this out and ends with Mina’s act. The question for the viewer who has read the book is huge. In the end it is ambiguous as to whether or not the world is rescued. Will there be a future generation to learn from the community? Have a love between the ultimate good (Mina) and the ultimate evil (Dracula) destroyed it?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sauna

Scandinavian Horror seems to be the latest trend of late, much like Japanese Horror was in the late nineties. (More on that in a future post perhaps.) Død Snø came out earlier this year from Norway; giving Tarantino a run on who could be more “over the top” offensive using Nazi’s for gruesome humor. It was pretty visually stunning, actually, snow covered mountain forests full of uniformed Zombies.

What Scandinavian Horror seems to be shaping up to be, though, is more of an intellectual endeavor, horror that tends to unsettle and get you thinking over shocks and scares. Last year’s Sauna is a good example. (OK Finland isn’t exactly Scandinavian, just go with it.)

The story revolves around two brothers who are representing their government in settling the border between Finland and Russia after a long fought war. They begin the movie doing something very evil and are pursued by guilt (quite literally) as their journey progresses. In the middle of an uncharted swamp they encounter a village built around a sauna. After that they are occupied with questions like: Why is there only one child in the village? Why is everyone so clean? Where did the Monks who founded the village disappear to all those years ago? Why will no one go near the sauna? And who is the ghost that has been following them and what does she want?

There are some classic jumps and genuinely creepy moments in this film, but not enough for your standard horror audience today. This is a more traditional, gothic morality play that raises questions and explores issues of guilt, atonement, and faith. All are strange issues to be coming from a Northern European mentality. Guilt? Really?

Unfortunately, one gets the idea that the creators not only don’t give any answers to these questions (which would be alright), but that they had no idea where the plot of their story was headed by the time they got to the end.
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