Dead Meat and A Coward’s Guide to Horror Movies

Recommending an extremely popular YouTube channel that happens to be exactly what I’ve been looking for

It feels odd for me to be recommending a YouTube channel that has 6.5 million subscribers as if I were the first person to discover it. But it’s not the kind of thing that I’d normally recommend, and I only just found it recently, even though it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.

The channel is called Dead Meat, and the bulk of the content is the “Kill Count” series, which gives a recap of a horror movie, calling out each time a character is killed, and then tallying them all up (with a pie chart!) at the end.

This is perfect for me, who’s got a fraught relationship with horror movies. I really, deeply want to love them. They’re interesting to pick apart, especially since all of the dynamics are often blatantly playing out across the surface, letting you find as much or as little depth as you want. At the same time, the entire genre is designed to refuse that kind of over-intellectualized analysis. They work best when they bypass all of the critical parts of your brain and go for an immediate reaction. As somebody who overthinks everything, I love watching something like Malignant or Orphan: First Kill, and not “turning off my brain,” but letting it target my brain directly and just enjoy it.

But that’s also why I can’t handle so many of them. I used to just say that I was a coward and leave it at that, but I think there’s actually more to it. When a horror movie clicks with me, I absolutely love it. But there’s a narrow window of tone, subject matter, violence, gore, performance, verisimilitude, and a dozen other aspects that, if a movie veers even a little bit out of the zone, it becomes completely intolerable for me.

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What If… Nothing Was Different?

Thoughts on the new “What If…?” app and other immersive experiences for the Vision Pro, and revisiting some old assumptions about interactive storytelling

Today I went through1Watched? Played? :shudder: Experienced? The lack of useful verbs is still a problem when trying to talk about interactive entertainment the new What If…? app from Marvel and ILM for the Vision Pro. It’s an interesting and extremely well-made mash-up of the animated series, some light minigames, and the “immersive” format that Apple is pushing with the visionOS platform.

I think it’s currently one of the best examples of what the platform is capable of.

People more cynical than me could probably dismiss it as just another VR experience, just like they insisted that the Vision Pro is just a fancy VR headset and Apple doesn’t want you to say that! I still think that the differences are subtle, but significant. You could absolutely bring the What If app to another mixed-reality headset, and you could even bring it to a pure VR headset without losing much. But I believe it would feel like an inferior port.

It’s designed to fit in perfectly with how (I think) Apple is positioning their headset. In particular: it’s a seated, “lean back” experience, feeling more like an animated series with interactive elements than a simplified game with extended cut-scenes. It also uses gesture controls as its only interface, having you grab infinity stones, fling objects around, fire magic bolts, hold shields, and open portals using only your hands. (Tying it into Doctor Strange and having your guide be Sorcerer Supreme Wong was an inspired choice).

Continue reading “What If… Nothing Was Different?”
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    Watched? Played? :shudder: Experienced? The lack of useful verbs is still a problem when trying to talk about interactive entertainment

Literacy 2024: Book 4: Killer, Come Back to Me

A collection of Ray Bradbury’s crime stories

Book
Killer, Come Back to Me: The Crime Stories of Ray Bradbury

Synopsis
To commemorate what would have been Bradbury’s 100th birthday, a collection of his stories for pulp crime magazines throughout the 1940s and early 50s

Pros

  • Includes a forward to put the stories into context, as well as an afterword written by Bradbury himself for an earlier-published collection of several of the same stories, with his characteristically clear-headed assessment of his own work (and his work ethic)
  • Thoughtful organization of the stories, so that you can see Bradbury’s unique voice, along with his particular interests, become more and more pronounced over the course of the book
  • Fascinating pair of companion stories, originally published in different pulp magazines, that describe the day of a crime, one from the perspective of the victim, the other in the mind of the criminal
  • Another interesting pair of companion stories bring in Bradbury’s interest in science fiction, exploring two implications of a company called Marionettes, Inc. making lifelike android versions of humans
  • A highlight is a fascinating story of a man’s obsessive need to clean up the scene of a murder he’d committed
  • The stories incorporate Bradbury’s interest in horror, sci-fi, and fantasy-middle-America world-building
  • Once he sheds the pulp formula, the stories become fascinating psychological profiles that remain relatable across decades.

Cons

  • The bulk of the stories are fairly standard pulp fiction until Bradbury’s unique voice becomes apparent — they’re still well-written, but lack the spark of his best work
  • Horror and crime/suspense stories are a good match, but the inclusion of sci-fi stories feels a bit jarring and out of place
  • I would’ve appreciated an explicit date of first publication with each story, so that we could better place it in Bradbury’s overall body of work

Verdict
Interesting for fans of Ray Bradbury, who want to see a side of his writing that’s not quite like the stuff that he’s better known for. In his afterword, he acknowledges that his crime stories are fine, but don’t come from the same passion as his other stories, and they don’t really capture his unique voice. This shouldn’t be anybody’s first exposure to Bradbury’s writing, but it is an excellent demonstration of how the voice and style that we love actually developed.

Way, Way Out

Approaching Pride month with thoughts about identity, politics, and the value of defining your own “normal”

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about being gay. I feel like I’d be pretty good at it. Should I give it a shot?

We have fun here but seriously: what prompted this was when I realized several weeks ago that it had been a long time since I’d thought at all about being gay. It’s almost as if once straight people stopped shoving it down our throats, we could go on about living our lives.

I didn’t need to have a bunch of imaginary conversation trees always at the ready. I just mentioned my fiance, so I need to include a gendered pronoun sometime soon to make it clear, but I don’t want it to be so blatant that it sounds like I’m making a coming-out announcement, and if they say “she” or “her” before I get a chance to, I need to make a firm but polite correction and be ready to follow-up with an assurance that it’s fine and I’m not offended. I didn’t need to keep an additional tape loop1On top of the one I already have as an over-thinking introvert, of course of every conversation running in my head, mindful of whether I’d said anything that would “out” me and introduce any awkwardness into the conversation.

Since I’m a white guy living in California, working for a company with explicit policies about diversity and inclusion, it’s all very minor “social lubricant” stuff instead of coming out of any concern for my own safety or job, but it’s still a relief to be able to turn all of it off. It’s like when landscapers have been working outside your office all morning, and it takes a few minutes to register that they’ve stopped. When you get accustomed to constant noise for so long, the silence seems alien.

In fact, the only reason I noticed the quiet was because I went onto social media and immediately saw a bunch of the familiar discourse. One post that stood out was in response to the “controversy”2Scare quotes because I’m never sure just how much of it is genuine controversy vs. social media posturing around displays of leather or fetishes at Pride events. The poster was complaining about “assimilation,” and they used the phrase “ghouls like Pete Buttigieg,” which actually made me laugh out loud.

Don’t get me wrong: I supported Buttigieg in the last election, I still think he’s an excellent and insightful statesman, and I look forward to his taking a prominent role in the Democratic party as it settles into a more youthful centrism. (While a more genuinely progressive party develops outside the DNC). But it cracks me up to think that anyone anywhere would have a strong enough opinion about Pete Buttigieg to call him a “ghoul.”

And I mean, I kind of get it. The whole idea of Pride demonstrations in the first place is to reject the social pressure to be ashamed about not conforming to limiting and old-fashioned ideas of gender/sex/propriety in general. A lot of LGBT people go through a phase of wanting to set a level of conformity they can get away with — I’m okay as long as I’m not like those people — and that’s largely driven by internalized homophobia.

But it’s also exhausting. As somebody who went through a long coming-out process relatively late (in my early 30s); and who would probably be content to settle into a bland, Buttigiegian level of gayness myself, I’ve always felt like I’m being bombarded from multiple sides of conformity. Some people say I’m too gay, others that I’m not gay enough. In my case, it’s rarely explicit, but it occasionally is: I have at times been called both the f-slur and a “self-loathing closet case,” neither time by anybody whose opinion I give a damn about, but enough to stick with me.

For most of my life, it’s felt like having one hand on the “Gayness” dial, carefully scanning the crowd for their reaction as I tune it to exactly the acceptable level. It’s all about external validation, and the pressure of conformity around something that’s supposedly all about self-identification.

It’s still weird to me that anyone would assume I’m straight, since it’s been about twenty years since I stopped trying to hide my orientation. Did you people not see the rainbow flag emoji in my Mastodon profile?! It also feels obvious to me, because every time I see a photo of Women In Love-era Oliver Reed, I turn into a Tex Avery wolf. And I swear, no exaggeration, the other day I saw some production stills of Toshiro Mifune from various points in his career, and I felt light-headed as if I were about to faint. Still, it’s as true now as it was all during my adolescence and my 20s: nobody genuinely cares as much about my orientation as I do.

I absolutely understand that visibility is essential. I’m just concerned that instead of actually promoting self-expression and self-identification, we’re falling into lazy patterns from the past, substituting one brand of conformity for another.

(In retrospect, I think a lot of that pressure is unique to San Francisco, which in addition to all of its great aspects, has its own brand of performative tolerance. The most memorable example to me was when a city councilman was trying to introduce a bill to put the slightest limitations on public nudity, along the lines of “you can be naked, but just put a towel down first.” It was described as having opposition from “the gay community,” even though I couldn’t imagine how being part of the gay community would make me eager to stare down a man’s withered, leathery junk while I’m eating in a restaurant).

Recently I saw a comic from Sarah Shay Mirk titled “Why Did I Think I Was Straight?”, about their experiences identifying as queer and nonbinary. It significantly changed the way that I’ve thought about all of this, the questions of self-identification, visibility, and conformity.

On the topics of bi- and pan-sexuality, and being transgender or genderfluid, I’ve long considered myself an “ally” — for whatever that term is worth — instead of feeling as if I had any genuine place in that community. I’m basically a Kinsey 7, and I’ve never had any real feelings of gender ambiguity, so it would be extremely presumptuous for me to pretend that I know what it’s like for transgender or nonbinary people. But so much of Mirk’s comic felt so familiar to my own experience. It made me appreciate how much self-identification isn’t about finding the box that you fit in, but finding circles of intersecting commonality with other people.

I think I understand the problems inherent in a white guy asserting his right to be As Heteronormative As I Wanna Be. It can come across as Peter Thiel-esque selfishness: I’ve got my own level of comfort, so I can pull up the ladder behind myself, and everybody else can fend for themselves. But after seeing just how much of the persecution of trans people is just a lazy repetition of the same “arguments” that were made against marriage equality and gay rights in general — they’re so lazy, they didn’t even bother to change the playbook — I’m motivated by the opposite. We’ve already fought this battle, and we won it. I’ve finally gotten to see what it’s like to live my life without being constantly othered, and I think everybody deserves the same!

I clearly don’t have the answers to what will stop the political and cultural persecution of trans people. But my hope is that we can put a stop to it without having to turn back progress and fight the same battles all over again. Simply refuse to treat the issue in 2024 as if it were still 2000, as if we’ve learned nothing over the years, and have such short attention spans that we can’t remember we’ve already debunked all those lazy-ass arguments long ago. Stop treating each letter of LGBTQIA as a separate protected class that has to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and instead get to the heart of the issue: letting people define their own “normal.”

When I was younger, I adopted the mantra “Being gay is the least interesting thing about me, so why should I be forced into making it a key part of my identity?” That, I believe, was largely driven by internalized homophobia. In the decades since, that’s evolved to: “Being gay is probably still the least interesting thing about me, but it’s still an important part of who I am.” An important part of that is learning not to give a damn whether anybody else thinks I’m doing it wrong, and defending everyone else’s right to do the same for themselves.

A crucial part of Mirk’s comic is that for a lot of “queer” people, everything “queer” about them is their “normal.” Mirk uses the example of being in a society where men didn’t exist, and it never occurred to them that some people (in particular: straight women) wouldn’t find that awesome. The thing I like best about But I’m a Cheerleader (which, again, I wish I’d seen when I was younger) is that it doesn’t even occur to the main character that there’s anything weird or wrong about the thoughts she has about other women. And I’ve regularly heard the claim that “everybody is at least a little bit bisexual,” which sounds like inclusivity on the surface, but is still othering to those of us who aren’t.

Part of the reason I don’t use the word “queer” to describe myself is because I’m only “queer” as defined by other people. To me, it’s all perfectly normal. Didn’t everyone have the same thoughts I did when watching The Empire Strikes Back for the first time? Isn’t everybody else a nerd who defines their own sexual orientation largely in terms of celebrity crushes? It was only after other people started telling me that I was weird or shameful that it even occurred to me that I was different at all. (And many decades later, I gradually discovered that I wasn’t even all that different).

So as Pride Month 2024 starts, I’m hoping we can stay politically conscious. Because for as much as I believe in simply refusing to jump through the hoops that right-wing bigots and opportunists keep setting out for us, it’s clearly going to take some work to ensure equality is legally defended. (Even with marriage equality a “done deal,” it’s still not legally guaranteed as far as I’m aware). But I’m also hoping we can stay socially conscious and acknowledge that self-identification means having the freedom to be as boring and “normal” as we want to be.

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    On top of the one I already have as an over-thinking introvert, of course
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    Scare quotes because I’m never sure just how much of it is genuine controversy vs. social media posturing

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Follow for Now

Two songs from an Atlanta band that should’ve been much much bigger

These songs were prompted by my finding out about It’s Only Life After All, a new documentary about Indigo Girls, musicians from Atlanta who seem to have found exactly the amount of success that they wanted. (And they deserve it; they’re awesome, and I’m glad to see they’re still finding new listeners with stuff like the Barbie movie).

But that reminded me of Follow For Now, a band from Atlanta who should’ve been so much bigger. I listened to their one album constantly and still have most of it committed to memory. I spent so much of the early 90s driving around Athens and Atlanta blasting it at full volume. In a just universe, they would’ve been as popular as Fishbone.

Their album isn’t available on Apple Music, but I was happy to find a video that I didn’t know existed, for their song “Evil Wheel.”

I’m glad that the video has some live footage, because they were phenomenal in person. I only got to see them live once, and it was as wild as raucous as you’d expect, but also overwhelmingly inclusive. I might be revealing myself to be a white liberal stereotype, but any time I went inside the perimeter in Atlanta, I tried to be hyper-aware of whether I was invading spaces that weren’t meant for me. The crowd at the Follow For Now show (which if I remember correctly was in Little Five Points) basically treated the whole idea as irrelevant.

Which makes sense in retrospect, since there was nothing exclusionary about the band’s content. At the start of this post, I was going to say that they had nothing in common with Indigo Girls apart from Atlanta, but that’s not quite true: they both put an emphasis on socially conscious lyrics and activism.

The highlight of the album is their phenomenal cover of Public Enemy’s “She Watch Channel Zero.” If over the next couple of weeks, you happen to see a white-bearded old man driving slowly around Burbank in a mid-sized electric SUV, head-banging as if he were in the mosh pit of an early 90s music video, you know which song is to blame.

Reverse Omens

Vacation mishaps and trying to make sense of what the universe is telling me

I just got back from a long-anticipated vacation, starting with a cruise to the Bahamas on the Disney Wish, three days at the Yacht Club resort at Walt Disney World, and culminating in a week-long solitary stay at a vacation apartment in Kissimmee Florida while I recovered from COVID.

If you were thinking about testing positive for COVID the morning of your flight home after a long vacation, I cannot recommend it. It’s absolutely no fun and as an added bonus, is extremely expensive.

As I’ve mentioned on here several times, I love the whole Crescent Lake area near Epcot, and the Yacht and Beach Club hotels are my favorites on Disney property. I’ve been extremely fortunate to get to stay at most of the hotels at Walt Disney World over the years, and while the theming, history, and views around the Polynesian can’t be beat, the Yacht and Beach Club narrowly win out for me due to vibes and convenience. Convenience because you can easily walk or take a pleasant boat ride to Epcot and Hollywood Studios. Vibes because they instantly and relentlessly pummel you with the feeling I am having a very nice and relaxing deluxe vacation.

On top of a few memorable vacations with my family, I also got to stay there several times for work. I have a vivid memory of one of those trips, when I’d been feeling a little stressed out and felt it out melt away with one supremely relaxing morning. I got up early, went down to get some coffee and a blueberry muffin — the Yacht and Beach Clubs have the best blueberry muffins on earth — in the Solarium, and then took a short walk around the grounds while it was mostly empty.

There’s a constant loop of easy-listening background music playing quietly around the resort, and one song came on that felt like a wave of peace crashing over me. I later Shazamed it and discovered it’s called “Linwood Road” by Billy Joe Walker, Jr.

It’s a nice piece of music, but more than that, it’s one of those songs where hearing it will immediately take me back to that exact place (just a few feet away from the photograph above) and moment of peace and calm.

Fast forward to my most recent trip, and it was kind of rough going. I’d deliberately scheduled only a couple of days in the parks so as just to get a glimpse of the new stuff without overdoing it. But I found myself getting more irritable and dissatisfied as the heat grew more stifling, all the walking became more and more exhausting, and my “allergies” grew increasingly severe. By the time we got to the Magic Kingdom, I was coughing more often, blowing my nose into napkins, and just generally miserable.

Getting sick in the Magic Kingdom is its own kind of misery, because I’ve got so many good memories tied to the place, and I always think of it as being designed specifically to make me happy. But here I was, trudging around feeling awful and looking forward to nothing more than being home. By the end of the day, I just went to bed early in a nice room in my favorite hotel, confident that I’d feel better in the morning.

I didn’t, and the “I want to go home” feelings intensified until I was on the verge of becoming a 52-year-old man having a full-on meltdown that would rival any toddler’s. I went out for a cigarette — a great addiction to have when you’re fighting a respiratory illness — just thinking about how my favorite place in the world had let me down, and I just wanted to be home.

And as I was standing in the Designated Smoking Area at the hotel, a familiar song came up on the background music. It was “Linwood Road,” instantly taking me back to happier times, a kind of reassurance from the Universe that no matter how bad I felt now, everything was going to be fine. Disney World would still be there waiting for me to come back refreshed and renewed, but for now I was going to be home soon.

Then I got back to the room and tested positive for COVID, and had to cancel my flight and reserve a rental car and condo to isolate in for another week. A condo which, I didn’t know at the time, would be right off the highway in constant view of signs reminding me that I was just minutes away from Epcot and the Magic Kingdom, but couldn’t go in.

My first reaction was The Universe Lied To Me! Sending me a sign that everything was going to be okay, just before pulling the rug out from under me. Then, as the monotonous days wore on, I had a more realistic and mature reaction: there’s no such thing as getting signs from “the universe” or any other equivalent, obviously. I’d spent years wallowing in nostalgia. Instead of having proper gratitude for the people I’d been with and the things I’d been doing all of those years as the source of my happiness, I’d been attributing all of it to a place. A place that would naturally have diminishing returns as I got older and life changed around me. It was time to finally grow up and pay attention to the things that actually matter.

But… here’s an interesting observation: it’s a week later, I’m safely at home, and everything is okay. I’m still waiting for a negative test before I go back to normal, but for the most part, things are returning to the status quo. If the lesson is about gratitude, then I’m more aware than I’ve ever been how uniquely fortunate I am to be able to just hit pause on everything, to spend a week in comfort doing nothing. That’s never been true before — I have to remember all the times that having to change travel plans would’ve been devastating, both financially and for my job.

So maybe The Universe was telling me, using the medium of acoustic guitar-driven light jazz, that everything was going to be fine eventually. And instead of doing anything drastic like adapting a more mature and realistic world view in the face of minor adversity, I could go on being generally optimistic, sentimental about theme parks and hotels, and content to find omens in the most inconsequential things.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: St Vincent is Listening

Two tangentially-related tunes for St Vincent’s new album release and an unexpectedly familiar companion song

After seeing the video for “Actor Out of Work” by St Vincent, and especially after the performance on Austin City Limits, I was blown away. It felt like the first genuinely new music I’d heard in years. Her albums since then have been hit-or-miss with me, and I sincerely hope that never changes.

Sometimes I love it (Actor), sometimes I hate it (Daddy’s Home), but she is fully invested in making each album a presentation instead of just a collection of songs. Annie Clark is one of the only artists playing arena-sized venues who always seems like she’s doing exactly what she wants to do. The hit songs almost feel like an accidental bonus.

All Born Screaming is my favorite of her albums since St Vincent, feeling like she’s been collecting favorite influences across her whole career and presenting them as an album instead of a new glam rock persona. So far “Flea” and “Big Time Nothing” are my favorite tracks, but the first release is called “Broken Man” and has one hell of a great video.

The other night I spent the better part of an hour just driving around the valley so I could listen to the album uninterrupted. So much of it feels familiar, as elements drift in and out of her songs, never feeling quite like a pastiche or a direct homage, but like a bunch of original compositions by someone with an encyclopedic familiarity with pop, rock, and funk music. Is that Deep Purple? Led Zeppelin? Something the Beastie Boys sampled?

I knew almost immediately what the beginning of “Broken Man” reminded me of, though: “Misinformed” by Soul Coughing, from El Oso, easily one of my top 5 albums of all time. Was it a direct reference? I highly doubt it, but then I also wouldn’t be surprised if she were drawing from late 90s alternative as much as 70s rock.

All of Soul Coughing’s records, but El Oso in particular, were full of sounds I’d never heard before, but had that same feeling of odd familiarity, like having a nightmare about listening to jazz from an alien planet. A lot of what I loved about Actor came from Annie Clark saying she was inspired by the music from Sleeping Beauty. So maybe they have more in common than I’d originally thought!

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: On the 45

Going back even farther into my past with a couple of tunes I listened to at 45 rpm

Previously on Spectre Collie… I was reminiscing about the first songs I ever bought with my own money, but I started to wonder whether I could recall any of the songs I pestered my parents into getting for me. Back in that shadowy time between the Carpenters albums and novelty compilations from K-TEL of my youth, when I started listening to songs that people my age actually liked.

One of the first singles I remember having was “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” by The Gap Band. I was obsessed with that song, and knowing me, I’m sure I went around making the whistling sound when I hummed it.

Hearing it now, and watching that video, I’m kind of surprised that it’s still such a banger. I remember it being kind of corny, even as a kid. There’s no way in hell I was cool enough as a kid to be thinking, “Just you wait until people start sampling the Gap Band, and you’ll be able to appreciate it how prescient I was.” I don’t think I was even pompous enough to use the word “prescient” back then.

The way I know I wasn’t cool back then is that the song I was even more obsessed with was “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone)” by Chilliwack.1Yes, I did have to look up the name of the band today.

I misremembered the song as being by a Gap Band-like one-hit-wonder group, and man, was I way off. I couldn’t hear on vinyl just how white and how Canadian they were. In retrospect, it is kind of a sampler or mash-up of a lot of other songs from roughly around the same time that became my favorites, “Black Water” by the Doobie Brothers, and “Leave It” by Yes in particular.

It also reminds me of the early 80s, because I keep thinking of being in middle school band and our band director yelling at us because we kept rushing and getting off beat. (It’s not just me, right? The chorus sounds like it’s in 4.5/4 time or something).

Also I hope it doesn’t come across as making fun (especially since I’m the last person to be making fun of how anyone looks, especially in the early 1980s), but the thing that struck me was how much the lead singer of Chilliwack looks like he was drawn by Jack Kirby.

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    Yes, I did have to look up the name of the band today.

Paved with some sort of intention

Follow-up post about Late Night With the Devil, with a few spoiler-filled questions and criticisms

I was content with my take on Late Night With the Devil for a while. I was happy to declare it as a movie that worked on its own terms, even if it didn’t work completely on mine, and I could appreciate it as a lurid haunted house-style throwback. I was even a little proud of myself for watching a movie and for once, not overthinking it.

And then I started overthinking it.

I thought that this was a movie that didn’t feel any need for subtlety. The characters tell you exactly who they are, the performances are broad, the effects are over-the-top, and it was overall intended more to be fun than genuinely scary. (Even I, as one of the biggest scary-movie cowards, never felt my heart rate go up even a tick except for a scene where a man intentionally cuts his hand with a knife). The thing I ended up liking the most about the movie was that it knew what it wanted to be.

But I read a few reviews — a couple from outlets I’d expected to be a lot more cynical and less charitable than my take — that were so effusive that I started to wonder if I’d missed something while being condescending.

The main question I had — and I won’t go into details until after a spoiler warning — was whether the movie was intended to be surprising. And I think it’s kind of interesting, because my initial takeaway was that it didn’t matter.

I’m definitely not a proponent of the whole “death of the author” line of thought. Even if it did have value when it was coined, it has no place now, and it does nothing but promote shallow and overly-literal takes on art. (And occasionally, get used by people who want to use progressive ideas like diversity, inclusiveness, and cultural sensitivity as a bludgeon).

But here, it seemed to me, was the rare case where the intention of the filmmakers didn’t actually matter, since it works fine either way. I thought I understood the story from the opening montage, so I spent the movie enjoying the tension of watching that story play out. That’s the main difference between horror and something like suspense or mystery stories: it’s not about the twists, but about watching the inevitable descent, knowing that you can’t do anything to stop what’s coming.

So I was initially confused that the ending of Late Night With the Devil spent so long belaboring the details that I’d just assumed the audience already knew. Eventually, I figured that it was a case of the movie having it both ways: if the ending surprised you, good. If it just showed you a horrific take on what you already knew had happened, also good.

But it still doesn’t fit with some aspects of the movie that I thought were unclear or just plain didn’t make sense, and for that, I need a spoiler warning.

Continue reading “Paved with some sort of intention”

One Thing I Like About Late Night With The Devil

The story of a 1970s late night talk show that aired a live demon possession

The moment Late Night With the Devil clicked with me is when I stopped comparing it to the movie I’d been expecting, and started watching it for what it actually is.

The intriguing premise suggests a period piece found footage horror movie: a narrator1Michael Ironside! sets us in the late 1970s, recounting the story of a late night talk show called Night Owls that can never seem to compete with Johnny Caron’s Tonight Show. Against the back drop of the political and cultural turmoil of the late 70s, and the satanic panic, the show’s host Jack Delroy spent years trying to build popularity for his show and get out from under Carson’s shadow. What we’re seeing is the “master tape” from the Halloween night broadcast, which featured a stage psychic; an Amazing Randi-style skeptic; and a parapsychologist with her troubled patient, a 13-year-old girl who survived a cult worshipping the demon Abraxas.

For a while, it does seem like they’re going for verisimilitude. The set direction feels spot-on, not just for a 1970s talk show, but specifically one made in New York. (It’s good that the money went into perfecting the set, since almost the entire movie takes place on one set). There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot in the opening montage showing a character who looks a lot like Orson Welles in his 1970s talk show era, and for those of us who watched those shows during our formative years, that one image establishes the setting perfectly.

But as the movie continues, it becomes apparent that Late Night With the Devil is more interested in telling its story than in being a pitch-perfect found-footage movie. The performances are pretty broad, always hovering in the zone between realism and camp. There are minor, nit-picking anachronisms; shots that wouldn’t have happened in a live broadcast; cross-fades that weren’t in style even if the technology to do them was available for live TV; “behind the scenes” shots that simply wouldn’t have been possible; and a bunch of other things that imply that whenever the filmmakers had to choose between reality and setting a mood, they always chose the latter.

In the end, the tone of the movie is much more like a Hollywood Horror Nights house than a modern found footage movie. It has a ton of ideas about theme, mood, character, and story, and it throws them out like an interconnected series of funhouse horror vignettes. The commercial breaks and behind-the-scene moments are more like transitions between broad story beats than like actual behind-the-scenes footage.

And when I say the performances are broad to the point of being camp, I don’t mean that disparagingly. David Dastmalchian as Jack Delroy has to be the most nuanced, managing a performance-within-a-performance that has to shift from corny to sincere to craven to haunted within the same scene. I was even more impressed by Ingrid Torelli as the young possessed girl Lilly, especially for perfectly playing the eeriness of someone who won’t stop staring directly at the camera. On the whole, though, the performances felt more like those of the scare actors inside a modern horror house, shouting out their lines every 60 seconds to make sure the audience gets the point of the current story beat.

Ultimately, that horror house feeling is what I liked2But didn’t ever quite love most about Late Night With the Devil. It feels like a fiercely independent movie3It feels odd calling it “low budget,” considering how aggressively it’s been marketed, and how there’s an almost comically long series of production company logos at the beginning, where the filmmakers had a very specific idea about the tone and the mood and what they believed was important, even if it didn’t fit into the modern Blumhouse mold. Even more than the sets and costumes, it feels like a throwback to the late 1970s. Especially the pre-1980s horror that valued creepy and scary moments over intense realism.

If on the other hand, you’re interested in an independent film that does commit completely to its premise, I’ve got to give another recommendation for Deadstream. It goes much more for horror-comedy than Late Night With the Devil, and in my opinion does more with its modest budget. The movies have very little in common apart from a single set and a nod to live broadcast (and both being on Shudder, I guess), but that shows how much room there is for creativity in horror movies without big studio intervention.

  • 1
    Michael Ironside!
  • 2
    But didn’t ever quite love
  • 3
    It feels odd calling it “low budget,” considering how aggressively it’s been marketed, and how there’s an almost comically long series of production company logos at the beginning

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Bitchin’ Mix Tape ’83

Two tangentially-related tunes from my troubled teens

It’s time to flip that “Metal” switch on your Walkman, because these two tunes are prompted by the question “what was the first album you ever bought with your own money?”

Mine was in 1983, and it was “Goody Two Shoes” by Adam Ant. Or I guess technically it was Friend or Foe, but I had no interest in the rest of the album and just wanted that one song. I walked into the local Turtles and asked for the cassingle, only to be told by the store clerk that they didn’t have it, and I’d have to buy the whole album. So not only was it the first album I bought with my own money, but the first step in a decades-long career of being sneered at by record store clerks.

I don’t mean any offense to Mr Ant, but even as an extremely impressionable young gay lad, I wasn’t that taken with his whole persona, and I just thought he wore too much make-up. (Of course, I did like his Honda ad with Grace Jones, though). It would probably make for a better memoir if I could trace everything back to that one pivotal record purchase, but I was just listening to whatever was popular. And my phase of listening to Duran Duran, Culture Club, Human League, etc. was short-lived, because of…

Pyromania by Def Leppard. I bought this album, as did every other 12-year-old boy in America, and I felt that I had somehow leveled up. It was time to put away childish things and graduate to the section of the music store categorized as “Hard Rock.” It was my gateway album, luring me into the dangerous world of bands like Van Halen, with its dark themes like being in high school and horny for your teacher; and Led Zeppelin, with its dark and occult-tinged songs about Hobbits.

I was especially proud of my refined tastes, because while everyone else was listening to “Rock of Ages,” I, an aesthete, understood that “Photograph” was by far the best song from the album. I can still remember my mom asking me what I was listening to, and I very seriously warned her that she might not like it because it had “very hard guitars.” (She listened to a bit and nodded and said “that’s nice.”)

The thing is: while so much of 1983 is undeniably silly, “Photograph” is still a fantastic song, even in the 21st century.