Movies I have Never Seen #5: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

What is it: One of the most famous horror movies of all time, Tobe Hooper’s grim ’n gritty 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a low-budget smash, changing the horror genre forever and inspiring Halloween, Friday The 13th, Evil Dead and a million other ‘slasher’ movies. It sets the template for countless gore-fests, with a small group of sexy young people running afoul of a house full of murderous redneck serial killers in rural Texas, notably the chainsaw-wielding maniac “Leatherface.” 

Why I never saw it: Look, I’m a big horror movie fan. Monster movies, Universal classics, John Carpenter, Evil Dead, Hammer horror, you name it… except I don’t really care for slasher movies. There have been some great “slasher” flicks I dig, like the original Halloween and the fantasy-tinged Nightmare on Elm Street series, but to be honest, I’ve never liked horror that leans too much into sadism (I know, a bit hypocritical). The whole “torture porn” genre of Saw and Hostel type movies that are direct descendants of Chainsaw Massacre are not my bag at all. So even though I’m keen to fill in the gaps in my movie watching ledger, there was something kind of offputting about Texas Chainsaw Massacre for me that took me a while to get to it. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Absolutely. Chainsaw sets up its mood of intense wrongness from the opening scenes. It’s a movie where death and evil seems to lurk behind every tree. It takes a little while to “get going,” and there’s a fair bit of rather bad acting by the amateur cast until the carnage starts, but when it does, Chainsaw turns into a white-knuckle ride of sheer horror until the very final moments. The last 30 minutes or so, as lone survivor Sally flees for her life and escapes by the thinnest of margins, is unrelenting in its intensity. It doesn’t let up, and the viewer echoes the shocked, dazed trauma of Sally (Marilyn Burns) by the end. You feel pummeled, haunted by glimpses into an abyss. Chainsaw doesn’t attempt to explain its killers, to give them any motivation beyond sheer madness, and that’s scarier than anything else. 

How it’s different than I thought: Well, despite the carnage left in its wake, the original Chainsaw Massacre isn’t a terribly gory movie. The horror mostly comes from suggestion – we don’t actually see that chainsaw carving up kids, but what we do see is in some ways more terrible. It is a very scary, haunting movie, without a doubt, but it’s not wall-to-wall blood. 

Worth seeing? Yes, for its place in film history, its intense sense of mood and place, and for plunging deep into the depths of depravity – but I don’t really feel the urge to see it again any time soon. Once was enough to look into this darkness. Your mileage may vary.

Year in review: Disappointments of 2019

Let’s kick 2019 one last time as it goes out the door!

I waxed enthusiastic and positive about my favourite 12 pop-culture moments of the year just dusted, but now let’s look at the things that weren’t so great. 

* The internet and toxic fandom. Wayyy back in the early 2000s I found the net a welcoming place to discuss my geeky afflictions, to find like minds and hunt down rare information. These days, it’s more like a toxic waste dump filled with fetid landmines, with occasional patches of grace you have to contort yourself to find. Picking up blogging again for me has become a hell of a lot more positive action than making random nasty tweets and posts. I gave up entirely trying to be a Star Wars fan online, for example, keeping it to myself like a secret fetish rather than engaging with a world where too many fans think fandom is about hate rather than love. I don’t even want to TALK about Rise of Skywalker online because it’s like a magnet for the worst of us, and I actually more or less liked it. 

* Terrible comic book “events.” I’m a sucker for hype but I’ve gotten a lot more judicious about buying into overwrought, dull comic book apocalypses these days. This year I got suckered by a few – the ponderous, pretentious and unnecessary Heroes In Crisis by Tom King, a writer whom I generally like; Doomsday Clock, the never-ending Watchmen sequel/crossover that read like bad Alan Moore fan fiction and I only read out of a kind of misguided curious masochism; or DC’s endless “dark” versions of their existing heroes like The Batman Who Laughs. I’ve seen enough twisted evil versions of superheroes or dystopian alternate realities to last a million multiverses, thanks. Resolution for 2020: Don’t believe the hype.

* Cari Mora by Thomas Harris. Look, I always go into a book *hoping* it will be good. And I am a fan of Harris’ pulpy, compulsively readable Hannibal Lecter series. But this reads like Harris scribbled a few notes for a bad episode of CSI: Miami on a cocktail napkin and handed it in. It’s his first non-Lecter novel since the 1970s and was definitely not worth the wait. Predictable and stale with no characters as indelible as Lecter or Clarice Starling, and typeset in a 15-point or so font that makes this brief read seem longer than it is, Cari Mora is the worst book I read in 2019. Glad I only borrowed it from a library!

* Death, in general and specific. Grand, doom-pop singer Scott Walker. Creature of the Black Lagoon muse Julie Adams. Pioneering gay cartoonist Howard Cruse. Psychedelic legend Roky Erickson. Comics journalists Tom Spurgeon and Bill Schelly. Terrific character actor Robert Forster. Pop magician Ric Ocasek. Monkee man Peter Tork. Two stars of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Rene Auberjonois and Aron Eisenberg. Easy ridin’ Peter Fonda. So many more. The year also saw the loss of old friends and family too soon like Oxford, Mississippi’s great bohemian cultural envoy Ron Shapiro; my uncle James House, who I wish I’d known better, and my ’90s small press pal and seriously underrated weird fiction writer Sam Gafford who died at just 56 years old. RIP to all and many more. Let’s hope 2020 is kinder.

Year in Review: My top 12 pop-culture moments of 2019

It’s 2020, and I’m still getting used to that fact. While I’m recovering from three weeks in California and a return to New Zealand summer, let’s hit my 12 favourite pop-culture moments of 2019!

* It’s an obvious pick, but … Avengers: Endgame, Captain America and that hammer. Marvel fanboy bliss in a movie full of great moments and the culmination of an act of movie world-building this comic book geek couldn’t have imagined possible back in 1984. 

* Exploring the bizarre world of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag with his novels The Scar and The Iron Council. Superb reads and a doorway to exploring the whole remarkable “new weird” genre for me (latest obsession, Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne and Area X trilogy).  

* Accepting middle-aged manhood with a newfound appreciation for jazz and sax men, mainlining Miles Davis and Coltrane riffs, and catching an awesome Auckland show by Kamasi WashingtonThe wails of a saxophone soothes the savage breast of a middle-aged dude.

* The Chills are some of the greatest pop musicians New Zealand has ever spawned, and a fantastic documentary on the ups and downs of their mastermind Martin Philipps is a great look at their career. Seeing it at a special showing with Philipps himself in attendance and singing a few songs was fantastic. More reading: Martin Phillipps and the endless cool of The Chills

* The Hulk can be anything, and Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk continues to be the best comic book Marvel’s done in ages, combining horror, heroics and awe as we discover there’s life galore in the gamma giant yet. This is the only entry to repeat from last year’s list, which tells you how good it is. 

* Watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show in a cinema for the first time in years on Halloween night in a benefit hosted by creator, songwriter and actor Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien. Go-go dancers, flying toilet paper and profanity, spooky, hilarious fun and sweet transvestites galore. 

* The Mandalorian and finally seeing an IG droid do its thing nearly 40 years after The Empire Strikes Back. I can’t tell you how geeked out IG-11 made me feel. More reading: The Star Wars scene I’ve wanted for 38 years.

* Rediscovering Akira Kurosawa. Even though I love Seven Samurai, Ikuru and the Yojimbo series, my knowledge of Kurosawa’s deeper filmography has been sadly lacking, until now. High And Low, Stray Dog, Red Beard, The Bad Sleep Well and so much more are like full-course meals for the head and heart. 

* Volunteering at the Pop-Up Globe for a third season this year and, particularly, seeing their fine version of Hamlet at least 8 or 9 times, each time the performances and bottomless wisdom of the play getting deeper and deeper for me. More reading: Hamlet, the play that never ends 

* Superheroes are everywhere, and it’s impossible to see every movie and TV show, but a real highlight this year was DC’s quirky, foul-mouthed Doom Patrol series, which captured the surrealism and horror of Grant Morrison’s epic run nicely. More reading: It’s the end of the world and I like it

* Bong Joon-Ho’s astounding Parasite and those stairs. Best movie of the year in a year with a whole lot of great movies? I have to suspect it is. 

* The opening of the heartfelt and gorgeous Tongan/New Zealand documentary For My Father’s Kingdom at the NZ International Film Festival, in a colourful gala packed with Tongan spirit, music and pride. Tongans are among my favourite of New Zealand’s rich tapestry of diversity, and in a year that also brought us the horror of the Christchurch attacks, this night at the movies was an inspiration of what this country is really all about. It was a privilege to witness this. More reading: Film festivals are the best-ivals

Next time, I’ll get negative with a look back at a few cultural lowlights of 2019! 

My 10 favourite films of the torrid 2010s

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a whole lot of trouble processing the fact that we’re just a couple of weeks away from the end of a decade. 

The 2010s! Flickering past like those calendar pages did in them old movies once! I decided it was time to join the parade and look back at the less-old movies that sprang up from 2010-2019 and pick my 10 favourites. 

It was a decade of superheroes and smartphones, paranoia and Trump-astrophes. Here’s my picks, in chronological order:

Boy (2010): It’s been a good decade for Taika Waititi, who’s broken New Zealand box office records and stormed Hollywood. He hasn’t made a duff move yet, and every film he’s made this decade is worth watching, but this cozy and kind of heartbreaking family comedy is still probably his best, most personal film. 

Cabin In The Woods (2012): I love a good horror movie, and Joss Whedon’s twisty Cabin turns every horror cliche inside-out for a rollicking good, terrifying time. It’s a rampaging roller-coaster ride through scary movie history, and genuinely surprising where it ends up. And it’s got immense rewatchability value, a very important quality when picking your favourite movies. 

The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013): Excess, testosterone and the American Dream. As I said recently, it’s been Martin Scorsese’s muse for something like 50 years. This unrelenting, three-hour epic is dazzling and exhausting in equal measures, but it’s also incredibly funny, with what I’d have to say is Leonardo DiCaprio’s best performance. It’s an ugly world Scorsese shows us, but so darned good-looking you can see its appeal. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): Wes Anderson’s miniatuarist, detailed sensibility finds a perfect home in this tragicomic tale of World War II, a glorious hotel, its impossibly perfect concierge, and a young refugee in love. It’s a wonderfully absurd doll’s house full of wonderful moments, and yet it’s got a sting to it that makes it one of Anderson’s best works. 

Spotlight (2015): It’s been a hard decade for journalism and journalists. As one of the many journos who’ve watched newsrooms empty out and resources vanish, I’m always a sucker for a life-affirming testament to the sheer power of good, bareknuckled investigative reporting. This Oscar-winning story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into abuse by the Catholic Church is harrowing, hard and leaves you thinking, like any good story should. It also sadly feels like a monument to an era that’s rapidly receding into the past in far too many places. 

Captain America: Civil War (2016): There’s been so MANY great superhero movies this decade that it’s hard to single out just one. Teenage comic book geek me never would’ve imagined this era we’re living in. Pretty much every Marvel movie released this decade was on the upper end of ‘very good’ popcorn fun, and quite a few lifted even higher. That said, I slightly give the edge to this one, anchored by Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr’s amazing performances, the introduction of Spider-Man and Black Panther to the Marvel Universe, and a series of stunning action sequences that set a bar that is pretty hard to beat. 

Twin Peaks: The Return (2017): Is this a cheat? Probably. I don’t care. It’s essentially an 18-hour movie, as director David Lynch himself has said, and it’s his magnum opus. A sprawling, dreamlike and horrifying epic, it’s not what anyone imagined a return to the cozy donut-and-coffee-filled cabins of Twin Peaks would be like. And it’s better for it. It still haunts me. 

The Shape of Water (2017): I love Guillermo Del Toro, and seeing him finally win an Oscar for his magical Creature From The Black Lagoon reimagining was a delight for monster-loving nerds everywhere. At his finest, Del Toro brings fairy tales to life with plenty of heart but also a sobering dose of realism. I could watch this beautiful film for ages to come. 

BlacKkKlansman (2018): It’s a premise that shouldn’t work – a black cop “pretends” to join the Ku Klux Klan. But under Spike Lee’s sure, confident approach, this is a movie that says more about race in America than most filmmakers do in their entire career. Funny, stark and filled with Lee’s trademark directorial imagination and passion, it was a classic from the moment it came out. 

Parasite (2019): I’m going to be hard-pressed to find a better film this year. Bong Joon-Ho’s Korean tale of class envy features more twists and turns than any mainstream Hollywood thriller in a long time, and an amazing sense of place. With The Host, Okja, Snowpiercer and more, Bong is crafting a unique seat at the table for himself with the film greats. 

And bubbling just under, 10 more films from 2010-2019 that I’d all rank collectively at #11 on this list:

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010); Skyfall (2012); John Wick (2014); Creed (2015); Mad Max: Fury Road (2015); Get Out (2017); Lady Bird (2017); Avengers: Infinity War (2018); The Irishman (2019); Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood (2019)

The Irishman: Scorsese and the death of the American dream

I try and stay away from stupid internet controversies, because they’re usually stupid internet controversies. This year’s king so far is the whole “Martin Scorsese vs. Marvel Movies” stoush. 

I believe you can be a fan of both – and arguing about what’s “real” movies is kind of pointless. Scorsese is entitled to his view, and god only knows the internet will share its own views. The art stands by itself.

And while I adore the Marvel movies and will never stop being thrilled by seeing Thor or the Black Panther fly across the screen, I don’t think I’ve ever been left haunted by a Marvel movie in the same way that Scorsese’s best films affect me. 

I’ve been on a big Scorsese binge the last few weeks, after watching his epic The Irishman unfold gloriously over 3 1/2 hours on a big screen (thanks Hollywood Cinema!), which is the only way to really appreciate a movie like this.

Watching The Irishman at home on a laptop between checking your Facebook feed and feeding the dog isn’t the same thing at all. It’s the antithesis of binge, binge, binge multitasking culture, a contemplative, mournful coda to Scorsese’s career of misguided men lashing out in their hunt for the American dream. 

Returning to movies such as The Wolf Of Wall Street (a glorious monument to hedonistic excess that just gets better with each viewing), The King of Comedy or Goodfellas, we can see how Scorsese has been weaving this tapestry his entire career, all the way back to Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Toxic masculinity, if you want to call it that, has always been his biggest theme. For those who superficially watched Goodfellas and thought, wow, the gangster life sure looks glamorous, The Irishman is Scorsese’s final damning rebuttal.

The haunting final half hour or so of The Irishman sticks with me, as a damning indictment of a life full of regrets and passive evildoing. While watching The Irishman requires a commitment, it’s worth it. Robert DeNiro hasn’t been so good in years, Al Pacino tones down his “hoo-ha” overplaying to good effect, and it’s a real treat to see Joe Pesci on screen again after far too long. 

The true test for a movie’s greatness to me is how often I find myself turning it over and over in my head after seeing it, thinking about what it showed me. By that standard, The Irishman is one of the best films of the year. 

I think you can have superhero movies and you can have what Scorsese calls “cinema,” and they’re all different yet related animals. But when it comes down to it, one is a roller-coaster ride and one is a lingering meal of fine dining. Scorsese’s entire argument was that films that aren’t big-budget franchises are in danger of disappearing from the table entirely, and that would be a shame.

The Irishman is Scorsese’s feast after a lifetime of serving up thoughtful dishes, and sprawling and deliberate as it is, it is a masterpiece. 

The Mandalorian: The Star Wars scene I’ve wanted for 38 years

If I absolutely had a pick a favourite scene from all the Star Wars movies, it’s a mere 47 seconds in The Empire Strikes Back. We’re introduced to a disreputable mob of bounty hunters hired by Darth Vader to hunt down Han Solo. 

There’s Boba Fett, of course, cult icon for the ages, and another five briefly glimpsed characters – spindly robot IG-88, reptilian Bossk, battered Dengar, Cronenbergian nightmares 4-LOM and Zuckuss. These characters are seen, don’t speak, and with the exception of Boba Fett, they’re never heard from again in the movies. (Although some harried crew member apparently threw the IG-88 model in the cluttered background of a Cloud City scene for extra set dressing, spawning endless fan theories.)

Those 47 seconds launched the imagination of a million dweeby kids and an entire subsidiary industry of books, comics and cartoons looking at just who or what those dirty bounty hunters were. That’s the best of Star Wars, to me – the lived-in sense, the countless possible back stories of background aliens and extras running around with ice cream containers.

I got kind of obsessed with those bounty hunters, even the goofy-but-fun novels exploring them. I can launch a detailed explanation of how 4-LOM and Zuckuss’ names apparently got messed up by Kenner when they made the action figures, so even though they’ve corrected the error, I still always think of Zuckuss as 4-LOM and vice-versa. 

I liked the seamy, lived-in side of Star Wars. The opening hour or so of Star Wars: A New Hope, before it left Tatooine, is rich with worldbuilding for me. The strangeness of moisture farming. The inscrutable Jawas and their building/vehicle stacked with stolen droids. I liked the grimy Sandpeople, and the eternal mystery of what’s under all that wrapping. I liked the menagerie of aliens in Mos Eisley, and coming up with complicated back stories for each of them. My friends and I would imagine action figures for all of them. Most of them have actually been made in the ensuing 40 years of Star Wars fandom. 

Yet at the same time, I don’t want everything explained in Star Wars. I didn’t want to know about the midichlorians, I’m still pretty sure I didn’t need to see Darth Vader as an 8-year-old boy, and I didn’t care that much about how Han Solo met Chewbacca, even. Everyone wanted just a little more Boba Fett, but nobody really wanted baby Boba Fett holding his father’s decapitated head, did they? I hate to admit it, but I even find the Jedi Knights kinda boring. To me, Star Wars eternally has to keep that balance between fan service and overdoing it, and lately, it usually does the latter. 

But then along comes The Mandalorian, and in my complicated relationship with Star Wars I’m hooked again by mysterious characters, aliens in the desert and those bloody Jawas. Two episodes in, it’s a pleasure, Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in outer space and a streamlined, pulpy blast. To be honest, this playground is the one I wish they’d explored in all these years of Star Wars-sploitation, the grungy underbelly of Jabba’s palace and the Mos Eisley cantina. 

And there’s one scene that literally had me bursting with pent-up fan glee, as an IG droid (IG-11, not IG-88) goes into action against a bunch of mercenaries. FINALLY! I thought. After all these years, Star Wars is actually showing me one of those mysterious bounty hunters from Empire doing something, leaping into action. 

IG-88 in the original film was entirely static, giving fanboys leave to imagine anything. But to see IG-11 spinning, talking, firing blasters, moving with a weirdly Frankensteinian zombie-like walk that is exactly how I imagined such an awkward droid might move…. well, some of us have weird dreams in life and are easily pleased. I dreamed of seeing IG-88 hunting down quarry, or of Bossk wrestling a wookie or 4-LOM/Zuckuss doing evil stuff. Instead I got midichlorians, too many Death Stars and someone who’s not Harrison Ford pretending to be Han Solo. 

After 38 years, Star Wars finally gave one thing I really wanted from all its sequels, prequels and sidequels. And what a bounty it was. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #4: Shock Treatment

What is it: Like most people who’ve found themselves somewhat against the grain in life, I dig The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s pretty much the definition of a cult classic, still playing in midnight shows around the world 44 years after its 1975 release. Seeing it in a vintage theatre in high school was one of my great cultural awakenings, and fittingly, I saw it again in a theatre just this past Halloween in a terrific benefit showing here in Auckland, complete with New Zealander creator, writer and co-star Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien in attendance. I don’t do the costumes – nobody wants to see me in fishnets – but there’s something truly wonderful about a Rocky Horror screening, with everyone flying their own personal freak flag and screaming crazy stuff at the screen for a bizarre little film that somehow sticks with you.

And then there’s Shock Treatment. Shock Treatment is the little-known 1981 quasi-sequel to Rocky Horror, again written by O’Brien and directed by Jim Sharman. It’s loosely the tale of Brad and Janet (recast, woefully) taking part in a surreal TV game show experience and being “reinvented” into superstars. But in execution, it’s kind of a mess.

Why I never saw it: Even today, Shock Treatment is pretty obscure. My main vague memory of it was the cool, eye-catching poster design (above). You can find it with a bit of searching on YouTube, though. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Disappointingly, yes. Shock Treatment is a film that isn’t quite sure what it’s trying to say. You can’t really create a cult hit when you’re trying so hard to. Shock Treatment is a muddle of early ‘80s glam-pop, a satire of reality TV, and a tale of empowerment. Unfortunately, it’s a little too similar to Rocky Horror in that it’s again a tale of Brad and Janet finding their bliss. Unlike Rocky Horror’s smooth, straightforward plot, a mish-mash of horror movie cliches, Shock Treatment is maddeningly hard to follow.

A charismatic foil like Tim Curry is badly missed here, although O’Brien’s creepy Dr. Cosmo is one of the better things about the movie, but he’s not in it enough. Rocky Horror stars Patricia Quinn, Charles ‘No Neck’ Gray and Little Nell also show up in small roles. Recasting Brad and Janet was a bad idea (bizarrely, the events of Rocky Horror are never mentioned, leading you to wonder if it’s a reboot or a prequel or what). Jessica Harper is a very stiff Janet who only comes to life in the movie’s final act, while Cliff De Young’s Brad Majors is awful – his entire performance is lacking the wit and insight Barry Bostwick’s Brad brought to a single line in Rocky Horror: “It’s beyond me / Help me mommy.” 

All in all, Shock Treatment feels too much like hard work. Many of the songs are pretty enjoyable, but like most of the movie, they’re overproduced and chaotic. Rocky Horror is a strange beast of a film too, but it’s consistent and genuinely warm at times. Shock Treatment never invites you in, and you never feel like you want to shout back at the screen. 

How’s it different than I thought: While it’s wacky and strange, Shock Treatment is never as transgressive as Rocky Horror. It mocks lots of things, like Reagan’s America and TV game shows, but it never really bares its fangs. 

Worth seeing? If you’re a die-hard Rocky Horror fan, it’s worth checking out. Once. But nobody’s going to be throwing rice at the screen for this one.