Saturday, November 1, 2014

TSMR: Devil

I'm planning to sit down at some point and make a list of all the horror movies I watched throughout October - fortunately, my Netflix viewing history will help fill in a lot of it!  One of those movies was Devil, which I'd seen listed on Netflix before but passed up because the premise was so ridiculous.

Five people are stuck in an elevator.  A police detective on the case must hurry to get them out, because one of the people is the devil.  Yup.

But, it was October, and I knew I wanted to watch some horror movies I hadn't already seen, so I decided to give it a try.

The movie is written (but not directed) by M. Night Shyamalan.  It definitely shows.  Full disclosure: I do like many of his movies, including some that were panned by critics.  But it drives me nuts that he always needs to have this huge twist close to the end.  The twist was really well done in "The Sixth Sense" but felt a little strained in some of his other movies.

Shyamalan also frequently uses two literary elements in combination - these two elements contradict each other, which is how he is able to lead up to the twist.  This might be why some of his other movies, although I enjoyed them, felt much more predictable than "The Sixth Sense" - I've seen enough of his movies to be onto the toolkit he's using.

The first element is the "red herring": I would imagine most people have heard this term.  It is an element of the story that seems to be crucial and allows the characters (and audience) to solve the mystery, when it is actually simply a distraction from the real truth.  In some cases, it is the opposite of what is actually true.  In others, it is simply another potential version of the truth that turns out to be incorrect.  The point is that the red herrings are meant to distract you, not only from the actual truth, but from Shyamalan's other favorite tool: Chekhov's gun.

Anton Chekhov was a writer of both short stories and plays, though he was also a physician. His comment on this dual life was that "Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress."  He first starting writing as a way to make money, but then began to enjoy it and started honing his craft.  One of his many contributions to literature is what has become known as Chekhov's gun.

Chekhov did not believe in unnecessary details.  He felt that any information given in a story, or any prop on the stage of a play, should be essential to the story.  His example was that if the writer describes a shotgun hanging above the fireplace (or if a loaded gun is on stage during a play), someone had better fire that gun in the story.  If the gun will never be used, there is no point in taking the time to describe it (or show it) to the reader (or audience).

In Shyamalan's work, the "gun" is usually a small element, introduced early in the story, as simply a fact about the character or even an event that happened before the start of the story that later on becomes the key to solving the mystery.

Despite knowing what tricks Shyamalan had up his sleeve, I'll admit that I actually did enjoy "Devil".  I'm not sure if I'd truly consider it a horror movie, though I can see why it was classified that way.  There are a few points in the story where the movie tries to be scary (and sometimes, it is effective).  But I'd consider this movie to be a mystery-thriller with supernatural elements.

Overall, I'd recommend checking this movie out, especially if:
1) you're a fan of Shyamalan's work
2) you want to watch a horror movie (or your friend/roommate/significant other wants to watch a horror movie) but you don't really want to be scared
3) you like mysteries, but can also suspend disbelief (especially if you don't believe in the supernatural)

Devilishly yours,

Thursday, October 9, 2014

TSMR Double-Feature: Evil Dead and The Thing

I've been informed that my recent TSMRs have been rather spoiler-heavy.  I'll admit, they've taken a play-by-play, MST3K approach - which is a style I really enjoy, because it reflects my thought process (and occasionally speech) while I'm watching movies.

I'm totally that guy.  I just need robots.
As much as I'd like to make my posts completely spoiler-free, I don't want my posts to become little more than a synopsis with commentary and overarching things that worked or did not work.  Instead, I'll attempt to make my posts spoiler-light.

Evil Dead
First up, Evil Dead, which I watched yesterday while I was home sick.  What better movie to watch when one is ill: when I'm really sick, I kind of feel like I'm possessed, so a movie about demonic possession is actually pretty fitting.

This movie is a prime example of the blood and gore subgenre of horror: constant bleeding, oozing, dismembering, and disintegrating.  Though there are funny moments in the movie, I think Sam Raimi was attempting to make a legitimately scary independent film.  Of course, after making this movie, he obviously figured out the concept could be better if they added humor and got rid of Bruce Campbell's unibrow.

Don't worry, Bruce - I still love you, unibrow and all
Five people: couple 1 (Ash & Linda), couple 2, and fifth wheel (Ash's sister), head up to an old cabin for a fun weekend of listening to demonic texts on a tape recorder.  That might not be what they originally intended to do, but they didn't really seem to have a plan otherwise, so when they found a strange book and tape recorder in the basement, they were thrilled to have a fun group activity.

And if that gets boring, here's another fun activity to try
On the recording, they learn that the strange book is apparently bound in human flesh and inked in human blood, and that it apparently has the power to raise demons.  Ash's sister gets pissed off and doesn't want to listen anymore.  But the male member of couple 2, who also enjoys scaring people and pointing guns at them for fun, decides to skip over all the exposition and go straight to the demon-raising.  Ash's sister stomps off to her room, couple 2 goes to their room, where they seem to spend the whole time just getting undressed by the window, and Ash & Linda have some cute exchanges over a necklace Ash bought for Linda.

But the action picks up again when Ash's sister decides to investigate a strange noise outside - because it's a horror movie, and that's what people do in horror movies - and instead gets attacked and assaulted by the trees.  Yes, that kind of assaulted.  That scene in particular is probably what resulted in this movie getting banned in multiple countries.

Of course, it could have been the aforementioned dismemberment.

Ash's sister decides it's time to leave, but she and Ash discover that the bridge (the only way to and from the cabin) has been destroyed.  They're stuck there for the night, and that's when the real fun begins.

I have two complaints about the film (and don't get me wrong, I do enjoy this movie, but not as much as Evil Dead 2): 1. In many shots, the camera is obviously in someone's hand, because it's shaky - not Blair Witch Project shaky, but enough to be distracting. 2. There's not a lot of story beyond group of kids, book, recording, crazy sh*t happens.

Evil Dead 2 doesn't have either of these issues - look for a blog post about Evil Dead 2 in the near future.

The Thing
I don't think I would ever be able to pick a favorite horror movie, but I could probably make a top 5 list.  And among those 5 would be The Thing.  I can seriously watch this movie again and again.

The film begins with a spaceship crashing to Earth.  Next, we see Antarctica 1982, and a lone dog running across the snow, a helicopter chasing it.  The dog happens upon a US research station and seeks refuge among the people there, but the two men in the helicopter seem to want nothing more than the dog dead, even firing at it while a group of US workers are standing around.  One man blows himself up while attempting to throw a grenade.  The other one accidentally shoots one of the men in the group, and another man from the US group shoots and kills the shooter.

With two dead Norwegians on their hands, Doctor Copper decides to do some investigating to determine what caused these men to go crazy.  He asks MacReady, helicopter pilot and most-trusted man in the whole group, to fly him to the Norwegian base.  In the meantime, Clark, the resident dog lover welcomes the dog in, allowing it to wander around for much of the day.  At the Norwegian camp, they find the rest of the Norwegians dead, some of which appear self-inflicted, and a body that appears human, except for the fact it has two heads.

And this isn't even the weirdest thing you'll see
The characters learn pretty quickly that the dog is no dog - it's a creature that is able to absorb and imitate other living creatures perfectly.  Which means, it could not only become a dog, it could easily become one of the people at the base.

The great thing about the movie is that, while the monster is important, what is more interesting is how quickly the characters begin to question and distrust each other.  And the viewer goes through the same thing.  Who is a "thing" and who is real?

The movie doesn't bother giving a lot of background on the group, other than establishing basic personalities and some job titles of the characters.  Mac, Copper, and Clark have already been mentioned above.  Other than them, we have:

Garry, the leader who seems to receive nothing but disdain from his subordinates
Bennings, the annoying guy who gets shot
Palmer, the pothead/least-trusted helicopter pilot ever
Windows, the radio guy
Blair, the biologist/closet computer programmer, who figures out the whole "Thing" thing
Childs, or Mr. "Voodoo Bullsh*t"
Norris, the geologist, who figures out the age of the ice the ship crashed into
Nauls, the cook and Stevie Wonder fan
Fuchs, a more junior biologist and Mac's biggest fan

Honestly, I don't think we ever learn what research they're doing, or what they spend their day doing besides drinking, getting high, and watching reruns of gameshows.  But somehow, the movie works and the only thing you wonder while watching is what the heck is going to happen next.  In fact, without knowing a lot about the characters, it makes it harder for you to figure out who is a "thing" and who is not.  You have no basis for comparison, no past experience with their behavior to determine what is normal for that character.

You'll walk away from the movie with lots of great one-liners.  And if you need an excuse to watch the movie again, there are some great drinking games out there.

Any recommendations for the next movie I should watch?  Let me know!

Doubly yours,

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Totally Superfluous Movie Review (Halloween Edition): Re-Animator

Next on my list: Re-Animator. One of the things I like about this movie is the cold open – it jumps right into the action. This tactic has been used in other horror movies and was perhaps most clearly spoofed in the opening for Ghostbusters. Dr. Gruber, an imminent researcher in brain death, is heard screaming in his office. When the police burst in, they find Dr. Gruber dying violently on the ground, as a young man in glasses hunches over him with a syringe. Dr. Gruber’s eyeballs explode and he dies, but the young man insists that he didn’t kill Dr. Gruber:

Flash to a young med student, Dan Cain, doing compressions on a woman in the ER. The doctor overseeing the case decides to use the defibrillator, which is unsuccessful at reviving the woman. As Dan tries to continue doing compressions, the doctor chastises the young man for not knowing when to give up, which “any good doctor should know.” BTW, any good doctor would also know that you don’t defibrillate someone in flat-line (or what the dumbass doc calls “straight line”).

As punishment for caring too much, Dan is told to take the woman down to the morgue. There, we observe Dan get a little jumpy around the dead bodies, and we once again see the young man from the first scene – who is introduced as Mr. Herbert West, a new 3rd year student. He speaks with a faux accent and calls another brain researcher, Dr. Carl Hill, a plagiarist. Nice guy.

Dan, who is not only a talented student, has also made the dean of the med school (Dean Halsey) like him, despite the fact that Dan is banging the dean’s daughter, Megan. Herbert interrupts their post-coital shenanigans to inquire about Dan’s need for a roommate. Though Megan immediately takes a disliking to Herbert, Dan accepts Herbert’s wad of cash and welcomes him.

During a lesson, Herbert takes his frustrations with Dr. Hill’s theories on brain death out on a couple of poor defenseless pencils.

Later, we see that Dr. Hill is about as creepy as Herbert, except the object of his creepiness is Megan. Megan runs off for a “study date” with Dan and during said date, they discover Dan’s beloved cat, Rufus, dead in Herbert’s fridge. Herbert blackmails Dan into dropping it by threatening to tell the dean that Dan and Megan are sleeping together. Um, I think the dean kind of already knows, but apparently that worked.

Later that night, Dan awakens to find Rufus alive and pissed. Dan helps Herbert kill Rufus, and Herbert brings him back to life (again) to show the effectiveness of the “elixir of life” Herbert has created.

Also helps turtles learn the way of the ninja
The howls of the cat were apparently so loud, Megan could hear it all the way at her house, because she inexplicably shows up and sees the Frankenstein-ian experiment.

The next day, when Dan tells the dean about the experiments, Dean Halsey expels Herbert, requests a written apology from Dan, and suggests that criminal charges may be filed. Nonetheless, Dan, the med student who cared too much, sneaks Herbert into the morgue to use the elixir on a human subject.

The experiment is a success, but the elixir turns the body into the Incredible Hulk, who attacks and kills Dean Halsey. Herbert decides that the body they used was dead too long and that they should use the elixir on a fresh body: Dean Halsey. Dean Halsey awakens, a little less hulk-y than the other guy, but still unable to speak and pretty pissed off. In a textbook case of medical conflict of interest, Dr. Hill takes Dean Halsey into his care, forces Megan to sign a consent form for exploratory brain surgery on the dean, and also tells her he is there if she’s ever feeling horny… er, lonely. ‘scuse me.

Dan confesses everything to Meg, while Herbert gets a taste of his own medicine (pun fully intended) when Dr. Hill blackmails him into telling him how we has been able to reanimate the dead. Herbert decapitates Dr. Hill and, not being satisfied with turning his head into a trophy with a nearby paper spike, decides to reanimate Dr. Hill’s head and body.

The pencil is totally a metaphor
But Hill once again gets the better of Herbert, by directing his body (somehow) to knock Herbert out, and steal Herbert’s notes and serum. Meanwhile, Dan discovers Hill’s creep file on Meg, which consists of newspaper clippings, photos, and a lock of her hair. I don’t even want to know how he got that last one.

Somehow, Hill is a perfect reanimation, despite the disconnect between his head and body. (Apparently decapitation was the missing ingredient.) Not a speechless hulk, he can speak (hiss is probably more accurate a word), coach his brainless/earless body to perform tasks, and control Dean Halsey into kidnapping Meg and bringing her to the morgue. Because, apparently that’s where sick MDs like get to lucky. When Herbert comes in to stop Hill, and Dan sneaks in to rescue Meg, Hill unleashes his own undead army of reanimated and lobotomized corpses. Hilarity ensues.

No really. If this movie were to create a new genre of horror, it would probably be called zombie slapstick. My favorite would have to be when Hill’s intestine decides to strangle Herbert.

Dean Halsey sacrifices himself to help Dan and Meg escape, but Meg is strangled in the elevator by one of the reanimated corpses. Dan tries to save her with CPR, then carries her to the ER, where they try to bring her back to no avail. No wonder there is an army’s worth of bodies in the morgue – the doctors in this hospital apparently suck as reviving people. What, they never heard of intubation?

Fortunately, Dan had the time to grab some of Herbert’s elixir, and he injects Meg as the screen goes black.

So the movie is definitely ridiculous, but totally entertaining. The score is pretty good, especially for a horror movie. If you enjoy horror movies with equal parts comedy, you’ll definitely want to put Re-Animator on your list.

Animatedly yours,

Friday, October 3, 2014

Totally Superfluous Movie Review (Halloween Edition): The Shining

Next in my month of horror movies: The Shining. Another great horror movie. I’ve been a big fan of Stephen King since I was kid, and have read many of his books, including The Shining. I know that King was not a huge fan of what Stanley Kubrick did with this movie, because he felt it changed some of the messages of the book. King felt the movie downplayed the influence of the supernatural and the dark forces in the hotel, instead placing the motivation toward evil and violent actions within the main character, Jack Torrance.  In fact, he thought casting Jack Nicholson was a bad move, because it clued viewers in that Jack was going to go mad at some point in the movie.

Even when he's trying to make a good impression, he looks creepy
Social psychologists have long studied the interplay of internal motivations within people and the external environment. However, the film does still suggest that the Overlook reinforced the darkness of Jack’s character, giving him a venue where such actions could occur.

The film begins with Jack interviewing for a job as winter caretaker at the Overlook, an ornate hotel placed in a secluded, beautiful area of the Rocky Mountains. The general manager explains that the hotel closes during the winter months because of the brutal snow that makes the mountain roads impassable and difficult to keep clean. As a result, the hotel hires a caretaker to stay in the hotel during winter months to keep the boiler running, do routine maintenance, and generally look after the hotel and grounds. Jack also learns that a previous caretaker lost his mind and murdered his wife and two daughters, before killing himself. Cozy. So maybe babysitting ghosts is part of the caretaker's job...

We then meet Wendy, Jack’s wife, and Danny, their son, as well as Danny’s “imaginary” friend Tony. Why do I put imaginary in quotes? Well, I’ll get to that later. This was actually the first time I’ve noticed that Wendy is reading “The Catcher in the Rye” during this scene.

Insert favorite conspiracy theory here
Danny, or more specifically Tony, tells Wendy that he doesn’t want to go to the Overlook, but refuses to say why. We also learn that Danny has no friends his age where they live – since they only moved there 3 weeks ago – so it doesn’t seem to be the social isolation of the Overlook that has him concerned. Tony – correctly – informs Danny that Jack has gotten the job and that they will be going to the Overlook soon. A terrifying vision of blood rushing out of the elevators at the Overlook sends Danny into shock, and Wendy calls in a doctor to check him out.

The doctor examines Danny and, finding no real problems, tells Wendy that Danny should be fine. She asks Wendy for more details about Danny’s history, and learns that Jack, a recovering alcoholic, once dislocated Danny’s shoulder while drunk. Hmmm, wonder if Wendy mentioned she and Danny were about to spend several months in a hotel with Jack, and little to no contact with the outside world. But hey, what could possibly go wrong?

The family heads up to the hotel, where they receive a tour of the grounds and meet, among others, Dick Hallorann, the head chef. Danny is surprised to learn that Dick also has some psychic abilities. Dick’s grandmother called the gift “shining.” Dick tells Danny that in addition to some people who can “shine,” there are also places that “shine.” Danny asks Dick if there’s anything bad in the hotel, but Dick insists there’s nothing to be worried about. The place isn’t bad – it’s just shiny. 

Jack and Wendy also learn that the hotel was built on ancient Indian burial ground. Yes, this is one of the more trite portions of the story. But it doesn’t seem that the actions of the previous caretaker are what caused the problems in the hotel, or Danny’s fears. In fact, later events in the story seem to suggest that the darkness at the Overlook is actually what caused the caretaker to go crazy in the first place. Pissed off Native American spirits is the only answer they give to why this place brings out the worst in people. Of course, some of the color combinations might have also set some people off.

The horror
The hotel clears out, leaving the Torrance family as the only occupants – well, the only living ones anyway. The movie does many things to pull you into the crazy, disorganized world, where days blur into each other. For instance, title cards flash up days of the week: Thursday, Wednesday, etc., but without any additional context – a month and date, where this particular Wednesday falls from the previous title card and so on. The viewer becomes as confused as the characters in the movie, who don’t have other people or events to help them distinguish one day from the next. Wendy plays with Danny and chats up the local law enforcement on the radio. Danny, when he isn’t playing with Wendy, tools around the hotel in his hot wheels. Jack clicks away at his typewriter, throws balls around, and generally behaves like a douche.

On one of Danny’s rides around the hotel, he runs into the two daughters of the previous caretaker. Though he reminds himself that Dick told him these things aren’t real, just echoes of the past, the girls call Danny by name and ask him to come play with them. This is the first indication that the forces in the hotel aren’t just lingering events, but sentient forces that can interact with the world of the living.

Just as Danny decides to check out room 237, Jack begins screaming in his sleep. Though Jack seems already dark and disturbed from the beginning, the dream that he has re-enacted the actions of the previous caretaker seems to truly scare him. He tells Wendy that he feels like he’s losing his mind; some part of him recognizes that something isn’t right, even if at other times he seems to welcome the darkness of the Overlook. This is (unfortunately for all involved) Jack’s last moment of lucidity.

Danny wanders into the room, having been attacked by something in room 237, and Wendy – believing that no one else is in the hotel – accuses Jack of hurting Danny. Jack angrily stomps down to the ballroom, where he finds the bar – which was emptied when the last employees left – fully stocked and manned by Lloyd. Jack shares his frustrations over several glasses of Jack Daniels, when Wendy bursts in to tell Jack that Danny was actually attacked by a crazy woman in the hotel.

Jack goes to room 237 to investigate, where he finds what appears at first to be a young and attractive woman in the bathtub. Like any stereotypical man who thinks with – well, you know – Jack temporarily forgets that this woman apparently tried to murder his son and sees this as a great opportunity for getting laid. But his libido quickly drops to zero when he watches the young woman transform into an old, partially decayed woman.

Jeez, Lloyd, how much did I drink?
Jack returns to the family’s apartment and, rather than fess up to his apparent ‘beer goggles,’ he lies and tells Wendy there is no one else in the hotel. Meanwhile, Danny is catatonic, but Jack refuses to explore the option of leaving the hotel to get help. He once again storms off.

Wendy goes to find Jack to plead with him once again, and is appalled to discover that Jack has been writing the most boring (and totally plagiarized) novel ever.

The one note novel then seems to carry over into the dialogue of the movie, as Danny ceases speaking any dialogue beyond repeatedly requesting Bacardi and Grenadine. Or maybe he was talking about something else? After all, he’s way too young to drink. He literally has to spell it out for Wendy (and the viewer) before we realize that Danny is actually talking about murder.

Silly kid. Should have said edicimoh. Okay, maybe not.

Dick Hallorann, who feels Danny’s fragile state all the way from Miami, catches a flight back to Denver, and drives up to the Overlook to check things out, where things don’t turn out so well for him. Poor Dick. He’s got enough shine for him to feel the darkness of the Overlook from Miami Beach, but not enough to see a wounded Jack hiding with an axe 5 feet away. If shining were my gift, I’d return it. It seems to cause a lot of trouble.

Wendy stumbles upon a yiffing party and hightails it out of there.

The rest of the movie consists of running around – Danny running away from Jack, Jack chasing Danny with an axe, and Wendy running from one macabre image after another. Wendy and Danny finally find each other, and Jack freezes to death in the labyrinth.

It seems the final message of the film is that the Overlook attracts the darkest, most disturbed personalities, and helps push them to do the evil actions already lurking within them. It then swallows the dark person whole, making them part of the place forever – even going so far as to rewrite history to make them a fixture of the hotel. The film ends by zooming in on a picture of Jack at a party, dated in the 1920s.

Only a supersmart kid and an incredibly resourceful wife are able to escape.

The question I’ve always had about the movie is: Who is Tony? Is he a side of Danny’s personality, a dissociative identity Danny created to protect himself from things that would be painful or dangerous? Is he a spirit or some other supernatural being that uses Danny’s “shining” ability to interact with him? I’m guessing it would be the former, considering that certain things are hidden from Danny – like Tony’s initial visions of the Overlook. If Danny had his own shining ability, that allowed him to talk to Tony, he wouldn’t need Tony to show him things. Which leads to the bigger question – what dark things has Danny already seen that would spark this psychological division?

This is perhaps the most interesting lingering question (to me anyway). Dissociative identity disorder (what has been in the past known as multiple personalities or split personality) generally occurs among people who have experienced extreme, and repeated, trauma. When the traumatic event occurs, they dissociate – they pretend they are someone else, or that they are simply watching something happen without experiencing it – as a defense mechanism. This becomes a learned behavior so that over time, the response gets faster and more automatic at the sign of any potential trauma. Maybe the actions of his drunk father brought it on? Perhaps the dislocated shoulder wasn’t the only incident. Or maybe Danny saw many other terrible things with his shining.

I’ll be honest – I really like the movie, though I think the acting is pretty crappy at times. What makes the movie so good is the compelling story and the legit creep factor of many of these scenes. And a few WTF scenes thrown in for good measure. And with that, I give you this picture again.

Superfluously yours,

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Totally Superfluous Movie Review (Halloween Edition): Poltergeist

As I've said before (and here too), I love horror movies. So I've decided this October to spend my month watching horror movies in my spare time. I'll be honest - this probably won't be a horror movie a day, but it should add up to a lot of horror movies by October 31st. But why not spread the love around and blog about it?

First up in my month of horror movie viewing: Poltergeist, or what I like to call an extended metaphor for why TV is evil and destroying the American family. Also clowns are creepy.

According to Gestalt psychologists, we look for order and patterns, even in chaos. Perhaps this is why we have so many horror movies that use white noise and TV static. The static forms the basis of the ghostly visits, and also provides a venue for Carol Anne to speak to her family after she’s been taken. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The movie begins with the TV going to static, then follows the family dog as he hunts for food around the house and visits its (living) occupants: Steven, Diane, Dana, Robbie, and Carol Anne. Things get weird when the dog wakes Carol Anne while hitting her up for food, and Carol Anne walks downstairs to carry on a conversation with the television, waking the rest of the family in the process.

Wacky hijinks with beer cans and children’s bikes, and fun with remotes show the normalcy – even mundaneness – of the family. In the meantime, the children get a lesson in life and death, when their bird Tweety dies, and they bury (him? Her?) in the yard. Carol Anne seems to be the only one genuinely upset about the ordeal, but quickly perks up when she asks for (and receives) a couple of goldfish. Still, it may be Carol Anne’s sympathetic nature that first drew the spirits toward her. We also learn about Robbie’s fear of thunderstorms, the creepy tree outside, and the even more creepy clown doll.

Seriously, what's with that thing?

And of course, talking dirty in Donald Duck voice.

After the TV people reach out to Carol Anne again, and rush out of the TV and into the bedroom wall, things start getting weird. First, we get one of the most iconic lines in horror movie history.

The next morning, Robbie’s milk glass suddenly bursts and his silverware bends on its own. The family dog engages in an early canine form of TV people worship – perhaps the TV people are televangelists? And chairs move on their own.

Such rude houseguests – the first place they go after coming in uninvited is the kitchen.

The scares progress quickly after that. The creepy tree attacks Robbie, and while the rest of the family (minus Carol Anne) try to rescue him in the midst of a thunderstorm and black tornado, the spirits pull Carol Anne into the closet, where a bright light appears. The black tornado gobbles up the tree – which leaves me wondering, is the tornado part of the spirits’ manifestations? Something else? It kind of helped out the family, after all.

Who is the real hero of the movie? The tornado.

The family comes back into the house to find Carol Anne gone, and run around searching for her. Robbie, still shaken from the hungry tree attack, wanders into his parents’ bedroom, where he hears Carol Anne speaking through the TV.

The focus of the movie then becomes getting Carol Anne back. Steven goes to the local university to enlist the help of a parapsychologist (Dr. Lesh) and two other experts (Ryan and Marty) in… something, not sure what. But hey, they seem to know what they’re doing. The angry spirits in the house go out of their way to prove to the three academes that they exist, even moving things around when one deigns to say, “We don’t know if your house is actually haunted.”

The group stays in the house to continue investigations. Marty, apparently after discovering Steven and Diane’s pot stash, has some major munchies, and ventures into the kitchen, where the spirits have staged an intervention to curtail his overeating.

That'll teach him
The spirits also trick Marty into believing he has ripped half his face off. That was far less helpful, as Marty refuses to return. The plot thickens as we see 1) a bunch of ghostly men and women parading through the living room, 2) Dr. Lesh tells Diane she’ll be back with some help, and 3) Steven’s boss shares that they’re moving a cemetery for the next division of homes and that they’ve done it before, down in the valley. Hmmm, that might be important information. We also learn that Carol Anne was born in the house.

So then Dr. Lesh comes back with Tangina Barrons, the best maid in town.


Unfortunately, she apparently didn’t share her whole plan with Steven. When Diane had gone into the light to get Carol Anne, and Tangina started telling the spirits to go into the light, he freaks out that she’s sending his loved ones into the light and tries to pull them out. And that’s when he gets a visit from a giant head.  Not Wizard of Oz head, more like face of a half-decayed demon skeleton head thing.  What, you want a picture?  Fine, here.

Terrified, Steven drops the rope.  So much for “never” letting go.

But things turn out okay as Diane and Carol Anne fall from the living room ceiling.  The family is whole again, Tangina declares the house clean, and everyone is happy. Except the family decides to move out and Steven tells his boss to go to hell. Little did any of them know that Tangina didn’t quite clean the house, because the scary beast guy is still there, and he’s pissed.

What happens next is incredibly scary, especially for anyone afraid of clowns, never-ending hallways, spidery ghost thingies, and jumping coffins.

It also shows that the beast was going easy on the family up until then, because he could have easily disposed of all of them if he had wanted to.  Instead, he attacked when they were a little more prepared.

Oh yeah, and we learn the real kicker of the story - when they "moved" the cemetery, they only moved the headstones. The bodies remained.  Hmmm, wouldn't they have noticed (and had to move them) when digging down the foundation?  But I digress.

Fortunately, the problems are solved when the house is strangely pulled into the light as well. Or maybe the tornado just saved the day again. The family checks into the hotel, promptly removes the TV from the room, and the credits roll.

Despite my jokes, this is one of my favorite movies.  I remember being terrified the first time I saw it, and it still creeps me out every once in a while.  But I love every minute of it.

Hauntingly yours,

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On Sleep Disturbance, Color Perception, and the Loneliness of Perception

I just watched a wonderful video that discussed something I've wondered about before: is my perception of color the same as yours?  As I suspected, the video stated that this is something we will never truly know.  Specifically, it is part of the "explanatory gap" - the failure of language and human understanding to adequately communicate to another human what their own perceptions feel like or, in the case of color, look like.

We learn color through exposure.  No one is able to explain to us in words what "yellow" is; instead, they have to show us.  This school bus is yellow.  This pencil is yellow.  Over time, we learn how to identify yellow on our own, based on what we have been shown, as well as our ability to generalize learned information to other things.  We also learn to discriminate - to learn definitions in such a way that we can say, "This thing is yellow.  This thing, on the other hand, is orange."  We can never describe in words how we know this thing is a different color than another, except to say that it looks different.  These abilities are one of the reasons that, even a human of low intelligence is smarter than a computer when it comes to detecting context and experiencing things through perception, rather than hard numbers.

Which leads me to another story.  When I was 8 years old, I began my lifetime struggle with insomnia.  At best, I can get 7 or 8 hours a night - if I go to bed really early, and intend on staying in bed for far more than those 7 or 8 hours to make up for the latency in falling asleep and all those times I wake up in the middle of the night.  At worst, I get 2 to 4 hours a night.  These are the nights I dread.  It doesn't matter how tired I am.  It doesn't matter if I can barely keep my eyes open during the day.  I may still find myself exhausted and in bed, but unable to sleep.

It's a difficult thing for people without sleep disturbance to understand.  How can one be sleepy, but unable to sleep?  In fact, it isn't just their inability to feel my feels - I didn't even know that what I was experiencing was abnormal for a very long time.

Our only experience that we can truly know is our own.  As the video I linked above says, we are alone in our perception of the world.  We can use language and examples to describe our perception to others, but we can never truly know if they feel what we feel.  So for the longest time, I thought my sleep was perfectly normal, because I only had my own experience to draw upon.  I thought everyone took 30-60 minutes to fall asleep.  And I thought everyone woke up multiple times in the middle of the night.

I remember one time in high school, when I was sick, that I actually slept the whole night through without waking up.  I mentioned this to a friend the next day, expecting that they would say, "Yeah, you must have been really sick to be able to sleep that much."  Instead, I got, "What do you mean you wake up multiple times at night?"  Of course I do.  Doesn't everyone?  I was surprised to learn that, no, my sleep was different from others.

Still, I didn't think much of it, until I got to graduate school.  As a psychology student, I was taught again and again that the primary determinant of whether any disorder is problematic (and in need of treatment) was if it interfered with one's life.  When the stress of grad school caught up with me to the point that I was getting only a couple hours a night, I knew I had a problem.  And when I began forgetting things - important things, like class assignments and assistantship duties - I knew I needed to get help.

I was 23 or 24, and for the first time in my life, was finally diagnosed with insomnia.  Something I'd already spent 15 or 16 years of my life battling.

There is a clear stigma around mental illness - perhaps less so with regard to sleep disturbance, but the end result is the same.  People don't talk about it.  And given that our only experience of the world is our own, we may not know how it feels to be other people because we can't experience it.  Unlike color perception, however, we can use language to describe the experience of feelings: sadness, fatigue, anxiety, euphoria.

But we don't know what others are feeling - truly feeling - unless they tell us.  We may not realize that others feel sad for no other reason than they are and that things feel hopeless.  We may not realize that others feel anxious about different events.  We may not realize that others sometimes want to stop living in this world for any number of reasons - or no reason at all.

With the recent news of Robin Williams's suicide, the world is talking.  They're talking about depression.  Suicide.  They're expressing disbelief, or understanding, or fear that it may happen to someone they love.  Remember, no one knows what it feels like to be you, unless you tell them.  Here's to keeping the conversation going.  You never know what sharing that side of yourself to others may do.  It just might save someone's life.

Deeply yours,

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Totally Superfluous Movie Review: Alien Resurrection - and Why It's Actually an Early Version of Firefly

After working on a few things around the house last night, I decided to settle in with a movie as I waited for my husband to come home. I looked through my (probably) hundreds of DVDs and Blurays, and just couldn't find anything I was really dying to watch. Then I remembered that I received the Alien movies in a Bluray box set for Christmas last year. I'd watched Alien and Aliens not too long ago, so I didn't feel like watching them again. I occasionally break out Alien 3 just for continuity's sake (not a great movie, but watchable), but never ventured as far as Alien Resurrection.

That dark place is where movies go to die - you must never go there, Simba.
I actually have only seen Alien Resurrection once - when I saw it at the theater on one of my first (and only dates) with my first high school boyfriend. I don't remember enjoying it very much, and I generally enjoy these types of movies. To paraphrase Ash from the first movie, "I admire their purity." They are what they are without any pretense. So I decided it was time for another viewing.

First off - holy crap, this movie was written by Joss Whedon?! How did I never know this before?! And the whacky crew of the Betty? That would be Firefly version 1.0. Seriously. I'll get back to that later. But here's more realizations in a sort of play-by-play as I watched the movie. (Spoilers ahead.)

The scientist performing the surgery at the start of the movie? That would be GrĂ­ma Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (and the extended cut of Return of the King). The actor, Brad Dourif, was also Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Chucky in the Child's Play movies. Dude, my Kevin Bacon game just got a lot more formidable.

Ripley and Sarah Connor from the Terminator movies are definitely cut from the same cloth. Ripley was arguably a bit tougher at the start of the adventure, but still - these two characters have a similar progression from, "Oh, I guess I have to fight" to "Mess with me, and I'll bust your kneecaps with my big toe." The scene where Ripley attacks the scientist while handcuffed reminded me of Sarah's interactions with her psychiatrist in Terminator 2.

And now the crew of the Serenity - er, Betty:

First up, Captain Frank Elgyn, who like Mal is a gun-for-hire. However, whereas Mal is moody but honorable, Elgyn is just sleazy. I don't think anyone is that upset when he's killed off.

Co-pilot Sabra Hillard is kind of a mash-up of Zoe (in the devotion to her captain sense) and Inara (in the love interest sense), but take away any opinions or motivation other than pleasing her man. While the movie itself would pass, I don't think Hillard's character would pass the Bechdel test by any stretch of the concept.

Mechanic Vriess is kind of similar to Wash, in that he lends some goofiness to the story, but has a few attributes of Kaylee as well.

Johner is like a meaner, slightly more violent version of Jayne. The similarity is pretty striking, though. I bet on some distant world, he's celebrated as a folk hero, with his own statue and theme song. He just needs this hat and he's there:

Finally, Annalee Call (played by Winona Rider) is very similar to Kaylee. She's also the final step of the complementary synth progression process that inverts Ripley's badass progression. You see, as Ripley gets more and more badass across the movies, the synths get more and more agreeable and weak.

Movie 1: Ripley has to sing herself a lullaby to kill the alien, Ash tries to murder her with a rolled up porno mag while bleeding whatever that white "blood" is.

Movie 2: Ripley battles the alien queen with a loader, Bishop saves the girl after he was ripped in two and also makes some cheeky comments about humans.

Movie 3: Ripley is the honey badger of the movie, Bishop is unable to even get sympathy for being little more than a bust and begrudgingly complies to Ripley's demand that he recover data from the flight recorder.

Movie 4: Ripley continually kicks ass, Call is like a futuristic PETA protester.

BTW, the only reason Alien Resurrection passes the Bechdel test is because of Call and Ripley. Oh yeah, and the subject of their conversations, these guys:

The Reavers of the Alien Whedonverse
And then there's Purvis, one of the Alien hosts, played by Leland Orser, who has a penchant for playing guys found as a quivering mess of collateral damage from the actions of the bad guy. If you seriously want to talk about type-casting, check out this guy: he's doomed to play his character from Se7en over and over again (he was the collateral damage of the "lust" murder).

Overall, there are definitely some issues with Alien Resurrection, not the least of which is the previously mentioned Bechdel results. It's kind of surprising to me that Joss wrote this, given some of these issues, like the annoying "Careful" warnings of Wren that are more likely to cause Dr. Gediman to slip and kill both Ripley and the Queen than anything else. Or the triteness of the dialogue from General Perez. Or the stereotypical throw down that results from Johner trying to make the moves on Ripley, that are more a thinly veiled attempt to show her badassedness than a display of true human behavior.

To be fair, the concept of writing credit in Hollywood is different from what I tend to deal with in academia - in my field, with some exceptions, the person who does most of the writing gets the most credit (being listed first), and people who do less writing get less credit (being listed after the first author). In Hollywood, the person who gets writing credit may have only done the first draft, which could be substantially rewritten by the time it gets to the final cut. One reason for this exception has to do with writing contracts. Depending on what is in the contract, a rewriter's only reimbursement for his/her time may be monetary, and he/she may not ever be listed as a writer in the opening credits. While rewrites are presumably to improve a script, they may also reduce the quality (see the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie as an example). So it's possible that the script Joss gave them is very different from what I watched last night.

That being said, the Firefly similarities definitely scream Joss Whedon. The Betty/Serenity crew similarities, the Alien/Reaver similarities, even the message of the film are signature Joss. As I've discussed before, one big message I saw in Buffy is that the monster is often ourselves. While the Aliens are terrifying bad guys with a mission to destroy other life, the true bad guys of the movie are even worse:

What happens when you have endless resources and scientific knowledge, but no sense of morality...
As Ripley and the survivors try to escape the ship, they happen upon a room containing previous Ripley clone failures. And when we saw the final Alien queen, capable of giving live birth (as Dr. Gediman calls, "perfect"), we realize that the multiple clone experiments were not to recreate the perfect Ripley, but rather, the perfect Alien. The final ("successful") Ripley clone is merely a side effect of those attempts. Even more, though they did surgically remove the queen from Ripley, allowing her a chance at survival (and after the revelations I just described, I wonder why they even bothered), they certainly did not offer that possibility to the human cargo sold to them by faux Mal.

While you could argue there is also a pretty literal demonstration of "we are the monsters" in the final Alien hybrid:

throughout the movie, the real monsters are the people. In fact, even in more pure instances of Whedonverse, the super powered bad guys aren't the real monsters. The human beings who make the decision to turn to darkness are much more maligned. Ripley's response when we learn that Call is a synth is probably the most telling: "No human being is that humane." Ripley, who has witnessed - and been a unwitting victim of - more of the dark side of humanity than anyone else, has no more love for this sorry species.

Final verdict - I think if I ever get the urge to watch this movie again, I'll just watch Firefly instead.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Beautiful Asymmetry

Tom Cruise is newsworthy. Not my most surprising revelation, but hear me out. Apparently, everything he does is newsworthy. That “Tom Cruise picks his nose in public” Twitter account is still waiting for its moment to shine. Perhaps that is why, recently, the world was shocked to discover that Tom Cruise has an asymmetrical face.

And people just can't let it go (check out #9). No doubt, countless scholars in the area of psychology and other fields studying physical attractiveness and its impact, had the same reaction as me. “Yes, he does. So do I. So does the person who wrote this article. So do the people reading it.”

Asymmetry is completely natural - arguably more natural and common than the voyeurism so pervasive in our society that it clamors for more articles metaphorically dissecting our favorite celebs. Perhaps, then, what is more surprising than the realization that Tom Cruise’s face is asymmetrical, is the fact that it took this long for anyone to notice.

Researchers in the area of physical attractiveness have found, however, that symmetry is considered attractive to most human beings. So perhaps that is reason that we are shocked to discover that people we consider attractive have “flaws." Beautiful people tend to have a pretty easy lot in life: they get paid more, they are less likely to be found guilty by criminal juries (and if they are found guilty, tend to receive lighter punishments), and mothers are even more affectionate to attractive babies (read more here).

Symmetry is also a sign of good genes, because it means one is less likely to have genetic mutations. You see, symmetry is in essence averageness. In studies where researchers have composited multiple faces together, participants actually rate the composites as more attractive, because these composites average out distinctive features (a crooked nose, eyes that are slightly different sizes, etc.).

The truth is, if you scrutinize any face in isolation of other faces, you will find asymmetry. Want some evidence? Here are pictures of people perceived as being faces of beauty, and rather than just taking in the whole face, start looking at individual features and you'll see it. (Disclaimer: I am in no way saying these people are actually unattractive because of this asymmetry, just showing you it is there.)

First up, Cindy Crawford. Ignore the mole on one side (a pretty obvious instance of asymmetry) and look at the rest. Notice how her left eye (the right side looking at this picture) is slightly higher and larger than her right? This is very typical - the left side of just about anyone's face is usually larger. Also notice her face shape is not quite symmetrical; her left jaw is a bit more square.
Ryan Gosling. Notice that his left eye is lower (actually quite a bit lower) than his right. His nose is crooked, slanted a bit more to the left. And his face shape is also slightly different on his left side than his right.
One more - Marilyn Monroe. I'll admit, this one took me a little longer to see, since in most photos I found she is 1) heavily made up, 2) shot with very strategic shading over one side of her face, and 3) often shot from slightly off-center. Again, her left eye is slightly lower than her right, and the right side of her face is actually a bit narrower than her left.
I feel I've made my point that we're all asymmetrical. But just to belabor it a bit more (and in fairness to our perfectly gorgeous individuals pictured above), I give you one non-celebrity:

This was a Halloween pic, so don't worry - I don't usually have antennae. First, note that my left eye is lower than my right (not just because my head is turned), and my chin is a bit fuller on the left side. The right side of my face is also a bit narrower, just like Ms. Monroe above. Also, note that my left eyebrow has a more pronounced arch than my right. If you could see my ears, you'd probably also notice that one is lower than the other.
The truth is, even people without backgrounds in psychology or research experience have gotten the message that our faces are asymmetrical. Why do you think people talk about being photographed "from my good side"? It may be that one side is truly better than the other, but it's probably more likely having one side in the foreground is better than being photographed head-on. This technique camouflages the asymmetry. Makeup and good shading can also have a strong effect.

But I still haven't totally answered the question about why we may have missed these very human characteristics in celebrities. I'll introduce you to another offspring of this asymmetry work - more fun with averages!

Remember what I said above about composites being perceived as more attractive? Faces in a group photo are also perceived as more attractive than solo faces, for the very same reason. Our brains average across what we see in a picture. So if there are multiple faces, your brain will average across them, making them all seem more symmetrical in your mind's eye.

Where do we tend to see celebrities? When they're all glammed up attending an award show or movie premiere, they tend to be in groups. There are people in the background much of the time. On the other hand, where do we tend to see celebrities walking solo? Tabloids, where they're usually being attacked for their weight, their looks, their lack of makeup, etc. They are out of their usual context, and perhaps as a result, perceived as less attractive.

So what can we learn from this?

That I've perhaps made myself look more attractive by including my photo in the context of attractive celebrities? Maybe, though scrolling down to see my face probably means Ms. Monroe is out of the frame. Instead, you're probably averaging me with the parrot.

Or that if you want to look more attractive on dating websites, you should include a group photo instead of a picture of yourself alone? Again, maybe. I'd love to hear if that actually works (just idle curiosity; no plans on dating profiles anytime soon).

But perhaps the big thing we can learn from this is that, when we are comparing ourselves to celebrities and scrutinizing our own flawed face, that we can be assured that all faces have flaws. Flaws make us human.

Asymmetrically yours,

Monday, May 26, 2014

Trivial Only Post: Random Thoughts about Vampires

I stumbled across an old (but still funny) cartoon about Blade crossing over into the Twilight universe and slaying Edward.  Okay, not actually Edward - they call him Edgar, probably to avoid copyright infringement.  But whatever.  And I thought, "Damn, if only..."

But then I thought, "What makes us think a stake would kill him?  I mean, sunlight doesn't kill him.  Poor writing doesn't kill him.  Bad acting doesn't kill him.  He's seriously immortal, which sounds cool and all, but I don't want it if it means I sparkle."

I've also already discussed (at length here and here) that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my favorite show.  Of course, I'll be the first to admit the inconsistencies in its approach to vampire lore.  First of all, important vampire characters live longer in sunlight than throwaway characters, almost as if the love (or hatred, or sometimes a little of both) imbues them with additional powers.  One of the Master's goons (or really any character bereft of a name) can be thrown into sunlight and instantly explode, but Spike can sizzle for a full minute before an appendage bursts into flame.  Second, there is marked variation in vampiric gestation.  Some vampires awaken in the morgue (e.g., the vampire at the end of "The Body").  Others awaken on the table or in their casket at the funeral home (e.g., the vampire at the beginning of "Help").  Still others are buried, perhaps for days, before they wake up (e.g., Ford in "Lie to Me").  AND BUFFY ALWAYS KNOWS.  I think I need to watch more Buffy to figure this out...

Trivially yours,

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

If Psychological Research in Movies Were More Realistic: The Haunting

I've been pondering this post for a while.  And after reading some IRB-themed jokes recently (yes, that's what I do for fun), I thought this would be a funny post to write.  So here it is, what research in movies would look like if it were more similar to research in real life.  When I started this, it was going to be just one post, but there's so much material out there, I thought this might be part of a series of portrayals of research in movies.

First off, the movie, The Haunting… Not a great movie by any means (it holds a rating of 17% on Rotten Tomatoes), and even the awesome cast couldn't save it.

The cast, searching desperately for a sensical plot...
Sadly, this movie depicts what many people think psychological researchers are like: manipulative, deceitful, lacking any empathy.  It also fails to follow the basic rules of ethical psychological research.  Forget about the fact that the house is actually haunted, and look only at the plan of the study.  Here's what would happen if someone tried to recreate this study in real life:

Research Protocol Review

Dr. David Marrow discusses his project with his department chair, who insists that he can't conduct the study ethically.  But he ultimately lets Dr. Marrow do what he wants and shrugs as if to say, "But hey, give it a try and see how it turns out."  How would that conversation have ended in real life?  The department chair would have concluded his comment on ethics with, "but we'll have to let the IRB sort it out.  File the paperwork and you should have a decision in a couple of months."

Let's see, I'm bribing emotionally unstable insomniacs with a sizable salary and free room-and-board to come to a weird old house that I'm going to trick them into thinking is haunted.  That should qualify for expedited review, right?
Barring the IRB determining, like the department chair said, that there is no way to conduct the study ethically, Dr. Marrow gets his approval and can go forward with his study.  Of course, that's a big if - the IRB would probably, at the very least, require lots of additional language in the consent form to warn people about how this study might make them feel (um, scared, probably) that would prevent Dr. Marrow from deceiving his participants as much as he would like.  And by the way, consent forms?  There don't seem to be any in this movie.  But okay, he gets that figured out and he can begin recruiting.


Did he get the IRB's approval of the text of his ad before putting it in the paper?  And is the newspaper staff member handling the call inquires on the IRB paperwork (since he or she will be speaking with potential participants)?  If not, better file an amendment first.

After filing his amendment and getting the staff member at the newspaper to complete the necessary ethics trainings, Dr. Marrow can again proceed with recruiting participants.  

The Study Itself

Once he has them, he invites them to the house where they will begin the study.  All good for now.  But what's next in the study procedure?  Signing consent forms!  What fun.  Oh, and since he's collecting information about people's sleeping patterns, medical diagnoses of insomnia, etc., he better also have them sign a HIPAA authorization too.

And on page 20 of the consent form, you'll see that you can stop participating at any time without penalty.  Directly below that, see the note about the gatekeeper chaining us in every night.
So now he has three consenting, HIPAA-authorizing participants.  He can go on with the study, which also involves the house staff giving the participants additional information about the house being haunted.

Wait, I didn't see anything about confederates in your study paperwork.  Better file another amendment and complete protocol deviation forms for the three participants.
But then things go horribly wrong.  It turns out the house really is haunted and the people are actually in danger.  What does the IRB say?  The IRB requires researchers to report any adverse events (harm) or serious adverse events (injury or even death) caused by the study.  Both require forms to be filed with the IRB, and the IRB must then decide if the study can continue safely.

This would be a serious adverse event.

Basically, all of these protections are in place for a reason.  Informed consent means the participants know what they are in for - they may not know the true purpose of the study (because deception is allowed) but they have to know what they will be asked to do in the study and potential harms that may result.  Participants also have to be allowed to leave the study at any time if they wish.  The IRB continues to oversee studies and steps in if things turn out to be more harmful than originally thought.

Somebody find the chain cutters...
Thoughtfully yours,

Monday, March 3, 2014

Trivial Only Post: An Open Letter to Winter

Dear Winter,

We realize that you have been wronged.  You've gone easy on us these last couple years, and how did we repay you?  We called you 'mild', we jokingly referred to you as 'Spring'; yes, we know you are not Spring, and so calling you this wrong name must have really hurt your feelings.

So what did you do this year?  You reminded us what Winter really is.  It's cold.  It's long.  It's loaded with snow.  It makes you question why you live where do, because, despite being tolerable to gorgeous 9ish months out of the year, it's "snow, snow, too cold to snow, still too cold to snow, warmed up and guess what? Snowed" the other 3 months.

We see now that your actions are just a response to our behavior.  We remember what you are - you are cold, you are rough, you make small children and even grown adults cry.  You make us buy funny hats with earflaps and lined with so much fleece we spend the day with sweaty hat-hair, and coats so puffy, we have to loosen our seatbelt.  Never again will we call you 'mild.'  Never again will we question, "What's with all the snow?"  We know; it's Winter.

Never forget
We get it now.  And we apologize.  We remember who you are.  You can be over any time now.

Be sure to send in Spring on your way out.

Hugs and lollipops,