Perşembe, Kasım 01, 2007

Day 31: 31 Days of Halloween

Well, Halloween and the month of October are both over, and I now lie on my back on the carpet in my monster mask with candy wrappers and Netflix DVDs scattered around me like so much detritus of the season. One thing is for certain: I am really sick of horror movies. (I expect this condition to wear off in a day or two.) Another thing is for certain: I did not quite maintain my promise to do one Halloween-related activity every day, though I tried. I had intended to visit a corn maze and a haunted house, but did not. Long hours at work and some non-horror-movie-related activities kept me from devoting every day to the Dark Lord. I did get the satisfaction, however, of watching little children bursting into tears at the sight of my horrific porch mannequin and running back down the driveway without candy; that warmed my heart. If I've permanently traumatized at least one toddler this year, I can call the holiday a success. I did manage to squeeze in a few final horror viewings, and here they are:

Invader ZIM: Halloween Spectacular of Spooky Doom: This Nick cartoon aired for only a season-and-a-half before it was canceled--an act by the channel's suits that was hardly unexpected, if you watched this horrifically demented and subversive show. Created by Jhonen Vasquez, the sardonic creator of the indie comics Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Squee, I Feel Sick, and Everything Must Be Beaten, Invader ZIM was greenlit and plugged into the Nick Toons schedule almost by blackmail; the low-budget pilot, which the network was not fully behind, scored well when shown to kids, thus prompting a much higher-budgeted, and handsomely designed, series. In the series, ZIM is an alien soldier who intends to impress his superiors by conquering Earth single-handed. He disguises himself as a schoolboy and his malfunctioning robot, GIR, as a dog, implanting his headquarters in the center of suburbia. The only one who discovers his true identity is Dib, a classmate and conspiracy theorist. Their subsequent battles reach absurdly epic proportions, such as in "The Wettening," when a water balloon fight leads to ZIM's launching of a planet-sized balloon that floods the Earth. The episodes alternate between horror tales from ZIM and Dib's nightmarish "Skool," and more overtly science fiction-themed satires taking place in outer space or other planets. All are infused with a visual style somewhere between H.R. Giger and Tim Burton, and Vasquez's Pythonesque humor. Typical exchange:

"Miss Bitters? I think Dib is even crazier than normal today. Can we use one of our crazy cards to send him to the Crazy House for Boys?"

"Each class only gets three crazy cards a month. Are you sure you want to use one?"

This comes from the Halloween special, which rather surprisingly (for a kid's show, anyway) makes visual and thematic references to Hellraiser and Aliens in its dark story of Dib getting sucked into a parallel universe where everyone has a demonic doppelganger; it's discovered that the portal lies within his head, and battling for its possession are both ZIM and a monstrous version of schoolteacher Miss Bitters, replete with insectoid legs, snapping jaws, and spear-pointed tentacles. In the climax, ZIM leaps through the portal in Dib's head to escape the nightmare world; Dib, helplessly, has to turn himself inside out in order to travel through the hole--he emerges as a pile of drippy, slimy intestines (though he hastily unfolds himself).

The Halloween special is considered by fans to be the apex of the series; it's Vasquez getting away with his darkest material right under the noses of the Nickelodeon executives. And it may have ultimately led to the show's cancellation. The unaired "second season" episodes, or those that were finished before production was halted, indicate that Invader ZIM would have become increasingly unhinged and bizarre. They're also, for the most part, not quite as inspired as those from the first season, perhaps because there's a movement away from the subversive, school-based satires into more outlandish tales of other dimensions and planets. Still, the series managed a near-perfect finale: when Vasquez received word that his production was shutting down, he fast-tracked one last "holiday special" from script to animation. "The Most Horrible Christmas Ever" is not as graphic, slimy, or gruesome as his Halloween episode, but it's somehow even more bleak. This was great television, but it also thrived because of its constraints; Vasquez set out to warp young, impressionable minds in the guise of an innocuous children's cartoon. His comic books, in which he's given free reign, are somehow not quite as effective. They lack the impish glee of a school delinquent getting away with a cruel and hilarious prank. The entire series, including the unaired episodes, is available from Media Blasters in three volumes or as a box set. To animation buffs, I give it my highest recommendation.

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary. This is Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin turning his vaseline-smeared lens toward a ballet adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. I wrote about this in my Guy Maddin essay. Worth watching for the scene when Maddin suddenly recaps the entire first quarter of the novel as an action-packed, delirious fever dream, with tabloid title cards ("A Manly Love!" "Fleshpots!").

Carnival of Souls. This might be turning into my Halloween perennial. I first saw this a couple years ago, and was startled to discover that it was shot in and around the decaying Saltair resort in Salt Lake City, Utah. When I lived in SLC, this was always a fun place to take visitors, since it's a decrepit, castle-like building with Turkish minarets, empty except for a gift shop that sells salt water taffy, and sitting at the edge of the putrescent Great Salt Lake. It seems to be a haunted place (in its heyday, it was a lavish spa and amusement park), and in Carnival of Souls it is literally haunted--by pale-faced ghouls who dance in the vast ballroom to a stuttering organ music. Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), recovering from a car accident which killed her fellow passengers, takes up a job as a church organist in Salt Lake City, despite the fact that she's an atheist. She has recurring visions of a creepy phantom--first as a face outside her car window while she drives past Saltair, then as a full-bodied specter who doggedly follows her through the city and up to her apartment door. She becomes fascinated by Saltair (or "the pavilion," as they call it here) and drawn to it despite, or because of, the ghosts that live there. Released in the public domain, the film is available in a variety of cheap sources, but I'd advise springing for the 2-disc deluxe version from the Criterion Collection. This is a fascinating, bizarre film, imperfectly acted, but mesmerizing and one-of-a-kind. Like the best haunted-house films, the film itself is haunted.

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