Thursday, March 4, 2010

Movies Worth Googling: strange movie reviews by Jenny Orosel

By Jenny Orosel

Recently, I did a “Damn Kids, Get Off My Lawn" check of past columns and realized I spent a large chunk of time complaining about stuff I didn’t like. So I figured I’d remedy that and write about something I do enjoy.
I like cartoons.
There has to be something in my blood that predisposes me to the animated form. My grandparents met while working at a cartoon studio (he was a gag writer, she was a cell painter). When I was seven, that very same grandmother busted me for watching Fritz the Cat on Z Channel. In my high school days, I attended many a midnight screening of Heavy Metal. Even today, I smile when I see a flyer announcing the Spike and Mike Animation Festival is in town.
I see you out there, scratching your heads (really, I can. I’ve hacked into your webcam). This is a horror site. Why is she talking about cartoons? Because I am here to say there is good horror work being done in animation. You just have to know where to look.

Aside from about fifteen years between 1970 and 1985, mainstream American animation seems almost entirely produced for children. Think about it—what was the last American animated feature you saw in a theater that was not aimed at kids? The most recent I can think of is Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World in 1992, and even that was awful, especially in comparison to his other work. Yet, there is still great animation being made for adults. Only, it’s on television now.
I do realize that most adult animation in America are comedies, yet as far as horror goes, there is one that immediately springs to mind—“South Park”. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I laugh my butt off during a lot of it. There is one particular episode, though, where they went to such a dark realm that I was left stunned by the end of the episode—“Scott Tenorman Must Die”
It’s a simple enough plotline—Cartman is tricked by an older kid, Scott Tenorman, into a series of humiliating encounters where he loses both cash and pride. Cartman plots revenge, and this is where things go horribly dark. By the end of the episode, he has arranged the murder of Scott’s parents and fed them to him in a bowl of chili. No attempts at humor, no snide jokes. Instead they leave the horrific ending. The “South Park” creators have done other horror-themed episodes such as “Night of the Living Homeless”, but nothing has since compared to the sheer darkness of the “Tenorman” episode.
If you’re looking for adult animation more solidly grounded in horror, the easiest place to look is Japan. Whether a silly children’s television show or hardcore pornography, the animation format has already been used for years, and nobody bats an eye twice.
One movie in particular sticks in my mind like rubber cement when I think Japanese horror—Malice@Doll. An interesting side note: when I looked up reviews after seeing it, there was a lot of venom. I guess it was marketed as animated porn, but instead people were given a thoughtful, slightly surreal film where sex was occasionally used (and rarely for titillation). Folks were not happy.

I, myself, enjoyed Malice@Doll. The story takes place in a Japan where, for some unexplained reason, humanity has been wiped out. All that is left are the robots, still roaming the city doing whatever task they were designed to do, aware that their human masters are gone, but unable to change their nature. Our hero is a sex surrogate robot named Malice. She wanders the street of the empty city, looking for a repairman because her eye is leaking a strange liquid. Instead of finding a repairman, she finds a monstrous octopus-like creature that, instead of fixing her, rapes her with tentacles (well, the box description says “rape”. I would call it “impaled”). When Malice wakes up, she is no longer a broken robot—she is a whole human.
And this is where things get weird. Malice seeks out her robot friends. She gives them a kiss because, as she says “It is all I know how to do.” and they too become something else…only, their forms aren’t the perfect flesh Malice has. Can she save her friends before they become hideous monsters?
There are no easy answers in Malice@Doll. We are never told what that tentacle monster was, why it had its effect on Malice, or why her kiss seems to pervert the magic bestowed upon her. These are instead left for the viewer to figure out. I like movies like that. Granted, it’s entirely possible my assumptions are far from what the filmmakers intended. Does that matter, though, when the movie itself is enjoyable and we, the viewers, find our own answers in it?
If Japanese animation has become too mainstream for your tastes, I have another suggestion for you—the work of a Czech animator Jan Svankmajer. A trained puppeteer, his movies blend live action and animation. Not in the way the CGI was mixed with human actors, ala Avatar or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. No, you can tell where the realm of the human ends and the stop-motion begins. And this is not Gumby Claymation; Svankmajer creates some of the most horribly beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen. Even in the choppy movements that are trademarks of stop-motion, his creations have a quiet grace that is both disturbing and wondrous.

Svankmajer’s latest flick is Lunacy, adapted from a combination of two Edgar Allen Poe stories (“The Premature Burial” and “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether”) and the writings of the Marquis de Sade. It tells the story of a mental patient who is having trouble figuring out who the other patients are and who the doctors are. Is he living in a madman’s realm or have the inmates really taken over the asylum?
That story is all live actors. The animation comes in during interludes, where the preceding plot is told in symbolic form by meat puppets. No need to go back and re-read that; I really did say “meat puppets”. Svankmajer took slabs of meat and did stop motion animation so they re-enacted the story. Yes, there is symbolic meaning behind it. But most importantly—THEY’RE MEAT PUPPETS! If you like your cinema with a side order of strange, you can’t get much cooler than that.
On a side note, while the three movies I mentioned above are all modern animation, I cannot talk about my favorite dark cartoons without mentioning the late, great French animator Rene Laloux. During his 28 year career, he only made three feature length films: Fantastic Planet, Time Masters (with World Fantasy Grand Master Jean Giraud aka Moebius) and Light Years. His movies play with concepts of time, morality, and what (if anything) differentiates the human from the monsters. Sadly, his films are no longer available. I do hope they’re holding out on those for some nice Criterion DVD release but, the longer it goes with no DVDs, the less I have hope.
Even if it’s been since childhood that you’ve stopped to watch some animation, I hope you give it another shot. It may take some digging but there are cartoons out there made for the non-Happy Meal set. And if you can think of any I didn’t mention, please post it in the comments section—I’m always on the lookout for new things to watch.

Elephant’s Dream: This short little film is notable for being the first open-source movie, with all production files available to be re-edited at your will. However, the story stands on its own—two men live inside a place called “The Machine” which is either paradise or a nightmarish hell, depending on your outlook.

Cat Soup: I’ve seen some strange things in my life, but this is near the top for being both strange and great. A little boy cat drowns himself so he can save his sister’s soul from Death’s grasp. However, he is only able to get half. The rest of the movie follows the two as they try to find the rest of her soul.

Billy’s Balloon: Yes, I know it’s a silly little thing, but its toys coming alive and torturing small children. I think that qualifies as dark.