Sunday, August 31, 2014

Phantasmagoria [Short Story]

by Grant Gougler

Originally published in Under the Bed #12, August 2013

Here's the second story I ever published. It appeared exactly one year after the first story I published. I'm working on shortening the gap between this one and the next.

When they got off the bumper cars, Marie grabbed Jonathan’s hand.

“Come on,” she shouted. “Let's do the haunted house!”

Jonathan froze, savoring the touch of her palm against his. Did this mean they were boyfriend and girlfriend now? Or did that only happen after they hit second base?

He was still trying to remember what second base was, exactly, when her momentum jerked him along, leading him through a stream of pedestrians, balloons, and cotton candy. So far the most "action" he had gotten was the shoulder-to-shoulder contact induced by The Himalaya’s g-forces.

The line for the haunted house ride bent around the queue ropes twice. The ride itself sat behind the cartoonish facade of a dilapidated colonial. Giant eyeballs peered from two of the attic windows. A dog sculpted in the bizarre style of Big Daddy Roth was perched on the eave, howling indefinitely at the moon.

As they made small talk about school and homework and TV, Marie had yet to let go of Jonathan’s hand. It was a little thing, sure, and Marie probably wasn't even conscious of doing it. Jonathan, however, could focus on nothing else.

“So how long have you lived here?” Marie asked.

“Fifteen years,” Jonathan said. “All my life.”

“Get out! You’ve never even moved once?”

Jonathan shrugged. “I actually live about four blocks from here. You can see my house from the Ferris wheel.”

“I live close too,” Marie said, then she suddenly looked sad. "I move around a lot, though."

The sun had gone down. The bulbs on the ticket booths began to chase. The amusement park would be closing soon. Which meant he was running out of opportunities to kiss her.

He'd stared at his bathroom mirror before the date began, promising himself he wouldn’t chicken out this time. The fate of the universe seemed to hinge on Marie’s lips. His brain simply couldn’t comprehend any possible future in which his mouth didn't press against hers and their tongues met to... well, whatever it was that tongues do when couples made out. That was a whole other mystery for him to bumble through when the time came.

And the time would come, wouldn't it? Yes. It had to.

When it was their turn to take the ride, the automated car jerked around a bend and slid to a stop in front of them. Jonathan counted off four tickets from the accordion-folded stack in his pocket and tore them off at a perforated line. He handed them to the pimply attendant who looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but there. Always the gentleman, Jonathan let Marie climb into the rail-guided cart first and slid in beside her, worrying about whether he was too close or too far from her.

The haunted house was kid’s stuff, sure, but his heart never failed to skip a beat when the car plowed through the plywood door and into the darkness beyond. The first thing passengers saw was a long tunnel with a stop sign at the end. It looked old, dirty, and vaguely radioactive, like something in an abandoned mineshaft. Marie playfully squeezed his arm with both hands as the car rammed through the hinged sign.

The next area was a pitch black room, which would have been silent if not for the hum of the electric rail. Somewhere a pneumatic device hissed in the darkness, the telltale sign something was about to jump out at them. Sure enough, a light shone on a ghoul as it swooped towards them, only to encounter the chicken wire that thwarted its vandalism.

“Oooo,” Marie intoned. “Scare-ree!”

The car took them through a cave which looked like something out of a Casa Bonita. Then there was a naked woman statue which spun around to reveal a gory front side as opposed to the expected full frontal nudity. Following that exhibit was a bus, driven by a skeleton, which always appeared out of nowhere, blaring its horn. Jonathan hoped he hadn’t noticeably jumped. That trick startled him every time even though he was always expecting it.

After the car ascended to the second floor it would ram through another door and cross an exterior balcony, which was in full view of those waiting in line outside. The designers had installed the interlude to prevent couples from getting too far past first base. Yet first base was just fine for Jonathan. He wasn’t greedy.

As they crossed the balcony outside, Marie waved at the people queued below. Then she hammed up an expression of horror as the car dragged them back inside. And then they were alone, her body half-facing Jonathon's, and the smiles on their faces faded, giving way to stone cold seriousness. Her eyes, glowing eerily in the ultraviolet light, flicked down to his lips.

Jonathon's heart stopped, then swelled as they leaned against each other with precise timing. A peck at first, then the slight parting of lips for tongue. Seconds later, he began to pull himself away so that he could read her expression. Marie wouldn't allow that. She pulled him closer, fingers intertwining with his hair and kissing him hungrily.

Meanwhile he heard, but did not see, the car slam through another door. They had entered the part of the ride which descended beneath the beams, one of which was rigged to snap as if there had been a cave-in. As they kissed, Jonathan opened one eye and saw the door swing shut behind them, revealing a robed man standing in the corner of the tunnel, eyes hidden by the shadow of a hood. The man lifted a finger to his lips in a shushing gesture. His other hand, Jonathan saw, grasped a lever on the wall—the kind of lever they used to fry inmates in prison movies. Jonathan shot the prankster the bird over Marie's shoulder.

People got out of their cars and joked around all the time in the haunted house. One time, Jonathan's best friend’s brother had showed them that if you stood up and hopped on the back of the car you could make it pop a wheelie, stopping it on the rail completely. Then the car behind you would eventually come along and unwittingly wreck into you like a bumper car, which was especially hilarious if you knew the person behind you.

That was kid's stuff, though. Tonight, Jonathan was becoming a man. He closed his eyes and continued to kiss Marie. He was so lost in the moment he didn’t notice their car had swung into a tunnel to the right when it usually went left.

Two minutes later, when the ride should have been over, Jonathan broke away from Marie and gazed at the mirror-plated tunnel they had entered. His reflection looked back at him. The UV lights on the ceiling made his eyes and teeth glow in extreme contrast to his darkened skin.

“Uh,” he said. He planned to say something in addition to this, but actual words wouldn’t form. His brain, it seemed, was broken.

“What’s wrong?” Marie asked, tugging at his shirt, but her voice was more playful than concerned.

"Uh," he said once more. “This... this isn’t right.”

She pouted. “What? You don’t like me?”

“No, not that. This.” He gestured at the tunnel. There was no end in sight. He glanced over his shoulder and found he could no longer tell where the tunnel began, either. “Is this new?”

“I thought it was a tradition for boys to take their girls home after a date.”


Marie leaned forward and her cheek brushed his. She whispered into his ear, “This is where
I live, silly.”

“You live in a haunted house ride?” Jonathan asked dubiously.

She shushed him and placed her lips against his mouth once more. He resisted at first, then settled helplessly into his seat as she took hold of him. As he made out with her, he strained his eyes to the corners of their sockets to see what new detail had emerged in the distance. Whatever it was, it was moving... flickering maybe.

The smell of corn dogs and funnel cakes was gradually replaced by a foul odor—like a matchhead with a freshly snuffed flame. He tried to crane his neck away from Marie, but she clamped her hands to the sides of his face and shoved her tongue deep inside his mouth. Her tongue was long and pointy and, truth be told, just a little rough... like... like a cat's tongue. It slithered deeper into his mouth to graze his tonsils. He jerked away from her and she looked back at him with a furrowed brow.

“What?” she asked.

“I just...” He swallowed. “Marie, what the fuck is going on here?”

She folded her arms and turned away from him. "Oh, just enjoy the ride, you prude."

Jonathan began to climb out of the car. Marie tugged him back in.

“Oh Jonathan,” she said, teasing. “It’s not safe to get out.” Then she giggled and spoke in a high-pitched squeak: “Please keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times.”

“I don’t like this,” he told her. His voice cracked, which made him feel foolish. He always dreamed of being the strong, heroic guy on the cover of his weird science fiction books: a futuristic rifle slung over one arm and the distressed damsel on the other. But his damsel was the very cause of the current distress. “Marie, how is this possibly normal to you? Scratch that—how is this even possible?

Marie lifted her shirt over her head. She tossed it on the floor of the car and said, “Shut up and touch my boobies.”


"Come on." She grabbed his hand and jerked it towards her bra. “Squeeze it. You can even slide your hand beneath my bra if you like.”

Jonathan tried to pull his hand away. Marie had cast no magical spell, yet he couldn't let go. After all, they were boobies.

Marie rolled her eyes. “Ugh! Use both hands, dummy!”

Jonathan swallowed. Then he was “feeling her up,” as his friends said so often. Son of a bitch, he thought. I’m on an expressway to hell and I just hit second base.

“Marie,” he struggled to say, “I don’t think—”

“Oh Jonathan,” she moaned. Her back arched and her hips gyrated. “Don’t stop! Oh, don't stop!”

The tent he’d pitched in his pants was aching then. Part of his brain screamed at him to get the hell out of there, but he couldn’t make his body follow the order. It was simple biology: he had learned all about it in sex ed. Well, at least when he and his friends weren’t giggling.

Jonathan tried to say her name again, but he could only mutter the first syllable. “Muh. Muh-muh-muh....”

Marie slipped her skirt off in one quick motion then climbed onto his lap. When he wrapped his arms around the small of her back she shivered in pleasure. Her body was hot in more ways the one. Too hot, like a bundle of towels that'd just come out of the dryer.

This was something he had heard about, too: dry humping. Although it certainly satisfied him to an extent, the zipper of his jeans nearly rubbed his little guy raw. In truth, it hurt more than it felt good. Yet, it still felt good, perhaps better than anything he'd known before it.

It started slow, but the rhythm of it increased over time. Faster and faster... a train picking up speed. But where is the train going? a distant and subdued part of Jonathon's mind wondered.

Minutes later, after he choked back a scream of release, Marie climbed off of him in a manner which seemed cold and clinical. She reached into her handbag and removed a pack of cigarettes. She lit one and thoroughly savored it, her free hand resting on a belly which seemed larger than it had before. She held the smoke in her lungs for a few seconds—most of the kids at Jonathan’s bus stop didn’t even inhale, but Marie sure did—then she blew it all out and rolled her eyes in Jonathan’s direction. She smiled lazily.

“Wow,” she said. “Color me impressed, tiger.”

“Yeah, uh...” He scratched his head. He felt like he needed a nap and made a mental note to do his own laundry lest he wanted his mother to find his ruined jeans. “Does this... like... mean we’re going out?”

“Oh relax, Jonathan.” She took another drag and the tip of her cigarette crackled. Smoke leaked from her nostrils and mouth as she said, “You’re always so tense. Just relax.”

Jonathan watched her wiggle back into her skirt, cigarette dangling from her mouth. He almost failed to realize they had left the mirrored tunnel and entered a cave which wasn’t made of rock, but human flesh. He leaped to his feet to leap from the car, but stopped when he saw what lay below: the walls of the cave sloped to a river of blood.

Jonathan threw himself back into the seat and clutched the arm of the car, panting.

“Awww,” Marie said, laughing. She patted his leg. “It’s okay, you stupid human.”

In between gasps he said, “We... are... in... hell!”

To which Marie laughed heartily.

Jonathan dared to open his eyes again and was reminded of those endoscopy videos he had seen in biology. The walls of flesh seemed to be illuminated from the other side; they looked the way Aaron Simpson’s cheeks had looked that time he stuck a flashlight in his mouth at camp. Either Jonathan had discovered he was extremely claustrophobic or the tunnel was indeed narrowing. Then he realized it was probably both.

The walls of flesh were sloppily stitched together with thread as thick as yarn. He saw grotesque faces stretched flat among ears and patches of hair. He saw penises and testicles dangling beneath curly nests of pubes, and spiders crawling over it all like giant-sized lice. He was surrounded by eyes, mouths, noses and appendages, hanging from the walls like the moles on his grandmother’s neck. He could see the jagged ridges of a massive circulatory system, the branching veins of which coursed throughout the patchwork of flesh and presumably kept it all alive. A single organism made of humans.

He looked ahead again and realized the rail the car had been traveling on ended—no, not ended. It curved downward, like the final climactic hill of a roller coaster. He screamed as the car began to plunge. Meanwhile Marie threw her arms up and cheered.

At the bottom the car skittered across the river's surface like they were suddenly on the log flume. Waves of blood cascaded outwards in a big vee. As the waves settled, condoms and tampons and syringes bobbed to the surface.

Eventually the rocking car leveled out, floating onward on the deluge of nastiness. The river narrowed towards a gaping orifice in the wall of flesh ahead and Jonathan puked over the side of the car as they helplessly entered it.

The passengers wound through a curving tunnel, the fleshy walls of which were a dark red. Whatever internal light source the walls possessed was dimmer here. This was the lazy river portion of the ride, but it felt more like a trip through a giant intestine, an intestine which smelled like raw sewage and a pile of old pennies.

Jonathan slid out of the seat and crouched on the floor of the car.

“Oh God,” he said. “I want to go home!”

“Stop whining, you big baby.”

“You’re a demon!”

“Come on, get up. You want to score, don’t you?”

“I want to go home!” He was crying then. Bawling.

“But I need you, Johnny.” She bared her teeth like an animal, snarling so fiercely that crow's feet appeared around the bridge of her nose. “I fucking need you," she growled. "I need your fucking flesh.”

“Help!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “Someone help me!”

He rose on his feet, but she slapped a hand to his shoulder and forced him back down. Her strength was inhuman. She was inhuman.

“What are you?” he cried, resigning to the situation. 

“You’re so cute.” Giggling, she removed her hand from his shoulder and caressed his cheek.

The car floated around another bend. There, at the end of the ride, was a large appendage like a bulbous, vein-laden elephant trunk with the drooping skin of a Shar Pei. Jonathan stiffened and felt Marie’s inhuman grip clamp down on his arm.

“Try to relax," she said, shushing him. "It only hurts at first."

“I don’t want this!”

“But you said you liked me.”

He found he could hardly look at the thing as it lifted its eyeless, pulsating head and spread open a tooth-rimmed orifice.

“If you like me let me go!” Jonathan begged and his voice carried into a nonstop scream.

He could no longer look away from his fate. The thing’s mouth was blooming wide to consume his face and head and shoulders and, eventually, his entire body. Its insides were pink and warm and slick with mucus.

“Together forever,” Marie whispered, just before the monster’s mouth closed forever.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Adam Savage empties his pockets on Tested

When I sit down with a sandwich and feel like watching TV while I eat, I tend to turn it to the Tested channel on YouTube before anything else. In this video, Adam Savage shows us what's in his pockets. And even that's interesting despite the fact that, most of the time, I don't even care what's in my own pockets. I must say I was surprised to find he doesn't carry a Leatherman, especially having seen him build a custom case for one in this video.

I think I've figured out the appeal to Savage's appearances on the channel. The Mythbuster is obsessed with objects and the stories behind them. Naturally, that enthusiasm translates to the viewers. For people who work with their hands, he's like the male version of Martha Stewart. Hear him talk about the subject during a TED talk:

Friday, August 22, 2014

Zardoz: The gun is good. The penis is evil.

I'm accused of liking bad movies, but this isn't true. Last night I tried watching Ice Pirates for the first time in two decades and just couldn't get past the scene in the castration factory. That's a bad movie. What makes Ice Pirates bad and the eighties version of Flash Gordon good is simple to define: one's a Star Wars cash-in which tries too hard to be funny and the other is a genuine love letter to its source material. Can you imagine a Flash Gordon reboot today? I'm guessing it'd have dubstep and loads of unnecessary CGI. Zardoz is in the same camp as Flash Gordon. Casual moviegoers may snicker, but then again casual moviegoers are the reason Katherine Heigl still has a career.

The 70s was the absolute best era for movies. Filmmakers were consistently dragging their cameras out of the studios and onto real locations. Realistic portrayals (and consequences) of sex and violence emerged. Movies were made for adults rather than teenagers. Not only that, but the film stock itself just looked better than it does today—it's the difference between a painting on canvas and a painting on copy paper. I want film grain back, damn it.

"Big budget" back then meant maybe a million or two million dollars. Filmmakers had to get creative with problems rather than simply throw money at them. This is the decade that gave us The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, Rocky... are you beginning to see why it's my favorite era of film? Woody Allen was in his prime, Scorsese was at his most visceral, and Richard Donner gave us the definitive, most enjoyable film version of Superman.

Director John Boorman was right at home in the era. Hell, he still makes movies reminiscent of the 70s style. I immediately think of two movies whenever I hear Boorman's name: Deliverance and Zardoz. He's made other kick-ass films that I admire very much, but Deliverance is the one I think about every time I go on a float trip and Zardoz is the one I like a little more every time I see it.

Zardoz is pulp fiction at its finest. It's 2001: A Space Odyssey if directed by Fellini. It's colorful, ambitious, blasphemous, and equal parts pessimistic and optimistic. Speaking of Kubrick's 2001, cameraman Geoffrey Unsworth turns in cinematography here that could've, no should've, won an Oscar. Besides all that, where else are you going to see a movie star of Sean Connery's stature in a red diaper and knee-high boots? (Before Connery signed on, the role was supposed to be played by Burt Reynolds, but he got sick.)

The only problem with Zardoz? A lot of people didn't get it. This is painfully obvious in the scene tacked on to the very the beginning of the film, which basically has a principle character explain to the audience what they're about to see in a showy, William Castle-esque intro. Boorman admits they added it in an attempt to clear the confusion after initial audiences scratched their heads. He also admits the scene "didn't work."

The year is 2293. Sean Connery plays Zed who's part of a post-apocalyptic group of barbarians who worship a floating head statue called Zardoz. Zardoz shows up from time to time and commands Zed's group to rape and kill the peasants who live on the countryside. The god even supplies the weapons and ammunition in exchange for sacrifices. This goes on for several decades until, one day, Zardoz commands them to start agriculture. The Brutals begin to question their god, so Zed smuggles himself aboard the floating head to get answers. He then finds himself within The Vortex, a domed city where the Immortals live.

Then things get weird. Well, weirder. The Immortals don't like life so much. It turns out that after you've lived for an inhuman amount of time, life gets rather boring. As their advanced machines have eliminated the need—and subsequently the desire—for sex, one can easily see why they're so bored. Most of them are thrilled to find Zed has infiltrated their compound. It's the only exciting thing that's happened in ages. At one point the more academic of Immortals decide to test exactly what kind of stimuli gives Zed an erection. The scene is nothing short of hilarious.

Immortals, by the way, don't have policemen or prisons. Criminals are aged by way of telepathy, and repeat offenders end up in a the senile home. Which reminds me: this is some of the best aging effects I've ever seen in movies. I've seen movies with a thousand times the budget that couldn't age an actor worth a damn. Zardoz, which cost less than two million to produce, manages to age half a man's face more convincingly than most films.

To explain the plot any further, which doesn't unfold sequentially, would be ruining a good deal of the fun. It's a hell of an entertaining picture, one that John Boorman felt that he had to make. The result is apparent. Maybe the people who made it weren't stoned out of their minds, but it sure makes the audience feel as if they are.

In the last month, I've rewatched both Logan's Run and The Omega Man, but Zardoz sits high above them. It's not so bad it's good, it really is good. Silly? Sort of. But isn't the future already looking a bit silly in real life, too? Boorman's vision of the future is no less legitimate than any other we've ever seen. Who says everyone won't be wearing colorful towels on their heads while speaking telepathically? It's better than trying to have a conversation with someone whose face is glued to a phone screen.

Dragon V2 infographic is sick (Space X)

Ever notice how the real world designs look like they come from the science fiction covers of the golden age rather than the modern stuff? This is so, so cool, Mr. Musk.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy is a bad ass space opera

When you've been writing a space opera for nearly two years and you go see Guardians of the Galaxy, it's easy to feel inadequate. Sure, what I'm working on is a novel and Guardians is a movie so I really shouldn't compare the two, but this stuff is nothing short of bad ass. Imagine my envy when I saw the bad ass spacecrafts, the bad ass bad guys, and the bad ass set designs. To see Knowhere on film is truly something that's... well, bad ass.

Director James Gunn has what's gotta be the oddest filmmaking spread. He wrote the best ever Troma movie and it's my opinion he just directed the best ever Marvel movie.

I wondered why the star of Gunn's horror-comedy Slither didn't make an appearance. I'll be damned if I didn't find out later that Nathan Fillion did show up. Like Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, and Josh Brolin, you're just not going to recognize him. The practice of getting name-brand stars and hiding them so deeply beneath makeup and CGI doesn't sound like a very good idea, but it seems Gunn is more interested in their talents than their faces. Even though I know Cooper is Rocket Raccoon, I still don't recognize the voice. But I recognize good acting when I see it so I can see why these roles, though excellent disguises, appealed to their stars.

The film opens in 1988 with the death of Peter "Star-Lord" Quill's mother. Many of you will think you're in for another drawn-out origin story, but this one has a pleasant surprise. No more than three or four minutes into it, Peter is abducted by an otherworldly ship. Fast-forward to the present and we find him bopping out to his mother's Walkman while kicking rodent-like reptiles left and right. I haven't watched Parks and Recreation and I can't recall having ever seen Chris Pratt in anything else, but I believe we have one of the most likable movie stars since Tom Hanks' rise to fame. And this guy has a six-pack on top of everything else.

Soon he meets Zoe Saldana (playing Thanos's adopted daughter, Gamora), an actress I've admired from the beginning, but I just like her more and more. Here she's the toughest of the bunch and believably so, even when she's sharing screentime with mixed martial artist Dave Bautista. I've always had an odd attraction to green alien women and I hope the success of this character convinces someone in Hollywood to greenlight a She-Hulk standalone. For far too long, little girls have had few characters to look up to outside of princesses, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is quickly changing that. Why not add Jennifer Walters, lawyer/superhero extraordinaire, to the mix? I know it's hard to find directors as creative as Gunn, which is all the more reason to hate the recent firing of Edgar Wright, but somebody out there must have the talent to make a believable She-Hulk film, right?

And speaking of Dave Bautista, here's another rising star I've never seen before. The guy looks bigger than Schwarzenegger, but he's just as charismatic. His comedic timing is excellent, too. He gets the biggest laugh in the movie. The only thing that made me feel uneasy about going into it was how Rocket and Groot would translate to film. Well, they come out marvelously. I also had no idea the severely likable character actor Michael Rooker was in the film and he might very well be my favorite cast member. And holy shit, this is a really great cast.

At the end of the day, Guardians just wants to entertain the hell out of you and I've seen very few pictures that do it so well. Flaws? I'm sure it's got 'em, but it just pushes you so hard into the creative, nonstop action you don't even want to stop to take notice. I've read exactly two of the GOTG comics in my life so I was never distracted by such silly questions like, "Oh, why is she dressed like that?" or "Why doesn't he have his helmet?" I just walked in, ate my popcorn, and enjoyed it without having to worry about nitpicking Hollywood's take on it all.

The most sensitive of parents might take issue with the language as it goes a bit farther than most Marvel films. Having said that, I have a feeling most kids who see it are going to be much more engaged by it than the recent Turtle flick. I guarantee you most of them will be able to remember the names of all the principal characters, much the same way every character remembers who Luke Skywalker and R2-D2 are. In the Venn diagram of "child-safe" movie and smart movies, the overlap is very small, but Guardians lands smack dab in the middle. Lighten up—your kids really aren't going to get that Jackson Pollock line unless you make a big stink over it.

I love this movie. It is so, so refreshing. I honestly can't wait to see more. I've heard of the Avatar blues, but damn it, I've got the Knowhere blues. That place was so cool, so bad ass. And that end credit sequence. Holy shit, James Gunn is out of his mind. And bad ass. Don't forget bad ass. May he forever drown in the riches.

Friday, August 15, 2014

You're gonna need a bigger boat: Shark Week's biggest show was unapologetic bullshit

I haven't had cable in so long I didn't know how bad the networks' programming had become. Yeah, I've heard of such bottom-of-the-barrel scrapings as Ancient Aliens and Finding Bigfoot, but I assumed nobody actually bought into that stuff outside of the Weekly World News readership. All but the hopelessly gullible will know the Ghost Hunters stuff is faker than suntan in a bottle, but according to the video above it appears a megalodon program was carefully constructed to trick even objective viewers.

your typical Weekly World News article

Neal Stephenson insisted that a hundred years from now, the majority of people might think the moon landings were faked. I thought that was farfetched, but now I'm not as optimistic. Cable networks are really turning to shit in the factual accuracy department and they're among the biggest opponents of net neutrality in the world. If we lose internet freedom (and there's a huge chance we will lose it), does anyone think the "educational" programming on privately owned television networks will suddenly get better? It's hard to imagine cable programming getting any worse, but they have always found new ways to lower the bar just a little bit more.

It will get worse and there's currently no sign it will ever get better. Let's not pretend it's completely Discovery Channel's fault. Obviously someone's watching this stuff. At least a few of them believe every bit of it, too. If the internet becomes what the major telecoms want it to become, I believe Mr. Stephenson is right: people will be watching a lot more cable TV, not to mention visiting the kinds of websites put out by the same people who control cable TV. That's gotta have a negative affect on the average humans' bullshit radar in the long run.

Sharks, man. Seriously.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Young, fun, and dead before 31: Logan's Run

I recently read that you can't excuse a science fiction piece's lack of science by emphasizing the word "fiction." It's like calling a story "detective fiction" even if it doesn't have a detective in it. By this definition Star Wars isn't really science fiction and it's really not even a science fantasy, either. Space fantasy is a better classification for it, but if we've got to label it at all (and we really don't), I think fantasy, period, works.

The same can be said of Logan's Run. It takes place in the future, sure, but it has about as much science in it as a wet fart. It shares a lot of concerns of science fiction and even superficially appears to be science fiction, but upon closer inspection: nope—not really science fiction. For those who haven't seen it, it's a movie that's impossible to explain, really. I can tell you what it's about, but that doesn't even scuff the surface. They could hardly explain what to expect in the trailer without resorting to intentional vagueness:

Don't worry: that shot of the sun actually isn't the end of the movie

Logan's Run is one of my favorites. The first time I saw it was probably around the time the Encore cable station was new. Seeing it again, this time after the age of thirty, casts it in a new light. (The fact it's on Blu-Ray now certainly doesn't hurt.) The idea that a society would murder anyone who reaches the age when the human brain finally begins working objectively is nothing short of terrifying. But I remember thinking as a kid, "live in luxury, die at thirty? Sounds good to me!" The main character seems to think of the big Three-O as a long time off, too, even though he's only got a few years left as indicated by the color of the crystal implanted in his palm.

Yeah. Everybody has crystals in their palms. When it turns red, it's bye-bye life.

Here's the deal: Logan Five (Micheal York) is a sandman in an otherwise utopian city in which citizens are executed at the age of thirty. What's a sandman, you ask? Why, he's the guy paid to track down runners who attempt to escape their thirtieth birthday spankings. Logan in particular loves the chase. He and his partner toy with their terrified victims before violently dispatching them. The glee on Logan's is truly vile. The way he dispenses the word "runner" is analogous to the way a white supremacist screams racial slurs in a hate speech: "Run, runnah! Run!"

Another thing the movie wants to get off its chest: people under thirty are stupid. That's true, for the most part. The twenties is that awkward age where people still believe A) they're smarter than everyone else, B) old people are yucky, and C) all that shit about changing the world they heard at graduation. The film's young and insanely attractive citizens carelessly mill about their city, the last city left on the war- and pollution-torn planet, in slinky costumes and sex-crazed mindsets. There's not a bra in sight because hey, they're young and fun! And fun is the key word here because, like so many would-be science fiction films of the era, it's out of its fucking mind. I can't think of many films more insane than this, but Zardoz comes to mind.

I've got this in my Netflix queue, but unfortunately it's not going to be on Blu-Ray

There is, however, a second option for thirty year olds who don't want to die. All they have to do is ride The Carousel... and now that I'm tasked with explaining this device, I'm not sure I can. Basically it's a big machine in which thirty year olds go topless, wear hockey masks, and get magically levitated into the air where they're exploded spectacularly. Meanwhile a crowd gathers to cheer the midair detonations of their loved ones as if it were merely a fireworks show.

God, I love this shit. As far as movies go, it's the closest you can get to the kind of pulp science fiction that writers like Philip Jose Farmer and Roger Zelzany unleashed upon the world. You're going to see a lot of analog future technology, an unbelievable amount of sex, violence, and nudity for a PG-rated film, and a shit-ton of sheer awesomeness in the truest sense of the word.

Get this: the very first time we see citizens "riding" The Carousel, Logan shouts gleefully at their deaths like a crazed soccer fan. Then he gets a call on his 70s-futuristic walkie-talkie, which informs him there's another runner for him to terminate. At first you think Logan and his partner are really bad shots, but it soon becomes apparent they simply love torturing the shit out of this poor guy, whose only crime is he doesn't want to die. After disposing of the runner, the sandmen wonder, "Why do they run?" It's obvious it's not the first time they've wondered that and it won't be the last.

Upon inspecting the remains, Logan finds an ankh charm in the runner's pocket. Then he goes home to unwind by channel surfing on The Circuit. The Circuit is like the internet, only instead of browsing porn, you're browsing actual people who have teleported into The Circuit. You choose the person you find attractive, he or she physically steps out of the device, and then the two of you have sex. Simple, right? At least that's the way it's supposed to work. That night, Logan's pick turns out to be a curious woman, a trait which is dangerous in such a society. It turns out she only wanted to see how a sandman lives (the answer: lavishly). At one point she questions, "Why is it wrong to run?" Naturally, Logan doesn't understand the question and considers shooting her for asking.

The following day, Logan goes to work, but there's a problem. The super computer at headquarters has discovered the ankh in his pocket and identifies it at as a symbol of those who run. An interrogation follows, presumably to make sure Logan isn't a runner himself, and he's forced to go undercover in order to find Sanctuary, the place where runners attempt to go. The only problem is, Logan's partner thinks he really went on the lam so Logan really does have to run, in a way that Spielberg's Minority Report undeniably owes homage. The next thing you know there's an oddly placed and perhaps pointless cameo by Farrah Fawcett, a lot of fiery deaths because the sandmen use flare guns instead of lasers, and a "big reveal" that pales in comparison to the one at the end of Planet of the Apes, and not only because that film did it sooner.

It's a hell of a spectacle, yes, but not a seamless one. Exteriors of the city look about as realistic as a hobby train set, which detracts rather than adds to the already goofy nature of the film. There's a robot effect so painfully obvious you can actually see the lips of the actor beneath the costume. The lead female (Jenny Agutter) starts out in an extra tiny wardrobe that gets so quickly shredded down to nothing that the production crew had to put panties on her mid-movie—which you'll see purposefully in many, many stunts. Okay, that last one wasn't a complaint.

The thing is, the film's far too fun and goofy to ever be taken too seriously, and I'm not sure it should be considered a classic, which means I wouldn't be entirely opposed to a remake. Look, we all know a remake would likely suck, but there's a good message here, buried underneath all the fun. There's a moment towards the end when the young meet the old and I've got to admit it's strangely touching. I love movies that make me grin like a bit goof, and few movies do it as well as Logan's Run, despite how dark and/or silly it is at times.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Why The Omega Man is better than ever

Seeing Charlton Heston in glorious high definition reminds us that tough guys dominated the movies long before meterosexuals like Tom Cruise and Matt Damon. Man, I miss tough guy movies and The Expendables franchise isn't really filling the void for the real deal. The Omega Man is among the first tough guy films with witty one-liners, which is pointed out not only in the special features, but by Tim Burton. In one scene Heston crashes his car and decides to take another. He has a humorous conversation with an imaginary car salesman who, in Heston's lonesome mind, is trying to screw him over. Later, after being captured by the bad guys, Heston asks, "Are you fellas really with the Internal Revenue Service?"

The film opens with Charlton Heston's character driving a convertible through deserted Los Angeles. It's a pleasant day and he's listening to Theme from a Summer Place on the vehicle's 8-track player. Nothing can be mellower than this, one thinks, shortly before Heston spots movement in a window, which he immediately and recklessly riddles with machine gun bullets. (This is one reason the other survivors have stayed clear of him.) We instantly know then that we're in good hands: competent direction which fully understands the importance of contrast and a cool, hip style, all announced right there in the span of sixty seconds or so.

The film's so hip, in fact, the villainous ghouls wear mirror shades with their sacramental robes. Sure, it was silly in the 70s, maybe even distractingly so, but today it's just awesome. Outside of vampires, have you ever seen non-humans try so hard to be cool? At first you think they're wearing the sunglasses only because they're sensitive to light, but once they reveal their white irises at a convenient plot point, they more or less ditch the shades for the remainder of the movie. Which kind of makes you feel bad for the actors who had to deal with the painful contact lenses back then, but I digress.

While Charlton Heston isn't exactly the last man on Earth (an unfortunate cheat of which all three I Am Legend adaptations were guilty), it seems the last woman really is sassy black Rosalind Cash, who's not the only prominent character in the film who wears an afro. The first time she meets Heston it's with hilarious and humiliating timing, when he's caressing the curves of a female mannequin, unaware of Cash's presence. Naturally, she plays hard to get in the beginning, but we already know they'll end up in bed together sooner than later.

Like I said, it's all very cool, all very hip, and Cash's character makes it all the more fun. Whereas most post-apocalyptic films feature torn and tattered wardrobes, the characters in Omega Man are shown "shopping" on a daily basis in abandoned stores. And man, are their clothes cool or what? Even cooler: they refer to their shotgun as their "credit card."

The 70s cool factor is both the reason the film will remain too dated to be a classic and much more fun today than it ever was in its own time. The first words shared between Heston and Cash are at gunpoint: "My name's Robert," he says. She angrily replies, "Your name's mud!"

That's the kind of dialogue that makes me love movies like this, but I'm sure it was already feeling played out by then, what with racially tense dialogue dominating each and every exploitation film of the era and then some. Even though Heston shares one of the first interracial kisses in a major film, it feels like the screenwriters only put it there so they could get away with saying "right on" at predominantly white parties. That makes it all feel less about the changing times they were living in and more about the exploitation element alone.

And shit, I ain't complaining. Anyone who's ever read this blog knows I love me some gratuitous exploitation. The Omega Man's chock full of it. To try to enjoy it on any other level means not to enjoy it at all. Pull your head out of your ass and just let it entertain you.

As for how to watch it, the Blu-Ray edition looks great, although it's painfully obvious when motorcycle-driving Charlton Heston magically transforms into a stunt double with a very bad toupee. Also shitty is the inclusion of the same, bare bones special features which appeared on a DVD version ten years ago. Nonetheless, I haven't enjoyed the picture more. Watch it before Tim Burton inevitably remakes it.