Eraserhead: In Heaven, everything is fine

By Jordan Danner

I have always been attracted to both the surreal and morbid in the arts. Watching strange and disturbing films became almost like a “chasing the dragon”, in which I would try to seek out something even more odd, until I reached the likes of directors such as Alejandro Jodorowsky, Shinya Tsukamoto, and David Lynch. One of the granddaddies of all of these midnight cult surreal films was Lynch’s feature-length debut film Eraserhead (1977), an incredibly difficult film to watch, but not one without merit. Partially funded by a fresh out of Carrie (1976) Sissy Spacek, The Library of Congress’ National Film Registry deemed it “culturally significant” and selected the film in 2004 for preservation. The Criterion Collection just reissued a beautifully restored print on DVD, along with another release of his short films, and Mel Brooks was such a fan that he helped produce Lynch’s next film The Elephant Man (1980), which went on to receive eight Oscar nominations, including best picture.

Shot in gritty black and white, Eraserhead is more about creating an uncomfortable atmosphere than relying on dialog to create its nightmarish feeling. Noteworthy is the fact that the film does not feature much dialog at all. A large portion of the beginning of the film is just establishing the setting of this industrial wasteland that Henry (Jack Nance) inhabits. Trademarks of Lynch began in this film with his often-used ominous flickering of lights and rumbling basses, which create an incredibly uneasy environment that one almost feels the tension that the character is. Such settings would be explored in later films such as Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006).

Throughout the next hour of this film, we are introduced to Henry’s grim reality. We find that Henry and his girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) have had a child together. We discover that this child is a hideous mutation, most likely the result of the industrial wasteland that they inhabit and the genetically modified food that they eat. Henry soon finds himself alone after Mary is driven away by the constant screams and cries by their child. Henry begins to find a sort of solace in the visions he begins to experience. After staring into his radiator, he begins to witness a stage inside where a girl proceeds to dance while sperm-like beings fall to the ground. Things start get even weirder (don’t ask me how he manages this!) with more visions, including Henry losing his own head.

Loosely based on his 1970 short The Grandmother, Lynch wanted to capture what he called his own version of The Philadelphia Story (1940). While Lynch is notorious for not revealing his methods or his meanings, there are still some hints that he has dropped over the last few years. At the time, Lynch was a student at the American Film Institute, which helped with production of the film. Anyone with knowledge of rust belt cities such as Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh could inform you that the urban decay of these former manufacturing hubs were a huge influence on the grim setting of the film. Another aspect Lynch has mentioned with the film is that it does address the apprehensions he felt as a new father in a strange time to be alive in America. This period of time had seen events such as the Vietnam War and Watergate, which caused a huge loss of morale in the nation, along with many divisions between people. The “me” generation of the 1970s was seen as a stark contrast to the “peace and love” era of the late 1960s.

The many years I have spent watching this film (secluded and in the dark is the best way to experience it in my opinion), I have often found new things to discuss, whether it be in the aesthetics of the film itself, or the story behind it. Growing up in a time with similar turmoil has made me find appreciation in the environment that Henry is around in this film. The rust belt has only continued to increase and swallow more cities whole. As factories close, jobs are lost, people flee, and budgets shrink. One can only hope at least that the song in the film is correct when it says that “In Heaven, everything is fine.”

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Five Underrated Horror Films from Some of Today’s Biggest Directors

By Jordan Danner

Autumn is making its return as the temperature drops and the leaves begin to fall. As soon as that first cold day in September arrives, I look forward to pumpkin everything, organizing all the frumpy sweaters I’m going to wear and of course, Halloween and all of the horror films that go with it. When I find I enjoy work from a director, I often try to see as many films in that director’s filmography, even though some may not be worth viewing. Watching an artist (I regress in some cases) is always fun to see as one finds their niche. After a recent subscription to Hulu Plus, I’ve begun to raid its Criterion Collection section (the one area of the service without commercials!), along with my own personal collection and started my marathon of horror films with a few overlooked works by some of today’s most critically acclaimed directors.

1. Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1973)

Before making films about organized crime such as Scarface (1983) and The Untouchables (1987), De Palma was beginning his career with a string of horror films and psychological thrillers. Sisters tells the story of French-Canadian model Danielle (Margot Kidder), whose separated conjoined twin Dominique is suspected of murder by her neighbor and local reporter, Grace(Jennifer Salt). Upon discovering no trace of a crime scene, Grace continues to investigate both the area and Danielle and Dominque’s past, resulting in a shocking twist.

As a member of the New Hollywood group of filmmakers, De Palma pays tribute to both Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) in both story and aesthetics. Visually, the film is full of brilliant split-screen, point of view and iris shots. De Palma even managed to get Bernard Herrmann, one of Hitchcock’s favorite collaborators to compose the harrowing score. An interesting twins-themed double feature (all puns intended!) would be with David Cronenberg’s (a director I will also talk about in this list) Dead Ringers (1988).

2. Martin (George A. Romero, 1976)

When it comes to horror filmmakers, Romero is one of the most influential. Romero gave us the modern zombie film, complete with social commentary when he released Night of the Living Dead (1968), along with five more “living dead” films in a franchise over forty years. My fellow horror film buff friends and I often like to discuss our favorite films of Romero’s that do not involve zombies. The one film we often like to bring up is Martin, a criminally underrated film and an interesting take on the vampire genre.

Martin (John Amplas) appears to be a regular young man on the outside, except for the fact that he is convinced that he is a vampire. Martin doesn’t let his lack of fangs or a hypnotic gaze prevent him from feasting on blood, he just uses the aid of razor blades and sedatives to procure his next meal. After the death of his family, Martin is sent to live with his cousin (Christine Forrest) and grandfather (Lincoln Maazel), a Lithuanian immigrant and strict Catholic that believes Martin truly is a vampire. Martin works for his grandfather’s butcher shop, being threatened with a stake to the heart if he feeds on any of his customers.

Despite being a horror film, Martin is still full of dark humor as well. Martin’s grandfather tried to repel him with garlic and crosses, to which Martin is unaffected, telling him that magic is not real. Since being a young vampire is tough on your love life, Martin becomes a hit guest known as “The Count” on a radio show that he frequently calls to express his difficulties with women as a vampire. All in all, Martin is an overlooked, but worthwhile entry in Romero’s filmography, especially for those that are growing tired of the same vampire storylines.

3. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)

One of my all-time favorite horror/sci-fi directors, David Cronenberg created his own genre of horror known as “body horror”. Common themes in Cronenberg’s earlier films involve biotechnology and other invasive things taking over one’s body, often representing a physical manifestation of one’s psychological state. Nowadays, Cronenberg has toned down on the horror (though not the violence) a bit with films such as A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007).

Max Renn (James Woods) is the president of a television network that specializes in pornography and sensationalist programming, always on the lookout for the next big thing to shock his audiences. Max’s satellite operator Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) exposes him to a pirate signal he has discovered involving snuff and torture footage coming from Malaysia known as “Videodrome.” Upon seeing this, Renn realizes both the minimal costs of production and being a new level of entertainment and decides to start pirating the program. Appearing with Max on a talk show discussing the media, we are introduced to radio host Nikki (Blondie’s Deborah Harry) and Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), a media philosopher loosely based on Marshal McLuhan that insists he only appear on television if he is shown on a television. After Max and Nikki go on a date, they watch Videodrome, with Nikki even expressing interest in auditioning for the show. The more Max watches Videodrome, the more he notices himself having bizarre hallucinations and growths in his body, taking him down a path of learning the truth about the grim and nefarious origin of the program.

Besides being a straightforward horror film, Videodrome’s deeper meanings go into commentary on both the state of the media and its possible future. In 1983, cable television was in its infancy, the internet was reserved for the department of defense, virtual reality was more of a concept and the closest thing we had to reality television was Candid Camera and An American Family. Brian   O’Blivion states in the film that television will become our new reality, a statement that rings true in today’s media saturation.

4. Cronos (Guillermo del Toro, 1993)

Guillermo del Toro is an exciting face in the world of horror. His films often contain the Gothic imagery one would find in the writings of H. P. Lovecraft or the classic horror films to come out of Universal and Hammer, but with the gore you would expect from a film released today. I’m excited to see that del Toro will soon be releasing an adaptation of Lovecraft’s (an author usually not translated well on film) novella “At the Mountains of Madness” If anyone can make a faithful adaptation, he’s the man for the job!

Cronos is del Toro’s debut film, released in his native Mexico about the discovery of a 450 year old golden scarab with a still-living insect inside of it. Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) is an antique dealer, who discovers the piece in a hollowed-out bottom of an archangel statue in his store. After messing around with it, the scarab sprouts legs, injecting him with an unknown substance that begins his transformation into a vampire.

We discover that a dying businessman (Claudio Brook) has been collecting these statues in search of the scarab with the help of his nephew (Ron Perlman), who offers to purchase the statue, thinking the scarab is still inside. As Gris starts to notice more changes, he decides to visit the businessman, in which he explains to him that his skin will soon turn to marble. The businessman tries then to make a deal with Gris to have a “way out” of his condition in exchange for the device. Little does he know, this way out will be as a result of the businessman and his nephew trying to kill him!

While not my favorite of del Toro’s films, Cronos is still a strong debut from a director who has continued to make some of the most stylized horror films this side of Dario Argento and the releases of Hammer Films. These last twenty years, del Toro has managed to tackle everything from the ghost story in The Devil’s Backbone (2001) , the comic book in Hellboy (2004), the nightmarish fairy tale in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and even the Japanese Kaiju/Mecha films I grew up watching in his latest work Pacific Rim (2013), all while maintaining his unique gothic aesthetic.

5. Dead Alive (Peter Jackson, 1992)

Growing up in the 90’s, I was one of those horror geeks that lived at the remaining independent video stores on Long Island. I discovered the good, the bad and the ugly, along with the film The Good, The Bad and The Ugly at these establishments. Those oversized clamshell VHS boxes of various Giallo films and Video Nasties, boasting scenes of gore and warnings about being banned in multiple countries intrigued my morbid self. One of my favorite splattercore directors to show people as a teenager was Peter Jackson. Most of you know Jackson from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but before Heavenly Creatures (1994), Jackson’s films were over the top gore comedies that gave Sam Raimi a run for his money.

Set in the 1950s in Jackson’s native New Zealand, we are introduced to an explorer looking for a “Sumatran Rat-Monkey” (animated in my favorite medium, Claymation!) on Skull Island. After being bit by the monkey, he is killed by his associates after them exclaiming that he has “the bite”. We are then introduced to a very meek Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) and his domineering mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody). While on a date at the zoo with an employee at the local grocery, Vera follows them and ends up being bit by the same monkey that is now residing at the zoo. Vera begins to act even more erratic than usual, along with her skin peeling off and ear falling off. After killing a nurse, a chain reaction starts by which Lionel instead decides to keep his mother and the growing body count locked in his basement while giving them tranquilizers. As one can imagine, he cannot keep this under control for long as he is soon faced with a house full of ravenous zombies.

While being an extremely funny dark comedy, the film is also incredibly gory, albeit in a comic book manner. Once upon a time, the film boasted a record in gore, including 300 liters of fake blood being used in just one scene of the film. My eyes always light up, when I expose friends to this film, not only due to them not expecting it to be Peter Jackson, but because it really is that funny of a horror film and still cracks me up to this day.

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler”: the tragedy of a profession

By Jordan Danner

Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler tells the story of professional wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), as he attempts to get both his career and life back together.

Like many children of the 1980s and 1990s, I grew up watching the many larger than life characters found in the World Wrestling Federation. The exaggerated violence, the cartoony gimmicks, the “ballet for boys” choreography and other aspects kept me watching every week hoping that the babyface (good guy) would get revenge on the heel (bad guy). The release of The Wrestler happened to come out at a time when the media was shining a light on the dark side of the business. The real-life events of Eddie Guerrero’s death of a heart attack due to a history of drug use and the physical toll of the sport, along with the tragic double murder-suicide of Chris Benoit and his family, attributed to a mix of dementia caused by many years of head injuries and steroid abuse. These issues were all over the news at a time when investigation of steroids in baseball and concussions in football were also being reported.

As the film starts, we are introduced to a photo montage of wrestling magazines, posters and newspaper headlines showing the glory days of Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s career in the 1980s as he feuded with The Ayatollah (wrestler Ernest “The Cat” Miller), reminiscent of Hulk Hogan’s feud with The Iron Sheik. We then flash to the present day and see an aging and broke Randy, dependent on painkillers and steroids to continue wrestling for meager wages as a special attraction at independent shows, while working at a grocery store to make ends meet. This is still not enough to keep him from getting locked out of his trailer for being late on rent.

Despite his hardships, Randy is still a gentle giant that always maintains his sense of humor as he play fights with the children in his trailer park and attempts to court a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who encourages him to reunite with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). After suffering a heart attack in the ring, Randy is urged by a doctor to retire from wrestling, warning him that his next match may be his last. Randy reluctantly decides to give up on wrestling and work full-time at the grocery store until a promoter tempts him with the offer of participating in a big rematch with The Ayatollah to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their match. Randy decides to ignore the doctor’s orders and pleas from Cassidy and sees this as his one chance to get back on top as the one addiction he has more than the drugs. This is the rush he receives from the fans in the ring.

Aside from Hulk Hogan, one may also see a parallel with the life of wrester Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Roberts was also one of the most beloved wrestlers of the 80s, but descended into a life of extra-marital affairs, alcoholism and crack addiction, with similar appearances at fan conventions and occasional matches in high school gymnasiums as his only form of income. Roberts’ own issues, including with his daughter are shown in detail in Barry W. Blaustein’s 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat, for those that would like more of a back story.

Aronofsky chose to pay great attention to detail in this film, with the business itself. The backstage jargon of the industry is kept as a cast of real-life wrestlers’ (including WWE’s Antonio Cesaro and R-Truth) dialog is improvised and discusses the goings-on of the event and how they plan to choreograph their matches beforehand, along with the unfortunate realization of how little the financial turnout of the event was. Wrestlers such as Bret “The Hitman” Hart and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper even applauded the story and Rourke’s performance, with Piper talking of crying after seeing the film and saying how their story had finally been told. The biggest surprise of this was the approval of Vince McMahon, chairman of the WWE and one known for shying away from controversy in the past after both a steroid and sexual harassment scandal almost lead to the folding of the company in the early 1990s.

I find this to be an interesting entry and one of my favorites in Aronofsky’s filmography, when compared to other films such as Pi (1998) and The Fountain (2006). Despite this film being about professional wrestling, it succeeds in not exclusively being a film for wrestling fans, much like Martin Scorsese’s The Raging Bull (1980), manages to tell a compelling story, regardless of your interest in boxing. Both films portray a story of what affect a life in the spotlight can have on one’s personal life, an affect which all too often has resulted in tragedy.