Category Archives: Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Best Halloween Cinema #30: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

So begins the list of the #30 best things to watch for Halloween (I by no means claim this is a definitive list and the ordering is rather arbitrary).

We start this month of horror films off with a TV show. But not just any TV show, the single greatest TV show in the history of human civilization (at least up to this point…Whedon could easily come out with something new that would surpass it in a few years). That show is of course Buffy The Vampire Slayer. High tragedy, high comedy, deep understanding of the human condition, skill in writing, acting and directing, and of course a hopeful view of humanity that forgiveness is possible and that people can grow and improve themselves. There is simply no show in the history of television that has dealt such profound philosophical themes without being heavy handed and with characters who were human and never just two dimensional cutouts who were allowed to followed a predictable pattern.

The reason such a great work of art gets put last in this list is that it’s really not a horror story. Yes there are vampires and werewolves and monsters of all stripes. But even though it has all the tropes of horror, it is not focused on death as any good horror story is, rather Buffy is focused on life, specifically the growing up part of life. And in this respect it works as a good counterbalance to everything that’s going to come after, but that does not mean it does not have its horrifying moments.

So let’s do a quick rundown of some of the more terrifying episodes.

The Gentlemen from “Hush”

“Hush”: Possibly the most horrifying episode of Buffy. Corpse like emaciated men dressed in 1920’s style suits come to town, steal everyone’s voice and rip out their hearts. It’s frightening for several reasons. The first is the villains, The Gentlemen. The scariest monsters are always the ones that look human but are just a slight bit off, the fact that they were so concerned with manners and courtesy in their actions toward one another just adds to the horror because it is so out of place when you’re about to cut out a live and awake person’s heart. The other reason that it’s such a terrifying episode is that it takes away from the characters something they take for granted: their voice. The idea of not having something we have been so dependent on that we take it for granted, like our ability to communicate brings up the simple question in our minds: “what would I do in that situation?” It’s not a pleasant question. We use our voice for so many things and the idea that we should have to live without it–not a pleasant thought. And of course there is the fear of death. Few episodes have shown people so helpless as this episode when being killed, they’re restrained almost immediately so they can’t run away; they have no voice so they can’t scream for help and then they feel everything as their heart is cut out. One of the things that frighten people so much about death is that they think it is something out of their control, that it will come in the night without warning or rhyme or reason and there is nothing they can do about it, and they are utterly powerless in the face of the unknown. It’s powerlessness against it that frightens them (it’s why waiting for the diagnosis of cancer is worse than the diagnosis itself, when you know what it is, you have a name, an MRI, an idea you can fight against or give into, it’s your choice—but when you’re waiting you still have no choice about anything). It is this powerlessness that the scenes of death in this episode capture so well, and remind most of us of our own fears of death.
Helpless: People run a lot in Buffy. But either they’re one episode’s extras whom we’re not really all that invested in, or they’re main characters and we know Buffy will save them. But when it’s Buffy who is doing the running because she has had all her powers taken away, that adds a lot more terror. The safety net of “Buffy will save the day” is gone, and being Joss Whedon, we never had any reassurance that he isn’t willing to kill main characters, so there’s not that usual safety net either.

“Restless”: There is something terrifying about the unknown and the bizarre to most people. If they can’t understand and make sense of it, it frightens them. So putting our four main characters in a rather symbolic and random dreamscape with an unknown assailant killing them, is quite terrifying. Oh and there’s cheese (if you’ve seen the episode you’ll get that).

“Fear Itself”: Finally my favorite Halloween episode in Buffy. The Scooby Gang faces off against a demon who makes them live out their worst fears and then face the fear demon itself. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” This episode shows how foolish that is. Why? Because the fear demon is three inches tall, which is possibly the most insightful and genius representation of fear I have ever seen in of all of literature. Fear is something small, something insignificant, and something if you use reason isn’t worth worrying about…yet we let it control us because we refuse to look at it. If we did confront it head on we would probably find that most of our fears are so small and so insignificant that they can just easily be squashed and ignored.

Xander: Who’s the little fear demon? Come on, who’s the little fear demon? Giles: Don’t taunt the fear demon.Xander: Why? Can he hurt me?Giles: No, it’s just… tacky

Honorable Mentions:

None these are exactly great films (not that the top 30 are all Oscar Winners) but they get trotted out every Halloween and I would say they do meet my criteria of an unhealthy obsession with death.

Constantine: An epic battle between good and evil with a poorly executed story of redemption.  Fun but ultimately pointless.

Stigmata: It’s not exactly a horror film, (and I’ll probably deal with it later in my blogs about movies for New Agers) but with all the blood and suffering it has many of the tropes of a horror film.

Bless the Child: Certainly not as dense and preachy as the novel it’s based on, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still just a little preachy.  And then there is just the rather low quality direction.

The Shinning (TV movie 1997): You know the Nicholson/Kubric version of the film is actually well done, the problem is that it seems to completely ignore that there is actually a great book that it’s supposed to be based on. The TV movie, while not without its flaws was more true to theme and characters of the book and thus I prefer it to the older version.

Fringe: Again it’s not really about the fear of death, but there are some truly horrifying moments.  Like in the first episode where everyone’s skin is melting off, that’s frightening at levels I can’t begin to describe.  And that 3rd season episode where they guy is playing with a corpse and through levers and pulleys make it dance ballet, that’s disturbing at a level I seldom see.

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Movies for Conservatives: The Avengers

Agent Phil Coulson: Oh, you are. Absolutely. Uh…we’ve made some modifications to the uniform. I had a little design input.
Steve Rogers (Captain America): The uniform? Aren’t the stars and stripes a little…old fashioned?
Agent Phil Coulson: Everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.

Okay I waited two weeks before writing a review—if the film is ruined for you because of the spoilers in this, that’s your fault….No really I’m not holding back…if you haven’t seen it, leave this post now and go watch it. This is not a movie recommendation; this is an analysis of what makes this movie great.

Okay. You’ve been warned. Don’t come crying to me when Phil Coulson’s death doesn’t come as a shock.

First, I listed this blog under the “Movies for Conservatives” category but that is not conservative in the strictly Republicans vs. Democrats, Romney vs. Obama sense. This is partly because writer/director Joss Whedon is a good writer. And good writers don’t usually tie themselves to transitory, temporary issues—they deal with the timeless stuff, the issues and ideals that resonate not just for a modern audience but that will hold true generations from now. This is also partly because it’s really hard to tie Joss Whedon down politically. I’ve seen some references that he campaigned for Kerry and Obama, but at the same time he said that he viewed season 5 of Angel as a metaphor for the Bush White House at war, which doesn’t exactly come off as an insult to conservatives. While he certainly is not puritanical in his view of sexuality, he also is not foolish enough to conceive of sex as something that comes without serious long-term consequences as many liberals seem to. If anything, if I had to peg him to a political philosophy, and I admit there may be some extreme bias here, he’s more a traditional libertarian, some distrust of government organization, but not foolish enough to think that we can live without them, and a great belief in the individual. Also, for all of his cynicism, there is certainly a love of America that seems to pop up in all his works.

Now, I have seen some try to portray this as a liberal film. Right-wing hacks over at Breitbart.com (since Breitbart’s death it’s stopped being a valid source of information and morphed into the right’s MSNBC) wanted to point out that Whedon cutting a liberal spiel from Captain America complaining about the lack of welfare shows what a liberal hack Whedon is…because a guy like Captain America, who would have spent his formative years growing up under the FDR’s New Deal, would clearly not talk about how he doesn’t see that in society…it must be Whedon being a liberal hack and not, oh I don’t know, being true to the actual character.  Meanwhile liberals have been pointing out that the character often used mentioned the idea of clean, renewable energy in a positive sense, thus the film must be liberal. Uh-huh. As if conservatives don’t want clean, renewable energy. I think they forget that it’s conservatives that want nuclear power…we just don’t want to shell out billions for Solyndra style “green” companies that won’t actually give us clean, renewable energy…and, stop me if I’m wrong, but don’t they also make it clear that the only name in cheap, clean, renewable energy in the world of The Avengers is the narcissistic billionaire who plans to make a killing off said clean energy? Oh, yeah, really liberal.

Now there are the small things in the film that make it conservative. The anti-government sentiment as seen by the fact that the S.H.I.E.L.D. council is stupid. The fact that the idiotic Senator complaining about the actions of the Avengers is shown with a “D” after his name (because only a liberal would be dumb enough to complain about having their ass saved—“ These so called heroes have to be held responsible for the destruction done to the city. This was their fight.”). The fact that at no time in this film are the armed services insulted or degraded.

Nothing more American than this guy…

And there are some of the not so little things. Like Captain America’s uniform. Liberals might like to say they’re patriotic, but flag waving is and wearing your patriotism on your sleeve is definitely a conservative trait.

“What?” you say. “How is that conservative?” It’s the stars and stripes. You can’t get much more patriotic and more conservative than that. But you say, “That’s Captain America’s uniform, what else could they put him in?” Well, they could have muted the colors, toned down the theme or just made it solid black like every other S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. After they watered down all the patriotism from the first Captain America film and had no backlash there it wasn’t like they should have been afraid to change anything. “Whedon couldn’t just kill one of the character’s costumes!” you say. Oh yeah? Have you seen the early posters for the movie?

I hesitate to imagine what this movie would have been like with Hawkeye in that silly purple suit…you’ll notice that Thor’s winged helmet is also nowhere to be seen in this film.

Look in the bottom left hand corner. That’s Jeremy Renner in the purple jumpsuit that Hawkeye is in in every comic book. Whedon put the kibosh on that preposterous outfit (in a film that is not short on preposterous outfits), if he really, really wanted to, I’m sure we would have seen the Captain in a more toned down outfit. And more importantly, of all the characters, only Captain America has a discussion of the nature of his suit.

Steven Rogers: The uniform? Aren’t the stars and stripes a little…old fashioned?
Agent Phil Coulson: Everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.

Not only does Whedon admit that these ideas are old fashioned (one might say too conservative for the cynical modern populace) but he allows Coulson, arguably one of the moral bedrocks of the film, revel in that old fashioned patriotism (vintage trading cards and all). And we do need that kind of old fashioned patriotism, and it’s a good thing that it is pointed out that we need this kind of old fashioned patriotism.

And speaking of old fashioned there is this little line:

“There was an idea, Stark knows this, called The Avengers Initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, see if they could become something more. See if they could work together when we needed them to, to fight the battles that we never could. Phil Coulson died still believing in that idea, in heroes. Well, it’s an old fashioned notion.”

And this is a very conservative idea. Modern liberalism doesn’t believe in heroes, by their nature heroes are individuals, they’re leaders not followers, they disregard the state, not follow it, they show the greatness that a person is capable of—not the limitations that require constant government assistance that liberals believe is all that makes up people. A hero is the very embodiment of everything that liberalism opposes, a hero doesn’t need government help, a hero doesn’t take mindless orders, a hero does what is right according to their mind and their morals not merely the will of the herd. And in this respect, Whedon has always been very conservative (sometimes his heroes are more flawed than others, but that just helps to show how any individual can reach the highest levels of virtue through nothing but choice and action).

Granted this isn’t conservative in any explicit way…but that’s okay, because the subtle conservative belief in the virtue of humanity lasts far longer than momentary political statement.

Further as I’ve stated before there is a disturbing subtle relationship between the words of Loki and Obama…I don’t think this was intentional on Whedon’s part, it’s just all petty tyrants tend to sound the same.

Now of course aside from the philosophical points, it’s just a cool movie.
There is Whedon’s usual level of razor sharp wit, his deep understanding of character and their motivations, and, what is probably the least complemented part of Whedon’s skill, the man is a genius who knows how to use a camera; unlike so many directors who just let the camera sit there, Whedon knows how to use the camera to help tell the story and move the action and drama. And of course there is that last beautiful scene which says more with no words than any amount of dialogue could.

I have seen it twice in the theaters already and probably will see it again. And I certainly will buy it the day it comes out on DVD. I only hope Disney and Marvel are smart enough to let Whedon have complete control of the sequel.

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Filed under Art, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Faith, Government is useless, Joss Whedon, Movies, Movies for Conservatives, Patriotism, Popular Culture

Did Obama or Loki say that?

So I went to a midnight showing of The Avengers last night (I will get a glowing review out, but I need to see it at least once more before I do so).   Great movie!  Witty, fun, moving…Joss Whedon at his best.  Not that this stopped the snobs at the New York Times from not too subtely suggesting that Loki’s evil is preposterous and ridiculous overblown character (despite the very valid comparison Whedon makes between Loki and every tyranny in history.  “There are always men like you.” Although even I will admit it’s hard nailing down Whedon’s politics from his shows–you have the liberal conception of the evil corporation in Angel and Dollhouse but a hyper libertarianism in Firefly with that individualism only slightly toned down in Buffy). It also seem to suggest that the only real sheeple out there are the people who could enjoy a movie like The Avengers (I’m sure it’s the not to0 thin layer of patriotism throughout the movie that most offened the hacks over at the Times). But I realized that the New York Times movie review find this character overblown…because to admit that such rhetoric was the rhetoric of tyrants and petty dictators throughout history would mean that they might have to actually look to see if there were any modern politicians who might be saying similar things. Loki says he comes to free people from that burdonsom chore of freedom, which sadly there are people who would actually applaud that being forced on society.

So, to show you that Loki’s quotes aren’t that overblown (although much better written as Whedon was behind them) let’s compare Loki to a modern day politician…oh, let’s say…Obama.

Guess who said each line.

On Goals:

 I come with glad tidings, of a world made free [from] Freedom.

 “The truth is, in order to get things like universal health care and a revamped education system, then someone is going to have to give up a piece of their pie so that someone else can have more.”

On being an individual:

Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity.

“Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation.”

On your friends:

I have an army!

“I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets.”

On respect for individualism:

You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.

“History is scattered with the stories of those who held fast to rigid ideologies and refused to listen to those who disagreed. But those are not the Americans we remember.”

On understanding the nature of liberty:

Freedom is life’s great lie. Once you accept that, in your heart…You will know peace.

And so we must realize that the freedoms FDR once spoke of – especially freedom from want and freedom from fear – do not just come from deposing a tyrant and handing out ballots; they are only realized once the personal and material security of a people is ensured as well.

On understanding you’re being superior to those around you and that the sheeple need to be ruled:

There are no men like me.

“I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — that’s a value.”

On humility:

I am burdened with glorious purpose.

“When I struggle, I just think of Jesus’ agony in the garden.”

On underestimating their opponents:

“If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail — they must have been founding members of the Flat-Earth Society. They would not have believed that the world was round.”

How desperate are you? You call on these lost creatures to defend you.

On understanding your value as person:

“[He] has brought us out of the dark and into the light”

“ENOUGH! You are, all of you, beneath me. I am a god you dull creature, and I will not be bullied”

The good news to all of this is we’re not stuck with Barry forever.  What does Obama have to fear?  Let’s do a headcount.  You have the impassioned crusader, Darrell Issa.  You the economic and budget genius, Paul Ryan.  You have the rising star, Marco Rubio.  You have the next President of the United States, Mitt Romney.  And you have the entire thinking portion of the American public.  And Obama has managed to piss off all of them.

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Movies for everyone: Cabin in the Woods.

Ok, I’m drawing a line in the f!@#ing sand. Do NOT read the Latin!


As it was probably made clear in my review of Halloween movies, I have great contempt for most horror films.  Cheap, predictable, cliché and recently little more than torture porn.  Especially the “let’s go somewhere remote where a monster of some kind is going to kill us all” variant.  And Joss Whedon apparently hates this cliché as well.

It really shouldn’t come as too much of a shock.  This is the Joss Whedon who got so tired of seeing the ditzy blonde cheerleader with the silly name die at the hands of a monster, he gave her a stake, some brains, and the name Buffy, and let her tear through the monsters.  But he seems to be a bit more vicious in his critique of what the horror genre has devolved into over the last decade, completely disregarding his proof that horror can be intelligent and witty and more than just gore and blood.

It appears he, along with longtime Buffy writer Drew Goddard, wrote Cabin in the Woods to drive the stake home that horror movies are getting just stupid.

Short version, every trope and cliché is made fun of.  Almost every version of the story is lambasted.  College students go on a trip to the cabin in the woods, get stopped by the creepy gas station attendant who basically screams at them to turn back, go into the cellar of the cabin which just conveniently opens on its own, call up a group of redneck pain-worshiping zombies (which is very different from just normal zombies) and get picked off one by one in true archetypal fashion—the blonde over sexed whore goes first, then the fool, the athlete, the scholar, and of course finally the virgin (“we work with what we have”).

But this isn’t your standard horror torture porn film.  No this movie is actively making fun of the kind of idiot who read the Latin from the diary of the religious lunatic bent on worshiping pain which is kept in the creepy cellar…because that seems like such a great idea.  It insults a group of kids who don’t turn right around when the outside of the cabin looks exactly like the cabin from Evil Dead and on the inside has the mounted head of a wolf, a picture of the slaughter of a ram, and the mounted horns of a hart (and if you know Joss Whedon’s work, you know the wolf, the ram and the hart are a very, very bad sign) not to mention the creepy one way mirror and the cellar of horrors…again why didn’t we turn around?  Cabin in the Woods also makes it clear that this grouping of one of each archetype never actually occurs unless you seriously drug half your cast to act in a way contrary to their normal behavior.

“Cleanse them. Cleanse the world of their ignorance and sin. Bathe them in the crimson of …Am I on speakerphone?”

It also makes fun of every other kind of horror film out there.  The recent spate of Scandinavian horror films that go beyond all good taste are labeled as a total failure from almost the first moment.  The Japanese horror film, where no one has ever survived any incarnation of, is lambasted by finally letting everyone survive the Japanese horror film (how hard is it to kill nine-year-olds?).

Until you’ve seen the movie you don’t realize how hilarious this picture is…Kevin? The Sugar Plum Fairy?

It makes fun of the filmmakers.  The film makers who bet that we’ll go see yet another crappy zombie film are lambasted as boring and unoriginal and the filmmakers of crappy scifi movies which pull out obscure monsters no one cares about are even more humiliated by their choice of stupid monsters.  Not to mention it tears into the tediously formulaic way that these movies progress through as if it’s some kind of ritual that must not be deviated from, even in dealing with the order in which victims must be killed (honestly, when was the last time you ever saw the virgin die first?) or how no matter who is involved, be they bright or stupid, everyone always does the dumb thing and splits up.

And most of all it makes fun of the audience for their perverse need to watch the stupid movies that the horror genre has become.  From the obsessive need to see naked women (which is hit both with seeing all the technicians crowded into the control room to get a glimpse, and again with Hadley’s enthusiastic “score.”)…to the fact that the audience of this genre is constantly being mocked for believing such preposterous situations…and in the final dig for comparing the audience to absolute evil for it’s insatiable need to see such suffering offered up to us as if it was a sacrifice that we demand.  The film closes with a not too subtle call for the audience of this genre to rise up and demand that this cycle of crappy movie end once and for all as they don’t provide anything.

As with any Joss Whedon work every scene is full of wit and humor (even the violent ones) and a whole mess of allusions to other works (at some point I’m going to have to go through the last act and look for every reference they make, because Goddard and Whedon seemed hell bent on referencing every horror film ever made).  The problem is that the first time I went to see this movie the audience I was with clearly understood this was a comedy and was laughing at all the digs at the genre…the second time I saw it the audience clearly came for a horror movie and didn’t get the fact that their genre was being humiliated (it was odd, I was one of the maybe 5 people laughing at every scene).  So the expectations you go in with drastically affect your appreciation of the film.

The main question I get about this movie, from those who are not fans of the horror genre is: is it violent and gory? Yes and no.  It has blood and tension and some gore.  But compared to a lot of films in the genre it’s quite tame.  Personally I would put it on par with one of the Scream movies in terms of gore, maybe a little worse.  (Except for the fifth act where they’re throwing around blood by the tub full…but really that’s more farce than horror.)  If you’re really squeamish, even the humor might not be enough to overpower what gore there is…but I still suggest you should give it a try.

“Good work, zombie arm.”

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The Greatest Comedy Film of all time! (and one last honorable mention)

Hitmen, FBI Agents, Cops, Criminals, teenagers, a maid, a housewife, a corrupt executive, an ad executive, and a bum who lives in a tree...what could possibly go wrong

#1 Big Trouble

“Make her stop! Dear God in Heaven make her stop, she wants my soul!”

Based on one of the greatest comedy books ever written, by the ever hilarious Dave Barry, Big Trouble is probably the greatest comedy of all time.

What you haven’t heard of it? The story of dysfunctional families, annoyed hitmen, and two really stupid criminals who manage to get a nuclear weapon past the ever inept group of people known as airport security? Can’t imagine why not? Oh, wait I know exactly why you’ve never heard of this film…because the original theatrical release date was supposed to be September 15th 2001…yeah read that thing about a nuke on a plane and then date…and I think we all see why this movie was buried with a very brief theatrical release in 2002.

Which is a shame because this movie is hilarious beyond the telling of it.

Trust me, if you haven’t seen this movie, this is one of the few movies that I will say you have to see before you die (you should also read the book).

I'm fairly certain you could still get this nuke past the MENSA members the TSA employs.

Henry: Hold on a second. We have a Die Hard situation developing in the kitchen.
Leonard: What?
Henry: There’s a guy there in the kitchen.
Leonard: A guy? What’s he doing?
Henry: Well my guess is he’s either gonna whack em’ with a rolling pin or he’s gonna bake em’ a cake. I don’t know. Could go either way with this crew.
Henry: Holy shit. Betty Crocker’s got a squirt gun!
Leonard: Let me look!
Henry: Forget about it. This is better than pay-per-view.
Henry: There goes the warranty, and here comes the Iron Chef.

 

 

And one last honorable mention…I didn’t want to put this one in with the other honorable mentions because this isn’t just some mere also-ran. …and it also doesn’t exactly fit anywhere else because it is not just a single work…but it is some of the best comedy in all of film and TV…

And the last honorable mention is…
The Collective Works of Joss Whedon.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Serenity, Dollhouse, Doctor Horrible, Toy Story, Cabin in the Woods…and likely Much Ado and Avengers.
Everything Whedon does is unspeakably funny. From Buffy’s quip, to Wesley’s faults, to River’s insanity, to Topher’s observations. There is not an episode and hardly a scene without its humor. I couldn’t pick any single episode for two reasons. The first is that even the bad ones have their wonderful moments. The second is that like Shakespeare or any truly great writer, Whedon never creates humor without tragedy or tragedy without humor. There are funnier episodes to be sure, but those are also episodes of deep and moving, and sometime very depressing, pathos…and so while I feel the need to mention his skill in writing great comedy none of it is purely in the comedy genre…






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