Autodidact: self-taught


The Jinx

by V. L. Craven

The Jinx

Some people have all the luck. And other people are massively unlucky. Robert Durst is one or the other. He’s either got away with murder three times or has known three different people who have got themselves murdered in such a way as to make him seem to be the killer.

In Andrew Jarecki’s documentary about Durst, The Jinx, he doesn’t exactly come across as a master criminal. But he does possess three qualities that will allow a person to get away with quite a bit: He’s male, white and wealthy. You can call me a social justice warrior all day if you want, but no poor black woman would get away with even one of these crimes.

Hell, in the one murder case they manage to get to court the jurors just couldn’t believe he’d done it because he seemed too nice. In that case he admitted killing and dismembering the person, but the question was whether the killing was justified.

We get to meet the major players in all three cases–Durst’s first wife went missing in 1982 under mysterious circumstances and she’s never been heard from again; in 2000 his long-time friend and confidant was killed in an execution-style murder; in 2001 he killed and dismembered a neighbour he was supposedly friends with.

All of these occurrences happen just about the time these people are about to make Durst’s life very difficult. Huh. What an unlucky person.

One of my favourite people is Jeanine Pirro–she was the District Attorney in New York when they were trying to make a case against Durst regarding the disappearance of his first wife. She has my absolute fav bit in the entire piece, when the filmmakers show her something they discovered. She examines it, then exclaims, ‘Son of a bitch !’

I have a bit of a crush on her.

But I digress.

It’s a six part documentary and I went in knowing the main points, including the ending, but had to see how on Earth all of the insanity Durst’s life sounded like could be and it was still compelling viewing. I watched all six episodes in one go.

The Jinx is a must for true crime fans or people who want to see how the justice system ‘works’. 5/5

Since the show aired, Durst has been all over the news for other crimes and is finally getting his due. Hopefully.


The Act of Killing

by V. L. Craven

Act of Killing


Werner Hertzog said, ‘I have not seen a film as powerful, frightening and surreal in at least a decade.’ Well. I had to see this.

In Indonesia in 1965 over 1 million communists were murdered. Today the people who ordered and did the murdering are happily living their lives–talking openly about their acts on television, heroes to their fellow Indonesians. The Act of Killing is about a few of those men. Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn asked the men to dramatise–in any way they wish–their involvement in the extermination (a word the men use  a lot of the Communists. The documentary consists of interviews with the men interspersed with scenes from the films the men write, direct and act in.

Much of the film revolves around Anwar Congo from the paramilitary–and a self-described gangster. He’s obsessed with the idea of gangsters being ‘free men’–free to do whatever they want, whether it’s good or bad. He was heavily influenced by Marlon Brando, Robert Deniro and Al Pacino.

When we first meet Congo, he happily tells us about how beating people to death left too much blood so they came up with a better–less messy–way that involved garroting. He demonstrated using the garrote on someone and later when watching the footage of this he only commented on his clothes and wondered if he should dye his hair black.

Though he doesn’t outwardly show guilt over it he says he takes drugs and drinks not to think about some of the things he’s done, but it’s in the same matter-of-fact, nearly cheerful tone.  And after playing one of the tortured victims in a scene and realising the people he killed were actual people, he becomes physically ill. He’s not a sociopath.

His fellow executioner, Adi Zulkadry takes a more pragmatic approach. He’s aware that morality is subjective. When asked about war crimes and the Hague he points out that you only get called up on war crimes if you lose. His viewpoint was the most complex–he was the only person in the documentary who’d moved out of Indonesia and was no longer in contact with Congo or the others. He was aware that showing people what they’d done would show them in a bad light, but he still thought he hadn’t done anything wrong. And, from a certain point of view, he hadn’t. If people are giving you money and weapons to kill loads of people and telling you those people are worthless, then clearly, those people deserve to be killed, right?

One of the most interesting aspects was the way democracy worked. If you think the government of the United States is corrupt have a look at the Indonesian government. It’s incredible. It’s not about whether or not you’re going to be extorted, it’s who you’re going to be extorted by. And all votes are bought–openly. Democracy! It’s fortunate they got rid of those pesky Communists, though.

In Adam Nayman’s interview with Joshua Oppenheimer (one of the directors) he calls the subjects ‘certifiably insane’. But these men are not insane. Exterminating things you’ve been told are less-than-human in order to protect your country makes you a hero–it doesn’t make you insane–which is what these men thought they were doing.

Later on in the article, Nayman talks about psychic distancing. He’s referring to the way the men compare themselves to the film stars they admire–therefore distancing themselves from the horror of their actions–but calling the men certifiably insane is also a form of psychic distancing. Anyone familiar with Milgram’s study or the Stanford Prison Experiment should know how easy it is to turn people against one another.

If a person was raised in an environment where they were told that Communists were the epitome of evil and were then given the support of Western democracies in overthrowing those Communists of course they would think they’d done something admirable. Also, people don’t want to think badly of themselves–they will justify their actions at all costs. The worse the action the more vehement the justification.

And let’s not forget: If you win, you’re right. You’re right because you get to write the histories that say you’re right.

The white man came to the new world and slaughtered ‘savages’, then enslaved more ‘savages’ and then wrote stories and made films about how they were the superior race.  How they ‘tamed’ the land.

If Hitler had remained in Germany rather than invading other countries he could have probably ‘purified’ the German race and the rest of the world would have left him alone. And then Nazis would now view themselves as having done the country a favour, having eradicated all of the undesirable elements. They could make films about it. But Hitler invaded other countries and the Allied countries intervened, the Nazis lost and thus, they committed crimes against humanity. And rightly so.

If some factions of China asked for our help to crush the Communist regime would we give it? Would the average Westerned support the idea? Absolutely. What’s worse than Communism? And what would happen to the Communists? In fifty years would you be comfortable watching a documentary about who did what to those Communists? But they would be heroes.

I thought The Act of Killing was going to be about what happens when the bad guys win and are venerated, but it turned out to be about what happens when a group of people are dehumanised, allowing them to be murdered and then those murderers to be dehumanised. As though anyone else wouldn’t be capable of doing the same thing given the correct circumstances.


A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss

by V. L. Craven

A History of Horror

In 2010, Mark Gatiss ( Crooked House , League of Gentlemen, that show about Sherlock Holmes with that Cumberfellow) did a three-part series for the BBC about the history of horror in the cinema.

The first episode (Frankenstein Goes to Hollywood) starts with the Phantom of the Opera and is a paean to Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and other pioneers in horror cinema. Gatiss travels to Hollywood to see Chaney’s make up kit and visit locations and people involved in early horror films like Dracula, which was the first horror film with sound. And Frankenstein, where he visits both the sound stage village and the lake where the monster met the little girl. One of the people he talks with is Barbara Steele, who appears in other episodes of the series.

The episode also covers quite a few early horror films that haven’t garnered as much attention, though deserved more than they received. There’s also a bit about the classic Freaks, which disturbed young Mark.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

The Count looks a bit unsettled, as well.

The second episode (Home Counties Horror) begins with the Hammer films, which were filmed in Britain. We’re onto the colour era of films, which made blood—which they actually showed—that much more terrifying. The first colour horror film made in Britain was The Curse of Frankenstein and starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Then we get on to the Hammer version of Dracula, where Lee takes over the Lugosi role.

There’s also discussion about the prudishness of the British film board that asked for cuts to avoid sexually suggestive material. This episode also has a fantastic story from Gatiss’ childhood as a young horror-lover whose weekly compositions where about such delight subjects as decapitations. There’s also a touching ode to Peter Cushing.

This one covers the Corman films based on Poe stories, as well, which are sort of the U.S. versions of Hammer films. Gatiss talks with Corman and talks about Vincent Price as a centrepiece of those.

The second episode  goes from the Gothic era to the English country sort of horror like the Wicker Man and Witchfinder General.

imagine opening a cupboard door and seeing that. Gah.

imagine opening a cupboard and seeing that. Gah.

The third episode (The American Scream) concerns the revival of horror, which takes place back in the States, beginning with The Night of the Living Dead. Gatiss interviews George Romeo and Tobe Hooper. Hooper, of course, directed Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Once those independent films began making money, big production companies began making films. Including Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. And the first horror blockbuster, The Omen, which was a sort of U.S./U.K. combination film being written by an American, but starring many English actors and being filmed primarily in England.

Gatiss also visits lesser-known films like Romero’s Martin about a teen boy who may be a vampire or may just not be able to talk to women with any aplomb. Cronenberg and his love of body-horror is then discussed. Then back to Romero and Dawn of the Dead.

The final section is on slasher films, which was properly ushered in by Halloween. Gatiss sits down John Carpenter about his inspiration and philosophy of filmmaking. Then our intrepid host carries on about where horror is going.

The Omen 1976 final frame

Terrifying, terrifying places.

Gatiss is clearly an enormous horror fan—at the start he admits that the films he chooses to highlight are his personal favourites. There’s a great love for the works and humour throughout. And bits and bobs of trivia—prior to playing Frankenstein’s monster, Karloff had been in eighty films, yet he was still virtually unknown for example–keep the viewer interested.

This is an excellent introduction to horror for people curious about the origins of the once again popular genre. It’s also sure to please devoted fans, who will no doubt find a friend in the engaging Gatiss. Tomorrow I’ll be reviewing a book entitled British Gothic Cinema, which will appeal to a similar audience. So be sure to check back in for that.

[Update: the British Gothic Cinema review will be next Friday]


Skeleton, Inc.

by V. L. Craven

Skeleton, Inc

Skeleton, Inc. was supposed to be a reality television series about the Villemarette family and their business, Skulls Unlimited International , but it was deemed too graphic and disturbing. Still, at least we get the pilot, in which they render a Barbary Lion from recently deceased carcass to a fully articulated skeleton. It’s pretty impressive. And not for the faint-of-heart or weak-of-stomach.

And if you think a fully-grown lion is scary, a skinned one looks like something Clive Barker wishes he could invent.

See you in your nightmares.

See you in your nightmares.

In the show they don’t hold back–we see everything from the skinning process, where they remove the entire hide in one piece, to the disemboweling, the flensing (removal of muscle from bone), the boiling (the way you remove most flesh from bone) and Dermestid beetles  (the scavengers that will get whatever’s left after flensing and boiling). They also talk about the challenges of working with dead things in a place like Oklahoma, where the heat is trying to decompose your subjects as fast as possible. (If maggots bother you, be forewarned. Someone leaves something out in the heat and…it doesn’t go well.)

The only bit that got to me was the way the brains were removed, which involved a heavy-duty suction device and was not a pleasant thing to witness. As stomach-churning as that bit was, the machine was invented by the owner of Skulls Unlimited, Jay Villemarette, so I still had to admire the man’s ingenuity, you know, whilst holding down my lunch.

Jay Villemarette

Way to go, Jay! Now pass me a bucket.

The majority of the people featured were Villemarettes–there are three sons and then one daughter who works in the office with their mother. I was a little bummed out that the daughter wasn’t more into it, as it would have been fantastic if she’d been right up to her shoulder in lion entrails with her brothers, but perhaps that would have happened if the show had been picked up  for an entire series.

Also in the pilot episode the family had to repair a cracked Humpback Whale pectoral fin. They were clearly trying to inject some sense of urgency into the situation, which was a little awkward, but it was still interesting to watch people wrestle with something so massive.

There was only a little information on the actual company, but I would have been interested to learn more. There’s some info on the site, but it would have been cool to have a tour of the warehouse in the show, especially of all of the human skulls they have. They ship all over the world and have an incredible number of specimens, some one-of-a-kind, some educational reproductions of extinct species and all sorts of other things.

I highly recommend checking out the episode (I saw it on Netflix) and browsing around their site.


Becoming Santa

by V. L. Craven

Becoming Santa

No, you’re not on the wrong site. Do not adjust your monitor. This is a non-ironic, non-horror related post about Christmas. Just occasionally, something that would touch a Normal makes it through and gets me. Fear not, tis but a blip. But what a wonderful blip it is.

Becoming Santa  is a documentary about Jack Sanderson who decided to be Santa for one holiday season. He grew out his hair and beard and dyed it white then had a suit specially made. He attends  Santa School  to be certain he’s doing it right. That section is hilarious. A great portion of the documentary is laugh out loud funny. Sanderson himself is very personable and insightful (if you’ve ever wondered what Phillip Seymour Hoffman would look like as Santa, here’s your chance to find out.)

After the physical preparation, Sanderson takes various gigs (not jobs, because it’s all volunteer) on the Polar Express, and at a surprise (to him) tree lighting, and being a rock star in a parade. He even does a few ‘sneak and peeks’ where families have him put presents down and they wake up their kids to see Santa in the house.

Another big part of the film is the history of Santa Claus, which is presented by various authorities on the subject and is interspersed between sections of Sanderson’s transformation process and Santa gigs around the country. They even get into Black Pete  which somehow  still exists in 2013.

One of the authorities is Ernest Berger from Santa-America , which is a fantastic organisation that provides highly-trained, committed Santas for unhurried visits to children with autism or in hospice or in other complex circumstances. Check out their site. They do good work.

Another group that came up later was Letters to Santa , which takes all the letters in a certain city that arrive at the post office addressed to Santa and helps kids get the gifts they need. One child asked for a special needs wheelchair that cost $20,000, their family couldn’t afford it, but the organisation put an ad in the paper and the next day they had the chair for the child for Christmas. The group originated in New York, but several other cities participate now, as well. The link above will tell you how to help if your city has one or how to set one up where you live.

I genuinely enjoyed it. At the very end some onion cutting ninja broke in for a bit because it reminded me of being small. When you’re young enough to believe in Santa you’re also young enough to not see all the things wrong at home, and for me it was just before my brain chemistry went doolally. So he signifies happy ignorance (which is generally happy, but go with me). I miss that sometimes. The expression on some of those kids’ faces, man… they’ll remind you. They are looking at the embodiment of happiness, of sheer joy and it shows on their faces. And if you’ve experienced that for yourself it’s difficult not to relive it when watching Becoming Santa. The experience changed Sanderson more than he expected and it’s easy to see why and how that happened. It would have changed even me.

Well, in Whoville they say that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.


The American Scream

by V. L. Craven

The American Scream

Each year in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, three houses are turned into Haunts, where average people make their own haunted attractions that draw in hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors. The American Scream is about those three households.

There’s the father of two who loves spooky DYI, but who didn’t get to celebrate Halloween growing up and who has, perhaps, overcompensated by going overboard every year in October. His decorations are incredible, his spirit contagious, his family supportive even when the stress of trying to make everything perfect begins to wear on him.

Then there’s the everyday Joe who just likes to have fun with it. If it looks good and it’s scary it works. He adds things each year, but doesn’t go crazy and doesn’t get too stressed out.

Then there’s…the third one. Which really has to be seen to be appreciated. There’s a ‘specialness’ about the third family that’s difficult to describe. It’s a man and his dad. And they have their own peculiar take on what’s frightening. And they are not wrong–their decorations are unsettling, but more in a, ‘Have I just stumbled into the backyard of a deranged individual,’ than, ‘Clearly, this is a haunted house made for my amusement,’ sort of way.

All three people do what they do because they love it. They look forward to October the way some people look forward to Christmas, a sentiment I can absolutely identify with.

The documentary itself is well done enough. It’s really about the people–there are some excellent, human moments. I highly recommend this one–it’s on Netflix, if that’s available to you. And if any of you have been to any of the houses I would love to hear your stories.

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