Oh man I have been waiting for this! MOVIE DIARY 2018 is back once again, and I want to do a little something special for August. I missed the actual 20th anniversary of Wild Things (1998) back in March, so I've decided that this August will be WILD THINGS MONTH on MOVIE DIARY 2018! I've already written about Wild Things here, so in the coming weeks former MOVIE DIARY 2018 guests will be coming through to write about the official movie of MOVIE DIARY 2018, Wild Things! It's going to be fun, I swear! First up is frequent MOVIE DIARY 2018 special guest Tessa Strain!
Wild Things (1998)
SPECIAL GUEST WRITER: TESSA STRAIN
I first watched Wild Things on the Starz app last January, and I won’t go as far as saying that was how it was meant to be seen, although I will say that seeing the Starz logo pop up in the bottom right corner of the screen every fifteen minutes or so did improve the experience, and I will further say that the Starz app is extremely slept on and feels closer to the experience of going to Blockbuster in the late ‘90s than really any other streaming app. That is, for the record, the way Wild Things is meant to be seen: rented on VHS from Blockbuster some time between 1999 and 2002, the window between Wild Things’ home video release and the rise of DVDs as the primary rental medium being so exquisitely brief. And Wild Things is most assuredly not a DVD movie! It’s a tawdry, dogeared paperback of a movie, and VHS is is its ideal medium.
For one thing, a VHS shows wear, not externally, like a DVD does, but on the tape itself. Why is that relevant to Wild Things? Let me briefly digress with an anecdote from a friend who is studying to be a book conservator. Many old and often-read books, paperbacks in particular, have what is called a preferential opening. When you set the book on its spine, the preferential opening is the page it naturally opens to. She demonstrated this with a paperback copy of the novel Jaws, released as a tie-in with the movie and featuring stills from the film illustrating its pages. The preferential opening was on a page with a still of the naked and ill-fated Chrissy, the shark’s first victim. Lurid!
Wild Things also has a preferential opening (this phrase gets grosser every time I write it, which I think is appropriate!!): the threesome with Denise Richards, Neve Campbell, and Matt Dillon. Can you imagine the experience of watching that scene on VHS, frustratedly adjusting the tracking because a million horndogs had worn that spot of the tape into oblivion?! If you don’t know what it means to adjust the tracking PLEASE do not tell me because I will crumble into dust COMPLETELY. Anyway, the scene is, uh, not great, but it did make me long for an era where movies were actually horny and not in a “Jamie Dornan puts on his special sex jeans” way (it took me until the third movie to realize he had special sex jeans, which feels like the erotic equivalent of being excited to wear your Aloha shirt to work for Casual Friday, which is the exact type of problem I’m talking about here!).
And furthermore, FURTHERMORE, has any movie poster been more optimally designed to be a VHS cover (plenty, but be quiet)? Denise Richards and Neve Campbell, half-submerged in a pool like two alligators*, gazing into your eyes from a shelf at the Blockbuster in the strip mall at the corner of Riverside and Fulton in Sherman Oaks (it was next door to a Little Caesar’s, how convenient is that!) as if to say “THIS IS A MOVIE YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO WATCH.”
Okay, so who wants to hear my idea for an app? It’s like a thing where in front of your screen when you’re watching a movie it hovers the side of a blue and white Blockbuster Video case in the bottom corner so it looks like you’ve just set the case on the entertainment center when you popped the VHS in to watch. I’m convinced that this is one of the main things missing from the modern at-home movie watching experience. Please don’t steal my idea!!!!
*The alligator motif is used to a near-relentless degree in this movie because it is set in Florida, and of course the seedy motel is called “The Glades,” it’s the law or something. The lawyers wear white suits! Like Keanu at the beginning of The Devil’s Advocate when he was also a lawyer in Florida! Really makes you think.
Tessa Strain is a writer living in Geoff’s apartment. Her work has appeared in Bright Wall/Dark Room and The Comics Journal. She is @tessastrain on Twitter, where she does a pretty good job, and on Instragram, where she does a bad one.
A Bucket of Blood (1959)
A super fun Roger Corman movie about the murderous rise and fall of an incel and the insufferability of beatniks. Thinking about it now, it’s of course tongue in cheek, but it’s also got kind of a hostile world view. Our main character, Walter, is an utter wiener, a busboy at some divey beatnik hangout where he tries unsuccessfully to get in the good graces of his crush Carla and Maxwell, the king beatnik here, by telling them that he’s an artist too and that he’s working on something big. They can all sense his desperation and laugh him off, which gets him fired up enough to go home and actually work on a sculpture. To the dismissive beatniks’ credit though, it appears that Walter has never sculpted before in his life and his initial attempt at sculpting frankly looks like shit. Honestly that’s funny enough for me, but Corman takes it further when Walter, in his frustration at realizing that making sculptures is a lot of hard work that requires craft and skill, accidentally murders his landlady’s cat. Spite being the great motivator that it is, and Walter being the opportunistic weasel that he is, Walter covers the dead cat in clay, then brings it to the cafe the next day to show off as his new sculpture. Walter calls his piece “Dead Cat,” the latest indication of his artlessness. Again, a funny enough joke, and again, one that Corman takes further by having these beatniks eat it up entirely.
Corman interestingly doesn’t really cast Walter in a sympathetic light. I feel like if this movie had been made today in our climate of corporate nerd entitlement there’d be a mandate for Walter to have some redeeming qualities, but Corman thankfully has no interest in doing this. Through it all, Walter is shown as being stupid and impressionable at best, cruel and entitled at worst. He continues his new art career by moving up from a killing a dead cat to killing people, accidentally at first (an unlucky cop mistakenly trying to bust him for buying heroin), then later out of vengeful spite when a woman makes fun of him and doesn’t believe he’s a real artist. With the amount of verbal abuse that gets sent Walter’s way from these superficial and arrogant beatniks, you can understand where his lashing out is coming from, but we’re never really given a reason to root for Walter, and why would we? He’s as foolish and dimwitted as everyone says, and as soon as he gains even a moderate following he uses it as an excuse to become just as arrogant and superficial as the people who’d made fun of him in the first place.
The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
Not quite as sharp and mean as A Bucket of Blood, but just as fun, Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors at times seems more like a kooky neighborhood slice of life piece than B-movie schlock. The variety of colorful characters is the strongest part of the movie. It could have been about the day to day of this failing flower shop and its weirdo clientele and I would have been happy, but Corman isn’t content to just visit with the social climbing owner, his hapless employees, the pervert who buys flowers to eat, an old woman who seems to constantly be in mourning, a sadistic dentist, young Jack Nicholson, etc. — he has to come up with a reason for someone to murder a bunch of people. It feels like Audrey Jr. could have been anything, Corman was going to find a way for people to die no matter the setting.
I think it’s interesting that the murderer-protagonists of both A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors are totally impressionable wieners. These movies do share some characteristics of a nerd revenge fantasy, but without the transformative heroic moments or whatever. These nerds are weak cowards, either blaming the world for their shortcomings (Walter in A Bucket of Blood) or constantly bending to the demands of everyone around them (Seymour in The Little Shop of Horrors). Maybe that’s an unkind reading of Seymour, and I do think you’re supposed to feel a little bad for him, and he is being put into some extreme circumstances (as opposed to A Bucket of Blood’s Walter, who eventually develops a taste for murder), but like… you don’t need to listen to a plant, man. Stand up for yourself!
Shin Godzilla (2016)
This movie really lived up to the hype! I’m not really a big time Godzilla fan, but I really loved this approach to Godzilla as a natural disaster and a bureaucratic nightmare. Too often in big ass monster movies, they try to focus on the human element of things to get us invested, but the humans end up just being so boring and run of the mill monster movie tropes. It’s fine, I’ve accepted that that’s pretty much the price of admission, but Shin Godzilla has somehow figured out how to make big, fun monster action while having a human plotline that you can give a shit about.
The main thrust of this movie is the politics and bureaucracy involved in having to deal with Godzilla showing up in Tokyo. Turns out, you don’t just call in an airstrike on a monster that shows up on your shores. Especially if you’ve got career ambitions. There are committees! Meetings! Red Tape! You gotta bring in experts to weigh in! Then you can order an airstrike. But only if all the civilians are clear! You gotta check! If any civilians get killed in the line of fire it’s your ass! It’s an angle that tends to get glossed over in other monster movies, but Shin Godzilla takes this approach and really goes deep into the ramifications of government officials declaring a state of emergency in the midst of a catastrophic event that could become a disaster on a global scale. The bureaucracy and politics are interesting, but what really made me care about it was watching these men and women doing their jobs with a dogged and sometimes weary determination (one of my favorite things to see in any movie), particularly with the compassionate Prime Minister who prioritizes civilian life over any plan, and our main guy Rando Yaguchi. Rando’s the kind of character in disaster movies who’s right from the beginning, and it’s fun to see that character working through the system to get people to see that he’s right and that the only way to deal with Godzilla is to listen to Rando and his crack team of government desk jobbers for once in their stupid lives. Rando also knows how to play the politics end of things and it’s cool to see ulterior motive of climbing the ranks slowly creep its way into his character. His top priority is keeping people safe from Godzilla, but he knows that if he plays his cards right he can find himself in a better position in the aftermath. Knowing that these government officials are playing at politics while coming up with a plan to save Tokyo from Godzilla allows you to really get invested in these characters in a way that’s much more satisfying than something like, say, one of them having a cute dog that might get killed or whatever.
Godzilla has always carried the subtext of anxiety about nuclear war, but Shin Godzilla carries that anxiety like a banner over the whole movie. Godzilla is born of the illegal dumping of nuclear waste, a living reminder of humanity’s disregard for a planet that’s hungry for vengeance. On the human end of things that nuclear anxiety comes in the form of the UN’s plan to stop Godzilla with an atomic bomb more powerful than Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The plan to drop a bomb on Godzilla that would effectively destroy Tokyo weighs heavy on everyone involved, motivating Rando to push his Godzilla containment plan and make a last stand. Rando’s plan to stop Godzilla without an atomic bomb is indicative of his pragmatic bureaucrat mind in that he realizes that the psychological toll of yet another atomic bomb being dropped on Japan would scar another generation of people and more than that be a major setback for Japan. Rando is all about advancement, setbacks are unacceptable. Rando’s way of dealing with crisis seems very Western in that he sees independent thinking and unilateral action as more effective ways of dealing with a problem than committees and alliances.
Shin Godzilla is largely about the government dealing with a crisis, but the monster action is really exciting too. Godzilla hits land as this goofy, giant crawling lizard thing with googly eyes that vomits blood, and as they make their way inland they begin to evolve into the Godzilla we all know and love. In Godzilla’s final form they have lasers shooting out of their back (to intercept bombs being dropped on them), a tail laser, and a jaw that splits open to make way for their giant laser breath. It seems kind of silly but then you see the utter destruction that they cause and it’s terrifying! It’s an incredibly effective look at the total chaos that something like Godzilla would bring. The utter destruction of Tokyo is a total spectacle, but again the human element is what sells the scene. Amidst the newly evolved Godzilla’s laser-fueled outburst, we get scenes of the Prime Minister (til now, heroically doing the best he can against this god-sized threat) being urged to leave Tokyo behind before the airstrike on Godzilla juxtaposed with a massive traffic jam of people trying to leave the city, including Rando and his team, who step outside their car to finally lay eyes on what they’ve been fighting. It’s really impactful, the idea that Rando and his team have, to this point, been dealing with Godzilla and the city’s devastation only in the abstract. When they actually see Godzilla for the first time, it’s a reminder that this fight isn’t just files and paperwork and forms and committees— it’s real, it’s in front of them, and it’s as big as God.