George Miller, Heavy Metal & the Simplicity of Story

The weekend box office has come in and PITCH PERFFECT made something like $70 million. A pop song singing fest with mass broad appeal, it edged out the weekend’s second place offering by just over $25 mill, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD made a respectable $44 million. But it seems to have created a rift in the fanboy and critics circles. I don’t see how or why it would or should. One is a PG pop song, the other an R rated heavy metal opus, chock full of violence. Of course the pop song is going to sell more date night tickets than the heavy metal act. And being the heavy metal act is not a bad thing at all.

You see, director George Miller is more metal than you. Shit, he’s more metal than metal itself. A single viewing of FURY ROAD is enough to pummel you into concession of my assessment. FURY ROAD is the visual equivalent of the perfect metal album. A note for note masterpiece, perfectly timed in its sequences, each is a ballistic song unto itself. The end result is a surreal ballet of violence that has no parallel in modern Western cinema. Forget about the kinetic impact of THE RAID going forward, after DAREDEVIL, ass kicking in the up close is passé. Allow me to evoke the CGI that allows the FAST & FURIOUS franchise to defy physics before you do. FURY ROAD makes the Vin Diesel vehicle a cartoon in comparison. The bar on action films has been raised, once again, by an innovator of the genre. By breaking FURY ROAD’s story down to the bare bones, Miller has reinvented the genre once again.

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And that’s what makes this such an amazing experience to behold. The simple mindedness of it. Miller has found a way to appeal to today’s attention deficient audiences and tell a compelling tale with three clear acts. As a result, FURY ROAD tells a cohesive story with no plot holes, no bullshit and, most of all, more explosions than Michael Bay has had in his past 5 productions. FURY ROAD also has more story than any of the aforementioned Bay offerings, despite the fact that it’s nothing more than one long chase that goes in one direction and (spoiler!) back the way it came. Along the way shit gets blown up, people die and both heroes and villains find themselves on varying sides of redemption, either receiving or dealing it. Constantly. A simple story, plus complete characters makes for compelling entertainment and FURY ROAD is a classic Campbellian hero’s journey, complete with a trek into the underworld and a rebirth during said portion of the trek. It’s bare bones Hellenic story telling, ripe with visual Easter Eggs and succeeds because of it. With this outline laid, Miller creates a post apocalyptic vision that defies the suspension of disbelief, going over the top to a degree that you can’t help but accept the absurdity and madness of it all. It’s almost as if Miller has laid down tracks on the perfect album, Side A takes us one way, side B goes back again, and never loses its pace.

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The bad guys, under the command of Immortan Joe, form the rhythm section of the movie, figuratively and literally with their thundering bass drums and driving guitar. The antagonists also fill this role in the narrative, as they are the driving force behind the chase itself. Joe’s a sick and poisoned boogeyman with interest only in retrieving his breeding stock of wives. And this is why Immortan Joe works. He’s not a sympathetic villain. In some sense, he’s no different than the killing machine that is Michael Myers, or Jason Voorhees. Like them, Joe’s a driven maniac. Immortan Joe heralds the end of the sympathetic bad guys. Too often we waste precious screen time on justifying their motivations, taking precious character development form the protagonists and their wards. The end result with many modern movies has been an inability for the audience to bond with the intended heroes, because they’re less interesting than the bad guys. All too often this is leading to bland or otherwise uninteresting exercises in film.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD features a return to the post apocalyptic adventures of the titular “Mad” Max Rockatansky, after a 3 decade theatrical sabbatical for the character. The creation of George Miller and his late writing partner Byron Kennedy, Max wanders the wasteland of Australia in a search for redemption. Max is Miller’s Elric, a haunted but eternal champion. Max and Elric share many similar traits, primarily in the “dead friends” department. But whereas Stormbringer typically ends up feasting on the souls of Elric’s companions, Max’s friends and family die at the hands of others, and live on only to haunt Max’s soul.

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First played by (the then not so bat shit crazy) Mel Gibson in MAD MAX, THE ROAD WARRIOR and BEYOND THUNDERDOME, the role is now in the safe hands of Tom Hardy. With this passing of the torch in FURY ROAD, the character of Max has now reached a level of iconography on a level similar to James Bond. But whereas Bond’s tux and Walther PPK are signatures of the character, a tattered leather jacket and sawed off shot gun are the dog-eared marks of Max. Hardy is Max in the same manner that Gibson was Max. He motivations in the story are clear. It’s his intent to aid his wards in their quest and hopefully end the nightmares of his past.
But Max isn’t the movie’s primary protagonist. He’s more a window dressing in the story, placed there as a convenient plot MacGuffin to drive the story with his frequent super human feats of heroism and survival. Like FROM DUSK ‘TIL DAWN, which is a gangster movie that just happens to vampires in it, FURY ROAD isn’t as much a Mad Max movie, as it is a movie with Mad Max in it. This becomes clear as we close the first act.

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Instead, this story is about Imperiator Furiosa, brought to life by Oscar winning actress Charlize Theron. We haven’t had a female action lead this strong since Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the ALIEN franchise. It’s her quest, her goals that further drive the story and are the catalyst to all of the death and destruction that rains throughout the film. Ultimately her story is a twist on Homer’s Helen of Troy. Where as Helen launched a thousand ships, Furisoa’s actions launch a thousand vehicles. But it’s not until we meet the Many Mothers that the narrative takes a noticeable turn, giving the story a prevalent feminist sub theme. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a part of the message that drives the narrative, showing the balance between not only good and evil, but male and female, and life and death. Miller has actually snuck in a bit of neo-pagan symbolism in the story with the three faced goddess representation in the female characters. The fundamental archetypes of the triple goddess are there if you look. The Five Wives of Immortan Joe represent the Maiden in their nativity. Furiosa is clearly the aspect of the Matron, guiding her charges to safety. The Many Mothers are the embodiment of the Crone, whom also heralds life and death. This is less feminism than it is just good story telling providing a positive message, albeit hidden behind vast carnage.

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Combined, Max is our lead guitarist and Furiosa our vocalist. Furiosa channels the aggression of Lzzy Hale in her convictions and softness of Amy Lee when required. Hers is the voice of FURY ROAD. Max’s signature compliments her, melding the technical genius of Randy Rhoads and garage band rough of Sean Morgan, getting the job done at any cost. All played out over Immortan Joe’s backbeat with an end result that is familiar, yet new. Is FURY ROAD a modern masterpiece? Perhaps, perhaps not. One thing it isn’t is a pop song. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is pure and unadulterated, in your face heavy metal always in tune with an absence of sour notes, even if it isn’t Pitch Perfect.

Celluloid and Cenobites: The Cinematic History of Clive Barker

The first chapter of The Necrocasticon has cracked open, and like Pinhead’s puzzle box, deliciously horrible things were unleashed upon the world.  Token Tom and the gang discussed the HP Lovecraft of Generation X, Clive Barker.

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This will be a tour of Clive Barker’s film history.  Born in England in 1952, Clive Barker grew up with a taste for horror and fantasy.  He quickly established himself as a prominent young horror writer.  One of his themes is hidden worlds within the real world, and that is a theme that will permeate his movies, another prominent theme in his work is sexuality.

Clive Barker first got into film as a screenwriter.  He wrote the screenplay to Underworld (1985) and Rawhead Rex (1986). Rawhead Rex is about a demon that gets released from his prison, and creates a trail of gore, terror, and destruction across Ireland.  The film was released to less than stellar critical reviews, however, as time has gone by, Rawhead Rex has garnered a cult following.

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Clive Barker was not happy with how his vision of Rawhead Rex was portrayed on the screen, so he decided direct his own films.  This decision lead to his most popular film, and arguably the most popular character created by Clive Barker, Hellraiser (1987) and Pinhead.  Based on his novella, The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser had a 1 million dollar budget, and grossed 14.5 million in the box office.  It made Barker’s first directional outing a financial success.

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Hellriaser is about a man, Frank, who is looking for the ultimate high.  He heard of a box that opened a portal to a world that held extreme carnal pleasures.  The movie begins with him finding the box, and opening it.  Chains immediately rip him to pieces.  The film then jumps and follows the man’s niece, Kristy, who stumbles upon the box.  She discovers that Frank is now a skeleton in the attic who is desperately trying to become human again, by consuming the blood of humans.  The more he drinks, the more his body regenerates.  She opens the box, and makes a deal with the demons who live in the realm on the other side of the portal, The Cenobites.  Their leader, Pinhead, agrees with her deal.  Frank escaped the cenobites, and Kristy offers to deliver him back to Pinhead.

This film really pushes the envelope of sadomasochism.  One common theme that runs through the work of Clive Barker is pushing the limits of taboo issues.

The original cut of the film got an X rating from the MPAA.  Barker had to cut several scenes to make the R rating.

Hellraiser spawned 8 sequels, and one of the most enduring horror icons, Pinhead.  Barker recently announced that he would be writing the screenplay to the remake of Hellraiser.

Nightbreed

After Hellraiser, Barker went on to direct another film that became a cult classic, Nightbreed (1990).  Nightbreed is based on Barker’s novella Cabal.  Nightbreed explored the question, “who are the real monsters?”

The film centers around Aaron Boone, a patient of Dr. Decker.  Decker convinces Boone that he is a serial killer, when in fact, it’s Dr. Decker who is the real killer.

Boone sets out on a quest to find a place where monsters are welcome.  He hears of a place called Midian.  Midian is a city hidden under a massive cemetery, where monsters are accepted.

Once there, the monsters he comes in contact with, don’t believe that he is a murderer, and attacks him.  One of the monsters bites him, and after the police gun him down, Boone wakes up in the morgue, because of the monster’s bite.

Now a true monster, Boone returns to Midian, and is accepted this time.  Tensions build between Boone and Dr. Decker, and a battle for Midian takes place, leaving Boone standing, and charged to find The Nightbreed another home.

Nightbreed was a commercial failure.  Clive Barker has gone on record blaming this failure on the studio, who tired to sell the movie as a standard slasher film, but it is much more complicated than that.

Barker also was not happy with the final edit. After more than two decades, Barker finally was able to release his director’s cut in 2014.

Barker’s experience with Nightbreed and his battles with the studio could explain why he has directed so few movies in his career, and why they are so few and far in between.

Lord Of Illusions

Five years after Nightbreed, Barker decided to try directing again with Lord Of Illusions (1995).  With a budget of 12 million, and only a 13 million gross, Lord Of Illusions was another financial bust for Barker, but it is a fantastic film.  Based on his short story, The Last Illusion, this film features Barker’s signature literary character, Harry D’Amour, in film for the first time.

Scott Bakula plays Harry D’Amour as a private investigator who is hired to investigate a series of disappearances and deaths of illusionists.  D’Amour uncovers an evil plot by demonic cult to harness real magic in the world.  Faced against forces of the occult, D’Amour come to terms with what is really happening and hold onto his sanity, if he hopes to survive and stop the cult.

Again, Clive Barker was not happy with the final edit, and insists that the theatrical version does not accurately represent his vision.  He has released a director’s cut of the film.

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Lord Of Illusions was Clive Barker’s last attempt at directing a feature film, but fear not!  It has recently been announced that a film based on the modern boogeyman phenomena, Slender Man is in the works, and none other than Clive Barker is set to direct.

Slender Man is one of the most interesting concepts to come from the modern social media age.  Born from a few creepy old photo shopped photos originally posted by Eric Knudsen in 2009, Slender Man took on a life of his own.  He is usually depicted as an usually tall, skinny, bald man with no face.  He is dressed in a suit, and sometimes has tentacles.  Slender Man stalks and kidnaps children and is typically depicted as living in the woods.  What he does with the children and his motives are currently unknown.

Slender Man plus Clive Barker is a match made in Heaven….or maybe that’s Hell.  In either case, I’m in! Thank you for celebrating the movie career of Clive Barker with us here at The Necrocasticon! From The Lord Of The Pitts, we’ll see you next time!