Iron Man for the First Time and Samurai Reincarnation

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I’m not real big on “joining,” so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that up until a couple of weeks ago I had never seen any of the recent Marvel movies. In fact, I think the “Blade” movies and “Howard the Duck” were the only Marvel movies I’d seen. Due to this unlikely fact, I was a guest on Nick Nadel’s podcast Movies My Friends Have Never Seen, where we watched “Iron Man” (2008) and I gave my impressions. Fun stuff you’ll learn:

  • I have an uncanny ability to catalog the substance abuse problems of mainstream comics characters.
  • If you took a shot every time I mention “the Demonic Other” in relation to pulp villains, you would die, so be careful.
  • We talk about how I *do*, in fact, like comic book movies, just maybe not the ones that make box office billions.
  • The existence of the “Dylan Dog” movie was wiped from my brain entirely.

Listen to the podcast here.

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Another marvelous thing introduced to me by a friend is the 1980 Japanese horror action epic “Samurai Reincarnation.” The story of a Christian martyr who renounces his faith in order to work hideous black magic for revenge, this has everything you could possibly want in it: swordfights, nudity, glittery costumes, and martial arts movie legend Sonny Chiba. I wrote about this classic of bonkers world cinema for Vintage Ninja–read about it here.

A Tale of Three Livias: Female Desire and Military Decadence in Senso

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“Senso:” the title of Camillo Boito’s 1882 novella evokes the senses, primal feelings that are more immediate than reason. A stunning work of decadent fiction, “Senso” is the story of Livia, a 22-year-old countess married to a much older man who recounts her obsession with her “strong, handsome, degenerate, reprobate” lover, the soldier Romigio. I have a soft spot for horrible leading characters, and Livia is truly dreadful: she’s vain, impulsive, and vengeful with a complete disregard for anyone by herself. The very name “Livia” evokes the deified wife of the Roman emperor Augustus, known as an idealized, queenly matriarch, but this Livia is called “Messalina” by her lover, linking her more closely to the wife of Emperor Claudius who was rumored to be wildly promiscuous. Romigio proves himself to be precisely the kind of scoundrel he’s always presented himself to be, wheedling lavish gifts from Livia, who delights in stealing her husband’s money for her roguish, beautiful side piece. Things turn sour when Livia discovers that—in addition to his gambling, drinking, and excesses—Romigio also keeps other lovers, she finds a final way to squeeze pleasure out of her relationship with him: ratting him out as a deserter and watching his execution. A story of lust, extreme selfishness, and power against the backdrop of war, “Senso” begs to be adapted for the screen.

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Luchino Visconti’s 1954 version of “Senso” is a lavish period piece set, like Boito’s novella, in Italy during the 1860s at a time of escalating tension with Austria. Livia (Alida Valli) is married to an aristocrat with ties to Austria, but Visconti adds a “competing loyalties” storyline with the new character of Livia’s cousin, the leader of an Italian rebellion against the Austrian occupiers. Visconti’s Livia is not the arrogant young woman depicted by Boito; instead she an aging beauty plagued by anxieties who is swept away by the dashing Lieutenant Franz Mahler (the renamed Romogio, played by Farley Granger who used the time in between filming to carry on an affair with Jean Marais). It’s clear that Franz is bad news, but Livia convinces herself he loves only her, in spite of his known reputation as a drunk and a womanizer. Rather than being a headstrong femme fatale—the Satanic Female so favored by the decadent movement—Visconti’s Livia is a tragic figure and this is the story of her downfall.

senso-4Key moments of sensuality populate the novella: Livia examines bruises on her body, her first tryst with Romigio takes place while swimming nude in a public bath, and there are references to her body being “crushed” and “bitten” during sex. Visconti transforms this physical sensuality into a purely visual beauty. Bruised, bitten shoulders are replaced by sumptuous layers of silk gowns and crushing sex becomes smoldering eye contact of the kind Visconti films so adeptly. It’s a breathlessness not of exertion and exhaustion, but of constraint. This Livia doesn’t pant from her unrestrainable sexual urges, but is unable to breathe due to tight bodices and heavy gowns.

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Toxic intimacy gives way to sweeping battlefield sequences, shifting focus from Livia and Franz to the greater impact of war on the country. Livia’s obsession feels trivial when contrasted with images of wounded soldiers and chaotic fighting. Livia isn’t so much driven by desire, as she is hysterical. In fact, her neglect of duties to her countrymen is made explicit when she gives money earmarked for her cousin’s resistance efforts to her lover so he can avoid active duty. The consequences of her choice are made terribly obvious when the Austrian army defeats the Italian partisans.

senso-3In a final departure from Boito, Visconti constructs a confrontation between Livia and her cheating lover that doesn’t exist for Boito. It is enough for Boito’s Livia to witness Romigio’s unfaithfulness without being seen, but Visconti depicts a heartrending scene in which Franz, caught in the arms of a prostitute and bragging about taking Livia’s money, rants his explanation at Livia, maddening her with grief and regret. This Livia musters the last of her dignity to turn him in, instead of ruthlessly informing on him and taking pleasure in his death.

Visconti’s film is a breathtaking one in its beauty, if not due to the dark sensuality evoked by Boito. To watch one of the director’s period pieces is to be put into an idealized, luxurious vision of the aristocratic past, where rooms are decorated in museum-worthy furnishings, every uniform is crisp and spotless, and one can hear the rustle of crinolines in the gowns worn by the women. While Visconti’s “Senso” leaves a lot to be desired in terms of decadence, it’s a stunner of a melodrama.

The view of Visconti’s “Senso” as a none-too-authentic adaptation Boito’s novella was one held by the director himself (who at one point wanted to rename the project entirely) as well as by Tinto Brass. Brass has mastered bringing the decadent aesthetic to the screen: plush, beautiful, immersive, horrific, and explicitly sexual, Brass fills his films with images designed to provoke a reaction. If decadence is defined as the rejection of realism in favor of artifice, then movies like “Caligula” and “Salon Kitty”—rooted in history but not terribly mindful of depicting it accurately—were cast in the decadent mold.

senso45-4Tinto Brass’ 2002 “Senso ‘45” (aka ”Black Angel”) is the director’s attempt to connect the “Sensos” of Boito and Visconti, taking the latter’s adaptation and reworking many of the threads missing from the former’s novella. Revisiting the operatic fascism of “Salon Kitty,” though this time in the declining days of the German occupation of Italy, Brass recasts Livia (Anna Galiena) as the wife of an Italian fascist official and Romigio as SS Lieutenant Helmut Schultz (Gabriel Garko, sporting a regrettable bleach-blonde hairstyle).

senso45-3The older woman/younger man dynamic of Visconti is present in “Senso ’45.” It’s noteworthy that the age shift on the part of the woman makes her a sympathetic figure—for a woman to begin to lose the beauty traditionally associated with youth is seen as tragic, but to depict a young woman in full realization of the power of this same beauty makes her demonic and threatening. To have the demonic female in a relationship with the demonic male (made explicitly demonic in Brass by his Nazi affiliation) creates an ambiguous balance of power and one that’s arguably closer to Boito’s original intent.

senso45-2What Brass does bring to the forefront from Boito is the emphasis on sexual passion. The bodies so carefully disguised in meticulous period costuming in Visconti are on full display here—Brass’ no-less-gorgeous costumes are designed to be stripped from the players in moments of animal passion, with all the “crushing” and “biting” described by Boito. “Senso ‘45” is an extremely dark and cynical romance, with Livia frequently put into situations that force her to “overcome” some kind of inhibition (in contrast to the fully-realized sexuality of Boito’s protagonist). Of course, this being a Tinto Brass movie, we get a first row seat to Livia indulging in oral sex, group sex, public sex, anal sex, and transforming herself into a sexually awakened being as a result. There’s even a tonally bizarre scene—likely included to show us her point of view—where Livia and her SS boy-toy frolic at the seashore in a moment that feel like it would be at home in “The Blue Lagoon.”

Where Boito’s Livia is responding to her true nature and acting on her impulses, Brass’ Livia finds herself guided down a path of decadence. A character invented by Brass is Elsa, the procuress who ushers Livia into her first sexual encounter with Helmut and later is shown running a bordello and gambling den.

senso45-1It’s noteworthy that, unlike the vast majority of Italian Nazi epics, “Senso ‘45” is set in and explicitly features images of Italian fascism. The streets of Venice are plastered with huge images of Mussolini and rifle-toting black-shirted troops roam the streets. While the movie never shows the front, the realities of war are present with blackouts and air raids a constant reminder that the social order is collapsing (or being returned to its proper alignment, with the ever-advancing Allies). World War II atrocities are evoked when Livia and Helmut witness the shooting of an unarmed woman in the streets. This does little to dampen their ardor, however, as they’re shown in their love nest apartment moments later.

The degree to which Helmut has exploited Livia is revealed when she discovers him spending the money she’d given him to save him from the front alongside a prostitute. The cruelty of the confrontation is emphasized here, with Helmut pointing out Livia’s age and laughing at her conviction that he loved her. What’s devastating to Livia has been obvious to the audience from the moment Helmut’s black-uniformed figure appeared on screen: he’s a vicious, amoral degenerate without a care for any other human being. The eroticism of Livia’s revenge on Helmut is emphasized in Brass, but a feeling of justification detracts from the shock at her final act of vindictiveness. Helmut/Romigio was not her equal in degeneracy, as is implied in Boito, but rather a far more horrible creature whose seductive power overwhelmed the already morally ambivalent politician’s wife.

This shift of power away from Livia as the stunning young noblewoman of Boito that transforms her into the elegant neurotic of Visconti and the late-blooming hothouse flower of Brass is an interesting choice. It’s almost as if the directors find it impossible to think the audience would be able to watch a movie focused on the demonic woman of decadent literature. Do they see her as a misogynist relic of a time past? Do they simply feel the viewer requires a sympathetic woman at the center of their stories in order to “sell” a narrative that hinges on revenge, rather than on Boito’s carnal death drive climax? Is it possible that, in recasting Livia as the “woman scorned” they’ve missed a key part of the power at the heart of the source novella?

Historical Sluttery, Ilsa, and Bonnie and Maude – Spring 2015 Art

There are a lot of wonderful consequences to having creative friends. The artists, performers, and writers I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by are a constant source of inspiration for me. As a bonus, sometimes I even get to invited to collaborate with them on their ventures.

I’m excited to announce that I have a new monthly feature at Slutist (a site that anyone who loves fierce women should be reading) called Great Moments in Historical Sluttery. I’ll be illustrating and writing about sexy, influential women and their various accomplishments, misdeeds, and general hijinx. The first in the series is live on Slutist now, and discusses Weimar Berlin’s own Anita Berber.

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I’ve also been illustrating posters for some of the independent film and pop culture events here in NYC. Below is a poster I made for screenings of the Ilsa series at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn:

Ilsa for Spectacle Poster

 

On a completely different side of the Female Experience coin, I also illustrated a poster for an event called Pregnant Pause, hosted by Bonnie and Maude, a fantastic podcast and variety show about women in film and television. It’s good to get out of one’s comfort zone and this was a terrific opportunity for me to do just that!

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New Zine: Witch Women from Heretical Sexts

witchwomen-screenNurse your Walpurgisnacht hangovers with Witch Women, the brand new zine from my micropress Heretical Sexts. I was able to collaborate with some of my favorite artists and authors for this exploration of the link between women and the occult in history, film, books, and other media. Ranging from esoteric to tongue-in-cheek, contents include:

-“Hag Couture,” cheeky advice on fashion and ritual realness by S. Elizabeth
-“Ace of Worlds,” an encounter with the tarot by Tom Blunt
-“The Scarlet Women,” an illustrated history of erotic magic written by Heather Drain and illustrated by Tenebrous Kate
-“Darkening the Coven,” an RPG and creative writing supplement by Jack W. Shear
-Art by Dana Glover, Becky Munich, and Carisa Swenson

Purchase a copy of Witch Women here.

I’ve also got button packs featuring my art for sale on the shop, so you can trick out your battle jackets with Gillman Businessman, Barbara Steele in “Curse of the Crimson Altar,” Nazgûl romance, and the dope Heretical Sexts logo designed by the mad genius of Recspec. Button packs ship free with all zine orders, and for a limited time I’m throwing in a free mini zine with all zine purchases.

Vampires vs Dancing Queens, Verhoeven’s Nazi Melodrama, the Sounds of Horror and More

The following are some movies I’ve watched recently that made enough of an impression one way or another to merit a post here. Consider these my personal pro/con recommendations for stuff you can probably watch on your streaming service of choice.

blackbookBlack Book (2006, dir. Paul Verhoeven)

How could a two-and-a-half-hour WWII melodrama about a beautiful Jewish spy fucking an SS officer as directed by the man who brought us “Robocop” and “Showgirls” go so very, very wrong? I’m pretty sure the moment when the soon-to-be-seduced Nazi whips out his stamp collection, thus demonstrating his “we are not all barbarians” stock character, sets things on a path into deadly doldrums. All the resistance fighters, pert breasts, gun battles, double-crosses, and false indictments in the world couldn’t transform this lumbering hulk of stereotypes and blandness into the flashy, decadent trash-cinema masterpiece it could have been. The Critics, however, adored it.

bsoundstudioBerberian Sound Studio (2012, dir. Peter Strickland)

This smart tribute to later-era Italo-horror shifts the focus from rivers of red to the gruesomely evocative sound design of these gorefests. Beautifully filmed, intimate in scope, and frequently bitingly funny, I was pleasantly surprised that this movie lured me into its strange spiral of madness. This is, at its heart, a movie about a culture clash and excellent performances drive home this central conflict. An ambiguous ending has frustrated many viewers, but this is highly recommended for fans of oddly-structured stories rich with period and technical details.

devilskissDevil’s Kiss (1976, dir. Jordi Gigo)

Vintage Eurotrash can offer many delights: colorful cinematography, flashy jazz and prog rock soundtracks, and plentiful kink can frequently salvage an otherwise forgettable movie. Forgetfulness seems to be the order of the day in “Devil’s Kiss,” tragically, as someone at the helm seems to have forgotten to include music, beauty, and atmosphere anywhere in this neo-Gothic tale of revenge and the reanimated dead. I think the biggest shock was the inclusion of a scene that had enough impact to remind me that I’d previously watched this movie (though what that scene was seems to have escaped me at this point). I momentarily had this confused with “Devil’s Nightmare,” but that’s a far superior effort that features baby-stabbing and Erika Blanc’s delightful crazyface.

vampballerinaThe Vampire and the Ballerina (1960, dir. Renato Polselli)

This clunky little feature has bad monster design without being compellingly bad monster design, but is narrowly rescued from tedium by the endearing goofiness of its premise: a dance troupe of nubile young things is rehearsing for a performance at a remote castle, begging the question of who their intended audience might be, and begin falling prey to the hungry dead. Jiggly coquettishness and vampiric demises ensue.

revengeoftheninjaRevenge of the Ninja (1983, dir. Sam Firstenberg)

Every movie should inspire the kind of joy I experienced when watching “Revenge of the Ninja,” which marries a profound misunderstanding of Japanese culture with the dopiest heroin-smuggling scheme of all time. Honestly—how much heroin can you even include in a tiny doll? And why let the dolls be displayed in a shop so you have to steal them back? Inscrutable! Featuring the father-son team of Sho and Kane Kosugi as good-guy ninjas—bring your kid to work day is just plain different at Cannon Films.

manborgManborg (2011, dir. Steven Kostanski)

Deliberately camp movies are a dicey—nay, foreboding—proposition, but this Mortal Kombat meets 80s macho actioner puts in such overtime in its creative use of weirdo FX work that to not-like it would be like ignoring a puppy showing you its belly to receive tickles. After fearing that I’d have to turn this off after the first ten minutes, I was rewarded with stop-motion animated monsters, an unexpectedly charming villain in the form of The Baron, and some genuine laughs. This one may grow on my fellow hard-hearted cynics in a similar fashion.

Visit Me at Brooklyn Zine Fest on April 26

This Sunday, April 26 2015, I will be manning the Heretical Sexts table at Brooklyn Zine Fest. As an attendee of the event since its first year, I’m delighted to be participating on the vendor side of the table this year! BZF is a FREE EVENT that takes place from 11am to 6pm at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and full details on panels, artists, and writers involved in the Fest are available on the website here:

Brooklyn Zine Fest

There is a completely different set of zinesters on Saturday and Sunday, so be sure to check out both dates to see everything this creative line-up has to offer.

witchwomen-screenIn addition to Forever Doomed, My Dream Date with a Villain, buttons, stickers, and swag from Heretical Sexts contributors, I’ll be premiering the newest HS zine titled Witch Women. Everything on the Heretical Sexts table is five bucks or under–that’s about the price of a beer. There’s no reasonable way you can say no to stopping by! The Witch Women zine is an exploration of the many facets of the relationship between femininity and the occult. The zine features original art and essays ranging from the esoteric to the humorous.

Witch Women Contents:

-“Hag Couture,” cheeky advice on fashion and ritual realness by S. Elizabeth
-“Ace of Worlds,” an encounter with the tarot by Tom Blunt
-“The Scarlet Women,” an illustrated history of erotic magic written by Heather Drain and illustrated by Tenebrous Kate
-“Darkening the Coven,” and RPG and creative writing supplement by Jack W. Shear
-Art by Dana Glover, Becky Munich, and Carisa Swenson

“Dead Snow 2,” “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” Splatstick and Specters of the Past

Splatstick and the Specters of the Past: Tommy Wirkola’s Nazi Zombies and Killer Witches

DUMB MOVIES, SMART IDEAS

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I’m firm believer that movies (and books and art and comics and whatever creative medium we’re talking about) can be smart and thought provoking purely by accident. What I mean is that, even if a director or a screenwriter didn’t set out to make a movie that was a reflection of his or her culture and in fact was just trying to create a showcase for gross-out special effects work and raunchy humor, that dumb-on-its-surface movie probably reveals something about the time and place in which it was made. I’ve found this to be particularly true with horror and exploitation movies, because these movies have to rely on gut reactions in order to create the intended atmosphere. A gut reaction has to be instantaneous; the source of horror has to be instantly recognizable *as horrifying* to its intended audience, which probably consists of people from a similar background to the filmmaker. The movies have to speak to the audience’s lizard brains or, if you prefer a more optimistic perspective, appeal to the collective unconscious. It’s why there are perennial themes in horror movies: amoral murderers derive pleasure from killing us, nature runs amok and destroys us, and the dead come back to complete dreadful unfinished business.

In the case of horror stories that involve the dead returning from their graves in either ghostly or physical form, creators frequently look to history for inspiration. Picking the right historical source of villainy means that viewers can make an immediate connection between a time, place, and series of events that have a horrific connotation to them. By their nature, horror movies featuring historical elements will be linked to larger political and cultural themes that lend themselves to picking-apart by people who think entirely too deeply about the absurd things they watch.

People, in other words, like me.

Over the course of his relatively brief movie-making career, Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola has created a trio of blackly humorous horror movies that bank on finding fear in history. Wirkola fills his films with images from the frequently horrible record of European history and explores anxieties shared by his contemporaries: young Europeans who bear the burden of the past while having minimal personal connection to it. His emphasis on comedy in movies like the “Dead Snow,” “Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead,” and “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” allows him to take an incisive look at the ways in which the European identity has evolved to cope with elements of a blood-drenched history.

And a lot of that is accidental.

Wirkola has spoken about how his primary motive in making “Dead Snow” was to combine Nazis and zombies into an ubervillain while incorporating Norway’s World War II history to provide texture.1 One gets the sense from these interviews that considerably more time was spent on brainstorming of all the ways that Nazi zombies are radical villains than on Norway’s dual role as host to a Nazi puppet government and incubator for daring resistance fighters, but this subtext runs throughout regardless. A similar level of historical-commentary-by-accident on seventeenth century witch trials exists in Wirkola’s “Hansel and Gretel.”

But more about that later—let’s start at the beginning.

WHO IS THE NAZI ZOMBIE?2 

The “Dead Snow” films fit neatly into the recent—or at least recently reenergized—cycle of Nazi zombie stories. Set in Norway in the present day, 2009’s “Dead Snow” begins with a group of students whose plans to spend their Easter break skiing and socializing are thrown for a loop when they are attacked by a troop of Nazi zombies hunting for a lost hoard of gold.

The Nazi zombie as we currently recognize it is a recently codified addition to the horror canon. While the American-made “Shock Waves” is frequently credited with being the first to employ this story element (it’s not—that honor goes to 1941’s “King of the Zombies”), there’s little in that movie that prefigures the ghoulish shoot-‘em-ups found in video games and movies created in the Twenty-First Century. The lurking dread of “Shock Waves” is pitched out the window while the stories retain the theme of the zombies as part of a brutal regime of exterminators. This makes the Nazi zombies a convenient and arguably pretty clever way of extending the reach of Third Reich terror long past the expiration date on the lives of Nazi war criminals. There’s also an expedient bit of narrative alchemy that takes place when an enemy is undead—this “no longer living” status means that there’s no need for our heroes to enter any kind of moral gray area over the urgent need to destroy the clearly-other-than-human threat. This can make for storytelling thinner than the skin on an aforementioned zombie’s ribcage, a fact that contributes to the unmemorable nature of most of most Nazi zombie stories. Much of the subgenre can be summed up in a scene that takes place early in 2012’s “Outpost 2: Black Sun,” in which a Nazi zombie brutally beats a man to death with a potato masher grenade, but is not intelligent enough to deploy the weapon in its intended manner.

The rudimentary nature of most Nazi zombie storylines comes from the fact that they rely on only two facts: a foregone conclusion that Nazis are bad (accurate) and that zombies are bad (also accurate). Beyond some plot sketching about the occult in the Third Reich,3  most of which is drawn less from historical record than it is from the screenwriter’s hazy memory of watching the History Channel while stoned at 2am, there’s little time spent grounding these tales in fact. Further contributing to the muddiness is the fact that most Nazi zombie narratives are created by people from countries without a history of occupation and therefore no soil-level connection to the perpetrators of World War II atrocities.4  The plots are instead built on pre-existing exploitation movie structures, creating a distorted impression of the past with minimal first-source knowledge of and little personal connection to the events of World War II.

Oddly enough, it’s in 1981’s “Zombie Lake,” one of the most roundly disparaged of the Nazi zombie movies (which is really saying something if you think about that statement for even a second), that the viewer stumbles into a surprisingly deep depiction of events surrounding the war. The movie’s plot concerns a French community’s attempts to submerge (quite literally, in this case) their violence by sinking the bodies of Nazi soldiers they’ve killed in a lake on the outskirts of town. The movie includes a German soldier who acts humanely in life and whose vestiges of decency linger even in zombie form. There’s an unease with the townspeople’s collective history of violent actions and in some ways the zombies are a symbol of failure to come to terms with wartime history: sort of a slimy, green-make-up-bedecked manifestation of PTSD. It’s noteworthy that this film is French and in some ways reflects the complexity of Nazi occupation, even though it’s an undeniably dumb, probably terrible, definitely cheap and certainly sleazy movie.

The “Dead Snow” films come with a similar pedigree, as the specter of German occupation haunts Norway as well, but their storytelling takes a dramatically different tone.

NORWAY: FOES, COLLABORATORS, AND HEROES

Separated from Germany by an expanse of the North Sea, Norway has served as ally, foe, and neutral bystander to that country over the course of history. Norway warred with Germany in the late Fourteenth Century as a member of the Kalmar Union and would later become involved in the Thirty Years’ War through its then-identity as part of Denmark-Norway.

By the Twentieth Century, Norway had established an identity as a neutral state in matters of European alliances. This neutrality was questionable in its execution, however, as Norway’s actions during World War I favored the British as a trading ally (due in no small part the fact that German submarines sank over eight hundred Norwegian shipping vessels over the course of combat). During World War II, Norway’s position as a neutral country was precarious in the face of aggressive German expansion, particularly as the country was home to several deliciously strategic ports.

From April of 1940 through the German surrender in May 1945, Norway was occupied by Nazi armed forces that were aided by the head of Norway’s own fascist party, Vidkun Quisling. The ugly truth that the allegedly neutral country played a visible supporting role in the reign of Nazi terror is one that led to a struggle of conscience for many Norwegians in the years following World War II.

At the same time that the Quisling government was in bed with the Third Reich, an active minority of resistance fighters continued to execute raids and acts of sabotage on Nazi occupiers. Their extreme daring reached its apex during the resistance’s involvement in the Norwegian heavy water plant sabotage, a series of almost super-human acts that combined espionage, hang-gliding, parachuting, mountaineering, and demolitions to bring down Nazi nuclear efforts.5 

The resulting identity crisis has haunted Norway, but with ensuing generations, the conflict has lost its immediacy. By employing the not-dead-yet-not-alive Nazi zombie as his villain in the two “Dead Snow” films, Tommy Wirkola brings the horrors of the past roaring back and demanding to be grappled with (quite literally).

“DEAD SNOW”

I’ll leave a thorough analysis of the first “Dead Snow” film to other authors, since I wasn’t a big fan of its standard stalk-and-slash structure.6  What feels like half the run time is spent in an isolated cabin with awful young-person characters who finally get around to disturbing Nazi zombies and getting dispatched in a variety of gruesome ways, with a sole survivor predictably managing to escape.

The key value of “Dead Snow” is in its bloody visual gags. Wirkola displays a skillful hand in doling out wild abuses of the human body while eliciting genuine, if frequently shocked, laughter. His comic timing is first-rate, and the violent set pieces are perfectly executed from a technical perspective. Sadly, the movie’s twin lack of plot and character development (in spite of spending agonizing stretches of time with the story’s heroes) leave it squarely in the typically disappointing territory of standard Nazi zombie movies.

ds2-posterThe search for the perfect Nazi zombie movie ends with “Dead Snow 2.” In less than two hours, Wirkola creates a Nazi zombie threat that overcomes the awkward dialogue and cartoonish protagonists of its predecessor by heaping in historical references and creating a more engaging plot. The thinness of the first “Dead Snow” can be summed up by the fact that about three minutes are spent at the outset of its sequel summarizing everything that happened in its run time.

Picking up precisely where the first film began, “Dead Snow 2” follows final boy Martin as he escapes from the Nazi zombie troops led by the leather-and-crusher-cap-bedecked Oberst Herzog7  only to find himself held in a hospital under the watchful eye of police who assume he’s responsible for the gory deaths of his friends. Further complicating matters is the fact that the arm Martin had amputated, “Evil Dead 2” style, in the first film, has been replaced with Herzog’s limb that retains the violent impulses of its previous owner.

The plot remains simple but, instead of the “survive the night” structure of “Dead Snow” (along with the majority of post-“Night of the Living Dead” zombie movies), the characters are given distinct goals beyond simple escape. Martin has to learn how to control his arm and stay ahead of the police. The stakes are higher as well—Herzog is no longer simply after a stash of gold, he’s determined to carry out his decades-old extermination mission against a Norwegian town that harbored resistance fighters.

Where “Dead Snow” hints at occult reasons for the zombies’ continued existence, “Dead Snow 2” engages in full-on myth making. Herzog is able to create zombies with the touch of his hand and resurrects an army of Nazis and also kills unfortunate Norwegian victims and converts them to his cause. The conversion of the zombie-murdered Norwegians can be read as a commentary on the Quisling collaborationist government, forcing the otherwise neutral citizens of the country to participate in a hate-filled, genocidal regime.

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Martin is joined early on by the Zombie Squad, a trio of “Big Bang Theory”-level American nerd stereotypes, who provide an eager bloodthirstiness that contrasts with Martin’s own world-weariness and sense of duty. The Zombie Squad sets to stockpiling weapons, concocting outrageous plans, and taking selfies with mutilated bodies. Upon discovering that Martin’s newfound zombie arm gives him the same powers as Oberst Herzog’s, the leader of the Squad encourages him to amass his own platoon of Soviet zombies. The Zombie Squad’s safe emotional distance from the Nazi zombies reflects America’s relationship with the World Wars: participating in combat, but without the on-soil impact experienced by Europeans.

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The appearance of the Soviet zombies goes a long way towards helping to understand how Nazi zombies became A Thing to the exclusion of zombies belonging to other historically vilified political groups.8  While the Nazis have uniforms that quickly denote them as soldiers fighting for an evil empire, even providing visual clarity between ranks (superior officers in their peaked caps and rank-and-file soldiers donning steel helmets or M43 field caps), there are few similar visual cues to mark Soviet zombies. As depicted in “Dead Snow 2,” the Soviet zombies have beards and a few wear fur hats. For the purposes of this movie, the design decision was likely made to distinguish them from the Nazis on the battlefield, as having two sets of helmeted, grungy combatants could get visually confusing pretty quickly indeed. Were the Soviet zombies given visual markers of their military/political allegiance, their red stars, hammers, and sickles would pale in comparison to the swastikas and death’s heads of the Nazis. It’s also possible that there’s little additional fear-factor that comes with Soviet iconography in the zombie context. Americans’ fear of communism, which grows less keen as decades pass and create distance from fall of the USSR, is similar to the horror of the zombie in general: the terror of being consumed by and transformed into part of a faceless horde.

But let’s be frank—if one is watching “Dead Snow 2” strictly for political satire, one will walk away from this particular cinematic meal hungry. Where the movie really shines is in its flagrant disregard for the human body. Beyond mere political incorrectness (just assume a movie that uses Nazi genocide as a hinge for humor is not intended for sensitive audiences), the movie goes out of its way to show horrific acts committed against bodies both living and undead. Early in the film, there’s a scene where a precocious, tow-headed child approaches Martin in the hospital and the two exchange a few lines of dialogue. Within moments of the child establishing his adorableness, he is thrown forcefully through a window and Martin winds up graphically rooting through the dead boy’s innards when he’s unable to control the urges of the zombie arm. This sets the tone of what’s to come. There’s a spectacular and disgusting gag that involves using human intestines to siphon gas for the Nazis’ tank. A repeated source of laughs comes at the expense of a gentle and pathetic zombie who is repeatedly brutalized and resurrected with increasingly uncomfortable results, and the film closes with rom-com necrophilia. At its best, “Dead Snow 2” evokes Peter Jackson’s “Dead Alive”/”Brain Dead,” a compliment that’s somewhat ironic, given Wirkola’s nods to that movie in the first “Dead Snow,” which never reaches that level of giddy ghastliness found in its sequel.

Practical effects are employed throughout, with a majority of scenes filmed outdoors using natural light. It’s refreshing to see in-camera scenery in a world where fantastical movie-making has been dominated by green-screen sets and post-production monsters. The addition of multiple “character zombies;” including a tank operator, the Soviet giant, and a Nazi surgeon who acts as battlefield medic by stuffing combatants full of hay; gives further opportunity for the effects work to shine.

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Back to that tank for a moment—there’s some kind of magic that happens with the introduction of a large piece of military equipment into a zombie story. In addition to the truly remarkable gas-siphoning bit, the slow clank and roll of the huge machine is used to telegraph and create tension that contribute to multiple comic moments. I could be convinced, solely based on the evidence of “Dead Snow 2,” that a majority of comedies could be improved with the addition of a tank.

HUNTING FOR WITCHES

Complex national allegiances spurred the discord of the World Wars of the Twentieth Century, and similar nationalistic impulses played a role in the conflict that would come to be known as the Thirty Years’ War. This continuous series of clashes began as a blow-up between Protestants and Catholics, drawing many European nations into its sphere of influence and devastating the population of the area that would come to be known as Germany. This ongoing warfare took place between 1618 and 1648, evolving from religious strife into a battle for political supremacy. Such consistent, generation-spanning battling took a toll in blood as well as in gold, and acts of extreme human-on-human ugliness were perpetrated in the name of power and money. Roving bands of soldiers and mercenaries, who were expected to finance their activities by extorting from the unfortunate populace of the areas through which they roamed, left brutalized and disease-ridden towns in their wake.

It’s not difficult to imagine that communities beleaguered by the toll of constant war and the clash of religious sects would be susceptible to hysterical responses and seek supernatural causes for all-too-earthbound horrors. It shouldn’t be surprising to note that many of the worst excesses of the European witch trials corresponded with the time period of the Thirty Years’ War.9   Two trials that occurred during the years between 1626 and 1631, those at Würzberg and Bamberg in Germany, have been credited with the execution of up to 1,500 people.

The ghosts of witches past would resurface during World War II when the Nazis established a task force composed of members of the SS to research documents relating to these Seventeenth Century witch trials.10  Dubbed the Hexen-Sonderkommando, the two-fold purpose of the research team was to uncover evidence of pre-Christian Germanic religious practices and to seek material of anti-Catholic propaganda value.

This atmosphere of lurking threat, both from bloodthirsty soldiers and imaginary supernatural actors, was exploited by horror filmmakers in the witch hunter cycle of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Inspired by Michael Reeves’ ominous 1968 Vincent Price vehicle “Witchfinder General”, the witch hunter theme would be capitalized upon by European directors in pictures including “Mark of the Devil” and “The Bloody Judge.” West German companies financed many of these films in a testament to the country’s continued fascination with its gory past. The witch hunter films emphasize the torture of innocents and the hypocrisy of the religious and political elite to brew a singularly nasty concoction that both indicts authoritarian rule and titillates the audience. Significantly, there is rarely a supernatural component to these stories—instead, the very lack of witchcraft present is a further indictment of power-mad, hypocritical regimes. While most of these films are set against the backdrop of the civil wars of Seventeenth Century England and not on German soil,11  they enjoyed financial backing as well as box office success in West Germany. Was the German fascination with these films an attempt to rewrite the past and lay blame in a place that doesn’t cast citizens as collaborators? Or is latching onto a horror story reimagining simply an attempt to create emotional distance from real actors and actions?

hg-posterTommy Wirkola’s “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” a bizarro action-horror-comedy hybrid, recasts the titular siblings as tough-talking, straight-shooting heroes hunting cannibal witches in an absurdist version of Germany’s Black Forest. Tonally, the movie shares little with the bleakness of the 70s witch hunter cycle. However, to say that a director like Wirkola, who wears his horror fandom on his sleeve so visibly in “Dead Snow,” was unaware of the witch hunter movies of the 60s and 70s when setting out to make his own witch hunter movie (with “Witch Hunters” spelled out in the title, no less) seems unlikely.

The witches here are supernatural and frequently extremely evil. CGI is employed with a heavier hand than in the “Dead Snow” movies, but there’s still a sense of solidity to the creatures and the fantasy settings. Though I’m generally not a fan of heavy digital post-production, the colors in “Hansel and Gretel” have a jewel-like glow in many scenes, as in the first encounter with the candy-covered cabin of the fairy tale witch. There’s a Boschian delight that was taken in designing the monstrous witches, each of whom has a distinctively misshapen body, hideous face, and demonic wardrobe, drawing visual references from sources as diverse as aboriginal cultures, fetish fashion, and E.C. Comics ghouls. Perhaps my favorite effect in this movie is the troll that is a lovingly-built, guy-in-a-suit effect. Rubber suit monsters are simply never not heart-warming to encounter.

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Hansel and Gretel are portrayed in the same vein as stoical but violent Western movie action heroes. Their accents and gun-toting bravado cast them in the tradition of classic American stereotypes like Quincy Morris in “Dracula” or The Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. Unlike traditional witch hunter narratives, in which a damaged society destroys itself in the paranoid search for imaginary witches, a pair of outsiders comes in with a mission to save a society from the horrors of real witches. This vision of violent but good-intentioned Americans is similar to the portrayal of the Zombie Squad in “Dead Snow 2.”

So far, we’re pretty damn far from “Witchfinder General” and its ilk, but if the preceding several thousand words have taught you nothing, it’s that I’ll get around to making my point eventually. Wirkola directly addresses the brutality of traditional witch hunting narratives with the inclusion of a thuggish gang of authoritarians who have their own methods of finding and punishing women they believe to be witches. Led by the town’s sheriff, these men are portrayed as brutish and uneducated, motivated to implicate innocent people by their own greed for rewards. Rather than pursuing a needlessly complicated “who is the REAL bad guy” plotline that would risk muddying the villainy of the witches, “Hansel and Gretel” eliminates the witchfinder characters in a manner that can be read as a deliberate send-up of traditional stories in this genre. The human evildoers are dispatched by the aforementioned rubber-suited troll, a move that serves to bring the supernatural front and center while both acknowledging and distancing the movie from its thematic predecessors.

SEX, FETISH, DEATH

Sex is an integral component of the witch hunter narrative, with its combination of sadism, gender warfare, and Black Mass abandon. Wirkola includes a romantic subplot in “Hansel and Gretel,” punctuated by a skinny dipping scene that I’d honestly liked to have seen go a little bit more on the “gratuitous” side of things, since it would be a nice complement to the over-the-top splat moments. On a darker erotic note, the black magic witches are kitted out like a submissive’s dream. They are attired in a fantasia of corsetry, glossy leather, and severe silhouettes. If the intent was simply to portray the witches as evil, that could have been achieved by stopping at “monstrous” and not emphasizing “monstrous sexual feminine” with cinched waistlines, glamour makeup, and mouth-orifices full of sharp, dangerous teeth.

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Famke Janssen channels Barbara Steele in “Black Sunday”

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This seems as good a point as any to issue the understatement that both “Hansel and Gretel” and the “Dead Snow” movies don’t portray women in the best of lights. Fortunately, I have no expectation of nuanced depictions of gender relations in splatter comedies so this didn’t put a damper on my enjoyment of these movies.12  While women are Weirdo Magical Others in “Hansel and Gretel,” they are relegated to roles as props in “Dead Snow” and “Dead Snow 2:” girlfriends, sidekicks, or delicate creatures that get overwhelmed with fear. This is in keeping with the overall thin characters in these movies—it’s just that dude-characters get the opportunity to be assholes who have motivations. It’s refreshing to see full-on villainess characters in “Hansel and Gretel,” as the demands of the plot require more developed, if still cartoonish as is only appropriate, female players.

There is a direct link between sex and death in “Hansel and Gretel” and the “Dead Snow” movies in much the same way that the erotic urge led to deadly results in the slasher movies of the 70s and 80s. In fact, the circumstances of this sex-leading-to-death in Wirkola’s movies are built on slasher movie clichés: the previously mentioned skinny dipping scene in “Hansel and Gretel” prefigures one character’s death and a young couple in a cabin (properly speaking, the outhouse outside the cabin, but roll with me on this) meet a disastrous end in “Dead Snow.” Flipping this sex-then-death link on its head, the closing moments of “Dead Snow 2” find a character engaged in vigorous backseat sex with a recently resurrected zombie in some seriously perverse circle-of-life symbolism.

In addition to being a component of many horror stories, sex is also a central theme of Nazi exploitation stories. Dating back to postwar American men’s pulp magazines and carried through Italy’s infamous sadiconazista cycle,13  the image of the black-clad S.S. torturer mixes menace with sadomasochistic sexual arousal in a manner so visceral that it continues to be reused today, even in mainstream fare. Characters recently portrayed on-screen that fit this mold include Captain America nemesis Red Skull and arch-villain Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” Clichéd portrayals of Nazi villains fall into a few categories, but exploitation movie enthusiasts will likely have spent the most time with “the pervy general” shown in the clip below:14 

Beyond the direct depictions of sex in the “Dead Snow” movies, there’s sadomasochistic imagery in the way that head zombie Oberst Herzog is portrayed. Take another look at the Nazi Generals sketch above and observe that there are a number of easily recognizable Nazi burlesques that the creature designers working could have relied upon, but the depiction they selected is the one most closely linked with perversion and sadism. Herzog is the Pinhead of Nazi zombies, more Clive Barker than George Romero: a sleek, leather-clad exterminator whose imposing physicality marks him as an arch-villain.15  The way in which the character is filmed looming over the Norwegian landscape in both “Dead Snow” and “Dead Snow 2” resembles nothing so much as Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic painting “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog:” a would-be master of all he surveys. I realize the theory of a sexualized Nazi zombie may be a bit of a hard sell, but when was the last time you saw a movie in which a zombie is shown shirtless and flexing to show off his scarred-but-buff physique, sort of like Dalton in “Roadhouse” when sewing in his own stitches? This is a thing that happens in “Dead Snow 2” and I’m pretty sure I’m still not over the weirdly coded sexuality of it.

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Pain don’t hurt.
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Herzog on left, Friedrich on right

 

 

Along those lines, THIS is the French DVD cover for “Dead Snow 2” and not something I created (although I wish I did):

Undeath in June
Undeath in June

Fictional stories with their roots in history hold a funhouse mirror up to the past, influencing the way we look at events from previous generations. Conversely, through these movies we can come to understand how our relationship to events from the historical record has changed over time and how cultures have come to interpret their legacies. By mixing primal human fear and sex responses into these stories, exploitation movies create a heady concoction of the recognizable and the visceral. This makes these movies, to a certain degree, a form of coping mechanism that allows us to manage the terrors of the past by transforming them into fantastical, supernatural caricatures. Cartoonishly evil Nazi zombies and cannibal witches provide a comfortable distance from complex realities of collaboration, persecution, and real-life horror.

Footnotes:

1 Under the Radar interview – 10/24/14 Return^

2 Friend of the Empire Kevin Maher is New York’s foremost expert on Nazi zombies and, without him, this part of the essay wouldn’t be nearly so coherent. I owe Kevin a debt of gratitude for helping get my thoughts and facts in order! Return^

3 The discussion of Nazi occultism is a murky one, as scholarly and non-sensationalistic sources are (perhaps unsurprisingly) difficult to come by. Nicholas Goodring-Clarke’s “The Occult Roots of Nazism” (1985) is an academic investigation into the cults whose beliefs bore striking resemblances to what would become Nazi thought, should you be interested in pursuing the topic. For our purposes today, I’ll point out that the symbolism adopted by Himmler’s SS, with its appropriation of pre-Christian runes and warrior-cult iconography, is some of the most prominent evidence of the Third Reich’s direct connection to esoteric belief systems. Return^

4 The majority of video games and direct-to-streaming movie titles are American, and the “Outpost” series is British. Return^

5 This is a story where a simple summary just simply won’t do justice to the craziness of what actually went down, but it’s an under-discussed wartime episode. The Norwegian-produced TV miniseries “The Heavy Water War” aired in January 2015 and appears to do a creditable job of telling this tale—let’s hope this makes it States-side at some point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_K3Ry2K4yNE
Return^

6 The essay “The Past that Refuses to Die: Nazi Zombie Film and the Legacy of Occupation” by Sven Jüngerkes and Christiane Wienand, published in the 2012 essay collection “Nazisploitation!” does a thoughtful job of unpacking the symbolism of “Dead Snow.” Return^

7 The character has been revised to have the proper SS title of Standartenführer, but I’m going with Oberst here because that’s the listed name in the credits of the first movie and also it is far easier for me to type. Return^

8 The Soviet zombies in “Dead Snow 2” are at no point depicted as villains and in fact were victims of the Nazis during life, but American fiction has a history of marking Soviets/Russians/Communists as cartoonish “bad guys,” as anyone who lived through the 1980s will surely recall. Return^

9 Properly speaking, the first of the major German witch trials took place in Trier from 1581 to 1593, predating the start of the war by numerous decades. The pattern of Catholic/Protestant conflict had become established, and it is this same religious conflict that would set the warfare that took place beginning in 1618 into motion. Therefore, while the Thirty Years’ War cannot be said to have set off the witch trials, the same factors contributed to the setting-in-motion of the witch trial pattern that also created the environment of the warfare. Return^

10 Scholarship on the organization and purpose of the Hexen-Sonderkommando was initially undertaken by German historian Gerhard Schormann, and is detailed in the English-language essay entitled “Nazi Ideology: Redefining Deviants: Witches, Himmler’s Witch-Trial Survey, and the Case of the Bishopric of Bamberg” by Hans Sebald that appeared in “New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic and Demonology: Volume 6: Witchcraft in the Modern World.” Return^

11 “Mark of the Devil” is set in Austria and features a cast of Austrian and German actors. Return^

12 If someone DOES want to make a Nazi zombie movie with all kinds of weird genderfuck stuff in it, I’ll gladly help you with the screenplay. I am full of Ideas. Return^

13 Don’t watch twelve of these movies in a week, as I once did while working on an article. It will change you forever. Return^

14 If you prefer to take your information about the link between Nazi imagery and S&M sex from thoughtful writers instead of from vintage British sketch comedy, you can read Susan Sontag’s “Fascinating Fascism,” originally published in 1975Return^

15 Oberst Herzog is not cinema’s only sexualized Nazi zombie, and is actually only the second-sexiest Nazi zombie. The title of sexiest Nazi zombie belongs to Kroenen from Guillermo Del Toro’s “Hellboy.” Return^

New Zine: Forever Doomed

Forever Doomed
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I’m excited to announce that my latest project is now available from Heretical Sexts. Forever Doomed is a collection of my essays and art that explore the theme of DOOM in movies, music, and literature. Most of the content has never been published before. Within these pages lurks:

-The heavy metal mid-life crisis in “Black Roses”[new essay]

-Adventures at Maryland Deathfest

-Erotic Rites of the Nazgûl [new comics]

-Dennis Wheatley: Unlikely Icon [new essay]

-Style lessons from “Curse of the Crimson Altar” [new essay]

-“Let Sleeping Corpses Lie”

Zines are available to purchase in the Heretical Sexts store.

Below is an art preview from Erotic Rites of the Nazgûl. Like any of my favorite ridiculous ideas, I took this one to its most ludicrous possible extension and I hope you dig it as much as I do.

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Canaan Cult Revival: Demonic Comics for Occult Horror Die-hards

Canaan Cult RevivalOnce in a while, a project comes across my radar that screams “THIS IS FOR ME.” A combination of creepy, decadent, fantastical, and creative, this kind of project begs for my attention. One such project is Canaan Cult Revival, an anthology comic about demonolgy edited by Christian Sager, currently being crowd-funded via Kickstarter. Combining beautifully corrupt art by accomplished illustrators and writers, inspired in equal parts by classics of the horror genre (Hammer Films, “The Omen,” and “Suspiria” were all mentioned), heavy metal music (you talk about comics, Electric Wizard, and Wolves in the Throne Room and I WILL LISTEN TO YOU) , and psychedelic imagination, the book promises to be a work of terrifying imagination.

After successfully sketching out the right sigil and offering up the correct combination of sacrifices, I was able to summon Christian and several of the artists collaborating on CCR to answer a few of the questions I had about the project.

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Tenebrous Kate: Describe your ideal “Canaan Cult Revival” reader and the reaction you hope to elicit from this person.

Christian Sager: Our “target audience” for the magazine is definitely readers who are fans of horror or horror comics. But broader than that we would like the experience to genuinely disturb and scare our readers. Comics as a medium can’t rely on horror film tricks like spooky soundtracks or jump-scares, so in a formalist sense we’re interested in how comics can do horror better.

EC Steiner - Canaan Cult Revival
EC Steiner – Canaan Cult Revival – Click to enlarge

EC Steiner: I like to believe our ideal reader is some who appreciates both the effort that goes into the production of independent comics and the darker creations that exist on the fringe of the traditional comics community. With a project like CANAAN CULT REVIVAL, we’re able to take some risks, explore subject matter that steps far and away from a lot of the projects that bulk up the independent comics community, and work at a size that harkens back to the old days of CREEPY and EERIE. Our ideal reader is someone who’s excited by those elements of our project and wants to see more works like this produced.
Kelly Williams: I would hope that a wide range of people could find something they like in CCR. With so many different artists and styles there’s something for everyone.
I want it to creep people out. I want some of the ideas and visuals to stick with you afterwards. I want horror fans to enjoy the heck out of it.

Rafer Roberts: Horror fans, or people with even a little bit of interest in horror. My hope is that we’ve created something that will excite even the most jaded of horror fans.

Eraklis Petmezas: Well, I hope all readers of sequential art will find something in CCR. That said the ideal reader would be one that loved classic horror. The kind that would scare you, but also stay with you long after you read it. As someone who grew up in the late 70s and had my teenage rebellious years in the 80’s, I remember all the satanic cult hoopla. Heavy Metal Satanists scaring all the white bread parents. This book touches on many of those same emotions.

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Tenebrous Kate: What attracted you to the topic of demonology? What place do you feel this kind of Satanic subject matter has in today’s world?

Christian Sager: Demons and exorcisms were the thing that scared me the most growing up. I didn’t watch “The Exorcist” until I was in my mid-thirties. A lot of this has to do with my personal experience going to a Southern Baptist school where our Deacon filled our heads with stories of possession, fire and brimstone.

Two of the stories in CCR are based off that experience. One time I temporarily lost my vision from snow blindness. I was so indoctrinated into this Deacon’s stories I thought I’d been possessed. He also told us not to socialize with certain kids in school because he could “sense” the devil in them.

So in a lot of ways, CCR is cathartic for me to face that old fear. There’s a running theme in the stories of authority figures abusing their power that I think is important. I’m also fascinated by cults and the effect they have on an individual’s identity and dissatisfaction with the world.

EC Steiner: Demonology is fascinating to me. The painstaking codifications, the infernal encyclopedias of demon princes, the histories that have developed over centuries for each and every devil – they’re all part of a wonderfully complex mythology that continues to expand and transform as new projects reach into Hell’s legions to find a villain to torment their audiences.
The occult never quite falls out of fashion but it does have periods when it’s closer to the surface of the collective psychosphere. Right now, Satanism is having a terrific run across any number of media, because the occult has slipped back into the mainstream. It’s always fun to peer into the darkness, to flirt with the forbidden, and to wonder what might happen should you draw the circle on the floor and then stray out of it when you know you shouldn’t. As long as we hold onto our curiosity and wonder, there’s room for works that explore Satanism, demonic possession, conjuring, and the outer realms of the unknown.

Canaan Cult Revival - Kelly Williams
Canaan Cult Revival – Kelly Williams – Click to enlarge

Kelly Williams: I’m a HUGE fan of horror and metal. These are both things that have a long lasting relationship with demonology and Satanism. There are so many awesome visual representations of horror and monsters, demons, etc.

It all plays on our society’s oldest and darkest fears, fears born from the evils of man and how we choose to pass the buck and represent these things. Demons and hellish things are born of very human ideas. These dark things are a punishment for the weakness of sin, or more simply, being human.
I just find all of that so interesting and terrifying.

Rafer Roberts: I’m a fan of the old Hammer films and the way Christian described this anthology it seemed to have that feel. Modern entertainment has a tendency to be safe, and this comic is anything but safe. Sometimes people need some fucked up shit in their lives and this is the comic that will deliver that.

Eraklis Petmezas: Well, what attracted me to the project was Christian and the great line up of creators he enlisted to work on the book. I knew I wanted to share the pages with such an amazing group of artists. Three of my favorite horror films are The Exorcist, Angel Heart and the original Wickerman. Hearing Christian’s spiel I felt it had similar themes I could really enjoy drawing.

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Tenebrous Kate: What are some of your influences, both within the world of comics and in other forms of art/movies/music?

Christian Sager: CCR was influenced by 3 aspects of 1970s culture: horror movies, car culture and the beginnings of metal. So the tone of “Don’t Look Now,” “Suspiria” or “The Omen” definitely influenced my scripts. I also listened to a lot of metal while writing, from Sabbath to High on Fire and Electric Wizard.

EC Steiner: I keep circling around the works of Guy Davis, Vince Locke, Yasushi Nirasawa, Jun Suemi, Wayne Barlowe, and Harry Clarke. Lately, I’ve been devouring the photography of Nona Limmen and the illustrations of Takato Yamamoto. Musically, my playlist is heavy with the works of People Eaters and Wizards Tell Lies along with Esben and the Witch, Wolves in the Throne Room, and the soundtrack to “Byzantium.”Kelly Williams: It’s impossible to list in a way that does it justice. I watch an obscene amount of horror movies, good, bad, and ugly.

The artists that influence me grows more and more every day. I drew a lot of inspiration from everyone on this project. I’m a fan of everyone on this project.

Music is another one that listing is just impossible. I listen to a ton of different metal and punk I guess. I did listen to a ton of soundtracks while drawing this story though.

Canaan Cult Revival - Rafer Roberts - Click to enlarge
Canaan Cult Revival – Rafer Roberts – Click to enlarge

Rafer Roberts: I listened to a lot of Fantomas when drawing my story which set a nice tone. I generally fall somewhere in the middle of a Jack Kirby to Robert Crumb scale, so getting a chance to draw something a bit outside my normal style was a blast.

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Tenebrous Kate: What is your favorite demon (from traditional demonology, film, books or comics), and why?

Christian Sager: “Zagan” is a demon referenced in occult tomes like the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum and The Lesser Key of Solomon. He’s mentioned in Rich Barrett’s “The Bully Pulpit” and I want to use him in later CCR stories. He’s said to make men witty and can transmute metals and liquids. I want to eventually explore why demons want to influence the material world and Zagan seems like a great enticer to focus on.

EC Steiner: Sargatanas from Barlowe’s “Inferno.” Everything about that portrait painting – the pose, the anatomical design, the block of flesh, the hint of a hooked blade slipping out from beneath the folds of his cloak – is perfect.

Kelly Williams: I like all of the demons.

Rafer Roberts: I dig the First of the Fallen from Hellblazer. Other than that, any demon that doesn’t have a solid form, like they present themselves as a swarm of flies or speak through people or objects, those freak me out the most.

Canaan Cult Revival - Eraklis Petmezas
Canaan Cult Revival – Eraklis Petmezas – Click to enlarge

Eraklis Petmezas: That’s easy. Satan, Old Scratch the Devil himself. You don’t get a better villain then him. Ask Robert Johnson.

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Tenebrous Kate: Christian, how did you select the artists for CCR? What perspectives do you feel different artists have brought to the material?

Christian Sager: I mainly chose creators who I already had a friendly relationship with and seemed capable of leaning into the disturbing territory of the magazine. Working with eight artists simultaneously really provided a range of interpretation from my scripts too. For example, Rich Barrett paced my story with non-sequitur symbols of demonology that are far creepier than anything I devised, while guys like Rafer Roberts and Kelly Williams really let loose when I gave them something ghastly to illustrate.

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Tenebrous Kate: Artists, how did you approach the project, since it sounds like you were given free reign to be as gruesome/out-there/blasphemous as you wished to be?

EC Steiner: I was the only artist on the project who wrote and provided art for his own story. I pitched the idea to Christian with a rough draft of my script, and we discussed how the developments in my contribution to the anthology would play out in other stories and across the wider arc of future CCR projects. Christian provided some guidelines to stay within to make sure my ideas didn’t fall outside of his vision for the project, but I was not restrained in how far I wanted to go. In fact, looking at some of the other work that was ultimately completed, others went much further with their demonic explorations and grotesqueries than I did.

Kelly Williams: Well, I am a little jealous of some of these guys. My story is pretty short on the gore, heh. The story Christian and I did together is more of a “let’s tie everything together and make these stories hold hands with a larger narrative” type thing. I had a couple of awesome flashback type sequences that called for some craziness though, and that stuff was so much fun! I think Christian and I know what to expect from each other at this point (after working together on THE CABINET) and it made this story a lot of fun. I felt really comfortable just running with it!

Rafer Roberts: I tried for an old Warren horror style, like EERIE or CREEPY, but dialed up a few notches on the gory scale. Christian kept apologizing in the script for making me draw such awful visuals which I took as a challenge to make my story even more gruesome than I think he was expecting. I always show my comics to my wife when working on them and there is one visual that made her sick. For this project, I took that as an encouraging sign.

Eraklis Petmezas: Working with Christian was a blast. He sent me the pages with character description and I took it from there. Knowing the caliber of artists that were on the book I had to make my own blood pact to create these pages.

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Canaan Cult Revival is a project that I’m eager to see brought to life. The Kickstarter offers some generous incentives, including a papercraft ritual set by EC Steiner, digital copies of additional titles by contributing artists, and original art. Funding closes on Halloween, so don’t delay!

Who Is Turkish Spider-Man?

realspidermanSpider-Man is one of the most iconic superheroes in the US, a teenager who is bitten by a radioactive spider and is gifted with amazing agility and preternatural senses, using his new-found powers to fight crime. His masked, spandex-suited appearance is immediately recognizable, so it’s no surprise that the Spider-Man comic book character has been adapted for the screen. What’s weird about this is how frequently movie-makers get crucial aspects of Spider-Man wrong. Canon Films, at one point, was developing a Spider-Man movie in which a mad scientist named Dr. Zork creates an actual eight-legged mutant Spider-Man who has to fight other mutants.

japanesespidermanCrossing international waters created even weirder Spider-Mans. In Japan, Spider-Man gets his powers from an alien and pilots a giant robot named Leopardon, Italian Spider-Man has the powers to summon penguins to his defense, but he’s also created by an Australian comedy troupe, so I’m not sure he counts. But for my money, the best Spider-Man is Turkish Spider-Man.

Star of “3 Dev Adam,” the three mighty men, Turkish Spider-Man is an ultra-sadistic super-villain who is smuggling antiquities out of Turkey and producing counterfeit currency to unsettle the country’s economy and must be stopped by Turkish Captain America and Turkish El Santo. I have a whole theory about how this movie is really a metaphor for NATO, but I’ll save that for another post. I’ve composed a video that outlines my case for why Turkish Spider-Man is the best possible version of Spider-Man. I’ve made a video that outlines my argument:

Turkish Spider-Man: The Best Spider-Man? from Tenebrous Kate on Vimeo.

I’ll confess, I have thought quite a lot about why Turkish Spider-Man is evil. I researched traditions surrounding spiders in Turkey to see if they’re held with particular suspicion. This would explain why, upon seeing a spider-clad character, a Turkish screenwriter might automatically cast him as a villain. But there is no culturally-ingrained, special fear of spiders.

diabolikWhat IS a tradition in Turkey, though, is the character of the masked supercriminal. That character goes as far back as 1911, with the publication of the blockbuster crime novel Fantomas, the titular character of which spawned over forty books and whose dastardly deeds were filmed multiple times in Europe. In the 60s, Italian crime comics for adults, known as fumetti neri (or “black comics”) exploded onto the scene with characters like Diabolik, Kriminal, Infernal and Killing. The books were extremely controversial due to their over-the-top violent, sexual content. Interestingly, there are no corresponding superheroes in these books—they’re all about reveling in criminality, sadism, and frequent reasons to show naked female flesh. Here’s a terrific overview of fumetti neri by Paul Gravett if you’d like to further explore the topic.

But the connection goes further! The Killing character, also known as Sadistik, was earlier adapted to the Turkish screen in the Kilink film series (watch Kilink: Strip and Kill here; thank me later). So, while there’s no Turkish tradition of web-slinging teenagers in full body spandex suits, there’s absolutely a strong cultural precedent for savage criminal torturers in full body spandex suits. In fact, Kilink even fights Turkish Superman. So there you have it—Turkish Spider-Man may not have been nipped by a radioactive spider, but instead was born from a super-evil, bloodthirsty series of masked supervillains, and once again European adult comics artists have inadvertently managed to mess up Spider-Man related content.

Adapted from a presentation originally featured in Kevin Geeks Out: New York Comic Con 2014 Edition