A vlog about John Dies at the End, why it works and what might be the point of it all.
A vlog about John Dies at the End, why it works and what might be the point of it all.
To like weird fiction, is to seek out and share new experiences. That’s not a matter of choice. The weird is ironically good at keeping to the shadows, lingering in a thousand secret R’ylehs while the limelight is hogged by more accessible fare. But, then again, that’s all part of the fun. With the pleasure of the experience itself, magnified by how easily you could have missed it, there is no greater pleasure than an experience newly discovered. Unless of course, it’s the pleasure of sharing your weird treasure with everyone you possibly can. In that vein: guys, I have something good for you today. Check this out:
Watch it? You ought to: after all, it’s only 3 ½ minutes long, and now I’m about to spoil the crap out of it.
Ok done? Right, I imagine you’re feeling pretty freaked right about now. Don’t panic. This is normal. Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared is a masterclass in messing with peoples’ heads and a ringing slap in the face of expectation. The bright colours, the puppets, the teaching of creativity, this is all Cbeebies stuff. It prods our brains into expecting childlike innocence, and like fools we believe it. It’s hard not to, when the expectation is backed by a happy, catchy tune, delightful animations, and silly voices. The short perfectly captures the feeling of children’s programming. And then the insane nightmare happens.
In cine-lingo, I’d call what happens a gradual tonal shift. It’s not a sudden change. There is an undercurrent of darkness running throughout the film, beginning with the lingering of the camera on the fake knives at the beginning. It is also present in the lack of the enthusiasm those at the table have for the Notepad’s ideas, and in the Notepad’s attempts to restrain creativity that doesn’t follow its specific guidelines. The descent into madness is nicely foreshadowed. However the fact that the descent happens so quickly, makes sure the tonal shift remains both dramatic and profoundly unsettling.
The most noticeable aspect of the shift is the descent of the happy, bouncy tune into screeching discord. More insidious however are the visual cues. The animated segment at the beginning of the shift, as a complete change of visual style, would be discomfiting on its own. However the fact that the segment also breaks the 4th wall literally shatters this imaginary world. What was at first an enclosed space is now potentially infinite. What was at first fantasy is now implied to bleed into reality.
Our discomfort is cemented by the switch from puppets to costumes, a change that takes us from something that comfortably imitates humanity, straight into the uncanny valley. The weird spasm-like dancing is just icing on the weird cake. Then, to seal the deal, we have the red, intestinal squishiness of the hearts and meat, a vile intrusion of disgusting reality into a space we believed to be so innocent. All of this and more flashes by, too fast for our brains to try to find sense in. We in the audience are thoroughly and comprehensively freaked and alienated.
And then suddenly, we are whipped back into the innocent, happy world we occupied before. Our expectations are shattered by the tonal whiplash. What we just saw fits no real narrative pattern. The closest we could come to defining it would be as a comedy, but Don’t Hug Me is too nightmarish to rest easy in that box. All we can be sure of, is that the short was really, really weird.
And it’s also something I might never have come across. Sure, the video has over 1.5 million views on Youtube. I saw it first featured one of the most prominent short film blogs on the web, and then at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s not exactly an unknown experience. But still, even that level of knowledge is not enough for this film. In the space of 3 minutes, this film displays intense visual creativity, provides at least a couple of laughs, and hints at some interesting Ayn Rand-style subtext (an implicit criticism of teaching creativity, because doing so restrains natural creativity). But most of all, Don’t Hug Me is all that weird fiction should be: a perfectly constructed rejection of expectation. It is therefore a film that has to be seen by as many goddamn people as possible. Share and Enjoy!
This is my second feature article on the all-media movement known as The Weird. For over a century, artists of all stripes have left the beaten paths of genre convention and audience expectation to create fiction of a strange and wonderful kind. Meanwhile, over the last couple of years, my love for this fiction has grown out of all proportion. Rather than let it get too unmanageable, I have decided to put some of the love into a series of irregular features. Hopefully, thus trapped, it will prove less bothersome.
There is a strong possibility, that my decision to write these weird features stems solely from my desire to talk about Bubba Ho-Tep. Well, even if that’s the case, fuck it. Bubba Ho-Tep is a movie that needs to be talked about. This is a movie of exciting action, fairly creepy horror, and meditative, intelligent social commentary, all wrapped up in the most ridiculous packaging imaginable. It is a combination that should not work, that should be torn apart by competing frivolous and serious tones. And yet, this is not the case, and the brilliance of Bubba Ho-Tep lies in its weird synthesis of humour and gravitas.
Humour is not common in weird fiction, and frankly the scene can get terribly serious at times. This is not particularly surprising: the roots of weird fiction lie in grim earth. In part this is down to the legacy of the weird patriarchs, writers like Lovecraft, Poe and Blackwood. Their influence is visible in the tendency of weird fictioneers to couch their grotesque and uncanny content in the language of horror. But this is not the only cause. Gravity’s dominance also has a sense of self-consciousness about it, the feeling of artists worried that “If we don’t take it seriously, they’ll laugh at it”. The weird always runs the risk of breaching peoples’ tolerances which often prompts dismissal. Everyone prefers being dismissed on the grounds of being mysterious and inscrutable, than being labelled as silly. But in following tradition and caution, the weird fails to retain a certain sense of perspective.
To put it in an antagonistic fashion, the weird bears the imprint of academics insisting big tentacley monsters can only be treated seriously. Mostly seriously: yes. Such monsters were created to terrify after all. But it’s good to occasionally admit what is weird is also faintly ludicrous. This is what Bubba Ho-Tep does. This is a film in which an old man, who believes he is Elvis Presley, and another old and decidedly black man, who believes he is JFK, fight a mummy in a cowboy outfit intent on devouring the souls of pensioners. Now that is weird and also ridiculous. Bubba Ho-Tep is not shy about that.
In fact, Bubba Ho-Tep encourages its audience to laugh. Elvis and JFK are constantly quoting and paraphrasing their famous selves, and the film is full of silly one-liners and pictographic insults. The humour here is of the cheesy and knowing variety, making Bubba Ho-Tep the kind of movie that smiles along with mockery. Hell, the movie willingly pokes fun at itself: Elvis consistently refers to himself and his friend as ‘nuts’, and we are introduced to the character by his nurse teasing him about his identity.
But this acknowledgement of ridiculousness never undercuts the movie’s intelligence. Bubba Ho-Tep dishes out some fairly brutal criticism of modern society. In the black comic asides of two hearse drivers, Bubba Ho-Tep presents a society too preoccupied with day-to-day labour to care about more metaphysical issues. Philosophy here is the preserve of the oaf and the nut. The opening of the film too has something to say, following the death of Elvis’ roommate, a terminally ill veteran. When the veteran’s daughter comes to claim his things, she treats her father’s purple heart and old photos like rubbish, absent-mindedly dropping them in the bin. All she has to say about the man was that he was ‘alright’. When Elvis asks her why she never visited her father, all she can say is that she was ‘busy’. And yet she says it like it is the ultimate reason, that seeing her dying father could not be a priority in a world with so much to do. Through these scenes, Bubba Ho-Tep casts an unflattering light on a world of individuals living purely in the now, with no thought for past or future, or indeed other beings beyond their everyday sphere.
But the movie does find good men in this Gomorrah. The decision to fight the mummy leads to the ultimate redemption of Elvis and JFK. These two characters lived wholly in the moment during their youth. Now the moment has passed, and they are left with nothing but regrets. Their battle against the mummy is a sign of their personal growth, their acknowledgement of the worth in fighting for the sake of others. And the subtext doesn’t stop there.
Bubba Ho-Tep is also an effective critique of society’s treatment of the elderly, most commonly through Elvis’ bitter internal monologues. The old man is surrounded by younger people who treat him like a child. They scold him, tell him how long he can play outside, put him down for naps, and see him as sexually non-existent. It is a situation he abhors. Admittedly, and somewhat satirically, Elvis and JFK occasionally live up to the condescension: Elvis uses the toilet as a matter of pride, and the pair’s highest pleasure is found in secretly-stashed candy. But in the end, you are left in no doubt that there are serious problems with the way we instinctively treat senior invalids. Through this, Bubba Ho-Tep becomes a film about humanising the elderly. Just because they may be physically infirm, does not mean mind and will are weak. As the film’s ending shows, a hero in a wheelchair is just as badass as one walking.
And that in the end is what Elvis and JFK are: heroes. This is what makes the ridiculousness and the seriousness co-operate rather than conflict. Subtext aside, the story of Bubba Ho-Tep is the story of two men who, despite their physical frailty, take on a genuinely dangerous opponent. This is a film with real soul, something that can be felt in every strum of guitar in Brian Tyler’s score. It is this soul that gives the intellectual subtext emotional weight. It is this soul that makes the self-aware ridiculousness celebratory rather than snarky. This soul makes a darkly intelligent film, about Elvis and black JFK fighting a mummy, work. Bubba Ho-Tep is a movie that creates a whole out of all kinds of parts. It is a film chimaera. A Frankenstein’s story. And pure, weird, genius.
Hello folks. This is the startpoint of a new series, in which I shall be writing reviews/opinion features on all aspects of weird fiction. To do so I figured I should get at least the barest glimmers of an explanation of what ‘weird fiction’ is, straight in my head. This essay is the result of that pondering. It’s not essential reading, but hey, maybe it will give you something of an insight into my mental processes. Which are pretty weird in their own right.
What is weird fiction?
After all, the label means different things to different people. To HP Lovecraft, it meant a work involving the ‘defeat of those fixed laws of Nature’ that are humanities’ sole defence against ‘unexplainable dread’. To the modern heir of Lovecraft’s squiddity, China Mieville, it is a ‘vivid real-of-the-unreal’, a baroque grotesquerie that makes its own sense (despite the author’s uncommonly large vocabulary). To Ann and Jeff Vandermeer it is a visceral style of fantasy, taking place in invented cities and incorporating elements of science fiction and horror into itself. M John Harrison wonders whether it’s simply ‘Pick ‘N’ Mix’. The problem with all these definitions however, is that they all come from authors.
Where are the comments from the other media? Where are the contributions of Don Coscarelli, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Terry Gilliam or the entire South Korean film industry? When will Chris Hastings, Tom Siddell or Malachai Nicolle weigh in? Why has no-one from Doublefine, or the legendary Suda51, stepped up? I ask, because this is a conversation that we cannot afford to have dominated by one single medium. The weird is a phenomenon tapped into by every dramatic art form we currently possess. Webcomics, graphic novels, regular novels, video games, movies: all have their fringe of crazies. And yet, even amidst all the madness, there is a consistency of features to be seen. It is through these that I shall define weird fiction.
The first of these is a singleminded attention paid to aesthetic. This manifests in Jeff Vandermeer’s city of Ambergris, a corpse of a city consumed by fungal rot, in the colourful blockiness of the Psychonauts summer camp and in the ragtag cowboys of Manchuria in The Good, The Bad, The Weird. These are worlds filled to brim with characters of unusual appearance or mannerisms. Their heroes are only matched in their strangeness by their villains. Their religions are cryptic cults, their weapons usually cruel and definitely unusual and their monsters new shaped from nightmare. These are worlds of sheer strangeness, scoured to leave no handholds for normalcy to cling to. Weird fiction is the only genre to provide an outlet for truly unrestrained creativity, and its artists capitalise on that.
In conjunction with this, the weird also sates the artistic love of rebellion. Mieville, the heart of the literary New Weird, is the definitive noncomformist. He is a Marxist in a world ruled by democratic mammonism. He is a fantasy writer willing to denigrate Tolkien (‘the wen on the arse of fantasy’). He is a multiple award-winner, who accuses the literary establishment of ‘back-slapping generic snobbery’. For him, and for many other artists, the weird is a bucking of conventions. It’s having your sexy fantasy ladies have scarab beetles for heads rather than pointy ears. It’s having a film for kids end in the combustion of a child’s parents. It’s having a Doctor, who is also a Ninja. Rules can be broken as commentary: Mieville’s Iron Council is a Western which, rather than being about the end of idealised freedom, instead makes clear that the ideal is everlasting. But the rebellion of the weird is more than self-reference.
Instead, the aim is to provide an experience not just creative, but truly new. The weird world must be one where not only expectations of genre, but all expectations derived from reality can be and are overturned. In the worlds of weird fiction, the Antarctic is no barren wasteland, but an ancient alien colony. In such worlds, something as basic as identity is so uncertain, that you can’t be sure whether you are Douglas Quaid, or Rob Arctor, or Horselover Fat. In these worlds, C19th vampires have lasers on the moon, and aliens come to Earth in the form of Rastafarians. This is a devil-may-care style of rebellion, which, at its height, creates stories like flashfloods of gonzo energy. And yet, to reach this weird peak, one final trait is required.
See, because weird fiction is free to break every rule regarding content under the sun, it is all the more subject to the tyranny of drama. For weird fiction to deserve attention, it must feel like it makes sense. It requires character, dilemma and solution, and the solution must come out of pre-existing elements. Without these, the weird becomes nothing but a bland exercise of creative indulgence. But when it follows them, weird fiction becomes more than a story. When you can watch Elvis and JFK fight a mummy in cowboy duds, and feel like it makes sense? That’s when a story becomes more than another consumable narrative, and transforms into a waking dream.
By this then shall ye know the weird. It can be seen in extreme aesthetic commitment, a rebelliously creative spirit, and the illogical logic of dreams. It is the ultimate rejection of the notion that compelling drama depends on realism. Or is it? After all, reality hardly plays by the rules. We live in a world where a Japanese baseball team believes that they are haunted by the ghost of Colonel Sanders, and there is a Chinese tradition of post-mortem weddings. Hell, I live in the UK, a country whose ‘No.1 medium’ wants to be Mayor of Lewisham. And yet all this strangeness is logically explicable: after all post-mortem marriages are a great way to make sure loved bachelors are not lonely in the afterlife. Like weird fiction, the real world proves itself both a graveyard of expectation, and yet still rational. The characteristics of weird fiction do not make it a rejection of reality. They make it a reflection of how bizarre reality really is.
In which I review Ken Russell’s masterpiece The Devils