Monday, February 20, 2012

Strangeland (1998)





The Movie: In the small town of Helverton, Colorado; teenager Genevieve Gage (Linda Cardellini) and her best friend, Tiana Moore (Amal Rhoe) meet an interesting guy in a chat room who goes by the handle “Captain Howdy” (the prolific Dee Snider, probably best known as the songwriter and lead singer for the heavy metal group Twisted Sister). They eagerly jump at his invitation for a party at his house; but unfortunately for them Captain Howdy is not at all what he appears to be. Instead, he is a psychopath obsessed with body modification and S&M. Howdy lures teenagers into his home for the purpose of performing all sorts of bizarre and gruesome depravities upon them.

By chance, Genevieve happens to be the daughter of police Detective Michael Gage (Kevin Gage of May and G.I. Jane; and right now I’m wondering whether him and his character sharing the same last name is coincidence or not). When the girls don’t come home after two nights, he and his wife (the lovely Elizabeth Pena of Jacob’s Ladder and *batteries not included) are, of course, extremely worried and determined to find them. The search becomes even more desperate when Tiana’s car is fished out of a lake and her mutilated body is found in the trunk.

Unfortunately, Michael is way out of his depth. A few clues lead him and his young partner, Steve (Brett Harelson) to the club Xibalba (and pardon me for geeking out here, but the movie constantly mispronounces it zee-bal-ba, it’s pronounced shee-bal-ba), the popular local hangout for the body modification subculture that Howdy comes out of; but it’s clear that there’s no way these two men can understand it enough to get the answers they need. Also, it takes some help from his teenaged niece, Angela (Amy Smart), to understand how the internet fits into it. Eventually though, Michael is able to locate Howdy’s house of horrors, save Genevieve and the other victims, and capture Howdy himself.

But that is far from the end of the matter. The courts declare Howdy, aka Carleton Hendricks, insane and he is sent to an institution. Four years later, Hendricks is declared rehabilitated and released to return home and start his life again. However, the memories of Howdy and his activities are still very fresh in the mind of the community; and the locals are determined to have their own revenge. Local asshole Jackson Roth (Robert Englund, aka Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise), leads a lynch mob after Hendricks; one which Michael is in a position to stop, but which he violates his ethics by allowing. The failed lynching results in the reemergence of Captain Howdy; and Michael is forced to realize that he will have to violate his morals a great deal more if he is to end this horror permanently…

The Review: I believe I have mentioned this in a past review; but the common link that the movies I review on this blog share is that they are movies I have found some emotional resonance with. My reaction may have been positive, negative, mixed, or even ambiguous; but with one exception as of this writing, all of the movies I have reviewed here have engaged me enough to cause me some sort of emotional reaction. Admittedly, most of them I am already very familiar with and plan to review ahead of time. However, every so often I will find myself watching a movie where, out of the blue, I find myself thinking that I need to write up something on it. Which brings us to Strangeland.

I came to Strangeland in a very roundabout way. I can remember being aware of it when it came out; but I was convinced that it was just yet another one of the torture-porn movies that were in vogue during the late 1990s-early aughts. Despite being a major horror and exploitation movie fan, I have never enjoyed watching people being tortured. As a result, I avoided it.

In high school I discovered, and really got into, ‘80s Hair Metal music. My love for the genre was further reinforced during my college years, where I discovered a local radio station that had a regular nightly hour or two where they played Hair Metal. Not long after I moved back to Idaho, one of the local rock stations I listened to picked up Dee Snider’s weekly House of Hair, which I listened to near religiously. Unfortunately, in the past year or two, the owners of the station made some grievous mistakes which cumulated with them torpedoing the station entirely and reformatting it. During the process they dropped the House of Hair, for which I will never forgive them.

Now, Dee Snider has a very engaging personality; and much to my surprise I found myself, unlike with other DJs, enjoying listening to him almost as much as I enjoyed listening to the music. I also became curious and started seeing what I could learn about the man; and rapidly developed a strong respect for him. From what I have read and heard about him; for a member of a music genre that’s pretty much based on the image of misbehavior, not to mention being a generational icon for nonconformity, Snider comes across as a very moral and ethical individual. He fights passionately for what he believes in (and many of them are also causes near and dear to my own heart), and his career is based almost entirely on a fa├žade as a parental boogeyman; but overall just about everything I’ve read about his personal behavior is decent, noble and honorable.

Probably the thing that most landed my admiration, however, is discovering that the man can laugh at himself. I’m not meaning in that phony way we see so much where public figures try to convey the message “look how great I am because I can laugh at myself” either. Snider strikes me as one of those entirely too rare individuals who does not take himself too seriously; who is genuinely aware of his shortcomings as a human being, and who can truly acknowledge how absurd they are. Anyone who can do that has my utmost respect.

So obviously, once it came to my attention that Snider not only starred in Strangeland, but wrote it as well, my curiosity was aroused. So what’s my verdict on the movie? In a word, I’m sad to say, mixed. Here’s probably the best way I can sum up Strangeland: brilliant concept, powerful ideas, great story, decent to good acting, horrible execution.

As a horror movie, Strangeland works on multiple levels. Ironically, considering it’s the brainchild of a man who was a generation’s icon for youth rebellion; Strangeland works best as, and is at its core, a parental nightmare. Michael Gage is doubly an authority figure, both as a father and as a police officer; and yet none of this any help when it comes to protecting his teenage daughter. And this is due to the fact that Captain Howdy operates out of a realm that is entirely beyond Michael’s knowledge or understanding.

First there is the technology angle. Even over a decade after this movie came out, the technology issues it raises are still very relevant. The technology gap between the generations is a truly terrifying thing for a parent. For most children and teenagers, much of this stuff is second nature; but for the older generation it can be extremely confusing and intimidating. Hell, I’m only thirty as of this writing and I have a lot of trouble with it. The anonymity is also scary; you really don’t know who’s on the other end. In short, much of Genevieve’s life revolves around a world that Michael can’t navigate without a guide. Captain Howdy is at a major advantage here because this is his home turf.

The second part of Captain Howdy’s turf is that of the youth subculture; something that is always alien and terrifying to the older generation. I find the choice of body modification as a theme to be particularly interesting; it’s fairly commonplace, but it can still be extremely disturbing to those who aren’t in on it. I’m on the periphery of that subculture, as I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who are into it; but it’s still something that bothers me. Admittedly, for me it’s a personal pressure point that comes from my medical experiences. Cancer and amputation are probably about as close as you can get to your own mortality without actually dying; and a decade’s worth of having your body constantly cut open, sewn back up and poked full of holes, not to mention having a major appendage cut off, can really spoil one’s enthusiasm for doing any of it for fun.

I find the scene where Michael and his partner go into nightclub Xibalba to be particularly effective, brief though it is. Part of it’s another personal pressure point; aside from all the body modification going on, I hate crowds and loud noise. But the movie does a good job of showing the place from the two men’s point of view; a world that they will never truly understand.

The use of the name Xibalba also raises some interesting themes. In Mayan legend Xibalba is the underworld and land of the dead; a place of destruction and transformation. Despite what the movie says it isn’t Hell as the West understands Hell; but many aspects of it can seem pretty hellish. For major nerds like me who study this stuff, ‘Xibalba’ adds a layer of spirituality to the proceedings. Like its namesake, the club is a place where its clientele seek transformation through the destruction of their old selves. However, it is a very non-Western form of spirituality; and one that most would find very brutal and disturbing.

This brings us to Captain Howdy himself. The main reason I find him so effective for the first half of the movie is that he isn’t like your typical movie psycho, the blatant, erratic form of insanity the genre seems to like. Instead, Captain Howdy seems to work by a logic of his own; but one very different from the commonly accepted kind. In fact, for me he comes across as a form of demented mystic; a fanatic who has received his own twisted revelation and now seeks to share it. Indeed, some of the end results of his victims have a kind of transitory, yet grotesque and disturbing beauty to them. This puts a different slant on even his more conventional movie psycho behavior.

For example, in the scene where he calls Michael when he’s staking out his neighborhood, it comes across a bit differently from the typical “the psycho calls the desperate rescuer to taunt him” bit we’re used to. I don’t get the sense that Howdy is reveling in Michael’s suffering at all when he demands his daughter back. Instead, Howdy seems rather disappointed and appalled at Michael’s reaction. In his view he is doing Michael a favor; giving him a test that will strengthen him if he survives it. But Michael doesn’t get it and refuses to play; he just wants to get the prize (Genevieve) without any real effort on his part.

The final theme of Strangeland that I think is great is one that most horror movies miss; the effect on the community. While few people seem to realize it; the true danger of evil individuals is that they can drag us down to their level. So many times, retaliation for evil deeds winds up doing far more damage than the deeds they are avenging. Personally, I find Englund’s role to be the scariest I’ve seen him do since I saw the first Nightmare movie; and that’s because I have known individuals exactly like him. Jackson Roth is a man who is so upset with his own life failings that his only outlet is to take it out on others; and the lynching of Hendricks is the chance to do something truly horrible under the guise of a moral act. The fear and anger of the community lets him get away with it. Even our hero, Michael, isn’t innocent either; even though we can sympathize with him his choice of inaction is the wrong one, and the return of Captain Howdy is definitely his fault.

So with all of these powerful themes and what should be an engaging story, what’s the problem? The problem is that they all get undercut. The movie seems to be trying to get through its plot as quickly as possible, which leaves us with little time to form any attachments. We don’t get to know any of the characters; which means that while we can empathize with the horrible situations they find themselves in, we don’t form any of the personal attachments to them that are needed for a truly effective horror story.

Captain Howdy is the most intriguing character, and even he gets undercut. You may note that when I was discussing him earlier I use the words “for the first half of the movie.” That’s because when Captain Howdy is reborn for the second half, he suddenly loses all the mystique he had and becomes just another movie psycho out for revenge. Snider has some amazing presence and is able to carry him through; but nevertheless he comes out as severely diminished in the end.

Michael, our hero, is more a cipher than anything else. We pretty much only know him in relation to his attempt to defeat Captain Howdy; we never learn much, if anything else about the man outside this whole horrible episode. As a result, none of the decisions he has to make have the impact they should.

And that, ultimately, is where the movie fails. Because we aren’t given the time we need to form attachments to any of the characters; we aren’t as affected as we need to be by what happens to them. The themes and material are powerful enough that their impact cannot be erased entirely; but we are left disappointed because something important is missing. Ultimately, what should be visceral horrors are instead mostly intellectual ones.

In closing, I would just like to say this: Mr. Snider, on the off-chance that you might be reading this; I feel that despite its shortcomings, Strangeland does show that you have a real knack for making horror movies. It is my hope that you attempt another movie project; and I don’t mean a Strangeland sequel or retread, I want something completely different. I’m sure your demented genius is more than up to the task…

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