Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Red Balloon (1956)

With Disney/Pixar's latest animated feature "Up!" about to premier in theaters, I thought this would be the perfect time to visit another film featuring a little boy who takes flight, courtesy of a huge bouquet of colorful, helium-filled balloons.

"The Red Balloon" (1956, Albert Lamorisse) is a short French film that I originally saw on a grade-school field trip to the public library (on a double-bill with the Chuck Jones animated "The Phantom Tollbooth").

This charming little film, telling its story in just over half an hour and with very little dialog, follows a child who encounters a friendly red balloon on his way to school in the Menilmontant section of Paris.

Using carefully disguised wires and occasional camera trickery, the red balloon bobs and twists, ducks and jumps, hides and teases like a stray puppy. The simple effects hold up very well, even in this modern day of CGI magic.

This is a simple and wonderful film that every child should see. So what's an enchanting little piece like "The Red Balloon" doing in the spooky old Haunted Closet?

Because it doesn't take long for the rest of the neighborhood children to notice the little boy's special friend.

And what does any unruly mob do? Why, visit senseless violence on the object of their envy, of course.

After separating the child from his balloon, the ruthless gang throws rocks at it until a slow leak prevents it from floating to safety.

The final death blow is delivered by the Buster Brown's of some anonymous hooligan.

It's in the midst of this tragedy that various balloons from throughout the town untether themselves and float towards the boy, to comfort him.

And then its up...


and away!

"The Red Balloon" is available in a beautifully restored Janus Films/Criterion Collection DVD here.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Fantastic Planet (1973)

Fantastic Planet, a surreal piece of animation that I first became aware of when I caught scenes from it on the 1980s late-night clip-show Night Flight.

Based on a novel by Stefan Wul, and created by French director Rene Laloux, Fantastic Planet follows a society of aliens, the Draags, (whose cold, emotionless faces might send a chill up your spine) and tiny creatures called Oms, which resemble primitive humans. Tame Oms are treated as pets, playthings of the Draags, while wild Oms live in clans hidden in the alien wilderness, and are viewed as unwanted and dangerous vermin.

The Draag culture seems mostly preoccupied with meditating, which is portrayed as part yoga, part hallucinatory head-trip. A particularly vivid meditation session is pictured below.

Outside the Draags city is a surreal alien landscape that would look right at home on a 70s era prog-rock album cover.

It's not hard to imagine these trippy landscapes painted on the side of a Chevy van, en route to a Pink Floyd concert...

The film takes time out to show us the alien wilderness where the wild Oms live. It is populated with strange and dangerous wildlife.

Like this little bird that lights on an otherworldy tree-branch...

...which is actually an appendage to this larger animal that appears to be rooted to the ground like a plant. Its exoskeleton resembles a bird cage, through which it snakes its branch-like arm, trapping and shaking the little bird to death.

But it doesn't eat its prey, instead pointlessly tossing its lifeless body to the ground with a chuckle.

In a darkly humorous variation of the circle of life, this cute little creature hatches from its egg...

...and is approached by this hippo-like beast which may or may not be its mother.

After giving the newborn cutey a tongue bath... gulps him right up.

This stalking creature seems content to mind its own business, methodically stepping across the sand while ignoring the pair of tiny Oms underneath.

Oms are treated as disposable among the Draags, but it seems the life of an Om has little value even among their own kind, as they use these tiny vicious biting things as a way to permanently resolve conflicts within the tribe.

Not all creatures outside the city are a threat. These little guys spin strands of material that can be used for garments.

Siren-like shrieks herald the arrival of the most terrible of all the alien animals...this large reptilian bird that is part pterodactyl and part ant-eater.

With its gaping, shovel-like maw, it digs into the Oms subterranean caves...

...and feels around for Oms with its bladder-like tongue...

It's horrible face is the thing of nightmares...

At one point, the Draags decide to implement an aggressive plan of extermination, venturing outside the city walls to wipe out the wild Oms once and for all. These Draags are leading trained Oms on leashes, tracking wild Oms, then attacking with poison gas.

Other technology at the Draags disposal are these robotic rolling spheres, decorated with the flattened corpses of dead Oms.

These rocket-like machines shine a light that kills Oms on contact.

A vacuum sucks Oms right out of their caves...

Another version of the vacuum sucks retreating Oms and impales them instantly in a toothed grate.

If you seek out Fantastic Planet on DVD (which is out of print as of this writing), go for the 35th Anniversary edition (the earlier edition DVD has the subtitles burned into the image, and they can't be shut off. The 35th Anniversary edition allows you to turn captions on or off). Normally I advocate watching foreign-language films in their native language, using subtitles. But Fantastic Planet is a rare exception--there is a certain distant sterility in the English dub performance that I think adds to the surreal experience.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

If you're terrified, turn the page...

I encountered my first Choose-Your-Own-Adventure (CYOA) book in grade school, when I ordered The Cave of Time from the Scholastic Book Club. Neither I nor anyone in my circle of friends had ever actually seen a book of this type, one promising to let YOU decide where the story went. We spent a fair amount of time pondering how such a book could possibly work.

Would it be some kind of Mad-Libs type set up, where you fill in the blanks in an already written story? Or would it be several slightly different versions of the same story, and you picked which one you wanted to read? Eventually someone who actually had seen a CYOA book before explained the play-mechanic (that at certain points in the story, you are prompted to choose from a set of options by turning to different pages, bypassing the usual reading order), and all I could think was... that's ingenious! Why didn't I think of that?

And when The Cave of Time finally arrived, even though it wasn't a very thick book at all, I was simply convinced that between those magical covers was an infinite variety of possible adventures and endings, if you were willing to spend the time to find them.

It wasn't long before my friends and I took a crack at writing our own little adventure books, but they never amounted to much (we usually lost track of our decisions points and available page numbers before we were halfway done).

The popularity of the CYOA series spawned plenty of competition in the realm of interactive fiction, series like the Which Way Books, Pick-A-Path, Endless Quest (these were set in the world of Dungeons & Dragons), Fighting Fantasy, and Lone Wolf. There were books for any genre that interested you, from time travel and historical adventures, to science fiction, sword and sorcery, secret agent intrigue, and yes, even my favorite genre...horror!

Choose Your Own Adventure #2: THE HAUNTED HOUSE
By R.A. Montgomery, 1981 (A Bantam Skylark Book)

Bantam Skylark branded CYOA books were a special subset directed at younger readers. As such, they had a shorter page count, fewer decisions, and a notable lack of anything remotely scary or dramatic. So exploring this particular "haunted house" is more like a whimsical adventure in Wonderland than anything remotely frightening.

The premise of "The Haunted House" is that you must explore a spooky old house in search of your dog, Homer, who has chased a cat into it. You'll encounter bats and rats, a benign lady spirit, trap doors and magic staircases.

This is about as scary as it gets... a carnival funhouse full of "monsters".

Scariest Ending
What's the scariest possible ending to "The Haunted House"? To be honest, none of the endings here are remotely scary. But there is one that is simply too bizarre: from out of left field, a ride on the Weinermobile. Okay, technically it isn't the actual Oscar Mayer(TM) Weinermobile... it's described as a funny-looking bus, shaped like a sausage. But the text "Weiner Line" appears above the windshield, and, well, just look at the thing!

By R.G. Austin, 1983

With a title like "Invasion of the Black Slime and Other Tales of Horror" you might expect this Which Way Book to be some kind of campy homage to the drive-in movie monsters from the 1950s, but it is nothing like that at all. "Invasion..." takes itself quite seriously, and manages to be genuinely creepy at times, if not outright horrifying.

"Invasion..." is comprised of three separate plot-lines that don't interconnect: you can investigate a mining town where a mysterious black slime is altering the behavior of its citizens, the home of a doctor who has allegedly gone mad after the death of his son in a car accident, or to a haunted house where the promise of a half-million dollar prize awaits whomever is brave enough to stay the entire night. Your first decision in "Invasion..." sends you to one of these three scenarios.

Mining Town
If you go to the mining town, you'll discover a mysterious black slime that seems to be turning the townspeople into glowing-eyed zombies. There is a pocket of people who have managed to maintain their individuality so far, determined to put a stop to the alien ooze. Depending on your choices, you might join forces with them in their secret bunker, or you may end up being a human sacrifice to the slime at the hands of the possessed townsfolk.

In one spine-chilling encounter, the ooze trickles into your hotel room and erupts into a swarm of alien insects, determined to fly into your mouth! Whatever you do, don't scream... The black and white illustrations by Joseph A Smith are suitably creepy.

Pictured below, you are protecting your face (and mouth...yuck) from the insects with a pillow case.

Doctor's House
If you had chosen to visit the doctor instead, you would find that he is a polite if somewhat nervous fellow. You'd heard that the doctor's son had died in a car accident...but what is that thumping sound you hear in the other room?

The doctor invites you to stay the night, it being so late and all, but of course your curiosity will get the better of you before morning.

This is a particularly creepy story. You'll discover cabinets full of jarred body parts, stow away alongside a coffin containing a corpse, and meet the doctor's son, "Garth", who has been brought back to a tenuous life, having been rebuilt with other people's organs.

In one horrific encounter, you stumble upon Garth while exploring the dark house with a flashlight. Garth takes your flashlight from you and proceeds to shine it on himself, highlighting the various gashes and stitches that cover his body. The disturbing moment is illustrated below.

Haunted House Challenge
The third possible scenario is the haunted house challenge. The house belonged to "Uncle Harry", now dead, who stipulated in his will that anyone who could spend the night in his house for 24 hours would receive a $500,000 reward. So far five people have tried, but were never seen from again after entering the house.

This branch of "Invasion..." is unique in that once you've chosen it, you are presented with a warning, and a chance to back out:

The next seventeen pages are different from the rest of the book. There are no choices. If you decide to stay, you must read these pages in one sitting. You may not stop to get a snack or go to the bathroom. You may not talk on the phone or have a conversation with anybody. If you cannot give full attention to the pages, do not read them now...
If you decide to go forward, you must indeed read through 17 continuous pages without any decision options...a series of atmospheric descriptions and haunting encounters that build a feeling of dread and discomfort.

For example, when you first grab the doorknob to open the front door, you feel something slimy on your hand... a leech!

There are nice atmospheric touches that aren't direct threats to your safety, like this bleeding door.

A haunted house mainstay...the painted portrait with eyes that follow you and a mouth that seems to smile at you...

In one candle-lit room, a mummy leans up on its table...

A deformed and monstrous face appears in a mirror. Is it really there or just an illusion?

After completing the 17 pages, you are presented with four doors, each leading to a different fate. One door takes you to a pit of rattlesnakes. Another finds you in a spider-infested room.

One of the doors leads to a room that appears to be your own bedroom! In this creative and chilling ending, the comforting surroundings convince you that you are experiencing a dream, so you climb into the presumed safety of your bed. But this is no dream, and you are shortly seized by the mythical boogie man under the bed...

Scariest Ending
The scariest ending in "Invasion..." would have to be found in the plotline relating to the mad doctor, and is both disturbing and weird, like something out of Eraserhead. You are exploring the doctor's house at night, the only source of light a flickering match, when you begin hearing a loud THUMP...THUMP... As you approach the sound, you make out a pounding mass "as big as a car". A huge, disembodied heart! In fear, you drop your matchbook. That's when it happens: You are frantically looking for the matches when, squish--the heart rolls over on top of you. THE END

HOUSE OF HADES (A Fighting Fantasy Gamebook #10)
By Steve Jackson, 1984

Fighting Fantasy books upped the complexity a bit by adding basic role-playing game elements to the CYOA format. These books required you to track statistics on a sheet, and used dice to resolve combat and other random encounters.

Here's the "Adventure Sheet" contained in the book, used to tally changes in your stamina, keep track of inventory, and record combat outcomes. Of course any blank peice of paper works just fine for this purpose.

"Hades..." was originally published in England with the name "House of Hell", a title deemed too mature for American readers.

Like most Fighting Fantasy books, "House of Hades" has many more decision points than your typical CYOA-type books. This one contains 400 possible entries.

As "Hades..." opens, you are seeking out help at an isolated old mansion set far back in the woods after running your car off the muddy road one rainy night.

You are welcomed by Lord Kelnor, the Earl of Drumer, and his servant Franklins. An example of the unusual decisions you are sometimes required to make in "Hades..." is choosing what refreshments to accept from your host:

"House of Hades" incorporates a unique attribute not found in other books of the series: Fear. Your fear score increases as you encounter frightening experiences, and if it gets too high, your character dies of fright! Your fear score can also be reduced by doing things that strengthen your sipping some brandy. Here's one that increases your fear score--an encounter with a decapitated man!

As you work your way through "Hades..." you soon discover that not only is the house full of monsters and ghosts, but that Lord Kelnor is leader of a devil-worshipping cult, hosting a ceremony of human sacrifice! Some of the illustrations and encounters really do push the envelope...grim depictions of severed goats heads, dangling corpses, and sacrificial victims.

Sometimes the complexity of this book can work against the actual enjoyment. In "Hades..." you can find yourself trapped in a maze of confusing corridors and doors, requiring you to flip pages back and forward and back again until you arrive at the right combination that allows you to escape back into the adventure proper.

If you make all the right choices, and the dice roll your way, you'll witness the House of Hades consumed in flames.