Saturday, October 6, 2012

Midnight Movie by Tobe Hooper and Alan Goldsher

As the vitality of the theater-going experience fades from moviegoers minds, so too the sinister and seductive phrase "Midnight Movie" has lost the suggestive power to imply a film unfit for consumption by day-walking normals. Midnight Movie, a new and thoroughly entertaining horror yarn by Tobe Hooper and Alan Goldsher, depicts a modern world slowly and horrifyingly mutated into maniacs, zombies and zombie maniacs by one single midnight horror film screening, evoking the primal vengeance of analog horror culture on a digital world. The "Midnight" in the title is actually most akin to the feared nuclear one in terms of apocalypse.

We live in the day of instantaneous access to not only the popular hits but the obscure, a fact which Hooper and Goldsher use as a framing device. The novel begins and ends in mostly lengthy quotations from interviews with the principal characters (including Tobe Hooper himself) with a long section in the middle made up mainly of excerpts from text messages, Twitter feeds, email, etc - a digital record, with a preface about the authorities and media covering up the truth. The epistolary approach of has roots in horror going back to Dracula up through Carrie and World War Z, the latter of which is the most likely inspiration. The modernized subgenre takes on a more far-spanning feeling in the age of wireless real time technology. 

Goldsher is a journalist by trade and knows how people sound when read in transcript, making the bulk of the novel a queasy breeze since reading chat logs or blog excerpts does not take long. The tonnage of paper printed consisting of electronic communication make the book appear longer than it is, and the length feels right. His previous dabbles in horror have included the epistolary Beatles tribute Paul Is Undead. Tobe Hooper's involvement as a main character gives him his own voice in the writing - or, if Goldsher's previous writing experience with postmodernism made it appear as such, I'm impressed by his ghostwriting Hooper's Texan voice; a cynical ex-hippie with an abiding love for the myth making dream state of movies. To help you believe Tobe Hooper as "Tobe Hooper", this is a world in which the only film of his anyone has heard of is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - okay, that's a just a reflection of sad reality. Literally the only other film of his to be mentioned is Poltergeist, when Hooper mentions he won't talk about it.

The idea of a horror film transmitting a disease or curse on those who view it has been expressed by other masters of the genre and oft-time by Tobe Hooper contemporaries: David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983) was a straightforwardly intellectual schizophrenic meditation on the idea of television influencing violent or sexual behavior. Lamberto Bava's Demons (1985) is a sheerly unintellectual thrill ride with the kick of watching a film in a movie theater about people watching a film in a movie theater being possessed by flesh-hungry demons.

John Carpenter, whom Hooper worked with on Carpenter's TV movie anthology Body Bags (1993) has explored the idea of forbidden film twice: first in the final moments of the satirical Lovecraft homage and genre deconstruction In The Mouth of Madness (1995) and then in 2005 with the Masters of Horror anthology horror TV series episode Cigarette Burns, which featured a cursed film. There was also The Ring, the popular 1998 Japanese horror film made into a popular 2002 American film focused on a ghost who kills anyone that watches a certain video. The theme of death by developing media and communications is actually a prolific one in Japanese horror; Hooper has a professed admirer in Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of the excellent Internet ghost story Pulse (2001).

Midnight Movie doesn't have intellectual treatises to deliver, the authors simply hook into the terror of those affected in myriad ways by the plague caused by the titular evil film screening. Unlike Carpenter, Cronenberg and the rest, Hooper never hectors intellectually. You read the allegories of America into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, not him, he's too focused on evoking the mood. Only in the last chapters of the novel does anyone have the chance to catch their breath as chaos unfolded, and ask each other what the hell's going on. The film in Tobe Hooper's filmography Midnight Movie most closely resembles is Lifeforce (1986), unsurprisingly his only other end-of-the-world story with rapid pace and obscure motivations. Unlike the space vampires of that film, however, the effects of mutation upon the populace are frighteningly varied and this is the great strength of Midnight Movie as far as a horror tales: the variety of symptoms the multiplies the mystery around how a film could make anyone do (or turn into) anything.

A cursory review of the plot from the book's back flap indicates a zombie effect on viewers of the titular film, but there is in fact a variety of slow and deadly ailments distributed at the fateful midnight screening: psychotic aggression, manic drug addiction, classic flesh-eating zombiedom and nymphomania accompanied with venereal disease involving copious neon discharge which coins the STDs nickname "The Blue Spew." These multiple horrors unleashed by the film become that much more confounding as Goldsher and Hooper withhold the secret of the cause to their effect to much suspense.

The sole disappointment in the story is simply being unable to finally reveal an explanation of equal awe to the phenomena. In retrospect, Hooper and Goldsher are palpably aware of this and conclude on a shaggy dog ending with only the most cursory reasoning behind how a movie screening was made to cause curses. By the novel's end, the situation is on such a complex level of hysteria over the unexplained contagion that only magic could account for a film screening to cause its viewers to break the laws of physics. The suspense over this demanded a larger-than-life explanation and we essentially get a mad scientist with a surprise identity behind the trouble. I'd have preferred no explanation at all.

The best reason to read Midnight Movie for Tobe Hooper fans and anyone taking a look at this book based on the title (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) is the inclusion of Tobe Hooper as the main character in the first and third acts of the story. He's tied to the story from the beginning, as the fatal "Midnight Movie" in question is a rare and recently discovered home horror movie shot by Hooper in high school involving zombies, with the ominous title Destiny Express. (Nevermind that this is a Romero-type zombie film created in 1959.) This is loosely inspired by the real life restoration and re-release at the South by Southwest film festival of Tobe Hooper's first film, the formerly long lost 1969 non-horror hippie fantasy Eggshells, which my colleague JR memorably denoted as "an admirable avant-garde chore."

The film is unearthed by a socially maladjusted movie geek, a type whom Hooper and Goldsher treat with particular derision - there's actually two major characters who are pop culture catchphrase spewing dorks of the Ain't-It-Cool-News generation. The one time world premiere midnight screening happens at a small seedy dive bar in Austin during the South by Southwest film festival, and Hooper is attending to answer a few of the usual questions about Texas Chainsaw for a few bucks before the novelty of seeing an old childhood attempt at a horror film he'd long forgotten - and ends up spared from the film's slow pandemic only by stepping outside partway for a breath of fresh air. The content of Destiny Express is described many times, a good narrative decision for making the resultant madness inflicted on viewers that much more befuddling: the production values are like a high school production of an Ed Wood movie about zombies. Why wouldn't it be?

Tobe returns to the film's narrative in the third and final part to aid his fictional young protagonists in stopping the Destiny Express. After a lot of zombie flesh eating, animalistic sex compulsion with blue discharge, crystal meth addiction, psychotic insanity and even movie-motivated terrorism has unfolded and unraveled the lives of Hooper's brief acquaintances from the night of the midnight movie, everyone converges back together and Tobe helps the meddling kids solve the spooky mystery. He's the wacky mascot of his own novel, like one of those decadent Scooby-Doo clones from the 70s, and he does get to chew the literary scenery a few times; shooting a zombie when he's reintroduced to the story and later assaulting a Hollywood executive at one point with Hunter S. Thompsonesque righteous indignation. "Does it feel good knowing you're the death of dreams?!" The kids all but have to throw him a Tobe Snack to settle him down.

The resolution of Midnight Movie begins with a sublime idea. In the face of no clues whatsoever as to stopping the movie-plague, and no clues as to why a cheesy zombie movie made by a young Hooper could have caused all this zombie malarkey, Hooper and company decide to try remaking Destiny Express, complete with the original cast and crew of Tobe's long-separated childhood chums. Through this desperate act they discover the unconvincing twist of a man-made plot behind the film's secret power, but until that ultimate revelation, I had a great deal of admiration for the dramatic idea emerging that only a leap of blind faith in the right direction will uncover the inexplicable.

The novel also becomes a scary love letter from Hooper to the idea of literal "movie magic". If the simple decision to remake a movie that had somehow become a vessel of evil actually undid the curse of the original, Midnight Movie could have ended perfectly; easy come, easy go. To find out as we do that this is a man-made event and not something grander is a letdown because what's transpired has been a convincing nightmare in Goldsher's web and communications-based literary layout.

This is a fiction that in whose subtext lays the exciting feeling of dangerous discovery when finding a rare film or object of extremely obscure art with an audience of strangers in the dead of night. The zombie plague is the dark side of that power loosed on a modern world of everything-ever-available-instantly. "Tobe Hooper" is a luddite and I imagine the real life one is too - to some degree, after reading Midnight Movie. Longtime fans of his like myself will get a big kick out of his postmodern inclusion and longtime fans of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will appreciate the fear behind having your perception of reality altered by a strange force in a horror film show.


Alan Goldsher said...

A wonderful, thoughtful piece. Thank you for for *getting* the book.


Alan Goldsher said...

A wonderful, thoughtful piece. Thank you for for *getting* the book.


Molly said...

"who are pop culture catchphrase spewing dorks of the Ain't-It-Cool-News generation". Ohhh no you dih-int.