Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Top 10 Movies of 2014 (with omissions)

As always, whenever I decide to do one of these end-of-the-year lists, I feel the need to make the necessary caveats about all the movies I did NOT manage to see this year. So before anyone yells at me, I already know that there are at least two glaring omissions: Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" and Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin." For whatever reason, I just haven't managed to catch up with those films yet. I'm going to try to see them both in the next couple weeks or so, and if I do I'll probably end up writing a review on one or both. We'll see.

And those are certainly not the only much movies I missed this year. Other big blind spots right now include Bong Jun-hoo's "Snowpiercer," Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel," Justin Simien's "Dear White People," Lenny Abramson's "Frank," and J.C. Chandor's "A Most Violent Year." There are also any number number of foreign films I have yet to see, most notably Ruben Östlund's "Force Majeure."

So this is certainly not meant to be any sort of comprehensive "BEST OF" 2014 list. Like usual, these are simply the films I did see that stuck with me the most.

In ascending order:

10. "Nightcrawler" (Dan Gilroy)

I've been a Tony Gilroy fan since "Michael Clayton" in 2007, but I didn't know until this year that his younger brother, Dan, is also a successful screenwriter. "Nightcrawler" is his first film as a writer/director, and while it's not quite as auspicious a debut as "Clayton," it's still a doozy of a thriller and one hell of a black comedy. 

Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom — an edge-of-society looser who finds his true calling as a tabloid videographer in the "if it bleeds, it leads" Los Angeles media market — is perhaps the most terrifying (and, paradoxically, the most hilarious) onscreen sociopath since Patrick Bateman. Like "American Psycho" before it, "Nightcrawler" is a truly nasty piece of work. It's at once desperately funny and perfectly skin-crawling. 

"The best and clearest way that I can phrase it to you, Lou...is to think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut," explains equally depraved morning television host Nina Romina (Rene Russo). That should give you a pretty good idea of where this film is coming from.

9. "Selma" (Ava DuVernay)

I already spoke at length about DuVernay's superlative portrait of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, so I won't go into too much more detail here. All I'll say is that the film's shocking exclusion from this year's Oscars is going to go down in history as one of the most jaw-dropping fuckups in the history of the Academy.

8. "Blue Ruin" (Jeremy Saulnier)

Jeremy Saulnier's black-as-pitch indie "Blue Ruin" doesn't exactly reinvent the revenge-movie wheel. But it's a stark, gorgeously shot (on a shoestring budget) film that features one of the most compelling main characters I've seen in quite a long time. Dwight (Macon Blair) is a singularly damaged individual. A near-mute mass of seething rage, he is as frightening as he is sympathetic as he executes some ill-planned vengeance upon the man he believes murdered his parents.

Saulnier's at-times stiff dialogue doesn't do his star any favors, but Blair manages to make a lot out of very little to work with. In his hands, Dwight becomes much more than a dangerously violent and unpredictable misfit. It's as heart-wrenching a portrait of jagged, existential pain as I can remember.

7. "Guardians of the Galaxy" (James Gunn)

In retrospect, James Gunn (the mad genius behind "Tromeo and Juliet") was the perfect guy to adapt what everyone seems to agree is one of Marvel's most unwieldy story lines. He manages to bring his trademark punk-rock berzerker energy into the circumscribed box of a major tent-pole action film, and — like Shane Black ("Iron Man 3") before him — he approaches the story with the right mix of fanboy reverence and his own unique, often bent sense of humor. "Guardians of the Galaxy" succeeds at feeling like both a James Gunn film and a respectable installment in the Marvel franchise. Along with "The Lego Movie," "Guardians of the Galaxy" is probably the most pure fun I've had at a movie this year.

6. "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them" (Ned Benson)

I've only seen the "Them" version of newcomer Ned Benson's "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby" (there are three movies, the other two — "Him" and "Her" — being extended takes on the story from each character's perspective). I'll be curious to see all of them at some point, but even on its own "Them" is a pretty remarkable film. Especially for a first-time director.

The grim subject matter — the dissolution of a marriage following the sudden death of a child – may be a turnoff for some. But Benson's assured script and direction, as well as two stunning and empathetic performances by Jessica Chastain and James MacAvoy (along with solid supporting turns from Viola Davis, Bill Hader, William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, and Ciarán Hinds), make it worth a watch. It's a deeply moving and cathartic film, with as much hope as there is despair. It marks Benson as a filmmaker to watch.

5. "The Rover" (David Michôd)

I suspect the reason why this film kind of came and went without much fanfare is twofold: the unrelenting bleakness of Michôd's vision, and the cognitive disconnect of imagining Robert Pattinson in this kind of movie.

To be fair, it is an incredibly bleak film. So bleak that even I — a guy who counts "Jacob's Ladder," "Apocalypse Now" and "Taxi Driver" amongst his very favorite films — kind of recoiled a little from it. And Pattinson's performance does take a little getting used to. But once you give yourself over to the film, it's an experience like no other.

Australian director Michôd burst onto the scene with 2010's gritty crime drama "Animal Kingdom," and he ups the ante significantly with the sun-blasted nightmare that is "The Rover." It's "The Road Warrior" as the story would probably look if that scenario happened for real — brutal, pointless, and absolutely no fun whatsoever. And I mean that as a compliment. The total nihilism of this film is stark, harrowing and 100 percent by design.

This isn't a film for everyone. But if you like your amorally violent apocalyptic road movies to be liberally infused with a nauseating sense of profound dread, you might want to give it a shot.

4. "The Babadook" (Jennifer Kent)

I reviewed Jennifer Kent's "The Babadook" a few weeks back. The only thing I'll add here is that this movie still freaks me out. I don't scare easily, but the film has made it legitimately hard for me to sleep with the lights off. And every time my furnace or water heater makes a noise in the middle of the night, I find myself wanting to cry.

3. "Obvious Child" (Gillian Robespierre)

This has been a pretty good year for both women behind the camera (see above entries for "Selma" and "The Babadook") and for first-time directors. With "Obvious Child" we get both. Writer/director Gillian Robespierre's debut feature is hilarious, warm, acerbic, and profoundly moving. It's what I really wanted HBO's "Girls" to be.

"Obvious Child" centers on Donna Stern (Jenny Slate in a standout performance), a potty-mouthed standup comic in Brooklyn who gets pregnant after a drunken one-night stand and decides to have an abortion. If this sounds like a movie trying its hardest to be edgy, take a closer look. The film has a soft heart at its core, and it's ultimately more about a young, somewhat out-of-control woman trying to find her way than it is a partisan screed on a hot button political issue.

Robespierre and Slate manage to infuse the movie with a joke-a-minute patter while still keeping it firmly grounded in reality. Visually, the film is a little rough around the edges, but that only adds to the sense of verisimilitude.

And it's fucking funny. Slate is comic gold, but she proves here that she can anchor the dramatic moments just as confidently as she can deliver a good pee-fart joke.

2. "Whiplash" (Damien Chazelle)

I finally got a chance to see "Whiplash" just the other night (it's what I was waiting for before putting together this list). Holy shit. This is as intense a movie as I've seen in years. It's a film about an upscale jazz conservatory that unfolds like torture porn. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it.

"Whiplash" succeeds brilliantly where — to my mind — Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" utterly failed. Both films deal with similar themes, but where Aronofsky lost himself in all the pseudo-Lynchian visual babble and faux-Cronenbergian body horror, Chazelle keeps his film solidly on point. He gives us a cruelly rendered dissection of the destructive but symbiotic relationship between an aspiring jazz drummer, Andrew (Miles Teller), and his abusive teacher, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, in the role we all knew he was born to play since we first saw him way back when on "Oz").

This movie will cut pretty close to the bone for anyone out there involved in any sort of creative pursuit. The vulnerability created by Andrew's need for perfection opens him up to Fletcher's manipulations and torments, and as the story progresses it is as gripping and stomach-churning as any Hitchcockian thriller. But just as soon as you think you know where this movie is going, it takes a wild left turn that feels at once absurd and completely real.

Teller is great here, but the movie belongs to Simmons. It's one of those tour-de-force performances that every actor dreams of and so few ever have the chance to do. Simmons makes the most of it, and then some.

1. "Inherent Vice" (Paul Thomas Anderson)

I wrote about Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" along with "Selma" about a week ago. I still haven't come any closer to figuring the movie out. But I simply don't care. I fell for Anderson's wacko vision hook, line and sinker. Even now, just thinking about it sends me into paroxysms of absolute joy. As far as I'm concerned, this is the year's one true masterpiece.

I appear to be in the minority on this film, so take this recommendation with a grain of salt. But if I had to save any of these films from the ravages of the upcoming apocalypse, this would be the one.

Honorable mentions:

The Lego Movie
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Happy Valley (documentary)
Mistaken For Strangers (documentary)

Bonus: Biggest Disappointment — "Gone Girl" (David Fincher)

It's a little weird referring to a movie I basically liked as a disappointment. But considering the talent involved and the superlative source material they had to work with, I don't really have a choice.

This film was ultimately a victim of too-high expectations for me. David Fincher is probably my favorite living director, and I absolutely loved Gillian Flynn's original novel. There's no denying that their combined efforts brought about a respectable adaptation. But the movie is just missing something essential, and I have a hard time looking back on it and not dwelling on the things that didn't quite work for me. Ultimately, Fincher's austere style just doesn't live up to the crackle of Flynn's prose, and neither Nick (Ben Affleck) nor Amy (Rosamund Pike) really came alive for me on the screen the way they did on the page. It's like watching a story I love being performed behind a pane of dirty glass.

I certainly wouldn't say to skip the movie. But do yourself a favor and read the book first. Don't deprive yourself of that gift.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A tale of two Docs: "Selma" and "Inherent Vice," my end-of-the-year 1960s wrap-up

It's hard to imagine two more different icons of the 1960s than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played in the movie "Selma" by relative newcomer David Oyelowo) and hippy detective Larry "Doc" Sportello from Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel "Inherent Vice" (portrayed in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation by gonzo veteran Joaquin Phoenix).

Sure, one of them existed in the real world and the other very decidedly did not. But, forgetting for a moment Doc Sportello's status as a fictional character, it's hard to believe that the time period depicted in these films is only five years apart. If you ever want to get a sense of how our entire culture went gloriously insane in the late 1960s, just watch these two films back to back.

Selma (Ava DuVernay)

When I was younger, I always wondered why no one had made a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr. As I got older, I began to understand why. Even though the King's murder took place less than ten years before I was born (a fact that blows my mind now that I think about it), by the time I was old enough for him to enter my consciousness, he had already been so deeply sanctified and abstracted by history that he had a symbol. Like Mother Theresa and Ghandi, or — on the other side of the moral spectrum — Charles Manson and Adolph Hitler, it seems have become increasingly harder to look past what these figures represent (ultimate Good or ultimate Evil, respectively) to find the actual person.

Narrative needs "drama" (a fact that the King explains quite eloquently in "Selma"), and it's hard to wring drama from a symbol. The symbol is important, sure but by its very nature it has to be simplified.

It's much easier to turn someone like Malcolm X into a compelling character for a biopic, because as a man his complications and flaws were so obvious. He was driven largely by demons, rage and desire for vengeance, and his ultimate evolution towards a deeper sense of understanding and compassion before his murder was very public and striking. The story practically writes itself.

This is true of other famous subjects of biopics: Johnny Cash, Harvey Milk, Ray Charles, Virginia Woolf, Jackson Pollock, etc.

Martin Luther King, Jr. occupies a very different place in our public consciousness. He's as close to a bonafide saint as our country has produced in its history. He was, of course, also a human being with flaws and complications, but those complications aren't really part of the narrative. There was certainly a lot of "drama" in his too-short life. But how do we get to the drama inside the man? How do we create a compelling human character out of someone whose symbolic resonance is so blindingly brilliant?

And why would you do it? What good is served by tearing the symbol down? This is the very difficult line that Oyelowo, writer Paul Webb and  director Ava DuVernay have to walk in "Selma." They need to humanize King without sullying him or his legacy. They need to show us his flaws without sensationalize or rubbing our noses in them. And, in the end, they need to preserve his nobility.

They do it very, very well.

"Selma" is the story of the lead-up to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, where King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined others to protest the lack of voting rights for African Americans in the South. Stylistically, the film is a pretty standard biopic, and DuVernay doesn't do much to reinvent the wheel. This is to her credit. She clearly realizes that this movie isn't about her, but rather about the man whose story she has chosen to tell. If she had injected herself into the material any more than necessary, she would have risked despoiling it with her own ego.

But she's a much shrewder director than that, and she approaches the story with remarkable dramatic restraint. The movie is stylish in moments (the tear-gas attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge is almost like something out of "Apocalypse Now"), but DuVernay knows when to hold back and when to go for it. Mostly, she just stays out of the way and lets the story tell itself through the powerhouse central performance. It's a remarkably mature work for a relatively new director (her first feature, "I Will Follow," was a minor indie hit in 2011, and her second, "Middle of Nowhere," exploded out of Sundance in 2012). I wasn't aware of her before "Selma," but she's definitely one of the up-and-coming directors to watch.

The film does stumble here and there. Webb's script is prone to the typical biopic problem of wanting to speechify against a backdrop of swelling strings. Occasionally DuVernay loses her handle on the film's pace, and there are a few awkward edits here and there that make me think there were probably some holes in the coverage (trust me, I understand how that happens). But these are minor problems.

What DuVernay, Webb and Olewowo manage to do with startling deftness is find that human core to Dr. King while still preserving the integrity of the symbol he has come to represent. As they understand him, he's a proud man — possessed of a fierce intelligence that can be almost ruthless. He's staunchly committed to non-violence, but he's not entirely above provoking it if it serves his and the movement's needs (the above-referenced discussion about "drama" is both rousing and a little chilling). He can be occasionally venal and petty (at one point he hurls — and immediately regrets — an insult at his wife Coretta that is as cruel as it is hypocritical). And the film shows how close he came to losing control of the movement. His success was not a foregone conclusion, and he knew it. The draw of Malcolm X's "by any means necessary" ethos is a quiet but powerful undercurrent throughout the movie, and as the dangers of the march and the very real risk of injury or even death to those following him sinks in, we see him become almost paralyzed with self-doubt.

And the film does not shy away from King's infidelity. But DuVernay, Webb and Olewoyo (as well as Carmen Ejogo as Coretta) handle it exactly right. Rather than exploit it for tabloid thrills, they use it as an opportunity to craft what is one of the most quietly heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting scenes between a husband and wife that I can remember seeing.

Olewoyo, for his part, manages to channel the essence of King without resorting to direct mimicry. He inhabits King fully, and manages to give us many quiet shades and textures that show a few emotional cracks in the stoic facade. He does it with a specific posture, a gesture, a twitch of the eye, a quaver of the lip. Like DuVernay, his instincts are direct and unsentimental. He doesn't push the material, but lets it carry him away.

This is the key to the film's success. By humanizing King without sullying him, they make him specific and that much more powerful. They put us inside his struggle as much as any film can. They make us identify with him as a person and remind us how important, noble, and brave he truly was. By not showing him as infallible, they make his realize that his triumphs were that much more remarkable.

And they do this for the Civil Rights Movement in general. Tina Fey had a trenchant joke at this Sunday's Golden Globe's — "...the movie ‘Selma’ is about the American civil rights movement, that totally worked and now everything’s fine" — that, in the face of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the Supreme Court's recent rollback of the very Voting Rights Act that King was fighting for, cuts pretty deep. What "Selma" reminds us of is how dangerous the movement really was for those who participated in it. It's easy for us to forget the risk these people took by going up against a white establishment that was not afraid to hurt, maim or kill to protect itself. DuVernay brings this home with shot of the first group of marchers as they approach the  line police officers and troops at the end of the bridge. The moment is chilling. And what comes next is singularly horrifying.

"Selma" isn't a mind-blowing piece of filmmaking, or a stunning reinvention of the cinematic form. It doesn't need to be. It's simply an important story very well told, in the way only Hollywood — when it gets its shit together — can.

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Speaking of mind-blowing pieces of filmmaking that try to be a stunning reinvention of the cinematic form, let's take a look at Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of "Inherent Vice."

Full disclosure: I only have a glancing relationship with Pynchon's work. I tried to read "Gravity's Rainbow" and — like most people, it seems — gave up after a couple chapters. Ditto for "Mason & Dixon" and "V." I found his language and ideas very compelling, but I just couldn't hang. It was too much, and after about twenty pages I felt like there were things exploding in there that were short-circuiting my brain. Anderson's film — which marks the first time that Pynchon has been adapted for the screen — makes me want to try again.

Like all Paul Thomas Anderson films, this is an unwieldy mess of a movie — and, like all Paul Thomas Anderson films, that is part of its genius. I like movies that aren't afraid to just grab you by the hair and drag you headlong into whatever whacked-out universe they've created. Anderson does that better than anyone else working today. He's never been interested in making things easy for us, and this makes him the perfect filmmaker to tackle the mind-exploding insanity of Pynchon's prose.

The "Big Lebowski" and "Long Goodbye" comparisons are inevitable, but try to forget all that. "Inherent Vice" occupies its own lunatic headspace. Technically, I guess it's a black-comic film noir. Doc is a perpetually stoned burnout in 1970 who also happens to be a private detective. This is the end of the 1960s dream (the Manson murders, only one year old at this point, are continually referenced throughout). The "story," such as it is, kicks off when Doc is approached by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston in a breakout role) for help. She's our ostensible Femme Fatale here, a free-love hippy with a dark side who has become involved with an eccentric real-estate mogul named Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts). Wolfman's greedy wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her lover (Andrew Simpson) want Shasta to help them set up a scheme to have Wolfman committed to an insane asylum.

The next day, Doc is hired by a black militant (Michael Kenneth Williams) who wants Doc's help in approaching a neo-Nazi who owes him money. The neo-Nazi has ties to...yep, Mickey Wolfman. So Doc starts to investigate, all the while trying to dodge his nemesis: a straight-as-an-arrow LA cop named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), who's also probably insane.

This is the setup, but none of that doesn't give you any sense of how bonkers this movie really is. This is the type of movie where the line "he's technically Jewish, but really wants to be Nazi" is the least strange thing anyone says. The plot is utterly incomprehensible. The only way I can think to describe it is to imagine trying to put together a puzzle where none of the pieces fit and the colors are all wrong, only to realize that it's actually eight puzzles all mixed together with half the pieces missing. But Doc is as confused as we are, so it's okay. I was just happy to be along for the ride.

Anderson and Pynchon keep throwing bizarre twists and characters at us well past the point of absurdity. Eventually, there's something about the Golden Fang — which might be a boat owned by a movie star, or might be a tax dodge for drugged-out dentists, or might be an Indo-Chinese drug cartel, be all of the above, or might be something else entirely. We get to meet no end of dope-sick hippies, neo-Nazis, Asian prostitutes, saxophone players on the lam, New Age Gurus, stoned teenagers, vengeful titans of industry, hitmen, drug-dealing soccer moms, and — of course — Martin Short's Dr. Rudi Blatnoyd (one of the aforementioned tax-dodging dentists) in what may now be my favorite celebrity cameo of all time.

It's hard to call Phoenix an anchor here. But we get Doc, so he's as a good a guide through all this madness as anybody. The rest of the cast is note perfect — from Waterston, Brolin and Short all the way down through porn star Belladonna, whose out-of-nowhere cameo is at once erotic, hilarious, and deeply disturbing.

"Inherent Vice" is definitely a drug movie, but Anderson wisely eschews the overtly surrealistic trappings of most drug movies. We don't really get the typical bad-trip set piece we're used to from these films. Instead, Anderson mostly presents everything straight with just a few surrealistic flourishes here and there. We're just supposed to take it all at face value, which of course makes everything incalculably stranger. As Doc drifts deeper into the mystery and his own paranoia, the story spikes out in all sorts of directions like crystals forming in a cave. It seems random...but if you stare at it long-enough you might almost see patterns.

It would be easy to call this Pynchon's and Anderson's meditation on the death of the 60s (indeed, most critics have done just that). And it is that, I guess. But mostly it's just a wild, whoolly ride that'll take you somewhere unexpected in each minute of its two-and-a-half hour running time. It's a weird movie...but joyously, transcendently weird in a way that only an Anderson film can be.

Monday, January 5, 2015

A roundabout defense of Korn and nü metal (kind of)...but fuck Limp Bizkit

This last year or so, creatively, has been largely about getting back to my roots.

I started out as a wannabe horror novelist, but somewhere along the way that dream got subsumed by my aspirations as a filmmaker (one thing I learned in my mid 20s was that you get more interest from girls if you call yourself a "director" instead of  a "writer." I'd be lying if I said this wasn't at least partly a motivating factor). And, as torture porn and zombie movies rose up to basically push everything else out of the genre, I gradually began to lose interest in horror. I found myself writing TV pilots, action movies, dark dramas, sci-fi, gangster films, Westerns,  etc. ... pretty much everything but horror.

There were exceptions, of course — most notably my short film "Vanya," which I co-developed with my cinematographer/BFF Corey Weintraub. Deeply inspired by John Carpenter and "The Twilight Zone" (me) and classic war films (Corey), it was not only our most perfectly balanced collaboration, but it also came as close to representing (almost by accident) my "old" sensibility as anything that I'd done in years.

The first event that began to shift things came late last year when I attended the "H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival & CthulhuCon" in San Pedro, CA. "Vanya" was an official selection, and I was stunned by the movie's reception. I was quite literally treated like a celebrity, and I even signed my first autographs. This festival was unlike any other horror festival I'd attended. It reminded me more than anything of the time I attended the World Horror Convention in Denver almost 15 years ago. These weren't necessarily typical horror movie fans. They were book readers, for one thing. It was more about the Lovecraft than it was about the films. The audience was very specific, and they got "Vanya" in a way I couldn't have imagined. The whole thing was a surreal experience, and somewhat disconcerting because that was the moment where I realized how far from my roots I had strayed. As I mingled with the other festival goers, went through the merch tables, and watched the other films I had a very distinct feeling of coming home. These were my people.

Since then I've been studiously and steadfastly reintroducing myself to the genre I had once loved, and as I rediscovered the spark it became quite clear to me that my most seminal influences are fundamentally not cinematic, but literary (I use the term loosely. We're talking about pulp horror fiction, after all). There was Stephen King (of course)... but also Lovecraft, Barker, Ketchum, Rickman, Newman, Matheson, Beaumont, Brennan, Campbell, Du Maurier, etc. So I began reading and rereading many of the old books and short stories that had first set me on my path back around 1991, as well as digging into a few new ones.

I know I said I was gonna talk about Korn and nü metal. I'm getting there. I promise.

The second event came very soon after the Lovecraft festival, and was in many ways a direct result of it. Just a few weeks later I made "Halfway House" for the 48 Hour Film Project Horror Competition. The film won, which was gratifying, and people seemed to mostly like it (even if a lot of them told me afterwards that they didn't really get it), which made me happy. But the most satisfying thing about it was that it was my first conscious attempt to transpose the sort of 1950s-style horror fiction I'd been writing back in high school and college into a film format. I'd done it already with "Vanya" and probably with "Sweetie," but those had not been planned. This was. And I felt like I pulled it off.

The third — and last — event came this past July. As I was driving between Los Angeles and Albuquerque, I listened to the audiobook of Nick Cutter's recent horror novel "The Troop." It got things firing in my soul in a way no movie had in years. The excitement I felt as Cutter's muscular prose propelled me headlong through his singularly fucked-up narrative was palpable, so thick that I could actually taste it. This was what I should be doing, I realized. Somehow I'd let myself forget it.

(Not that I'm going to quit making movies, BTW. I'm just going to do this, too.)

So my mind turned to a half-abandoned horror novel I'd started years before called "The Darks," and in that weird alchemical way that no writer really understands, it suddenly combined with another concept I'd been sort of noodling with but couldn't quite figure out. Now I could see it.

I was going to write this novel, damnit. And that's exactly what I'm doing.

Nostalgia is a dangerous thing, and when it starts it tends to spiral out in all sorts of uncontrollable directions. In this case, it was invigorating, but as I dove into it my mind naturally turned to all those other things that had defined my youth and shaped the way I think and feel. Particularly music.

One of the main characters in "The Darks" is an aging 90s rock star in the Marilyn Manson vein, and through developing his back story I found myself tumbling through my own musical past.

If horror fiction was the foundation of the house I had been building for myself as a teenager, then heavy metal was surely the frame. But I'm a child of the 90s, which was a really weird time for metal. 80s cock rock was swept aside in favor of grunge right around the time I was entering middle school. That held sway for a few years, but it wasn't too long before we were all looking for the Next Big Thing.

In retrospect, it's a little weird how dark shit got, pop culturally, in the mid 90s. We were out of the Cold War, after all. The economy was booming. We were at peace. And yet, pretty much the biggest rock album of 1994 was Nine Inch Nails' "The Downward Spiral" and the most important movie was "Pulp Fiction." Huh?

Metal was still around, of course, but it had warped into something very different from its 80s incarnation. The overt theatricality — the costumes, the makeup, the fantasy-based lyrics, etc. — had mostly been shunted aside. A lot of the dumb fun had leached out of it, and the newer bands were deadly serious. For one thing, if you were a metal dude it wasn't cool to look like a girl anymore... even if you were a girl. These new bands were all fronted by scary, tough-looking guys who looked like they'd break a beer bottle across your face and then rip your heart out and eat it in front of you. Pantera and Sepultura ruled them all, but death metal was on the rise (as well as black metal in Europe, although I didn't really find out about it until I got to college). Iron Maiden was what qualified as scary in the 80s. Now it was Cannibal Corpse doing "Meathook Sodomy."

In the years preceeding 1994 I was aware of grunge, but I had spent most of middle and early high school ignoring what everyone else was into and listening almost exclusively to Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles. That all changed when my parents finally got cable and I was able to watch MTV regularly for the first time.

This was the "Headbangers Ball/120 Minutes" era. Flannel was on its way out, but no one quite knew what came next. Pop punk was starting to hit with Green Day and The Offspring, and industrial was getting some notice by way of NIN and Ministry. But nothing quite felt like a movement yet.

I bit into metal hard around that time, but right away I felt out of place within it. I wasn't some scary, tattooed bruiser. I was a geeky, sullen, bullied loner, and all the alpha-male chest beating from the Phil Anselmos and Max Cavaleras of the world was as off-putting as it was enticing. Rob Zombie made a little more sense to me (he was a horror movie geek, after all), but he seemed kind of silly. I liked NIN, Manson, Tool, etc., but I felt like they were the cool kids. All of it was keeping me at arms length.

And then I found Korn's first album.

Now, keep in mind, nobody knew who the fuck Korn was at this point. I don't even think they'd aired a video yet. They sure as shit were not on the radio.

I don't remember how, exactly, I found it, but I remember holding the CD in my hand and looking at this picture and thinking "what the fuck?":

I found that image deeply disturbing... which, of course, meant I had to buy it.  It wasn't until I got home that I looked at the song titles and saw that the sixth track was called "Faget." My heart sank. Because I was a faggot. Not literally, but it was a word that had been thrown at me many, many times, and to this day it churns my guts more than almost any other. Immediately I felt a hostile relationship with this band that I knew nothing about.

I opened the jewel case, expecting to see a band photo. There was one, but you couldn't really make out what anyone looked like. Jonathan Davis's face was obscured by a black hoodie. You caught a hint of a scowl, but that was it. I hadn't even put the CD into my player yet, and I already felt a sense of real menace. For a horror fan like me, menace is good. I was intrigued.

So I put the CD into my boombox (yeah, we still had those), braced myself and went immediately to track six.

This is what I heard:

It's hard to hear it now with the same ears I had in 1994... but I do remember that literally nothing sounded like it at the time. Technically, of course, that's not true. Coal Chamber – maybe the first band to be widely accused of ripping off Korn's sound — actually predated Korn by a few months, but they didn't manage to put out an album until three years later. And, of course, Deftones were doing their thing. But I wouldn't really become aware of them for another year or two.

Korn was something utterly new to me.

The first time I had a song or an album crack my brain open and pour something new into it was when I heard Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Sinister Purpose" when I was seven and on a cross-country road trip with my parents. Even way back then I was kind of a dark kid with a weird imagination, and "Sinister Purpose" hit a sweet spot I didn't even know was there.

The second time was when my brother gave me a cassette tape of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" when I was maybe eleven or twelve and I heard "One of My Turns," followed immediately by "Don't Leave Me Now." Whatever inner blackness John Fogerty had hinted at with "Sinister Purpose" was just right there in its full, lunatic glory in Roger Waters's demented magnum opus. Even now when people refer to Floyd as "space rock" I can't help but snicker. Unless you're talking about the space between existential dread and a full-on psychotic break, the term just doesn't apply.

The third time was when I heard "Faget."

Make no mistake about it, I was an angry kid. I had a few legitimate reasons to be angry, and a lot of bullshit teenage ones too. But I was also a shy kid, so I rarely if ever expressed that anger in any outward way. I'd occasionally melt down (usually in front of my parents), but more often I would just turn it inward and pick at it and pick at it until it felt raw and bloody. I was angry at myself, angry at the world, and didn't know who to lash out at. I've never related to the Columbine shooters, but I'm self aware enough to know I at least had a seed of that in me at that time. I don't know what it would have taken to push me there, but I suspect it would have been less than I would now like to believe.

Frankly, it was discovering writing and horror — and realizing that I had talent — that got me through it.

Korn expressed that particular sense of rage in a way that was ugly, painful and very specific. As soon as I realized Davis was calling himself a faggot, I locked in. This was me. In simplistic terms, you could call the song an anti-bullying anthem, but that reduces it to its most basic elements. It was a scream from the reptile brain, and one I deeply recognized. At the time, I felt like Davis wasn't so much singing as he was channeling the black stew of my own emotions into audio form and then throwing them back at me.

So that's what Korn meant to 16-year-old Scotty. They mean something very different to me now. They hit big a couple years later with "Life Is Peachy" and then went into the stratosphere with "Follow the Leader." Good for them. I'm not one of those guys to immediately abandon a favorite band as soon as they get popular.

But it took almost no time for them to turn into a parody of the very thing they had seemed to be railing against.

I mean, how do go from that to this?

I'm sure they justify the use of the word "faggot" in this song by saying that it's meant to be ironic and that they're subverting the overt machismo or whatever (and, to be fair, the final refrain gives that idea at least a little bit of weight). But that's a cop-out. Fundamentally, this song is an excuse for dumb guys to say "faggot" to each other. It's not even the use of the word that offends me, but the posturing. And the simple fact that Davis is revealing his true pathetic self here: after all his outsider raging, it turns out he really did just want to be one of the cool kids after all.

Korn simply cannot be forgiven for introducing the world to Fred Durst and Limp Bizkit. Their legacy, such as it is, will be forever tainted. This is true even if they hadn't started making absolute shit music in the late 90s and the aughts.

I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a minute there where I liked Limp Bizkit. That first album felt sort of fresh, I guess, for about six months. And, for the record, I also liked Sugar Ray for awhile. "Streaker" is still one of my favorite songs. I was already pretty open to the whole rap-metal thing because of Rage Against the Machine, Downset, Stuck Mojo, and Anthrax's much earlier collaboration with Public Enemy.

But from almost the very second I heard "Nookie," I was done. Durst represented everything to me that Korn (and Marilyn Manson and NIN) had been an escape from. And he brought garbage like Crazy Town and Staind and (gag) Papa Roach along in his wake.

Korn, frankly, must be held accountable for this. They had helped create something that I still believe could have been uniquely raw and vital for an entire generation of misfit kids, and then they turned their backs and kicked the door open and let all the dudebros in after them. It was a musical and cultural betrayal of epic proportions.

As part of writing "The Darks," I created a "Devin Fucking Mackie's Badass 90s Playlist" on Spotify, and — for fun — I culled through a bunch of that late 90s post-Korn nü metal that I listened to for awhile. And I was surprised to find that, for all the trash, there's still plenty there I like. Disturbed's "Stupify," for instance. Or Chevelle's "Point #1." Is this great music? Not really. Is it dated? For sure. But it meant something to me at the time, and I'm not ashamed to say it still does, at least a little bit.

And I will always contend that that first Korn album truly was something special. But I guess you kind of had to be there. Their later sins in regards to the douche-ification of the late 90s are singular and specific, but for better or worse they are probably the most influential rock band that came in the immediate aftermath of Nirvana. Like all influential bands, they spawned a ton of really terrible imitators. But they opened the door for a few good ones, too. And their influence extended way beyond what we traditionally think of as "nü metal." You can hear it in the guitar and base sound on Sepultura's "Roots," which I think may be the single best metal album of that entire decade. You also hear it on Fear Factory's "Obsolete.". And then Slipknot came along,  took what they were doing and cranked it all full of meth in the most beautiful way.

Let's not even talk about Emo.

As I said, nostalgia can be dangerous. I'm glad that, in the end, this is a phase I mostly grew out of. The years after college would bring me into contact with music much more emotionally sophisticated and (indeed) more frightening than anything these guys could conceive of. Nick Cave and the Bad seeds ended up being the fourth (and so far last) time I had my skull cracked open by a band. They were a game changer for me. I don't care how raw you scream, how loud and downtuned your guitars are or what fucked-up costumes you wear on stage, you'll never be able to craft anything as sublimely disturbing as this:

Or this:

Or, frankly, this:

I'll never really be able to call myself a Korn fan again. But, as I take it upon myself to reconnect to my past, it's sort of nice to discover that I can still find something of value there.