*For about half of this post, I'm going to talk about very scary things, and then I'm going to move on to other stuff because I can't focus on anything for too long or the gnomes will take my baby sister away. We begin with this week's column, which covers my perceptions of the horror comics of the '50s, and what their cruelties meant for a troubled, wildly popular art form. Also featuring my most overblown title ever - I'm so proud! Take your time, we'll all wait for you to come back.

*Roger Ebert’s Fight Club Dept: Though I feel that America’s Most Popular Film Critic suffers from all-too frequent lapses in taste these days, more prone to handing glossy mediocrities a pass than ever before (granted, I always preferred Siskel anyway, if forced to choose), there’s one thing that remains good and beautiful in the balcony: when Roger Ebert gets into fights, entertainment is sure to follow. It’s no surprise; putting all analysis of his weekly new releases commentary aside, Ebert’s skills as a pure theoretician remain formidable, even underestimated, and engaging some producer or director in a philosophical joust can only play to the man’s strengths these days.

And really, it’s a win-win situation for all: Ebert gets to strut across the stage flexing his rhetorical triceps, while Filmmaker X gets to reap the natural benefits of being paid mind by such a big name. Would the likes of Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny have merely sunk into a quicksand of disregard had they been denied Ebert’s venom, a veritable lifeline of infamy? It sure couldn’t have hurt, and the subsequent confrontation/revaluation in re Gallo's film was publicity gold for critic, filmmaker, studio, everyone.

The spotlight now shines on the tiny-release horror flick Chaos; the general critical summary indicates a particularly lazy ‘update’ of The Virgin Spring/Last House on the Left, goosed with added nihilism and a goofy old-school exploitation prologue scroll extolling the film’s educational virtue (as Ed Gonzalez of Slant snarked, “But where's the lesson here? Don't let your kids out of the house?”). I haven’t seen it, so I can’t directly support any of this, sorry. Ebert gave it a nasty review (though it couldn’t hope to match the same week’s ‘critics v. comedians’ takedown of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, a veritable street-gang skirmish between warring clans of pasty nerds that was all but predestined to triumph through force of sheer gleeful pomposity), and the film’s canny director and producer (David DeFalco and Steven Jay Bernheim, respectively) decided to purchase an advertisement in Ebert’s Chicago Sun-Times home paper, calling him out by name, surely not ignorant of the valuable publicity that would surely follow.

Thus, we have Ebert’s response. It’s interesting that Ebert feels the need to explicitly point out that the film would probably have done the same amount of business whether he chose to even review it or not; maybe so, but now I’m certain there’ll be more of an attentive audience waiting for that dvd, if not an appearance at a theater near them. It’s as if Ebert has to deny his own power in order to excuse the patent benefit he bestows merely by dignifying the filmmakers with a response. It’s a good little piece of theory on nihilism and evil in the cinema, however, so at least we the readers get to share in the boons - Ebert can be a disarmingly lovely writer when he puts his mind to it; in summarizing the banality of the filmmakers’ shocks, he notes “it is like a movie of a man falling to his death, which can have no developments except that he continues to fall, and no ending except that he dies.” And in response to the filmmakers’ entirely expected claims of ‘reflecting the times’ and ‘refusing to sanitize,’ Ebert succinctly concludes that “Your answer, that the world is evil and therefore it is your responsibility to reflect it, is no answer at all, but a surrender.”

Very well put, though I’m not inclined to agree with the sentiment. Especially in horror cinema, I think the aesthetic of despair, howling against the wind, pounding the dread of each day’s shadow into the viewer’s skull, is a valuable one. I can respect the accomplished wielding of a sledgehammer, in other words, but I hasten to emphasize the ‘accomplished’ portion. Few species of filmic execution are more prone to inspire audience humiliation on behalf of the cast and crew than the tear-down-the-sky brand of scorched earth brutalization (physical, emotional, societal) that fails through indelicate presentation, transformed to a work of grating adolescence, a surly kitten’s growl evoking only bemused giggles, eyes rolling in the aisles, to haplessly mix my metaphors. I say the sledgehammer ought be used with the precision of a scalpel, or the blow will only glance off, power and force harnessed for nothing.

Accordingly, I’m ready to pay less attention to the ‘nihilism’ of Chaos, than the whole ‘ripping off earlier films down to their knickers’ angle. While I’m more than willing to reserve for future argument the possibility that the filmmakers are attempting some sort of intertextual engagement with and/or commentary upon Bergman and Craven, I dare say that it’s more likely just a big rip-off, and knowingly aping Last House’s infamous tagline in the ad copy doesn’t automatically reverse that, as if pure shamelessness could pass for insight. Remember now, I don't know any of this for sure, having only read reviews of the movie, but the perception I've got brewing isn’t exactly propelling me out of my seat and into theaters (er, hypothetically speaking; the film is most certainly not playing at a theater near me), even if the damn thing doesn't strive to be any more than the middling exploitation throwback that its distributor seems to be selling it as, rolling out the old barf-bag handout gimmick and using ‘70s-style fonts on the poster art. I mean, most vintage gore pictures weren’t miracles of innovation either, but there was usually some kind of individual flair involved. Maybe that’s present here too, but I wouldn’t bet my kidneys on it.

But anyway, yeah, Roger Ebert wrote some interesting things (even if I don’t really agree with them) and the makers of Chaos were smart to prompt that, so I expect everyone is happy and stuff. Hooray?

*In other movie news, the new Entertainment Weekly (#836) accompanies Owen Gleiberman’s rapturous review of The 40 Year-Old Virgin with a giant photo of star Steve Carell reading Marvel Team-Up #4, a look of vaguely bemused engagement across his face; if you squint, you can even make out Robert Kirkman and Scott Kolins’ names on the cover - can’t buy this type of publicity! The accompanying caption reads: “Imagine: a comic-book geek who doesn’t get laid.” No word on whether this chilling status quo is exclusive to readers of MTU.

Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct #1 (of 5)

This turned out ok, all things considered. The biggest drawback, I think, is that writer Paul Di Filippo doesn’t have Alan Moore’s deft hand with avoiding (or attractively disguising) contrivances, so we’re left with a lot of scenes of transparent plot-driving and button-pushing. Of course all of our favorite super-powered cops (and a few new ones too) are instantly partnered up with someone they either harbor a secret attraction or loathing towards. Naturally Toybox has a (conveniently off-page) prophetic dream that prompts her to expand on plot points from the seminal Moore/Gene Ha/Zander Cannon 12-issue original in detail. Hell, the dialogue gets kind of clunky too; literally the third proper word balloon in the book is “We haven‘t had a stretch this wild since that whole Commissioner Ultima mess five years ago.” A bit too early to be clumsily evoking memories of earlier issues for me.

Di Filippo also seems to be shooting for a broader, somewhat goofier tone than what I recall from the wry original; witness the Beagle Boys being chased down the street by talking dinosaurs in police hats, complete with little guns for their little hands in giant shoulder holsters. And how about that robot junkie dialogue (although I did like how one of them was really inarticulate - that gag never gets old)? Are my memories of Moore’s issues merely gilded with time’s passage? No, I’m certain Moore managed to tackle Shock-Headed Peter’s anti-robot slurs with an abler hand; under Di Filippo, the character basically walks out and goes “Greetings fellows, I am prejudiced! Why not have a laugh or two at my expense?” and everyone obeys.

It’s all entertaining stuff nonetheless, loss of subtlety or not. At least Di Filippo has a good sense of staging his absurdities for maximum impact, a screaming primate deployed at just the right time. And as indelicate as he can be, he does appear to have the necessary team dynamics down pretty well. I also liked how the big scary robot is made to look like a skeletal version of Tanino Liberatore’s Ranxerox, and I appreciated the hints at a wide set of suggested subplots (“No, Captain. I am a High Church Eganite in my beliefs when it comes to software transubstantiality.”). ABC regular Jerry Ordway strives mightily to evoke bits of the old Ha/Cannon magic into his personal muscular style, though all feels slightly ‘off’ in the same way Di Filippo’s script does. But you know what? I didn’t expect this book to be just like the Top Ten of old, so my observations on how things have declined are simply that: observations. Not disappointments. My expectations have actually been quite perfectly met, which lends this issue the bizarre tone of soothing distortion, an almost welcome letdown.

Still, it’s pretty far off from bad. It’s just been taken down a few notches, which probably placed it right where we planted our sights.