Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Episode 29: Dee Snider's Strangeland (1998)

“We must all go through a rite of passage...and it must be physical...it must be painful...and it must...leave...a mark...”

In today’s world, just about everyone has a web presence. There’s video, audio, and thousands of images associated with essentially every name, whether you’re an A-list celebrity or an everyman selling carnations on a freeway off-ramp. I got online way back in 2000, long before terms like “blog” and “selfie” had entered the zeitgeist. MSN was my Internet provider and I connected to the web by way of a 56K modem that was not only slower than hell, but frequently booted me off. In addition, the good ol’ Microsoft Network always seemed to be down. I can’t begin to count how often I’d endure that obscenely shrill dial-up dissonance and just when I thought I could log on to check my e-mail or visit one of my favorite chat rooms, an error message pulled the plug on my online adventure before it even began. It’s amazing I didn’t spend more time wailing at customer service representatives over their many, many connectivity problems. Rot in hell, flawed technology.

Speaking of chat rooms and online personas, it’s so strange to think of the way it was in comparison to the way it is. While the flow of text was endless, the faces behind the words were, more often than not, absent. I rarely knew the actual identity of those I corresponded with and it wasn’t until some semblance of a friendship was established before first names were exchanged, let alone photographs. Internet paranoia ran ridiculously rampant, as so many web users were convinced they could, at any time, be in communicado with a mass murderer who could track them down if they revealed even the smallest fragment of their true identity. I remember engaging in a very pleasant conversation with a girl around my age. Even though she didn’t live in the same state, she refused to give up her first name when asked for it. She chose instead to initiate a game of 20 Questions, where it took at least a half-hour before I came to find that the person I’d been chatting with was named Marisa. And then I never chatted with her again.
On some level, I was a part of this group of paranoids who feared they were putting themselves in immediate danger just by entering certain chat rooms and communicating with the wrong people. During one of my earliest chats, I came in contact with someone in Florida who was quite unbalanced. Due to our differences of opinion, he saw me as his mortal enemy and went on to describe how much he’d enjoy ripping me to shreds. His threats became so violent and disturbing that I felt comtpelled to log off, shut down, and unplugged my PC from its electrical outlet, as if this cyber menace could somehow come crashing through the monitor and disembowel me just as he’d promised.

I’m willing to bet Twisted Sister front man Dee Snider had similar experiences, but being the total badass he is, I think it’s safe to say he handled himself a little better than I. It’s these experiences that must’ve inspired the original screenplay for Strangeland, the tale of a deranged, yet highly intelligent, serial killer, who uses the Internet to lure victims of all shapes and sizes to his chamber of horrors, where he not only murders them, but uses needles, hooks, and an array of surgical instruments to torture them before doing so. He even performs home-piercings, but the holes he punctures couldn’t be further from the victim’s earlobes.

In addition to writing and producing, Dee Snider plays the demented villain known by the screen name CaptHowdy. His online profile describes him as an average nineteen-year-old dude-bro, whose priorities are sports, keg stands, and good times. However, the figure lurking behind this carefully crafted profile rocks a long, thick wave of pink hair, dozens of facial and body piercings, and a tribal tattoo that carries up his arm and conceals one half of his face. While not perusing the web for his next victim, or inflicting further torment on those already held captive within his basement lair, he thuds around the house wearing not much more than a loin cloth and knee-high combat boots. Online, CaptHowdy is the party-hungry friend anyone under 20 would love to have. In the flesh, he is the epitome of sadistic evil.

Though it’s since garnered a minor cult following, I’ve always considered Strangeland to be one of the most underrated horror films of its time—a time when all everyone wanted was Scream. Soon after the Wes Craven phenomenon hit theaters in December of 1996, it spawned a slew of copycats that put an exhaustive effort into producing horror films that were hip, polished, and most importantly, self-aware. An endless stream of characters who’d seen these movies before and went through painstaking efforts to avoid the mistakes made by their predecessors became an almost unavoidable plot element, and a very boring one at that.

Strangeland brings horror back to a much grittier time, before slasher films became a mixture of blood-and-guts and Dawson’s Creek-style drama. The good ol’ days before teenage characters regularly threw around five-syllable words, as though the entire ensemble never left the house without a pocket thesaurus. One of many reasons Strangeland is far superior to the likes of Urban Legend, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and the rest of the paint-by-numbers movies of the time was because it went against the grain, not with it. At the same time, going off in an entirely different direction could’ve hurt Strangeland’s chances of success among fans and critics, who wanted a very watered-down version of the genre.

For this episode, I chose the Blu ray edition of Strangeland, which runs 1:26:37, as a source. I believe the unrated Artisan DVD will also work just fine, should you decide to watch along. So, listen and enjoy. I’m off to get myself an ampallang. Dee Snider, you have inspired me, sir.

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