Sunday, December 28, 2014

Wrecking and Wrecking and Wrecked

Wreck-it Ralph: written by Rich Moore, Phil Johnston, Jim Reardon, Jennifer Lee, Sam Levine, Jared Stern, and John C. Reilly; directed by Rich Moore; starring the voices of John C. Reilly (Ralph), Sarah Silverman (Vanellope), Jack McBrayer (Felix), Jane Lynch (Calhoun), and Alan Tudyk (King Candy) (2012): Jolly video-game-based fable about a hero who Learns Better. Ralph is the Donkey-Kong-like villain of a still-popular 1980's arcade game called Fix-it Felix. In the world of the movie, the characters in video games have regular lives when the games are over and the arcade is silent. They can even leave their games to visit one another in a central city that appears to exist in the electrical cables of the arcade.

Ralph is bored of being the villain for the last 30 years. Moreover, he's tired of being ostracized by his fellow characters. He may be a bad guy while someone is playing the game, but otherwise he's just a regular fella, the lonely Marty of the eight-bit world. So he decides to try to get a hero's medal. And things start to go awry.

Sharply written and closely observed when it comes to video games, Wreck-it Ralph is a really enjoyable piece of entertainment. The animators made their characters at least vaguely resemble their voice actors in many cases. Ralph, a hang-dog John C. Reilly, is perfectly acted and animated. Vanellope, voiced by Sarah Silverman, is equally enjoyable. Alan Tudyk does his best Ed Wynn as King Candy, and Jane Lynch and Jack MacBrayer do solid back-up work as a hard-case space marine and Fix-it Felix, respectively. My attention didn't flag. Recommended.

A Muppet Christmas Carol: adapted by Jerry Juhl from the novella by Charles Dickens; directed by Brian Henson; starring Michael Caine as Scrooge and the voices of Dave Goetz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, and Frank Oz (1992): The first Muppet movie after the death of Jim Henson, with Steve Whitmire taking over the role of Kermit and other characters Henson voiced. And it's really a nice piece of work, with a remarkably sophisticated frame story in which Gonzo plays Charles Dickens as a narrator taking us through the events of Ebenezer Scrooge's fateful night. Michael Caine is solid as Scrooge, though the rest of the human supporting cast is a bit bland. The Muppets are in fine form, though. Recommended.

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People: adapted from the book by Toby Young by Peter Straughan; directed by Robert B. Weide; starring Simon Pegg (Sidney Young), Megan Fox (Sophie Maes), Gillian Anderson (Eleanor Johnson), Jeff Bridges (Clayton Harding), Kirsten Dunst (Alison Olsen), and Danny Huston (Lawrence Maddox) (2008): A fictionalization of Toby Young's memoir of working at Vanity Fair, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People wastes a metric shite-tonne of good actors with a bland, cliche-ridden script. It's not a terrible movie. It's just a boring one, with not one scene that rings with anything resembling verisimilitude. 

Apparently, Toby Young was banned from the set because he kept making suggestions. Given what a bollocks the writer and director made of this production, my sympathies are with Toby Young. A book that criticizes selling out, sells out to a bland Hollywood ideal. Megan Fox, as a scheming, ditzy starlet, steals the movie. Pegg looks lost as a Romantic Lead with no good lines. Jeff Bridges just seems miscast as a fictionalized version of Graydon Carter. Not recommended.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Casting Call for 'Female Corpse'

Bad Boys II: written by George Gallo, Marianne Wibberley, Cormac Wibberley, Ron Shelton, and Jerry Stahl; directed by Michael Bay; starring Martin Lawrence (Marcus), Will Smith (Mike), Jordi Molla (Johnny Tapia), Gabrielle Union (Syd), and Peter Stormare (Alexei) (2003): Ron Shelton, the fine director and screenwriter behind such films as The Best of Times, Bull Durham, and Cobb clearly needed some money when he wrote this film. Indeed, he claimed afterwards that he didn't watch all of the first Bad Boys before working on this movie and that he's never seen Bad Boys II in its entirety. Lucky him!

There's one absolutely terrific car chase in Bad Boys II, about 40 minutes into the movie. Kudos to Michael Bay for that ten-minute sequence. The rest of the action is fairly rote stuff, big-budget blood-baths, occasionally slowed down to a CGI-era Peckinpah crawl. The dialogue is mostly terrible, though there's some unintentional hilarity buried throughout. Martin Lawrence and Will Smith really deserve better -- their charisma carries what little human interest the movie has.

As to other problems, a couple. How can the movie waste Peter Stormare as an ineffectual  supporting villain? And what in the name of Holy Hell are we supposed to make of a sequence involving a dead, naked, big-breasted woman in a morgue who becomes the centrepiece of all the shots and the dialogue for about five minutes? And the actress who plays the corpse appears as 'Female Corpse' in the end credits. It's like a doctoral thesis in the male gaze. Not recommended.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Old Friends

Muppets Most Wanted: based on characters created by Jim Henson; written by James Bobin and Nicholas Stoller; directed by James Bobin; starring Ricky Gervais (Dominic Badguy), Ty Burrell (Jean Pierre Napoleon), Tina Fey (Nadya), and the voices of Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, and Matt Vogel (2014): 

The fundamental problem with a Muppet movie is that the Muppets were best on their 1970's and early 1980's TV variety show (well, or on Farscape, but that's a different story).

That said, this is an enjoyable sequel with a lot of winning moments and funny songs. Its box office suggests that the Muppets aren't a draw for children, but I think that's mainly the problem of there not being a Muppet TV show. Or podcast. Or whatever. The actors, human and puppet, all seem to be having a marvelous time. Cameos abound, as the movie takes its cues from the first Muppet movie (that being The Muppet Movie) when it comes to cameos.

Muppets Most Wanted is all a bit music-heavy, and the plot creaks in its machinery. Ricky Gervais makes a fine villain who could use more lines. And boy, Tina Fey has lost weight since 30 Rock! Recommended.

Gunga Din: based on the poem by Rudyard Kipling; written by Joel Sayre, Fred Guiol, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, William Faulkner, Lester Cohen, John Colton, Vincent Lawrence, Dudley Nichols, and Anthony Veiller; starring Cary Grant (Cutter), Victor McLagen (MacChesney), Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Ballantine), Sam Jaffe (Gunga Din), and Eduardo Ciannelli (Guru) (1939): Tremendously dated in its presentation of racial, cultural. and colonial values, Gunga Din nevertheless still has its moments of comedy, action, and drama. It's also one gigantic crib-note for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Set in colonial India in the 1890's, Gunga Din is somewhat improbably based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling (who shows up as a character towards the end, along with a partial reading of the poem). Cary Grant, Victor McLagen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. play three sergeants tasked with investigating an uprising by the Thugee cult of murderous Kali worshipers. 

Grant wisely took the best role in the film, that of the treasure-obsessed Cutter who's nonetheless the soldier who most treats water-carrier Gunga Din like a man and not an object. And Sam Jaffe manages to invest Din, who's about one step away from Stepin Fetchit, with a certain amount of dignity and heroism. 

As the villainous cult leader with the oddly generic name of Guru, Eduardo Cianelli steals every scene he's in. At this point in history, his opposition to British colonialism seems perfectly legitimate. Maybe if he'd just have his followers stop strangling everybody! But he's the most articulate character in the movie, he has a self-sacrificing end that parallels that of Gunga Din, and he has one terrific speech about why he fights for Indian self-rule. He's like Gandhi, only with a lot more strangling and killing! Also, there's a lovable elephant, and enough historical inaccuracies in the types of weapons used by the British to keep any gun enthusiast up all night. Recommended.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

What Lies Beneath

King Rat by China Mieville (1998): The prolific and gifted China Mieville's first novel is an urban fantasy that's about as subterranean and cloachal as they come. It's also a clever, subversive riff on that overused fantasy and science-fiction trope of The Chosen One and his Journey to Adventure

Saul Garamond, a somewhat aimless 30-something living in London with his left-wing, widower father, wakes up to discover that his father has been murdered and that he's the prime suspect. The police lock him up. And then Something rescues him from lock-up and reveals his True Nature to him. 

He's a rat.

In the universe of King Rat, the various animal species all have their avatars, avatars that can appear to be human but are ultimately (supernatural) animals. But Saul is a hybrid of rat and human, his lost mother a member of the Rat's ruling family. He's Prince Rat.

And so off Saul and King Rat go, with King Rat showing Saul a rat's eye view of London and Saul beginning to learn the powers and abilities he has as Prince Rat. Saul sometimes sees these abilities as super-powers, but they're not the sort of powers with which King Arthur or Luke Skywalker or Neo are blessed. Saul flourishes and gains strength by eating rotten food. He moves through the sewers and cracks of the city with ease. And being covered in muck and filth doesn't bother him -- indeed, he enjoys it. 

King Rat has partial allies among the other animal kingdoms, though we meet only the bird and spider kings here. And all three have an Ancient Enemy who's come to London, and against whom they must unite or die. Saul is needed for the war, for reasons that are revealed about halfway through the text.

As a left-wing subversion of traditionally right-wing or conservative fantasy tropes, King Rat is a delight. It's a satisfying read with surprising shifts and turns, and an unusual protagonist in Saul Garamond. The Ancient Enemy's plan for world domination is off-beat but, given the Enemy's real identity, perfectly logical. 

There are some problems -- Mieville's postmodern aversion to closure ends up looking a lot like a plan for a sequel, or at least a young writer's aversion to killing his darlings even when they need to be killed. But it's a grand, effluvium-covered adventure in any case. Recommended.

Witches Brouhahaha

The Witches by Roald Dahl (1983): Roald Dahl's zippy, scary, funny, Whitbread-Award-winning children's novel about the efforts of a plucky boy and his grandmother to thwart the Witches of England in their quest to turn all children into mice is a humdinger. It's also got some disturbing psychological elements that the excellent 1990 Nicholas Roeg film version eliminated, understandably so. The changes prompted Dahl to publicly trash the movie, but it's a darned good movie and you should see it anyway. 

The novel is also darned good. Dahl, a great writer of both horrifying short stories and weird children's novels, had a great imagination. And he didn't patronize his intended readers with fake scares. The witches in his story are terrible beings, which doesn't stop them from breaking out into song from time to time. And for whatever reason, childhood gluttony is once again a target of Dahl's writerly wrath. 

There are also a number of nicely gross scenes calculated to make children giggle in between the scenes of fantasy and horror. For example, to witches, a human child smells like dog poo. Hee hee hee. The protagonists are a brave pair, and Dahl's witches are a fascinating bunch with some fascinating peculiarities (why don't they have toes?). Recommended.

Friday, December 19, 2014


Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story: written by Flynn Hundhausen and Michael Lee Nirenberg; directed by Michael Lee Nirenberg (2014): Fascinating documentary about the history of Hustler magazine from its creation in the early 1970's to today. I'd never really considered the fact that Hustler founder Larry Flynt "won" the American pornography wars. Hustler is still a vital, successful online porn presence. The other three major American porn magazines -- Playboy, Penthouse, and Screw -- have all either dwindled, been sold off, or completely disappeared.

With the McKinnon-Dworkin Anti-Porn Goofiness behind us, one can see how important porn was to free speech in the United States. Both Al Goldstein's Screw and Larry Flynt's Hustler fought multiple battles against censorship and obscenity laws. That isn't to say Flynt was a saint -- the film does a nice job of laying out all his weird moments, with Flynt himself commenting on his own weirdness with the benefit of hindsight. His completely bananas, muck-raking Presidential campaign in 1984 is probably Flynt's crowning moment as a social commentator.

As the song goes, it's hard to kick against the pricks. Was Hustler important? Yes. How? Well, it de-mechanized the female body in American pornography, following Screw's lead in eschewing airbrushing and other photo touch-ups. It actually ran real investigative journalism. And Flynt was almost fearless. You may not always get the free-speech advocates you want, but sometimes you get the one you need. 

Made by the son of one of Hustler's early art directors, Back Issues does fall down in two places. The timeline sometimes isn't clear. And the movie takes vast jumps in time to get to its 90-minute length. But a fascinating documentary nonetheless. Highly recommended.

No Clue: written by Brent Butt; directed by Carl Bessai; starring Brent Butt (Leo), Amy Smart (Kyra), David Koechner (Ernie), Kirsten Prout (Reese), David Cubitt (Horn) and Garwin Sanford (Nelson) (2013): Pleasant spoof of film noir and hardboiled detective movies, starring and written by Corner Gas's Brent Butt. It looks and feels like a nice time-waster of a TV movie, very much in the pleasant, mildly observant comedy tradition of Corner Gas. And it admits that it's set in Canada (Vancouver, to be exact). Boy, though, did the director fall in love with his overhead helicopter shots of the city. Recommended.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Gangway for Rats!

Lair by James Herbert (1979): Late, prolific English horror novelist James Herbert really had a gift for blending left-leaning social commentary into his blood-spattered works. Lair, the second novel in his Rats trilogy, isn't quite as agit-proppy as The Rats or Domain. Nonetheless, it takes a lot of shots at upper-class twits, self-serving politicians, and money-grubbing corporate types.

The two co-dependent sub-species of giant rats that brought London to its knees in The Rats seem to have been vanquished when this novel opens. Four years have passed. But in the idyllic private forest of Epping Wood, a protected green space just a few miles from the centre of London, England, something is stirring. The two-foot-long black rats and their two-headed, nearly immobile overlords have adapted to life in the forest. And boy, are they hungry!

This time around, a plucky male biologist who works for the world's biggest rat-catching corporation (the Rat Invasion of London created some great business opportunities) and a plucky female forest guide are our main protagonists. This is an early James Herbert novel, so be assured that they will engage in a graphic five-page-long sex scene before the story's over. 

The super-rats soon create lots of mayhem and a lot of headless bodies stripped of all flesh. As a second book in a trilogy, Lair is a bit more restrained than the first and third novels. The action stays confined to the forest. Really, it's a pastoral from Hell. 

The gruesome scenes are very gruesome and quite inventive. The bureaucrats and politicians are dangerous idiots. The adaptation of the super-rats seems logical and well-thought-out, as do the social frictions between the two sub-species of super-rats. There's trouble in Rat Paradise! But they're still super-hungry! And, in what I think is a first for Herbert, the supporting pervert character doesn't die. Or does he? In any case, Herbert really didn't like Phys. Ed. teachers. Recommended.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Bringing Light

Lucifer Volume 9: Crux: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross, Marc Hempel, Ryan Kelly, and others (2005/Collected 2007): So we enter what amounts to the stretch run of Mike Carey and Peter Gross's Lucifer comic series. This version of Lucifer first appeared in Neil Gaiman's Sandman back in 1990. Carey would pretty much make him his own once the Lucifer series began in the late 1990's, to run 75 issues and assorted other miniseries and one-shots.

War now percolates across a number of dimensions, realms, and at least two universes. Who will be fighting whom, and why, is not quite determined in this volume. Things do look dire for Lucifer's home universe, where the prolonged absence of Yahweh has started to cause the universe to fall apart. 

In the universe Lucifer created earlier in the series, various natural and supernatural beings have begun to choose sides. In Hell, decisions must be made about who rules Hell, and how Hell should be ruled. Heaven is falling apart. Earth isn't in much better shape. And Lucifer's endgame remains unclear, though the events of the previous eight volumes seem to have given the Lightbringer a slightly less caustic sense of humour.

It's all surprisingly and fantastically written by Carey, with Peter Gross and Marc Hempel making the most fantastic things seem plausible and, at appropriate moments, surrealistically sinister. Highly recommended.

Lucifer Volume 10: Morningstar: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross, Michael Kaluta, Colleen Doran, Ryan Kelly, and others (2005-2006/ Collected 2007): War erupts. Creation continues to dissolve in the continued absence of Yahweh. The plan of the malevolent Deck of Cards, the Basanos (yeah, you read that right), comes to fruition. Hell gets re-organized on a non-judgmental model. All of Lucifer's plans come to a head. Fenris, the Big Bad Wolf of all creation, looks to destroy everything. And the role of half-angel Elaine Belloc, the daughter of the Archangel Michael, will finally be fully revealed. Lucifer, first known as Samael Lightbringer, isn't a good guy, but he's pretty much the universe's last line of defense against ultimate destruction. Go Team Lucifer! Highly recommended.

Lucifer Volume 11: Evensong: : written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross, Michael Kaluta, Dean Ormiston, Jon J. Muth, Ryan Kelly, and others (2005-2006/ Collected 2007): War is over. Loose ends must be tied up. There's a new God on the Throne of Heaven, re-establishing Creation and preventing the dissolution of everything into primordial nothingness. And that God isn't Lucifer. He will tie up the loose ends he feels responsible for, before flying off into the Vasty Deep that is the Ancient Chaos that lies outside his particular universe. 

As a somewhat confusing bonus, this last volume include the standalone graphic novel Lucifer: Nirvana, which is not the grunge crossover you may be expecting. It came out in 2002, four years before the rest of the volume, but is somewhat confusingly placed last in the volume. It features some nice painted artwork from Jon J. Muth (Moonshadow), though I prefer the more traditional cartooning of regular Lucifer artist Peter Gross when it comes down to it. 

In all, a wonderful series from writer Mike Carey, Gross, and all the others who worked on it. We come full circle towards the end, with Lucifer's conversation with Dream from Neil Gaiman's Sandman retold from a slightly different POV, and with the knowledge of everything that happened after Lucifer emptied Hell and gave the keys to Dream. Also, the always entertaining Gaudium does some cleaning up in what amounts to the sub-basement of all religions. Highly recommended, though you'll now be fortunate enough to buy it new in five volumes, not 11.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Live. Die. Rinse. Repeat.

Strange Highways by Dean Koontz (1995): Short novel sees the prolific Koontz on a rare foray into supernatural horror. It's pretty bad. Things start off promisingly, as a 40-year-old never-was returns to his small Pennsylvania hometown for the first time in 20 years to bury his father. Something happened two decades ago to drive him away from home, something he doesn't want to think about. But think about he will, as visions and supernatural events begin to point him towards a long-delayed reckoning with Evil. Evil so Evil it is the Fruits of the Devil, it is.

The first forty pages or so of Strange Highways are quite promising, establishing a real sense of place in Pennsylvania mining country, in an area where underground coal-vein fires have forced the evacuation of a village near the protagonist's hometown as the ground begins to crack, explode, and subside.

However, the supernatural events, when they really start coming, quickly veer into complete goofiness. Why? Something wants our protagonist to change the past. So it sends him into the past. And it provides a magical way for him to know whether or not he's changing the past for the better. And then, at the climax, after numerous speeches in which the protagonist is guilted by another character for not Having Faith, time keeps resetting itself until he gets everything right. It's like Live Die Repeat, Now With 100% More Satan.

We're left with a hero who seems like a dunderhead. Given the supernatural events going on all around him, he doesn't really need to have faith: empirically speaking, God does seem to have been proven to exist. And two plot devices ripped from the headlines of the early 1990's -- Satanist teenagers! Repressed Memory Syndrome! -- look awfully threadbare with the benefit of hindsight. So, too, the repeated and increasingly mawkish sermonizing. Koontz is a lot of things, but an interesting philosopher he is not. Not recommended.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Innsmouth Junkies

Shadows over Innsmouth: edited by Stephen Jones (1995/Rev. ed. 2012), containing the following stories: A Quarter to Three   (1988)  by Kim Newman;  Beyond the Reef   (1994)  by Basil Copper;  Dagon's Bell  (1988)  by Brian Lumley; Daoine Domhain (1992)  by Peter Tremayne; Deepnet  (1994)  by David Langford; Down to the Boots  (1989)  by D. F. Lewis; Innsmouth Gold  (1994) by David Sutton;  Only the End of the World Again (1994) by Neil Gaiman; Return to Innsmouth (1992) by Guy N. Smith; The Big Fish (1994) by Kim Newman [as by Jack Yeovil ]; The Church in High Street (1962) by Ramsey Campbell; The Crossing (1994) by Adrian Cole; The Homecoming (1994) by Nicholas Royle; The Innsmouth Heritage (1992) by Brian Stableford; The Shadow Over Innsmouth  (1936) by H. P. Lovecraft; The Tomb of Priscus (1994) by Brian Mooney; and To See the Sea (1994) by Michael Marshall Smith.

Innsmouth, H.P. Lovecraft's fictional Massachusetts port town, seems to have more of a claim on the imagination of writers and readers than most of Lovecraft's concepts. While mentioned in passing in an earlier story, Innsmouth didn't really come into its own until the publication of "The Shadow over Innsmouth" in a small-press chapbook in 1936. And as that publication sold very few copies, it wasn't really until the magazine publication of the story in the early 1940's that any significant readership got to visit this curious and unwelcoming New England seaside community.

This is the first in what will soon be a trilogy of Innsmouth anthologies edited by the prolific anthologist Stephen Jones (the third arrives in January 2015). Here, the writers are all British with the exception of H.P. Lovecraft and his original story. Some of the stories occur in the British Isles, some return to Innsmouth, and some are darned peculiar.

Once upon a time, Innsmouth was just another New England fishing village. But then, Captain Obed Marsh brought back something from the South Seas. Perhaps plenty of somethings. And gradually, as the years passed and new generations were born, more and more citizens developed The Innsmouth Look. To be succinct, as people aged, they looked more and more disquietingly like giant, bipedal frogs. 

Marsh and his businesses flourished. A new church set up shop in Innsmouth, dedicated to the Esoteric Order of Dagon. And out on the Devil's Reef in Innsmouth harbour, strange beings gibbered and frolicked in the waves. Normal people began to flee Innsmouth or to disappear mysteriously, never to be seen again. This is the point in the 1920's that Lovecraft's novella begins, its narrator a man with Innsmouth heritage travelling to the town for the first time and discovering horrors.

I don't think there's a real stinker among this array of first appearances and the occasional reprint. Neil Gaiman's entry is a bit too arch to be effective as horror and not really funny enough to be effective as humour. But it's not awful. Basil Copper's period piece, set in HPL's equally fictional Massachusetts city of Arkham in the 1930's, invests the bipedal amphibians (aka the Deep Ones) with just a few too many new and plot-convenient powers, but it's still a fun read.

The Ramsey Campbell piece, from his impressively early-career collection of Lovecraft pastiches, has only a peripheral connection to Innsmouth. Going further (and farther) abroad, Nicholas Royle's "The Homecoming" uses Lovecraftian terminology and imagery in the disturbing and disquieting service of a story about just-post-Ceausescu Romania. 

Recurring supernatural investigators battle ancient menaces in several of the pieces, including those by Gaiman, Newman, and Mooney. Brian Lumley contributes a nearly pitch-perfect modern-day pastiche of Lovecraft by way of August Derleth. Michael Marshall Smith's "To See the Sea," while not a stylistic homage to HPL, is nonetheless a fairly straightforward frightener that demonstrates once again that in horror fiction, you can go home again, but you really shouldn't.

Originally, this was one of the Lovecraftian anthologies that helped kick off the revival of publications that tipped their rugose caps to the Revelator from Providence. The Titan books revised edition is a nice piece of work, as have been all their Lovercraft entries over the past couple of years. And the range of fiction here demonstrates much of the range possible when dealing with Lovercraft's legacy: pastiches are but a small portion of the fictional spectrum available to those gazing upon Innsmouth. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Infernal (Plot) Devices

Infernal (Repairman Jack 9) by F. Paul Wilson (2005): Things continue to get dire for libertarian pulp hero Jack (no last name), as family and friends are again targeted as part of the build-up to armageddon. This time around, terrible events at New York's LaGuardia airport bring Jack's older brother back into his life for the first time in nearly 20 years.

But Jack's brother, a judge, is a self-involved, corrupt, drunk bastard. Nonetheless, Jack agrees to help him disappear before he's arrested by the authorities. But there's also the matter of a mysterious map and an even more mysterious treasure. Inimical to human life, the Otherness is on the move.

Jack's brother makes this a more enjoyable outing in this series than most -- he's a refreshing breath of sleaze and terrible decision-making. I'd have liked more of the historical flashbacks that explain how the mysterious treasure ended up sunk in the waters off Bermuda, but so it goes. There's a scene in which a character whips up a magical antidote that seems like a parody (pretty much all the ingredients can be bought in the course of a couple of hours). Is it a parody? I don't know. Recommended.

Harbingers (Repairman Jack 10) by F. Paul Wilson (2006): The history of the war between the Otherness and the Ally on Earth gets sketched in, as Jack runs into a secret society that's been doing the Ally's bidding for several hundred years. Perhaps more. That secret society believes Jack is The Heir, the fancy title for the guy who will be granted super-powers and immortality to act as the enemy to the Otherness's similarly powered Adversary. But no superpowers yet.

So we get more dire familial events, more appearances of the strange and prophetic woman and her dog, and a whole lot of explosions and shooting. We also finally see the Adversary, Rasalom, begin to move more openly against his enemies. And the cosmic near-indifference of the Ally -- still better than the cosmic malevolence of the Otherness, but not by much -- finally begins to be shown in full. Recommended.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

At the Corner of Lego and Saskatchewan

The Lego Movie: written by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Dan Hageman, and Kevin Hageman; directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller; starring the voices of Will Ferrell (Lord Business), Chris Pratt (Emmet Brickowski), Elizabeth Banks (Wildstyle), Liam Neeson (Good Cop/ Bad Cop), and Will Arnett (Batman) (2014): Helmed by the writers responsible for the delightful 21 Jump Street movies with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, The Lego Movie is also a delight. It's as post-modern as all Hell, and the background jokes sometimes whiz by too quickly to be seen by anything other than the sub-conscious.

I'd assume a great familiarity with Lego that I myself do not possess would make the movie even denser and funnier, as some of the jokes relate to the toy's 60-year history and all its iterations. But the writing stands on its own. Is the ending perhaps a bit treacly? Hell, yeah. But it's still tremendous fun for kids and adults, with terrific voice-work from everyone involved, most notably Will Arnett as a completely goofy version of Batman. One in-joke to note: Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, from the aforementioned 21 Jump Street movies, voice Superman and Green Lantern, respectively. Highly recommended.

Corner Gas: The Movie: written by Brent Butt, Andrew Carr, and Andrew Wreggit; directed by David Storey; starring Brent Butt (Brent Leroy), Gabrielle Miller (Lacey), Fred Ewanuick (Hank), Eric Peterson (Oscar Leroy), Janet Wright (Emma Leroy), Lorne Cardinal (Davis), Tara Spencer-Nairn (Karen). and Nancy Robertson (Wanda) (2014): I think Brent Butt made a terrible decision in choosing to end the sitcom Corner Gas in 2009 after only five seasons. Subsequent projects from he and others from the show haven't been particularly good. More importantly, Corner Gas still had a lot left in the tank when it went off the air.

This partially-crowd-funded movie seems to be an attempt to rectify that mistake. Released to Canadian theatres for five days before being shown on The Movie Network and then CTV some time in the New Year, it's a solid continuation of the series that moves lots of things around while ultimately putting pretty much everything back in place for any future projects.

Dog River, that grumpy Mariposa of the Prairies, faces a financial crisis that seems to have only two possible outcomes: the decorporation of the town, or the transformation of the town into a giant warehouse to be used by Canadian restaurant chain Coff-Nuts. Will Dog River survive? What do you think? It's all comfort food, anyway, though probably best viewed mainly by people who watched the original series. Of whom there are several million in Canada, admittedly, and apparently a lot overseas.

As an added bonus, Fred Ewanuick, who plays dimbulb Hank on Corner Gas, played a vampiric small-town sheriff on the episode of Supernatural that aired the same week Corner Gas was in the theatres. It's a Hank-tacular! While I don't think Brent Butt ever appeared on Supernatural, he did have brief spots on both The X-Files (a show that, in direct contrast to Corner Gas, stayed around too long) and Millennium. And the Millennium episode featured supernatural dogs. Ha! Recommended.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

South-west by North-east

Saboteur: written by Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Priscilla Lane (Pat), Robert Cummings (Barry), Otto Kruger (Tobin), and Norman Lloyd (Fry) (1942): From the first half-decade of Hitchcock's American phase comes this oddball thriller -- half-WWII-propaganda, half-thriller, half-loopy-road-comedy. That's three halves, and yes, it is that over-stuffed. 

Robert Cummings plays a worker at a California warplane-assembly plant who's framed for sabotage by a man he (literally) ran into only moments before a disastrous fire destroyed part of the plant and killed his best friend. With only an address on an envelope to go on, Cummings flees Los Angeles to track down the saboteur. Well, saboteurs and fifth-columnists. Lots of them, and lots of them rich, high-society types.

Moments of comedy and weirdness will bring to mind both Hitchcock's earlier foray into the 'Wrong-man Road-trip' sub-genre, The 39 Steps, and that later Cary Grant masterpiece, North by North-west. But this is the weirdest of those three -- so weird that it stands as a forerunner to film-makers like the Coen Brothers and David Lynch far more than it does to Hollywood's more traditional thrill-directors.

What will happen to Cummings' character? He'll be aided in his escape from the police by a philosophical blind musician (shades of Universal's Frankenstein!). That blind musician has a super-model niece who will be pulled into the drama. Billboards featuring that niece will comment comically on the action of the film at regular intervals. Will she come to believe and then fall in love with Cummings? What do you think?

So off their road-trip goes. Patriotic members of a traveling circus's freak show will aid them, with the Human Skeleton delivering the film's best line, about the failings of normal people ("The normal are normally cold-hearted."). Cummings will break his handcuffs with the fan blade of a car. They'll visit a place called Soda City. They'll mingle with high society. And in the film's famous climax, Cummings will finally face the saboteur... on top of the Statue of Liberty.

Saboteur is very odd and unconventional. One can see why it was a box-office failure at the time. But it's also a sign of Things to Come. Though you might want to brace yourself for one of the most abrupt endings I've seen from the Golden Age of Hollywood Abrupt Endings. It's like Hitchcock was late for an appointment. Recommended.

Saturday, December 6, 2014


Blacula: written by Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig; directed by William Cain; starring William Marshall (Blacula/Mamuwalde), Vonetta McGee (Tina/Luva), Denise Nicholas (Michelle), Thalmus Rasulala (Dr. Gordon Thomas) and Gordon Pinsent (Lt. Jack Peters) (1972): Blacula may be a cheesy slice of 1970's blaxploitation, but it's a lot of fun. It's also got a terrific performance in the title role by William Marshall, a stage actor otherwise best known in genre circles for playing computer genius Richard Daystrom in the original series Star Trek episode "The Ultimate Computer."

Credit to the film-makers for actually working the name in the title into the film once, and then never referring to it again. Dracula dubs the African prince Mamuwalde 'Blacula,' because why not? Then he locks him in a casket for 200 years. An unambiguously gay duo of antique dealers buy that casket in 1972, ship it back to Los Angeles, and then make the colossal error of opening it.

Thankfully, intrepid police scientist Gordon Thomas and Canada's own Gordon Pinsent are on hand to stop the vampire invasion of Los Angeles. Some pretty crazy and remarkable scenes occur along the way, including a completely bonkers vampire attack by an undead lady cabdriver and a warehouse battle that features a fortuitous crate of what appear to be explosive, vampire-killing light-bulbs. 

Marshall invests Mamuwalde with about as much gravitas as can be expected under the circumstances. He's certainly a far more sympathetic vampire than any Dracula up to the time of the movie. Blacula also throws in a reincarnation sub-plot that would later appear in Bram Stoker's Dracula, among other subsequent movies. That sub-plot will be familiar to anyone who's seen the original 1930's The Mummy. Is this the first time that particular sub-plot has vectored into the vampire genre? I don't know. There's also a groovy soundtrack/score and a brief appearance by Elisha Cook Jr. as a coroner with a hook for a hand. Cool. Recommended.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Jack is a Jack is a Jack is a Jack

All the Rage (Repairman Jack 4) by F. Paul Wilson (2000): F. Paul Wilson's libertarian super-fixer returns. Jack's life keeps getting weirder as the massive cosmic battle between the Ally and the Otherness continues to escalate on Earth, and specifically in New York and New Jersey, Jack's primary stomping grounds.

This time around, Jack seeks to discover the source of a designer drug that makes its users feel invincible, and then compels them to commit acts of random and extreme violence. It's a solid entry in the series, albeit one with several dozen pages of skimmable moments. Along the way, we get several speeches about gun control and individual rights that, along with being glib, tend to stop the action dead. Oh, well. Recommended.

Hosts (Repairman Jack 5) by F. Paul Wilson (2001): Jack's back. So is Kate, his older sister, a successful pediatrician he hasn't seen in years. Her lesbian partner has turned weird after a seemingly successful treatment for brain cancer, so Kate phones Jack's business number to get help not knowing that Repairman Jack is also brother Jack. So we learn a bit more about Jack's personal history along the way.

It's the invading reality dubbed The Otherness again. This time around, it's using viruses to further its Earth-conquering goals. It's all a fairly plot-intensive romp, though Wilson's love of killing supporting characters really begins to shift into high gear. Really high gear. So be warned. Also, more lectures about gun control (Jack's against it) and taxes (Jack's against them, too). Recommended.

The Haunted Air (Repairman Jack 6) by F. Paul Wilson (2002): The first half of The Haunted Air is deeply satisfying in its choice of subject matter -- psychic frauds and the methods they use to be frauds. It's fun stuff, especially as Jack has been hired by one such fraud because he seems to have developed a 'real' supernatural problem: a haunted house.

Wilson's choice of the world of mediums and psychics is inspired. So, too, is the bizarre and murderous cult he invents, a cult whose murderous shenanigans eventually tie into the haunted house plot. It's really fun, breezy stuff -- well, as fun as the grim subject matter can be. Stay tuned for more lectures on the libertarian lifestyle, and one of Wilson's recurring riffs on the evils of Marcel Proust. Bonus points arise from the title, a quote from John Keats that's actually explained in the text. All this and a guest appearance of the Keep from Wilson's The Keep. A literal guest appearance. The Keep comes to Brooklyn! Recommended.

CrissCross (Repairman Jack 8) by F. Paul Wilson (2004): Wilson balances some of his most enjoyable, conspiracy-oriented world-building with some of the most brutal violence of the Repairman Jack series in this novel. We're introduced to Dormentalism, a New-Agey cult with more than a passing resemblance to Scientology by way of Mormonism. We're also introduced to a malignant supernatural tome, a piece of human skin that can neither be destroyed or lost by Jack, a nun with a problem, a squirmy blackmailer, an intrepid reporter, and the Opus Omega.

That last, the secret goal of Dormentalism, gets explained by the end of the text. Wilson's inventiveness really sings in the explanation of Dormentalism's secret history, its organizational structure, and its surface philosophy.Just don't get too attached to any of the supporting characters. Wilson's got a fever, and the only cure is more dead supporting characters! Recommended.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Murder Rides the Rails!

The Narrow Margin: written by Earl Felton, Martin Goldsmith, and Jack Leonard; directed by Richard Fleischer; starring Charles McGraw (Detective Brown), Marie Windsor (Mrs. Neal), and Jacqueline White (Ann Sinclair) (1952): Short, snappy B-movie was remade into a somewhat superior Gene Hackman vehicle in the early 1990's, with the definite article removed from the title.

Detective Brown has to get a mobster's wife who's turned state's evidence to Los Angeles from Chicago. So they take a train. Killers are on the train. Killers may be at various stops along the way. It's all fairly tense and succinct, with a meanness of attitude and violence that suggests the growing influence of Mickey Spillane on film noir in the United States. A more charismatic cast would have made a big difference -- this is not a testament to great film acting -- but the movie is still well worth watching. Recommended.

Shadow of a Doubt: adapted by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville from a story by Gordon McDonell; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Teresa Wright (Charlie), Joseph Cotten (Uncle Charlie), Macdonald Carey (Graham), Henry Travers (Joseph Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), and Hume CRonyn (Herbie Hawkins) (1943): Perhaps Hitchcock's most nuanced and humane exploration of human evil, Shadow of a Doubt casts its shadow forward on similar explorations of small-town America that include Blue Velvet, Fargo, and many other seriocomic films and television shows.

Joseph Cotten, cast against type as a monster, does great work as Uncle Charlie, a serial killer who returns home to his older sister's house just one step ahead of the law. Once there, his 'twin' -- Teresa Wright as his niece Charlie (Charlene), named in honour of him -- swiftly moves from hero worship to growing horror at what she gradually perceives her uncle to be. Wright is also excellent as the increasingly horrified Charlie who nonetheless must weigh what to do about her uncle as she fears what the monstrous allegations would do to her mother, who adores her baby brother.

There's a tremendous breadth to Shadow of a Doubt. Comic scenes with a young Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers offer commentary on an audience's love of thrills and murder. Hitchcock and his writers also examine the somewhat stultifying family dynamic of the younger Charlie's household. As is common in Hitchcock films, the law is a step slow and a day late throughout the film. The final confrontation will be between the two Charlies and no one else. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

T. Sex

Paying for It: written and illustrated by Chester Brown (2011): This autobiographical comic from Toronto's own Chester Brown (Yummy Fur, Ed the Clown, Louis Riel) details more than a decade of Brown paying for 'it' -- 'it' being sex. Paying for It is  certainly not salacious: Brown strips his style down to near-minimalism, limiting the eroticism. We observe meetings with more than 25 prostitutes over the years. Worried about 'outing' any of the women, Brown neither shows faces nor, as he notes in the introduction, gets too specific with the details of what they talked about. The conversations with the assorted prostitutes are therefore more of a representative amalgamation of more general observations and opinions offered in different encounters.

The book is really more of a philosophical exploration of Brown's libertarian-based views on prostitution, offered to the reader through both Brown's internal monologues and his conversations with friends that include fellow cartoonists Joe Matt and Seth and former Bob's Your Uncle frontwoman and Muchmusic VJ Sook-Yin Lee, Brown's girlfriend at the beginning of the book, which starts in 1997.

As noted, the graphics are minimalist, and represent some of Brown's cleanest linework. They're also quite funny at times. As Robert Crumb notes in his introduction, Chester Brown the cartoon character has a face that never changes expression regardless of the situation. Over the course of the book this becomes quite droll even as it offers a commentary on Brown's own apparent emotional reserve. 

Complete with lengthy notes and an appendix, Paying for It offers a pretty convincing argument for decriminalizing prostitution in Canada without legalizing it (which is to say, without the government regulating it). Brown's sweeping generalizations can become exhausting every once in awhile (he really, really hates romantic love) as certain elements, especially his arguments against romantic love, get stated and re-stated over the course of 300 pages. 

The strongest element of Paying for It remains Brown's depictions of the encounters with the prostitutes, all of which have the absolute and minutely observed status of engaging and rewarding verisimilitude regardless of the edits and conflations and omissions Brown chose to make to protect the identity of the women. Highly recommended.

Strange Animals

Fierce Creatures: written by John Cleese, Iain Johnstone, and William Goldman; directed by Fred Schepisi and Robert Young; starring John Cleese (Rollo Lee), Jamie Lee Curtis (Willa Weston), Kevin Kline (Vince McCain/ Rod McCain), Michael Palin (Bugsy Malone), and Carey Lowell (Cub Felines) (1997): Much of the cast and crew of A Fish Called Wanda reunited nearly a decade later to make Fierce Creatures. It's not a sequel -- they play new characters. It's also quite uneven, with several slow stretches and a few too many scenes in which Kevin Kline flails around frenetically to little comic effect. However, things shape up in the final third, becoming quite funny by the time the credits roll. Lightly recommended.

Abraxas and the Earthman: written and illustrated by Rick Veitch (1981-83; collected 2006): Writer-artist Rick Veitch's love letter to Moby Dick and space opera packs quite an illustrative wallop, with dazzling visuals and some pretty peculiar interstellar shenanigans.  Also giant space whales, a villainous Alien Ahab named Rottwang, giant astronauts who look like Al Capp's Schmoos, a six-breasted alien catwoman, a talking head, some musings on the bicameral mind, and a lot of other interesting stuff. Really a lot of fun from Veitch's early career. Recommended.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Several Pounds of Horror Stories

The Giant Book of Ghost Stories (Edited version of The Mammoth Book of Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories): edited by Richard Dalby (Original version 1995/This version 2005), containing the following stories::

Ghosts (1887) by Anonymous; Schalken the Painter (1851) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu; M. Anastius (1857) by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik; The Lost Room (1858) by Fitz-James O'Brien; No. 1 Branch Line: The Signalman (1866) by Charles Dickens; Haunted (1867) by Anonymous; The Romance of Certain Old Clothes (1868) by Henry James; John Granger (1870) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon; The Ghost in the Mill  (1870) by Harriet Beecher Stowe; The Ghost in the Cap'n Brown House (1870) by Harriet Beecher Stowe; Poor Pretty Bobby (1872) by Rhoda Broughton; The New Pass  (1870) by Amelia B. Edwards; The White and the Black (1867) by Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian; The Underground Ghost (1866) by John Berwick Harwood; Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk (1889) by Frank Cowper;  Dog or Demon? (1889) by Theo Gift; A Ghost from the Sea (1889) by Dick Donovan; A Set of Chessmen (1890) by Richard Marsh; The Judge's House (1891) by Bram Stoker; Pallinghurst Barrow (1892) by Grant Allen; The Mystery of the Semi-Detached (1893) by E. Nesbit; Sister Maddelena (1895) by Ralph Adams Cram; The Trainer's Ghost (1893) by Lettice Galbraith;  An Original Revenge (1897) by W. C. Morrow; Caulfield's Crime (1892) by Alice Perrin; The Bridal Pair (1902) by Robert W. Chambers; The Watcher (1903) by R. H. Benson; The Spectre in the Cart (1904) by Thomas Nelson Page; H. P. (1904) by Sabine Baring-Gould; and Yuki-Onna (1904) by Lafcadio Hearn.

Enjoyable and wide-ranging anthology of 19th and early 20th century ghost stories selected by the always reliable Richard Dalby. One will run across this volume and a few others with a fair bit of regularity, as it's an edited-down version of an earlier anthology, created by Barnes&Noble as an "instant remainder."

Dalby goes for breadth as well as non-typical selections in many cases -- while the Dickens story is oft-anthologized, entries from Fitz-James O'Brien, E. Nesbit, Robert W. Chambers, Amelia Edwards and other stalwarts are much less typical, which is to say I haven't come across them before.

Among the stand-outs are Grant Allen's "Pallinghurst Barrow", a fascinating entry in the Sinister Hidden British Race sub-genre that Arthur Machen would make his own, and "Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk" by Frank Cowper, which has one of the greatest titles ever. "Schalken the Painter" by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is my top pick of the bunch, an early effort by the fine and prolific Mr. Le Fanu that actually gave me a nightmare after I read it the first time.

There are a few piffles here, many from the better-known writers. The Nesbit story, for example, is almost a fragment. In all, though, and even truncated by the last eleven stories of its original version, the anthology offers a solid overview of time and writers, with an eye towards reprinting stories by the legion of female ghost-story writers that dominated the genre in the 19th century. Recommended.

Masters of Horror & the Supernatural: The Great Tales (Edited version of The Arbor House Treasury of Horror and the Supernatural): edited by Bill Pronzini, Martin H. Greenberg, and Barry N. Malzberg (Original version 1981/ This version 2010), containing the following stories:

"Man Overboard!" (1899) by Winston Churchill; A Teacher's Rewards (1970) by Robert S. Phillips; Bianca's Hands (1947) by Theodore Sturgeon; Black Wind (1979) by Bill Pronzini; Call First (1975) by Ramsey Campbell; Camps (1979) by Jack Dann; Come and Go Mad (1949) by Fredric Brown; Hop Frog (1849) by Edgar Allan Poe;  If Damon Comes (1978) by Charles L. Grant; Namesake (1981) by Elizabeth Morton (aka Rosalind M. Greenberg); Passengers (1968) by Robert Silverberg; Pickman's Model (1927) by H. P. Lovecraft; Rappaccini's Daughter (1844) by Nathaniel Hawthorne; Sardonicus (1961) by Ray Russell; Squire Toby's Will (1927)by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu [as by J. Sheridan Le Fanu ] Sticks (1974) by Karl Edward Wagner; The Crate (1979) by Stephen King; The Doll (1980) by Joyce Carol Oates; The Explosives Expert (1967) by John Lutz; The Fly (1952) by Arthur Porges; The Girl with the Hungry Eyes (1949) by Fritz Leiber; The Hand (1919) by Theodore Dreiser; The Jam (1958) by Henry Slesar; The Jolly Corner (1908) by Henry James; The Middle Toe of the Right Foot (1890) by Ambrose Bierce; The Mindworm (1950) by C. M. Kornbluth; The Oblong Room (1967) by Edward D. Hoch; The Party (1967) by William F. Nolan; The Roaches (1965) by Thomas M. Disch; The Road to Mictlantecutli (1965) by Adobe James; The Scarlet King (1954) by Evan Hunter; The Screaming Laugh (1938) by Cornell Woolrich; The Squaw (1893) by Bram Stoker; The Valley of Spiders (1903) by H. G. Wells; Transfer (1975) by Barry N. Malzberg; Warm (1953) by Robert Sheckley; You Know Willie (1957) by Theodore R. Cogswell; and Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper (1943) by Robert Bloch.

With three stories removed from its previous edition as one of the Library-Ubiquitous Arbor House treasuries of the early 1980's, Masters of Horror & the Supernatural: The Great Tales remains a bit of a Frankenstein's Monster of an anthology.

Co-editor Bill Pronzini's background was primarily in mystery and suspense at the time, while Martin H. Greenberg and Barry Malzberg worked primarily in the science fiction field. How this got them a gig editing a comprehensive horror anthology is anyone's guess. Well, actually my guess would be that they worked on other Arbor House treasuries as well.

So many of the selections aren't, in my appraisal, actually horror. Instead, they're short thriller and suspense stories. They shouldn't be in a horror anthology. One of these mis-selected stories is by Pronzini himself ("Black Wind"), which doesn't increase my appreciation of the selection criteria. Two other slight, very slight, selections come from Malzberg ("Transfer") and Greenberg's wife Rosalind ("Namesake"), the latter appearing under a pseudonym. Apparently, Rosalind Greenberg has only published three stories in her life. One of them is here! And it's sort of pointless!

There are some worthy entries here, from perennials like Stoker's "The Squaw" and Henry James' "The Jolly Corner" to re-discoveries like Theodore Dreiser's "The Hand" and to then-recent stories like Jack Dann's haunting "Camps". For an anthology dedicated to the prolific and influential Cornell Woolrich, however, its Woolrich selection is completely baffling. "The Screaming Laugh" is an overlong mystery story; its one horror element has been seen before and since in much better stories, including Ray Russell's "Sardonicus," reprinted in this same anthology!

As this book seems to have been created as an instant remainder (it's a mainstay of the ChaptersIndigo Remainder pages, anyway), it shouldn't set a person back much in the purchasing. The selection is odd and self-serving, but there are many fine stories here. There's also Stephen King's "The Crate," adapted by King and George C. Romero for the movie Creepshow but never included in any of King's prose collections. Lightly recommended.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Cosmic Shorts

Shiny Beasts: written and illustrated by Rick Veitch with Alan Moore and S.R. Bissette (1979-1985; collected 2009): Back in the long-lost days just before Marvel launched Epic, its own comics anthology magazine to compete with Heavy Metal, young turks like Rick Veitch and Steve Bissette were graduating from the first classes of the Joe Kubert School for Comics Art and entering the American comic-book industry. Veitch brings together his early-career short pieces done for Heavy Metal and Epic here, and they're a dazzling bunch for such a young writer and artist.

Veitch's interests have always tended towards science fiction and satire, and this book offers a heady dose of both. However, the mostly eponymous story, "Shiny Beast", points more towards Veitch's 21st-century graphic novel Can't Get No, with its reliance on pictures to carry the narrative.

Veitch would get better, and quickly, but there's a real charge to watching him play around with various illustrative techniques. His cosmic spacescapes dazzle in a couple of stories, making me wish someone had commissioned him to do a fully painted and airbrushed New Gods story. Blackly humourous twist endings abound, a legacy of both Veitch's work with editor Robert Kanigher at DC and of the long history of twist endings in short comic-book horror pieces, going back to EC Comics.

A generous afterword offers insight about Veitch's grwoth as an artist, his influences and mentors, and his collaborators. Several of those early Kubert School graduates were a close-knit bunch, sometimes living together to be able to afford the rent, and so a lot of work contains material from whoever was able to help out on a given day. It's a short and enjoyable volume, and would go well as a lead-in to some of Veitch's longer work from the same period, especially Abraxas and the Earthman and The One. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Constantine in Hell

John Constantine Hellblazer: The Gift: written by Michael Carey; illustrated by Leonardo Manco, Fraser Irving, Tim Bradstreet, and others (2004-2005; collected 2007): Mike Carey's fine run on what was DC-Vertigo's flagship title for various stretches of its 300-issue run comes to a mournful close. It's a volume that really needs to be read immediately after the previous collection, Reasons to be Cheerful, as the two collect what is really one long arc. 

Pissed-off, post-punk, Liverpudlian magician John Constantine finds himself in the crosshairs of an entire demonic family, three of whom are his children by a particularly sinister form of magical rape (!!!). And they're the grandchildren of his longest-running demonic foe, Nergal, who's been messing things up for Constantine since the early 1980's Newcastle incident that sent John to the Ravenscar psychiatric facility for several months.

But Nergal needs help against his daughter and grand-children to regain his kingdom in Hell. And John needs Nergal's help before all of John's remaining friends and relatives end up murdered by John's demonic hellspawn.

The whole thing is marvelously written and illustrated, though I occasionally wish that Leonardo Manco would let go a bit in his visuals, especially in those occasionally photo-referenced urban backgrounds. But his character work is exquisite, and in that 300-issue-run, I'd rank him below only John Ridgway and Steve Dillon as long-time artistic chroniclers of the Hellblazer.

Mike Carey's swan song on the title is as gritty and imaginative as ever, with the politics of Hell never so tellingly and squalidly depicted, nor John's anguish. Really a fine end to a fine run, and hopefully DC will collect this and Reasons to be Cheerful in one volume when they reach that point in the re-reprinting of Constantine. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Horror for People Who Don't Like Horror

The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (1986): edited by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert, containing the following stories:

The Tapestried Chamber (1828) by Sir Walter Scott
The Phantom Coach (1864) by Amelia B. Edwards
Squire Toby's Will (1868) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
The Shadow in the Corner (1879) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
The Upper Berth by F. Marion Crawford
A Wicked Voice (1890) by Vernon Lee
The Judge's House (1891) by Bram Stoker
Man-Size in Marble (1886) by E. Nesbit
The Roll-Call of the Reef (1895) by Arthur Quiller-Couch
The Friends of the Friends (1896) by Henry James
The Red Room (1896) by H. G. Wells
The Monkey's Paw (1902) by W. W. Jacobs
The Lost Ghost (1903) by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
"Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" (1904) by M. R. James
The Empty House (1906) by Algernon Blackwood
The Cigarette Case (1910) by Oliver Onions
Rose Rose (1910) by Barry Pain
The Confession of Charles Linkworth (1912) by E. F. Benson
On the Brighton Road (1912) by Richard Middleton
Bone to His Bone (1912) by E. G. Swain
The True History of Anthony Ffryar (1911) by Arthur Gray
The Taipan (1922) by W. Somerset Maugham
The Victim (1922) by May Sinclair
A Visitor from Down Under (1926) by L. P. Hartley
Fullcircle (1920) by John Buchan
The Clock (1928) by William Fryer Harvey
Old Man's Beard (1929) by H. Russell Wakefield
Mr. Jones (1928) by Edith Wharton
Smee (1929) by A. M. Burrage
The Little Ghost (1922) by Hugh Walpole
Ahoy, Sailor Boy! (1933) by A. E. Coppard
The Hollow Man (1933) by Thomas Burke
Et in Sempiternum Pereant (1935) by Charles Williams
Bosworth Summit Pound (1948) by L. T. C. Rolt
An Encounter in the Mist (1949) by A. N. L. Munby
Hand in Glove (1952) by Elizabeth Bowen
A Story of Don Juan (1941) by V. S. Pritchett
Cushi (1952) by Christopher Woodforde
Bad Company (1955) by Walter de la Mare
The Bottle of 1912 (1961) by Simon Raven
The Cicerones (1967) by Robert Aickman
Soft Voices at Passenham (1981) by T. H. White

Lengthy reprint anthology with numerous flaws, including the annoying omission of biographical information and publication dates for the individual stories at the beginning of each story.

There's also a certain nebulousness to the volume's construction of an "English ghost story." It's not necessarily written by an English-person. It isn't necessarily set in England. And it doesn't necessarily involve a ghost.

The editors' introduction does indicate where they come down on the issue of graphic violence in horror -- they're against it. Huzzah! I'll tell you, if nothing else, the introduction comes across as almost parodically upper-class-academic English. Blah blah, woof woof.

There are some excellent stories here. There's also an awful lot of time-wasting with stories that are very polite with their ghosts and don't seem to have any interest in scaring anbody. We get a few sentimental stories of sad, lost ghosts. We get a lot of one-twist stories in which the twist is, there's a ghost! Oh my heavens! That character is actually a ghost? Really? I did not see that one coming.

Thankfully, there are also some old stand-bys. "The Upper Berth" by F. Marion Crawford is a genuinely great story in one of my favourite horror sub-genres, that of the story in which someone gets into a fist-fight with a ghost. "The Cicerones" is one of horror-master Robert Aickman's shortest stories, and one of his most enigmatically potent.

"A Visitor from Down Under" by L. P. Hartley contains one of the most sinister (yet morally justified) ghosts in the genre, deployed in a story that has its droll moments (the ghost takes public transit) amidst the awfulness. And the short, very short, "The Clock" by  William Fryer Harvey is a neglected masterpiece of brevity and ghastly wit, with one of the more remarkably quick-witted and quick-moving protagonists in the history of ghost stories.

The editors really aren't all that interested in ghosts stories after about 1950. The entry by the usually fine de la Mare is neglible. The entry by T.H. White that closes the book was actually written in the 1930's, meaning that the editors don't bother with any writers of ghost stories between 1967 and 1986, the time of the greatest horror boom in publishing history. Nice work, boys. Recommended for many of the stories but not all of them, and what a lazy bit of editing and scholarship this book turns out to be. Editorial hackwork.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Dracula: There Goes the Neighbourhood!

The Horror of Dracula (a.k.a. Dracula): adapted by Jimmy Sangster from the novel by Bram Stoker; directed by Terence Fisher; starring Peter Cushing  (Doctor Van Helsing), Christopher Lee (Count Dracula), Michael Gough (Arthur Holmwood), Melissa Stribling (Mina), Carol Marsh (Lucy), John Van Eyssen (Jonathan Harker), and Olga Dickie (Gerda) (1958): Deft hyper-condensation of Bram Stoker's classic vampire novel introduced the horrors of England's Hammer Studios to the world -- along with actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Their appearances in Star Wars and (for Lee alone) the Lord of the Rings movies can be traced directly to their beloved work in movies such as Horror of Dracula.

Or just Dracula. Hammer changed the title for the 1958 American release because the Bela Lugosi 1930's Dracula still made the rounds of movie theatres at the time, though it would soon be sold in a package to television and mostly vanish from conventional theatre chains.

Did Stanley Kubrick watch a lot of Hammer horror movies? Because Horror of Dracula is a horror movie with very little darkness in its scenes of horror -- instead, we've got colourful sets and colourful cinematography that anticipate The Shining's super-saturated palette. Castle Dracula is very brightly lit. Especially given that it's 1888.

I'll leave a dissection of alterations to the original text to the viewer. They mostly work. And they're pretty necessary, given that the market of the late 1950's pretty much required that Horror of Dracula clock in at 90 minutes or less. So the movie hits the ground running.

Lee is terrific as Dracula, far and away his defining genre role (sorry, Count Dooku and Saruman). The film-makers use his height to good effect. Smooth and charming in the opening scenes set at Castle Dracula, Lee's Dracula becomes a mute monster once the action shifts to nemesis Van Helsing's home-town. Once Dracula's status as a vampire has been confirmed, he no longer has the need for social niceties. Or dialogue.

Peter Cushing is also terrific as vampire-fighter Van Helsing, investing this version of the character with a sort of Holmesian stature. His final battle with the bloody Count now seems iconic and much-imitated. A young Michael Gough does solid work as Arthur Holmwood, and Melissa Stribling is suitably conflicted as Dracula's final object of exsanguination, Mina. Terence Fisher keeps things moving at a rapid pace. Probably the best official adaptation of Stoker's novel, for all its changes to the text. Did I mention it's 82 minutes long? Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Dream Quest of Unknown Kubrick

Eyes Wide Shut: adapted by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael from the novel Dream Story (1926) by Arthur Schnitzler; directed by Stanley Kubrick; starring Tom Cruise (Dr. William Harford), Nicole Kidman (Alice Harford), Sydney Pollack (Victor Ziegler), and Todd Field (Nick Nightingale) (1999): Stanley Kubrick's last film had an infamously long shooting schedule, one which some people view as being the deciding factor in the break-up of stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Kubrick handed in the final cut and then died less than a week later. Yikes!

Some critics at the time seemed to become more confused by the events of a movie based on a Freudian dream-journey of a novella than could really be explained. So I'll explain it. Kubrick was generally viewed as being a cool, emotionless film-maker constantly striving for some form of cinematic objectivity. He wasn't, but he was viewed this way by the critical hive-mind. Had the dreamily subterranean sub-conscious David Lynch released the exact same film, reviews would have been much different: we expect a mind-fuck from David Lynch. We expect the inexplicable and the subjective.

In the case of Eyes Wide Shut, the viewer's detective story could be summed up as a quest to understand what events in the film objectively 'happen' and what events are components of the Tom Cruise character's internal, dream-like, occasionally nightmarish voyage of self-discovery. And the answers to that quest I'll leave to you, the viewer. If answers are even needed. You could just strap in and feel the G's.

In many ways, this is Kubrick's most enjoyably absurd movie since Dr. Strangelove, if you let it be. Cruise's quest may take him into the bipolar dream realms of Eros and Thanatos, but Kubrick et al. offer mounting absurdities at every turn. An opener of the gateway named Nightingale. A comically sinister Eastern European provider of masquerade costumes and his nymphomaniac daughter. The much-maligned, endlessly loopy Secret Order of Rich Sex Perverts and their comically portentous sex games.

The comic parts curdle to nightmare, of course, with the various threads of Cruise's journey ending in rejection, illness, humiliation, death, and the contemplation of the abject, naked, dead body of what was earlier a sexualized object . The voyager into the dream world must be shocked back to the land of the real. And with the events set at Christmas, one can note, among other things, the importance of A Christmas Carol to understanding the proceedings. Though Dickens never gave us this much full-frontal nudity.

Kubrick's choice of then-reigning Hollywood Power Couple Cruise and Kidman makes perfect sense, as he wanted a pair who could play superficially pretty, seemingly bland people who would soon be revealed to contain hidden depths. I think they're both very good, especially Cruise, who gets to play a character who is both exactly his cinematic type on the surface, and a regret-plagued mess under the surface.

The supporting players are also fine, with the occasional wooden performances tending to be linked to characters who are there as adjuncts to Cruise's journey and not essential, emotional encounters. I wouldn't recommend watching it in one sitting. It's long, and there's a lot to think about. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Planes, Trains, and Operating Systems

Non-Stop: written by John W. Richardson, Ryan Engle, and Christopher Roach; directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; starring Liam Neeson (Bill Marks) and Julianne Moore (Jen Summers) (2014): Competent, enjoyable thriller featuring Liam Neeson as an air marshal with a troubled past who needs to overcome his own character flaws to save a passenger plane from a terrorist. The movie plays pretty fair with its 'bottle-show' premise -- all the major action takes place on a passenger plane in flight.

Airplane movies tend to be scientifically loopy, and this one is no exception, but Neeson, Julianne Moore, and most of the rest of the cast keep things interesting while the writers and director keep things moving, though occasionally in the exact opposite way they should from the standpoint of physics or basic geography. Lightly recommended.

Her: written and directed by Spike Jonze; starring Joaquin Phoenix (Theodore), Chris Pratt (Paul), Rooney Mara (Catherine), Scarlett Johansson (Samantha), and Amy Adams (Amy) (2013): Really a brilliant piece of near-future science fiction from director Spike Jonze, who writes his own screenplay here for the first time. There are echoes of Philip K. Dick in the film's preoccupation with the question of what constitutes a human being, and in Joaquin Phoenix's lead character, a troubled, decent, normal human being still suffering in the aftermath of a failed marriage.

The filmmakers have done a marvellous job of building the future world through slightly skewed fashion, odd future jobs, and a host of other things. Science fiction is also often about the present-day regardless of its setting, and certainly the movie comments on all the mediated, tech-boosted interactions of modern human beings and their assortment of smart-phones, tablets, and gizmos.

Phoenix is wonderfully modulated and understated as the protagonist, while Amy Adams shines as his best friend. Scarlett Johansson voices the newly released artificial intelligence that Phoenix buys to coordinate all his gadgets (things are pretty integrated in the future). Released from her body, Johansson gives what may be her best performance.

While the movie deals extensively with relationships and connectedness, it also moves towards something more epic by the end of the film. What would intelligent beings capable of thinking a million times faster than humanity think of us? How fast would they evolve? And didn't any of the beta-testing reveal that the AI's were capable of theoretically infinite intellectual growth? Is that V'ger on my phone? Highly recommended.