Monday, October 17, 2016

Where Monsters Dwell

The Thief of Broken Toys (2011) by Tim Lebbon: This lovely, lonely, haunting short novel is a thing of disturbing beauty from Tim Lebbon. There's a Ray Bradbury quality to some of the story elements (especially that eponymous being). But it's the leaner Bradbury of the 1940's, the one capable of horror. 

The loss of a son to an undiagnosed genetic disorder has left the novel's protagonist, the boy's father, in an emotional purgatory as The Thief of Broken Toys begins. His wife struggles to move on -- in part by having left him. He stays at home, for the most part, where he's been for the most part of a year. And then, on one of his nightly walks on the English sea coast, he encounters the eponymous being -- an old man who offers him the ability to heal. Beware strangers bearing supernatural gifts, no matter how seemingly benign!

I don't know that all of the elements work. The occasionally intruding narration speaks to larger things outside the events of the novel, but it never entirely convinced me, or at least convinced me that it was necessary to the tragedy and horror of the story itself. Nonetheless, this is stellar work from Lebbon. 

Technically this is 'quiet horror,' but it's horror nonetheless. And the final catastrophe horrifies without any blood being spilled or tentacled monster making an appearance. Actually, a tentacled monster would probably have been comforting. Highly recommended.

The Keep (1981) by F. Paul Wilson: F. Paul Wilson's first 'big' novel is also his best. A dreadful movie adaptation in the mid-1980's, directed by Michael Mann, got pretty much everything wrong about Wilson's original. The Keep is a clever synthesis of vampire novel, cosmic horror, and high fantasy, though that last bit doesn't become evident until the last 50 pages or so. Its best horror moments come in its first half, while the full nature of the adversary remains hidden from reader and characters alike.

The Keep would soon be folded into Wilson's 'Adversary Cycle,' a six-novel arc that is itself part of a much larger body of work dubbed 'The Secret History of the World' that includes Wilson's multi-volume Repairman Jack series. My version of The Keep ends without any sort of cliffhanger or 'stinger' ending, but this may not be true of later editions of the novel. Wilson rewrote a number of novels to eradicate inconsistencies within both the Cycle and the Secret History.

The genius of The Keep lies in its use of the Nazis as foils to the greater evil growing inside the Keep. It's 1941. Much of the action occurs in an isolated part of Romania where German infantry have been entrusted with taking control of that mysterious Keep. The name itself is a misnomer -- there was never a castle surrounding the structure, and the name was simply attached as a matter of convenience. Why are there unusually designed crosses embedded in the walls of the Keep? Why does anyone who tries to sleep there awake from nightmares of confinement? Who's been paying to maintain the Keep with a long line of well-recompensed villagers from an adjacent village for the last 500 years? And why has the German Army Captain in charge of the Keep telegrammed High Command to ask for help because "something is killing my men"?

Well, there's the novel. Wilson's strongest character work involves the fraught relationship between the German Army Captain and the SS Major sent to deal with the problem. The Captain hates the Nazis, but he's also a loyal soldier. The SS Major is a coward and a sadist who dreams of the money to be made once he takes control of Nazi preparations in Ploesti for the coming Romanian Holocaust. As problems at the Keep continue despite the SS presence, they agree to summon a Romanian-Jewish scholar who's the world's only known authority on the Keep. As the scholar has been crippled by a wasting disease, along with him comes his bright, unmarried daughter.

Props where props are due: that daughter makes for an interesting and unusual character in a horror novel written by a young man in the late 1970's and early 1980's. She becomes the focus of the third-person narrative, and Wilson makes her a compelling figure who wants a life of intellectual achievement in a world where both her gender and her ethnicity stand against any such achievement. While this character is put in jeopardy on numerous occasions, Wilson never makes her a stereotypical female victim. By the climax of the novel, she's one of the two most important characters in terms of opposing the ancient, dark force inside the Keep.

As noted, the strongest moments of horror come in the first half, as a mysterious, unseen force stalks the Keep. But the revelation of the horror doesn't immediately deflate the narrative of its mystery: the creature explains what it is, but there are odd gaps and curiosities in its story. And the discovery of a cache of Lovecraftian banned texts points the way towards an explanation that has nothing to do with vampires or werewolves or ghosts. And they are literally Lovecraftian texts, the Necronomicon and a number of other fictional 'banned' books mentioned by H.P. Lovecraft and his fellow Cthulhuists over the years in a nod by Wilson to his American horror forerunners.

Once the novel passes that midway point, elements of a more conventional thriller begin to blend with elements of both dark and high fantasy. There are even riffs on the sort of material made popular by The Lord of the Rings and Robert E. Howard's Conan series. But Wilson also keeps things rooted in the historical setting of 1941 Eastern Europe, with the seemingly unstoppable Nazis about to embark on their betrayal of the Soviet Union. It's a relatively long novel, but it's briskly told in Wilson's competent, unflashy prose.  To nod to an old chestnut, if you read one novel by F. Paul Wilson, it should be this one. Highly recommended.

The Black Country (2013) by Alex Grecian: Enjoyable mystery set in England's coal country in 1890. The characters are engaging, though the central mystery will be familiar to anyone who has read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (2008) by Kate Summerscale. Grecian adds a second mystery to the mix, albeit one linked to the first. Apparently not finding the generally well-portrayed oddities of the coal-mining town and its superstitions to be diverting enough, he also throws in several sections set at the horrifying Andersonville POW camp run with murderous efficiency by the Confederacy in one of those historical foreshadowings of the Holocaust. 

Just to lighten things up, Grecian adds a lot of low-level comedy to the relationship of the two Scotland Yard detectives sent to the coal town. He even throws in a lovable, mentally handicapped giant. And a scar-faced mystery man. And an abandoned baby magpie which first one detective and then the giant try to nurse back to health. And village superstitions attached to a mythical monster called Rawhead and Bloody Bones. And a mysterious disease sweeping the village. And a cinematic climax, first above and then below the ground in the village as it is wracked by subsidence caused by over-mining. 

We even get a final few lines that will remind the reader of either the forced comedy that seemed to end every 1960's and 1970's American TV drama no matter how dire the preceding events -- or the parodic endings of every episode of Police Squad (a.k.a. the TV show that the Naked Gun movie series continued). It's a diverting novel, though the setting seems under-served by the novel's pedestrian yet over-stuffed ambitions. Lightly recommended.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World (2006) by Steven Berlin Johnson: Enthralling, sweeping examination of England's last major cholera outbreak in London's Broad Street neighbourhood near Soho in 1854, and how two men ensured that England would never suffer from a cholera outbreak again. Medical Doctor John Snow and Anglican curate Henry Whitehead, both of whom lived near the outbreak, would form a somewhat unlikely Dynamic Duo whose detective work and scientific acumen would convince the medical and civil authorities of London that cholera was a disease spread by contaminated water and not, as then-standard wisdom had it, by 'miasmic' gases.

Much of the book is marvelous and humane, explaining the rise of cholera to being one of the world's great killers over the course of the last 200 years. Along the way, The Ghost Map also delves into the development of epidemiology, safe sewer and water-supply systems, and the toxic Social Darwinism that helped blind Victorian England to the true cause of cholera in its cities. The book also offers a tour through London's underground economy of night-soil men and cat-meat men and coster-mongers and 'pure' collectors (pure was a euphemism for dog shit), and their roles in keeping the 'above-ground' world running.

You'll also visit the horrifying cess-pits and cesspools and streets of 1854 London. You'll discover why alcohol, tea, and coffee were all integral to the urbanization of the world. But mostly you'll deal with these two heroes of science and rationality, Snow and Whitehead, as they individually and then dually seek an answer to the Broad Street Outbreak. Only in the last 20 pages or so does Johnson waver, as he suddenly takes the book so wide as to attempt to convince the reader that the world will be a better, more environmentally friendly place when everyone lives in cities (not suburbs -- cities proper). It feels like the beginning of a different book, one whose enthusiasm for urban living and disdain for rural living comes gushing straight out of its author and onto the page. All it really lacks is the line, "Since the beginning of time, man has longed to evacuate the countryside!".

But other than the writer's book-derailing, evangelical rant about the Great Goodness of Cities, The Ghost Map is terrific, informative, sad, and hopeful. Lift your glass of clean drinking water to Snow and Whitehead, who defeated an invisible enemy 30 years before humanity could reliably find cholera under a microscope. Highly recommended.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Oscars and Monsters and Poor Career Choices

The Revenant (2015): adapted by Alejandro Inarritu and Mark L. Smith from the novel by Michael Punke; directed by Alejandro Inarritu; starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Hugh Glass); Tom Hardy (John Fitzgerald); and Domhnall Gleason (Captain Henry): Set in early 19th-century Montana and South Dakota, The Revenant is an odyssey of survival and revenge for guide Hugh Glass, played almost silently by Leonardo DiCaprio in a role that won him his first Best Actor Oscar

There's nothing wrong with that acting -- boy, does Glass suffer, and boy is he covered in filth and wounds for most of the movie! Alejandro Inarritu won his second straight directorial Oscar (the first was for the previous year's Birdman), and he certainly puts on a grimy, Sublime, haunting show of photography. Vaguely based on a true story, The Revenant is the Western as horror movie with more than a hint of a Republic serial re-imagined as being deadly serious yet, through the sheer accumulation of unfortunate events, almost comic as it reaches its end. 

Glass is a Beckett character, crawling through the muck, transforming into the vengeful 'dead' man of the title. Tom Hardy has never been better as pragmatic trapper Fitzgerald, Glass' nemesis in the movie (though not in real life). Some trimming might have helped -- by the time Glass and the horse go over a cliff, my suspension of disbelief had been exhausted. Recommended.

The Thing (1982): adapted by Bill Lancaster from the novella "Who Goes There?" (1938) by John W. Campbell Jr.; directed by John Carpenter; starring Kurt Russell (MacReady); Wilford Brimley (Blair), Keith David (Childs), Richard Dysart (Copper), and Donald Moffat (Garry): Alien (1979) was a great screech of cosmic horror mingled with body horror in the best Lovecraftian tradition. The Thing is its thematic sequel, taking fears of bodily invasion and transformation and making them even more horrifying and goopy. 

The Thing was adapted previously by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks in the 1950's as a sort-of Cold War paranoia thriller with an evil carrot rather than an evil, well, disease. This version is truer to John W. Campbell Jr.'s 1938 novella in terms of location (Antarctica, not the Arctic of the 1950's version) and monster (a body-invading, endlessly replicating Thing rather than a vampiric, Frankensteinian Creature). The Hawks film was much truer to the character dynamics of Campbell's novella, where manly, competent men met a terrible threat with overwhelming, intelligent, manly camaraderie.

Here, our heroes are fractious as per the model of the Nostromo's crew in Alien. Given that the Thing could be any one of them (or even all of them -- it's just that invasive!), their paranoia is understandable. But they still team up to battle an alien invasion. One of the things that makes The Thing stand out even more now is the lack of references to the characters' lives outside Antarctica: one imagines that, remade today, there would have to be some motivations assigned to the characters for their resistance to the invasion. 

Because people don't do things in NuHollywood unless there's a wife or child involved. This lack of 'personal motivation' makes The Thing bracing in my estimation -- the men are trying to save the world with no possible hope of rescue or survival. And even the most grumpy among them realize the scope of the Thing's danger and set to work. It's almost like people can do things for the common good without specific personal motivation!

The actors (what a cast!) are great, the creature effects still chilling and awful, the scenery still Sublime, the whole thing still rousing and disturbing. What's weird is that The Thing is hopeful about humanity in a way few horror movies allow themselves to be. But avoid the dopey 2011 prequel! Highly recommended.

Misery (1990): adapted by William Goldman from the novel by Stephen King; directed by Rob Reiner; starring Kathy Bates (Annie Wilkes); James Caan (Paul Sheldon); Richard Farnsworth (Sheriff Buster), Frances Sternhagen (Deputy Virginia), and Lauren Bacall (Paul's Agent): Kathy Bates deservedly won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Annie Wilkes, self-proclaimed "number-one fan" of historical romance writer Paul Sheldon. And James Caan is really good as Sheldon in a role that confines him to bed and wheelchair for much of Misery's running time. 

This is one of a handful of the sharpest adaptations of a novel by Stephen King, alternately funny and horrifying in a way that replicates King's prose. King signed off on Rob Reiner directing after the success of Reiner's previous King adaptation, Stand by Me, the movie from the novella that gave a name to Reiner's production company (Castle Rock). William Goldman and Rob Reiner tone down some of the novel's more gruesomely baroque moments (bye-bye lawnmower!), but there's still lots of body horror to go around. Bates' Wilkes is a menacing but at times oddly sympathetic character -- it seems at times that she's fully aware of what a monster she is. Highly recommended.

Sisters (2015): written by Paula Pell; directed by Jason Moore; starring Tina Fey (Kate Ellis) and Amy Poehler (Maura Ellis): What a dreadful movie, dreadfully wasting a talented cast in a misbegotten attempt to put smart comic actors Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in a raunchy attempt to duplicate a Judd Apatow film. Or maybe Seth Rogen's Neighbours. It's awful. An immensely talented cast is awful. The writing is awful. The desperate mugging and improvising by the cast is awful. There are laughs scattered throughout, but it's agony to reach them. Possibly the worst 'major' movie of 2015. Not recommended.

Gods of Egypt (2016): written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless; directed by Alex Proyas; starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Horus); Brenton Thwaites (Bek); Elodie Yung (Hathor); Bryan Brown (Osiris); Chadwick Boseman (Thoth); Gerard Butler (Set); and Geoffrey Rush (Ra): That none of the major characters are played by Egyptian, Persian, or Arabic actors stirred something of a media firestorm. The moviemakers may have welcomed this -- Gods of Egypt wasn't going to get any buzz for actually being good. What the Hell happened to Alex (The Crow, Dark City) Proyas in the last 15 years? Great Osiris! 

The set design and CGI are the most interesting things in this movie which, like Disney's Aladdin, riffs without credit on those two old Thief of Baghdad movies by centering its story on a thief (Bek) who gets caught up in wacky supernatural adventures. The cast keeps a straight face. They should get awards for that. Not the worst big-budget, CGI spectacular ever made -- its dopiness is pretty much in line with about a hundred other gods-and-monsters movies from the 1960's and 1950's. 

The movie would be much more interesting if the Egyptian gods all had their animal heads for the entire running time rather than just when they're fighting. And given that the gods have gold running through their veins (and I assume arteries), what's their body temperature? For reasons unexplained, the great serpent Apophis looks an awful lot like a Dune sandworm on steroids, marking the sandworm's second unlikely cameo in an 18-month period (the first being in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies). Lightly recommended.

Churchill's Secret (2016): adapted by Stewart Harcourt from the novel by Jonathan Smith; directed by Charles Sturridge; starring Michael Gambon (Winston Churchill), Romola Garai (Nurse Millie Appleyard); and Lindsay Duncan (Clemmie Churchill): Prime Minister Winston Churchill suffered at least two debilitating strokes in June 1953, two years after being re-elected in 1951. The public didn't know this until decades later, as it was covered up. This partially fictional film details Churchill's recovery, with the narrative focused through a fictional nurse who cares for Churchill at his ancestral estate while he convalesces. It's a typically fine BBC/PBS production with beautifully modulated performances throughout, most notably by Romola Garai as the fictional Nurse Appleyard and Michael Gambon as Churchill.  Churchill's warts -- especially his problematic family life -- are on full display, though the entire effort really serves to humanize him. Recommended.

The Magnificent Seven (1960): adapted from the Akira Kurosawa film Seven Samurai by William Roberts; directed by John Sturges; starring Yul Brynner (Chris); Eli Wallach (Calvera); Steve McQueen (Tanner); Horst Buchholz (Chico); Charles Bronson (O'Reilly); Robert Vaughn (Lee); Brad Dexter (Harry); James Coburn (Britt); Vladimir Sokoloff (Old Man); and Rosendo Monteros (Petra): By my count, this is the second major Hollywood MetaWestern (after Shane). That is, what seems like an elegy for the vanishing American West of the late 19th century -- so vanishing that most of the action takes place in Mexico! -- is also an elegy for the American Western movie. In 1960, Westerns were well on their way out. The Magnificent Seven celebrates their strengths while also pointing the way towards the relatively brief renaissance of the grittier, grimier, more morally ambiguous Spaghetti Western that would soon rise and then quickly fade.

These are still the clean-cut cowboys of the 1940's and 1950's Western. But the early scenes that introduce protagonists Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner focus on how these two gunslingers really have nowhere to go in the increasingly civilized American West -- the only job available for McQueen in the American border town at the start of the movie is as a grocery clerk. When three Mexicans from a village annually looted by bandido Calvera and his men meet with Brynner to offer him money to solve the Calvera problem, Brynner accepts. And has little problem rounding up the other six members of his merry band.

The rest, as they say, is movie history. There's almost no blood or gore in the film. However, Sturges stages the deaths of those Magnificent Seven who don't survive the final battle with Calvera in various, almost mournfully abject ways, never moreso than with one gunslinger who collapses into an upright fetal position against a wall. It's not that much of a cinematic leap from The Magnificent Seven to the more graphic and downbeat The Wild Bunch, set even later in the Western period and offering a continuation and an amplification of this movie's elegaic qualities while also offering a revisionist take on Western morals (and clothing styles).

This is a fine movie -- stylistically still very much a last gasp of classical Hollywood cinema. The cast does lovely work, from Brynner and McQueen as the greatest of the enlisted gunslingers to Horst Buchholz as a young gunfighter from Mexican heritage. The musical score by Elmer Bernstein is also pivotal. This is the rare remake of a foreign film (Kurosawa's Seven Samurai) that works beautifully on its own. Highly recommended.

Foul Play (1978): written and directed by Colin Higgins; starring Goldie Hawn (Gloria Mundy); Chevy Chase (Tony); Burgess Meredith (Hennessey); Brian Dennehy (Fergie); Dudley Moore (Stanley Tibbetts); and Billy Barty (MacKuen): Foul Play's writer-director Colin Higgins also wrote Silver Streak and Harold and Maude, and was writer-director of 9 to 5. That's a pretty solid resume for Higgins, who died at the age of 47 in 1988. And Foul Play is still a lot of fun. Foul Play was slightly retooled to be a star vehicle for both Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase, the latter coming off his single, hyper-popular-break-out year on Saturday Night Live. I'm pretty sure Chase's pratfalls in this movie were written for him. 

The movie itself is quite charming, though there are a couple of jarring bits of violence amidst the goofball stuff. And there are Hitchcock homages galore. Burgess Meredith slathers it on a bit too thickly as Hawn's lovable Irish neighbour. Billy Barty and Dudley Moore have terrific supporting roles (this was Moore's American movie debut), with Moore's work pretty much getting him 10 and Arthur. I still think Dan Brown stole the Albino in The DaVinci Code from this film. I mean, there's even a papal assassination plot and an anti-Catholic organization in this movie! And Billy Barty! Goldie Hawn is super-cute. Chevy Chase is Chevy Chase. Recommended.