Saturday, December 28, 2013

Time Well Wasted

Admission: adapted by Karen Croner from the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz; directed by Paul Weitz; starring Tina Fey (Portia Nathan), Paul Rudd (John Pressman), Gloria Reuben (Corinne), Wallace Shawn (Clarence), Nat Wolff (Jeremiah), and Lily Tomlin (Susannah Nathan) (2013): So-so romantic comedy centered on the admissions process at Princeton. Yes, you read that right. The cast is strong and there are some funny lines and situations, but Tina Fey really needs to start producing her own film comedies: she`s much, much better than the movies she`s been in over the past few years. Lightly recommended.

The Colony: written by Jeff Renfroe, Svet Rouskov, Patrick Tarr, and Pascal Trotter; directed by Jeff Renfroe; starring Kevin Zegers (Sam), Laurence Fishburne (Briggs), Bill Paxton (Mason) and Charlotte Sullivan (Kai) (2013): Competent Canadian sci-fi horror flick sees Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton struggle manfully to bring heft to the proceedings before we find out that the Big Bad is a seriously underwhelming and stereotypical post-apocalyptic threat. It`s an OK time-waster, and you really have to watch the closing credits. For reasons unknown, the producers try to turn dull shots of the Colony`s grubby interior into some sort of cool dance video. Watch those wire-enclosed ceiling bulbs strobe, baby! Lightly recommended.

Identity Thief: written by Craig Mazin and Jerry Eeten; directed by Seth Gordon; starring Jason Bateman (Sandy Patterson), Melissa McCarthy (Diana), and Jon Favreau (Harold Cornish) (2013): Rote attempt at Planes, Trains, and Automobiles road-trip wackiness undone by sloppy writing, a waste of good actors such as Morris Chestnut and Robert Patrick, and a sudden personality change for Melissa McCarthy`s eponymous character, who goes from dangerous psychopath to loveable schlub at about the one-hour mark. Some funny set-pieces, most of which rely heavily on slapstick, can`t save the movie. Not recommended.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Super-heroes in Limbo

Superman: The Phantom Zone: written by Steve Gerber; illustrated by Gene Colan, Tony DeZuniga, Dick Giordano, Rick Veitch, and Bob Smith (1982, 1986; Collected 2013): Steve Gerber was both the oddest mainstream comic-book writer of the 1970's and, with the benefit of hindsight, far and away the best and most interesting superhero writer of that decade. His work on Man-Thing and Howard the Duck for Marvel Comics remains legendary, and unlike a lot of decades-ago legends of the superhero-writing game, compulsively readable and rewarding to this day.

This volume collects a 1982 Superman miniseries and a 1986 follow-up story. It also marks, I think, Gerber's first work for DC Comics. In a perfect world, the miniseries might have led to Gerber getting a full-time gig writing the Man of Steel's adventures. In this world, this volume is pretty much Gerber's entire Superman output. It's still a gem.

The Phantom Zone, introduced during the 1950's as the planet Krypton's extra-dimensional jail for criminals, was originally a handy source of enemies for Superman because within it were held Kryptonian criminals who would have the same powers as Superman should they be released on Earth. Oh oh! Over time, though, the ramifications of the Phantom Zone became stranger and more disturbing.

For one, Krypton (and Superman's father, Jor-El, specifically, for he had invented the Phantom Zone projector) had allowed dozens of dangerous criminals to survive the death of Krypton. For another, the non-physical, telepathic state the Zone put prisoners into did not seem to encourage anything resembling rehabilitation. Actually, the criminals just seemed to get angrier and crazier over the years. For a third, the Zone actually allowed the criminals to telepathically influence people in the normal universe to, I don't know, let them out? What a prison system!

Gerber explores these problems and others in his Phantom Zone work, while coming up with an explanation for what the Phantom Zone really was that's completely bonkers and genuinely disturbing. And as he runs Superman through a gauntlet that becomes increasingly surreal and nightmarish, Gerber gives the Man of Steel some of his greatest comic-book moments.

The artists chosen for the miniseries and the follow-up augment the oddness of the proceedings. Gene Colan and Tony DeZuniga supply art that one would have found much more normal on Batman or Dr. Strange or Dracula, three characters whom Colan is best known for drawing, along with Daredevil. DeZuniga, who spent years on various Conan properties at Marvel and on Western anti-hero Jonah Hex at DC, inks the miniseries with satisfying heft and murkiness. The follow-up issue brings Rick Veitch, best known in the mainstream for his art and writing on Swamp Thing, into the fold. It may not be his best work, but it's still pretty swell. In both cases, Superman remains heroic despite being faced with horrors and weirdness more suited to a Master of the Mystic Arts.

Could Gerber have kept going at this level of weirdness and excitement on a regular Superman series? Well, we'll never know. But a man can dream. Highly recommended.

Harbinger: Perfect Day: written by Joshua Dysart; illustrated by Barry Kitson, Clayton Henry, Riley Rossmo, and others (2013): The new Valiant Comics universe is a dangerous place. So when super-psychic Peter Stanchek and his friends get a chance to rest and relax after their disastrous Las Vegas confrontation with the super-powered forces of both older super-psychic Harada's Harbinger Foundation and the anti-psychic soldiers of Project Rising Spirit , they take it.

And then stuff happens.

Writer Joshua Dysart and artists Barry Kitson and Clayton Henry continue to create great stories in what was, back in the early 1990's with the original Valiant, a universe that basically copied the X-Men. They've grounded the super-heroics by trying to establish a sense of verisimilitude. These psychics (called 'psiots' in the Valiant universe) possess basic human weaknesses. They can be killed. They can be distracted. But they can also cut loose in horrific ways.

Besides the sharp characterization of Stanchek and his friends, the book also makes its main antagonist, the world-conquering/world-saving Harada, an unusual comic-book villain insofar as he not only sees himself as hero and saviour, he may very well be humanity's best hope: his desire to save the world from itself is never written as anything other than genuine and heartfelt. But the means to his ends aren't so good for everyone involved, and the ends may ultimately not be either. He's a saviour who's likely to turn into Sauron by the end.

By any standard, this is a great and affecting superhero comic book, already one of the best quasi-realistic superhero books ever published. It manages scenes of spectacle that aren't empty of concern and horror, and it's remarkably generous to even its most minor and fleeting of characters. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Wrong Man

12 Years a Slave: adapted by John Ridley from the memoir by Solomon Northup; directed by Steve McQueen; starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), Paul Giamatti (Freeman), Benedict Cumberbatch (Ford), Paul Dano (Tibeats), Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Lupita Nyong'o (Patsey), Alfre Woodard (Mistress Shaw) and Brad Pitt (Bass) (2013): A terrific film with terrific writing, directing, and acting throughout. This should really win Oscars for director, picture, adapted screenplay, actor (Ejiofor), supporting actor (Fassbender), and supporting actress (a harrowing Lupita Nyong'o). Will it? Probably not. Nonetheless, I think this is probably the best drama of at least the last five years. Certainly the most affecting, harrowing, and moving movie.

Really, there's not a lot more to say. There's a lot less on-screen violence and blood than most reviews lead one to believe. It's the skill of the writing and direction that make this so. In a weird way, Ejiofor's Solomon Northup, a free Northern African-American kidnapped and sold into slavery in the early 1840's, is the ultimate real-world Hitchcock hero, the ultimate Wrong Man. And McQueen deploys the principles perfected by Hitchcock to augment our identification with Northup, our horror at his situation, and our loathing of the system he's trapped within.

There's a nearly wordless scene involving the aftermath of a near-lynching that is as perfect a visual metaphor for the horrors of slavery as anything in any film I can think of -- and the metaphor remains a literal scene of horror as well, one focused on the suffering of a character we've grown to admire and the brave kindness of one person.

There are a lot of other great scenes. There's a soundscape that sometimes menaces the viewer-listener in a manner reminiscent of the non-diegetic industrial-slaughter-house sounds of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, though the sounds here are those of a steam engine heard from within the hold by the kidnapped men and women.

There's Fassbender, as a horribly explicable monster; and Benedict Cumberbatch, as a slave-owner who knows that what he's doing is wrong; there's Lupita Nyong'o, making dolls from corn-husks, whose unsurpassed excellence in picking cotton protects her from exactly nothing in the way of Fassbender's monstrosity. There's Brad Pitt as a Canadian who is just good enough without being super-heroic or being made the focus of the film's goodness, the White Saviour.

There's a scene at the end that Spielberg and most other modern film-makers would have botched with over-length and crushing mawkishness, but which everyone involved here gives us sparingly and underplayed and movingly perfect because the movie knows how to pull back just that little bit to give its characters and its world their necessary emotional space. This is as about as good as a serious movie gets. Highly recommended.

His Dark Materials

Psycho: adapted by Joseph Stefano from the novel by Robert Bloch; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Janet Leigh (Marion Crane), Vera Miles (Lila Crane), John Gavin (Sam Loomis), and Martin Balsam (Arboghast) (1960): Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece still shines undiminished, a sinister puzzle-box. Taken from an already strong source (Robert Bloch's novel of the same name), Psycho improved upon it by making hotel-owner and mother-aficianado Norman Bates thin and sympathetic.

It's the movie's generation of sympathy for Norman I'll deal with here. Anthony Perkins should have won some sort of acting Oscar for this performance. Jittery, occasionally creepy, put-upon, repressed: and a lot of other emotions, all of them pitch perfect.

Camerawork amplifies the greatness of the performance, again and again staging Norman Bates in an inferior position to other male characters. One great blink-and-miss-it moment shows Perkins flinching almost unnoticeably as Martin Balsam's private detective deliberately leans into Norman's envelope of private space. The camerawork runs parallel to similar set-ups involving Janet Leigh's Marion Crane, her space invaded by lecherous oil-men and looming, sun-glass-obscured cops. Crane and Bates are twins in many ways, light and dark.

Oh, and it's the first American movie to show the inside of the bowl while a toilet flushes. Really, how much more do you want? A nearly subliminal use of a skull superimposed on a major character's head? One of the most distinctive scores of all time? Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Goodbye to All This

The Last Revelation of Gla'aki by Ramsey Campbell (2013): Academic librarian Leonard Fairman travels to the small English coastal town of Gulshaw to collect the rarest set of books in the world -- a complete set of The Revelations of Gla'aki, a mystic narrative thought to have been lost. The curiously...puffy townspeople are fairly cheery and helpful, but they will lead Fairman on something of a tour of the town in order to retrieve each volume from a different townsperson.

The precocious Campbell's first published volume, The Inhabitant of the Lake, came out from Arkham House in 1964, when he was 18. Nearly 50 years later, he returns to Gla'aki, one of the Lovecraftian entities introduced in that book and mentioned in many of his stories and novels over the years.

While Gulshaw is a Town With A Secret, one of the most venerable of horror tropes, it's the sort of weird town that happily welcomes the outsider. Welcomes him so much that everyone he meets seems to know his name and his mission. The food must be good in Gulshaw because everyone seems to have developed a weight problem. But everything Fairman eats has an odd sort of consistency. It's not often that mouthfeel comes into a horror story.

The horror here builds gradually -- like the attentions of the town itself, to quote a Stephen King title, it grows on you. And in you. There are echoes of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" here, but as noted above, the people of Gulshaw aren't inimical to visitors. Indeed, they're very friendly to everyone who visits. There's so much more to see in Gulshaw, you see. Or sea. Recommended.


The Pretence by Ramsey Campbell (2013): According to a New Age cult dubbed 'The Finalists,' tonight is the last night of the world. But that won't stop Paul Slater from flying home from his ailing mother's rest home to see wife Melanie and children Amy and Tom. And the world isn't going to end just because a cult says it is. And Paul does make it home.

While the philosophical backbone of this novella is the nature of belief, it's the increasingly fragile and desperate hold Paul Slater has on his family life that supplies the emotional engine of the whole thing. There are explanations for what happens as the story proceeds, but none of them could be considered authoritative.

The enigmatic nature of the narrative echoes some of Robert Aickman's more mysterious stories, though with some decidedly contemporary imagery. Cell phones and texting assume a great amount of importance as the novella proceeds; so too do Slater's musings on the nature of digital information as a reduction of the mediated universe to a fragile and infinitely malleable storm of bits. Love may keep a person grounded, but what happens when the idea of ground gives way? Recommended.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Starship Troopers (1997)

Starship Troopers: adapted by Ed Neumeier from the novel by Robert Heinlein; directed by Paul Verhoeven; starring Casper Van Dien (Johnny Rico), Dina Meyer (Dizzy Flores), Denise Richards (Carmen Ibanez), Jake Busey (Ace Levy), Neil Patrick Harris (Carl Jenkins), Clancy Brown (Zim) and Michael Ironside (Rasczak) (1997): 

Like Neumeier and Verhoeven's Robocop, Starship Troopers bites the hand that feeds it: it's a corrosive satire of action movies disguised as an action movie. That it took a beloved novel by a beloved sf author (Robert Heinlein) and turned it into such a satire antagonized some of its intended audience. So it goes. 16 years after its release, it's more relevant than ever as both a critique of action blockbusters and as a critique of American society.

Because here's the toxic brilliance of Starship Troopers: it asks you to cheer for the Nazis. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof, an Earth Federation with military uniforms closely modelled on those of the Third Reich, a Federation established by a military coup where only people who've served in the military are full citizens with voting rights. An Earth Federation at war with an alien race dubbed 'The Bugs.' 'Vermin,' 'bugs,' and 'insects' were all standard racial epithets directed at Jewish people by anti-Semites of the early 20th century. Would you like to know more?

So Earth faces an enemy about which its citizens can righteously cry, "Kill them all!" without guilt. Because who likes bugs, especially giant ones? Did the bugs really manage to hit Earth with an asteroid to provoke all-out war, given that the galactic map we're shown puts the bug home-world on the other side of the galaxy? And given that every bug-occupied world we're shown is a desert wasteland, why is humanity in competition with them for living room?

Because, as Internet wags have noted, the plot of this version of Starship Troopers bears a marked resemblance to the dark fantasies of 9/11 Truthers. A devastating strike on civilians. A sudden ram-up to war. An inhuman enemy. Endless propaganda. War without end.

It's downright creepy. Verhoeven endured a childhood under the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, and a fascination with repulsive levels of violence and the fascist authorities that love such violence has informed much of his work. This is a satire of a fascist society addicted to violence and spectacle. And much of the spectacle of the movie's visual effects still delivers -- the bugs look terrific and unearthly, and remain one of the great CGI triumphs of the 25 years or so of CGI effects.

Does an audience's love of on-screen violence and spectacle, and of heroic, larger-than-life characters, spring in part from the fascist within? The on-going onslaught of lavish, apocalyptic superhero movies suggests an infatuation with violence as a solution to all problems, and a waning belief in the ability of puny humans to solve problems. Better to let the engorged, armored, superheroic penises solve everything. Normal isn't exciting enough. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

They Eat Babies, Don't They?

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and Other Stories by Laird Barron (Collected 2013) containing the following stories: Blackwood's Baby (2011); The Redfield Girls (2010); Hand of Glory (2012); The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven (2011); The Siphon (2011); Jaws of Saturn (2012); Vastation (2010); The Men from Porlock (2011); and More Dark (2012):

As his fictional cosmos becomes denser and more awful with each new story, Laird Barron's sense of humour has become more apparent. One of the jokes is in the collection's title. Look at the contents. "The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All" is mentioned in the collection's final, blackly satiric "More Dark", but it's a work by a thinly veiled parody of horror writer Thomas Ligotti. Hunh?

Barron certainly hasn't transmogrified into a laugh-riot, but nonetheless assays one semi-parodic roman a clef ("More Dark") and one warp-speed, semi-comic, ultra-cosmic cruise through the Cthulhu Mythos ("Vastation") in this new collection. Lurking somewhere in each story is at least the shadow of Barron's space-born, Earth-afflicting creation, the Children of Old Leech. As always, their sense of humour only amuses themselves.

He's still the reigning champion of stories about tough, competent men faced with overwhelming, horrific evil. "The Men from Porlock" is a modern classic about a hunting expedition gone tragically wrong; it bears comparison to that foundational giant in the 'Bad Camping Trip' sub-genre of horror, Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows."

I love this story. It's brutal and elegaic and startling. And its characters even manage to land a few punches on the snouts of those awful cosmic cancers, the Children of Old Leech, albeit at one remove. The day's coming when somebody's going to kill one of the Children of Old Leech in a Barron story, and that moment is going to be goddammed Christmas and New Year's all rolled into one.

Barron also continues to explore new voices and new approaches: all-female casts of protagonists in "The Redfield Girls" and "The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven"; an extraordinarily unpleasant gangland stooge in "Jaws of Saturn"; a suicidal writer in "More Dark"; quite possibly the most disturbing vampires ever in "The Siphon." Along the way, we revisit old haunts, most prominently the demon-haunted forests of Washington state and the demon-haunted rooms of Olympia, Washington's Broadsword Hotel.

Well, really, the whole world is demon-haunted. But most of Barron's protagonists keep plugging along, heads down, trying to move forward against the blood torrent. There's a metaphysical lack of hope herein, but not complete hopelessness. Highly recommended.


The Croning by Laird Barron (2012): On second reading, Laird Barron's The Croning yields up more frights and more depth, along with a greater understanding of the interconnectedness of all of his fiction. What a frightful universe Barron conjures up, one in which the existential terror of his particular form of cosmic horror manifests itself in the simplest of human emotions and actions.

This terrific first novel touches upon almost everything Barron had written to this point, and on many things he hadn't written yet, but the novel doesn't require knowledge of those other works -- though knowing of The Black Guide or the events of "The Men of Porlock" certainly deepens one's understanding of the events related here.

There's tragedy here in the story of Don Miller, who in the present day lives in a rambling old house in small-town Washington state, is 80-something and still devoted to his curiously youthful wife, Michelle Mock, and their adult children, fraternal twins Holly and Kurt. But Miller has become almost paralyzed by fear of the dark, especially when Michelle is away on one of her curious, frequent anthropological expeditions. The very house Miller lives in is a source of recurring terrors, the cellar most of all. But they must be the nightmares of an aging man with the attendant mental-health problems of old age. Right?

Barron's concern with identity is a career-long one, and Miller represents a study in the limits of the continuity of human character. Don's memory is failing, possibly the result of incipient dementia or Alzheimer's. But it's been failing almost as long as Miller can remember. When he remembers. There are holes in his mind almost too many to count, and Don gets through the day by avoiding the most basic questions about his own past.

But memories sometimes flare up, in nightmares forgotten upon waking. And the absence of memories must also be dealt with or ignored. How, Don wonders at one point, can a person forget not only an entire language (Spanish, in this case), but that he ever knew that language at all?

Well, he's going to find out. And as we travel back and forth across the history of Don and the history of these strange, powerful monsters known collectively as the Children of Old Leech, we find out too. Barron's prose is brutal and beautiful. He links the cosmic and the personal and the visceral in fascinating and rewarding ways, in this tragedy of the losing and finding and losing of memory.

Besides the terror, there's sorrow for humanity here, as a whole and in its constituent parts. Don's a fascinating character, mentally wounded but pushing onwards towards knowledge that he knows at every step he probably doesn't want to possess. And the various manifestations of evil, human and otherwise, ring true. The humans who collaborate with the Children of Old Leech do so for power and money and immortality. The cost of these things is exceedingly high, but as in our world, people can do the most frightful things for the most basic of reasons. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Dancing in the Dark

Silver Linings Playbook: adapted by David O. Russell from the novel by Matthew Quick; directed by David O. Russell; starring Bradley Cooper (Pat), Jennifer Lawrence (Tiffany), Robert de Niro (Pat Sr.), Jacki Weaver (Dolores), and Chris Tucker (Danny) (2012): While not the most realistic depiction of mental illness in movie history, Silver Linings Playbook does have its heart in the right place insofar as Bradley Cooper's character really does need to take his meds. Jennifer Lawrence, not so much. And ballroom dancing isn't presented as a cure for all forms of mental illness, though at times it seems awfully close.

Lawrence, who won the Best Actress Oscar for 2012 for her role in this movie, is very good. She's developed some sort of weird muscle control that gives her a mask-like face at times, the features softening at others. Is it acting or is it Botox? I don't know. But it works with the character, whose depression precedes the death of her husband, after whose death things fall completely apart.

Cooper is also excellent. He nails the delusional rhythms of mania, the boundless delusional energy. And he conveys the subsequent exhaustion nicely as well. He's a sharp actor with surprising depths. He sells certain aspects of his mental problems without recourse to exposition, and rings true throughout. Robert de Niro is anachronistically measured and controlled as Pat's occasionally delusional, OCD-afflicted father, and Jacki Weaver shines as Pat's long-suffering mother, who seems to be the only fully sane person in the movie.

The fairy-tale quality of Silver Linings Playbook probably irked a lot of people who deal with mental-health issues on a daily basis. And it really is a fairy tale, though thankfully one with a certain measure of permanent darkness. Most of the comedy flows from plausible scenarios -- I especially liked Pat repeatedly waking his parents up at 3 a.m. to rant about a novel he'd just read. And Pat's obsession with his estranged wife's high-school English course syllabus rings true as well, something that's funny from the outside but also a symptom of deep mental distress.

Ultimately, Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy about severely screwed-up people, and if it's not truly realistic, it's still a more laudable portrayal of characters with mental-health problems than, say, the ludicrous A Beautiful Mind. Recommended.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Time Wasters and Time Abysses

Horror Express: written by Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Zimet; directed by Gene Martin; starring Christopher Lee (Saxton), Peter Cushing (Wells), and Telly Savalas (Captain Kazan) (1972): Highly enjoyable 1970's Italian horror film in which those two Hammer Studios horror greats, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, get to fight on the same side for once.
Lee plays a British archaeologist of the early 20th century who unearths the body of a strange hominid from a Chinese cave and then bundles it up and puts it on the Trans-Siberian Express so as to get it home to study. Cushing plays a rival scientist who's curious about what exactly is in the crate Lee has in baggage. Needless to say, bad things start happening.

Lee and Cushing are both excellent as reluctant science heroes, as is much of the international supporting cast. Telly Savalas (!!!) shows up near the end to chew all the available scenery as a power-hungry Cossack officer. There's some real tension and horror here, effective special effects and make-up, and a loopy scientific explanation for things that fits right in with some of the loopy pseudo-science of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One supporting character seems to be based on the infamous Rasputin. Recommended.

Parker: based on the character created by Donald Westlake and the novel Flashfire; written by John J. McLaughlin; starring Jason Statham (Parker), Jennifer Lopez (Leslie Rodgers), Michael Chiklis (Melander), and Nick Nolte (Hurley) (2013): Mediocre time-waster does no favours to Donald Westlake's super-thief Parker. The two heists are handled so perfunctorily here that all of the joys of a good heist movie are neglected, probably because the film-makers wanted Statham to kick ass, which is really his strength as an actor. His weakness as an actor is playing anyone other than kick-ass Jason Statham. There's not a moment here in which he seems believable as a master thief. A section in which Parker pretends to have a Texas drawl while wearing a giant cowboy hat seems like something out of SCTV's 3-D Midnight Cowboy.

The film-makers waste Michael Chiklis, Bobby Cannavale, Wendell Pierce, and Nick Nolte in supporting roles, while Jennifer Lopez is game but far too well-coiffed and well-ornamented to be plausible as a desperate real estate agent with severe cash-flow issues. Perhaps worst of all for a heist film, it drags. Not recommended.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Imago, Imago, Imago

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron (Collected 2007) containing the following stories: Old Virginia (2003); Shiva, Open Your Eye (2001); Procession of the Black Sloth (2007); Bulldozer (2004); Proboscis (2005); Hallucigenia (2006); Parallax (2005); The Royal Zoo is Closed (2006); and The Imago Sequence (2005): Barron's fictional cosmos, in which most and possibly all of these early stories take place, exudes dread. Barron himself is a marvelous writer who seemed to arrive fully formed in 2000, as good or better than all of his contemporaries, and then proceeded to get better over the following decade.

As with H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, Barron's fictional cosmos deploys many of the trappings of supernatural fiction in service to what is really science-fictional horror. What seems to be supernatural is really the result of beings and sciences too far beyond humanity to be fully fathomed by Barron's protagonists. None of the seemingly supernatural beings we encounter is remotely benign.

Humanity isn't so much cattle to many of these beings, per Charles Fort's classic construction, as it is game. Modern, 21st-century game animals, hopelessly doomed by the firepower of the modern hunter, still striving to escape while terrible things laugh at their impotency in the face of torture, death, dismemberment, or worst of all, transformation at the hands and tentacles and proboscises of their tormenters.

What helps set Barron apart from the majority of those who have followed in Lovecraft's squamous, gambrel, rugose footsteps is the nature of many of his protagonists. Most tend to be the hardest of hard-cases: professional killers, enforcers, former soldiers, Pinkerton men. When they come face to face with the ravenous, cloachal, aggressively sadistic god-monsters that populate the dark place of the Earth, they find themselves punching way, way above their weight class. But by God, many of them keep punching. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.

Barron's keen eye for both psychological and physical description is a joy to behold, regardless of the awfulness of what it is he's beholding. Even the worst protagonists seem benign compared to what they're facing.

There's a real sense of pathos in "Hallucigenia," to cite one example, in which a millionaire real-estate developer whose business practices are mostly loathsome but legal -- he specializes in displacing the poor in places such as Viet Nam so as to build factories -- comes up against...something. Something in an abandoned barn in the Pacific Northwest, where many of Barron's stories are set. Is he being punished? Well, no, I don't think so: Barron's universe, like Hemingway's, doesn't discriminate morally in terms of who it kills. Or eats. Or tortures. Or transforms.

There are awful wonders here, and marvelous images, and a measured approach to the accumulation of psychological detail. There are oddities I can't recall reading in any other horror writers. And there's a tremendous amount of re-readability, both to catch all the things you missed the first time, and to make the connections among the stories collected here and elsewhere. The stories can all stand alone, but the various intersections of characters, names, and locations often add extra levels of dread and delight. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Bedford Falls

The Keeper by Sarah Langan (2006): This atmospheric and chilling horror novel features first-rate characterization and the development of a real sense of place. Langan sets her first novel in the small, depressed Maine town of Bedford -- and over the course of the novel, Bedford falls. Ghosts and monsters walk the streets.

Indeed, the sheeted dead really do squeak and gibber in the Bedford streets at points, along with other monsters. The monsters of Bedford, though, are the manifestations of all its buried secrets. They have not invaded from Outside.

Langan uses third-person narration to delve into the inner lives of several characters, and does so skillfully without neglecting the atmospheric description necessary to showing the physical and social disintegration of the town as a whole, as both place and imaginative gestalt. At points, she "cuts loose" with visceral, physical horrors, but these things never take over the narrative. This is not a gross-out.

As with so much horror, supernatural events arise from human failure. Child abuse and alcoholism are the chief sins explored here, along with the morally corrosive effects of keeping secrets on both the personal and civic level. Bedford has its own skeletons, literal and figurative, in its closet. The closing of its primary industry before the novel begins becomes, over the course of the novel, a judgment on the town's failings -- and then it becomes something more complex and affecting.

Langan's characters are nicely developed, and their fates, for the most part, evade boiler-plate horror conventions. Startling moments in which the supernatural bursts into the "real" world abound. Through it all, Langan builds a convincing supernatural world populated by flawed human beings. There's evil here, but also hard-won goodness, very faint, very human, absolutely necessary. Recommended.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Goin' Down the Hell!

The Shrine: written by Jon Knautz, Brendan Moore, and Trevor Matthews; directed by Jon Knautz; starring Aaron Ashmore (Marcus), Cindy Sampson (Carmen), Meghan Heffern (Sara), and Trevor Matthews (Henryk) (2010): Surprisingly well-made Canadian straight-to-DVD cheapie ($1.5 million budget according to IMDB, less than the cost of one episode of an hour-long American drama TV series). It's another Bad Road Trip movie, though in this case the road trip has a point: an ambitious, up-and-coming journalist (Carmen) wants to discover what happened to a vanished, young American traveller somewhere in Poland.

Things are a bit rough for the first 20 minutes, but pick up once we leave America (well, America as played by Pickering, Ontario) for the rural wilds of Poland (well, the rural wilds of Poland as played by Pickering, Ontario). The people doing the accents and the Polish sound pretty convincing to this non-Polish speaker.

More importantly, there's real cleverness at work with the set design, make-up, and props. There's a dreadful mask-thing whose purpose only becomes completely clear at the end of the film. There's also some nice moments inside a fog bank, and a great scene involving a demonic statue. The film also plays with subjective POV in a relatively sophisticated way.

The ending, while undermined a bit by too much footage of prosthetics that look less and less real the longer the camera lingers, ultimately satisfies and makes sense of the proceedings. My only major caveat is that the prologue gives away things that would better be discovered as the narrative unfolds. The actors are convincing, and while their lines don't sparkle, they get the job done. There are echoes of Robert E. Howard's classic horror story "The Black Stone" here, among others. And the film-makers restrain themselves from offering too lengthy an explanation for the goings-on. As in, one spoken line! Recommended.

Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon): written by Charles Bennett, Hal E. Chester, and Cy Endfield, based on the short story "Casting the Runes" by M.R. James; directed by Jacques Tourneur; starring Dana Andrews (Dr. John Holden), Peggy Cummins (Joanna Harrington) and Niall MacGinnis (Dr. Julian Karswell) (1957): It's too bad there's no way to see the pure Charles Bennett version of this movie: producer Hal E. Chester added some unfortunate bits (including the infamous demon close-up which doesn't frighten anyone) and probably subtracted others.

What's left is still a fine horror movie with outstanding performances throughout. It isn't patricularly faithful to the M.R. James short story it adapts, though most of the logic of the supernatural is kept intact. Niall MacGinnis is a stand-out as the mostly malevolent magician, who nonetheless dotes on his mother and seems to be mostly, charmingly harmless unless you disagree with him.

The long-shots of the demon are relatively effective, though its more sinister manifestations remain, in master horror-director Tourneur's hands, shadows and fog and noises off-screen. One of the oddities of Chester's decision-making with the demon lies in the fact that it's smaller than a man in James' story but a looming, King-Kong-sized giant here. Sometimes less is more, especially when it comes to horror. Recommended.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Sledgehammer Massacres Also

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: written by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper; directed by Tobe Hooper; starring Marilyn Burns (Sally Hardesty), Allen Danziger (Jerry), Paul A. Partain (Franklin Hardesty), William Vail (Kirk), Teri McMinn (Pam), Edwin Neal (Hitchhiker), Jim Siedow (Old Man), Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface) and John Dugan (Grandfather) (1974): One of the remarkable things about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is how little graphic violence actually appears on screen. The makers pretty much manage what Alfred Hitchcock did in the shower scene in Psycho in terms of tricking the audience into believing it's seen terrible things that never actually appear on screen, but they do so for 90 minutes, not 17 seconds.

It's a terrific movie, filled with dread and grotesque comedy, terrible images, and sudden action. Reviewers who compared it to a nightmare were quite right, I think -- the suddenness of occurences in nightmares, and certain things all people dream fearfully of, especially flight from something dreadful and perhaps inescapable. And then they woke up. Maybe.

Made for very little money, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre nonetheless doesn't seem low-budget. The acting is solid throughout; the grainy 16mm film stock perfect for the grunginess of the environment the five unlucky travellers find themselves in. Hooper and company also conjure up a nightmarish soundscape meant to suggest what cattle would hear in a slaughterhouse. That works too.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre made an astonishing multiple of its production budget in several theatrical releases in the 1970's and early 1980's. It kickstarted what I tend to think of as The Bad Road-trip sub-genre in horror movies, one which thrives to this day. It also pretends to be a re-creation of a "true story" (it isn't), and it gives us one of the first iconic monsters in post-classical horror movies, the human-mask-wearing Leatherface. Who keeps a pet chicken in a bird cage. Seriously. And it's a weirdly disturbing moment, the revelation of that chicken.

Another reason I think the film disturbed so many is its attention to suggestively occult set design. There's nothing supernatural about the monsters in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but their interior decorating (well, and exterior decorating in a nearby cemetery) gestures towards a baroque world of fetishized death and decay.

Nearly 40 years after its release, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains an influential classic in any film genre. It's a work of transformative brilliance that ends with what feels like one long scream climaxing in a chase sequence that's like a horrifying Keystone Kops routine. John Laroquette supplies the opening voiceover narration, for which he was paid one marijuana joint. Groovy. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Northern Horror: Canadian Fiction Magazine: edited by Edo van Belkom, containing the following stories: The Transaction by Scott H. Urban; Wavelength by Terence M. Green and Andrew Weiner; The Spruce Tree by David Shtogryn; Heart by Edo van Belkom; Rideau by Kathryn Ptacek; Vermiculture by Nancy Kilpatrick; Writhe, Damn You by Ed Greenwood; Warmth by Scott H. Urban; Advertising Hell by Peter Sellers; Shadow of My Father by Michael Bracken; Sewage Treatment by Stephanie Bedwell-Grime; Skin by Scott Nicholson; The Party Over There by Nancy Baker; Sitters by Del Stone, Jr.; Comes a Cool Rain by Michael Kelly; Above It All by Robert J. Sawyer; and Mrs. Thurston's Instrument of Justice by David Nickle (2000):

Apparently, there always has to be a point at which Canadian literature announces it has 'arrived' in some area -- lyric poetry, comic writing, or in this case, horror fiction. By 'Canadian literature,' I simply mean those people running literary magazines or university literature departments or reviewing books in The Globe and Mail. They're not all the same people, but the canonizing end of the CanLit pool is shallow enough to be remarkably incestuous, even now.

This 13-year-old issue of Canadian Fiction magazine, as editor Edo van Belkom notes in the introduction, told the world that Canadian horror fiction had arrived. Arrived where? I'm not sure. This is an awfully mediocre selection of stories, representing the best work of none of the writers whose names I already know. There are some traditional CanLit tropes at work throughout, including somebody having sex with either an animal or a tree ("The Spruce Tree", which is I guess the Arabesque companion to Marian Engel's Bear), people trying to survive terrible weather ("Warmth"), and people being sexually assaulted by family members (OK, that's not a Canadian trope, but it sometimes feels like one).

The collection also gives us a comic horror story that would be twice as good at half the length ("Advertising Hell", by the improbably named Peter Sellers, is mildly funny until it overstays its welcome by about 2000 words).

We also get an entry I'll leave un-named in one of my two or three least favourite horror sub-genres, one I've dubbed The Damnation of Nobody because the stories always involve dreadful things happening to a person because the person isn't Excellent enough. It's a sub-genre whose patron saint is Harlan Ellison, and it's deeply unpleasant once one pieces together what an unpunishably excellent life would be (generally, that would involve being a writer, the most Excellent type of being on the planet, and not some stupid accountant or teacher or truck-driver, all of whom lead lives not worth living). Don't punish your characters for having ordinary lives, kids. You don't want to be an insufferable prick.

So, anyway, not a very good collection. There are good Canadian horror writers, and have been for quite some time. But this collection doesn't really announce anything. Not recommended.

Karl Malone's Crypt of Terror

The Mailman by Bentley Little (1991): Like several Golden-Age science-fiction writers, Bentley Little's style is plain while his ideas and plots are baroque and sometimes nearly absurd. This makes him the most interesting of contemporary American 'plain-style' horror writers. I honestly never know what paths his novels will take to their conclusions. Or what those conclusions will be.

The Mailman is about as 'normal' a horror novel as Little is going to write. A stranger comes to town and Bad Things Happen. That's the set-up for a lot of horror over the years. Hell, that's the last two-thirds of Bram Stoker's Dracula!

In the course of the novel, however, Little does a couple of things differently: he evades any and all explanations for why a seemingly supernatural, malevolent mailman is threatening a small Arizona town, and he has the townspeople realize very early on that something is really, really amiss. The novel's about (increasingly inexplicable) apathy in the face of mounting evidence, not the more standard 'wait for the evidence' plot. Why don't people act in light of overwhelming evidence? Good question.

The characters, especially the father, mother, and 11-year-old son whom the Mailman seems especially obsessed with, are keenly and sympathetically drawn. Little's prose is about as basic as prose can be, and he's got the unfortunate tic of using actor-shorthand to describe people ("He looked like Broderick Crawford"). Nonetheless, a more-than-competent horror novel, and one with a fascinatingly odd choice of villain (even moreso now than in 1991 when The Mailman came out, obviously). Recommended.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Twelve Tales of Suspense and the Supernatural by Davis Grubb, containing the following stories: Busby's Rat; The Rabbit Prince; Radio; One Foot in the Grave; Moonshine; The Man Who Stole the Moon; Nobody's Watching!; The Horsehair Trunk; The Blue Glass Bottle; Wynken, Blynken and Nod; Return of Verge Likens; and Where the Woodbine Twineth (1964): Davis Grubb was a fine regional writer whose excellent novel The Night of the Hunter had the good fortune to be made into an excellent movie directed by Charles Laughton and starring Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish. Grubb wasn't exclusively a genre writer, but he did write a lot of stories that could be classified as such, 12 of which are collected here.

The Night of the Hunter's dense, almost Faulknerian prose wasn't Grubb's normal style. The stories here are smooth and flavourful, touched with the rustic and the colloquial but never overpowered by metaphor or the twee the way Bradbury could be. Fantastic horror appears in several stories, though others ("Radio", for example) are psychological suspense that wouldn't have been out of place on an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Stories chronicle rural life in the Midwest and the Southern United States, but are not limited to it. "Radio" is an urban horror; "Nobody's Watching" is a comic bit of science-fiction whimsy set in the broadcasting business; it's the sort of story that Kurt Vonnegut would make his career on. "The Man Who Stole the Moon" also reads like a lost Kurt Vonnegut piece of a gentler sort. Though I compare these stories to the work of others, however, they really are written in a distinctively Grubbian (!) voice, deftly switching among emotional states.

Grubb's flair for combining the horrifying and the absurd stands out in several stories. At times, he resembles the droll John Collier; at others, Ray Bradbury in full nostalgia mode: both contemporaries. "One Foot in the Grave" would have made a great EC Comics horror story. "The Rabbit Prince" is probably the most Bradburyian bit of whimsy here, featuring as it does a magical travelling carnival, a summer vacation, and a young boy as its protagonist. It's a funny story, tinged with a bit of sadness, and should probably be anthologized a lot more often.

So, too, should "Where the Woodbine Twineth" be better known. I've actually seen this story imitated almost verbatim a couple of times, but its own fresh horrors remain singular and oddly disturbing. It's a humdinger. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Baptizing the Dead

The Ring 2: based on previous film and novel work by Koji Suzuki and Hiroshi Takahashi, written by Ehren Kruger; directed by Hideo Nakata; starring Naomi Watts (Rachel), David Dorfman (Aidan) and Simon Baker (Max Rourke) (2005): Here we go again. The homicidal ghost from The Ring continues to kill people in the year 2005 who are still using VCRs. Reporter Naomi Watts still has a lot of time to investigate the ghost's origins, not all of which were discovered in The Ring.

Hideo Nakata, director of the original Japanese Ringu, brings a certain amount of visual flair to certain scenes. Still, interminable exposition and a ghost with no real limits makes for dull viewing for long stretches. David Dorfman, reprising his role as Watts' vaguely psychic son, does a good job. Much of Simon Baker's role appears to have been left on the cutting-room floor. No wonder he headed to TV to become The Mentalist! Not recommended.


Warm Bodies: adapted and directed by Jonathan Levine from the novel by Isaac Marion; starring Nicholas Hoult (R), Teresa Palmer (Julie), Analeigh Tipton (Nora), Rob Corddry (M) and John Malcovich (Grigio) (2013): From the Forbidden Planet school of extremely loose Shakespearean film adaptations comes Warm Bodies, in which Romeo is a zombie whose sudden love for Julie/Juliet causes him to gradually turn back into a human again.

Droll bits early and late comes mostly from zombie R's narration. The middle gets swamped by Young Adult romance. Chaste Young Adult Romance. He's still a zombie, and only vampire movies explicitly sanction teen-aged necrophilia as an admirable lifestyle. Sort of enjoyable, though the CGI on the really-bad 'skeletal' zombies is completely awful and unconvincing. Lightly recommended.

13 Eerie: written by Christian Piers Betley; directed by Lowell Dean; starring Katharine Isabelle (Megan), Michael Shanks (Tomkins) and Brendan Fehr (Daniel) (2013): They made this Canadian horror movie for $3 million. In Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan! The low budget and filming location are the most interesting things about this warmed-over bit of zombie nonsense.

Six forensics students, their professor, and an unfunny comic-relief Dogsbody head to a secluded island for their final field exam. They take an hour in a boat and some time in a converted school bus to get there, seems pretty odd later when they're all standing by a highway. Apparently, it's only an island on one side. Various zany experiments were conducted on convicts. Then the government left everything, including the undead convicts and the undead chemical barrels that made them undead, behind. And some other stuff. The zombies look like Peter Jackson orcs. Not recommended.


Seven Psychopaths: written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Sam Rockwell (Billy), Colin Farrell (Marty), Christopher Walken (Hans), Woody Harrelson (Charlie), Tom Waits (Zachariah), Olga Kurylenko (Angela) and Abbie Cornish (Kaya) (2012): Writer-director Martin McDonagh's In Bruges was an enjoyable film for those of us who miss the earlier, funnier, and most importantly shorter Quentin Tarantino, he of spicy gangster stories and not hyperviolent historical epics from Earth-Bizarro. And there are apparently a lot of people in Hollywood who miss that Tarantino, given In Bruges' Oscar nominations and what-have-you.

Here we've got another chatty, violent meta-drama with a twisty plot and extremely eccentric characters. This one's about a writer's-blocked, alcoholic screenwriter (Colin Farrell) whose buddy (Sam Rockwell) steals people's dogs with another man (Christopher Walken) so as to collect the reward from a grateful owner when they 'find' and return the dog. The screenplay Farrell's working on is entitled Seven Psychopaths. And there are.

Violent fun ensues, along with a certain amount of Bazooka-Joe-level philosophizing. Laughs come from some surprising places, including the revelation of the identity of the Zodiac Killer. Not great, but not boring. Recommended.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Lost in Time

Dark Skies: written and directed by Scott Stewart; starring Keri Russell (Lacy Barrett), Dakota Goyo (Jesse Barrett), J.K. Simmons (Edwin Pollard), Josh Hamilton (Daniel Barrett) and Kadan Rockett (Sam Barrett) (2013): It's as if someone beamed this movie in from 1992, before The X-Files ever hit the airwaves. The alien-abduction storyline is right out of The X-Files, as is much of the UFO mythology mined by the movie (which is to say, they mine the same resources -- The X-Files didn't invent many of the tropes it used). Even the movie's title is shared by an X-Files knock-off TV series of the mid-1990's devoted to UFO conspiracies.

It's not a bad movie. It's not really a good movie. Maybe if a viewer had somehow remained completely unaware of the UFO abduction sub-genre, it would be better. I don't know. Along the way, writer-director Scott Stewart shovels references and homages to other movies, from E.T. to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Poltergeist, into the mix. And those are just the Spielberg moments.

A suburban family under financial pressure because of the architect-father's inability to get work and the real-estate-agent mother's inability to sell a house starts experiencing spooky things at home. Their youngest son reports talking to a mysterious being he calls the Sandman. In an homage to Poltergeist, someone or something does some physics-challenging furniture rearrangement at night. Nose bleeds, black-outs, and lost time start to occur. Somebody raids the refrigerator. Yes, aliens have arrived, doing those things aliens have been doing since the 1950's. Can this suburban family defend itself against invasive aliens with magical technology?

J.K. Simmons is pretty much wasted in the role of Basil Exposition, while the child actors are competent and the actors playing the parents, Felicity's Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton, are also fine. The movie is competently staged and shot. Meanwhile, the aliens acquire a bewildering array of powers by the end of the film -- they're pretty much the Swiss Army Knife of monsters. Only the ending surprises in any way. But hey, at least it's not a found-footage film! Lightly recommended.

Solomon Kane's First Homecoming

Solomon Kane: based on the character created by Robert E. Howard; written and directed by Michael J. Bassett; starring James Purefoy (Solomon Kane), Max Von Sydow (Josiah Kane), Rachel Hurd-Wood (Meredith), Pete Postlethwaite (William Crowthorn), Alice Krige (Katherine Crowthorn), and Jason Flemyng (Malachi) (2009): It's a shame this origin story for one of Robert E. 'Conan the Barbarian' Howard's finest heroic creations never got a North American theatrical release. As movies based on Howard's work go, this is immensely good.

Solomon Kane doesn't have the weird, sweaty, portentous grandeur of the original Conan the Barbarian, but it's certainly better-acted and better-written than that odd classic. This is a dark yet ultimately hopeful movie, devoid of Camp and metafoolery, committed to its peculiar (and very Howardesque) version of English history.

Indeed, the main cast suggests nothing more than a Masterpiece Theatre production gone rogue into the wilds of American pulp. James Purefoy is great as Solomon Kane at the beginning of his demon-fighting career, and the rest of the talented cast and crew seems similarly invested. It's like watching real historical drama acted by real actors, only with awesome sword-fights and monsters! Madness! No wonder it couldn't secure an American distributor!

The story begins in the year 1600. After escaping a demon who tells him that someone has already sold his soul to the Devil, kill-crazy British privateer Solomon Kane retires to an English Abbey to repent of his sins and remake himself into a Man of Peace. He will fight no more forever.

But God's got other plans for him. Before long, Kane's trying to single-handedly stop Northern England from being overrun by Satan's Army. You know, just like it happened in the history books. An invasion of England by Hell really is suitably Howardesque, though, despite the fact that almost nothing in the movie is drawn from Howard's actual work. The big, gloomy Texan loved to scramble history in his blood-soaked sword-and-sorcery melodramas.

Howard's stories, fragments, and poems about Solomon Kane only briefly refer to his 'origins' as the Renaissance World's premiere monster-fighter. And this film doesn't really synchronize with Howard's references: nowhere in Howard's work is the suggestion that Kane had to repent of anything. He was an evil-killing machine from the beginning. He probably beat up ghosts while still in the womb. However, contemporary heroic-origin movies tend to need a character arc of redemptive psychology. At least in this case, the psychological growth trends towards Kane's acceptance of his mission as for the public, and not just the personal, good.

In any event, there's lots of sword-fighting and musket-firing. There's crucifixion, an old Howard standby. There are several nicely visualized supernatural beings, including a creepy looking fire demon and some truly unpleasant things lurking inside some supernatural mirrors. There's a rain-swept, plague-ravaged, burned-out landscape to quest across, a Waste Land to be redeemed.

A little more stillness and time for character development would have been nice. As is, though, this is quite the propulsive action-adventure movie. It's a shame there won't be more installments. I'd have liked to see writer/director Michael J. Bassett's take on Kane's loopy African adventures amongst the vampires, harpies, shambling super-blobs, evil men black and white, and sympathetic gorillas of the 'Dark Continent.' Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


The Ring: based on the novel of the same name by Koji Suzuki and the Japanese film of the same name by Hiroshi Takahashi, adapted by Ehren Kruger; directed by Gore Verbinski; starring Naomi Watts (Rachel), Martin Henderson (Noah), David Dorfman (David), Brian Cox (Richard Morgan), jane Alexander (Dr. Grasnik), Lindsay Frost (Ruth) and Shannon Cochran (Anna Morgan) (2002): AKA, the remake that launched a thousand Hollywood remakes of Asian horror movies. If you watch a short film on a videotape, you die seven days later!

Some judicious editing might have occluded the film's central problem, which is that beneath its endless investigation and exposition of the 'cause' of the central haunting, nothing really makes any sense. To cite one spoiler-free example, much of the plot hinges on somebody building something on top of something else in a way never before seen on Earth so as to supply one of the movie's 'A-ha!' moments.

To cite another, Naomi Watts, as the film's protagonist, launches an investigation of why certain life-threatening eerie things are happening, she's a reporter? Given that the supernatural is confirmed roughly 20 minutes into the movie, Watts might be expected to find out if there's a way to stop a ghost. Or she could investigate the ghost's origins because she's got nothing better to do for the next week. At the end of the week, the ghost will kill her. So what the Hell, let's investigate the ghost's origins. Because if there's one thing we've learned from horror movies, it's that knowing the origin of a homicidal supernatural being always allows one to defeat said being.

Gore Verbinski's direction occasionally produces interesting imagery, much of it from the music-video school of the Prettily Photographed Surreal. Watts is fine in the lead role. As is revoltingly standard in Hollywood movies of all shapes and sizes, her status as a devoted career woman makes her morally suspect, and perhaps may even be thematically linked to her 'punishment' by supernatural forces.

And the laborious connecting-the-dots to explain everything about the spooky videotape (which still isn't nearly as spooky as Un Chien Andalou, any number of David Lynch sequences, or several dozen music videos I can think of) is an exercise in wasted energy. They've got a homicidal ghost, and the filmmakers seem to be more worried about whether it's realistic for said ghost to be able to make a videotape. Oh, brother. Not recommended.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Dead Marshes

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1983): If you've seen the recent film adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe, please note that the novel's plot bears only superficial similarities to that movie, as becomes obvious exactly one sentence into The Woman in Black.

The Woman in Black is a tremendous homage to ghost stories of the classical English type from the 19th and early 20th century. Hill's prose is pitch-perfect: it reads like an English ghost story from that time period, the prose as controlled as the subtly building narrative of horror. This is a novel of subtle, building horror which gives the reader both a haunted house and a haunted landscape and uses both to great effect.

With something of a nod to Great Expectations, it's the story of a callow youth told by his much older, wiser self. This ghost story owes debts to a lot of writers, perhaps M.R. James and Henry James most of all, though at points it seems closer to some of Edith Wharton's ghost-story nightmares. There's a chapter title that tips a hat to one of M.R. James' two most famous ghost stories, and a rumination by the narrator on the limits of natural courage when faced by the supernatural that's almost a direct quotation from an early 20th-century William Hope Hodgson story.

The young, early 20th-century English barrister whose older self narrates the novel is a sympathetic figure whose rationality is no match for what awaits him in a small English coastal town. Forever surrounded by salt marshes and the sea, the townspeople do not want to talk about the wealthy, elderly woman whose death has brought the narrator to them to settle the affairs of her estate. To do so, he has to spend time in Eel Marsh House (!), the woman's now-empty mansion, situated on a spur into the sea, cut off from land transportation with every high tide. And then there's the eponymous Woman in Black, whom the narrator first sees at his client's funeral and whom no one will answers questions about.

I won't say any more about the particulars of the story except to note that, like many traditional ghost stories, it's 'told' (by the narrator, that is) at Christmas, that its roots lie in the strictures imposed upon woman in Victorian society, and that the malevolence of the circumstances the narrator finds himself in are masterfully constructed. This is a short gem of a novel by any measure. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Bond Camp

Never Say Never Again: written by Lorenzo Semple Jr., based on the story by Ian Fleming, Jack Whittingham, and Kevin McClory; directed by Irvin Kershner; starring Sean Connery (James Bond), Kim Basinger (Domino), Klaus Maria Brandauer (Largo), Barbara Carrera (Fatima Blush), Max von Sydow (Blofeld), Bernie Casey (Felix Leiter) and Rowan Atkinson (Nigel) (1983): Thanks to some bizarre copyright issues, the rights to the James Bond novel Thunderball were never completely held by the traditional Bond production team.

Thus, another movie or movies could be made by another company with a screenplay based on Thunderball. Never Say Never Again was the result in 1983, with Sean Connery returning as James Bond 11 years after he had last played the role in Diamonds are Forever.

Roger Moore's tenure as Bond was winding down in 1983, though that year's official Bond entry, Octopussy, still outgrossed this movie. Connery looks game but a little tired here, and the pacing seems off, and the movie overlong by about 20 minutes and one too many changes of locale. Klaus Maria Brandauer does make for a surprisingly sinister Bond villain, while Barbara Carrera and Kim Basinger do OK work as Bond girls evil and good, respectively.

The tone shifts even more abruptly than usual for a Bond film, from parodic to serious and back again. That may partially be because of the screenwriter, Lorenzo Semple, who helped turn both the Batman tv series of the 1960's and the 1980 Flash Gordon film into smirking parodies of themselves. It's not quite Camp here, but it's close. M and the rest of the Bond hierarchy take the most severe beating, though Rowan Atkinson's first big-screen appearance, as an MI6 operative played solely for laughs, also grates. Bernie Casey is fine as CIA agent Felix Leiter, and actually has something to do other than supply exposition.

The prime oddity of Never Say Never Again is that the first thirty minutes or so play like a dry run for the recent Bond movie Skyfall, as a rundown James Bond faces suspension and the Double-O program itself faces termination in the wake of political changes. An historical oddity, Never Say Never Again also acts as a weird psychological test -- viewing a James Bond movie without the familiar soundtrack never feels entirely comfortable. That the score for this movie, and the title song, are both unremittingly terrible doesn't help things. Lightly recommended.


House on Haunted Hill: written by Robb White; directed by William Castle; starring Vincent Price (Frederick Loren), Carol Ohmart (Annabelle Loren), Richard Long (Lance Schroeder), Alan Marshal (David Trent), Carolyn Craig (Nora Manning), Elisha Cook Jr. (Watson Pritchard) and Julie Mitchum (Ruth Bridgers) (1959): Producer-director William Castle famously tried 'gimmicks' with many of his horror movies. This one featured a skeleton model jumping out at the audience at the right moment. Oh, Hollywood!

House on Haunted Hill features Vincent Price as a henpecked, possibly homicidal husband who invites five strangers to a house he's rented to see if they can survive a night in a haunted house. Each survivor's reward will be $10,000. Why is he doing this? And why do he and his wife hate each other so much?

There's a lot of charm here, much of it on the Camp side of the equation. Also, some extraordinary screaming from two of the three female leads. The shock ending left me a bit disappointed -- it really seems as if there should be one further reversal because of the goofiness of what we've witnessed.

The acid-filled pit really didn't help my suspension of disbelief either. Maybe it was different in the 1950's. Maybe the audience members nodded and thought, 'Yeah, I've got one of those in my basement too!' Still, Price is his usual silky presence, and Elisha Cook sweats bullets throughout. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, October 31, 2013


Oz the Great and Powerful: based on characters created by L. Frank Baum, written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire; directed by Sam Raimi; starring James Franco (Oz), Mila Kunis (Theodora), Rachel Weisz (Evanora), Michelle Williams (Annie/Glinda), Zach Braff (Frank/Finley), and Joey King (Girl in Wheelchair/China Girl) (2013): With Seth Rogen or even Jack Black as the titular con-man-magician-turned-Wizard-of-Oz, this film would have been much more entertaining for all its stretches of limp dialogue and simplistic sermonizing. Instead, we get James Franco as an earnest vacuum. His lack of affect (and effect) makes Keanu Reeves look like George C. Scott.

There are a lot of lovely visual effects. And once the film actually makes it to the Land of Oz, things do get moving, though a molasses-slow epilogue ruins some of that. Boy, though, Franco is a terrible leading man for this sort of movie. Why, Sam Raimi, why? Bruce Campbell, who has a minor speaking role, would actually make a funny Wizard. And as Raimi restages the climax of Army of Darkness (aka Evil Dead 3), which starred Bruce Campbell, for the climax of this picture, it would make things even funnier. But Franco can't even act in the middle of a battle-preparation montage.

And oh, the psychology. We learn the paper-thin motivations of the Wicked Witches, of Glinda the Good, of the Wizard of Oz. Truly this is a dark time for blockbusters now that everyone has to have a personal motivation for everything they do.

Applied to real life, imagine that every janitor was a janitor because dirt killed his father, every auto worker an auto worker because a car saved his life. It's all 21st-century Hollywood screenwriting crap, and the sooner we escape the terrible gravity well of simplistic personal motivation, the better. No wonder video games outgross blockbusters. Still, nice visual effects. Lightly recommended.

Evil Dead: based on the original film written by Sam Raimi, written by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues; directed by Fede Alvarez; starring Jane Levy (Mia), Shiloh Fernandez (David), Lou Taylor Pucci (Eric), Jessica Lucas (Olivia) and Elizabeth Blackmore (Natalie) (2013): Made with the participation of original (The) Evil Dead writer/director Sam Raimi, this Evil Dead makes some smart changes to the low-budget 1980's horror film that launched the careers of Raimi, his brother Ted, and star Bruce Campbell.

The first is to come up with a weirdly plausible new reason for the inevitable trip to a cabin in the woods: four of the five characters are staging an Intervention/Drug DeTox for the fifth, Mia, who appears to have a heroin problem. The second is to alter the tone to one of more seriousness, or at least more angst, for the first two-thirds of the film. The Evil Dead is far less loopy than sequels Evil Dead 2 or Army of Darkness, but next to this Evil Dead, it looks like a Warner Brothers cartoon.

Are there problems? Of course. The addition of a dog to the cast of probably doomed characters goes nowhere, possibly because the filmmakers shied away from graphic violence involving a dog as either victim or perpetrator. The characters are a little shrill at points, though this may be intentional -- certainly, the issues of the various characters are intentional, as is at least one resolution to those issues. The angst tends to overwhelm any attempts at witty or blackly comic dialogue, though. Diablo Cody (Juno) was apparently brought on as a script doctor to add such wit, but it isn't all that apparent what her contributions are.

Gore and violence come in increasingly rapid, escalating waves as the film progresses. Nail guns (an homage to Raimi's Darkman?) and electric meat cutters do some terrible stuff. Several characters take levels of physical punishment that would have made Bruce Campbell's Ash proud. If you're going to be a character in an Evil Dead movie, you've got to be able to take a beating and keep on punching back. The film bounces ideas from all three previous installments around, sometimes in newly effective ways, though I wish they'd worked the overwrought tape recording of the archaeologist into something other than the closing credits. I love that guy.

Through it all, the Book of the Dead remains indestructible and weirdly attractive to otherwise intelligent characters in search of bathroom reading. Even barbed-wire wrapping and annotated warnings from some previous reader of the tome can't stop the high-school teacher from reading an incantation out loud. Stupid teachers! The filmmakers finally jettison most of the serious dramatic tone for the final twenty minutes, cutting loose in a manner more consistent with the series as a whole. Frankly, it's a relief. And the identity of the survivor or survivors comes as something of a surprise. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Roughing It in the Bush of Ghosts

An American Werewolf in London: written and directed by John Landis; starring David Naughton (David Kessler), Griffin Dunne (Jack Goodman), Jenny Agutter (Nurse Alex Price) and John Woodvine (Dr. Hirsch) (1981): Revisionist werewolf movie may be the best thing writer-director John Landis ever did from a stylistic standpoint: he actually seems to be a director here, as opposed to someone pointing a camera at chaos (Animal House, The Blues Brothers).

Landis's love for old B-movies is an unassailable fact. An American Werewolf in London riffs overtly and implicitly on the Universal Pictures werewolf mythology: characters talk about it, while events follow the logic of the Lon Chaney, Jr. Wolfman in all his tragic, furry glory.

Backpacking American college students on a Great Tour of Europe somehow make their way to Northern England, which turns out to be a terrible idea because, you know, werewolves. Griffin Dunne's character gets off easily; David Naughton's character gets infected and wakes up three weeks later in London, England, where the paranoid villagers have shipped him. A whirlwind romance with a lovely nurse ensues. Terrible nightmares that occasionally seem to have been cribbed from Heavy Metal magazine also ensue.

And then comes the full moon.

Landis shows more invention here than in all his other movies combined: his peculiar take on werewolves keeps things fresh and unpredictable despite the fact that the narrative will ultimately be very, very predictable. Naughton's callow nature and bemused expression grew on me over the course of the movie -- he doesn't have the baffled, confused physicality of Lon Chaney, Jr. as a man whose life has gone to Hell through no fault of his own, but he certainly plays bewildered well.

The transformation effects by Rick Baker and Rob Bottin became justifiably famous and much-imitated to this day. The full-size werewolf 'puppet' is a bit less convincing, and should probably have been kept off-screen as much as possible: its best moment comes in a truly excellent and atmospheric extreme long-shot in a Tube station. Still, entertaining, sad, and intermittently unnerving. I'd imagine the English village the students happen upon must be located only a few short miles from the island of The Wicker Man. Recommended.


The Last Halloween (aka Grave Halloween): written by Ryan W. Smith; directed by Steven R. Monroe; starring Kaitlyn Leeb (Maiko), Cassi Thomson (Amber), Dejan Loyola (Terry) Graham Wardle (Kyle), Jesse Wheeler (Brody), Tom Stevens (Skylar), Jeffry Ballard (Craig) and Hiro Kanagawa (Jin) (2013): Surprisingly competent SyFy Channel TV movie about the usual gang of idiotic young people wandering around a haunted woods. It's the sort of time-waster that's better than 90% of the theatrical releases made on the same template, but that's not saying much: there are a lot of bad horror movies out there.

But for a movie whose star, Kaitlyn Leeb, is most famous for playing the three-breasted hooker in the Colin Farrell-starring remake of Total Recall, the bar is pretty low. And Leeb is pretty, though back to two breasts. It's a TV movie, so there's no nudity, which is unfortunate.

British Columbia stands in for Japan here. Good old British Columbia! Does it ever get to play itself? A lot of the trees may have previously appeared on Stargate SG-1. College exchange students go into Japan's "Suicide Forest" (which is real) to make a documentary about Leeb's attempt to find her birth mother's body and conduct a ritual to send her tortured soul on to the Great Whatever. This has to be done on Halloween, a holiday I was not previously aware was on the traditional Japanese calendar.

Interesting things happen sporadically until somebody makes the terrible decision to bring on the stereotypical zombie/possession make-up. Leeb's mother is a possessed Linda Blair from The Exorcist! No wonder things go awry!

But I was entertained. Leeb being nude would have made things more entertaining. Oh, well. I can always look at photos of her winning the Miss CHIN bikini pageant. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Some Endings and Beginnings

John Constantine Hellblazer Volume 5: Dangerous Habits: written by Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis; illustrated by Will Simpson, Steve Pugh, Sean Phillips, Dave McKean, and others (1991; collected 2013): Brit Jamie Delano was the first full-time writer for occult detective/punk mage John Constantine, a character created by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and Rick Veitch over in the pages of Saga of the Swamp Thing in the mid-1980's. Constantine got his own adult-oriented book in the late 1980's, with Delano tapped to write it.

Delano wrote 40 issues and a few annuals and miniseries entries before passing the baton to the up-and-coming Irish comics writer Garth Ennis. This volume collects Delano's last handful of regular Constantine issues and Ennis's first six-issue arc.

Constantine, hardest of the occult hardasses, is in something of a downward spiral in Delano's final issues. The psychic cost of fighting evil -- and inevitably getting one's friends and lovers killed during the battle -- has taken its toll. Delano probes Constantine's childhood in a striking horror tale, "Dead Boy's Heart," before turning to the incandescent wrap-up to 'his' Constantine.

What a wrap-up! Issue 40 of Hellblazer contained rare interior artwork by Dave McKean (probably still best-known today for his covers for Neil Gaiman's Sandman). I think it's one of the artistic highpoints for nominally mainstream comic books during the 1980's, dense and detailed to go along with a dense, detailed prose look at Constantine's life and works. This could have served as a fitting end to the series had it been cancelled, but Ennis came aboard with issue 41.

Under the circumstances, Ennis wisely went with the tactic of briefly mentioning the events of issue 40 and then never, ever mentioning them again. DC's decision to put Ennis on the book was something of a stroke of genius. He and Delano are both gifted horror writers, but of almost completely different stylistic modes. Where Delano is baroque and intellectual, Ennis is visceral and bleakly comic in a punk sort of way. To some extent, splatterpunk had come to Hellblazer.

Delano did benefit from some lovely, horrifying artwork at the end of his run, other than McKean. Steve Pugh's grotesques worked perfectly for the Grand Guignol two-parter he illustrated, while the cooler Sean Phillips meshed perfectly with Delano's writing on their issues together. Ennis wasn't quite so lucky early on -- Will Simpson, who pencils Ennis's first six issues, is not a gifted artist when it comes to horror, though he rises to the occasion at points.

Anyway, the first five volumes of the re-edited and re-compiled Hellblazer are marvelous, though why this series didn't get the hardcover treatment the second time around is a puzzle. Unless DC is about to scrap this reprint series and start another one in hardcover. Which, given the mercurial nature of DC's publishing habits these days, is entirely possible. Hidey ho! Highly recommended.


The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross and a host of others (2013): Brilliant companion piece to the equally brilliant, ongoing comic-book series The Unwritten delves deeper into the backstory of the series while also offering the reader a dead-on pastiche of Young Adult fantasy novels.

Indeed, the world Carey, Gross, and other artists conjure up for the first volume of the imaginary Tommy Taylor series is filled with more wonder and interest in 60 pages or so than the entire Harry Potter series. And it comments on the sinister implications of a separate race of magic users walking among the powerless mundane. A great work on its own, and a great and rich expansion of the series, which has about 12 issues left to run in its storyline. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 25, 2013

At the End of the Line

Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper (1992): Author Ben Hamper appears in Michael Moore's first documentary, Roger & Me, to discuss assembly-line work and mental breakdowns. Hamper wrote for Moore's Michigan left-wing newspaper for nearly a decade before the movie appeared in 1989, doing first record reviews before branching out to stories about his life on the assembly line at one of the GM plants in Flint, Michigan. Hamper would eventually become famous enough to write for Mother Jones and to get coverage in the Wall Street Journal and other national media outlets.

Hamper's fame was based on his hilarious, scabrous depictions of life on the assembly line, where doing a good job and being extremely drunk often went hand-in-hand. The mind-crushing reality of repetitive line-work Hamper describes caused most of the people on the line around Hamper to find a variety of coping strategies, from daydreams to bizarre games (Rivet Hockey, anyone?) to 'doubling up', in which line-mates immediately beside or opposite each other would learn each other's jobs so that one person could then do the work of two while the other person took some time off.

Hamper's personal odyssey was that of a generations-long line of GM line employees. But as the stretch at GM stretched into years, GM itself began to close its factories in Michigan and begin the long job of eliminating much of its American workforce. Hamper was in and out of work, but the stress of the line also began to take its toll.

Hamper combines sarcasm, cynicism, and a keen eye for description into an absolutely... rivetting... read. As the American Way of line-manufacturing disintegrates, Hamper offers a ground-level view of that disintegration. Should people be paid a (relatively) lot of money to do this stuff? Well, it's soul-crushing, mind-destroying work. So yes. But should we live in a world where people get their minds and souls crushed for our collective need for cheap automobiles and other products? Well, no. That seems pretty clear by the end of the book.

Hamper's depiction of the petty politics of the work-floor, the ridiculous PR schemes by the GM executives (a Quality Cat mascot being only the most absurd of many absurd things), the endless self-medication by the workers with booze and drugs, and most importantly the numbing nature of linework in all its physically taxing, mentally null glory...all these things combine to make Rivethead one of the great books about blue-collar work in the industrial age. Welcome to the late 20th century's version of Blake's dark, Satanic mills. Now get back to work. Highly recommended.