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.