Saturday, May 13, 2017

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from the novel by Jack Finney; directed by Don Siegel; starring Kevin McCarthy (Dr. Miles Bennell), and Dana Wynter (Becky Driscoll): Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the first of four (!) film adaptations of Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers, and it's still the best.* 

I'd put it in a list of both Top 25 science-fiction movie and Top 25 horror movies ever made. And the term it made popular 60 years ago -- "pod people" -- remains in our mass-cultural lexicon to this day, used primarily now by people who probably have never seen the movie, much less read the novel it's based on.

Made on a shoestring budget, Invasion of the Body Snatchers became a surprise horror hit in 1956. Don Siegel's direction and Daniel Mainwaring's script keep things tight, perhaps a bit too tight when it comes to the rapid acceptance by several characters of an invasion of pod people. But that's a minor quibble. 

Kevin McCarthy does a fine job portraying the gradually mounting paranoid exhaustion of a man who doesn't dare go to sleep, and Dana Wynter is fine as well as McCarthy's love interest.

It's the creepiness of the concept, and that concept's portrayal, that makes the whole movie sing. You will be replaced by an emotionless replica of yourself -- and that replica will talk about how great this development is. This first adaptation keeps the mechanics of the 'changeover' murky, which is a plus. A couple of later adaptations would make the switch from person to pod-person a piece of graphic visual horror (and a job for the garbage-men). 

The studio found the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers too disturbing to release. So they added a frame narrative. It's a little annoying, but not too much so. Of course, all versions diverge radically when it comes to the novel's ending. And critical interpretations also differ as to the movie's sub-textual commentary on the American state of affairs c. 1956. 

Is this an allegory about Communism? (Joseph) McCarthyism? Consumerism and mass culture? Good question. As the movie isn't really 'about' any of these things, it supports all the above interpretations and more. Highly recommended.


* Followed by Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Body Snatchers (1993), and The Invasion (2007).

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Night of the Lepus (1972)

Night of the Lepus (1972): adapted by Don Holliday and Gene R. Kearney from Russell Braddon's The Year of the Angry Rabbit; starring Stuart Whitman (Dr. Roy Bennett), Janet Leigh (Gerry Bennett), Rory Calhoun (Cole Hillman), and Deforest Kelley (Dr. Elgin Clark): This legendarily bad horror movie of the 1970's is indeed wonderfully bad. What makes it fun rather than unwatchable is that the cast is totally invested in everything that's going on. They're old pros. 

Indeed, they really are old pros -- this movie's cast is middle-aged and older in a way one almost never sees any more. The men are all grizzled and pleasantly homely. Janet Leigh is middle-aged and looks it. Everyone can act except the awful little girl who actually sets the environmental disaster in motion. She is terrible, though the film-makers do her no favours by having her yell "Mommy!" about a thousand times over the course of the movie.

Based on a novel with the improbable title The Year of the Angry Rabbit, Night of the Lepus involves man tampering with nature and accidentally creating giant, omnivorous, ultra-violent rabbits that soon rampage across the American Southwest. 

This is an actual shot from the movie of the giant rabbits in a restaurant.

With today''s CGI, this would be a hard sell. The movie resorts to a guy in an unconvincing rabbit suit for scenes involving people getting mauled. The rest of the rabbit effects involve slow-motion shots of rabbits running through miniature sets and close-ups of rabbits with what appears to be ketchup on their mouths. 

Fine moments abound as the rabbit horde imperils life as we know it. I'll leave you to the joy of discovering them yourself. Note that movie posters of the time didn't show the rabbits, suggesting that someone at the studio realized what a stinker they had on their hands. Do you know what isn't menacing? A still shot of rabbits sitting on a mound of dirt while sinister music plays. It just isn't. Recommended as a bad movie.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu (1922): adapted by Henrik Galeen from Barm Stoker's Dracula; directed by F.W. Murnau; starring Max Schreck (Count Orlok), Gustav von Wangenheim (Hutter), Greta Schroder (Ellen), Gustav Botz (Professor Sievers), John Gottowt (The Paracelsian), and Alexander Granach (Knock): Ah, Nosferatu. Director F.W. Murnau and his film team adapted Bram Stoker's Dracula without paying for it. Stoker's estate successfully sued to have all copies of the film destroyed. But the film, like a vampire or Steven Seagal, turned out to be hard to kill. 

The trick is to see a decent restored version, as Nosferatu has endless, crappy, public-domain versions floating around on the Internet and on cheapo DVD's. If it's in black-and-white, it's probably crappy: Nosferatu was tinted different colours throughout. The late Nash the Slash used to tour bars with a copy of Nosferatu to accompany with electronic music. Good times!

The film itself remains the finest adaptation of Dracula, legal or otherwise, ever made. It's the sinister, otherworldly quality of Max Schreck as Count Orlok that dominates the film, and memories of that film, a triumph of make-up and silent-film acting and Murnau's compositional talents. 

Schreck looks so bafflingly inhuman that a movie was made about Schreck actually being a centuries-old vampire (Shadow of the Vampire). The Schreck vampire designs continues to pop up again and again in pop culture, whether in Werner Herzog's remake of Nosferatu, the 1970's TV adaptation of Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot, or in that episode of Angel set mostly on a submarine during WWII. 

Unless you're stoned immaculate, you'll probably want to watch Nosferatu over at least a couple of nights. The pacing is deliberate, which is to say slow and a bit scattered. But again and again visuals show up that are striking and disturbing. 

Silent film hadn't started to 'move' much in 1922, so most of the striking visuals are static. Peculiarly effective are shots of forests with the negative flipped, and pretty much any scene with Orlok in it. At times, he's a grasping shadow against a wall. In other shots, one waits in suspense for his appearance. Everybody run! Ship-board shots in which Orlok comes creeping out from hiding or rises board-straight from supine to erect still conjure a sort of abject dread.

The TCM copy I watched was extremely text-heavy -- it made me wonder if Murnau later made the almost-text-free The Last Man/ aka The Last Laugh in part as a reaction to the preponderance of explanatory intertitles required for Nosferatu. Oh, well. 

There is some humour in Nosferatu, though most of it is unintentional. The sequence following Orlok's arrival at the town he will soon start depopulating is the height of this inadvertent humour as we follow Orlok, coffin under his arm, as he searches for his new home. Funny as it is, it's still better than anything in any of Bela Lugosi's Dracula films. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Madness of Cthulhu Volume 2 (2015): edited by S.T. Joshi


The Madness of Cthulhu Volume 2 (2015): edited by S.T. Joshi, containing the following stories:

  • Foreword by Kim Newman
  • Introduction by S. T. Joshi
  • 20,000 Years Under the Sea by Kevin J. Anderson: Captain Nemo vs. Cthulhu.
  • Tsathoggua’s Breath by Brian Stableford: Solid, quasi-historical piece set in Viking-era Greenland resembles some of Clark Ashton Smith's pieces more than HPL.
  • The Door Beneath by Alan Dean Foster: Quasi-historical piece set in the 1980's involves Soviets experimenting with stuff they found in the Antarctica of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.
  • Dead Man Walking by William F. Nolan: Peripherally Lovecraftian piece from the venerable William F. (Logan's Run) Nolan more resembles a classic Jules de Grandin story.
  • A Crazy Mistake by Nancy Kilpatrick: Paranoia and madness follow a researcher doing research into the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • The Anatomy Lesson by Cody Goodfellow: Biology!
  • The Hollow Sky by Jason C. Eckhardt: Antarctic excavations and global warming and shoggoths in the present day.
  • The Last Ones by Mark Howard Jones: A nod to the Deep Ones of HPL's "The Shadow over Innsmouth."
  • A Footnote in the Black Budget by Jonathan Maberry: Action Cthulhu!
  • Deep Fracture by Steve Rasnic Tem: A typically elusive, allusive piece by Tem.
  • The Dream Stones by Donald Tyson: Canadian horror on the East Coast brings the star-stones of At the Mountains of Madness to Halifax. I particularly like how Tyson approximates the first-person narrative of some of HPL's especially freaked-out characters while nonetheless making the story's characters and events very much material that HPL couldn't (and wouldn't) have touched upon in the 1920's and 1930's.
  • The Blood in My Mouth by Laird Barron: Rare misfire by Barron puts one of his typically damaged male narrators on a collision course with a vaguely defined alien threat.
  • On the Shores of Destruction by Karen Haber: Doom!
  • Object 00922UU by Erik Bear and Greg Bear: Fun, slightly overlong science-fiction piece plays with the conventions of 'spaceship finds artifact with something gooshy inside.' The threat in this case dwarfs pretty much any similar threat depicted in a movie or story, though the Bears have trouble firmly establishing the cosmic vastness of an artifact described as being as large as six Jupiters (!).

The omnipresent S.T. Joshi serves up the second volume of a two-part anthology in which many (though not all) stories have been inspired in some way by HPL's chilling 1930's short novel At the Mountains of Madness. It's fun, though a little short on actual cosmic terror and a little long on me needing to take a break from contemporary Lovecraftian fiction. Recommended.

Demons (2002) by John Shirley

Demons (2002) by John Shirley: Really a two-part novel with the halves composed about a decade apart. Demons starts as a splattery supernatural horror novel before metamorphosing into a reality-bending adventure about 100 pages in. One day in the near future, thousands of apparent demons of seven different varieties invade Earth and start killing, torturing, and acting like dicks on the Internet. And that's just the beginning.

The novel shifts into Philip K. Dick territory, and then shifts further into the sort of metaphysical science fantasy that Colin Wilson hit people on the head with back in the 1970's in bait-and-switch novels like The Space Vampires and The Mind Parasites. The philosophies espoused here are much more palatable than those in Wilson's novels. Moreover, Shirley keeps his characters fallible and the ground-level stakes in view. The scenes of horror towards the end of the novel are more Zombie Apocalypse than Demonic Invasion, but they're repeatedly framed in terms of human loss and sorrow.

I liked Demons a lot. Your response may vary depending on how much mystical lunacy you're willing to withstand. Recommended.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In Cold Blood (1965) by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood (1965) by Truman Capote: Truman Capote's crowning achievement. If you're as old as me, you remember Truman Capote as an effete, sneering presence on game shows and talk shows of the 1970's. But he was a great writer, once, and In Cold Blood really is an essential piece of American writing. 

It's also a landmark in novelistic reportage. It's been adapted twice, once as a movie and once as a TV miniseries; the events surrounding Capote's research into the facts have also spawned two movies, Capote and Infamous. Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Oscar for Best Actor for playing Capote in Capote

In 1959 near Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family (the father, mother, teen-aged son, and teen-aged daughter) were murdered by person or persons unknown. Capote was in the area within a couple of weeks to cover the investigation. The murders were brutal enough and mysterious enough to briefly spark national outrage.

The killers would turn out to be Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, two petty criminals who'd come up from Texas to the Clutter home because Hickock had been told stories by his cellmate during a recent prison stay that the Clutters kept all of their money at home in a safe. The Clutters did not actually do this. The small amount of money the two murderers got from the Clutter home was soon used up, though a couple of items taken by Smith would help clinch the case against them once they were apprehended.

The brutality of the murders and the subsequent revelation that they were essentially meaningless fascinated America for a time, especially once Smith and Hickock were caught several months after the Clutter massacre. 

The stories and questions that swirl around the writing of In Cold Blood -- and specifically how involved Capote became with Smith and Hickock -- have come to obscure what a triumph the book is. Capote's vivid descriptions of place, character, and happenstance are marvelous and heart-breaking and occasionally sinister. He concisely presents the Clutters and their killers, the investigators and the neighbours, and a wide variety of other 'characters' both central and peripheral to the case. 

If Capote had too much sympathy for Perry Smith in real life, it doesn't particularly show in the book: Smith is a fascinating charmer, but also a man capable of complete indifference to lives other than his own. It was Hickock who fantasized before the fact about slaughtering the Clutters, but it was Smith who actually did the killings: perversely, he did so after making three of the victims more comfortable and, in a paradoxical bit of humanity, preventing Hickock from raping the daughter before killing her. 

Hindsight allows for certain new observations to make about Smith and Hickock. They both may have suffered from traumatic brain injuries as adults as a result of auto accidents. Hickock's obsession with killing the Clutters often presents itself as murderous envy spawned by a life of poverty and privation. Both Smith and Hickock seem to possess the uncanny charm often attributed to certain types of psychopaths. And so on, and so forth.

In Cold Blood does a lot of things very, very well. It's also a fine 'real-life' police procedural, and a fine 'real-life' court procedural. It's a testament to fine writing and reporting. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Darklings (1985) by Ray Garton

Darklings (1985) by Ray Garton: Zippy 1980's horror novel from Ray Garton seems to have been read by the makers of 1987's The Hidden. When a dying serial killer arrives in a California ER, he gives the hospital a bonus: an eruption of squiggly, wiggly worms that possess people and cause them to act on their basest impulses. Very, very basest. 

A doctor, a nurse, and a lab technician team up to uncover the mystery behind the mind-worms -- and hopefully the source. Garton moves everything along briskly and entertainingly in this early novel. Characterization is deft, and the novel is rewardingly tight -- there's no bloat here. Scenes of graphic horror are not for the squeamish, but Garton's work never feels exploitative. It's the 1980's, so there's a whole lot of smoking and mustaches. Recommended.