Thursday, February 23, 2017

Charlie the Choo-Choo (2016) by Beryl Evans


Charlie the Choo-Choo (2016) by Beryl Evans (Stephen King) and illustrations based on original artwork by Ned Dameron (whatever that means): Fun, sinister spin-off from Stephen King's Dark Tower series gives us the children's book that warned Jake about psychotic AI/public transportation system Blaine the Mono[rail]. Beautifully produced and fun for Dark Tower fans of all ages. Will King also write the version of Charlie the Choo-Choo credited to Claudia y Inez Bachman? Only time will tell. Highly recommended.

Deadman's Road (2010) by Joe R. Lansdale

Deadman's Road (2010) by Joe R. Lansdale, containing the following stories: Dead in the West (1986); Deadman's Road (2007); The Gentleman's Hotel (2007); The Crawling Sky (2009); and The Dark Down There (2010). Texas horror, Western and thriller legend Joe R. Lansdale gifts the horror reader with the collected adventures of Reverend Jedidiah Mercer here. Mercer stalks the Post-Civil-War American West in search of monsters to lay a beating on. The stories are ultraviolent and often bleak: the body count is high for friends and foes of Mercer alike. 

One could almost imagine Robert E. Howard smiling down (or up) at these stories as a bleaker, Western take on his 16th-century monster-fighter Solomon Kane. Mercer's religion is even darker than Kane's -- his God is no God of mercy, and Mercer does his bidding because he really has no choice in the matter.

Dead in the West: Lansdale's short novel introduces Mercer and about as much of his back story as we get. Conflicted about serving God, hitting the bottle hard, Mercer finds himself dropped unwillingly into a battle against zombie-vampire things raised against a town by the Native American shaman the town murdered. Dead in the West was meant to be a movie -- and it would make one gore-soaked Western.

"Deadman's Road": Mercer is now more sanguine in his monster-fighting duties, this time against a burrow-living zombie with a thing for bees. Mercer's problems keeping a horse alive continue through to the end of the collection. So, too, the terrible meals he's stuck eating in almost every adventure, described lovingly and in great detail by Lansdale.

"The Gentleman's Hotel": A pitched, weird battle against Undead Werewolves, sort of. Mercer's attempt to keep his horse alive does not go well.

"The Crawling Sky": A Lovecraftian whatsit haunts a house, and a well. Say goodbye, horse.

"The Dark Down There": Kobolds enslave silver miners. Explosions follow.

In all, a highly enjoyable collection that makes for a fast-paced, ultraviolent read. Makes the version of Christianity seen in Stephen King's The Stand seem like a happy circle singing "Kumbaya." But the horrors come razor-wrapped in grim good humour, often Mercer's. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

(Wo[e])Man vs. Supernature: The Road to Victory

End of Days (1999): written by Andrew W. Marlowe; directed by Peter Hyams; starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (Jericho), Gabriel Byrne (Lucifer), Robin Tunney (Bride of Satan), Kevin Pollak (Comic-relief Sidekick), CCH Pounder (Bad Detective), and Rod Steiger (Father Rod Steiger): 

Dumb, often inept apocalyptic action movie that basically recasts the plot of The Terminator in Judeo-Christian terms (well, that plot borrowed from the Annunciation, so sauce for the goose...) and makes the Terminator the hero. Well, Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't a robot. He's woefully miscast as a burned-out, alcoholic ex-cop-turned-security-grunt  mourning the murder of his wife and daughter at the hands of a criminal syndicate he testified against.

I mean, woefully miscast. Arnold may look like a lot of things, but despairing dissipation is not in his acting toolbox. This movie might have been marginally better with someone like Mickey Rourke in Arnold's role. However, I'm not asking for a remake.

The action sequences range from inept to competent. Kevin Pollak, as Arnold's comic-relief sidekick, has nothing to do and possesses absolutely no charisma or comic talent anyway. So we'll recast him with... oh, who cares?

The mystical Christian stuff gets dumber the more it's explained. You know you're in good hands when you note that they've got a Hebrew document upside-down in the opening credits. The screenwriter (who would go on to create the TV show Castle, so good for him) also invents an order of Catholic Monks (the Gregorians, a mistake caused by all those monks selling albums of Gregorian Chants, I'd wager). And a complete inversion of the meaning of End of the World in the Book of Revelation. And a priest named Thomas Aquinas, a name no one comments on. And so on, and so forth. Tuco's Dad (or was he Tuco's grandfather?) in Breaking Bad plays the Pope. Yay!

Arnold Schwarzenegger really works hard here, but he was getting old and the character was way, way out of his range. Rod Steiger shows up in his last studio film to chew the scenery and keep people interested for as long as he's on-screen. Arnold survives a crucifixion, harking back to Conan the Barbarian. Satan just wants to get a girl pregnant between 11 p.m. and midnight, New York Time, on December 31, 1999. Yes, it's very similar to Vigo the Carpathian's plan in Ghostbusters 2, where he has to possess Sigourney Weaver's baby by midnight on New Year's Eve. Ho hum.

The Satan Creature does look pretty good, so kudos to the Stan Winston Creature Shop. Too bad we only see it clearly for about 10 seconds. Gabriel Byrne does what he can with Satan the Man, but the script is terrible and Gabriel Byrne is not a threatening presence. Oh, well. Not recommended



Ghostbusters (2016): adapted by Katie Dippold and Paul Feig from the 1984 film written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd; directed by Paul Feig; starring Kristen Wiig (Erin), Melissa McCarthy (Abby), Kate McKinnon (Holtzmann), and Leslie Jones (Patty): Part valiant try, part corporate disaster. Paul Feig really wouldn't have been any of my choices to co-write or direct a Ghostbusters reboot. Edgar Wright would have been perfect, given his comfort level with visual effects and the effective integration of those effects into a comedy. 

Feig and co-screenwriter Katie Dippold don't have a clue when it comes to the fantastic elements of Ghostbusters. One of the charms of the original movie was that Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis wrote a screenplay that could have been played completely straight as a supernatural action movie pitting the forces of science against Lovecraftian horrors. In its comedic way, Ghostbusters (1984) is the greatest Humanity vs. The Supernatural movie ever made: it certainly presents a more believable battle with higher stakes than any Exorcist or Omen movie, and all without the creaky apparatus of Judeo-Christian apocalypticism. 

And that movie knew how to deploy its visual effects in service to its story and its comedy. This Ghostbusters just keeps throwing an escalating series of expensive visual effects at the screen in what looks by the end of the film like total panic by Feig and the studio. 

There's nothing wrong with the casting of the distaff new Ghostbusters. I particularly liked Leslie Jones as a subway guard with an encyclopedic knowledge of New York's history. But McCarthy, Wiig, McKinnon, and Jones would have benefited from better writing and a plot that actually builds: the movie goes from set-up to climax without any of the original film's middle complement of successful Ghostbuster operations. 

Chris Hemsworth's idiot receptionist is a clunky puzzle -- he may work as a very broad parody of genre portrayals of women, but he certainly doesn't work as a gender-flipped equivalent to Annie Potts' brassy receptionist from the original.

Beyond that, the villain is terribly uncompelling -- and the movie spends a lot of time trying to flesh out his character. The original wasn't saddled with this problem: Zuul was an approaching force, and William Atherton handled the role of secondary bureaucratic villain without any worries about his backstory. 

If there's any emblem of this movie's misguided nature, it's this: ghosts et al. now throw slime everywhere pretty much all the time, but especially when passing through solid objects. Some slime good, more slime am better, say Hollywood! And let's give Slimer a girlfriend and a car! Yeah. That's super. Not recommended.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Beware the Slenderman (2016

Beware the Slenderman (2016): Documentary directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky: In the end, sometimes less is more with documentaries. In the case of Beware the Slenderman, less style and more substance would have made for a better documentary. It's still a pretty fascinating film, though. 

Beware the Slenderman deals with the 2014 attempted murder of one 12-year-old girl by two other 12-year-old girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Both of the attempted murderers seem to have come from loving homes and also seemed to have no prior history of violence prior to their premeditated stabbing attack on a friend. Over the course of police interviews and psychological examinations, the two girls' obsession with the manufactured Internet urban legend of 'Slenderman' became a key component to understanding the attack.

The interviews (including some Skype comments from Richard Dawkins on the nature of memes) are mostly informative and/or sympathetic. There are no interviews with the girls, though we do see and hear them in police interviews and in phone calls to their parents. 

It's interesting to see how a fictional urban legend created for a site devoted to creating fictional urban legends holds such sway over the girls. But it's also fascinating to observe how what was originally a figure of horror has been transmuted by various writers and artists and consumers on the Internet into a much more complex figure. 

The girls claimed that murdering their friend would give them access to the Slenderman's mansion, located in a nearby forest. Similar fantasies of salvation by the Slenderman (or 'Slender,' as the girls repeatedly, familiarly call him during their police interviews) appear in stories and threads and message boards. He's been domesticated, though it seems primarily by people who long to escape their mostly friendless, tortured childhoods, as the girls seemed to want to do.

The documentary does spend far too much time on various animated representations of Slenderman, provenance unknown. Some are probably from the Internet and others created especially for the film, but the film-makers don't bother telling us this in the body of the film. It's frustrating, especially as there are a couple of areas that need more exposition.

One such area is the origin of Slenderman himself, as a fictional story on the Creepypasta Wiki. What is Creepypasta? Well, the film just barely explains that, and it doesn't explain the origin of the name 'Creepypasta.' I'm guessing that leaves some people completely befuddled. What the hell does pasta have to do with fictional urban legends? The Creepypasta site isn't 'fake news': it's a collaborative fictional project that's already yielded at least one SyFy Channel miniseries (and a damned good one): Channel Zero - Candle Cove started life as a fictional message board thread about a vaguely remembered children's show.

The second such area is Wisconsin law -- specifically, the question of how it is that the Waukesha police were able to conduct hours of interviews with two 12-year-old girls who would subsequently be charged with attempted first-degree murder, all without parents or lawyers present. One police officer briefly mentions that lawyers and parents "weren't allowed" in the interviews. What? As the girls were subsequently charged and sent to trial as adults facing up to 65 years in jail based almost entirely on these interviews, I'm left going... what? What the Hell is going on in Wisconsin?

One missed connection is that between the Slenderman case and a 1954 murder case in New Zealand in which two teen-aged girls conspired to kill one girl's mother. That case, involving Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, was made into Heavenly Creatures, a much-praised 1994 film directed by Peter Jackson.

The film also pulls one narrative trick that would work well in a fictional film but seems awfully artificial in a documentary, this by withholding one key bit of family history for one of the girls until it can be sprung late in the movie. This is just too much narrative tomfoolery, too much artificiality. 

And as I don't believe that non-fiction films can be 'spoiled,' here it is: the father of one of the girls is a diagnosed schizophrenic. This information, and the information that that girl had herself exhibited increasing signs of dementia as early as three, really needed to be laid out early. Overall, though, this is a fascinating examination of many things -- perhaps most notably a truly wonky legal system. Recommended.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Hidden (1987)

The Hidden (1987): written by Jim Kouf; directed by Jack Sholder; starring Kyle MacLachlan (Lloyd Gallagher), Michael Nouri (Sgt. Tom Beck), Claudia Christian (Brenda Lee), Clu Gulager (Lt. Flynn), Ed O'Ross (Detective Willis), Richard Brooks (Detective Sanchez), Clarence Felder (Lt. Masterson), and Chris Mulkey (DeVries): A great cult movie of the 1980's that should be as fondly remembered as The Terminator, but isn't. Plot revelations are part of the fun, so I'll only say that mismatched cop and FBI partners Michael Nouri and Kyle MacLachlan are terrific as they pursue a puzzling series of normal citizens who suddenly turn into crazy killers. 

A great cast of character actors helps elevate the movie, as do Claudia Christian's killer stripper, some extremely good creature effects, and a narrative that's lean and compact. Science-fiction historians can note the movie's extreme similarity to both Hal Clement's classic sf novel Needle and Michael Shea's 1980 novella "The Autopsy." Twin Peaks fans may note that MacLachlan's performance here seems like a practice run for FBI Agent Dale Cooper. Highly recommended.

Man Vs. (2015)

Man Vs. (2015): written by Adam Massey and Thomas Michael; directed by Adam Massey; starring Chris Diamantopoulos: Filmed north of Guelph, Ontario, Man Vs. pits Doug Woods, a minor reality show star, against Something. Woods is filming an episode of his show in the Northern Ontario woods. It's a wilderness survival show in the tradition of so many shows on television. But then something happens, and someone or something starts stalking him. 

Man Vs. is a fairly enjoyable, straight-to-cable movie with an affable protagonist in Chris Diamantopoulos (a recurring bit on Silicon Valley as a the guy who 'invented' Internet Radio definitely shows that he has acting range). The revelation of the menace is a bit of a letdown, as these things go, though the climax manages to throw in a gratifying extra twist. But the movie does do a nice job of slow-burning the tension in its first 70 minutes or so. Recommended.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Teatro Grottesco (2006/ This edition 2008) by Thomas Ligotti

Teatro Grottesco (2006/ This edition 2008) by Thomas Ligotti, containing the following stories:

Purity (2003)
The Town Manager (2003)
Sideshow and Other Stories (2003)
The Clown Puppet (1996)
The Red Tower (1996)
My Case for Retributive Action (2001) 
Our Temporary Supervisor (2001)
His Shadow Shall Rise to a Higher House (1997)
The Bells Will Sound Forever (1997)
A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing (1997) 
When You Hear the Singing, You Will Know It Is Time (1997)
Teatro Grottesco (1996) 
Gas Station Carnivals (1996)
The Bungalow House (1995)
Severini (1996)
The Shadow, The Darkness (1999)

Still the relatively slow-writing Thomas Ligotti's most recent collection, Teatro Grottesco is a droll, horrifying tour of strange places and the strange minds trapped within them. At this stage in his writing career, Ligotti has made the Lovecraftian elements in his fiction into a sinister underlier. No chants, no tentacled bogies: just the terrible hum of a universe so hostile to humanity that humanity may not even exist, or ever have existed, as humanity qua humanity. 

We may all just be puppets of a darkness that plays with us for its amusement. There is no free will, perhaps, because human beings only imagine that they possess imagination and individuality. Nothing real exists. 1999's "The Shadow, The Darkness" is Ligotti's definitive statement on this inhuman condition; fittingly, it closes the collection.

But for all the dismal absurdity of Ligotti's universe, it's also a bleakly comic one at times. "The Clown Puppet" showcases this best. The strange happenings -- happenings that would probably drive a 'normal' narrator insane -- are instead interpreted by our narrator as "outrageous nonsense." Our narrator riffs on various iterations of this phrase throughout the story. He exists in a world so strange that he essentially reacts to (and interprets) irruptions of insanity with a bemused 'Meh.'

Among other modern horrors, Ligotti deals with office life (in "My Case for Retributive Action" and "Our Temporary Supervisor") in ways that make both versions of The Office look like utopias by comparison. The horrors remain murky and partially unexplained, but horrors they are, whether of drudgery or sudden and mysterious death.

It's tempting to read some of these murky yet precise stories as allegory, especially "The Red Tower," which can seem at points like an examination of all human belief and faith. "The Town Manager" seems like it's about something other than its surface story, in which a decaying town is run by a succession of never-glimpsed Town Managers. 

The stories can support a lot of interpretations. They can also be enjoyed simply for their oddness, their existential dread, their linguistic elegance, their commitment to outrageous nonsense. They're destabilizing of one's sense of reality in the way all truly great horror is. Highly recommended.