Monday, March 29, 2010

Movie, Movie

Paranormal Activity written and directed by Oren Peli, starring Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (2007): A pretty effective horror movie, especially at the bargain basement price of about $15,000. We're back in Blair Witch Project territory -- a fake documentary made up of 'found' footage, in this case of a couple dealing with an increasingly hostile supernatural entity that's attached to the woman and not the house in which all the action takes place. If you're like me, you'll eventually find the camera-obsessed boyfriend so annoying that you'll start to root a bit for The Thing.

Misdirection and suggestion carry the day here -- we never really see what's menacing the couple, and the horror of most scenes lies in relatively small actions caught by the camera, and not by big visual effects moments. The couple are curiously dopey when it comes to trying to combat the entity -- we've all seen enough horror TV shows and movies to at least try salt, iron or the always reliable cedar wood, or at least we'd probably look up and try such remedies by, oh, about Day 10 of the haunting.

Still, very effective. I'm glad Paramount didn't try to remake the movie with name actors (apparently, Stephen Spielberg helped get the movie released with its original cast but with a new ending he suggested) -- the anonymity aids suspension of disbelief. One bit of action, though -- an object igniting while both people are away but the camera is still rolling -- goes a bit too far in terms of the creature's powers, and not far enough in terms of a realistic reaction to the event. I'm pretty sure finding out you've got an entity that can light things on fire in your house might elicit more than the 'ho-hum' that happens here. All in all, highly recommended.

Away We Go written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, directed by Sam Mendes, starring John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Jeff Daniels, Catherine O'Hara and Maggie Gyllenhall (2009): Cutesy and somewhat pretentious in the Mighty Mendes (American Beauty) Manner. Krasinski and Rudolph, both quite good, play a boho couple expecting their first child. They end up trekking across the US and into Canada and back, in part to see how other families handle child-rearing. The verdict: everyone's cuckoo, though some are more cuckoo than others -- Alison Janney as a falsely jolly harridan and Maggie Gyllenhall as a bonkers New Agey mother lead the pack of undesireables. There are enough laughs and cringes here to keep one interested, along with a creepy out-of-left-field set piece with a creepy child who blurts out a really creepy speech about babies and breathing. Recommended.

Friday, March 26, 2010



The Invisibles Volume 5: Counting to None by Grant Morrison, Phil Jiminez and various: The nature of reality continues to become more complicated and mysterious. Did the time machine from 2012 inspire the piece of origami that explains the time machine or vice versa? What came through the timestream in 1924? What happened to John O' Dreams, and whsoe side is he now on? And what the hell is Mr. Quimper? The countdown to the end of the world continues. Catastrophe or Eucastrophe? The Invisibles have to decide. Highly recommended.

The Invisibles Volume 6: Kissing Mr. Quimper by Grant Morrison, Chris Weston and various: Maybe he's a creepy telepathic dwarf. Maybe he's a corrupted spirit fallen into the material world. Whatever the case, Mr. Quimper seems to have telepathically infiltrated the consciousness of Ragged Robin, the Invisibles' time-travelling ace-in-the-hole from the far-flung future of 2012. Will the world become an eternal, living machine of perfect, horrible order? Or will something really cool happen when the Mayan Calendar ends on December 23, 2012? Can both outcomes be true simultaneously? Does evil even exist? What the hell is Barbelith? Highly recommended.

The Invisibles Volume 7: The Invisible Kingdom by Grant Morrison, Chris Weston and various: The coronation of the hideous Moon Child on Lammas in 1999 will usher in the final victory of the Outer Church, the worst organization ever. Or will it? All the Invisibles will have to play a part in making sure the end of the world in 2012 is a good thing, but none moreso than Scottish punk Dane MacGowan, foul-mouthed Messiah, upon whom all of humanity's hopes rest. As Invisible College guru Elfayed tells MacGowan, "This is not a war. This is a rescue mission." Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010



The Filth by Grant Morrison and Chris Weston (2002-2003): It's helpful to know that 'the Filth' is British slang for 'the police.' Morrison and Weston present a world in which a secret police force called The Hand works to preserve Status: Q, the normative state of affairs in which humanity remains blissfully unaware of all the totally fucked up shit going on under their noses, shit like flocks of flying, giant sperm laying waste to Los Angeles, or a potential nanomachine plague escaping from a tiny simulacrum of Earth. Greg Feely is a normal, somewhat perverted fellow who finds out he's really super-duper Hand operative Ned Slade. Or maybe he isn't. Or maybe he is and isn't. And what the hell is up with that foul-mouthed, former Soviet super-assassin talking chimp? That guy is a serious dick. A lot of things ride on whether or not Slade/Feely can save his ailing, 15-year-old cat, Tony. Highly recommended.

The Invisibles Volume 1: Say You Want a Revolution by Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell and Jill Thompson (1994-95): As the jacket blurb says, all the conspiracy theories are real. Or at least most of them. It's 1995. The Invisibles are anarchist freedom fighters deployed in five-person cells across the planet. The Outer Church is the real and horrible power behind all authority on Earth. The Invisibles cell we follow throughout this series is down to four members as we begin the narrative -- King Mob, Lord Fanny, Boy and Ragged Robin. They're searching for the one man who may be the next Buddha, Dane MacGowan, a punk Liverpudlian teenager with a foul mouth and a hatred for authority. He needs to join the Invisibles so the world doesn't simply end with the Mayan calendar in December 2012. If Philip K. Dick had written X-rated superhero comics, this might be the result. Special guest appearances by the Marquis de Sade, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley. Highly recommended.

The Invisibles Volume 2: Apocalipstick by Grant Morrison, Jill Thompson and various (1995): Dane MacGowan's off wandering around London and then Liverpool, traumatized by killing a human soldier working for the secret rulers of the world who was about to take him into custody. MacGowan will not kill again, making him somewhat unique in the action-messiah department. But Sir Myles and the Archons have managed to capture Brazilian transvestite sorcerer Lord Fanny and Invisibles leader King Mob. Can Boy and Ragged Robin convince Dane to return and help them save Mob and Fanny? Highly recommended.

The Invisibles Volume 3: Entropy in the UK by Grant Morrison, Phil Jiminez and various (1996): The war between the Outer Church and the Invisible College continues, all in bright colours. Standalone side-stories add to our understanding of the conflict. The Moon Child waits, Great Britain's secret king, subsisting on human bodies, quite possibly the real Prince Charles. "It's all a game. Remember." Mysterious satellite Barbelith waits on the far side of the Moon. Time to get out of Great Britain until the heat dies down. Highly recommended.

The Invisibles Volume 4: Bloody Hell in America by Grant Morrison, Phil Jiminez and various (1996): In a secret underground base in America, the Roswell creature and a cure for AIDS are hidden. Secret trains carrying political prisoners arrive, departing empty. The Invisibles need to get into the base. Is the whole thing a trap? Does it matter? Highly recommended.

You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation!: More Comics of Fletcher Hanks edited by Paul Karasik (1942-43; collected 2009): For about 18 months in the early 1940's, Fletcher Hanks was the weirdest comic-book writer/artist alive. He was also a 50ish alcoholic who had abandoned his wife and children in the 1930's, good for them given that he was also physically abusive. This second collection of Hanks' work finishes (I think) Fantagraphic Books' reprinting of all of Hanks' work in all its ragged, almost dadaesque glory. Hanks' two weirdest superhero creations, Fantomah of the Jungle and Stardust the Space Wizard, are here, as are a bizarre assortment of evil gorillas, space pirates, living alien skeletons and giant boa constrictors. Highly recommended.


Second Variety and Other Stories by Philip K. Dick (1953-54; collected 2002): At this point, critical opinion seems to place Philip K. Dick at the forefront of American science-fiction writers of the 20th century. He's also worked his way into the mainstream canon both here and abroad, while also becoming one of the most revered 'cult' writers in history. Pretty good for a guy who struggled to make ends meet throughout his writing career, and who's been dead for nearly 30 years.

Even early in his career -- as are the short stories in this collection -- imaginative sparks came flying off Dick and his work. He was always obsessed with two fundamental questions -- what makes a human being? and what is reality? -- as can be seen here. There are a few duds sprinkled throughout this collection, which collects about 20 stories written over about 14 months (!), but there are also dazzling mindbenders in the mighty Dick tradition. Those include "The Chromium Fence", in which American society has divided into factions obsessed with body odor and digestive cleanliness; the title story, a grim war tale adapted into the so-so Peter Weller movie Screamers; and "The Last of the Masters", an odd meditation on government and anarchists. Dick also found time to write what must be the first-ever parody of Scientology. Highest recommendation.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Dead? Gravol, Fast!


The Strain: Volume 1 of The Strain Trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2009): We are, perhaps, overprovided with vampire novels right now. If there's one thing this novel by film director del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, the Hellboy movies, Blade 2) gets right, it's to resituate its vampires in the realms of the abject and the horrifying. These may be the least sexy vampires in literary history.

Other than this resituating, The Strain is a competent, derivative novel that sometimes veers close to Tom Clancy territory, with chunks of undigested information on various biological, social and technological topics spotted throughout the text. There's lots of info on rats, guns, airport security, and the workings of the Centres for Disease Control, if that's your sort of thing. Basically, an evil vampire lord conspires with the evil richest man in the world to vampirize first New York and then the world. Various plucky people from various disciplines band together to try to stop the vampire plague. As this is a trilogy, we pretty much end with everything unresolved.

I don't know how much actual writing del Toro did -- I'd guess that he talked things over with Hogan and gave him some rough idea of what he wanted from the plot and characters prior to letting Hogan assemble the thing. And assembled it sometimes feels, as Frankenstein-like, Hogan has stitched together a vampire from other vampires of myth and fiction. Vampires and monsters in movies del Toro has directed supply a lot of material here, along with stuff from other people's work.

Like the vampires who feed on other vampires in Blade 2, The Strain's vampires have hinged jaws. Like the adult alien in the Alien movies, they also have a secondary mouth that can shoot up to six feet out of their mouths. As in the Blade movies ( derived from the Blade comics), there are ancient ruling vampires who normally observe certain rules in their relationship with humanity (the primary rules being, stay hidden and don't eat the entire food supply). As with Stephen Dorff's rebel vampire in Blade, the rebel vampire Sardu intends to overthrow the normal hierarchy and lift himself to ultimate power. The vampire contagion lurks within nasty little worms that infest all vampires and can turn a normal human being into a vampire, reminding me of the ice worms from the first-season X-Files episode "Ice."

There's also a Van Helsing-like figure who's been fighting vampires since the Holocaust. There are Ultraviolet bombs lifted straight from Blade 2, and other familar anti-vampire weapons that include silver swords, ultraviolet flashlights and a nail gun that shoots silver projectiles (the last seems like something out of a Quake game I never saw). Sunlight is the vampire's greatest enemy, though garlic and holy water and religious icons have no effect. All in all, it's a bit of a mish-mash, padded out somewhat so as to occupy an entire trilogy.

The one innovation (or perhaps more accurately extrapolation) del Toro and Hogan present caused me a moment of hilarity which perhaps was not the intention. Vampires of myth and pre-Dracula vampire stories (say, J. Sheridan le Fanu's mid-19th-century "Carmilla") were often described as being found in coffins filled with blood and effluence. The Strain explains this by positing a vampire species with a very rudimentary digestive system without much storage capacity. Basically, while gorging themselves or immediately afterwards, vampires crap and piss themselves. A LOT. I can't remember the last novel that involved so many underground pursuits enabled by the urine and shit trails left to glow in black light by a vampire species seriously in need of Depends. Actually, I can't think of any precedent for prodigious vampire defecation. So kudos, del Toro and Hogan, kudos I say!

Vampires also lack normal human genitalia -- several days into one's vampiric transformation, everything down there is replaced by one cloacha, sort of like a hen's. And yes, there is the unavoidable scene where some guy's shrivelled, rotted weiner falls off to reveal this new genital state of affairs. I did say these vampires were spectacularly unsexy, right?

Like I said, competent, occasionally hilarious in what looks to be a completely unintentional way, and almost endlessly derivative. Not recommended.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Shall Earth Endure?


The Eternal City, edited by David Drake, Charles Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg (Collected 1990): Solid but unspectacular Baen Books reprint anthology of fantasy, horror and science fiction stories that deal in some way with the Roman Empire, including a classic Time Patrol story by Poul Anderson and stories by such stalwarts as Gordon R. Dickson, C.J. Cherryh and David Drake himself. The cover art confirms that Baen Books has had the worst cover art in genre publishing for 20 years and counting. Man, they're terrible.

The Ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein (1984): Klein's one-and-only novel is not just a great horror novel -- it's a great novel in any genre. What he pulls off here is extraordinarily rare, creating a text that manages to work what can be seen as metafictional commentary on, in this case, the entire history of horror fiction into a structurally elegant and compelling horror novel populated with flawed but sympathetic characters. Stripped to its basics, The Ceremonies tells the story of a 30ish New York City grad student in English literature whose thesis is on Gothic and horror literature, and whose life suddenly starts to resemble some of the works he's reading over the course of a summer.

Klein comes up with one of the most innovative reworkings of the "forbidden book" trope in horror fiction that I can think of. Normally, the forbidden book (say, H.P. Lovecraft's Necronomicon) is a text invented for a work of fiction which, within the world of that fiction, reveals in whole or in part the secret workings of the universe. Generally, a forbidden text is rare, dangerous even to read, and filled with knowledge that undermines all cultural norms when it comes to religion. For example, the Necronomicon reveals that all human religion is a comforting lie that obscures the true, horrifying and precarious state of humanity in a universe that is consciously hostile towards us.

But as the malign Old One muses in the novel, forbidden knowledge never stays hidden. As a character in another Klein story notes, if the Necronomicon really existed, it would be available in paperback in any book store. What Klein posits here is that the real forbidden knowledge of the world (which includes the malevolent and world-threatening ceremonies of the title) is, like Poe's purloined letter, hidden in plain sight: an off-kilter tarot deck here, a strange Eastern European folk dance there, and, most significantly, the real Victorian-era horror writer Arthur Machen's sinister tale "The White People" right in the middle of it all. And what the Old One -- a deceptively jolly looking old man turned into a psychopathic apostle of an invader from Outside back when he was a boy in the 1870's -- can do is reassemble the ceremonies from a variety of sources and, when the stars are right, usher in what will be a really, really, really, really bad New World Order, at least for human beings and, in fact, every living thing on the planet.

There are a lot of delights both light and dark in the novel -- Klein's always fascinating evocation of New York; the grad student's often hilariously apt musings on the strengths and deficiencies of various classic Gothic and horror texts (he finds Henry James a big fat bore and "The Turn of the Screw" the most over-rated ghost story in history, an observation I wholeheartedly agree with); the odd rural reality of the Brethren, a vaguely Amish religious group whose settlement in New Jersey is the backdrop for much of the novel; and the horrifying inner life of the Old One, possibly the least romanticized hyper-intelligent serial killer in the history of horror fiction. The novel fairly hums along, dense enough to reward second and third readings but compelling enough to work almost entirely on the level of ever-tightening suspense.

Terrible things happen to good characters here, all of it justified by the text, and while the storyline is dead serious, Klein manages to slip in enough parodies and inversions of classic tropes to keep one intellectually occupied (the novel's gender-inversion of the traditional Lovecraftian Vagina Dentata Invader from Outside is a real pip; so, too, is what happens to the one good character who knows exactly what's going on and has been charged by Something with the task of halting the ceremonies).

In any case, out-of-print and highest recommendation. Existential terror at its most entertaining.


Essential Fantastic Four Volume 4 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (1967-68; collected 2001): Here we enter the beginning of the homestretch for the Lee/Kirby team on Marvel's first family of super-heroes. Intentionally or not, plotter/artist Jack Kirby here begins to rein in his innate tendency to create new characters ever ten pages, contenting himself instead with working variations for the most part on existing villains (Galactus, the Wizard, the Mad Thinker) and supporting characters (Wyatt Wingfoot, Crystal of the Inhumans). Nonetheless, this is still top-notch superhero melodrama in the Mighty Marvel Manner, and does feature the game-changing birth of Franklin, son of Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman. Time had indeed started to pass in superhero land, for all the good and ill that would later prove to bring. Highest recommendation.