Tuesday, October 30, 2012
An ex-patriate Englander in New York starts to see a mysterious little boy on the eve of his trip to Moscow to design an ad campaign for an American soda-pop's first foray into glasnost-era Russia. memories of past failures and betrayals begin to haunt him, always counterpointed with his own justifications and evasions -- we're shown the past and given the protagonist's often wildly off-base commentary upon it. And then, prior to travelling to Moscow, he returns to England to visit his parents.
The telling of the story is much more compliated than the above synopsis makes it, with flash-backs and flash-sideways, numinous 'normal' objects become mythic in memory, fragments of dialogue to sift through, panel composition and colouring to mull over. Zarate does some marvelous things as he moves back and forth from subjective to objective, from crowds to solitude, from the grotesque to the everyday. A fine piece of work that deserves more recognition. Maybe Moore should have stuck a superhero in it. Highly recommended.
Monday, October 29, 2012
Solid but unspectacular Year's Best Horror from DAW, Gerald Page's last volume as an editor. Robert Aickman is weird and unnerving as ever, as are Dennis Etchison and Ramsey Campbell (though Campbell's story is intentionally funny in a Tales from the Crypt way, with a punning title to boot).
Historical fantasy occupies a surprising amount of this volume, with "Amma", "Sleeping Tiger", "Divers Hands" and "Nemesis Place" all occurring in exotic locations of history and legend. Lisa Tuttle goes to the future instead in a story that's quite unnerving, though improbable once one thinks about it too much. Manly Wade Wellman offers another adventure of his ghost-buster Judge Pursuviant; the Schweitzer and Drake stories are also tales of recurring ghost-facers.
The Stephen King story is a curiosity insofar as King hasn't reprinted it in any of his collections. It's not a particularly memorable King offering, which may explain its omission from his collected short stories to this date. Recommended.
Feast or famine in Davis's third and last Year's Best Horror volume. On the plus side, one has Robert Aickman's astonishing vampire story "Pages from a Young Girl's Journal", a fitting companion piece to Sheridan LeFanu's seminal "Carmilla" and one of Aickman's sharpest and most keenly observed psychological studies. One also has an enigmatic story from Ramsey Campbell's transitional phase, a somewhat obvious gross-out from Brian Lumley, and a funny but slight and distinctly unscary story about the cut-throat politics of the publishing industry from Basil Copper.
One also gets the first version of T.E.D. Klein's marvelous "Events at Poroth Farm," a novella that would grow to become Klein's epic and towering The Ceremonies by the mid-1980's. The novella has its own hideous and unnerving charms, along with some fairly unusual intertextual play with the stories and novels that helped shape horror fiction in English up to the point at which Klein wrote his novella. It's like a snarky graduate seminar class and a horror story! Recommended.
Saturday, October 27, 2012
Walter Huston plays Jud Hammond, a corrupt President who does whatever big money and the leaders of his (unnamed) political party tell him to do. But then he gets in a car accident and, instead of dying, emerges from his coma as Super-President!
After firing everyone in his Cabinet except his personal secretary "Beek" Beekman and his former lover Pendula (!) Molloy, Hammond leaps into action to save America from despair, starvation, civil unrest, and organized crime. He declares martial law, making himself the de facto emperor of America, and then puts all the unemployed men to work in his new peacetime army of the unemployed. Soon, the President has opened up all manner of cans of whoop-ass on the forces of evil in this world.
Does the newly energized President have enemies? Sure. But he's also got help. Angelic help. Though we never see the archangel Gabriel, the movie makes it pretty clear that the President has divine help in his campaign to save America and, indeed, the world. Apparently, God is a socialist with fascist tendencies. Who knew?
Huston. always a fine actor (father of John Huston, grandfather of Anjelica) makes a convincing President here under the circumstances -- indeed his acting is finer and subtler than the film itself. Huston makes Hammond slightly off-kilter while he's possessed by Gabriel (or getting advice from him, or whatever's going on) -- he really does seem to be receiving direction from outside his body, direction only he can hear. The rest of the cast is liveable, with a young Franchot Tone solid as idealistic secretary Beekman. All this in less than 90 minutes!!! Recommended.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
The Year's Best Horror XXII-1993 edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1994) containing "The Ripper's Tune" by Gregory Nicoll; "One Size Eats All" by T.E.D. Klein; "Resurrection" by Adam Meyer; "I Live to Wash Her" by Joey Froehlich; "A Little-Known Side of Elvis" by Dennis Etchison; "Perfect Days" by Chet Williamson; "See How They Run" by Ramsey Campbell (aka "For You to Judge"); "Shots Downed, Officer Fired" by Wayne Allen Sallee; "David" by Sean Doolittle; "Portrait of a Pulp Writer" by F. A. Pollard [as by F. A. McMahan]; "Fish Harbor" by Paul Pinn; "Ridi Bobo" by Robert Devereaux; "Adroitly Wrapped" by Mark McLaughlin; "Thicker Than Water" by Joel Lane; "Memento Mori" by Scott Thomas; "The Blitz Spirit" by Kim Newman; "Companions" by Del Stone, Jr.; "Masquerade" by Lillian Csernica; "Price of the Flames" by Deidra Cox (aka "The Price of the Flames"); "The Bone Garden" by Conrad Williams; "Ice Cream And Tombstones" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman; "Salt Snake" by Simon Clark; "Lady's Portrait, Executed In Archaic Colors" by Charles M. Saplak; "Lost Alleys" by Jeffrey Thomas; "Salustrade" by D. F. Lewis; "The Power of One" by Nancy Kilpatrick; "The Lions in the Desert" by David Langford; "Turning Thirty" by Lisa Tuttle; "Bloodletting" by Kim Antieau; "Flying Into Naples" by Nicholas Royle; "Under the Crust" by Terry Lamsley.
This was editor Karl Edward Wagner's last Year's Best horror-short-stories volume for DAW Books before his death at the age of 49 due to complications caused by chronic alcohol abuse. His was a tragic end long foretold, based on most accounts I've read, a slide that went on for more than a decade. Through that slide, he edited more than a dozen volumes of this annual collection (the only such annual collection for horror at the time), and while his writing petered out over that awful span, his editing remained sharp and idiosyncratic right up until the end.
Wagner's editorship tended to focus on short stories rather than novellas and novelettes, which meant that his volumes -- especially the later ones, with much-increased page counts -- sometimes have a ridiculously large table of contents. I think sometimes there must have been one novella out there that year that was better than three of the included short stories, but Wagner's commitment to a certain level of volume introduced readers to a lot of writers who might otherwise have remained mostly unknown.
This isn't Wagner's best Year's Best volume. There are a few too many gimmicky punch-line stories for my taste, and a few too many generic stories with generic titles. But there's also excellence here from Dennis Etchison -- maybe the least well-known great horror writer of his generation due to his concentration on the short story.
And there's a concluding double-punch of fine novellas by little-known writers, "Flying into Naples" by Nicholas Royle and "Under the Crust" by Terry Lamsley, that highlights Wagner's career-long strength as a finder and provider of excellence from unexplored corners of the publishing world. When Wagner died, the DAW series was buried with him. Poor Wagner, but what a legacy he left, singing out of darkness. Recommended.
Sunday, October 21, 2012
Horror was in a boom period in 1991, with splatterpunk rising to the fore. Wagner's selections here in the tenth volume he'd edited of DAW's annual Year's Best Horror is solid and occasionally eclectic and broad of range, with M.R. James-influenced 'traditional' ghost stories rubbing shoulders with splatterpunk, existential horror, sexual horror, and surreal, unease-making entries by Nina Kiriki Hoffman and D.F. Lewis. Alan Brennert's story is a fine bit of Viet Nam horror, while Ramsey Campbell's story suggests that some Greek islands should not be visited by tourists. Recommended.
1988 was a transitional year for horror in general. Slasher movies were on the wane, while the ultra-violence of splatterpunk was on the wax in written horror. Wagner's selection here is mostly solid, though two pieces by the usually solid Ian Watson are startlingly ineffective as horror. Three novellas -- "Fruiting Bodies", "The Great God Pan", and "Recrudescence" -- are the high points here, along with one of the better NuCthulhu stories I've read in awhile, "Souvenirs from a Damnation", and one of Elizabeth Hand's first published stories, "Prince of Flowers." Dennis Etchison is solid and disturbing as always. Recommended.
While watching this second installment, it took me about half the movie to figure out when the third movie occurred (18 years before the other two) and who it involved (the sister-protagonists Katie and Kristi as children and their family). Much of the second movie takes place before the first movie and focuses for the most part on Kristi, the demon-plagued sister of the demon-plagued woman in part one, Katie. I'll give the (now) tetralogy bonus points for wild and wooly non-linear narrative order, especially as four different directors and about eight different writers worked on the first three installments.
While this movie begins to offer some explanations for the occasionally self-destructive behaviour of the sisters-as-adults, it isn't until the third film that one finds out why two characters plagued by verifiable, hostile supernatural activity are so goddamned awful at finding ways to combat it.
As a crucifix proves pretty useful towards the end of this film, I'd expect the rational Dad and the most reasonable person in the film given the circumstances, Kristi's step-daughter Ali, to be wearing clothes made entirely of crosses, rosaries, and handguns when we catch up with them at the end of the movie. Seriously, folks. Paint giant crosses on your doors and windows. And stop going to that one occult site on the Internet that didn't really help Micah in the first movie. There are five million websites devoted to ghost- and demon-busting on the Internet. Jesus, these people are terrible at using search engines!
Thematically, these omissions of reason make a fair amount of occasionally frustrating sense. The adults in the three movies aren't very bright (the teenagers and the older nanny are much smarter), have absolutely no religious beliefs, and are apparently incapable of expanding their demon-busting beyond the Exorcism for Dummies level.
This is a portrait of a terminally stupid and ignorant segment of the American population pretty much doing everything either wrong or in half-measures when confronted by real evil and exposed to real fear. You can apply that to the real-world political situation as you see fit, but while it may be accidental, it's also quite telling -- and makes some of the characterization absurdities seem much less absurd. These people don't know where or when to shoot and can't shoot straight when they do open fire.
Nothing in this second movie approaches the great oscillating-fan shots of the third movie, or the 'standing around' sequences in the first one. The scariest things in this movie are actually an automated pool vacuum and a hot tub. Make of that what you will. Lightly recommended.
Saturday, October 20, 2012
As the endless American occupation of/war with the Middle Eastern country of Afbaghistan goes on and on, U.S. military recruitment levels drop to zero. The domestic economy collapses. People get really pissy. So begins this first collection of Army@Love, the title itself a play on the old Sgt. Rock comic Our Army at War.
Desperately seeking solutions in a world where pop-music success is measured solely by how many ringtones a song sells, the U.S. government decides to rebrand...well, warfare itself. By making it sexy. Really sexy. Periodic retreats allow for orgies of the armed forces. Sex is a recruiting tool. The Hot Zone Club welcomes any military personnel who manage to safely fuck during a firefight, one's success in this endeavour commemorated in a Hot Zone patch on one's combat fatigues. Drugs and alcohol are rampant. Actually, the soldiers are also rampant. Boy, are they rampant.
So too the bureaucrats, the civilian employees, and all the assorted family members, acquaintances, native citizens, and hangers-on. A PR expert and his secretary daily, mechanically work through the Kama Sutra as if it were a How-To guide for Power Point. It's that kind of book.
Quickly, the war becomes a success. It still shows no signs of ending, but now the cool kids are all excited about it. It's a Middle-Eastern Vacation! In this brave new world, soldiers carry their cellphones with them on the battlefield and have mundane conversations while mowing down 'insurgents.' Media coverage of the war is micromanaged and megacontrolled. There's no longer anything resembling 'real' reporting. Just the way the government likes it. Welcome to the Hot Zone. Crisis of confidence averted.
Gary Erskine adds a cleanness of line to Veitch's work that makes this stand apart from much of Veitch's pleasingly shaggy, self-inked pencilling jobs. The writing is sharp, the characters alternately sympathetic and pitiable, the war extraordinarily familiar and almost plausible. Truly one of the great comics of the oughts. If only there were more than 19 issues! Highly recommended.
Thursday, October 18, 2012
Fegredo really did a marvelous job over the last five years or so on the main sequence, his style similar to Mignola's without slavishly mimicking it. Fegredo really became a master of grotesqueries as he went along, though his Hellboy and others always seemed a bit skinnier to me than some of Mignola's blockier creations.
But it's been a heck of a ride, and probably not an easy one to illustrate: the second act of Hellboy left the more familiar plots of the first act behind, moving Hellboy from being a paranormal investigator with the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence to a wandering hero whose quest never seemed entirely clear because Hellboy himself wasn't clear about it -- or sober for long sections of it.
Mignola and Fegredo supply a handy bit of summary towards the beginning here, voiced by Hellboy himself, before moving to the main action. And what action it is, as Hellboy and his giant hand of doom must stop the end of everything or die trying.
Unlikely allies arise, including Queen Mab and Baba Yaga and a mysterious little girl. Loose ends, signs, and portents set up in the previous 11 volumes suddenly start to make sense, often in startling fashion. There is Ragna Rok and King Arthur and the last weird battle in the West. There is an evil badger and a repentant pig. There's a dragon that bleeds molten gold.
And there's Hellboy, perhaps overmatched but always game for a fight. He doesn't know when to stop punching, and while he was born a demon, he's ultimately humanity's best friend. Or fiend. And boy, can that guy take a punch!
Everything comes to a crashing conclusion which is really only an intermission between one important battle and what will ultimately be the war for humanity. And I'm excited to see what's next. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Why? Theories abound. Lugosi was having problems with heroin addiction at the time, and in this B-movie he flubs several lines that nonetheless remain in the final cut. However, it's generally believed that the studio didn't like Karloff's performance as the dual-brained Kingsley/'Red' Cannon figure. So it goes.
Karloff is apparently an Eastern European surgeon with a slight British accent (yes, they didn't change the character name when they moved Lugosi out of the role). His English professor buddy gets run over by a gangster. The gangster breaks his back; the professor breaks his brain.
So Karloff replaces part of his friend's brain with gangster brain. Or maybe all of it. The movie is a bit shifty on the whole issue of how much brain goes where. In any case, I assume Karloff used the screw-top brain surgery method on his pal, given that he's back to looking completely normal two months later.
Soon gangster and English professor war for possession of the same body. One of the side effects of the brain surgery appears to be the ability to control one's hair colour. Man, brain surgery is awesome! I wish I could have brain surgery so that I could figure out why this movie is entitled Black Friday.
Screenwriter Curt Siodmak would return to this sort of exercise in human duality in the much better Donovan's Brain. Here, it's pretty hard to believe that the professor can go on a killing spree. I might be able to believe that Karloff could beat the hell out of half-a-dozen hardened criminals. With Ridges in that role, one can only assume that having half your brain replaced gives you super-strength. Ridges is OK in the role -- he's just a disappointment compared to what Karloff might have done with it. Lugosi is completely wasted, never sharing a scene with Karloff, and never convincing in any way as a gangster. Lightly recommended.
Monday, October 15, 2012
Videodrome: written and directed by David Cronenberg; starring James Woods (Max Renn), Sonja Smits (Bianca O'Blivion), Deborah Harry (Nicki Brand), Les Carlson (Barry Convex), Jack Creley (Brian O'Blivion) and Peter Dvorsky (Harlan) (1983): David Cronenberg's career-long obsessions with bodily transformation, sex, and altered states of consciousness pulsate through this movie.
James Woods is razor-sharp as a Toronto television programming director at a thinly veiled version of early 1980's City TV (here 'Civic TV', complete with boss 'Moses' [Znaimer?]). One of Cronenberg's unexpected strengths as a film-maker has been getting career performances out of actors in what would once have been considered second-tier genre movies: Viggo Mortensen, Peter Weller, Jeff Goldblum, and Jeremy Irons have all benefited from the Cronenberg touch, as does Woods here. Blondie's Deborah Harry holds her own in scenes with Woods, but it's clear he's the star of the show.
One of the in-jokes in Videodrome involves the early City TV's fondness for late-night 'Baby Blue Movies', soft-core porn the Toronto station showed to boost ratings after the kiddies had gone to bed. Woods is basically searching for new sources of these things when he comes across Videodrome, a mysterious television signal emanating from deepest, darkest...Pittsburgh.
Videodrome broadcasts violent sexual fantasies that may or may not be staged. Woods has to find out who's really making and distributing this stuff. And woven through his investigation are the theoretical musings of the self-named Professor Brian O'Blivion, a guru of the new media with more than a passing resemblance to Cronenberg's old college professor Marshall McLuhan. The reclusive O'Blivion -- who can only be interacted with through cameras and TV screens -- has a daughter (Sonja Smits) who runs the Cathode Ray Mission for the homeless and the indigent who have been cut off from TV's cool, transforming light.
But there's a really big problem. Weird things are alive, and yet another conspiracy against the human race is in the process of unfolding. Behind the TV screen there are some forms of consciousness stalking the abyss, warring ideologies on the electromagnetic frontier with contrasting plans for humanity.
And then James Woods grows a giant vagina in his stomach and things get really weird. And the vagina plays VHS tapes. Sweet!
In its concerns with bodily transformation, strange new vistas of reality, and ideologies grown real and conscious and hungry for new minds to conquer, this is perhaps Cronenberg's most Lovecraftian movie (the giant vagina sort of seals the deal). It's not a perfect movie, but it's a darned impressive one.
Is it ahead of its time? Yeah, yeah it is. Just imagine that Facebook, Skype, texting, and endless cellphone usage are all iterations of that devouring digital leviathan Videodrome and you'll start to get the idea. And only the new flesh can save us from an increasingly brutal and dehumanizing culture. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Dracula is something of a droll narrator of events, this drollness counterpointed by sections narrated by Dr. Watson, who doesn't entirely trust his best friend's cousin. But while Dracula is a master of violence, he abides by his own code of honour in Saberhagen's universe -- and part of that code involves stopping vampires from preying on humans against their will. The events of Bram Stoker's Dracula were, after all, narrated by pretty much everyone BUT Dracula.
A seance meant to draw forth the spirit of a mysteriously drowned young woman seems to call forth instead a vampire. Holmes and Watson are on the case, but once vampirism turns up, Dracula must be called in for assistance. Soon, the unlikely trio are jaunting around the early 20th-century countryside on the trail of a vampire seeking lost treasure from more than a century before -- and wreaking vengeance on the descendants of his long-dead nemesis.
Before it's all over, we'll visit pre-Revolutionary Russia and have an encounter with one of the early 20th-century's most notorious mystery men. It's a good thing Watson packed the wooden bullets -- no metals, not even silver, have the slightest effect on a vampire. While lacking the near-epic scope of The Holmes-Dracula File, Seance for a Vampire is a fun read with some poignant moments set off by comparisons between the never-aging Dracula and Holmes and Watson, now in their fifties and beginning to show it. Recommended.