Thursday, October 31, 2013

Raimi-fications

Oz the Great and Powerful: based on characters created by L. Frank Baum, written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire; directed by Sam Raimi; starring James Franco (Oz), Mila Kunis (Theodora), Rachel Weisz (Evanora), Michelle Williams (Annie/Glinda), Zach Braff (Frank/Finley), and Joey King (Girl in Wheelchair/China Girl) (2013): With Seth Rogen or even Jack Black as the titular con-man-magician-turned-Wizard-of-Oz, this film would have been much more entertaining for all its stretches of limp dialogue and simplistic sermonizing. Instead, we get James Franco as an earnest vacuum. His lack of affect (and effect) makes Keanu Reeves look like George C. Scott.

There are a lot of lovely visual effects. And once the film actually makes it to the Land of Oz, things do get moving, though a molasses-slow epilogue ruins some of that. Boy, though, Franco is a terrible leading man for this sort of movie. Why, Sam Raimi, why? Bruce Campbell, who has a minor speaking role, would actually make a funny Wizard. And as Raimi restages the climax of Army of Darkness (aka Evil Dead 3), which starred Bruce Campbell, for the climax of this picture, it would make things even funnier. But Franco can't even act in the middle of a battle-preparation montage.

And oh, the psychology. We learn the paper-thin motivations of the Wicked Witches, of Glinda the Good, of the Wizard of Oz. Truly this is a dark time for blockbusters now that everyone has to have a personal motivation for everything they do.

Applied to real life, imagine that every janitor was a janitor because dirt killed his father, every auto worker an auto worker because a car saved his life. It's all 21st-century Hollywood screenwriting crap, and the sooner we escape the terrible gravity well of simplistic personal motivation, the better. No wonder video games outgross blockbusters. Still, nice visual effects. Lightly recommended.



Evil Dead: based on the original film written by Sam Raimi, written by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues; directed by Fede Alvarez; starring Jane Levy (Mia), Shiloh Fernandez (David), Lou Taylor Pucci (Eric), Jessica Lucas (Olivia) and Elizabeth Blackmore (Natalie) (2013): Made with the participation of original (The) Evil Dead writer/director Sam Raimi, this Evil Dead makes some smart changes to the low-budget 1980's horror film that launched the careers of Raimi, his brother Ted, and star Bruce Campbell.

The first is to come up with a weirdly plausible new reason for the inevitable trip to a cabin in the woods: four of the five characters are staging an Intervention/Drug DeTox for the fifth, Mia, who appears to have a heroin problem. The second is to alter the tone to one of more seriousness, or at least more angst, for the first two-thirds of the film. The Evil Dead is far less loopy than sequels Evil Dead 2 or Army of Darkness, but next to this Evil Dead, it looks like a Warner Brothers cartoon.

Are there problems? Of course. The addition of a dog to the cast of probably doomed characters goes nowhere, possibly because the filmmakers shied away from graphic violence involving a dog as either victim or perpetrator. The characters are a little shrill at points, though this may be intentional -- certainly, the issues of the various characters are intentional, as is at least one resolution to those issues. The angst tends to overwhelm any attempts at witty or blackly comic dialogue, though. Diablo Cody (Juno) was apparently brought on as a script doctor to add such wit, but it isn't all that apparent what her contributions are.

Gore and violence come in increasingly rapid, escalating waves as the film progresses. Nail guns (an homage to Raimi's Darkman?) and electric meat cutters do some terrible stuff. Several characters take levels of physical punishment that would have made Bruce Campbell's Ash proud. If you're going to be a character in an Evil Dead movie, you've got to be able to take a beating and keep on punching back. The film bounces ideas from all three previous installments around, sometimes in newly effective ways, though I wish they'd worked the overwrought tape recording of the archaeologist into something other than the closing credits. I love that guy.

Through it all, the Book of the Dead remains indestructible and weirdly attractive to otherwise intelligent characters in search of bathroom reading. Even barbed-wire wrapping and annotated warnings from some previous reader of the tome can't stop the high-school teacher from reading an incantation out loud. Stupid teachers! The filmmakers finally jettison most of the serious dramatic tone for the final twenty minutes, cutting loose in a manner more consistent with the series as a whole. Frankly, it's a relief. And the identity of the survivor or survivors comes as something of a surprise. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Roughing It in the Bush of Ghosts

An American Werewolf in London: written and directed by John Landis; starring David Naughton (David Kessler), Griffin Dunne (Jack Goodman), Jenny Agutter (Nurse Alex Price) and John Woodvine (Dr. Hirsch) (1981): Revisionist werewolf movie may be the best thing writer-director John Landis ever did from a stylistic standpoint: he actually seems to be a director here, as opposed to someone pointing a camera at chaos (Animal House, The Blues Brothers).

Landis's love for old B-movies is an unassailable fact. An American Werewolf in London riffs overtly and implicitly on the Universal Pictures werewolf mythology: characters talk about it, while events follow the logic of the Lon Chaney, Jr. Wolfman in all his tragic, furry glory.

Backpacking American college students on a Great Tour of Europe somehow make their way to Northern England, which turns out to be a terrible idea because, you know, werewolves. Griffin Dunne's character gets off easily; David Naughton's character gets infected and wakes up three weeks later in London, England, where the paranoid villagers have shipped him. A whirlwind romance with a lovely nurse ensues. Terrible nightmares that occasionally seem to have been cribbed from Heavy Metal magazine also ensue.

And then comes the full moon.

Landis shows more invention here than in all his other movies combined: his peculiar take on werewolves keeps things fresh and unpredictable despite the fact that the narrative will ultimately be very, very predictable. Naughton's callow nature and bemused expression grew on me over the course of the movie -- he doesn't have the baffled, confused physicality of Lon Chaney, Jr. as a man whose life has gone to Hell through no fault of his own, but he certainly plays bewildered well.

The transformation effects by Rick Baker and Rob Bottin became justifiably famous and much-imitated to this day. The full-size werewolf 'puppet' is a bit less convincing, and should probably have been kept off-screen as much as possible: its best moment comes in a truly excellent and atmospheric extreme long-shot in a Tube station. Still, entertaining, sad, and intermittently unnerving. I'd imagine the English village the students happen upon must be located only a few short miles from the island of The Wicker Man. Recommended.

 

The Last Halloween (aka Grave Halloween): written by Ryan W. Smith; directed by Steven R. Monroe; starring Kaitlyn Leeb (Maiko), Cassi Thomson (Amber), Dejan Loyola (Terry) Graham Wardle (Kyle), Jesse Wheeler (Brody), Tom Stevens (Skylar), Jeffry Ballard (Craig) and Hiro Kanagawa (Jin) (2013): Surprisingly competent SyFy Channel TV movie about the usual gang of idiotic young people wandering around a haunted woods. It's the sort of time-waster that's better than 90% of the theatrical releases made on the same template, but that's not saying much: there are a lot of bad horror movies out there.

But for a movie whose star, Kaitlyn Leeb, is most famous for playing the three-breasted hooker in the Colin Farrell-starring remake of Total Recall, the bar is pretty low. And Leeb is pretty, though back to two breasts. It's a TV movie, so there's no nudity, which is unfortunate.

British Columbia stands in for Japan here. Good old British Columbia! Does it ever get to play itself? A lot of the trees may have previously appeared on Stargate SG-1. College exchange students go into Japan's "Suicide Forest" (which is real) to make a documentary about Leeb's attempt to find her birth mother's body and conduct a ritual to send her tortured soul on to the Great Whatever. This has to be done on Halloween, a holiday I was not previously aware was on the traditional Japanese calendar.

Interesting things happen sporadically until somebody makes the terrible decision to bring on the stereotypical zombie/possession make-up. Leeb's mother is a possessed Linda Blair from The Exorcist! No wonder things go awry!

But I was entertained. Leeb being nude would have made things more entertaining. Oh, well. I can always look at photos of her winning the Miss CHIN bikini pageant. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Some Endings and Beginnings


John Constantine Hellblazer Volume 5: Dangerous Habits: written by Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis; illustrated by Will Simpson, Steve Pugh, Sean Phillips, Dave McKean, and others (1991; collected 2013): Brit Jamie Delano was the first full-time writer for occult detective/punk mage John Constantine, a character created by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and Rick Veitch over in the pages of Saga of the Swamp Thing in the mid-1980's. Constantine got his own adult-oriented book in the late 1980's, with Delano tapped to write it.

Delano wrote 40 issues and a few annuals and miniseries entries before passing the baton to the up-and-coming Irish comics writer Garth Ennis. This volume collects Delano's last handful of regular Constantine issues and Ennis's first six-issue arc.

Constantine, hardest of the occult hardasses, is in something of a downward spiral in Delano's final issues. The psychic cost of fighting evil -- and inevitably getting one's friends and lovers killed during the battle -- has taken its toll. Delano probes Constantine's childhood in a striking horror tale, "Dead Boy's Heart," before turning to the incandescent wrap-up to 'his' Constantine.

What a wrap-up! Issue 40 of Hellblazer contained rare interior artwork by Dave McKean (probably still best-known today for his covers for Neil Gaiman's Sandman). I think it's one of the artistic highpoints for nominally mainstream comic books during the 1980's, dense and detailed to go along with a dense, detailed prose look at Constantine's life and works. This could have served as a fitting end to the series had it been cancelled, but Ennis came aboard with issue 41.

Under the circumstances, Ennis wisely went with the tactic of briefly mentioning the events of issue 40 and then never, ever mentioning them again. DC's decision to put Ennis on the book was something of a stroke of genius. He and Delano are both gifted horror writers, but of almost completely different stylistic modes. Where Delano is baroque and intellectual, Ennis is visceral and bleakly comic in a punk sort of way. To some extent, splatterpunk had come to Hellblazer.

Delano did benefit from some lovely, horrifying artwork at the end of his run, other than McKean. Steve Pugh's grotesques worked perfectly for the Grand Guignol two-parter he illustrated, while the cooler Sean Phillips meshed perfectly with Delano's writing on their issues together. Ennis wasn't quite so lucky early on -- Will Simpson, who pencils Ennis's first six issues, is not a gifted artist when it comes to horror, though he rises to the occasion at points.

Anyway, the first five volumes of the re-edited and re-compiled Hellblazer are marvelous, though why this series didn't get the hardcover treatment the second time around is a puzzle. Unless DC is about to scrap this reprint series and start another one in hardcover. Which, given the mercurial nature of DC's publishing habits these days, is entirely possible. Hidey ho! Highly recommended.

 

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross and a host of others (2013): Brilliant companion piece to the equally brilliant, ongoing comic-book series The Unwritten delves deeper into the backstory of the series while also offering the reader a dead-on pastiche of Young Adult fantasy novels.

Indeed, the world Carey, Gross, and other artists conjure up for the first volume of the imaginary Tommy Taylor series is filled with more wonder and interest in 60 pages or so than the entire Harry Potter series. And it comments on the sinister implications of a separate race of magic users walking among the powerless mundane. A great work on its own, and a great and rich expansion of the series, which has about 12 issues left to run in its storyline. Highly recommended.
 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Rats and Bats and the Third World War

Domain by James Herbert (1985): Technically, this is the third novel in Herbert's Rat Trilogy, following The Rats and Lair. But you don't need to have read the previous novels to enjoy this one -- I haven't, and there's nothing difficult to follow here.

Herbert's really great at excruciating physical horror. Domain hits the reader with two horrors for the price of one: nuclear strikes on London, England, followed by the rise of giant mutant rats from London's sewer systems. Come for the nuclear apocalypse, stay for the rats!

And boy, these rats are bad news. After an intense and detailed description of the nuclear devastation of London, Herbert follows some of the survivors into the sewers as they head towards a governmental bomb shelter disguised as a subterranean telephone relay station. Will order be restored? Hey, where did all these giant, super-intelligent rats come from?

If you enjoy scenes of visceral horror, rats, and nuclear war, then this novel is for you. It's one of the two or three strongest Herbert novels I've read. The science gets wonky at times, but hey, giant rats! Recommended.

 

Nightwing by Martin Cruz Smith (1977): This early Cruz novel, written before Gorky Park made him a break-out star, is a terse, thrilling account of the present-day descent of a colony of Mexican vampire bats onto the New Mexico region inhabited by the Hopi.

An Ahab-like bat researcher and a somewhat aimless, hopeless Hopi Deputy will ultimately be the only people who can save the area before, as the researcher notes, the United States is forced to remove New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona from the map.

The novel combines compelling exposition (yes, compelling exposition) on Hopi mythology, vampire bats, and Black Plague transmission with a tense, exciting disaster narrative. There's more than one ecological narrative at work here: the bats have been chased out of their natural habitat, and this makes them much, much more dangerous than they were before, while the quest to contain them, and the plague they carry, is fatally compromised by the attempts of a Navajo leader to sell oil rights to portions of Navajo and Hopi land.

Smith creates winning, sympathetic characters under pressure, and also manages the difficult feat of positing a rational, natural apocalypse which may or may not also have supernatural origins. The portrait of the Hopi people is fascinating throughout. So too the vampire bats, a predator with no fear of humanity, and with an awful lot of similarities to humanity: they come, and they strip an area bare of life both through their predation and through the diseases they carry, diseases that don't affect them because bats have the strangest mammalian immune systems on the planet.

Bats in their entirety are the most successful mammal on the planet besides humanity. Here, Smith turns them into a natural force worse than any hurricane or earthquake. They make for a terrifying antagonist, rendered in full horror but with full honors to their biological distinctiveness. When Charles Darwin first saw a vampire bat feed, he was left speechless. One feels that way for awhile after the explosive, somewhat hallucinatory finale of this novel. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

True Believers

The Psychic Mafia by M. Lamar Keene and Allen Spraggett (1976): M. Lamar Keene was a psychic huckster in the 1960's and 1970's who developed a conscience and decided to reveal the tricks mediums and psychics use to bilk their customers. This book is the result, and it's a fascinating glimpse into a world which, if anything, has grown larger and more fradulent in the nearly 40 years since The Psychic Mafia came out.

Keene calls his former compatriots 'the Psychic Mafia' because there's widespread communication and sharing of information between them, whether they call themselves spiritualists, mediums, or psychics. A medium in Florida may be able to 'read' astonishingly detailed facts about someone 'new' because information has been sent in advance from the medium that person usually sees in Maine. And so on.

This was true long before the Internet. Imagine the ability to instantaneously share information about clients now!

Keene goes into other tricks of the trade, most of them fairly basic sleight-of-hand and mentalist stuff. Chiffon turns out to be the fabric of choice for ectoplasm in a darkened room, for instance, as it looks remarkably smoke-like when the right lighting is used. Other basic mentalist skills such as pick-pocketing, palming, cold reading, and ventriloquism also fill the medium's arsenal.

There's a real sadness to many of the stories Keene tells, as people are defrauded of hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of dollars by a spiritualist network from which Keene can glean no stories of 'real' psychics...or even people who believe they're real psychics. The entire enterprise seems corrupt, and seems to have been corrupt since the birth of modern spiritualism in America in the mid-19th century.

Along the way, Keene also coins a useful term -- 'true-believer syndrome.' He applies it to the customers (or dupes, or rubes) who continue to believe that they've experienced real spiritual phenomena even when, in some cases, the medium himself or herself comes clean and admits to that person that everything was a fraud. I think you can imagine how this phenomenon plays out again and again in areas other than spiritualism. A fascinating book about a fascinating (and disturbing) topic. Recommended.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (2013)


Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (2013): King's 36-years-later sequel to The Shining finds psychically gifted Danny Torrance (call him 'Dan', now, please) all grown up and working at a seniors' hospice in New England. His mother Wendy Torrance died of lung cancer several years ago. And Dan has survived a decades-long battle with alcohol.

Nine years sober when the main narrative of the novel begins, he uses the psychic gifts of the Shining to help calm and comfort people who are about to die, all with the help of a cat, Azreel, who somehow knows when people are going to die. It sounds like the set-up for the weirdest children's book ever.

Meanwhile, roaming around the country in a malign fleet of RVs are the members of the True Knot. Long-lived psychic vampires, they feed on mass death and, when at all possible, the physic residue created when they torture and murder someone with the Shining.

As the power of the Shining tends to peak when a child is 10 or 11, they've spent millennia torturing and murdering children to increase their own lifespans. Their protective colouration (other than their own prodigious range of psychic powers) is that they look like a normal band of mobile-home enthusiasts of all ages. Truly of all ages, as that psychic residue -- which they've dubbed 'steam' -- can age them backwards when imbibed in enough quantity.

Now, through a series of truly unfortunate events, the True Knot has become aware of the most powerful psychic they've ever detected -- a pre-adolescent girl named Abra (no fooling) who lives a dozen miles or so from Dan Torrance. They're going to come and get her and eat her, and while she's more powerful than Dan ever was, she's going to need his help to survive, and to perhaps destroy the True Knot once and for all time.

Billed as King's return to horror, Doctor Sleep really isn't, at least entirely. Much of it is of a piece with his other 'Wild Talent' novels -- Carrie, Firestarter, and The Dead Zone --- which would have been classified as science fiction had they been released in the 1950's. The True Knot's members are horrifying, especially leader Rose the Hat, but King devotes a lot of space to making them understandable by depicting their group dynamic and their genuine concern for one another. They're monsters, but as a knowledgeable ghost tells Dan at one point, "they're sick, and they don't know it."

Moreover, the True Knot's travelling ways and their quasi-carnival slang (normal human beings are "rubes", for instance) put them firmly in the tradition of Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show in Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, a dark carnival King has riffed on a number of times in his work, most notably in It and Needful Things.

It's with Dan that the novel must succeed or fail. I think it succeeds. Torrance, plagued by memories of his alcoholic father and the demonic Overlook Hotel, certainly has his reasons to escape into the bottle. But he's also finally forced to find his reasons for getting out again -- and, with Abra, to play the role that the Overlook's benign cook with the Shining, Dick Hallorran, did for Danny. Because beyond the threat of the True Knot, there is the threat posed by Abra herself, poised closer to the edge of becoming Carrie than anyone initially realizes.

Doctor Sleep isn't one of King's scarier novels, though it has its moments. As a character study, though, of Dan Torrance and of the horrible, pitiful members of the True Knot, it succeeds. It's a novel about forgiveness more than anything else. Some ghosts must now go, quietly or not. Recommended.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Height of the Scream by Ramsey Campbell (1976)


The Height of the Scream by Ramsey Campbell, containing the following stories: The Scar; The Whining; The Dark Show; Missing; Reply Guaranteed; Jack's Little Friend; Beside the Seaside; The Cellars; The Height of the Scream; Litter; Cyril; Smoke Kiss; The Words That Count; Ash; The Telephones; In the Shadows; Second Chance; and Horror House of Blood (Collected 1976): 

British horror master Ramsey Campbell's third collection of short stories came out the year he turned 30, with a dozen years of published work under his belt. In his introduction, Campbell notes that he's become more self-aware when it comes to the psychosexual dimensions of his work.

This certainly shows in the stories, which are generally a lot more up-front about both sexuality and the horrific potentials of sexuality and gender unobscured by metaphoric horrors. "Cyril" and "The Telephones" are the most blatant of these sexualized horrors: the latter story is almost entirely concerned with anxieties about sexual preference.

There are more conventional horrors here as well, though everything appears as through a Campbellian glass darkly, rendered in his peculiar and disquietingly descriptive prose, in which everything we see seems subjectively distorted by metaphor and simile. Or objectively weird. Campbell's prose style is almost fully formed now. To see the world this way all the time would drive a person bonkers.

There are a couple of misfires, including the title story, which doesn't manage to wring much horror out of some form of telepathic ability. In the strongest stories, though, such as "The Scar," with its rundown, urban-decayed take on the idea of the Doppelganger, or "Horror House of Blood," which deconstructs the standard haunted-house story, Campbell's skills are fully evident and engaged with not only scaring the reader, but with destabilizing, if only for a brief time, the reader's construction of the world. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Swedish Meatbags

Let Me In (aka Let the Right One In) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, translated from the original Swedish by Ebba Segerberg (2004): Well, if you're going to do a vampire love story, this would be one of the models for how to do it. Oskar, a bullied 12-year-old boy in a Scarborough-like suburb in Sweden in 1981, makes friends with a peculiar girl who only comes out at night and, initially, smells really horrible. The girl calls herself Eli. She's a vampire. Things good and bad begin to happen. Mostly good for Oskar and Eli, mostly bad for everybody else.

Lindqvist, who adapted his own novel for the immensely good Swedish film adaptation Let the Right One In, is well-versed in the horror genre without slavishly imitating anything. There are sly direct nods to Stephen King and James Herbert, along with allusions to H.P. Lovecraft's malign geometries, Richard Matheson's vampire classic I am Legend, and Shirley Jackson's sinister Hill House.

Like King, Lindqvist has published a first novel concerned with the traumatic effects of bullying and social ostracism on children. This is a distaff Carrie, though it also examines the effects of a vampire's presence on a small community, as did King's second published novel, Salem's Lot. The superficial resemblances are bolstered by Lindqvist's interest with the intersection of the supernatural and the mundane, and by his sympathetically drawn characters.

There's a bleakness to many sections of this novel that goes beyond anything in early King, though -- the secret origin of Eli, never shown in the movie, horrifies and repels. So too does the back-story of Eli's middle-aged companion at the beginning of the novel. Unspeakable rites glimpsed in Salem's Lot are here fully shown. Lindqvist's changes to the climax of the novel when adapting it for film are perfectly understandable -- I'm not sure what happens could be shown, or even implied, in a film meant for a wide release.

Throughout, we gain understanding and sympathy for lonely Oskar and lonely Eli and a few other characters, most notably Tommy, an apartment-mate of Oskar's who, while a tough teenager, isn't a bully, and is really Oskar's only friend when the novel starts, despite their difference in age. Oskar's enemies don't elicit much sympathy, but Lindqvist does firmly establish where their concluding, homicidal rage will come from, if it comes. There's empathy for the little monsters, but they're still monsters. Unlike Eli, they're not doing the things they do in order to eat.

Much of the engagement with the supernatural in the novel comes from either the young or the old, the latter represented by a loose-knit group of retirees and socially excluded men (and a woman) in their middle age. The liminal, the excluded, the forgotten and never-remembered, can see what's happening more clearly than the adult world and all the authorities. Eli murders decent people in order to survive. Will she be caught? Do we want her to be? Highly recommended.