Monday, June 29, 2015

Dark Gods Looming

Dark Gods (1985) by T.E.D. Klein, containing the following stories: Children of the Kingdom (1980); Petey (1979); Black Man with a Horn (1980); and Nadelman's God (1985): Despite his relatively small output, especially over the 30 years since this collection appeared, T.E.D. Klein remains one of our greatest living horror writers thanks to the novellas collected in Dark Gods, the early 1970's novella "The Events at Poroth Farm," and the epic 1984 horror novel The Ceremonies. One lives in hope that the second novel announced as being in progress in the mid-1980's will some day appear.

The novellas collected here are meticulous and cosmic, witty and horrifying, closely observed and broad in their ramifications. "Petey" is perhaps the most traditional horror work, a story about something wicked this way coming to a secluded house in the countryside. But it melds that horror with a conversational view of the upper middle class that owes more to writers that include John Updike and John Cheever than to H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe. The monster is coming -- to a house-warming party. 

Meanwhile, the house's previous owner gets more and more agitated in his new home at a psychiatric institution as the night goes on. It's a brilliant piece of work that rewards multiple readings (well, all four novellas reward multiple readings). There's something very droll yet grounded in the way that the horror gradually manifests itself, in the back-and-forth of the sometimes envious, often drunken conversations the guests have.

"Black Man with a Horn" is a triumphant piece of meta-Cthulhuiana, narrated by an elderly and somewhat self-pitying horror writer who still chafes at his description in genre circles as a "disciple of H.P. Lovecraft." It's 1980 and H.P. Lovecraft has been dead for 43 years. And then our narrator, mournful and sardonic, stumbles into what he ultimately realizes is a real-world equivalent of an H.P. Lovecraft story. The irony of being trapped in someone else's story doesn't escape him -- indeed, the horror of the situation lies partially in the fact that his literary fate of being subsumed into Lovecraftiana has now been replicated by his actual life's story being similarly removed from his own hands. 

"Children of the Kingdom" densely and deftly explores racism and urban decay in the rundown New York of the late 1970's. As with "Black Man with a Horn," this novella riffs on Lovecraft, though in a much more subtle fashion: blink and you'll miss the revelation of just what Lovecraftian race the strange, seldom-glimpsed underground invaders of Manhattan are based on. 

Klein's attention to an accumulation of telling, quasi-journalistic information as a means to create horror also owes a debt to Lovecraft (though HPL certainly didn't originate this sort of story-telling in horror circles). Klein, though, is a much better writer of normative characters than Lovecraft was (or intended to be). Here, as in all the novellas, cosmic horror infects the closely observed and described world of the ordinary.

Finally, there's "Nadelman's God." Klein makes brilliant use of the late 1970's and early 1980's media frenzy that hyped fears of Satanic rock bands and backwards-masked Satanic chants hidden on KISS albums. A comfortably numb New York advertising executive (pretty much all Klein's characters live in or near New York) finds himself pulled into the increasingly dire fantasies of a middle-aged heavy-metal fan who believes he can invoke the avatar of the true, malign God that rules the world. 

And that invocation lies within a poem written and published by the executive when he was in college, a poem a former friend of the executive handed over to the rock band (Jizzmo!) he manages when they needed a song to finish their recent album (royalties, of course, were paid, though the executive didn't know of the adaptation until after its release). So that avatar the fan constructs out of garbage and broken glass, that's just a pile of garbage. Right? 

But the executive, who has aged cynically out of all the things he once believed -- whether Judaism or marital fidelity or writing poetry -- is about to be forcibly reconnected with his past. It's like a tour down Memory Lane if Memory Lane led to Hell and involved a horrifying, ancient, cosmic evil that occasionally got its kicks from calling you on the telephone late at night.

Well, they're all brilliant novellas, aren't they? And it would be nice to have Dark Gods back in print after nearly 30 years, perhaps with "The Events at Poroth Farm" added to the roster. New novellas and novels would also be nice, but even if they never arrive, Klein has already established himself, permanently, in the first ranks of writers of horror. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Finders Keepers (Bill Hodges #2) (2015) by Stephen King

Finders Keepers by Stephen King (2015): The year is 2014 and the mismatched detectives of last year's Mr. Mercedes are back in a new mystery set three years after the conclusion of that novel -- and, as a sub-plot, there's also an odd continuation of the events of the previous novel that seems to be setting up the events of the third novel.  

Our protagonist, retired police detective Bill Hodges, continues to run his private detective agency with the help of hyper-intelligent, socially challenged Holly Gibney, with an occasional assist from now-college-student Jerome Robinson. But the scene of carnage that began Mr. Mercedes has helped deliver another case. I'll let you find out how. Suffice it to say that injury and the economic collapse of 2008 will soon put a young man on a collision course with an unusual treasure buried near his house since the late 1970's. And one collision will set off many others.

This is really an odd novel, at least for King. We spend a lot of time with that kid -- Pete Saubers -- and his economically wounded family. And we spend a lot of time learning about that treasure and the terrible man who buried it. But the money in that treasure -- about $30,000 in cash -- is the smallest portion of the booty. 

See, back in the late 1970's, a lousy guy in his early 20's was obsessed with a novelist named John Rothstein, who in King's world combines the attributes of John Updike, J.D. Salinger, and Philip Roth. In the 1950's and 1960's, Rothstein wrote a trilogy of novels subsequently dubbed The Runner Trilogy. Those novels featured a protagonist who seems to combine the personality traits of Updike's Rabbit Angstrom and Salinger's Holden Caulfield. 

One day in the 1960's, Rothstein stopped publishing and essentially became a hermit overnight on a farm outside a small New England town. Years later, a young reader (and aspiring writer) named Morris Bellamy went looking for Rothstein. He told his two accomplices that they were looking for money. But Bellamy was really looking for Rothstein's unpublished work. And he found it. And, while fleeing from the police, buried it. Arrested and jailed for more than 30 years for a crime unconnected to the Rothstein home invasion, Bellamy finally gets out and goes looking for that unpublished work. But it isn't there -- Pete Saubers dug it up.

Morris Bellamy is one of King's more interesting antagonists, a self-pitying fan who believes he has more right to his favourite author's work than that author. The characterizations of the other characters are all solid, especially of the slowly blossoming Holly Gibney and the intelligent, thoughtful Pete Saubers, whose love of reading is ignited by the contents of that box of treasure. There's not a huge amount of detection in this second Bill Hodges volume, but the material on Rothstein, and on the used book trade (seriously), is highly enjoyable. Recommended, though keep in mind this is a mystery-thriller (mostly) and not a horror novel.

Warring on Worlds

The War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches: edited by Kevin J. Anderson (1996), comprising the following stories: 

The Roosevelt Dispatches by Mike Resnick; Canals in the Sand by Kevin J. Anderson; Foreign Devils by Walter Jon Williams; Blue Period by Daniel Marcus; The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James by Robert Silverberg; The True Tale of the Final Battle of Umslopogaas the Zulu by Janet Berliner; Night of the Cooters by Howard Waldrop; Determinism and the Martian War, with Relativistic Corrections by Doug Beason; Soldier of the Queen  by Barbara Hambly; Mars: The Home Front by George Alec Effinger; A Letter from St. Louis by Allen Steele; Resurrection by Mark W. Tiedemann; Paris Conquers All by Gregory Benford and David Brin; To Mars and Providence by Don Webb; Roughing It During the Martian Invasion by Daniel Keys Moran and Jodi Moran; To See the World End by M. Shayne Bell; After a Lean Winter by Dave Wolverton; The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson's Poems: A Wellsian Perspective by Connie Willis.

About as enjoyable an homage-anthology as I can remember. The War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches gives us the adventures of a wide variety of historical figures during the great Martian invasion chronicled in the novel by H.G. Wells. We visit the invasion on many fronts and on many continents and in many countries, with a side-trip to Mars itself so that Edgar Rice Burroughs can report on what John Carter did to halt the invasion from the Martian end.

The shifts in tone and subject matter from story to story can be a bit jarring, as the stories run the gamut from meditative tragedy to a loopy satire of academia from Connie Willis. But that range is part of the volume's charm: you really don't know what's coming next. Maybe it's Tolstoy and Stalin teaming up to create a refugee camp in late-Tsar-era Russia. Maybe it's a bunch of rootin', tootin', shootin' Texas folk taking on the Martians. Maybe it's an H.P. Lovecraft pastiche pitting Boy Lovecraft against the Martian invaders of Providence like some moody, glum, but plucky Hardy Boy.

The writers tend to gravitate towards writers as protagonists, including Mark Twain, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and H.G. Wells himself. Highly recommended, and I'd really like to see a full-length novel version of John Carter vs. The Martians by George Alec Effinger. 


The Mysterious West by Brad Williams and Choral Pepper (1967): Fun and surprisingly fact-based assortment of weird stories of the American (and, in a cameo, Canadian) West. The essays examine everything from Romans and Phoenicians in places where one wouldn't expect to find them to the odd adventures of various outlaws, miners, ghosts, and lost expeditions. A good time-filler, especially if one follows up on some of the stories to check their truthiness. Recommended

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Extinction is Extinction

The Genocides by Thomas M. Disch (1965): It's 1980. Earth has been under siege for nearly eight years by giant, fast-growing plants. The cities have fallen. The environment is collapsing as the plants destroy all other plant species and the animals that rely upon them as a result. Basically, humanity has become a rat hiding in fields of 600-foot-tall corn. And now whoever or whatever sent the plants has sent out the exterminators.

To say that Thomas Disch's first novel is an astonishingly bleak end-of-the-world novel is an understatement. We begin in terrible shape. Things don't get better. The plot focuses on a small Minnesota farming community on the shores of Lake Superior. Well, not so much shores. The plants have been relentlessly draining the Great Lakes for years.

So the town of Tassel, much of its original location overrun, has moved to the newly draining bottom of Lake Superior. There, Anderson, the Christian fundamentalist patriarch of the town, attempts to push back the plants and feed his town by growing corn. Just keeping the corn going requires a maximum effort by the village. Anderson believes they are being tested by God. But if they are, then God has gone silent. Or his answer is simply 'No.'

Disch invests this short, terse novel with effectively chosen moments of Biblical imagery and language and the occasional quote. But The Genocides is about the failure of all of humanity's institutions in the face of a sublime and indifferent menace, not a world in which a Christian God actually exists. Or any other gods. 

The occasional scene of terror gives way to scenes of fumbling, racing panic. Our protagonists can only flee or die. Or flee and die. It's a rich, full life. Their numbers dwindle. Winter comes. Internal tensions begin to destroy Tassel almost as effectively as the invasion. Will whatever is behind all this ever show its face? Good question. 

Even at this young age, Disch was a skilled stylist and an occasionally sardonic chronicler of human frailties. Some of Anderson's choices as a leader are understandable yet almost unspeakably grotesque, none moreso than a sort of Uber-Calvinist imitation of communion. We may become invested in whether or not some of the other characters survive, but it's an investment kept at a remove: it's doom alone that ultimately counts.

Disch was never known as a technically inclined science fiction writer, but the science of The Genocides still seems ruthlessly pragmatic and sound. The plants, devoid of personality and agency, nonetheless become an extraordinarily effective foil for humanity's own inhumanity, and for humanity's world-reshaping mistakes. The Earth is at the mercy of the ultimate invasive species. The crops must grow. The weeds and the vermin must go. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Evolution and Extinction

Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953/This revised edition 1990): Arthur C. Clarke's most famous novel still seems impressive more than 60 years after its initial publication. It's a novel about guided evolution, and evolution as a 'progressive' system, that yields a conclusion that's simultaneously depressing as all Hell and lyrically triumphant.

It's an early image in the novel that stays with people, and has been intentionally or unintentionally copied in such TV and movie works as the original V miniseries, Independence Day, and Skyline. Absolutely enormous alien spacecraft show up one day over the major cities of the Earth. And then the aliens start to talk to us, though they refuse to show themselves to anyone.

The aliens are soon known as the Overlords. With their guidance and technological expertise, Earth soon enters a Golden Age of peace and prosperity, though there are a few growing pains. The first section of the book explores these early stages through the person of the United Nations President who becomes the only liaison with the Overlords allowed to enter their ships. But even he doesn't know what an Overlord looks like. When he finds out, he keeps the secret. But even that secret will turn out not to be what it seems.

Once the Overlords finally start mingling with humanity, 50 years after their arrival, they continue to help run the Earth. And while they're at it, they keep humanity from pursuing anything like a space program. Why? Are the stars really not meant for Man, as one character opines? And why are the Overlords so curious about tales of psychic phenomena?

Well, eventually we'll learn. Some very cold winds begin to blow as the novel approaches its end. One of the oddities of the original publication, Clarke notes in his afterword to this revised 1990 version, was that Clarke put a disclaimer at the front to note that he didn't agree with one of the book's central tenets (The stars are not meant for man). And he also notes that by 1990 he no longer really believed that evolution would feature some of the paranormal powers shown here. Clarke had been hoaxed by that great hoaxing spoon-bender Uri Geller in the interim, and subsequently learned how he had been hoaxed.

When people talk of cosmic science fiction, this novel would be one of those things they'd be talking about. It's a novel about the fate of humanity and the fate of the Earth. It's also a novel about evolution and extinction -- including the extinction of the individual consciousness. And watching over it all, those enigmatic Overlords, who have become by the end peculiarly sympathetic and perhaps even heroic in the face of their own insignificance. Highly recommended.

Ghost-busted

Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death by Deborah Blum (2006): The afterlife was a big concern of the 19th century in Europe and North America, especially ways to prove its existence with newfangled scientific methods. And the occult had risen to new heights as religion began to recede, in a manner that looks an awful lot like our world. 

But former science reporter Deborah Blum's focus here is on the great American philosopher William James and a small group of American, British, and Australian scientists who took it upon themselves to investigate psychic phenomena between the 1880's and the early 20th century.

For all its flaws, this is a fascinating book. And even the flaws are fascinating because they seem to replicate the flaws of the investigations of James and others without Blum realizing it, or acknowledging it. Overall, James and his friends demonstrate what would eventually become a fact in skeptical circles: scientists are not very good at investigating the paranormal. 

If you want to test a psychic or a medium or a spoon-bender, you need people with training and expertise in prestidigitation and in the area of "cold reading" and assorted other psychological ploys used to get information out of people without those people being aware that they've given that information.

Nonetheless, these scientists did some interesting things. Their "Hallucination Census" has, if nothing else, a great name. And they did uncover a wide variety of spiritual and psychic frauds. That they seem to have been hornswoggled by a few mediums and psychics isn't surprising: confronted by the deaths of loved ones, tormented by lost loves, far too many of these investigators wanted to believe. Just like Fox Mulder. And it left all their research in question.

One of the oddities completely missed by Blum is the fact that virtually all the major psychics of the time were women, in a world that mostly barred women from professional and academic work. Hmm. How strange. And while Blum touches briefly upon a few scandals attached to the investigation of mostly female psychics by mostly male researchers, she doesn't go into detail about how many of these investigations worked. 

Keep in mind that the scenes set in some of these psychic testing rooms look like something out of a porn movie: the female psychic naked and supposedly immobilized by the hands of several men; the tendency of some female psychics  to perform in the nude; the covert sexuality of many of the mediumistic sittings (one medium painted a baby's face on one of her breasts and had mourning parents kiss this 'face' of their lost children); the full-body searches enacted again and again; and the extreme sexual assertiveness of many of the female mediums.

James didn't conduct the enquiries himself, though he was an ardent and public supporter of them. Some of the investigators did pretty solid work. Others were, in the carnival parlance, rubes. Still, this is an interesting and often moving exploration of people seeking for new answers to old questions, even if I think the author ultimately falls into many of the same traps as her subjects. 

One of the fundamental problems with the text is that Blum never explains fully to the reader how one of the favourite mediums of James and his investigators actually conducted her sessions. Was she randomly spouting out impossible-to-know information without prompting, or was there a dialogue going on? In truth, it seems that there was a dialogue going on, and that the infallible psychic was at the very least doing some form of reading of her questioners. 

Blum dismisses in a few lines what happened with this favourite medium when a new team of investigators tested her: she failed utterly, inventing intimate details about fictional family members the investigators created for the purposes of the test and failing to do much of anything when it came to the past lives of real dead people. Beyond this, there were apparently (mostly unmentioned by Blum) endless sessions with the medium that generated false information. When it comes to selection bias, why did Blum select this counter-material almost completely out of the book? Hidey ho. So it goes. Recommended.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Before The Exorcist, There Was The Case Against Satan

The Case Against Satan by Ray Russell (1962): Published nine years before William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist became a best-seller, Ray Russell's The Case Against Satan bears a marked similarity to that far better-known work. A doubting Roman Catholic priest finds himself called upon to investigate what may be the demonic possession of a teen-aged girl. Soon, he'll be forced to perform the Rite of Exorcism in concert with an older bishop whose faith is far more secure. But is the doubting priest's faith up to it?

Russell was the fiction editor for Playboy in the 1950's and 1960's. But he was also a skilled writer whose legacy lives on primarily because of his clever horror stories, most notably "Sardonicus," which spawned a William Castle movie but also remains a triumphant homage to the writing style of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Russell often seemed more at home in the skin of other times, as a period piece ("Sanguinarius") about the bloody Countess, Elizabeth Bathory, was also a model of how to stay true to the style of an earlier era.

The Case Against Satan isn't an homage or a pastiche, however. It's a pretty thoroughly modern novel -- for 1962 America -- with a thoroughly modern protagonist, Father Gregory Sargent. He's plagued by doubts and drink and an abiding lack of faith in the existence of evil as a being, Satan, rather than simply a random, mindless thing. 

Russell allows for more ambivalence than Blatty did: even at the end of the novel, some doubts could conceivably remain about who or what Father Sargent has been exorcising. Real-world psychological trauma seems to have instigated the possession. Human evil is at work in the life of 16-year-old Susan Garth. Is it all simply human?

The possession and exorcism scenes are effective and often chilling. Indeed, one of the most chilling moments comes when the Bishop acknowledges that the exorcism might kill Susan -- and chooses to go on anyway because the alternative is far worse in his eyes. Anyone who's heard of the deaths of people being exorcised, even in the past ten years or so, will probably find this decision to be extremely disquieting. But this is a novel, not a pro-exorcism pamphlet or a news story: demons can exist with certainty here. Perhaps.

The characters and situations sometimes tend towards the melodramatic. This is a novel about exorcism, after all, the most potentially melodramatic Catholic rite I can think of. Father Sargent is skilfully drawn, however, as a sympathetic and flawed figure whose doubts seem to have been designed to mirror the doubts of the casual reader. Susan Garth is a little more sketchily drawn -- our sympathies for her emanate from the terrible things she's being put through far moreso than they do from any development of her character. Only an almost stereotypical housekeeper (seriously, I swear she's Mrs. McCarthy from the BBC's current Father Brown series) needs greater depth and clarity; that she's also there to provide a miraculously well-timed anecdote about exorcism in the small (Irish?) town of her birth does not help one's suspension of disbelief.

Of course, our priest and our bishop also ponder the coincidences required to set up the events of the novel, and decide that God has been putting things in place. Metafictionally, that God is of course Ray Russell. 

The Case Against Satan also brings in a brusque but ultimately sympathetic homicide detective; an inquisitive Roman Catholic layperson who's a pillar of the Church community and knows it; a squirmy widower as Susan's father; and a former priest of the parish, Father Halloran (Stephen King, take note!), with something to hide. Only an anti-Catholic pamphleteer seems like a complete misstep. He serves a plot function that could probably have taken care of itself. He also seems anachronistic to us now, which couldn't have been helped: this was an America of 1962 that had just gotten used to the idea of its first Roman Catholic president, after all, with all the debates and acrimony over the suitability of such a religionist for America's highest political post. How time flies. American Roman Catholics were yesterday's American Muslims.

In all, The Case Against Satan is a brisk and entertaining read. Some intellectually interesting questions arise as the plot progresses, most interesting a discussion about the Seal of the Confessional. Russell works for the most part in a plain style, putting the ideas and characters at the forefront. The Case Against Satan may be a better novel than The Exorcist. It certainly got there first. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Fell Annabelle

Annabelle: written by Gary Dauberman; directed by John R. Leonetti; starring Annabelle Wallis (Mia), Ward Horton (John), Tony Amendola (Father Perez), and Alfre Woodard (Evelyn) (2014): With the budget of a TV movie (about $7 million, which is probably less than the catering budget for an Avengers movie), Annabelle was hellaprofitable both at home and abroad. And while reviled by many of the same critics who praised the first movie in this 'series' (The Conjuring), Annabelle seemed more than adequate to me. It also lacked the almost programmatic replication of The Amityville Horror that ruined The Conjuring for me.

Unlike The Conjuring, Annabelle is "completely fictional." Ha ha. That creepy doll drove its own sub-plot in The Conjuring. Here, it's the star! The film takes place in the studio's version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- a horror universe based on the career of the regrettable Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were at least pretty good at selling themselves as ghost-busters. They're referenced in this movie but aren't part of the main plot, which is instead an origin story for that creepy doll.

Ah, that creepy doll. In 'reality,' the creepy doll was a large Raggedy Ann. Such a representation would aid with my suspension of disbelief, but the copyright holders of the Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls wouldn't allow the producers of The Conjuring or Annabelle to use their doll in the movies. So instead we get a doll which looks ridiculously malevolent even before it turns into a Hell-powered terror-machine. Anyone who wanted this doll would have to be insane. There is probably a better movie in that concept somewhere.

The plot revelations and narrative beats of Annabelle are familiar, though delivered with a certain level of competence. The lead actress (hilariously named Annabelle in real life) carries the weight of the often ridiculous narrative well; the other actors don't have a lot to do, though old pros Alfre Woodard and Tony Amendola do as much as they can with the material. I wish the creators of movies that use Roman Catholicism would at least take time to read Roman Catholicism for Dummies. I really do. Lightly recommended.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Creepshow!

Creepshow: written by Stephen King; directed by George Romero; starring Hal Holbrook (Henry), Adrienne Barbeau (Wilma), Fritz Weaver (Dexter), Leslie Nielsen (Vickers), E.G. Marshall (Upson Pratt), Viveca Lindfors (Bedelia), Ed Harris (Hank), Ted Danson (Wentworth), Stephen King (Jordy Verrill), and Joe Hill King (Billy) (1982): Is it an anthology movie when all the segments are written by the same person or a collection movie? Oh, well. This homage to the horror comics of the 1950's, written by Stephen King and directed by George Romero, is a mixed enough bag that it almost feels like an anthology movie from several different writers.

Creepshow is enjoyable. And it was adapted by King and Bernie 'Swamp Thing' Wrightson as an even more enjoyable comic book, complete with a cover by EC great Jack Kamen, who also provides some of the comic-book panels seen in this film. But Creepshow almost succeeds in spite of itself: King and Romero's take on those horror comics, and specifically the great EC Comics of the early 1950's, is too campy and arch by about 50%.

The decision to play up the comic-book aspects of the production with odd frames and effects and shots doesn't help things either. As in Ang Lee's Hulk, the extremely comic-booky  visuals just look sorta stupid. And in the context of the illustration style of EC Comics, which tended to stick to a very strict grid pattern for the comic book panels, many of the visual choices made by Romero make no historic sense except in relation to the Batman TV series of the 1960's.

The final mistake is literally two-fold. Romero casts Stephen King as the lead actor in one segment and his son Joe Hill King as a child in the framing story. They're both terrible actors. Romero compensates for this terribleness in King's segment by making it the most archly comedic sequence in the movie and having King yuck it up like a Little Theatre actor who got all coked up for opening night. The result is cringeworthy and funny for all the wrong reasons -- it's like amateur hour at the Grand Guignol.

Other segments with actual professional actors in them fare better. "The Crate," the longest segment, is adapted by King from a short story of his that has never been collected in one of his collections (yes, there are stories by Stephen King that even Stephen King doesn't like). Nonetheless, it's an excellent piece of comic horror that's at its best when it's not being comic at all: only the decision to make Adrienne Barbeau's character, an annoying faculty wife, into a shrill, clueless Harpy almost undoes the rest of the segment. 

But Hal Holbrook and Fritz Weaver, old pros both, make one believe in the rest of the narrative. Tom Savini's monster design for this segment is pretty solid, though not as alien as the creature described in the story, and a little more alien might have been nice. Of course, he's limited by the visual effects technology of 1982 and the film's budget: the thing in the story couldn't have been a guy in a suit.

Really, the cast is terrific. Leslie Nielsen and Ted Danson shine in a tale of adultery and revenge from beyond the grave. And E.G. Marshall does nasty, blackly comic work as a squirmy, technocratic businessman (dig that early 1980's computer technology!)  besieged by an endless army of cockroaches in his Kubrickian white-walled apartment. A young Ed Harris is almost unrecognizable in the weak first segment, which offers as its main charm a really beautifully imagined walking corpse. Kudos again to Savini and his creature team. 

Overall, Creepshow is worth watching, or watching again. Other than the unfortunately arch comic-book visualizations, Romero's direction is effective throughout. "The Crate" creates real tension, while E.G. Marshall's segment offers a number of clever ways to send a cockroach skittering across the frame. The frame story is negligible, and the tone would better have been modulated towards the dramatic end of things. Even the Stephen King segment generates a certain amount of poignance by its end, though I'm not sure if one feels sorry for King's rural bumpkin or for King himself being exposed so thoroughly as a dreadful, dreadful actor and then being seemingly exhorted to overplay that terribleness. In all, recommended.

Monday, June 1, 2015

H.G. Wells vs. Jack the Ripper

Time After Time: adapted by Nicholas Meyer from the story by Karl Alexander and Steve Hayes; directed by Nicholas Meyer; starring Malcolm McDowell (H.G. Wells), Mary Steenburgen (Amy), and David Warner (Stevenson) (1979): It's 1893. After a 5-year absence, Jack the Ripper has returned. And only H.G. Wells can stop him!

In this charming, clever time-travel story, writer H.G. Wells is a scientist as well as a writer. And he's built a time machine. And Jack the Ripper steals the time machine to escape the police. Once the machine returns to Wells' basement on automatic pilot, Wells follows Jack the Ripper to the future. So it's now 1979. And we're in San Francisco.

Malcolm McDowell makes the most of one of his rare heroic roles, playing Holmes as alternately bewildered by the future and fascinated by it -- though with that fascination comes a mounting level of disgust at the violent world of 1979. Admittedly, in the real world, Victorian London was far more violent than 1970's San Francisco. But we'll leave that alone. In the real world, Wells didn't build a time machine, either.

Mary Steenburgen is charming in only her second major screen role, playing a bank employee who falls for Wells, as he does for her. David Warner completes the trio of actors who take up most of the screen time. He's Jack the Ripper, who in his 'normal' life was a physician and chess-playing friend of H.G. Wells.

Nicholas Meyer adapts and directs the movie. He's most famous for writing and directing Star Treks II and VI, and sharing screen-writing duties on Trek IV. Some of his interests, including Sherlock Holmes (he also wrote two well-regarded Holmes novels), show up in this film. As well, a paradoxical bit involving eye-glasses shows up both here and in Trek IV

Time After Time is a fun, fairly tight movie with a nice mix of comedy and suspense. Warner makes a good antagonist, especially as he towers over Wells (McDowell and Steenburgen are both 5'8", Warner 6'2"). The 'fish out of water' bits that involve Holmes are hardy comedy perennials, especially a trip to McDonald's and a climactic bit of business that forces Wells to drive a car. Thank heaven it's an automatic. Recommended.