Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Horror and the Trauma: Holes for Faces (2013) by Ramsey Campbell

Holes for Faces (2013) by Ramsey Campbell, containing the following stories:

"Passing Through Peacehaven" (2011) "Peep" (2007)
"Getting It Wrong" (2011)
"The Room Beyond" (2011)
"Holes for Faces" (2013)
"The Rounds" (2010)
"The Decorations" (2005)
"The Address" (2012)
"Recently Used" (2011)
"Chucky Comes to Liverpool" (2010)
"With the Angels" (2010)
"Behind the Doors" (2013)
"Holding the Light" (2011)
"The Long Way" (2008)

Excellent collection of horror stories from the 21st century, with the venerable Ramsey Campbell -- first published in the early 1960's by Arkham House -- demonstrating that he's still a master of both terror and poignance. Many of these stories deal with the effects of childhood trauma as remembered and re-experienced by an adult. Sometimes the antagonist is a supernatural menace, though in many of the stories, the problem could actually be a delusion. Throughout the stories, Campbell's often near-hallucinatory descriptions of people, things, and events keep the level of unease high. 

The stories also deal with children facing supernatural and non-supernatural terrors, perhaps none more acutely than the increasingly confused 13-year-old protagonist of "Chucky Comes to Liverpool." Here, his mother's involvement in a community campaign against horror movies -- and her obsessive 'protection' of him from all evil media influences -- causes major psychological problems. It's a fine story that works even better if one has read Campbell's essays on some of the censorship 'debates' he attended during various English campaigns against horror movies, including those focused on the Chucky movies..

The effects of old age are the focus of several stories, sometimes aggravated by those recurring childhood traumas, sometimes twinned with a separate character facing new childhood trauma. There are parents inflicting psychological traumas on their children. And there are trains and train stations. Seriously. 

Sometimes the train is the problem, sometimes the station, sometimes both... and sometimes not being able to find a train station leads one into dire supernatural peril. Given the focus on (as the back cover says) "Youth and age," the emphasis on trains and train stations, on arrivals and departures, seems only natural. There may be non-human and formerly human monsters throughout the collection, but they're mostly seen only in vague half-glimpses of terrible import. Their occasional complete manifestations, when they come, can be shocking, but it's the reactions of the various characters to the supernatural, or the seeming supernatural, that makes the stories so strong. We may not all meet ghosts, but we all know guilt and fear and regret. Or a hatred of Physical Education classes. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975)

Barry Lyndon: adapted from the William Makepeace Thackeray novel and directed by Stanley Kubrick; starring Ryan O'Neal (Barry Lyndon), Marisa Berenson (Lady Lyndon), Marie Kean (Barry's Mother), and Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon) (1975): Stanley Kubrick takes the static shot just about as far as it can go without breaking a movie, from lengthy establishing landscape shots inspired by period painters such as Gainsborough to tableaux involving large groups of actors immobilized by either Kubrick's aesthetic decisions or the necessities of film-making in the early 1970's while attempting to use only low levels of natural light.

Thackeray's novel is often cited as being the first English novel featuring an anti-hero, one specifically designed to be an unappealing and often monstrous creature set up as the antithesis of such lovable picaros as Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews. Kubrick takes this idea and runs with it. Ryan O'Neal's Barry Lyndon is often inexpressive and almost always a terrible, terrible person. 

However, pretty much everyone in the movie is a terrible person, or an unsympathetically weak or cowardly one. This isn't accidental. Kubrick clearly means this as a critique of the overwhelmingly terrible society of 18th-century Europe in general, and the godawful gentry in particular.

The end result, as someone once observed, is an awful lot like watching a science-fictional docudrama about an alien culture. Kubrick's movies had been dealing with the inescapability of violence in human culture since at least Paths of Glory, and Barry Lyndon is, among other things, yet another examination of the dark heart of man. 

It may be the most tedious great movie of all time, and that certainly is intentional. John Fowles had to explain the boredom of the gentry in the 18th and 19th centuries in The French Lieutenant's Woman. Kubrick shows it, along with the brutality and general indifference to human life that walked hand in hand with that tedium, punctuating 95% boredom with 5% horror.

There are chilly, funny moments throughout. The drollest touch comes with the narration, which is the warmest piece of acting and writing in the movie. The disjuncture between that narration and what we see and hear in the narrative itself is ironic as all get-out. So, too, the gorgeous, painterly shots of the landscape. Kubrick seems to be looking for intelligent life and finding it nowhere. But Jesus, can he frame a shot! Highly recommended.

David Lean's Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations: adapted from the Charles Dickens novel by David Leane, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Kay Walsh, and Cecil McGivern; directed by David Lean; starring John Mills (Pip), Tony Wager (Young Pip), Valerie Hobson (Estella), Jean Simmons (Young Estella), Bernard Miles (Joe), Finlay Currie (Magwitch), Alec Guinness (Herbert Pocket), Martita Hunt (Miss Havisham), Ivor Barnard (Wemmick), and Francis L. Sullivan (Jaggers) (1946):

Excellent adaptation of the Dickens novel skimps a bit on the middle sections in order to concentrate on the exciting parts at the beginning and ending of the source text. It also makes an ending even happier than the one Dickens tacked on after people were disappointed with his original downbeat ending. So it goes. 

This is the much looser and warmer David Lean of the 1940's and early 1950's, before his desire to film epics caused him to calcify. The performances are all top-notch, especially those of a young Alec Guinness as Pip's friend Herbert Pocket and Francis Sullivan as the fascinating, ambivalent Jaggers. Joe is a humble, comic charmer, while John Mills does nice work as Pip, though the movie's compression of the middle section omits quite a bit of Pip's unsympathetic, snobbish period prior to the revelation of just who has been funding Pip's gentlemanly lifestyle.

The set design, cinematography, and direction heighten the Gothic elements of the novel when we're searching the marshes for escaped convicts or lingering in the decayed and sinister dining room of Miss Havisham. Otherwise, Lean alternates between the bustle of high society and the homey touches of Pip's childhood home in the English marshes.

Estella's adult character comes across as quite a bit warmer than that in the novel, setting up that revised ending. This may simply be the result of an actress who herself is too warm a presence for the role, though the ending perhaps makes this warmth a necessary part of the character development: this Estella hasn't entirely been emotionally neutered by the malignly self-pitying Miss Havisham. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

House of Windows (2009) by John Langan

House of Windows by John Langan (2009): John Langan's first novel is terrific, an erudite ghost story informed by Langan's knowledge of the horror genre and by his experiences in academia. It's a first-person tale within a frame -- a perennial structure in horror. It's a novel of academia. And its main narrator would seem utterly persuasive if it weren't for brief, gem-like moments throughout her narration that seem to highlight a pronounced lack of self-knowledge. Or do they?

Over the course of two long nights, SUNY-Huguenot graduate student and sessional instructor Veronica Croydon tells the story of her husband's mysterious disappearance to a narrator who seems to be John Langan. She does so because Langan writes horror stories and thus may be a good choice to hear the tale. During the day between the two nights, Langan and his wife discuss the possibility that he may also have been chosen for his perceived gullibility when it comes to the supernatural.

Veronica's narrative voice is sharp, self-assured, and intermittently unsympathetic. She's a great creation. Overall, her story of the supernatural seems convincing. It's the sudden revelations of a pronounced lack of self-evaluation spotted throughout the text that raise the possibility that her narration is flawed or possibly confabulated in its entirety. But these moments are few and far between, and subtle enough in most cases to sneak by.

Langan's depiction of academic life rings utterly true to this former academic. Veronica reminds me of a handful of graduate students I've known without in any way being a stereotype. The 40-years-older, married professor she herself marries within about a year of starting her graduate studies is also familiar without being a type. But we learn of him (and everything inside the frame) only from Veronica's point-of-view. Do we trust her? Do we trust any first-person narrator? Do we trust any narrator at all?

I don't know. In general, the discontinuities in the narrative include moments in which Veronica engages in stereotypical gender constructions of the male while at other points bristling at such constructions being attached to the female. She denigrates Herman Melville for being a detail-obsessed windbag while occasionally relating such a list of minutiae that the narrative almost bogs down in soporific descriptions of making dinner or sitting in a living room. She may have become her near-future husband's favourite student in the space of one class, with their out-of-class socializing beginning immediately thereafter, but she doesn't believe in being familiar with her own students. The failure of the earlier marriage was all the fault of the first wife -- but we learn of the first wife only through Veronica's narration. Well, we learn almost everything only through Veronica's narration. And a story that details the tragically flawed relationships of at least two sets of fathers and sons -- as commented upon throughout by Veronica -- also features Veronica's distant, annoyed relationship with a mother with whom she goes years between conversations. 

The major characters filling out the novel's pas de quatre are Ted, Roger's 30ish son from his previous marriage, and the house the Croydons have lived in for decades, Belvedere House. It's an old house. And it's about to become haunted. Or something.

Langan's vision of the supernatural in this novel bridges a gap between the cosmic, impersonal, non-traditional horrors of the Lovecraftian and the more traditional wonders and terrors of a ghost story, with psychology hanging over all. It helps to have read Fritz Leiber's great Our Lady of Darkness before reading his novel, but one doesn't need to: Langan lays everything out that the reader needs to know. Knowledge of the Leiber novel enriches one's enjoyment of House of Windows, though. And it's a swell novel.

As is this novel. The horrors here are both gross and subtle, supernatural and strictly human. There may not have ever been a haunting. But whether or not there was, there's a story of a haunting and the haunted -- there's horror and sorrow. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Jason and the Argonauts: written by Jan Read and Beverley Cross; directed by Don Chaffey and Ray Harryhausen; starring Todd Armstrong (Jason) and Nancy Kovack (Medea) (1963): Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion wizardry gives various scenes in this mythological adventure movie the quality of a dream -- or a nightmare. 

The actors may not be great, the plot may meander, but the film's stop-motion/live-action integration achieves remarkable effects. It's not that the creatures look realistic. It's that they look just realistic enough while maintaining a look that also suggests their otherworldly nature within the narrative.

Jason and the Argonauts contains two of Harryhausen's greatest achievements -- the giant bronze 'robot' Talos and the great skeleton battle. We also get a nifty battle between Jason and the Hydra and a somewhat disappointing sequence involving Harpies, who never seem to be integrated as effectively as the other stop-motion creatures. Oh, well. 

Jason and his crew of merry Greeks search for the Golden Fleece, Hercules screws up, and many great battles are had with monsters while the Greek gods help or hinder Jason in his quest. The battle between Jason and several reanimated skeletons occurs at the end of the film, and it really is a show-stopper. Highly recommended.

Freaks (1932)

Freaks: written by Tod Robbins; directed by Tod Browning; starring Wallace Ford (Phroso), Leila Hyams (Venus), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra), Henry Victor (Hercules), Harry Earles (Hans), Daisy Earles (Frieda), and Rose Dione (Madame Tetrallini) (1932): You really don't watch Freaks for the acting or the writing or that static, early sound-era direction. You watch it because the disabilities and deformities are real, because the story has the crude power of a fable, and because Tod Browning does manage a couple of effective scenes in the dark and the rain, when he's able to stage something that doesn't require camera movement.

So far as I can tell, the longest restored version runs 64 minutes, lacking about 20 minutes of lost footage that were cut from the film after its first couple of weeks of release. The lost footage apparently deepened the horror while also making the 'Freaks' of the travelling carnival more sympathetic and the 'normal' people much less so. What's left is still stunning, and surprisingly sympathetic in its treatment of the carnival grotesques who are simply trying to make a living in a world where the best they can hope for is life as a sideshow attraction.

Besides the unnerving night-time attack scene and the late-movie revelation of what revenge the carnival folk took on the homicidal trapeze artist, other scenes also achieve a sort of Grimm's pastoral. A scene involving 'pinheads' and their protector playing in the woods near the village they're visiting has a grace to it, and a grace note of kindness involving one of the townspeople's treatment of the frolickers. 

Only a coda added to the movie after its bowdlerization rings absolutely false. The rest is crude and powerful and impossible to imagine being made today. The horror of the movie begins as a contemplation of distortions of the human form and ends as a classic tale of horrific revenge in the manner of EC Comics or Poe's "Hop-Frog." The viewer's identification moves inexorably towards that of the 'Freaks,' and away from those who would harm or kill or even just mock them. Highly recommended.

What We Do In The Shadows (2014)

What We Do In The Shadows: written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi; starring Jemaine Clement (Vladislav), Taika Waititi (Viago), Jonny Brugh (Deacon), Cori Gonzalez-Macuer (Nick), Stu Rutherford (Stu), Ben Fransham (Petyr), and Jackie van Beek (Jackie) (2014): Hilarious fake documentary from the people who brought you Flight of the Conchords centered on the exploits of four vampires rooming together in the Greater Wellington Area of New Zealand. There are jarring moments of violence throughout, but the movie overall is surprisingly genial in its portrayal of the vampires and their kith and kin. 

One of the things that makes the movie so enjoyable is its rigorous attention to the details of living as a vampire, spun at most points for maximum hilarity. It's hard to groom when you can't see yourself in a mirror, for instance, and for a young vampire, learning to fly can be a real hassle. The vampires are aware of fictional constructions of their habits -- they even crib one bit of hypnotic shenanigans from The Lost Boys, all the while mispronouncing 'spaghetti' as 'basgetti.' 

The laugh-out-loud moments are often truly gross -- Dandy vamp Viago's problems with tapping the vein of a victim lead to an awful lot of spurting blood, while new vamp Nick learns the hard way why vampires shouldn't eat chips. Meanwhile, 8000-year-old Petyr lurks in the basement listening to his headphones and refusing to attend house meetings. But he's a good listener!

I mean, really one wishes a 'serious' vampire movie would be this well-thought-out. The writers know their vampire mythology. But they also work some ridiculous changes on their sources, whether it's through Vlad's problems with shape-shifting or the eternal war between vampires and werewolves. What We Do In The Shadows is a sheer delight. Leave your reflection at the door. Highly recommended.