Sunday, July 31, 2016

21st Century Horror Comics

Severed (2012/Collected 2013): written by Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft; illustrated by Attilla Futaki: This dark, often Bradbury-esque road story, set in early 20th-century America, is a mostly solid piece of horror from Snyder, Tuft, and artist Futaki. The first half or so seems more compelling than the second, possibly because the graphic novel jettisons its most interesting character about halfway through. And it does so in a way that makes no sense in relation to how that character has been developed to that point. 

After that, about one issue's worth of material gets smeared across three issues of pages, like too little butter scraped across too much bread (thanks, Tolkien!). Futaki's art is moody and horrifying when it needs to be, though he has a devil of a time maintaining consistency with the faces of the main characters. The monster is horrible, and he gets to deliver a lengthy speech about why he's horrible. Recommended with some reservations.

The Strange Adventures of H.P. Lovecraft (2009/ Collected 2010): written by Mac Carter; illustrated by Tony Salmons and Adam Byrne: Something of an oddity, this -- a comic book about H.P. Lovecraft that plays extremely fast and loose with the actual details of his life so as to turn him into a forlorn Romantic who hates his home town of Providence. It's part of that large and often annoying corpus in which both Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos co-exist in actuality, simultaneously. 

However, it's not a documentary, so one goes along with Lovecraft the unrequited lover of a sexy Providence librarian in the early 1920's, or doesn't go along, depending on how compelling the story is. And it's not a terrible story -- Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows' superior Providence has pretty much the same basic set-up, with HPL as the gateway for the Old Ones. Their HPL resonates with a careful attention to actual history, though: this one gets boring every time he gets lovelorn and mopey, and that happens a lot.

Artist Tony Salmons is great with the goopy, tenticular horrors of the story. The lay-outs sometimes get away from him (is this a scripting problem or an art problem?), causing several pages to become incomprehensible. Having Salmons handle the more outlandish moments and another, more normative artist handle the day-to-day material might have resulted in a much more interesting book. Still, I've always liked Salmons -- boring he is not.

Mac Carter's writing comes and goes. Lovelorn, Providence-hating HPL is a tough sell to anyone who's read much of anything about or by Lovecraft. Actual quotes from HPL weave in and out of the narrative, mostly effectively except when they highlight how much better a writer HPL was than Mac Carter is. A jokey quality undermines many scenes, eradicating horror. Very lightly recommended.

Outcast Volume 1: A Darkness Surrounds Him (2014/Collected 2015): written by Robert Kirkman; illustrated by Paul Azaceta: The TV series adapted from the Outcast comic series has so far been very faithful to the comic, which I guess is what you get when the comic book's creator controls the TV show. The first six issues here are a nice, under-stated piece of horror that gestures towards the epic that awaits just over the horizon. Kirkman's writing is sharper here than it has been for years on The Walking Dead: supernatural horror without zombies seems to have reinvigorated him.

Paul Azaceta's art is what we once called European before David Mazzuchelli drew Batman: Year One: understated and representational, sometimes a bit too understated and too much like late 1980's Mazzuchelli. Still, it's mostly lovely work, much of it rendered in subdued and mournful colours. Recommended.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Letters to Arkham: The Letters of Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth, 1961-1971

Letters to Arkham: The Letters of Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth, 1961-1971 (2014): edited by S.T. Joshi: Essential, informative, and educational reading for any reader of horror, and especially for those who admire both H.P. Lovecraft and Ramsey Campbell.

August Derleth was a fantastically important editor and publisher in the realms of the weird. He kept H.P. Lovecraft in print, in book form, for decades until the rest of the world started catching up with the Cthulhu Mythos. And he also published the first book by Liverpudlian Ramsey Campbell after Campbell started corresponding with Derleth back in 1961.

In 1961, Campbell was 15. His first collection -- The Inhabitant of the Lake -- would come out from Arkham in 1964. And while the precocious Campbell's early works would be Lovecraftian pastiches not-dissimilar to some of Derleth's own work, Campbell's growth curve as a writer was startlingly steep. By the late 1960's, his voice was uniquely his own and he'd helped pioneer a new approach to visionary horror.

Derleth and Campbell carry on a lively, wide-ranging correspondence for ten years, though the last three years are a bit spotty because many letters have gone missing. While thoughts on horror are the main attraction, Letters to Arkham also offers a glimpse into the cottage industry that was Arkham House. We also learn just how prolific Derleth was as a writer. And a lover, though some of that may be taken with a grain of salt.

As Campbell notes in his afterword, he was something of a fan-boy in his early letters. But that element gradually slips away, leaving the reader with a dialogue between two friends who never met in person. Their debates on the merits of everything from Peter Sellers to Samuel Beckett are lively and fascinating. Derleth functions as a mentor figure for Campbell throughout their correspondence when it comes to writing and, more generally, living. 

And we find out that Derleth took to the Wisconsin woods where he lived every May to collect morel mushrooms. Thousands of them, their number dutifully reported each year. Fungi from Wisconsin. How Lovecraftian is that? Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Horrors from Inside, Horrors from Outside

Ex Machina (2015): written and directed by Alex Garland; starring Domhnall Gleason (Caleb), Oscar Isaac (Nathan), Alicia Vikander (Ava), and Sonoya Mizuno (Kyoko): Critically acclaimed science-fiction film written and directed by the screenwriter of the underappreciated Dredd and the much-appreciated 28 Days Later. This is a nuanced, often creepy walk through Frankenstein territory, with a few nods to The Island of Dr. Moreau. But we're in the present day, in a world where building an Artificial Intelligence involves educating it with social media. Is it any wonder things could go wrong? Or perhaps 'worng'? 

The three principals are all very good. Domhnall Gleason is the young programmer brought to his tech mega-billionaire boss' gigantic Northern estate to help test whether or not the machine-intelligence Ava is truly self-aware. Oscar Isaac is the charismatic, mercurial, manipulative tech giant; Alicia Vikander is the the charming, inquisitive, and seemingly innocent robotic Ava. Weird things start to happen, all of them playing out in counter-pointed sterile interiors and Sublime exteriors filmed in Norway in glacier country. Hey, Garland actually seems to know the connection between Frankenstein and the Sublime! Ex Machina is very good science fiction and leaves one wanting more of its middle sections, in which ideas are debated and sometimes yelled about. Highly recommended.

Chronicle (2012): written by Max Landis and Josh Trank; directed by Josh Trank; starring Dane DeHaan (Andrew Detmer), Alex Russell (Matt Garetty), Michael B. Jordan (Steve Montgomery), and Michael Kelly (Richard Detmer): Josh Trank and Max Landis' fine, found-footage superhero drama led to Trank's horrible Fantastic Four movie, which really seems like a case of Unintended Consequences. 

Oddly, the means by which the three teenagers in Chronicle gain their telekinesis-based superpowers would have made for a good new origin for the Fantastic Four -- as indeed one character's descent into madness would have made for a reasonable take on Doctor Doom. So it goes. 

The found-footage premise works organically through much of the movie, especially once the characters can telekinetically fly the camera around on its own. Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan do fine, nuanced work as our three super-powered teenagers. And Chronicle, despite its (relatively) low budget, does a nice job of showing the wonders and terrors such powers would visit upon people while also creating actual, sympathetic, flawed characters. 

All this actual storytelling means that a concluding super-hero battle actually possesses the ability to shock and disturb. Easily one of the ten greatest superhero movies ever made because it's actually a movie and not an Ad for American Exceptionalism, Toys, and Fast Food. Highly recommended.

The Visit (2015): written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; starring Olivia DeJonge (Becca), Ed Oxenbould (Tyler), Deanna Dunagan (Nana), Peter McRobbie (Pop Pop), and Kathryn Hahn (Mom): A decent thriller from M. Night Shyamalan... with a twist! This movie only cost $5 million, which is why it was considered a financial success despite grossing almost exactly the same amount of money domestically as the universally reviled M. Night Shyamalan bomb The Happening, a.k.a. The One Where Mark Wahlberg Runs Away From Wind

The Visit is blessedly short and gifted with four out of five decent actors in the main roles. The non-decent actor playing grandson Tyler isn't necessarily a bad actor -- he's just been burdened with a cutesy rapping obsession that probably looked a lot better on the page than it plays on screen. 

The plot is simple -- the two children of a mother estranged from her parents since before the kids were born go to visit the grandparents for a week, mostly against their mother's wishes. Meanwhile, Mom goes on a cruise with her new boyfriend. The oldest grandchild, the granddaughter, is filming everything because she's obsessed with film and hey, this is yet another 'found-footage' horror movie. Shyamalan wrings a few new shocks out of the first-person camera. Certainly not a great movie, but enjoyable. Recommended.

John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001): written by Larry Sulkis and John Carpenter; directed by John Carpenter; starring Natasha Henstridge (Lt. Ballard), Ice Cube (Desolation Williams), Jason Statham (Sgt. Jericho), Clea DuVall (Kincaid), Pam Grier (Commander Braddock), and Joanna Cassidy (Whitlock): Grungy, grimy sci-fi horror-Western from the great John Carpenter. It's worn really well, possibly because it's the antithesis of today's PG-rated, CGI-heavy action movies. The cast is a hoot. Teaming up the Amazonian blonde Henstridge (Species) with Ice Cube is all sorts of awesome. 

There's some smarts in the movie's back-story, and some thrills in the various explosion-heavy battles with the monsters on Mars. One sometimes wishes for better monsters. So it goes. The premise works as a weird sort-of-sequel to Nigel Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit (a.k.a. Five Million Years to Earth). Carpenter worked with Kneale while producing Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, for which Kneale wrote a screenplay that he then took his name off because of concerns about the film's violence. Hmm. Recommended.

Alien: 2003 Director's Cut (1979/2003): partially based on the stories "Black Destroyer" and "Discord in Scarlet" by A.E. Van Vogt; written by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shushett; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Tom Skerritt (Dallas), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert), Harry Dean Stanton (Brett), John Hurt (Kane), Ian Holm (Ash), and Yaphet Kotto (Parker): As a restored, director's cut on BluRay, Alien looks terrific. It's like a whole different movie, with the looming alien ship and surrounding wasteland dominating the proceedings (and dwarfing the puny humans) in the first half. One forgets how gradually things build: it's nearly an hour before the real horrors erupt, but once they do, they come in a flurry. 

The cast is uniformly fine. The Director's Cut adds in several scenes in which the cast interacts, countering the crew's isolation from one another in the original cut. Yaphet Kotto's Parker benefits most from the restoration -- he's clearly the second protagonist now after Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. Like her, he's also the voice of Reason throughout the film. 

The set design and Ridley Scott's shooting of it is another character in the movie. The future has never looked like such a combination of the Gothic and the industrial. And there's the Alien itself in its various manifestations, kept off-screen or only partially glimpsed until the climax. It's still a masterpiece of design based on H.R. Giger's creepy ideas. 

The re-insertion of a scene that prefigures the colonist-stocked alien 'nursery' of Aliens is the most gratifying addition, especially for those of us who first encountered the scene in Alan Dean Foster's novelization of Alien way back in 1979. A Lovecraftian, haunted-house-in-space masterpiece that's probably still Ridley Scott's best movie. No sequel or prequel has surpassed it in terms of a horror movie that combines the cosmic with body horror. Highly recommended.