Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Aliens vs. Predator 2: Requiem (2007)

Aliens vs. Predator 2: Requiem (2007): based on characters created by Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shushett, Jim Thomas, and John Thomas; written by Shane Salerno; directed by Colin and Greg Krause; starring Steven Pasquale (Dallas), Reiko Aylesworth (Kelly), John Ortiz (Morales), Johnny Lewis (Ricky), and Kristen Hager (Jesse):

Fun fact: so far as I could tell, 'Requiem' never appears as part of the title in the actual movie. Which makes a certain amount of sense because there's very little that's Requiemesque about this production.

Aliens vs. Predator 2: Requiem (AVP2R?) surprised me by not being terrible. It's not good. But it entertained me sporadically for two hours. Its main strength is its absolute ruthlessness towards characters minor and major, and ruthlessness in its scenarios. An egg-laying Alien gets into a maternity ward. Hoo boy, is that brutal both in what's shown and what's implied! The Alien, actually a Predator-Alien hybrid, can lay multiple eggs out of its mouth. Ha ha! That's some grotesque stuff! Those mothers and fetuses are totally screwed!

And there's more where that came from. 

On a television screen, the action is sometimes so dark as to be incomprehensible. That's not really a bad thing in a horror movie, though because of the darkness it took me two-thirds of the film to figure out which Alien was the ill-advised Alien/Predator hybrid. And good luck differentiating that hybrid in some scenes from the actual Predator sent to clean up the mess caused by a Predator research vessel crashing near a small town in Colorado and thus releasing a truckload of Facehuggers and that nasty hybrid.

The cast is anonymous but perfectly serviceable. British Columbia plays Colorado effectively. It's a decent time-waster and, though it' s a direct sequel to the first Aliens vs. Predator movie, one doesn't need to have seen that movie to understand this one. I do wish Robocop would get involved in these franchise crossovers, though. And Wolverine. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Color Over Occam (2012) by Jonathan Thomas

The Color Over Occam (2012) by Jonathan Thomas: Set in and around the New England town of Occam, The Color Over Occam is narrated by Occam city clerk Jeffrey Slater.  Slater and his friend Wil run a public access cable show involving their investigations of the supernatural. As the novel begins, they're paddling around the city reservoir -- once farmland but flooded since the 1920's -- investigating claims of "ghost lights" on the waters at night. And they find them. But they're not ghosts.

You see, Occam was renamed from its original 'Arkham' a couple of decades back. And readers of H.P. Lovecraft's seminal horror story "The Color Out of Space" will quickly recognize that demon-haunted reservoir...

Thomas' first novel is a witty, cynical, often satiric addition to the Cthulhu Mythos. The problems of civic politics (and politicians covering their own asses) make for a welcome new spin on cosmic horror. There are points at which The Color Over Occam is quite funny, and not always bleakly (though Thomas does bleak too!).

I think one can read The Color Over Occam without having read "The Color Out of Space." Or perhaps preferably, read or re-read Lovecraft's story AFTER reading The Color Over Occam. Thomas deftly weaves the original into his novel without imitating Lovecraft's prose or narrative emphases.

While there's drollery and a bit of comic over-emphasis at points in the narrative, the text maintains a sense of verisimilitude throughout. How would a small-town government deal with cosmic horror building in its town? How would an amateur ghost-finder deal with potentially world-shattering events? How will Slater deal with his low alcohol tolerance? Why does office work suck so much?

The Color Over Occam compares favourably with several novels I can think of. Its occasionally hapless protagonist and the cosmic but town-centric events he's trapped within remind me of Ramsey Campbell's Creatures of the Pool and The Last Revelation of Gla'aki. The office- and civic-based comedy repeatedly reminded me of William Browning Spencer's hilarious Resumé with Monsters. And the subject matter recalls Michael Shea's fun, pulpy sequel to Lovecraft's original, The Color Out of Time.

But this novel is also its own self with an unusual mix of wit, satire, cosmic horror, and body horror that pay suitable homage to Lovecraft's great original without attempting to mimic "The Color Out of Space" in form, style, or mood. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Life (2017)

Life (2017): written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick; directed by Daniel Espinosa; starring Jake Gyllenhaal (David Jordan) and Rebecca Ferguson (Miranda North): A movie riddled with scientific, engineering, logical, and character idiocies -- that's Life

I'm pretty sure the pitch for this movie was "Gravity meets Alien!" even though Alien was also set in and around space because Life has a lot of zero-G shots and ostensibly takes place in the present day, albeit a present day with radically different laws of physics. 

There could easily be a good version of this movie in which a Martian octopus with an eating disorder attacks the International Space Station. Indeed, there have been many good versions of this movie, from both versions of The Thing to Alien to, I don't know, Hitchcock's Lifeboat.

This version, though, is an exercise in grim dumbness, surprisingly from the screenwriters of the jaunty Deadpool. By the end, you will be cheering for the Martian octopus, which is smarter than an entire station filled with astronauts because as we all know from Armageddon and many other movies, astronauts are really stupid when compared to Just Plain Folks. Not recommended.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Southern Gods (2011) by John Hornor Jacobs

Southern Gods (2011) by John Hornor Jacobs: An enjoyable, bloody, thoughtful piece of hardboiled Southern Gothic Lovecraftian cosmic horror blues. 

In 1951 Tennessee, enforcer Bull Ingram gets loaned by his criminal employer to a record-company owner who has lost one of his employees in Arkansas. The employee was pursuing rumours of a strange bluesman named Ramblin' John Hastur. Yes, Hastur. As in Robert W. Chambers' THE KING IN YELLOW.

Oh oh is right!

Meanwhile, a parallel narrative introduces us to abused wife Sarah and daughter Franny, who have fled her husband back to the old family home in Arkansas. That family home was the site of a mass murder of a family by its young son decades earlier. And the library of that home contains some extremely odd volumes, ones familiar either in name or content to fans of the Cthulhu Mythos and all its tentacular offshoots.

Haunted by his experiences in the Pacific Theatre in World War Two, Bull Ingram is also haunted by an essentially decent nature that has been sublimated so that he can get on with his work collecting loans for his employer. He's an almost quintessential figure for hardboiled fiction, a tarnished knight, a grey man sent into battle against the pitch-black (and bone-white) forces that seek to devour the world. Jacobs also does a nice job of investing Sarah with increasing assurance as the narrative progresses.

Southern Gods is unusually bloody for cosmic horror and unusually cosmic for bloody horror. Jacobs deftly creates a sense of place throughout, especially in the dives and small-town radio stations Bull investigates during his mission. The climax and its aftermath are also rewarding, a rejection of the occasionally easy nihilism of many works of horror without moving into unearned sentimentality. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 25, 2017

mother! (2017)

mother! (2017): written and directed by Darren Aronofsky; starring Jennifer Lawrence (Mother), Javier Bardem (Him), Ed Harris (Man), and Michelle Pfeiffer (Woman): 

Holy Moley. The most divisive movie of 2017 starts off weirdly and maybe even a touch soporifically. The last half-hour is a lot like being punched in the head. If you're looking for something weird, visually arresting, or even sort of awful, mother! is the movie for you. If your idea of Art Cinema is any movie without a superhero in it, you should probably stay away. 

Writer-director Darren Aronofky and principal actors Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem have accomplished something here horrific and horrifying and possibly, depending on how much you buy into the allegory, hoary. Highly recommended yet not recommended at all

Saturday, September 23, 2017

IT (2017)

It (2017): adapted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman from the novel by Stephen King; directed by Andy Muschietti; starring Bill Skarsgard (Pennywise), Jaeden Lieberher (Bill), Jeremy Ray Taylor (Ben), Sophia Lillis (Bev), Finn Wolfhard (Richie), Chosen Jacobs (Mike), Jack Dylan Grazer (Eddie), and Wyatt Oleff (Stanley): Solid, occasionally inspired adaptation of Stephen King's enormous 1986 novel clearly aims at the mass market and, based on that stunning box-office performance, succeeds. One loses some of the best elements of the novel because of the crowd-pleasing approach. On the other hand, a halfway faithful adaptation of (half of) IT would be longer than Berlin Alexanderplatz.

The filmmakers ditch the three-timeline structure of the novel (roughly, for those counting at home, the 1950's narrative, the 1980's narrative, and Mike Hanlon's archival narrative that fills in the history of Derry, Maine as Mike moves closer and closer to the 1980's narrative). 

Instead, we get It Chapter 1, set in autumn 1988 and then summer 1989. That moves It up from its 1950's/1980's original timeline so as to avoid the entire movie being a period piece. King has done this with his own novels (The Stand was jiggered forwards in time for its 'Director's Cut' 1990 edition, for instance), so no big whoop. Well, except for the chuckleheads who immediately started comparing It to Stranger Things instead of the other way around. Idiots.

I do wonder if there's a 3-hour director's cut of It waiting on the shelves. Changes to the late-summer portion of the narrative almost suggest that a big chunk of material was filmed and then edited out so as to keep the movie below 2 1/2 hours. The kids lose a certain amount of that Hollywood touchstone AGENCY in this version, not so much planning their engagements with It as running willy-nilly into them. 

Unfortunately, the communal bonding elaborated upon in the novel is here reduced to one happy set-piece (swimming at the quarry) and one grim one (cleaning Bev's bathroom of spectral blood that only the kids can see). Gone, too, the Native-American smokehouse vision of It's arrival on Earth, apparently shunted to Chapter Two.

There are some decisions -- especially to temporarily make Bev into Penelope Pit-stop near the end -- that suggest the film-makers are setting up things to be paralleled in the next movie that are not paralleled in the novel (specifically, using the wife of one of the grown-up kids as bait, and even subjecting her to It's mysterious, brain-frying Deadlights). I'd have also liked more emphasis on the rotten nature of Derry in general. 

And Mike Hanlon really gets hosed, though again this looks like a decision glancing forward to a greater role in Chapter Two. The monsters and the dread are here. And Pennywise is creepy, though neither the filmmakers nor Pennywise-portrayer Bill Skarsgard seem to have the slightest idea how to make Pennywise appealing as a prelude to the revelation of his/Its true nature. He/It is just too scary to draw anyone into his web. The kids, though -- the kids are dynamite. Recommended.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Boy (2016)

The Boy (2016): written by Stacey Menear; directed by William Brent Bell; starring Lauren Cohan (Greta), Rupert Evans (Malcolm), and Ben Robson (Cole): Who names their son Brahms? Oh, well. Lauren Cohan plays an American hired as a nanny/au pair by an elderly English couple. She's there to take care of their eight-year-old son while they go on vacation. The son is a life-sized doll. OK!

The Walking Dead's Cohan carries much of the film's best moments, as improbable as they often seem. And the movie plays fair until the epilogue, which one could argue is as much an imagined nightmare as the 'hand shots' that appear near the ends of Carrie and Deliverance. Rupert Evans brings a muted affability to the thankless role of New English Love Interest. The doll is pretty creepy. 

The director whiffs several times on disguising the fact that the movie was shot in and around Victoria, British Columbia rather than England. Either that or The Boy takes place in an alternate universe in which England has redwood trees. Lightly recommended.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Ax (1997) by Donald Westlake

The Ax (1997) by Donald Westlake: Burke DeVore, a mid-level paper company executive, has been downsized. So he's going to kill his way back to full employment by murdering everyone who stands in the way of his taking a job at another paper company. And he justifies his serial spree by noting that it's not really any different than what the board members of large companies do to their workforce every day.

Westlake's bleak, black satire rings as horrifyingly true today as it did in the late 1990's. Maybe moreso, in this Hell Age of Trump the President. Westlake's novel presents white middle-class rage taken to a (seemingly) logical extreme. 

But The Ax also satirizes that white middle-class sense of privilege while also damning the American obsession with profits for the very few at the expense of everyone else. It's a dynamite novel that shows rather than tells. And it's not for the squeamish. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Secret History of Twin Peaks (2016) by Mark Frost

The Secret History of Twin Peaks (2016) by Mark Frost: Mark Frost's canonical (as in, 'It's a part of the series lore') book is creepy, informative fun. It could almost stand on its own, though in that case it doesn't exactly have a conclusion. 

In a nod to the documentary strain of horror fiction, The Secret History of Twin Peaks deploys journal entries, diary excerpts, newspaper articles, and first-person testimonials and reporting to supply David Lynch and Mark Frost's fictional town with a convincingly weird history as a place where the walls between the normal world and the world of demons and aliens have worn very, very thin.

The conceit here is that much of what we're reading was found in a lockbox at an undisclosed location. It's been assigned by FBI assistant director Gordon Cole (played by Lynch on the TV series) to a younger agent with the initials 'T.P.' to annotate. T.P.'s notes appear in the margins. 

The contents of the lockbox (or 'dossier') were assembled by an initially unnamed character from Twin Peaks (the show and the town). That unnamed character (dubbed 'the Archivist' by T.P.) also comments on the various pieces assembled in the dossier while hinting and then confirming that much of the dossier was assembled by another character from Twin Peaks. Got all that?

Frost brings real historical figures (Lewis of Lewis and Clark; UFO investigators J. Allen Hynek and Kenneth Arnold; President Nixon; Jackie Gleason (!)...) and real events into the secret history of demon- and angel-haunted Twin Peaks, to enjoyably creepy and expansive effect. It seems as if Frost is much more into UFO' s than Lynch, making The Secret History of Twin Peaks a somewhat different experience than the show. And that's a good thing. Everything herein dovetails nicely with what we've seen on Twin Peaks without over-writing anything.

Frost supplies background for many of the characters of Twin Peaks, from the Mayor and his brother (remember them? Well, they're major players here!) to Major Briggs and Dr. Jacoby. The dossier ends when the Archivist apparently disappears in 1989, a few days after the events in the series end. We do discover the fate of a couple of characters from the show. However, a gap of about 27 years is indeed left between the end of dossier and Twin Peaks: The Return. Some of that gap is filled in by T.P.'s marginal notes, as she or he is writing just days before the events chronicled in Twin Peaks: The Return begin.

In all, this is an impressive addition to the world of documentary-style horror and fantasy fiction. If you've watched Twin Peaks: The Return, you'll probably guess the identities of our archivist and the young FBI agent reading his work in 2016. You may be surprised when the UFO stuff starts flying, or when American magazine editor Raymond Palmer's The Shaver Mysteries suddenly makes an appearance. L. Ron Hubbard shows up as well. And Aleister Crowley, and so on, and so forth. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Tommyknockers (1987) by Stephen King

The Tommyknockers (1987) by Stephen King: 

"The Tommyknockers is an awful book. That was the last one I wrote before I cleaned up my act." - Stephen King, the "act" being his addiction problems.

Who am I to argue with Stephen King on the topic of Stephen King?

The Tommyknockers is the worst thing -- novel, story, screenplay, comic book, greeting card, you name it -- the prolific King has ever written. I don't think it's even that close between The Tommyknockers and the second-worst thing. 

King wrote The Tommyknockers at pretty much Peak Addiction, and it is interesting from an autobiographical perspective as page after page dwells on the alcohol addiction of protagonist James Eric 'Gard' Gardener. 

And the townsfolk of fictional, tiny Haven, Maine (near demon-haunted Derry in Stephen King's Maine) also succumb to addiction of a type: well, an infection, anyway, from a long-buried spaceship that ends up getting unburied when Gard's former lover, Western writer Bobbi Anderson, stubs her toe on a projecting part of a giant spaceship in the woods behind her rural home.

Once exposed to air, the spaceship infects people with some sort of airborne virus or nanotechnology. The virus makes people progressively less human as it also turns them into assholes who like building high-tech gadgets. Soon, Haven is hard at work, working towards The Becoming, when they'll finish excavating the spaceship (it's saucer-shaped, natch) and go do bad things somewhere on Earth or elsewhere.

All this seems to have been predicted by a Maine folk rhyme about 'the Tommyknockers' that begins 'Late last night and the night before/ Tommyknockers, Tommyknockers, knocking at the door.' Even buried for millennia, the spaceship has exerted some malign influence on people living near it. It reminds me of King's previous novel, It, in which we see It crash into the primordial forest that would one day become Derry. Derry is located about 30 miles from Haven. Is there some sort of magnet that causes weird stuff to crash in this area of Maine? Is Amelia Earhart's plane out there too?

There's probably an OK but derivative short science-fiction novel buried in the bloat of The Tommyknockers. The novel's most obvious antecedent is Quatermass and the Pit/ Five Million Years to Earth, in which an alien spaceship is unearthed during a London subway dig and proceeds to alter the humanity around it as it draws power from its environment. The Tommyknockers is the rural version of that, and this time the Martians aren't Nazis: they're gadgeteers. They're King's heavy-handed, repeatedly spelled-out metaphor for the human beings who make atomic bombs, nuclear power plants, intelligence agencies, and every other ill on the Earth caused by technology.

King plays bait-and-switch with his protagonists. Bobbi Anderson takes point, but once the alien infection takes hold, the narrative switches to Gardener. And once Gardener gets really drunk in the middle of the book, the novel jumps around among various townsfolk and outsiders until Gardener starts to sober up around page 350 or so. The structure plays Hell with readerly sympathy, a problem compounded by...

The Tommyknockers give us King's least sympathetic, most caricatured set of characters in all of his writing. It's far and away King's sourest book. Part of the problem seems to come from King's decision to only supply characterization for most of the townsfolk after they're already turning into gadget-building assholes. Part of the problem comes from the fact that King falls back on some of his recurring stereotypes for characters, even when they should be at least nominally sympathetic. 

To cite one, we get a nebbishy man who lives at home with his mother who browbeats him. We also get a crusty senior citizen who knows where all the bodies in Haven are buried, not one but two writers as co-protagonists (and Gard is alcoholic -- did I mention that?), a super-smart kid who's ostracized by his peers but beloved by his younger brother, and a lot of small-minded small-town types. Once most of those stereotypes get infested, they're really annoying.

Even the people outside Derry are assholes. Gard has to deal with a mean woman who runs the travelling poetry show that pays his salary. You can tell she's mean because she's an upper-class twit with a pinched face and no breasts. Bobbi has been repeatedly terrorized throughout her life by an insanely domineering, evil sister, and you can be sure that evil sister will show up in Haven before the end of the novel. The bad characters in The Tommyknockers have no redeeming qualities. But we will spend a lot of time with them. Even doomed minor characters from outside Haven are assholes who sort of deserve to die. And die they will!

And we will know that many of them will die before they die for one of two reasons. Maybe King will employ probably his least endearing, corpus-wide trope -- the narrative voice telling us that the character we're reading about is going to die before the end of the novel. Or maybe King will indulge in the frustrating, suspense-cancelling structural tic he developed for The Tommyknockers, in which the novel describes events building to something catastrophic before jumping backwards in time to show us the events building to that same something catastrophic from a different narrative POV. This happens again and again, and indeed accelerates in the last 50 pages or so, as we see the same thing happen over and over again from a seemingly endless series of POVs. So long, suspense!

Two major characters have steel plates in their heads. And this is a major plot point. Two characters! What are the odds! King also brings back the evil Coke machine from Maximum Overdrive. I shit you not. I wish he'd also brought back Captain Trips from The Stand so that everyone in this fucking novel could die by page 100.

At several points, either King or his characters basically throw up their hands and start using other people's works to explain things. Thus, Peter Straub's Floating Dragon gets a shout-out from Bobbi and Gard. So, too, Poul Anderson's Brain Wave (wrongly in terms of Brain Wave's plot), the work of Robert Heinlein (dismissively and not remotely accurately in the assessment, BTW), and some of King's own work. It's Pennywise cameos for no real reason other than that a couple of characters drive through Derry. 

The Heinlein moment is especially weird. Having learned that the aliens (or 'Tommyknockers' if you prefer) are neither benign nor particularly intelligent, Gard thinks "So much for Robert Heinlein." As Heinlein wasn't known for writing a lot about benign, technologically advanced aliens, this statement makes little sense. 

It makes even less sense when one knows that one of Heinlein's most famous novels of the 1950's was The Puppet Masters, in which malign parasitic aliens invade Earth and take possession of human beings to advance their goals. They even stick people in fluid-filled tubes, as do King's Tommyknocker-possessed humans. 

And King even repeats a much different Heinlein trope, one seen in many American science-fiction works: humanity has something so special about it that unlike other races, it offers resistance to this alien threat. King has met the enemy, and King is Heinlein.

Much, much odder is a section in which King's narrative voice sings the praises of Canadian writer Robertson Davies and, specifically, Davies' Deptford Trilogy and, most specifically, those portions of the Deptford Trilogy dealing with the young Dunstable Ramsey's attempts to master magic tricks in the company of the younger Paul Dempster, who really will master magic and go on to become professional magician Magnus Eisengrim. So King really likes Robertson Davies. Not one of the characters -- King's narrative voice. OK. This novel is brought to you by the Deptford Trilogy. I'm surprised the narrative voice doesn't warn us that Robertson Davies is going to die.

I could go on, but I'm sort of exhausted. The novel ends in part with an astronomical statement that makes absolutely no sense. That pretty much sums it up. Populated with characters unpleasant or boring or both, derivative or dismissive of far superior works, The Tommyknockers is indeed, in King's own words, "awful." To flip the punchline of an old joke... and such large portions! Not recommended.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Great White Space (1974) by Basil Copper

The Great White Space (1974) by Basil Copper: The amazingly prolific Basil Copper gives us a splendid homage to H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, with perhaps a smidgen of Moby Dick, in this tale of an expedition into a mysterious cave system located beneath mountains somewhere in Asia. The exact location is never given because the narrator doesn't want anyone to follow in his expedition's footsteps for reasons that become abundantly clear as the narrative progresses. He only is escaped alone to tell thee.

Narrated decades after the (thankfully fictional) attempt of the 1932 Great Northern Expedition to penetrate the mysteries of that cave system, The Great White Space goes not into the southern polar regions (as Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, Jules Verne's The Sphinx of the Ice, and Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym did) but beneath the Earth. 

Copper devotes a lot of space and detail early in the text to explaining the technical and logistical preparations for the descent and then the long voyage to 'The Black Mountains', where the entry to the cave system exists. Along the way, two different and somewhat odd Asian tribes are met, and possible taboos about entering the caves encountered. The natives do not go in there, through an artificial cave mouth that stands several hundred feet high.

Once inside the system -- which is, to use a favourite Lovecraftian adjective, cyclopean, as in monstrously huge -- the expedition soon discovers that the entire cave system is artificial, carved or somehow otherwise scooped out of the rock through unknown technological means. Something lurks, of course, though much of the terror of the novel lies in what comes before the Big Reveal. 

Unnerving details and an attention to both the squeamish and the Sublime build to the revelation of what waits in the region of The Great White Space, a region paradoxically located miles beneath the Earth. There are things in bottles, a library, and great forms glimpsed in the distance, coming closer. And there comes occasionally from far off the sound of enormous wings.

Some may find this brief novel a tad slow -- the horrors come on-stage fairly late in the game, and explanations are abandoned in favour of mystery and dread. I quite liked the modulation of this novel -- it's quiet and it demands concentration, but it's a page-turner nonetheless. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Girl With All the Gifts (2016)

The Girl With All the Gifts (2016): adapted by Mike Carey from his own novel; directed by Colm McCarthy; starring Gemma Arterton (Helen), Glenn Close (Dr. Caldwell), Sennia Nanua (Melanie), Fisayo Akinade (Kieran), and Paddy Considine (Sgt. Parks): Tight, taut, thoughtful zombie movie adapted by the great novelist and comic-book writer Mike Carey (Lucifer, The Unwritten, the Felix Castor series) from his own novel. 

Barely released in North America, The Girl With All the Gifts presents a world several years into a plague of zombies unleashed by a fungal strain that attacks the human brain. But second-generation 'zombie' children seem to be sentient and 'human' so long as they don't get hungry -- or get triggered to be hungry. Why? 

While biologist Glenn Close tries to cure the disease, Gemma Arterton's school-zombie teacher tries to keep the most tractable and intelligent of the child-zombies happy and educated and non-lethally inclined. A very interesting piece of work, though a lot of the military stuff needed some serious consulting. Or me on the set to yell, "There's no way they'd put a plate-glass window there." Recommended.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca (1940): based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, adapted by Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison, Philip MacDonald, and Michael Hogan; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Joan Fontaine (The Second Mrs. De Winter), Laurence Olivier (Maxim De Winter), George Sanders (Cousin Jack), and Judith Anderson (Mrs. Danvers): Alfred Hitchcock's first American film for hands-on producer David O. Selznick won the 1940 Best Picture Oscar, but Hitchcock was denied Best Director in favour of John Ford on the treacly How Green Was My Valley. Sigh.

Hitchcock said many times over the years that Selznick's interference before, during, and after Rebecca's production meant that the movie wasn't a Hitchcock movie. Critics and historians disagree. I'd say it's about 75% Hitchcock, and I'd say it's the finest Gothic Romance ever put on the big screen. 75% Hitchcock is well over 100% for virtually any other director.

Rebecca is magnificent and melodramatic, shot in high-contrast, moody, threatening Black-and-White per Hitchcock's wishes. Joan Fontaine, her second Mrs. De Winter never given a first name in the movie or originating novel, undergoes a bildungsroman over the course of the movie from timid orphan to self-assured Lady. Fontaine is terrific, supplying the small human touches that make her character feel like a fully realized dramatic character walking through a world of melodrama and comedy turns from supporting players that include the oily George Sanders and the affable, blustery Nigel Bruce.

The set design of mammoth, haunted Manderley mansion and grounds is superbly realized and menacingly shot. The exteriors don't show a real mansion: it's a miniature, and a great one. Tim Burton clearly liked some of the interiors, as he homages several in his two Batman movies.

Laurence Olivier's Maxim De Winter is abrasive and distracted and occasionally filled with rage. It's a solid performance, though Olivier is stuck to some extent playing a version of Ronald Colman, who turned down the movie.

Judith Anderson's housekeeper Mrs. Danvers is the crowning achievement, one of the great movie villains of all time. Bird-like, menacing, unblinking, and always turning up when the second Mrs. De Winter doesn't expect her -- it's brilliant acting and brilliant directorial management of an actor. If the exposition gets a little leaden over the last 15 minutes of the movie -- well, there's always that finale to wake you up again. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Dark Tower (2017)

The Dark Tower (2017): adapted by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Nikolaj Arcel from the series by Stephen King; directed by Nikolaj Arcel; starring Idris Elba (Roland), Tom Taylor (Jake), and Matthew McConaughey (Walter): Shortly before its release, The Dark Tower was called a sequel to the 8-novel+ Stephen King series by its creators. And it actually makes sense as one if you've read the series. 

Is it a great movie? No. It's bracingly short and compact, though maybe 20 minutes' more questing and world-building would have been nice. Idris Elba does fine work as a more tortured Roland the Gunslinger than we see in the novels. Tom Taylor does fine work as Jake, the boy on 'our' Earth who dreams of the Gunslinger and his fantastic quest to save the Dark Tower at the centre of reality. And Matthew McConaughey is suitably smarmy and smug as Walter, the Man in Black who's trying to bring down the Dark Tower in service to his own dark god(s). 

There are Stephen King Easter Eggs galore (Hello, Charlie the Choo-Choo! Hello, Room 1408!). There are rat-men and assorted other servants of darkness. Its weakness is occasionally seeming rushed, though that's better than bloat in my book any day. The Dark Tower also understatedly offers a multi-racial cast, something that seems to have gone unremarked upon the curious critical rush to pan the movie. Oh, well. Recommended.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Invisible Hindu Zombies of the Stratosphere

28 Weeks Later (2007): written by Rowan Joffe, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, Enrique Lopez Lavigne, and Jesus Olmo; directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo; starring Robert Carlyle (Don), Rose Byrne (Scarlet), Jeremy Renner (Doyle), Imogen Poots (Tammy), and Mackintosh Muggleton (Andy): An astoundingly dumb sequel to an excellent original (28 Days Later). And even though the original film's director (Danny Boyle) and writer (Alex Garland) are credited as executive producers, the makers of this film don't seem to have ever seen 28 Days Later.

In 28 Days Later, the Rage Virus that turns people into murderous "fast zombies" fully dilates the pupils, causing these rage zombies to hide inside during daylight hours and hunt at night. Within five minutes of the start of 28 Weeks Later, Robert Carlyle is fleeing across the sunlit fields of England, pursued by hordes of rage zombies who should by all rights be inside taking a nap.

Along the way we're also told that the Rage Virus can't "jump species," which may surprise viewers who remember it doing just that -- from chimps to humans -- to start the apocalypse in 28 Days Later. OK. It's a scientist who makes this observation (Rose Byrne in a thankless role), so I assume she knows what a species is. Or not. The film-makers don't know how nerve gas works, how long it would take a car battery to die left unused in the open, or when you can push a car to start it, so I'll put the species mistake on them and not the character. 

These problems ultimately pale in comparison to the endless chain of idiocies, improbabilities, and impossibilities that crowd the screen from beginning to end. 28 Weeks Later could be used as a perfect example of Roger Ebert's Idiot Plot: nothing in this movie could happen if everyone wasn't an idiot. It's blazingly stupid and preciously self-important because, like, this is like Iraq, dude! The film-makers also must have really liked it when Roy Batty gouged out Tyrell's eyes in Blade Runner because we get not one but two eye-gouging scenes. Hoo ha! Not recommended.

The Other Side of the Door (2016): written by Johannes Roberts and Ernest Riera; directed by Johannes Roberts; starring Sarah Wayne Callies (Maria), Jeremy Sisto (Michael), and Suchitra Pillai (Piki): A privileged white American couple get up to shenanigans in India. First their son dies. Then he comes back from the dead thanks to the mother's intentional misapplication of what seems to be intended to be some sort of Hindu ghost-raising ritual. Oh, white people. Is there anywhere and any way you can't cause trouble? 

Only one Indian actor has a role with more than a couple of lines of dialogue. Sarah Wayne Callies does that perpetually constipated look that seems to be her default facial expression. Jeremy Sisto has almost nothing to do. It's an even dumber version of Pet Sematary. The Guardian of the Underworld looks pretty cool, though, and technically she's the heroine of the movie. Just bad enough to be fun.

The Invisible Man (1933): adapted by R.C. Sherriff from the novel by H.G. Wells; directed by James Whale; starring Claude Rains (Griffin), Gloria Stuart (Flora), and Henry Travers (Dr. Cranley): The voice of Claude Rains does terrific work as our titular mad, invisible scientist. It's a bit jarring to see Clarence the Guardian Angel (Henry Travers) as a scientist, though. Other than Travers, the supporting cast is surprisingly weak. 

The odd use of English bumpkins as comedy relief in James Whale's Universal horror movies continues here, and is just as unfunny and distracting as its use in his Frankenstein movies. However, the invisible effects hold up, and Whale manages some moments of creepy terror and unease throughout the film. Though given the necessity of the Invisible Man being naked to be completely invisible, he really should consider trying to conquer a country with a more tropical climate. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Enjoyable Badness

The poster reflects nothing in the movie!
The Happening (2008): written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; starring Mark Wahlberg (Elliot Moore), Zooey Deschanel (Alma Moore), John Leguizamo (Julian), Ashlyn Sanchez (Jess), and Betty Buckley (Mrs. Jones): This is great bad movie-making, stupid and weirdly acted and filled with scenes that will blow your mind, including repeated scenes of people trying to run away from the wind. 

It's a Must-See, the moment at which M. Night Shyamalan bottomed out. Zooey Deschanel and Mark Wahlberg (the latter as the least likely high-school science teacher of all time) don't even seem to be acting in the same movie. Highly recommended as a great bad movie.

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016): written by Juliet Snowden, Stiles White, Mike Flanagan, and Jeff Howard; directed by Mike Flanagan; starring Annalise Basso (Lina Zander), Elizabeth Reaser (Alice Zander), Lulu Wilson (Doris Zander), Henry Thomas (Father Tom), and Parker Mack (Mikey): I had completely forgotten pretty much everything from the first Ouija movie when I saw this, so certain things did surprise me that were not in fact intended to be surprises. Unlike the tedious Ouija, this one has an increasingly gonzo sense of horror that, by the end, has made it oddly satisfying without really being any good. 

One of the great pleasures of the movie derives from the decision of the Casting Director to cast three actresses as a mother and two daughters who look nothing like one another, and then the CD compounds the problem by casting a priest and a girl's boyfriend with very similar-looking actors. There are many other pleasures, most of them from the 'WTF?' school of enjoyably bad movie-making. One of the few supernatural movies that embeds a debunking seminar on Mediums in the narrative. Highly recommended as a great bad movie.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Mighty Mighty Swamp Things

Swamp Thing: The Root of All Evil (1994-95/Collected 2015): written by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar; illustrated by Phil Hester and Kim DeMulder: After a lengthy run by writer Nancy Collins, Grant Morrison and Mark Millar were tapped by DC to give Swamp Thing a jolt. And that they do, in the 'Everything You Know Is Wrong' tradition of beloved Swamp Thing writer Alan Moore.

Everything we know really does seem to be wrong in the opening pages of Morrison and Millar's collaboration (Morrison would leave Swampy in Millar's solo hands after six issues). Alec Holland and Swamp Thing now seem to exist separate from each other. Indeed, Holland's 22 years of Swampitude now seem to have been an elaborate hallucination. Meanwhile, Swamp Thing homicidally tears up the Louisiana swamps and bayous.

Of course, not everything is what it seems when not everything is what it seems. Nonetheless, like Alan Moore before them, Morrison and Millar dynamite an awful lot of Swamp Thing mythology, kill off a lot of long-term supporting characters, and introduce weird new quests, situations, and characters to the ongoing saga of our favourite muck-encrusted mockery of a man. Along the way, they also resurrect at least one supporting character who seemed to be irretrievably dead since Moore's days.

Phil Hester and Kim DeMulder do fine work throughout the volume. Hester's rough, sketchy linework works especially well in the swamps and dark corners of the Swamp Thing universe. This volume collects the first third of what would ultimately be the longest sustained story in Swamp Thing's career up until 1994, a 30-issue, 700-page quest with only a couple of standalone issues. Given Millar and Morrison's popularity, it's hard to understand how it took 20 years for DC Comics to collect this run in trade paperbacks. Oh, well -- it's here now. Recommended.

Swamp Thing: Darker Genesis (1995/Collected 2015): written by Mark Millar; illustrated by Phil Hester, Kim DeMulder, Phil Jiminez, Chris Weston, Jill Thompson, Brian Bolland, Tom Taggart, and John Totleben: Once upon a time, Swamp Thing was the mind and nearly-destroyed body of scientist Alec Holland, transmuted into a seven-foot-tall muck monster by an explosion, his own 'bio-restorative' formula, and the alchemical processes of the Louisiana swamp in which Holland's lab was located. 

Then Alan Moore revealed that Swamp Thing was really Earth's Plant Elemental, that Alec Holland had really been dead all those years, and that Swamp Thing was simply one in a long line of Plant Elementals with consciousnesses built on the framework of a human who died as part of their births. Over the Plant Kingdom reigned the Parliament of Trees, a South American grove containing all the plant elementals that ever were.

Now, Swamp Thing has been coerced into running a gantlet of four trials to gain the powers of the other Parliaments. In the previous volume, Root of All Evil, he reconciled the long-standing rift between the two Earth Elemental factions, Plant and Stone, thus gaining control over all aspects of rock on Earth. Here, Swamp Thing faces the Trial of the Parliament of Waves and then begins the Trial of the Parliament of Air.

Writer Mark Millar, regular artist Phil Hester, and guest artists Chris Weston and Jill Thompson seem to have a lot of fun in this volume taking Swamp Thing on a tour of alternate universes where he has different appearances and powers (including being trapped in the body of a Golem on an Earth where the Nazis won WWII). Classic characters that include perennial Swamp Thing nemesis Anton Arcane and forgotten 1970's sword-and-sorcery hero Nightmaster are resurrected in strange new ways and forms. A standalone visit to England brings us Swamp Dog and a story that seems more like an issue of John Constantine Hellblazer than Swamp Thing

All that and a recurring James Joyce reference. It all holds together for the most part, and towards the end of the issues here John Totleben, co-artist extraordinaire during the Alan Moore years, returns to Swamp Thing to draw the (splendid) covers. So there's that. Recommended.

Swamp Thing: Trial by Fire (1995-96/Collected 2016): written by Mark Millar; illustrated by Phil Hester, Kim DeMulder, Curt Swan, and John Totleben: Mark Millar and Phil Hester's run on Swamp Thing draws to an end after 30 issues, as does the book itself, cancelled with the final issue here so that it could be resurrected scant months later. 

One could view this as the finale to all the Swamp Things from his first appearance in 1972 to 1996. Certainly Millar writes that way, and subsequent revivals avoid the ramifications of the conclusion of Millar's run because they would make writing Swamp Thing nigh-impossible. In essence, they lived happily ever after. Sort of.

Swamp Thing tries to avoid completing the Trial of the Elemental Air for fear that his increasing power will cause him to lose his moral core of humanity and go on a world-wide killing spree. Alas,, if he doesn't face the Trial of Air, Earth will die screaming. So off he goes. And after that the Trial of Fire. And after that, the two magical factions struggling for world domination believe, the End of the World. Well, unless the one faction successfully summons The Word, a uber-powerful stand-in for uber-powerful 'hero' The Spectre. The Word is here because God is pissed off at Swamp Thing. Or maybe not. Maybe The Word is just a dick. 

In any case, if you're red-green colour-blind, The Word and The Spectre will look exactly alike!

In any case, this is an enjoyable end to this incarnation of Swamp Thing. Well, unless you were a fan of Tefe, Swamp Thing's part-human, part-elemental, part-demonic daughter conceived during Rick Veitch's first issue (#65) as both writer and artist and born during Doug Wheeler's brief stint as post-Veitch writer (#90). Her storyline just gets overwritten again. All this and Magic Wish Matches, complete with a Secret Origin. Hoo-ha! The conclusion of the Trial by Air section does suggest that Millar holds devoted readers of fantasy novels in contempt, so make of that what you will. Recommended.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The House Next Door (1978) by Anne Rivers Siddons

The House Next Door (1978) by Anne Rivers Siddons: Colquitt and Walter Kennedy are upper-middle-class semi-twits (demi-twits?) in a posh suburb of Atlanta. On the lot next to them, a young architect plans and builds his first house. A couple moves in. And then things start to go horribly wrong for anyone living in the house and, occasionally, for anyone even remotely connected to anyone living in the house.

But as the Kennedys (make of that last name what you will) joke at one point relatively early in the novel, there's no record of the new house being built on an Indian burial ground or any other such stereotype of ghostly house haunting. It's a new house. And the things that happen could, for the most part, just be a string of increasingly dire coincidences.

Well, up to a point.

Stephen King praised The House Next Door in his early 1980's non-fiction book on horror, Danse Macabre. And it is excellent. Siddons has not, so far as I can tell, ever ventured again into the realm of horror. Pity. Just in terms of the horror elements, she's very good here, avoiding pitfalls that plague many a gifted, committed horror writer.

And as King observed, this is a horror story involving reputation -- the house strikes again and again at the social standing of its inhabitants and their friends. It's a monster devoted to embarrassment, at least initially. But it gets hungrier and more dangerous as the narrative progresses. 

Siddons creates a fascinating world of privilege and gossip and extremely reluctant 'heroes.' Just the act of trying to save people from the house brings down embarrassment, loss of social standing, and loss of work on the heads of the Kennedys. In trying to defeat the house, they feed it. And where does the colossal enmity and growing danger of the house come from?

Well, Siddons will answer that last question, sort of, by the end of the novel, in a manner that satisfies while also preserving the mystery of Evil in the world of The House Next Door. This is a deeply satisfying horror novel with finely observed sections of social commentary and satire. Really, a remarkable work, and one of the four or five finest 'Haunted House' novels I've ever had the pleasure to read. Highly recommended.

The Glamour (1984) by Christopher Priest

The Glamour (1984) by Christopher Priest: Priest is best known for his novel The Prestige, made into a movie by Christopher Nolan, and for taking the piss out of Harlan Ellison with his non-fiction screed The Last Dead-Loss Visions, a.k.a. The Book on the Edge of Forever. Here, he writes a tricky novel that spans the gap between urban fantasy and literary metafiction.

An unnamed narrator begins the book. At other points, we follow the story of an amnesiac London film journalist who's been sidelined for months by injuries sustained in an IRA bombing. Then we follow the story of the girlfriend he doesn't remember. Who is the unnamed narrator, though?

Tricky, though, right? The journalist's memories may be faulty or altogether invented. The girlfriend claims that the two of them possess the power of the Glamour, the ability to make themselves invisible in all ways to other people. She describes a wainscotting society of people with the Glamour, no longer able to make themselves visible to anyone without the Glamour. Is this true? And is her former boyfriend shadowing them at every turn, possessed of a Glamour so powerful that no one is aware of him unless he wants them to be aware of him?

Well, read the novel. It's curiously gripping and repeatedly bewildering in its play with narrative expectations. I suppose if Philip K. Dick and Robert Aickman had embarked on an unlikely collaboration, it might have read something like this. Recommended.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Sh*t Sandwich, Cthulhu-style

The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu (2016) edited by Paula Guran, containing the following stories:  

  • “In Syllables of Elder Seas” by Lisa L. Hannett
  • “The Peddler’s Tale, or, Isobel’s Revenge” by CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan
  • “It’s All the Same Road in the End” by Brian Hodge
  • “Caro in Carno” by Helen Marshall
  • “The Cthulhu Navy Wife” by Sandra McDonald
  • “Those Who Watch” by Ruthanna Emrys
  • “A Clutch” by Laird Barron
  • “Just Beyond the Trailer Park” by John Shirley
  • “The Sea Inside” by Amanda Downum
  • “Outside the House, Watching for the Crows” by John Langan
  • “Alexandra Lost” by Simon Strantzas
  • “Falcon-and-Sparrows” by Yoon Ha Lee
  • “A Shadow of Thine Own Design” by W. H. Pugmire
  • “Backbite” by Norman Partridge
  • “In the Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro” by Usman T. Malik
  • “Legacy of Salt” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • “I Do Not Count the Hours” by Michael Wehunt
  • “An Open Letter to Mister Edgar Allan Poe, from a Fervent Admirer” by Michael Shea
  • “I Dress My Lover in Yellow” by A. C. Wise
  • “Deep Eden” by Richard Gavin
  • “The Future Eats Everything” by Don Webb
  • “I Believe That We Will Win” by Nadia Bulkin
  • “In the Sacred Cave” by Lois H. Gresh
  • “Umbilicus” by Damien Angelica Walters
  • “Variations on Lovecraftian Themes” by Veronica Schanoes

The Mammoth Book of Occasionally Lovercraftian Horror, Occasionally Written by People Who Despise H.P. Lovecraft would have been more accurate. In her sloppy, poorly researched introduction, editor Paula Guran admits that the title is a bait-and-switch: “This anthology has little to do specifically with Cthulhu and everything to do with ‘new Lovecraftian fiction.’ ” Why call it The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu? Because Cthulhu sells, now more than ever.

There are a few stand-outs. OK, one. “Outside the House, Watching for the Crows” by John Langan is excellent, evoking fear and cosmic horror in the seemingly most mundane of situations. “In the Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro” by Usman T. Malik is also a solid piece, though it fails to stick the landing. Admittedly, HPL occasionally failed to stick the landing. But Malik may be a writer to watch.

Caitlin Kiernan, W.H. Pugmire, and Brian Hodge deliver solid work, none of it all that related to the Cthulhu Mythos (Kiernan riffs on HPL's Dunsanian period; Pugmire is, well, Pugmire, and God bless him for it; and Hodge's story is a solid one with unusual elements that goes on about five pages too long). Norman Partridge riffs on HPL's pre-Cthulhu "The Hound" to decent effect, albeit with a dud of an ending. Laird Barron seems to have had an homage to Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance sitting on his desk when the call for submissions came in -- or at least that's what his atypical, mildly diverting "The Clutch" reads like.

That's about it. Looking at the titles of the stories, I note that I can't remember what most of them were about. I think HPL got accused of misogyny in Paula Guran's introduction, which is actually a very difficult case to make. However, Guran doesn't give the impression of having read much about HPL in that introduction. Honestly, it's possible she's never read any HPL. That could explain how one gets an anthology with Cthulhu in the title and pretty much no Cthulhu in the stories.

The final piece, a biographical attack on HPL's racism and anti-Semitism that we're apparently supposed to believe is a story, is a hell of a way to end the anthology. It's easy to score points off HPL's racism. Writing a great story that deals with that racism -- a story like David Drake's "Than Curse the Darkness" or Elizabeth Bear's "Shoggoths in Bloom" -- requires talent, something the writer of the concluding 'story' does not seem to possess. 

It didn't help that the writer quotes a racist outburst about New York by then-Atlanta Braves reliever John Rocker near the beginning of her 'story.' The quote dates from 1999. How long was this shitty essay... sorry, 'story'... sitting in a drawer? Why resurrect the words of a now-forgotten relief pitcher in a screed... sorry, 'story'... about H.P. Lovecraft? Oh, well. Hidey ho. So it goes.

Anyway, save your money. If you're going to buy a new anthology of Lovecraftian-themed stories, look for S.T. Joshi and avoid Paula Guran. Avoid this book in particular. It's a waste of money.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Devil in the Dark (2017)

The Devil in the Dark (2017): written by Carey Dickson; directed by Tim Brown; starring Robin Dunne (Adam), Dan Payne (Clint), and Briana Buckmaster (Sophie): Enjoyable low-budget horror-thriller filmed in and around Kelowna, British Columbia. Some of the locations are a bit too domesticated to be menacing, making an early approach along an extremely worn path/road seem a bit goofy when the menacing music swells. However, the woods are always a good place to drop people.

So maybe I wouldn't have lifted the title from the Horta episode of the original Star Trek. But anyway. Two estranged brothers go camping and hunting in an effort to reconnect after 15 years. Things go badly. What lifts the body of the movie above a standard 'Run through the jungle' horror scenario is the emphasis on the roots of this strained relationship. That and the refusal of the movie to categorically explain what is stalking them and why. It's amazing what a bit of mystery can do for your horror movie -- or at least a refusal to indulge in too much exposition.

The monster, when we see it, is interesting enough. I certainly wouldn't want to meet it when I was camping, which is why I don't go camping. The two main actors do solid work -- the family drama is believably written and believably portrayed by these two. The last five minutes or so elevate the movie from lightly recommended to a full recommendation.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Blair Witch (2016)

Blair Witch (2016): written by Simon Barrett, based on characters and situations created by Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard; directed by Adam Wingard; starring James Allen McCune (James), Callie Hernandez (Lisa), Corbin Reid (Ashley), Brandon Scott (Peter), Wes Robinson (Lane), and Valorie Curry (Talia):

Why a sequel? The financial success of a jillion found-footage horror movies since the unexpected +$100 million of The Blair Witch Project back in 1999 suggests that you don't need name recognition to sell these things. You'd also think that the horrible bomb that was Blair Witch: Book of Shadows would have warned the studio off.


Set in 2014, Blair Witch tells the tale of lost documentarian Heather's brother, four years old when she disappeared, now leading his own documentary crew into the Maryland woods (now played quite noticeably by British Columbia). A piece of footage on the Internet has convinced him that Heather is still alive, though how he figures this out from the ghoulish face caught on tape leaves me flabbergasted. Oh, well.

So another group of twentysomethings goes into the woods. In a nod to 'More is better!' there are now six of them rather than three. Things go poorly. 

Director Adam Wingard noted in an interview that Blair Witch is "about getting chased" and not about "getting lost in the woods" as in the first movie. Boy, do they get chased! Loud sound effects crash and thunder, trees are hurled around, and massive structures are built over night. The Blair Witch is back, and she brought a bulldozer and a construction crew!

Somehow, even the advent of wearable recording technology doesn't make this sequel's characters any more plausible than the loyally camera-toting crew of the original. It does increase the chance of getting nausea from all the fast-twitch camera spins, though. This must have been Barf-Bag City in a goddamned theatre.

Unlike the original, Blair Witch has entirely scripted dialogue rather than partially improvised dialogue. Somehow, this dialogue is way stupider and more irritating than anything in the original. And there's no character here to worry about, even slightly. In doubling the number of major characters, the filmmakers also manage to eliminate any empathy the viewer might feel for them. They've become the anonymous victims in a slasher movie.

Do we actually see the Blair Witch in this movie? I'll leave it to you to research that answer. No, actually I won't. The director says, "No." That yellow, long-armed zombie glimpsed on several occasions is a victim of the witch, not the witch herself. OK. That's tremendous.

I'll leave you to discover the awesome excitement of a person with a severely injured foot trying to get a drone out of a tree. Or the sudden appearance of on-screen sympathetic magic of a pretty high order. Or the baffling late scene in which bright lights seen from inside a house (that house!) cause a character to ask, "What the Hell was that?" and me to reply, "I think the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind is here to save you. Get out there!"

There's a brief moment of genuine near-horror that could have made for a better movie. At one point, two of the group who've been separated from the others for about 12 hours reappear, talking about being lost in the woods for days in a world where the Sun never comes up. This brief run of dialogue delivers the only frisson of horror this ham-fisted crapfest manages. Then it's back to throwing trees at people.

Alas, those two old guys fishing in three inches of water don't reappear in this sequel. I'm guessing they read the script and said, "Hey, we may have been improbably fishing in three inches of water in the original, but at least we didn't suck." 

In the spirit of the original's horror-deflating fishing sequence, this movie offers us an ominous early shot of insects on the ground. But the insects are bumblebees, the least scary and most endearing stinging insect in the world. This is not a portent. This is a shot of lovable bumblebees trying to fly out of the shot so they don't have to be in this awful movie. Go, bumblebees, go! Not recommended.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Five Million Years to Earth (1967)

Five Million Years to Earth (aka Quatermass and the Pit) (1967): written by Nigel Kneale, based on the BBC miniseries of the same name; directed by Roy Ward Baker; starring James Donald (Dr. Roney), Andrew Keir (Prof. Bernard Quatermass), Barbara Shelley (Barbara Judd),  and Julian Glover (Colonel Breen): British writer Nigel Kneale created three television serials for the BBC back in the 1950's featuring British rocket scientist Bernard Quatermass, a sort of proto-Doctor-Who figure, albeit a fallible, human one.

All three serials, along with a fourth starring John Mills in the early 1980's, pitted Quatermass and company against various alien invasions of the British Isles. This 1960's Hammer Film was based on the third Quatermass serial, Quatermass and the Pit, in which the excavation of a site in London, England for a new subway line uncovers strangely deformed ancient human skeletons and the remains of what appears to be an alien spaceship.

History reports that strange occurences plagued the site whenever digging or some other form of vibration took place over hundreds of years. And something does indeed seem to be waking up. Will the military and the government do something incredibly stupid, leaving the fate of the planet in the hands of Quatermass and his dedicated scientist friends? What do you think?

This is a very English science-fiction movie in many ways, not least of which is Kneale's WWII-enhanced concern with fascism at home and abroad -- and the fear that fascistic group-think can overcome anyone, no matter how intelligent or empathetic that person normally is. We're the Nazis now.

Five Million Years to Earth is a well-done movie, small of budget but big on ideas and weirdness. It's one of a relatively small number of old science fiction movies that could be improved with just a few minutes of good visual effects, as a key visual effects sequence has to be explained at length to the viewer for any sense to be made of it. However, there's also a truly disturbing visual effects shot towards the end that I don't think modern CGI could capture, simply because modern CGI tends to go for the overly detailed literal rather than the suggestively obscure. In any event, highly recommended.

SiREN (2016)

SiREN (2016): Based on the segment 'Amateur Night' from V/H/S (2012); written by Nicholas Tecosky, Luke Piotrowski, Ben Collins, and David Bruckner; directed by Gregg Bishop; starring Chase Williamson (Jonah), Hannah Fierman (Lily/ The Lilith/Siren), Justin Welborn (Nyx), Hayes Mercure (Rand), Michael Aaron Milligan (Mac), Randy McDowell (Elliott), Brittany Hall (Bartender), and Lindsey Garrett (Eva): Spun off from a segment of the original V/H/S anthology film, SiREN is really good once you get beyond that silly title. A bachelor party goes extraordinarily awry when a stripper at a private (and very odd) club turns out to be one of the mythical Sirens. Or maybe a "Lilith," which is what the club's proprietor keeps calling her (hence the name "Lily"). 

The result is a fairly taut 80 minutes with so much female nudity I started wondering halfway through if this movie had been made in the Go-Go 70's. Nope. The film-makers handle the scares and the grotesque with a grungy, occasionally startling style -- the 'true' appearance of the Siren comes as a nice reveal. The bachelor party members are not impressively delineated as individuals, but the characterization is passable and the performances fairly naturalistic.

The Siren's club is a nicely handled conceit -- the supernatural bar that you should never have entered. Its owner, occultist Nyx, bears a weird resemblance to Paul Williams. There are some solid, fantastic bits involving memories, magic, and Medusa. The film also shows us brief glimpses of all the supernatural events going on at the club without going into them, making the glimpses that much more effective at inspiring unease. Overall, an enjoyable horror movie on a limited budget from Universal's Chiller Films brand. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Horror Detectiveness with Jack Caffery

Skin (2009) (Jack Caffery #4) by Mo Hayder: Skin pretty much picks up where the previous DCI Jack Caffery novel ended, with the disappearance of a minor celebrity still unsolved and underwater recovery unit detective Flea Marley knowing way more about that disappearance than anyone at work knows. 

This thread will continue until the beginning of Wolf (Caffery#7), leading to a certain amount of acrimony and misunderstanding between Caffery and Marley. That the two are both great detectives with screwed-up personal lives makes them seemingly perfect for each other, but theirs is a slow-burn (or perhaps no-burn) relationship.

Mo Hayder mixes things up here with a couple of investigations and a serial killer who isn't exactly a serial killer. Caffery remains an engaging, anti-social, brooding character. Another plot thread from the previous Caffery/Marley novel continues here in unexpected ways with occasional supernatural undertones. And the titular case offers Hayder's near-patented blend of horror-procedural.

Caffery even gets trapped in an empty septic tank by the killer at one point. This never happened to Philip Marlowe! Recommended.

Wolf (2015) (Jack Caffery #7) by Mo Hayder: A plot thread that started way back in Caffery#3 (Ritual) finally ends in the opening pages of Wolf. And a plot thread that began in Mo Hayder's first Caffery novel will also approach its conclusion. 

Wolf is a clever procedural in which Caffery, operating alone, has to find hostages with only a partial note reading 'Please help us,' a dog with neither a microchip nor a helpful phone number on its collar-tag, and a wedding ring attached to that dog's collar.

The third-person narrative POV moves among Caffery, the hostages, and the hostage-takers. An old murder plays a part, as does Caffery's own unanswered grief about his brother who disappeared and was never found when Caffery was a boy. The oracular, often irritating Walking Man plays a part. So, too, that dog. Flea Marley doesn't appear, but she's in Caffery's thoughts.

We go into some unexpected places along the way, including a sort of closure for Caffery, and into the realm of corporate espionage and secret weapons development. All this and serial killers, Goths, and Caffery's endearing blend of misanthropy and overwhelming concern for the safety of others -- and for justice when that safety has been fatally breached. Highly recommended.