Thursday, June 22, 2017

Watch the Show

Outcast Volume 2: A Vast and Unending Ruin (2015): written by Robert Kirkman; illustrated by Paul Azaceta: If you've watched the first season of Outcast, Volume 2 of the comic book collections is sort of beside the point. You've seen it all, and surprisingly, the TV show is better than the comic. Robert Kirkman's other supernatural series (a little thing called The Walking Dead) is a lot less interesting to me than this one. 

Outcast involves the supernatural, though what's really going on remains unclear 12 issues into the story (or one season into the show). There's a demonic invasion, there's one man who can drive the demons out of people (the titular Outcast), and there's a lot of murkiness about what these demons really are. 

Paul Azaceta's artwork is a bit too mundane for the story: the mundane works well right up until something supernatural has to be represented, at which point Azaceta doesn't seem to know how to combine the normative with the fantastic. 

Kirkman's writing is solid so far as it goes, but this volume seems much more padded and attenuated than the first one. Or 'decompressed' as we say in comic-book land. Where there should be a density of information that drives a story forwards to a conclusion in 20 issues or so, Kirkman instead doles out the material parsimoniously, apparently aiming at something more along the lines of The Walking Dead's nigh-endless run. But the material here, presented as it is, doesn't warrant the drawn-out treatment. We're far further ahead in the story after one season of the TV show than we are here after 12 issues of the comic book. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

From a Buick 8 (2002) by Stephen King

From a Buick 8 (2002) by Stephen King: King's closest foray into what people now call the New Weird. Sort of. From a Buick 8 is as the very least a foray into the cosmic in which the horror elements are reined in, making Cosmic Mystery rather than Cosmic Terror the order of the day.

Circumstances leave Pennsylvania State Troop D with a bizarre automobile stored in a shed. It was left at a gas station by a creepy looking fellow. Its design is just enough off-normal to make it disturbing. And a quick check of its engine -- or its dashboard -- reveals that it shouldn't be able to run. Stamped on the engine block are the words 'Buick 8,' though the troopers will come over the years to call it a Buick Roadmaster. And on its first day in storage back in 1979, a veteran officer disappears off the face of the Earth, never to be seen again.

Stylistically, this is one of King's great achievements. Several first-person narrators (with one primary narrator) tell the story of the Buick Roadmaster over the course of one long night in 2001. The narrative voices are separate and distinct, and the rhythms of the telling approximate the stops and starts of oral storytelling. They're telling a ghost story around a campfire, but there's no fire and the ghost is real -- and not something as simple as a ghost.

There are a number of effective horror scenes scattered throughout the narrative, mostly rooted in Fear of the Unknown. In many ways, From a Buick 8 is a lengthy riff on H.P. Lovecraft's seminal "The Colour Out of Space." But this time it's a car -- a car whose paint colour doesn't seem quite right to any of those who look at it.

King avoids the third-act problems of many of his more science-fictiony novels here by avoiding any final explanation for the presence and purpose of the Buick Roadmaster. Where Under the Dome or The Tommyknockers sputtered out at the end with disappointing explanations, From a Buick 8 roars off into the silence, unexplained and unknowable. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Spirit (1995) by Graham Masterson

Spirit (1995) by Graham Masterson: For awhile, things go along really well in this increasingly odd ghost story from the prolific Mr. Masterson. The period details of 1940's and early 1950's small-town America seem solid. The main characters are convincingly drawn within the confines of the pulp melodrama. 

Our first sign of trouble is a fairly horrible bit of characterization centered around the female victim of statutory rape. And she's 11, so it's really, really, really statutory. But at this young age she knows that she holds the sexual power over her rapist, and not vice versa! Masterson isn't a good enough writer to pull this bit off. Instead, it's really, really, really icky, and later attempts to depict this mind-set as evidence of psychological trauma keep getting undercut by the text's more prurient sections. 

Our second sign of trouble comes with the increasingly ridiculous explanation for the hauntings and supernatural events surrounding this one family. As Ramsey Campbell once observed, "Explanation is the death of horror." And in this case it really, really, really is.

A third trouble occurs and recurs as various characters who should know better wander off alone and do stupid things so as to get killed. A fourth comes with a one-page Epilogue that might just as well have read 'Poochie died on the way back to his home planet,' so perfunctory and baffling it is. The character who was raped at 11 (or was it 10?) later gets anally raped at the age of 21, but only after she initiates sexual contact with her rapist because she really wants to make it in Hollywood. The rapist has a giant purple cock because of course he does. You know, this novel gets worse and worse the more I think about it. Not recommended, giant cocks and promiscuous tweens and all.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4 (2015)

Black Wings [of Cthulhu] Volume 4 (2015) edited by S.T. Joshi, containing the following stories:

Artifact by Fred Chappell
Half Lost in Shadow by W. H. Pugmire
The Rasping Absence  by Richard Gavin
Black Ships Seen South of Heaven  by Caitlín R. Kiernan
The Dark Sea Within  by Jason V Brock
Sealed by the Moon  by Gary Fry
Broken Sleep  by Cody Goodfellow
A Prism of Darkness  by Darrell Schweitzer
Night of the Piper by Ann K. Schwader
We Are Made of Stars  by Jonathan Thomas
Trophy  by Melanie Tem
Revival  by Stephen Woodworth
Contact  by John Pelan and Stephen Mark Rainey
Cult of the Dead  by Lois H. Gresh
Dark Redeemer  by Will Murray
In the Event of Death  by Simon Strantzas
The Wall of Asshur-sin  by Donald Tyson
Fear Lurks Atop Tempest Mount  by Charles Lovecraft 

Maybe not quite as good as previous installments in the Black Wings series ('of Cthulhu' is added in each case for the paperback publication; 'Black Wings' comes from a Lovecraft quotation about cosmic horror, a quotation that doesn't contain 'of Cthulhu,' whose wings I've always figured as being a dark, weird green, in case you were wondering). 

Or maybe I read too many new Cthulhu anthologies in too short a time.

There are stand-outs here from Kiernan, Brock, and Schweitzer. The latter's story features the real John Dee on the last day of his life, and it's a solid piece of cosmic quasi-history. The stories range from just this side of Lovecraftian pastiche to more elusive, allusive pieces of cosmic horror.

One thing I'll note again and again is that Lovecraft's literary children tend to be a lot more depressing than their progenitor. Several stories here feature the return of the Great Old Ones and the destruction of humanity, something Lovecraft never went through with. The depiction of these apocalypses never seems to equal what I imagine in my mind, leaving me a bit cold when it comes to the depiction of The Return of the Great Old Ones. Oh, well. Recommended.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Empire of the Ants (1977)

Empire of the Ants (1977): adapted by Bert I. Gordon and Jack Turley from the story by H.G. Wells; directed by Bert I. Gordon; starring Joan Collins (Marilyn), Robert Lansing (Dan), John David Carson (Joe), Jacqueline Scott (Margaret), and Pamela Shoop (Coreen Bradford): Not a good film at all, but magnificently entertaining. The ants only look 'real' when they really are real, and even then the fact that they're actually in a glass-walled container means that the composite shots seem to show ants walking on air, sometimes at right angles to the ground. Oh, well. 

Very loosely based on a story by H.G. Wells, Empire of the Ants follows an ill-fated group of people touring swamp-land-for-sale in the Florida Everglades with Joan Collins as the saleswoman. Unfortunately, radioactive waste that looks a lot like silver spray paint has caused ants to grow man-sized. Much death ensues until the movie shifts from rampaging bugs to cool, calculating bugs with 30 minutes to go. Schlockmeister Bert I. Gordon writes and directs with his usual enthusiasm. Recommended as an enjoyable bad movie.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Haunting (1963)

The Haunting (1963): adapted by Nelson Gidding from Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House; directed by Robert Wise; starring Julie Harris (Eleanor Lance), Claire Bloom (Theodora), Richard Johnson (Dr. John Markway), and Russ Tamblyn (Luke Sanderson): The Haunting isn't as good as the novel it adapts, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. How could it be? The novel rates with me as the greatest haunted-house novel ever written. The movie is very good. And I think the movie benefited from the relatively low budget handed to director Robert Wise. Wise elected to keep the hauntings even more off-screen than they are in the novel, inspiring dread instead with shadows and strange noises and booming knocks at the door. 

The cast is first-rate. Julie Harris' Eleanor Lance is the dark heart of the movie. A shut-in forced to care for her ailing mother for years, she has now been released by her mother's death and her own realization that she herself has never truly lived. A poltergeist incident when she was a girl causes Dr. John Markway to invite her to help him investigate Hill House, the malign structure where doors refuse to stay open and "whatever walks there, walks alone." Along with the apparently psychic Theodora and house-owner Luke, Eleanor will investigate the bizarre properties of Hill House. Is there a rational explanation?

Stephen King's The Shining riffs on The Haunting of Hill House, especially in its combination of a deteriorating personality and a malign environment that encourages that deterioration. The movie and the novel have influenced many other works over the years. The movie on its own (movie qua movie?) remains a gem, a sad and horrifying gem that remains as mysterious about the source of its hauntings at the conclusion as it was at the beginning. Maybe moreso. Is Hill House haunted by ghosts or is it itself some sort of malign and inhuman distortion in reality? Answer this yourself. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Detective Ghosts and Defective Monsters

Caliban (2015): written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Facundo Percio and Sebastian Cabrol:  Dedicated to Alien designer H.R. Giger, Caliban presents a similar storyline about an unfortunate encounter of a human spaceship with an alien spaceship. It's enjoyable and diverting, though the malevolent alien's powers reminded me a bit of the David Tennant Doctor Who two-parter "The Impossible Planet" and "The Satan Pit." Garth Ennis is his usual pissy self, and Facundo Percio does a solid though not particularly frightening job of drawing the monsters, human and otherwise. Lightly recommended.

The Dead Boy Detectives (2005) by Jill Thompson: The two, um, dead boys who would become The Dead Boy Detectives are Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine, forever 13 and 12, respectively, the former dying in 1990 and the latter in 1916, both at the same horrible boys' school in England. They managed to avoid being collected by Death in the pages of Neil Gaiman's Sandman and now solve crimes whenever they can.

Here, they find themselves in a B&W, manga-influenced adventure written and illustrated by Jill Thompson. They go undercover at the International Academy in Chicago, a girls' school for the wealthy. Various shenanigans ensue while things are kept light. It's fun and frothy, which is not a description one would usually attach to the Sandman source text. Recommended.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from the novel by Jack Finney; directed by Don Siegel; starring Kevin McCarthy (Dr. Miles Bennell), and Dana Wynter (Becky Driscoll): Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the first of four (!) film adaptations of Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers, and it's still the best.* 

I'd put it in a list of both Top 25 science-fiction movie and Top 25 horror movies ever made. And the term it made popular 60 years ago -- "pod people" -- remains in our mass-cultural lexicon to this day, used primarily now by people who probably have never seen the movie, much less read the novel it's based on.

Made on a shoestring budget, Invasion of the Body Snatchers became a surprise horror hit in 1956. Don Siegel's direction and Daniel Mainwaring's script keep things tight, perhaps a bit too tight when it comes to the rapid acceptance by several characters of an invasion of pod people. But that's a minor quibble. 

Kevin McCarthy does a fine job portraying the gradually mounting paranoid exhaustion of a man who doesn't dare go to sleep, and Dana Wynter is fine as well as McCarthy's love interest.

It's the creepiness of the concept, and that concept's portrayal, that makes the whole movie sing. You will be replaced by an emotionless replica of yourself -- and that replica will talk about how great this development is. This first adaptation keeps the mechanics of the 'changeover' murky, which is a plus. A couple of later adaptations would make the switch from person to pod-person a piece of graphic visual horror (and a job for the garbage-men). 

The studio found the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers too disturbing to release. So they added a frame narrative. It's a little annoying, but not too much so. Of course, all versions diverge radically when it comes to the novel's ending. And critical interpretations also differ as to the movie's sub-textual commentary on the American state of affairs c. 1956. 

Is this an allegory about Communism? (Joseph) McCarthyism? Consumerism and mass culture? Good question. As the movie isn't really 'about' any of these things, it supports all the above interpretations and more. Highly recommended.

* Followed by Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Body Snatchers (1993), and The Invasion (2007).

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Night of the Lepus (1972)

Night of the Lepus (1972): adapted by Don Holliday and Gene R. Kearney from Russell Braddon's The Year of the Angry Rabbit; starring Stuart Whitman (Dr. Roy Bennett), Janet Leigh (Gerry Bennett), Rory Calhoun (Cole Hillman), and Deforest Kelley (Dr. Elgin Clark): This legendarily bad horror movie of the 1970's is indeed wonderfully bad. What makes it fun rather than unwatchable is that the cast is totally invested in everything that's going on. They're old pros. 

Indeed, they really are old pros -- this movie's cast is middle-aged and older in a way one almost never sees any more. The men are all grizzled and pleasantly homely. Janet Leigh is middle-aged and looks it. Everyone can act except the awful little girl who actually sets the environmental disaster in motion. She is terrible, though the film-makers do her no favours by having her yell "Mommy!" about a thousand times over the course of the movie.

Based on a novel with the improbable title The Year of the Angry Rabbit, Night of the Lepus involves man tampering with nature and accidentally creating giant, omnivorous, ultra-violent rabbits that soon rampage across the American Southwest. 

This is an actual shot from the movie of the giant rabbits in a restaurant.

With today''s CGI, this would be a hard sell. The movie resorts to a guy in an unconvincing rabbit suit for scenes involving people getting mauled. The rest of the rabbit effects involve slow-motion shots of rabbits running through miniature sets and close-ups of rabbits with what appears to be ketchup on their mouths. 

Fine moments abound as the rabbit horde imperils life as we know it. I'll leave you to the joy of discovering them yourself. Note that movie posters of the time didn't show the rabbits, suggesting that someone at the studio realized what a stinker they had on their hands. Do you know what isn't menacing? A still shot of rabbits sitting on a mound of dirt while sinister music plays. It just isn't. Recommended as a bad movie.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu (1922): adapted by Henrik Galeen from Barm Stoker's Dracula; directed by F.W. Murnau; starring Max Schreck (Count Orlok), Gustav von Wangenheim (Hutter), Greta Schroder (Ellen), Gustav Botz (Professor Sievers), John Gottowt (The Paracelsian), and Alexander Granach (Knock): Ah, Nosferatu. Director F.W. Murnau and his film team adapted Bram Stoker's Dracula without paying for it. Stoker's estate successfully sued to have all copies of the film destroyed. But the film, like a vampire or Steven Seagal, turned out to be hard to kill. 

The trick is to see a decent restored version, as Nosferatu has endless, crappy, public-domain versions floating around on the Internet and on cheapo DVD's. If it's in black-and-white, it's probably crappy: Nosferatu was tinted different colours throughout. The late Nash the Slash used to tour bars with a copy of Nosferatu to accompany with electronic music. Good times!

The film itself remains the finest adaptation of Dracula, legal or otherwise, ever made. It's the sinister, otherworldly quality of Max Schreck as Count Orlok that dominates the film, and memories of that film, a triumph of make-up and silent-film acting and Murnau's compositional talents. 

Schreck looks so bafflingly inhuman that a movie was made about Schreck actually being a centuries-old vampire (Shadow of the Vampire). The Schreck vampire designs continues to pop up again and again in pop culture, whether in Werner Herzog's remake of Nosferatu, the 1970's TV adaptation of Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot, or in that episode of Angel set mostly on a submarine during WWII. 

Unless you're stoned immaculate, you'll probably want to watch Nosferatu over at least a couple of nights. The pacing is deliberate, which is to say slow and a bit scattered. But again and again visuals show up that are striking and disturbing. 

Silent film hadn't started to 'move' much in 1922, so most of the striking visuals are static. Peculiarly effective are shots of forests with the negative flipped, and pretty much any scene with Orlok in it. At times, he's a grasping shadow against a wall. In other shots, one waits in suspense for his appearance. Everybody run! Ship-board shots in which Orlok comes creeping out from hiding or rises board-straight from supine to erect still conjure a sort of abject dread.

The TCM copy I watched was extremely text-heavy -- it made me wonder if Murnau later made the almost-text-free The Last Man/ aka The Last Laugh in part as a reaction to the preponderance of explanatory intertitles required for Nosferatu. Oh, well. 

There is some humour in Nosferatu, though most of it is unintentional. The sequence following Orlok's arrival at the town he will soon start depopulating is the height of this inadvertent humour as we follow Orlok, coffin under his arm, as he searches for his new home. Funny as it is, it's still better than anything in any of Bela Lugosi's Dracula films. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Madness of Cthulhu Volume 2 (2015): edited by S.T. Joshi

The Madness of Cthulhu Volume 2 (2015): edited by S.T. Joshi, containing the following stories:

  • Foreword by Kim Newman
  • Introduction by S. T. Joshi
  • 20,000 Years Under the Sea by Kevin J. Anderson: Captain Nemo vs. Cthulhu.
  • Tsathoggua’s Breath by Brian Stableford: Solid, quasi-historical piece set in Viking-era Greenland resembles some of Clark Ashton Smith's pieces more than HPL.
  • The Door Beneath by Alan Dean Foster: Quasi-historical piece set in the 1980's involves Soviets experimenting with stuff they found in the Antarctica of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.
  • Dead Man Walking by William F. Nolan: Peripherally Lovecraftian piece from the venerable William F. (Logan's Run) Nolan more resembles a classic Jules de Grandin story.
  • A Crazy Mistake by Nancy Kilpatrick: Paranoia and madness follow a researcher doing research into the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • The Anatomy Lesson by Cody Goodfellow: Biology!
  • The Hollow Sky by Jason C. Eckhardt: Antarctic excavations and global warming and shoggoths in the present day.
  • The Last Ones by Mark Howard Jones: A nod to the Deep Ones of HPL's "The Shadow over Innsmouth."
  • A Footnote in the Black Budget by Jonathan Maberry: Action Cthulhu!
  • Deep Fracture by Steve Rasnic Tem: A typically elusive, allusive piece by Tem.
  • The Dream Stones by Donald Tyson: Canadian horror on the East Coast brings the star-stones of At the Mountains of Madness to Halifax. I particularly like how Tyson approximates the first-person narrative of some of HPL's especially freaked-out characters while nonetheless making the story's characters and events very much material that HPL couldn't (and wouldn't) have touched upon in the 1920's and 1930's.
  • The Blood in My Mouth by Laird Barron: Rare misfire by Barron puts one of his typically damaged male narrators on a collision course with a vaguely defined alien threat.
  • On the Shores of Destruction by Karen Haber: Doom!
  • Object 00922UU by Erik Bear and Greg Bear: Fun, slightly overlong science-fiction piece plays with the conventions of 'spaceship finds artifact with something gooshy inside.' The threat in this case dwarfs pretty much any similar threat depicted in a movie or story, though the Bears have trouble firmly establishing the cosmic vastness of an artifact described as being as large as six Jupiters (!).

The omnipresent S.T. Joshi serves up the second volume of a two-part anthology in which many (though not all) stories have been inspired in some way by HPL's chilling 1930's short novel At the Mountains of Madness. It's fun, though a little short on actual cosmic terror and a little long on me needing to take a break from contemporary Lovecraftian fiction. Recommended.

Demons (2002) by John Shirley

Demons (2002) by John Shirley: Really a two-part novel with the halves composed about a decade apart. Demons starts as a splattery supernatural horror novel before metamorphosing into a reality-bending adventure about 100 pages in. One day in the near future, thousands of apparent demons of seven different varieties invade Earth and start killing, torturing, and acting like dicks on the Internet. And that's just the beginning.

The novel shifts into Philip K. Dick territory, and then shifts further into the sort of metaphysical science fantasy that Colin Wilson hit people on the head with back in the 1970's in bait-and-switch novels like The Space Vampires and The Mind Parasites. The philosophies espoused here are much more palatable than those in Wilson's novels. Moreover, Shirley keeps his characters fallible and the ground-level stakes in view. The scenes of horror towards the end of the novel are more Zombie Apocalypse than Demonic Invasion, but they're repeatedly framed in terms of human loss and sorrow.

I liked Demons a lot. Your response may vary depending on how much mystical lunacy you're willing to withstand. Recommended.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In Cold Blood (1965) by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood (1965) by Truman Capote: Truman Capote's crowning achievement. If you're as old as me, you remember Truman Capote as an effete, sneering presence on game shows and talk shows of the 1970's. But he was a great writer, once, and In Cold Blood really is an essential piece of American writing. 

It's also a landmark in novelistic reportage. It's been adapted twice, once as a movie and once as a TV miniseries; the events surrounding Capote's research into the facts have also spawned two movies, Capote and Infamous. Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Oscar for Best Actor for playing Capote in Capote

In 1959 near Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family (the father, mother, teen-aged son, and teen-aged daughter) were murdered by person or persons unknown. Capote was in the area within a couple of weeks to cover the investigation. The murders were brutal enough and mysterious enough to briefly spark national outrage.

The killers would turn out to be Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, two petty criminals who'd come up from Texas to the Clutter home because Hickock had been told stories by his cellmate during a recent prison stay that the Clutters kept all of their money at home in a safe. The Clutters did not actually do this. The small amount of money the two murderers got from the Clutter home was soon used up, though a couple of items taken by Smith would help clinch the case against them once they were apprehended.

The brutality of the murders and the subsequent revelation that they were essentially meaningless fascinated America for a time, especially once Smith and Hickock were caught several months after the Clutter massacre. 

The stories and questions that swirl around the writing of In Cold Blood -- and specifically how involved Capote became with Smith and Hickock -- have come to obscure what a triumph the book is. Capote's vivid descriptions of place, character, and happenstance are marvelous and heart-breaking and occasionally sinister. He concisely presents the Clutters and their killers, the investigators and the neighbours, and a wide variety of other 'characters' both central and peripheral to the case. 

If Capote had too much sympathy for Perry Smith in real life, it doesn't particularly show in the book: Smith is a fascinating charmer, but also a man capable of complete indifference to lives other than his own. It was Hickock who fantasized before the fact about slaughtering the Clutters, but it was Smith who actually did the killings: perversely, he did so after making three of the victims more comfortable and, in a paradoxical bit of humanity, preventing Hickock from raping the daughter before killing her. 

Hindsight allows for certain new observations to make about Smith and Hickock. They both may have suffered from traumatic brain injuries as adults as a result of auto accidents. Hickock's obsession with killing the Clutters often presents itself as murderous envy spawned by a life of poverty and privation. Both Smith and Hickock seem to possess the uncanny charm often attributed to certain types of psychopaths. And so on, and so forth.

In Cold Blood does a lot of things very, very well. It's also a fine 'real-life' police procedural, and a fine 'real-life' court procedural. It's a testament to fine writing and reporting. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Darklings (1985) by Ray Garton

Darklings (1985) by Ray Garton: Zippy 1980's horror novel from Ray Garton seems to have been read by the makers of 1987's The Hidden. When a dying serial killer arrives in a California ER, he gives the hospital a bonus: an eruption of squiggly, wiggly worms that possess people and cause them to act on their basest impulses. Very, very basest. 

A doctor, a nurse, and a lab technician team up to uncover the mystery behind the mind-worms -- and hopefully the source. Garton moves everything along briskly and entertainingly in this early novel. Characterization is deft, and the novel is rewardingly tight -- there's no bloat here. Scenes of graphic horror are not for the squeamish, but Garton's work never feels exploitative. It's the 1980's, so there's a whole lot of smoking and mustaches. Recommended.

The Hollower (2007) by Mary SanGiovanni

The Hollower (2007) by Mary SanGiovanni:  Gary Braunbeck, Brian Keene, and James A. Moore all give rave blurbs to this first novel from Mary SanGiovanni. And it's a fairly solid piece of supernatural horror. But it also transformed from novel to first part of a trilogy somewhere in the publication and/or sales process, making for yet another ending in which nothing, really, is resolved. I hate that shit. 

Steve Ditko's The Question
The eponymous monster, a supernatural creature created by SanGiovanni, becomes a bit of a Swiss Army Knife by the conclusion of the novel, able to work with both hallucinations and real-world violence, and with a weakness that seems awfully contrived. If you've read comic books, it probably doesn't help that the Hollower's basic form when it's stalking someone is the spitting image of Steve Ditko's The Question. Only in shape-changing monster form. 

SanGiovanni does give the reader an interesting cast of characters, very Stephen-King-like in their weaknesses and (growing) strengths. A climax that goes on and on for about 1/3 of the novel needed trimming and tightening. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Light's Out (2016)

Light's Out (2016): adapted by Eric Heisserer from a short film by David F. Sanberg; directed by David F. Sandberg; starring Teresa Palmer (Rebecca), Gabriel Bateman (Martin), Alexander DiPersia (Bret), Billy Burke (Paul), and Maria Bello (Sophie): Short, taut, and to-the-point supernatural thriller pits a family against a ghost-thing that only comes out at night. Or at at least when the lights are out. I'd have liked a scene in which the main characters hit a hardware store to buy every portable light source imaginable from flashlights to glow sticks. They do have enough sense to pick up a crank-flashlight, given that the ghost-thing can affect utilities and batteries, so Kudos! Recommended.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Black Wings of Cthulhu Volume 3 (2014) edited by S.T. Joshi

Black Wings of Cthulhu Volume 3 (2014) edited by S.T. Joshi, containing the following stories:

Houdini Fish by Jonathan Thomas
Dimply Dolly Doofy by Donald R. Burleson
The Hag Stone by Richard Gavin
Underneath an Arkham Moon by Jessica Amanda Salmonson and W. H. Pugmire
Spiderwebs in the Dark by Darrell Schweitzer
One Tree Hill (The World as Cataclysm) by Caitlín R. Kiernan
The Man with the Horn by Jason V Brock: Weird horror with some nice stylistic touches becomes very (Harla) Ellisonian by the end.
Hotel del Lago by Mollie L. Burleson
*Waller by Donald Tyson: Interesting piece involving cosmic cancer gods and multiple realities. Great Shades of Mnagalah!
The Megalith Plague by Don Webb
*Down Black Staircases by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.: Pulver works in a partial stream-of-consciousness mode here that's fairly unusual for cosmic horror.
China Holiday by Peter Cannon
Necrotic Cove by Lois H. Gresh
The Turn of the Tide by Mark Howard Jones
Weltschmerz by Sam Gafford
Thistle's Find by Simon Strantzas
*Further Beyond by Brian Stableford: Stableford continues the events of HPL's "From Beyond" in faithful, fruitful fashion.

Overall: Another solid entry in the ubiquitous Joshi's Black Wings series of original, cosmic-horror anthologies in the key of Lovecraft. 'of Cthulhu' is added to the title for paperback publication, for sales reasons I'd assume. Stand-outs are noted above. Recommended.

The Madness of Cthulhu Volume 1 (2014) edited by S.T. Joshi

The Madness of Cthulhu Volume 1 (2014) edited by S.T. Joshi, containing the following stories (all 2014 unless otherwise noted):

At the Mountains of Murkiness (1940) by Arthur C. Clarke
The Fillmore Shoggoth by Harry Turtledove
Devil's Bathtub by Lois H. Gresh
The Witness in Darkness by John Shirley
How the Gods Bargain by William Browning Spencer
A Mountain Walked by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Diana of the Hundred Breasts  (1996) by Robert Silverberg
Under the Shelf by Michael Shea
Cantata by Melanie Tem
Cthulhu Rising  by Heather Graham
The Warm by Darrell Schweitzer
Last Rites by K. M. Tonso
Little Lady by Jeanne Cook [as by J. C. Koch]
White Fire by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.
A Quirk of the Mistral by Jonathan Thomas
The Dog Handler's Tale by Donald Tyson 

The increasingly omnipresent S.T. Joshi serves up a two-part anthology in which many (though not all) stories have been inspired in some way by HPL's chilling 1930's short novel At the Mountains of Madness. Some go the route of having the story told from new POV's -- "The Witness in Darkness" by John Shirley and "The Dog Handler's Tale" by Donald Tyson both do nicely with these alternate, partially revisionist takes on HPL's original. Darrell Schweitzer offers a similar alternate take, this time on HPL's "Pickman's Model."

Other stories extrapolate sequels ranging from the bleakly funny (Shoggoths raid San Francisco in "The Fillmore Shoggoth" by Harry Turtledove, imperiling an aged HPL and a rock band that plays HPL-inspired songs) to the modernist cool of Joseph Pulver's "White Fire." Joshi also reprints an early Arthur C. Clarke parody of Lovecraft that's an interesting curiosity. 

Cosmic horrors without explicit Lovecraft references seem to make for the best stories in this volume, from Robert Silverberg's atypical "Diana of the Hundred Breasts" to the Wild West grotesqueries of "Little Lady" by Jeanne Cook.

My favourites here, or at least those stories that offered the most chills, are "How the Gods Bargain" by William Browning Spencer and "A Mountain Walked" by Caitlin R. Kiernan. Spencer's story is typically quirky in its tale of high-school jealousies and extraordinarily odd alien edifices. Kiernan works in what is my favourite mode of hers -- the pseudo-documentarian historical narrative -- as she recounts a puzzling encounter involving a 19th-century archaeological dig in America's Old West. In all, recommended.

A Mountain Walked: Great Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (2014) edited by S.T. Joshi

A Mountain Walked: Great Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (2014) edited by S.T. Joshi, containing the following stories:

The House of the Worm  (1933) by Mearle Prout
Far Below  (1939) by Robert Barbour Johnson
Spawn of the Green Abyss  (1946) by C. Hall Thompson
The Deep Ones (1969) by James Wade
The Franklyn Paragraphs (1973) by Ramsey Campbell
Where Yidhra Walks  (1976) by Walter C. DeBill, Jr.
Black Man with a Horn (1980) by T. E. D. Klein
The Last Feast of Harlequin (1990) by Thomas Ligotti
Only the End of the World Again  (1994) by Neil Gaiman
Mandelbrot Moldrot (2014) by Lois H. Gresh
The Black Brat of Dunwich (1997) by Stanley C. Sargent
The Phantom of Beguilement (2001) by W. H. Pugmire
 ...Hungry...Rats  (2014) by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.
Virgin's Island  (2014) by Donald Tyson
In the Shadow of Swords (2014) by Cody Goodfellow
Mobymart After Midnight  (2014) by Jonathan Thomas
A Gentleman from Mexico (2007) by Mark Samuels
The Man with the Horn  (2014) by Jason V Brock
John Four  (2014) by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Sigma Octantis (2014) by Rhys Hughes
[Anasazi]  (2014) by Gemma Files
The Wreck of the Aurora  (2014) by Patrick McGrath
Beneath the Beardmore (2014) by Michael Shea 

Omnipresent anthologist S.T. Joshi offers what seems to be his 19th Lovecraftian-themed anthology of the past five years. This one combines new material solicited for this anthology with little-reprinted stories of the past 86 (!!!) years of Lovecraft's influence.

"The House of the Worm"  (1933) by Mearle Prout and "Far Below"  (1939) by Robert Barbour Johnson are both fine and essential texts that echo Lovecraft without necessarily occurring in 'his' universe. They're both stunners in different ways, stunners I don't want to spoil. "Spawn of the Green Abyss"  (1946) by C. Hall Thompson is a fascinating 'parallel' text seemingly inspired by Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth."

Of the later reprints, some are terrific and much-anthologized (pieces by Ligotti and Klein are all-timers). Some are terrific and under-anthologized ("The Franklyn Paragraphs" (1973) by Ramsey Campbell, though it really should be bundled with "The Truant" (1973)). Some are interesting, some are seriously wonky (I'm looking at you and your inter-species rape scene, "The Deep Ones" (1969) by James Wade). 

The original stories are mostly solid, though it's always a juggling act to combine a 'Best of' anthology with new material: it can sometimes seem like those old CD's and records that did so with 'Best of' material and 'Three new songs!', all of them sort of sucky. But there's nothing sucky here. 

I really like "Virgin's Island"  (2014) by Donald Tyson, a great slice of pseudo-documentarian horror that reminds one of Lovecraft without aping HPL's style. And it's set off the coast of the Atlantic Provinces of Canada! Gemma Files also adds some delicious CanCon, as Toronto rocks with an insidious alien attack. Michael Shea also delights with one of the hardest things to pull off -- a nod to HPL that's funny, revisionist, and sinister.

In all, a solid anthology with distinguished cuts from the past and present. The historical selections help push A Mountain Walked to highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Green Inferno (2013)

The Green Inferno (2013/ Released 2015): written by Eli Roth and Guillermo Amoedo; directed by Eli Roth; starring Eli Roth's wife: Eli Roth's homage to the cult horror film Cannibal Holocaust does the unthinkable: it makes cannibals boring. A bunch of college students protesting the destruction of the Peruvian rain forest get captured by a cannibal tribe. Gustatory hilarity ensues. Well, not really -- this is a boring bad movie, not a fun bad movie. 

Eli Roth's great dramatic trick is to lock the students up in a cage for about half the film's interminable 100 minutes. Yay. The blood and gore never seem convincing, possibly because I don't give a crap about any of the characters. The funniest moment comes when we hear a loon cry amongst the background noises. Man, that is one out-of-place loon! Not recommended.

30 Days of Night (2007)

30 Days of Night (2007): adapted from the Steve Niles/Ben Templesmith comic book by Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie, and Brian Nelson; directed by David Slade; starring Josh Hartnett (Eben), Melissa George (Stella), and Danny Huston (Marlow the Lead Vampire): The Steve Niles/Ben Templesmith comic book had a great concept that would have been a lot greater had the comic book been set in, say, 1930 rather than the late 1990's. 

That concept is that vampires show up in Barrow, Alaska once the sun goes down for its annual 30-day night and slaughter all the inhabitants. Of course, the real Barrow, Alaska isn't much more isolated when the sun goes down that it is when the sun's up -- daily flights continue, and people continue to phone and email their friends and family who are not in Barrow, Alaska. In 30 Days of Night, nightfall brings an end to flights, a mass exodus from Barrow, and apparently a complete lack of people outside Barrow who would wonder why no one has heard from Barrow for weeks.

It just doesn't work in the movie or the comic once one thinks about it for, say, 30 seconds. But we'll give the film-makers their curiously isolated Northern town and look at how the movie works with the concept.

Um, not that well. 30 Days of Night was shot in New Zealand, and it shows -- only rarely does it seem plausible that these people are stranded in the dark and cold with angry vampires. The film-makers only rarely bother showing people's breath, compounding the problem. Giant fires erupt, burning everything around them... but not melting any snow. And so on, and so forth. 

Josh Hartnett and Melissa George, as the estranged couple who are also the only law enforcement that survives the vampire clan's first wild night, are dutiful but that's about it. The townspeople under siege by the vampires are a pretty bloodless lot (Heh heh!), leaving the viewer with no one to care about. The vampires themselves, led by a very good Danny Huston, are somewhat interesting. They speak an invented vampire language all the time, shriek a lot, and have facial prosthetics that make most of them unsettlingly resemble sharks.

The plot lurches from set-piece to set-piece, leaving one to wonder how we got to Day 29 by the end, or how the vampires failed to search that attic or that building for the preceding 28 days. We also have to endure a number of Mythbusters moments, including crude oil that ignites easily by having a match thrown into it and a sun rising in the North. Good times. Not recommended.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper: Volume 3 (2013)

Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper: Volume 3 (2013) by Basil Copper, edited by Stephen Jones.

The third and weakest paperback volume of the Collected Basil Copper does allow the reader of the previous two volumes to survey the writer in full, and here that writer is in decline but still intermittently strong and vital.

An Interview with Basil Copper by Johnny Mains.
Introduction  (Darkness, Mist and Shadow: Volume 3) by Christopher Fowler.

  • When Greek Meets Greek (1997): Vague, disturbing slow-burn revisionist vampire novella.
  • Line Engaged (1999): We've seen the twist more than once.
  • One for the Pot (1999): One of those 'The killer is really...' stories, short and mostly sweet.
  • In a Darkling Wood (1999): Absolutely loopy period piece involving black magic in the 18th-century English countryside. The last 20 pages are weird but utterly unconvincing.
  • The Grass (1999): A piece of juvenalia written when Copper was 14.
  • Riding the Chariot (1999): Psychological horror flips over and crashes over the last few hasty, unconvincing pages.
  • Final Destination (1999): Technically, the final line makes this horror story a 'Paul Harvey.'
  • The Obelisk (1999): Unconvincing tale of invasion from an alternate Earth.
  • Out There (1999): Until the last three pages or so, "Out There" is up there with Copper's superior, earlier stories along similar lines, "Shaft Number 247" and "The Flabby Men." The last three pages are startlingly rushed and ridiculous, but the rest of the story is very satisfying.
  • The Summerhouse (1999): A creaky tale of a child's revenge on a father completely loses its way as the events are explained to us over the last couple of paragraphs.
  • As the Crow Flies (2002): Mildly interesting tale of a crow that hates a guy, but so long.
  • Poetic Justice (2002): Almost a story fragment about the evils of vivisection.
  • Ill Met By Daylight (2002): Fun, M.R. Jamesian tale of a graveyard haunted by... what, exactly?
  • Charing Cross-Dover-Charing Cross (2010): Very much a Twilight Zone fantasy of revenge.
  • There Lies the Danger ... (2002): A real time-waster about rejuvenation treatments leads to a real dud of a final line. 
  • Queen Bee (2005): Mildly interesting tale of a bee that loves a guy, or maybe hates him..
  • Death of a Nobody (2005): Yes, another one of Copper's 'Paul Harvey' stories that eventually reveals it's about a real, historical personage. Zzz.
  • Reflections (2005): There's an evil mirror in this overlong story about... an evil mirror that belonged to a real historical personage!
  • The White Train (2005): Holocaust revenge story is very, very familiar.
  • Hunted by Wolves (2005): Science-fiction background adds nothing to a story about a guy hiding in a tree from some super-wolves.
  • Storm Over Stromjolly (2005): Dud of a revenge story... with a twist!
  • The Silver Salamander (2005): Very slow thriller about a man, his mistress, her husband, and a piece of jewelry.
  • Voices in the Water (2005): Fine, building piece is technically Lovecraftian in its monsters. Not a bad story to finish a career on.

Overall: Lightly recommended, and best read after the first two collections.

Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper: Volume 2 (2013)

Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper: Volume 2 (2013) by Basil Copper, edited by Stephen Jones.

The second volume of PS Publishing's Collected Basil Copper is a solid effort with several stand-outs. Not as consistently excellent as the first volume, but well-worth buying for fine stories that include "The Flabby Men," "Shaft Number 247," and "Beyond the Reef."

Introduction  (Darkness, Mist and Shadow: Volume 2) by Kim Newman.

  • The Flabby Men (1977): Sinister post-apocalyptic tale shares characteristics with "Shaft Number 247" (1980) and "Out There" (1999). A combination of the Lovecraftian and the post-atomic mutant story.
  • The Way the World Died (1978): Very minor sf story.
  • The Treasure of Our Lady (1978): A throwback to tales of explorers searching for treasure in the jungle, unironically told. Wouldn't be out of place in a 1927 issue of Weird Tales.
  • Justice at the Crossroads (1978): Ironic, non-supernatural tale of a 'real' vampire.
  • Mrs. Van Donk (1978): Minor bit of Hitchcockian social satire/thriller.
  • The Stranger (1980): A psychological horror story with a 'twist' you will probably see coming.
  • The Madonna of the Four-Ale Bar (1980): See "The Stranger."
  • Shaft Number 247 (1980): Copper's brilliant, vague novella written for Ramsey Campbell's New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. One of ten or at most 20 of the greatest post-Lovecraft Lovecraftian stories ever written. 
  • The Candle in the Skull (1984): Fun, slight tale of a creepy child and Hallowe'en revenge.
  • Wish You Were Here (1992): Excellent, slow-building ghost story doesn't quite have a workable ending. Still, the ride is a lot of fun.
  • Better Dead (1994): A bit of marriage-based horror that satirizes the too-committed film buff (the title comes from Bride of Frankenstein).
  • Beyond the Reef (1994): Neo-pulp follow-up to Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth." Fun stuff, though far better as an homage than as actual horror.
  • Death of a Demi-God (1995): Weak, creaky story falls into the 'Paul Harvey' category enumerated in my review of Volume 1 -- Copper's 'Paul Harvey' stories eventually reveal that they're about a real, historical personage.
  • Reader, I Buried Him! (1995): Fun little vampire story seems to exist for the sole purpose of its title's play on the last line of Jane Eyre.
  • Bright Blades Gleaming (1995): Another 'Paul Harvey' story, intermittently interesting but with an extremely telegraphed ending.

Overall: Recommended, though the stories start to sag after 1980. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper: Volume 1 (2013)

Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper: Volume 1  (2013) by Basil Copper, edited by Stephen Jones.

Once he turned to fiction writing in his late 30's, Basil Copper was pretty much a professional's professional. He wrote a lot of stories of horror and the weird, collected here in their entirety in three thick paperbacks by PS Publishing. He also wrote over 50 hard-boiled detective novels set in a Los Angeles he never visited in real life, non-fiction books, and several continuations of August Derleth's Holmes pastiche, Solar Pons. Like I said, a professional writer.

And as a professional writer who wasn't a great writer, he's a good study for aspiring writers -- especially those who start publishing relatively late. Copper may not be great, but he wrote several great stories and many that were very good. Keep plugging!

This first paperback volume covers roughly the first 15 years of his fiction-writing career.

  • Introduction  by Stephen Jones.
  • The Spider (1964): Creepy little gem involving arachnophobia.
  • Camera Obscura (1965): Excellent period piece with more than a touch of Ray Bradbury. Faithfully adapted for Night Gallery.
  • The Janissaries of Emilion (1967): One of Copper's most-anthologized works is a study in dreams and paranoia. You'll see the ending coming, but the details and vaguely dream-like quality of the story make it stand out.
  • The Cave (1967): A fine ghost story 'recounted' in the tranquility of a men's club. The story owes a debt to M.R. James, as it riffs at the end on a bit from James' "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook."
  • The Grey House (1967): The forgettable title is the only problem with this slow-building tale of misguided home ownership. Builds to a near-Grand Guignol finale with a touch of Jules de Grandin -- which is to say, flame-throwers versus the living dead!
  • Old Mrs. Cartwright (1967): Almost reads as if Copper were riffing on Roald Dahl in this cruel tale of an old aunt and her disturbing young nephew at the zoo.
  • Charon (1967): Less Bradburyesque than Serlingesque -- as in, a gentle fantasy that could have been an episode of The Twilight Zone.
  • The Great Vore (1967): A delightful romp that's a self-aware homage to Sherlock Holmes that also works as a satire of detective stories.
  • The Academy of Pain (1968): Cruel little story goes exactly where you expect, unpleasantly.
  • Doctor Porthos (1968): A deft revisionist vampire tale.
  • Archives of the Dead (1968): Solid tale of witchcraft in the modern world.
  • Amber Print (1968): A nice horror piece about movie obsessives and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
  • Out of the Fog (1970): The first of what I think of as Copper's 'Paul Harvey' pieces, in which the story builds to reveal that it's about a real, historical personage. This one at least has a nice twist.
  • The House by the Tarn (1971): Straightforward, mysterious horror in the British countryside features another bad house.
  • The Knocker at the Portico (1971): Psychological horror and obsession collide.
  • The Second Passenger (1973): Over-long supernatural revenge piece seems like Copper's rewriting of A Christmas Carol at points.
  • The Recompensing of Albano Pizar (1973): Refined tale of revenge with a bloody climax.
  • The Gossips (1973): Chilling, very much M.R. Jamesian ghost story about a trio of very unpleasant Italian statues.
  • A Very Pleasant Fellow (1973): A bit of a science-fictiony dud that could have been published in 1913.
  • A Message from the Stars (1977): Twist is telegraphed in an unconvincing story about alien invasion.
  • Cry Wolf (1974): Weak twist story involving werewolves.
  • The Trodes (1975): See "A Message from the Stars."
  • Dust to Dust (1976): Solid but unspectacular ghost story involving messages from the dead written in the dust on a windowsill. 

Overall: The strongest of the three Copper Collected volumes has a few duds -- though all of them solidly written -- and many greats. The volume also offers Copper at his most chameleonic as the stories riff on a number of prominent antecedents, most notably the great English ghost-story writer M.R. James. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Winter's Bone (2010)

Winter's Bone (2010): adapted by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini from the novel by Daniel Woodrell; directed by Debra Granik; starring Jennifer Lawrence (Ree) and John Hawkes (Teardrop): Set in the dystopic rural backwaters of Missouri, Winter's Bone earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination and announced the arrival of a teen-aged Jennifer Lawrence with a Best Actress nomination for her.

Most of the actors who surround Lawrence are amateurs tapped for their local authenticity. I didn't notice. The acting is fine from everyone, and especially so from Lawrence and John Hawkes. Everything seems authentic, though the movie is a Quest Narrative, about as long-standing a story structure as there is. The plot manages to avoid stereotypes in its depiction of its blighted rural areas and their impoverished residents. 

There's an almost dystopic feel to the movie. One can see how the producers of The Hunger Games franchise, seeing this film, would think to cast Lawrence as the heroine of that series. But her quest here, grounded in horrifying reality, is a far more compelling journey through the night. Highly recommended.

The Conjuring 2: Electric Boobooboo! (2016)

The Conjuring 2: Electric Boobooboo! (2016): written by Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes, James Wan, and David Leslie Johnson; directed by James Wan; starring Patrick Wilson (Ed Warren) and Vera Farmiga (Lorraine Warren): The Enfield Haunting, famous in England in the 1970's, is a 'real' haunting so goofy it pretty much debunked itself. However, in the world of The Conjuring franchise, Ed and Lorraine Warren are tireless crusaders against supernatural evil and not con artists. And crap like the Enfield Haunting is, well, a real haunting -- but even moreso! Now with 100% more Zuul-level demons than in 'real life'!!!!

If you drink a shot every time the director and screenwriters swipe from another, better supernatural horror film, you may be dead by the second hour of The Conjuring 2. Everything from the basement in Evil Dead 2 to the Danny-throws-a-rubber-ball scene in The Shining shows up. The Amityville Horror itself occupies part of the film's first act, with the Warrens debunking the debunkers who dare to challenge the veracity of The Amityville Horror, one of roughly a million 'real-life' hauntings the Warrens 'investigated' over the years.

Then we're in Merrie Olde Englande in the 1970's. The Warrens ostensibly operate as stealth agents for The Church (it's not named, but simply strongly hinted to be the Roman Catholic Church) as they investigate The Enfield Haunting. See, the Vatican relies on the Warrens to vet supernatural occurrences before sending in their exorcists so as to avoid public embarrassment should the Church accidentally try to exorcise a demon who doesn't actually exist. What, you say? Yes! No, seriously, what???????

So some 12-year-old girl gets punished for holding her friend's cigarette by having the forces of Hell unleashed on her and her family. No, that's really how the plot works in its depiction of supernatural cause-and-effect. A lot of rote supernatural stuff happens. A reel-to-reel recorder plays a key part, as does some demonology that seems... goofy. People who debunk psychic and supernatural phenomena are the secret monsters of the narrative: how dare they point out moments of clear fakery! Oh, the temerity of these godless atheists!

Anyway, it's a shitty film made by dunderheads that plays to an audience of brain-damaged Christians and fellow travelers with its Christian iconography and utterly debased and impoverished version of Catholicism. Of course it made money. Not recommended.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991): adapted by Ted Tally from the novel by Thomas Harris; directed by Jonathan Demme; starring Jodie Foster (Clarice Starling), Anthony Hopkins (Dr. Hannibal Lecter), Anthony Heald (Dr. Chilton), Scott Glenn (Jack Crawford), Brooke Smith (Catherine Martin), and Ted Levine (Jame Gumb): More than 25 years later, The Silence of the Lambs still sings with the force and presence of Jodie Foster as FBI trainee Clarice Foster. And the plot sings too -- or at least hums from beginning to end with urgency and horror and sympathy and dread.

Overall, I think Michael Mann's adaptation of Thomas Harris' first novel featuring Hannibal Lecter, Manhunter (adapting the novel Red Dragon) is the superior work. Why? Mann is a better visual director than Jonathan Demme, and he makes more interesting choices in terms of set design and terrifying set-pieces with unusual musical accompaniment. Demme goes for the obvious by making both Lecter's part of the mental asylum and the basement of serial killer Jame Gumb into dripping medieval prisons. And his Jame Gumb never comes into focus as a sinister character -- he remains a scary freak right to the end, unlike Tom Noonan's partially humanized monster in Manhunter.

Still, Jodie Foster deserved her Best Actress Oscar. It's harder to judge Anthony Hopkins' Lecter now, overlaid as he is by another 25 years of improbable, omniscient, omnipotent serial killers. 

The movie is relentlessly feminist in a strangely satisfying way for a thriller: even the best of men ignore women when they're not either hitting on them or using them as bait. Or murdering and skinning them. These 'bad man' moments are almost all peculiar to the movie, as screenwriter Ted Tally either omits or rewrites certain male characters to highlight Clarice Starling's embattled solitude in a Man's World. Jesus, though, Jame Gumb has the world's most anomalously large basement. Highly recommended.

Natural Born Killers (1994)

Natural Born Killers (1994): written by Quentin Tarantino, David Velez, Richard Rutowski, and Oliver Stone; directed by Oliver Stone; starring Woody Harrelson (Mickey), Juliette Lewis (Mallory), Tom Sizemore (Scagnetti), Rodney Dangerfield (Mallory's Father), Russell Means (Old Indian), Robert Downey, Jr. (Wayne Gale), and Tommy Lee Jones (Warden McClusky): Still as bracing and fresh and horrifying and pertinent and exciting and revolting now as it was in 1994. Maybe moreso. 

From a story by Quentin Tarantino, Natural Born Killers is the best movie either Tarantino or director/co-writer Oliver Stone was ever involved with. The often dizzying shifts in film stock and POV mark a progression for Stone from similar effects in JFK. They also anticipate Tarantino's Kill Bill, only here they're actually about something other than Tarantino's desire to wow while remaining substanceless. 

You could call it American Scream. You could call it American Dream. It's uncompromising in the most disturbing of ways, a restless meditation on a society's love of violence and the media's love of anything that secures ratings, no matter how vile or dangerous. 

I think it's a Top 100 All-Timer, a Juvenalian yawp of barbaric, cosmic, comic horror. The whole cast dazzles, though none moreso than Rodney Dangerfield as a monstrous father to Juliette Lewis' monstrous daughter. The soundtrack/score is also a triumph, highlighted by a repeated use of Leonard Cohen as a sort of mournful commentator-in-song on the horrors onscreen, suggesting that Stone may have actually read Cohen's Beautiful Losers. This is Trump's America. You're soaking in it. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Charlie the Choo-Choo (2016) by Beryl Evans

Charlie the Choo-Choo (2016) by Beryl Evans (Stephen King) and illustrations based on original artwork by Ned Dameron (whatever that means): Fun, sinister spin-off from Stephen King's Dark Tower series gives us the children's book that warned Jake about psychotic AI/public transportation system Blaine the Mono[rail]. Beautifully produced and fun for Dark Tower fans of all ages. Will King also write the version of Charlie the Choo-Choo credited to Claudia y Inez Bachman? Only time will tell. Highly recommended.

Deadman's Road (2010) by Joe R. Lansdale

Deadman's Road (2010) by Joe R. Lansdale, containing the following stories: Dead in the West (1986); Deadman's Road (2007); The Gentleman's Hotel (2007); The Crawling Sky (2009); and The Dark Down There (2010). Texas horror, Western and thriller legend Joe R. Lansdale gifts the horror reader with the collected adventures of Reverend Jedidiah Mercer here. Mercer stalks the Post-Civil-War American West in search of monsters to lay a beating on. The stories are ultraviolent and often bleak: the body count is high for friends and foes of Mercer alike. 

One could almost imagine Robert E. Howard smiling down (or up) at these stories as a bleaker, Western take on his 16th-century monster-fighter Solomon Kane. Mercer's religion is even darker than Kane's -- his God is no God of mercy, and Mercer does his bidding because he really has no choice in the matter.

Dead in the West: Lansdale's short novel introduces Mercer and about as much of his back story as we get. Conflicted about serving God, hitting the bottle hard, Mercer finds himself dropped unwillingly into a battle against zombie-vampire things raised against a town by the Native American shaman the town murdered. Dead in the West was meant to be a movie -- and it would make one gore-soaked Western.

"Deadman's Road": Mercer is now more sanguine in his monster-fighting duties, this time against a burrow-living zombie with a thing for bees. Mercer's problems keeping a horse alive continue through to the end of the collection. So, too, the terrible meals he's stuck eating in almost every adventure, described lovingly and in great detail by Lansdale.

"The Gentleman's Hotel": A pitched, weird battle against Undead Werewolves, sort of. Mercer's attempt to keep his horse alive does not go well.

"The Crawling Sky": A Lovecraftian whatsit haunts a house, and a well. Say goodbye, horse.

"The Dark Down There": Kobolds enslave silver miners. Explosions follow.

In all, a highly enjoyable collection that makes for a fast-paced, ultraviolent read. Makes the version of Christianity seen in Stephen King's The Stand seem like a happy circle singing "Kumbaya." But the horrors come razor-wrapped in grim good humour, often Mercer's. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

(Wo[e])Man vs. Supernature: The Road to Victory

End of Days (1999): written by Andrew W. Marlowe; directed by Peter Hyams; starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (Jericho), Gabriel Byrne (Lucifer), Robin Tunney (Bride of Satan), Kevin Pollak (Comic-relief Sidekick), CCH Pounder (Bad Detective), and Rod Steiger (Father Rod Steiger): 

Dumb, often inept apocalyptic action movie that basically recasts the plot of The Terminator in Judeo-Christian terms (well, that plot borrowed from the Annunciation, so sauce for the goose...) and makes the Terminator the hero. Well, Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't a robot. He's woefully miscast as a burned-out, alcoholic ex-cop-turned-security-grunt  mourning the murder of his wife and daughter at the hands of a criminal syndicate he testified against.

I mean, woefully miscast. Arnold may look like a lot of things, but despairing dissipation is not in his acting toolbox. This movie might have been marginally better with someone like Mickey Rourke in Arnold's role. However, I'm not asking for a remake.

The action sequences range from inept to competent. Kevin Pollak, as Arnold's comic-relief sidekick, has nothing to do and possesses absolutely no charisma or comic talent anyway. So we'll recast him with... oh, who cares?

The mystical Christian stuff gets dumber the more it's explained. You know you're in good hands when you note that they've got a Hebrew document upside-down in the opening credits. The screenwriter (who would go on to create the TV show Castle, so good for him) also invents an order of Catholic Monks (the Gregorians, a mistake caused by all those monks selling albums of Gregorian Chants, I'd wager). And a complete inversion of the meaning of End of the World in the Book of Revelation. And a priest named Thomas Aquinas, a name no one comments on. And so on, and so forth. Tuco's Dad (or was he Tuco's grandfather?) in Breaking Bad plays the Pope. Yay!

Arnold Schwarzenegger really works hard here, but he was getting old and the character was way, way out of his range. Rod Steiger shows up in his last studio film to chew the scenery and keep people interested for as long as he's on-screen. Arnold survives a crucifixion, harking back to Conan the Barbarian. Satan just wants to get a girl pregnant between 11 p.m. and midnight, New York Time, on December 31, 1999. Yes, it's very similar to Vigo the Carpathian's plan in Ghostbusters 2, where he has to possess Sigourney Weaver's baby by midnight on New Year's Eve. Ho hum.

The Satan Creature does look pretty good, so kudos to the Stan Winston Creature Shop. Too bad we only see it clearly for about 10 seconds. Gabriel Byrne does what he can with Satan the Man, but the script is terrible and Gabriel Byrne is not a threatening presence. Oh, well. Not recommended

Ghostbusters (2016): adapted by Katie Dippold and Paul Feig from the 1984 film written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd; directed by Paul Feig; starring Kristen Wiig (Erin), Melissa McCarthy (Abby), Kate McKinnon (Holtzmann), and Leslie Jones (Patty): Part valiant try, part corporate disaster. Paul Feig really wouldn't have been any of my choices to co-write or direct a Ghostbusters reboot. Edgar Wright would have been perfect, given his comfort level with visual effects and the effective integration of those effects into a comedy. 

Feig and co-screenwriter Katie Dippold don't have a clue when it comes to the fantastic elements of Ghostbusters. One of the charms of the original movie was that Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis wrote a screenplay that could have been played completely straight as a supernatural action movie pitting the forces of science against Lovecraftian horrors. In its comedic way, Ghostbusters (1984) is the greatest Humanity vs. The Supernatural movie ever made: it certainly presents a more believable battle with higher stakes than any Exorcist or Omen movie, and all without the creaky apparatus of Judeo-Christian apocalypticism. 

And that movie knew how to deploy its visual effects in service to its story and its comedy. This Ghostbusters just keeps throwing an escalating series of expensive visual effects at the screen in what looks by the end of the film like total panic by Feig and the studio. 

There's nothing wrong with the casting of the distaff new Ghostbusters. I particularly liked Leslie Jones as a subway guard with an encyclopedic knowledge of New York's history. But McCarthy, Wiig, McKinnon, and Jones would have benefited from better writing and a plot that actually builds: the movie goes from set-up to climax without any of the original film's middle complement of successful Ghostbuster operations. 

Chris Hemsworth's idiot receptionist is a clunky puzzle -- he may work as a very broad parody of genre portrayals of women, but he certainly doesn't work as a gender-flipped equivalent to Annie Potts' brassy receptionist from the original.

Beyond that, the villain is terribly uncompelling -- and the movie spends a lot of time trying to flesh out his character. The original wasn't saddled with this problem: Zuul was an approaching force, and William Atherton handled the role of secondary bureaucratic villain without any worries about his backstory. 

If there's any emblem of this movie's misguided nature, it's this: ghosts et al. now throw slime everywhere pretty much all the time, but especially when passing through solid objects. Some slime good, more slime am better, say Hollywood! And let's give Slimer a girlfriend and a car! Yeah. That's super. Not recommended.