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 Caitlín 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.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

From Hell It Came (1957)

From Hell It Came (1957): written by Richard Bernstein and Jack Milner; directed by Dan Milner; starring Tod Andrews (Dr. Arnold). Tina Carver (Dr. Mason), Linda Watkins (Mrs. Kilgore), John McNamara (Professor Clark), and Gregg Palmer (Kimo): Some combination of atomic-test fallout and native magic results in a murdered island prince returning as a walking, vengeful tree.

Startlingly wordy and inept, From Hell It Came would be a lot more fun if it were a lot less wordy. An eternity (well, about 40 minutes) drags by until the walking tree we've all been waiting for finally starts killing people. However, either because of censorship issues or the overall clumsiness of the tree outfit, our hero kills people by throwing them into quicksand or down hills.

An early scene impresses because the medium shots of the prince talking and talking and talking while staked to the ground for execution include a chicken in the left-top portion of the frame. The chicken provides quite the distraction, and then another chicken wanders into the frame. 

I do like the design of the tree monster, which is pretty much all face. It's not as scary-looking as the two male leads, however. Jesus, From Hell It Came has the ugliest male leads I've seen in a long time. Well, since The Night of the Lepus, anyway. Apparently, ugliness was no impediment to playing the male lead in a cheap Hollywood horror movie in the 1950's.

The island on which the action takes place is populated by nebulously conceived natives played (mostly) by white people and American scientists sent to investigate the effects of atomic fallout on the island and to treat natives who have 'The Black Plague.' A cultural clash ensues between Western medicine and native medicine. A male and female doctor bicker over her desire to be employed rather than married and pregnant. The usual. I think there's a parrot involved as well. Or maybe not. 

Linda Watkins as Mrs. Kilgore has the thankless role of a comic-relief shop-keeper on the island. Why there's a white shop-keeper on the island is beyond me, as the native population seems to be about 12 people and the only reason the scientists came to the island was to investigate fallout. The film-makers saddle Ms. Watkins with an Australian accent, an accent that is clearly and hilariously way, way beyond her acting range. 

It doesn't help that the screenwriters seem to confuse Australian with Cockney, or that their primary word indicators of an Australian are endless repetitions of the word "blooming" (OK) and "ducky" (one of the WTF bits of Hollywood Cockney). Not recommended, though intermittently funny.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Invisible Invaders (1959)

Invisible Invaders (1959): written by Samuel Newman; directed by Edward L. Cahn; starring John Agar (Major Jay), Jean Byron (Phyllis Penner), Philip Tonge (Dr. Adam Penner), Robert Hutton (Dr. Lamont), and John Carradine (Dr. Noymann/ Voice of the Invaders): One of the places the titular aliens announce their nefarious plans for Earth is at an NHL game between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers. All right!

Invisible Invaders is noteworthy for being a pre-George "Night of the Living Dead" Romero example of zombies in formal-wear stalking the Earth and killing the living. Here, they're inhabited by invisible aliens who can also take over dead bodies. And they have a plan.

What is the plan? Kill everyone on Earth.

Thankfully, the always intrepid John Agar as an Army Major teams up with three intrepid scientists to come up with a weapon to use against the aliens. They work fast. That's good because apparently the Moon was once like Earth until the aliens beat the Hell out of it thousands of years ago.

The acting is earnest but inept. The visual effects are pretty much all either laughable (why do the aliens drag their feet when they're invisible, leaving a very clear trail?) or stock footage of things crashing, blowing up, or burning down. I'm pretty sure the only clear shot of a UFO flying has been lifted from Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. Oh, well. Invisible Invaders also has a whole lotta narration, I'm assuming to bolster its attempts to look like a documentary. Strange, bad, enjoyable stuff. Recommended.

Mummy Mummy Mummy I've Got Love in My Tummy

The Mummy (1932): adapted by John Balderston from a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer; directed by Karl Freund; starring Boris Karloff (Imhotep) and Zita Johann (Helen Grosvenor): Boris Karloff only appears in full Mummy garb for a few seconds in this Universal horror offering. For much of the film, he's slow-moving but recognizably human, having apparently doffed his bandages during the eleven years that pass between the movie's prologue and main story.

Karloff is Karloff, underplaying so as to instill menace, talking in a sepulchral whisper. Karl Freund's first American film as a director, The Mummy looks terrific in its play with shadows and light. The first Universal Frankenstein movie had made Boris Karloff a big enough star by the time The Mummy was released that the legend 'Karloff!' dominated the posters. And Karloff and the set design are really the stars here -- Karloff's co-stars are a terribly forgettable lot. I've forgotten them already. 

Of course, Karloff only appears in full mummy regalia for a couple minutes. For the rest of it, he's sinister but human-looking as the resurrected Egyptian priest Imhotep, mummified alive for the crime of loving the Pharaoh's daughter. But you can't keep a good monster down. 

Inspired by stories of the Curse of King Tut's Tomb, The Mummy sends Karloff on a tour of vengeance and love, as he seeks the reincarnation of his lost love. Yes, reincarnation. Not something the Ancient Egyptians were known for believing in, but what the Hell. Who can tell Hinduism from Egyptian mythology?

Karloff is great as Imhotep. In one of his first full speaking roles as a horror star, Karloff seems to intuitively understand something that a lot of early sound actors did not: Less is More on the big screen. He has that great Grinch Karloff voice, and he knows how to use it -- for the most part, insinuatingly, softly. His movements are slow and patient, befitting a 3700-year-old man-mummy. Every time I see Karloff in a movie, major or slight, I'm again impressed by what a natural-seeming, finely tuned screen actor he was. I can pretty much happily watch him in anything. Recommended.

The Mummy (1999): developed by Stephen Sommers, Lloyd Fonvielle, and Kevin Jarre from the 1932 screenplay by John L. Balderston, Nina Wilcox Putnam, and Richard Schayer; directed by Stephen Sommers; starring Brendan Fraser (Rick O'Connell), Rachel Weisz (Evelyn Carnahan), John Hannah (Jonathan Carnahan), Arnold Vosloo (Imhotep/The Mummy), and Oded Fehr (Ardeth Bay): Created for people who found Raiders of the Lost Ark to be too realistic, The Mummy is a perfectly disposable popcorn movie that vanishes almost entirely from the memory after you've watched it. The main cast (Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, and John Hannah) pretty much defines affability.

Arnold Vosloo as the titular character almost seems to have wandered in from a different, better movie. He gives Imhotep, a role that originated back in 1932 with Boris Karloff, some heft and pathos. That he's stuck speaking ancient Egyptian (well, whatever the filmmakers decided that was) for pretty much the whole movie seems like a handicap the film-makers needed to fix. The central visual effects image -- the face in the engulfing sandstorm -- was striking enough to be recycled in The Mummy Returns and in the recent Tom Cruise version of The Mummy (2017). Lightly recommended, especially for kiddies.

The Mummy Returns (2001): developed by Stephen Sommers from the 1932 screenplay by John L. Balderston, Nina Wilcox Putnam, and Richard Schayer; directed by Stephen Sommers; starring Brendan Fraser (Rick O'Connell), Rachel Weisz (Evelyn Carnahan), John Hannah (Jonathan Carnahan), Arnold Vosloo (Imhotep/The Mummy), and Oded Fehr (Ardeth Bay): Not so much scripted as assembled from its predecessor and other sources. Those sources include the then-new computer game Diablo 2. I kid you not. 

Stephen Sommers just keeps shoveling as a director and writer, riffing on The Lost World in one scene, Raiders of the Lost Ark in another. He even throws in some gratuitous reincarnation stuff for, um, the sake of character motivation? There's also toilet humour, a precociously annoying boy, a steam-punky home-made dirigible, endless ranks of CGI soldiers, and a horribly rendered CGI Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as the Scorpion King, soon to be spun off into his own movie. Enjoyable, just. Lightly recommended.

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.