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.