Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Pinocchio (1940)

Pinocchio (1940): adapted from the Carlo Collodi story by Ted Sears, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, William Cottrell, Joseph Sabo, Erdman Penner, Aurelius Battaglia, and Bill Peet; directed by Norman Ferguson, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, and Ben Sharpsteen; starring the voices of Dickie Jones (Pinocchio), Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Cricket), FRankie Darro (Lampwick), Charles Judels (Stromboli, The Coachman), Christian Rub (Gepetto), Walter Catlett (J. Worthington Foulfellow), and Evelyn Venable (The Blue Fairy):

Pinocchio was Walt Disney's second animated feature, after the colossal success that was Snow White (1937). It marked a major leap forward for animation as Walt threw money at the project to the extent of nearly destroying Walt Disney Studios. It didn't help that the outbreak of World War Two in Europe screwed up Pinocchio's essential international box-office haul. It also didn't help that Disney complained publicly that WWII had screwed up Pinocchio's essential international box-office haul. Oh, Walt. 

Pinocchio is a masterpiece in its visuals, its animation, and in the pacing and composition of certain scenes. Its only real problem is, well, Pinocchio himself. A tabula rasa at the beginning, our living puppet "learns better" by being punished for sins he doesn't understand in the first place. He's essentially a void in the hands of an angry God.

Much of Pinocchio now plays like a horror movie of unintended consequences and massive punishment for minor sins. Have a whim to run away and join the circus instead of going to school? Now you've been kidnapped and put in a cage! Want to play hooky from home and school and maybe smoke a cigar? Now you've been turned into a donkey and shipped off to the salt mines! And you know what happened to your father, his cat, and his goldfish while they were looking for you? They got eaten by a goddam whale!

Seriously, the EC supernatural revenge comic books of the 1950's have nothing on Pinocchio. The movie climaxes with a magnificent sequence set inside and outside the giant whale Monstro. It's a terrific 15 minutes or so, brilliantly animated, visualized, and paced. These are the moments we look to Pinocchio for. The morals, not so much. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Bad Trip to Italy

The Snow Devils (1967): written by Aubrey Wisberg, Ivan Reiner, Bill Finger, and Charles Sinclair; directed by Antonio Margheriti; starring Giacomo Rossi Stuart (Commander Jackson), Ombretta Colli (Lisa Nielson), and Renato Baldini (Harris): 

The last of four Italian science-fiction movies made for TV and released theatrically in the United States known collectively as Gamma One, after the space station in all four films.

In the near-future, Gamma One helps protect Earth from alien threats. In this case, green-faced Abominable Snowmen from space with a weather machine that can melt the ice caps. And pretty much all other icy places -- the alien base is located in the Himalayas, not generally found at the North or South Pole.

It's all wacky, badly dubbed into English fun. Sure, the Yeti are a bit of a disappointment -- worker snowmen wear overalls, leader snowmen red capes. Only about a third of the movie takes place in the Himalayas. Outer space action occurs throughout, especially in the climactic assault on the alien base orbiting Callisto. Jolly fun. Recommended.

The Last Man On Earth (1964): adapted from Richard Matheson's I Am Legend by William Leicester, Richard Matheson, Furio Monetti, and Ubaldo Ragona; starring Vincent Price (Dr. Robert Morgan), Franca Bettoia (Ruth Collins), Enna Danieli (Virginia Morgan), and Giacomo Rossi Stuart (Ben Cortman): 

The cheapest version of Richard Matheson's revisionist vampire novel I Am Legend is also the most faithful and the best, despite some deficiencies in direction, set design, and pacing. 

If you are scoring at home, the other two adaptations are Will Smith in I Am Legend (really, really unfaithful) and Chuck Heston in The Omega Man (a sudden left-turn into unfaithfulness about halfway through). Notable riffs include the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror segment "The Homega Man" and George Romero's seminal zombie flick Night of the Living Dead.

Also, why change the name of the titular protagonist from Robert Neville to Robert Morgan?

Filmed in Italy, The Last Man On Earth offers us Vincent Price as the only non-Italian actor. He's terrific in a rare sympathetic role in a horror movie. He elevates the material the way great actors do. 

In an unnamed American city (it's LA in the novel but played by some Italian city here), Price's character survives hordes of stupid, zombie-like vampires by night and creeping despair by day. He's been holding out for three years. Everyone, including his wife and daughter, is either dead or a vampire.

But Morgan keeps going, having cobbled together a daily routine of staking vampires, collecting supplies, and various other tasks. Is he truly the last man on Earth?

The wonkiness of the set design mainly manifests in Morgan's house, which does not look like it could keep out a five-year-old, much less a horde of vampires, no matter how stupid they are. The movie also rushes to an ending after a fairly slow build, as if the producers suddenly ran out of money.

But amidst the cheapness and the mistakes, there's a real sense of isolation and apocalyptic melancholy, along with some striking scenes of Price alone in an empty city. All this and a poignant sub-plot involving a dog! Recommended.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Black Kiss 2 (2014)

Black Kiss 2 (2014): written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin: Once upon a time in the late 1980's, comic-book great Howard Chaykin wrote and illustrated a then-controversial piece of erotic horror-noir called Black Kiss. A quarter-century later he returned to that world with a prequel/sequel/sidequel. It can be read and understood without knowing the original story. It's a propulsive, compulsive, nightmare-vision of a book. It's sexually graphic, bleakly funny, and violent as Hell. It's also great comics. NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH OR EASILY OFFENDED !!! Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2008) by John Langan

Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2008) by John Langan, containing the stories "On Skua Island" (2001), "Mr. Gaunt" (2002), "Tutorial" (2003), "Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of Purple Flowers" (2007), and "Laocoon, or, The Singularity" (2008):

John Langan's 2002 novella "Mr. Gaunt" is on my all-time list of the most startling 'first-time' reading experiences I've had with an author. It's a great, disturbing piece of horror that acknowledges the past (especially Henry James explicitly and J. Sheridan LeFanu implicitly) while being a fresh and contemporary take on venerable horror tropes. Langan makes the skeleton scary again. How improbable is that?

"Mr. Gaunt" was only Langan's second published story, but it signaled the arrival of a new master of horror. "On Skua Island" was his first work, a slightly more conventional take on horror tropes with a frame story that's as old as ghost stories and as post-modern as any nod to the storyness of a story. 

There's only one problem with Langan's first collection. In going with a chronological approach, it puts the two most horrifying stories first. It's a problem that's easily rectified by the reader, of course -- start with "On Skua Island" but move "Mr. Gaunt" to the end of your reading of the five stories included in the collection. It's really a show-stopper.

"Tutorial" is a nice piece of academic horror/satire that takes shots at ideologically stagnant Creative Writing courses and the omnipresence of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Kudos, I say! Langan was and is in academia, and his observations about the terrors of the Ivory Tower are keenly observed and often darkly hilarious.

"Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of Purple Flowers" is both the most pulpy and the most avant-garde of the stories included herein. It's a collaboration between John Langan and his 10-years'-earlier self. 

It's a propulsive running battle between a man and a woman on one side and a pack of mysterious monsters on the other. In media res is the order of the day, along with unanswered questions about the nature of the apocalypse these two humans have found themselves trapped within, all served up with the final cherry of an ending that offers no real closure. It's very enjoyable but also almost weightless.

"Laocoon, or, The Singularity" is the most recent of the stories in the collection. It's also previously unpublished, so, Bonus Content! Its portrayal of a depressed, dejected All But Dissertation (ABD) fine arts student trapped in the Hell of Sessional Lecturers rings absolutely true, says I, who once resided in English Literature's version of that Hell. 

The novella manages the difficult task of moving a reader's feelings for the protagonist from sympathy to pity as the unacknowledged horror of his situation grows. The end can be taken straight up or as an allegory on self-destructiveness -- or as an allegory on the transformations that can be wrought on someone with an undiagnosed and unrecognized mental illness that gradually eats away the better self.

The collection also includes a generous Notes section by Langan on the origins and process of the stories. It's a fine collection overall, and you'll only heighten its overall effect if you leave "Mr. Gaunt" for last. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Sharp Objects (2006) by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects (2006) by Gillian Flynn: Flynn's third novel Gone Girl got a lot of buzz when published and even more when adapted by David Fincher for the screen. Sharp Objects is Flynn's first novel, one she claims to have spent ten years writing. 

Recently adapted for HBO, Sharp Objects is much in the line of Gone Girl and Flynn's second novel Dark Places insofar as it involves first-person narration from a woman with serious, partially unacknowledged mental problems. 

Besides that, there's a murder mystery with a thuddingly obvious perpetrator(s) -- I guessed the murderer(s) from the back-cover copy. There's a whole lot of self-loathing, general loathing, body shame, misanthropy, and creepy small-towners. There are extremely dicey physical and emotional relations with young men and women, aberrant psychology on the level of a 1943 Batman comic book, and a narrative flirtation with that favourite of the 1990's, repressed-memory syndrome. Ten years of writing would put the genesis of Sharp Objects smack in the middle of that time when every other movie and TV show seemed to feature someone with repressed memories.

The narration keeps with the American first-person hard-boiled first codified by the crime fiction of the 1930's. Sharp Objects is lurid, improbable melodrama that brings to mind some of the first-person narratives of Jim Thompson, especially his crazy-ass Savage Night. In Thompson's world, men and women were equally capable of evil. Here, men tend to be near-saints or harmless nebbishes. Women, though... watch out for them. Am I right, guys?

Both glib and deeply unpleasant, Sharp Objects is a highly polished turd of a bestseller. The miniseries managed to bring that polish up to a blinding glow of fake intellectualism. The novel is almost mesmerizingly rancid in its ideology and character building. Reader, I hated it! Not recommended.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Night of the Demon (1957)

Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon) (1957): adapted by Charles Bennett, Hal E. Chester, and Cy Endfield, from the short story "Casting the Runes" by M.R. James; directed by Jacques Tourneur; starring Dana Andrews (Dr. John Holden), Peggy Cummins (Joanna Harrington) and Niall MacGinnis (Dr. Julian Karswell): 

It's too bad there's no way to see the pure Charles Bennett version of this movie: producer Hal E. Chester added some unfortunate bits (including the mostly infamous demon close-up) and probably subtracted others. An opening Dana Andrews voice-over is especially unnecessary. 

What's left is still a fine horror movie with outstanding performances throughout. It isn't patricularly faithful to the M.R. James short story it adapts, though most of the logic of the supernatural is kept intact. Niall MacGinnis is a stand-out as the mostly malevolent magician, who nonetheless dotes on his mother and seems to be charmingly harmless unless you disagree with him. 

Dana Andrews is solid as the lead, skeptical American psychologist John Holden, who gradually loses that skepticism as evidence of the supernatural mounts. Peggy Cummins is also good as Holden's partner in demon-busting, and the supporting characters are pretty much all memorable as well. 

The long-shots of the demon are relatively effective, though its more sinister manifestations remain, in master horror-director Tourneur's hands, shadows and fog and whirling, discordant noises. 

One of the oddities of Chester's decision-making with the fire demon lies in the fact that it's smaller than a man in James' story but a looming, King-Kong-sized giant here. Sometimes less is more, especially when it comes to horror. Highly recommended.

Dark Matter (2010) by Michelle Paver

Dark Matter (2010) by Michelle Paver: It's 1937 and a quintet of Oxfordians has received funding to create a research station above the Arctic Circle on an island in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard and then winter there. But they need someone trained in the sciences, and so Jack Miller earns that right after an interview. 

As an impoverished clerk forced to give up his studies in physics due to money problems, Jack Miller is of a much different social class than the rest of the group. There will be tensions from this -- Miller is acutely aware of all the quirks of the 'Old Boy' Oxfordians from the moment he walks into that interview. But his job and life are deeply unsatisfying, and while Jack doesn't believe that the expedition will permanently change anything in his life, it will at least be an adventure.

But as the expedition gets whittled down by one before it ever leaves England because of an illness in one member's family, and as another member has to return home after breaking his leg while in transit, the whole thing starts to look just a little cursed. And they haven't even landed yet.

Told primarily in the form of entries from Jack Miller's Arctic journal, Dark Matter is a superb 'old-school' ghost story with a contemporary spin in terms of its musings on class and gender identity. The descriptions of the often alluring, always Sublime Arctic are superb. The characters are engaging, none moreso than our narrator, whose childhood and adult traumas he has brought into the Arctic just as the long night is falling.

Paver builds suspense and terror gradually, just as she did in her later Himalayan ghost story Thin Air. She has a thing for extreme environments, British class issues, and angry ghosts. For a ghost there is, though how much of the expedition's mounting woes are ghost-related and how much simply the result of environment and character remains a question until the climax.

Paver also throws in a lovable sled dog named Isaak for the reader to worry over as tensions mount and problems multiply. Will the dog survive? Will anybody?

My minor quibble is the title itself, which Paver seems to have decided upon before really beginning the novel. It takes a certain amount of shoe-horning to get the concept of 'dark matter' into a novel set in 1937. But I think the title and the metaphoric nature of the concept, discussed in the novel, is the only real 'Flashing Neon Sign of Meaning' the novel has. 

Look, I don't like such Neon Signs, but some people are perfectly happy with them. But you will have a character explain that title some time in the book, and it comes across like those moments in the later Mission: Impossible movies in which a character apparently has to say the word or words in the movie's subtitle.

I don't quibble with Paver's choice to begin the novel with a letter written by one of the characters other than Jack Miller a decade after the events of Dark Matter. The letter doesn't give anything away, exactly. More importantly to Paver's vision, it ensures that all three expedition members have a chance to write 'in their own voice,' as Gus, the third member, has excerpts from his own journal entries interpolated into Miller's narrative. There's a narrative fairness here insofar as Miller's own views of the other two members are, of course, unreliable.

In all, this is a very fine ghost story, told with a generosity of spirit and an admirable economy of pages. Where will Paver's next ghost story of privation and the Sublime be set? Antarctica? Peru? The Moon? Only time will tell. Highly recommended.