Sunday, June 26, 2011

Welcome to Perry Como's Nightmare

The Last Temptation, written by Neil Gaiman and Alice Cooper, illustrated by Michael Zulli (1994; this edition 2001): Neil Gaiman in a very minor key, collaborating with Alice Cooper on a comic-book tie-in to Cooper's 1994 concept album of the same name. It would probably help to own and listen to that album prior to, or contemporaneously with, this comic book. A 12-year-old boy gets tempted by a malign supernatural being called only the Showman (who looks like Alice Cooper in full make-up). Is the Showman a serial killer of children, the ghost of a serial killer of children, or the Devil himself? And what will happen on Hallowe'en?

Song lyrics are somewhat awkwardly wedged into various sequences in the comic. Both the Showman and David, the12-year-old protagonist, previously appeared in the 1970`s Cooper concept album Welcome to my Nightmare, which itself indirectly spawned a Marvel comic book starring Alice Cooper. Historically speaking, comic books and musical stars have never been a great fit, though the Superman comic book in which Lois Lane falls in love with Perry Como is hilarious.

The whole thing seems underwritten -- David, the protagonist, isn't so much unsympathetic as he is so sketchy a character as to be unidentifiable with on any but the most nebulous terms. Zulli's B&W art is lovely, but would look better reproduced at at least normal comic-book size, rather than the trade paperback size of the available Dark Horse reprint volume. Very lightly recommended for Cooper fans, Zulli fans, and Gaiman completists.

Monday, June 20, 2011


Tarantula!, written by Robert Fresco, Martin Berkeley, and Jack Arnold, directed by Jack Arnold, starring John Agar (Dr. Hastings), Mara Corday ('Steve' Clayton, and Leo G. Carroll (Professor Deemer) (1955): Giant ant movie Them! was such a hit, it kicked off a slew of giant insect movies. The law of diminishing returns soon held sway, though Tarantula! is one of the best of these movies, primarily because of the skill of longtime science-fiction and comedy director Jack Arnold. Arnold knew how to sell a threatening landscape, and indeed it's the desert -- and not the giant tarantula -- that looms most menacingly in this film over the puny humans.

Professor Deemer and his scientific cohorts are working on some crazy-ass, radioactive food supply to make things grow really big without them having to eat anything other than the radioactive food supply. As the film opens, giant rats, guinea pigs and a tarantula the size of a Great Dane attest to the success of the experiments. Then all hell breaks loose, and it's up to the always affable John Agar as a small-town doctor to figure out what's killing cattle, horses and people. Oh, right. It's a tarantula the size of a ten-story apartment building. Or maybe large -- there are some scale issues with the tarantula.

The tarantula looks surprisingly good. There are only a couple of model shots of the spider, with most of its appearances combining real spider action with shots of the desert, houses, what-have-you. The spider really is a jerk -- it seems to go out of its way to knock down telephone lines, power lines, and the occasional transformer tower, for reasons only a giant tarantula could know. The ending is abrupt, and features a young Clint Eastwood as a jet pilot. Good times! Recommended.


Them! , written by George Worthing Yates, Russell Hughes and Ted Sherdman, directed by Gordon Douglas, starring James Whitmore (Peterson), Edmund Gwenn (Dr. Medford), Joan Weldon ("Pat" Medford), and James Arness (Graham) (1954): Giant insects are fun to think about and essentially impossible thanks to very basic laws of physics and biology. Insects don't have lungs -- they breathe through their skin. But basic math tells us that as surface area increases as a square, volume increases as a cube.

A 12-foot-long ant (like the ones in this movie) would need lungs, which supply a gigantic amount of oxygen-processing surface area, or it would suffocate. It would also need a major structural and/or chemical redesign to allow its body, which evolved to be a teeny, tiny size, to support its cubed-increasing mass. Of course, hyper-dense endoskeletons or exoskeletons can explain a lot in science-fiction movies -- King Kong's necessary bone density and skin thickness might very well make him nearly impervious to bullets. A giant ant that actually could walk around without essentially crushing itself would be a pretty tough hombre.

In any case, this is a great movie, and several scenes pretty clearly indicate that it was on James Cameron's mind when he conceived Aliens. American atomic testing of the 1940's has created a giant, mutated strain of ants living hitherto undiscovered in the desert until they run out of food and start going after people. And sugar. Because first you get the sugar, then you get the power, and then you get the women. Or something like that. There's a nice, stark moment of cinematography when we come across the entrance to the anthill and see the human and animal skeletal debris littering the ground around it.

Scientists, local police, the FBI and the military soon must band together to find and destroy the anthill (and what an anthill!) before new queens hatch and go forth to be fruitful, multiply, and wipe humanity off the face of the Earth. A young Leonard Nimoy even shows up briefly to operate a teletype. All hands on deck!

Sharp, suspenseful writing and surprisingly good special and visual effects help lend an aura of verisimilitude to the events. The giant mechanical ants are kept off screen for the most part, appearing in glimpses except in major scenes, and the addition of a truly annoying 'ant noise' helps distract one from thinking too much about whether or not the ants look all that convincing.

The cast is terrific as well -- this was a big-budget science-fiction movie when there were almost no ig-budget science-fiction movies, and James Whitmore, James Arness (soon to be Marshal Matt Dillon on TV's Gunsmoke), Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle in the original Miracle on 34th Street) and Fess Parker (soon to be Davy Crockett on TV) help sell these improbable events. I'd suggest a remake with modern CGI, but I fear that the sensibilities of most modern filmmakers would put impersonally rendered, reductively literalized CGI ants front and centre, stripping any such remake of tension and suspense. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Superman's Dead

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?: Deluxe Edition, written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Curt Swan, Dave Gibbons, Rick Veitch, Kurt Schaffenberger, George Perez, Murphy Anderson and Brian Bolland (1984-86; collected 2009): Once upon a time, in the farflung past of 1985, DC Comics decided to streamline their comic book universe by putting all their heroes on one Earth, rather than the half-dozen they then occupied. In the aftermath of this, a number of heroes got new, substantially revised origins. One of those superheroes was Superman. The Superman of Earth-One, who'd been kicking around since the late 1950's, would be no more.

Alan Moore (Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell) was just then beginning to reach the height of his popularity in 1986 when he begged then-Superman-titles editor Julius Schwartz for a chance to write the last adventure of the Silver and Bronze Age Superman. Longtime Superman penciller Curt Swan would draw the two-issue story, with inks from super-hot artist George Perez, longtime Swan collaborator Murphy Anderson, and longtime Superman family penciller Kurt Schaffenberger.

In 48 pages, Moore and his artistic collaborators got to tell the last Superman story...sort of. Thereafter, the Superman titles would cease publication for a few months and then return with new writers John Byrne and Marv Wolfman telling stories of a 'new', less powerful, younger Man of Steel.

DC seriously pissed off Alan Moore in 1987, resulting in him never working for the parent company again. And so DC has packaged and repackaged Moore's 1980's output for decades, milking a long-deceased cash cow quite handily. This time around, DC packaged together the last Superman two-parter with the two other Bronze Age Superman stories Moore wrote -- the Superman Annual double-length story "For the Man Who Has Everything" and the Superman/Swamp Thing team-up "The Jungle Line" -- into an oversized hardcover package. It's a lovely package, reproducing the art at close to the size it was actually drawn.

All three stories are terrific adventures of the Man of Steel, causing one to wonder what would have happened had Moore accepted DC's offer to write a rebooted Superman full-time. Moore refused on the grounds that he couldn't imagine his outre sensibilities being able to sustain a viable Superman book without major weirdness creeping rapidly in. Maybe he was right, though it's nice to dream.

The core story here -- "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" -- takes us to the then-future of the late 1990's. A reporter for the Daily Planet has come to interview retired and married reporter Lois Lane on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Superman's last battle with all of his enemies. Superman disappeared thereafter, and has been presumed dead ever since. What follows is one of those nice counterpointed stories Moore did so well -- Lois's narration gives us her reaction to the events, while the art and dialogue occasionally shows us things Lois didn't know about, or at least couldn't have known about at the time.

Sometime in the 1980's, Superman and the other heroes of the world had, if not eliminated crime, at least curbed superhuman crime enough that Superman was in semi-retirement. He returns from a space mission for NASA to discover Metropolis under siege by...Bizarro-Superman, a hitherto harmless, defective copy of Superman who lived on his own, weird, cube-shaped world. But now Bizarro has come back as a genocidal killer. And this is just the beginning, as former nuisances like the Prankster and the Toyman come back as homicidal maniacs. What happens when the big guns -- especially Brainiac and Lex Luthor -- return?

And so Superman fights his last, weird battle in the North, at his Fortress of Solitude, trying to keep his remaining friends and loved ones safe while under attack by all his remaining foes. The Legion of Supervillains from the 30th century appears to inform the other villains that this is Superman's final stand -- he will be destroyed by his greatest foe, though history doesn't record who or what that foe is. An impenetrable force field surrounds the fortress, preventing the league of heroes who've arrived to help Superman from being able to offer that help.

All in all, this is a great Superman story, expertly told. Moore manages to throw in almost every Superman villain, trophy, knickknack and ally over the course of 48 pages without making things seem overcrowded, and without resorting to several pages of Basil Exposition. On the waste snows, in the ruins of the Fortress, surrounded by the bodies of dead friends and dead foes, Superman will meet his end. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ghost Walk by Brian Keene (2008)

Ghost Walk by Brian Keene (2008): Our world continues to exist because stones with the right sigils and signs on them sit in the right places, keeping evil out. It's amazing how often this trope repeats itself in fantasy and horror fiction -- it's even a key component of the final season of Lost. To some extent, this all derives from Stonehenge and other standing stones, filtered through the sensibilities of writers that include H.P. Lovecraft. Dangerous holes in reality lurk everywhere, behind which terrible things wait to erupt into our reality. Everything you know is wrong! Don't touch that rock!

I really like Brian Keene. He's one of the very, very few practitioners of ultraviolent horror who doesn't make me either vomitous or bored (or vomitous with boredom). He's a terrific synthesizer of the mundane and the fantastic, and his cosmogony really is an interesting piece of work. Maybe Ghost Walk delivers too much exposition when it comes to explaining the supernatural order of things in this particular fictional universe, but that exposition is pretty fascinating. Lovecraft would have approved.

A grieving, small-town Pennsylvania widower decides to honour his wife's memory by doing something charitable. He hits upon the idea of creating a Ghost Walk, a horrifying (for fun) stroll through the woods, with the dark forest's own after-nightfall fearsomeness augmented by various man-made scares along the way. Proceeds will go to charity. What could possibly go worng?

Well, the woods the widower uses for the Ghost Walk border on LeHorn's Hollow, a creepy place burned out by a recent forest fire, a creepy place where murders and disappearances have taken place over hundreds of years, including a recent slew of murders attributed to a cult. Now, if any town really had a place with this bad a documented reputation, I'm pretty sure someone would cough up the bucks to fence it off. But the bad place, no matter how bad, is never fenced off in a horror novel. It is there to fuck you up! Maybe we'll even build a golf course on it!

Almost needless to say, soon a small, disparate group of people will have to come together to stop an ancient evil from breaking into our universe. I like what Keene does with his cast of characters, as he's shown here and elsewhere that he's not interested in giving us the same cast of heterosexual Caucasians so many genre writers do. Here, a lapsed Muslim reporter and a lapsed Amish magician (!) carry a heavy burden of responsibility for saving the world.

The supernatural menace is sublime in its ambitions and powers, and deftly sketched by Keene with the smaller, sad horrors it inflicts on people (and animals) in pursuit of its own world-destroying pleasures. To make universe-annihilating evil truly disturbing, it helps a lot to clearly define the small awfulnesses it enjoys -- such things are viscerally graspable in a way that 'it's going to eat the world' aren't.

I'd have liked a longer novel, but the relative brevity certainly keeps things rollicking along. The (real) spell-book The Long-Lost Friend puts in an appearance here, making readers of Manly Wade Wellman's John the Balladeer series smile. The moral is, if you come across a mysterious grouping of rocks somewhere, don't move them. Or, frankly, go anywhere near them. Recommended.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Soul Kaufman

Cold Souls, written and directed by Sophie Barthes, starring Paul Giamatti, Emily Watson (Claire), Dina Korzun (Nina), Katheryn Winnick (Sveta) and David Straithairn (Dr. Flintstein) (2009): Some reviewers gave this movie flack for being too much like a Charlie Kaufman film. I don't really see it. Kaufman's films (Being John Malcovich, Adaptation) tend to trade in multiple, meta-forms of reality, and to have a hard core of absurdity. About the only similarity here is that Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti, just as John Malcovich played John Malcovich (or, somewhat similarly, Nicolas Cage played Charlie Kaufman in a Charlie Kaufman film...and his fictional twin brother).

Other than that, this movie is far more straightforward than a Kaufman film -- indeed, it actually works as science fiction in the Dickian comic inferno mode. I could see it appearing as a short story in a 1950's science-fiction magazine like Galaxy. That's a compliment.

Giamatti, playing Giamatti, is in rehearsals to play Uncle Vanya (in Chekov's Uncle Vanya) on Broadway. He feels that something's getting in the way of his performance -- his anxiety, if you will. An article in the New Yorker tells him about a new process which allows one to remove the soul from a person's brain and put it into cold storage. Intrigued, Giamatti visits Dr. Flintstein's office and ultimately gets his soul removed.

Giamatti's soul looks like a chickpea. Apparently, souls look like a lot of different things.

Into cold storage it goes, and off Giamatti goes to stink out the joint in his next few rehearsals. Back he goes to Dr. Flintstein, who rents him another soul -- that of a Russian poet -- for two weeks. Success! But when Giamatti goes to have his original soul put back in, it's gone.

Uh oh.

Cold Souls maintains a nice, and offbeat, mix of comedy, satire and drama throughout. The subtextual commentary (there are Russian black marketeers in souls, just as there are Russian black marketeers in human trafficking) is kept fairly basic; the parallels aren't forced. The science of the whole procedure almost seems to make sense, just as some of Philip K. Dick's odder pieces of technology had a strange sort of sense to them.

Giamatti is solid as usual, as are Straitharn as Dr. Flintstein and Dina Korzun as Nina, a sympathetic Russian 'soul mule' who brings black-market souls from Russia to the U.S. inside her own head. Sophie Barthes does a terrific job here as both writer and director, and I'll be interested to see if she continues in this offbeat, science fictional mode for later films. Recommended.

Let Me Out

Let Me In, written and directed by Matt Reeves, based on the Swedish film and novel Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, starring Kodi Smit-McPhee (Owen), Chloe Moretz (Abby), Richard Jenkins (The Guardian) and Elias Koteas (Policeman) (2010): The original Swedish version of this film, Let the Right One In (they're both based on a Swedish novel) was such an unexpected delight that anything other than a totally awesome remake would suffer in comparison.

And suffer we do.

There are still moments of shock and nicely modulated characterization, but there's nothing here that feels fresh or startling the way the original did. Moreover, writer/director Reeves (Cloverfield, The Pallbearer) seems to have been infected by American Mass-Market Screenwriting Virus#1.

How so? Well, he excises all the secondary characters, at least as characters and not plot devices. He throws in a 'shock' flashforward at the beginning of the film for no apparent reason other than to get a shock into the first part of the film. He makes explicit a number of plot and character points that the original wisely left implicit. And he casts the pretty, pretty-traditional-looking Chloe Moretz (Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass) as Abby, the mysterious 12-going-on-500 vampire who befriends bullied, lonely 12-year-old Owen. Oh, and Reeves omits one whopper of a plot twist because American films don't show certain things, even if they're R-rated.

One of the odd things about the original film was that while it was set in the 1980's, nothing much was made of this -- indeed, I didn't realize it was set in early 1980's Sweden until I watched the 'Making Of' documentary on the DVD. Here, though, Reeves goes with the Hot Tub Time Machine approach to period detail, in addition to the opening title that tells us it's 1983. By the one-hour mark, you'll be unable to forget it's either the 1980's or Retro Sunday at Call the Office. Were the filmmakers hoping to recoup costs with a soundtrack album? Fuck, it's annoying!

The result isn't a mess so much as a bore. Most of the best setpieces come almost verbatim from the original. Inexplicably, Reeves sets the movie in Los Alamos, New Mexico, which apparently looks exactly like Wisconsin during the wintertime. And maybe it does, but the cognitive dissonance of having New Mexico treated like Wisconsin (or Sweden, or Manitoba) kept getting in the way of my suspension of disbelief. Really? It's that cold and snowy?

Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Owen, gives a grave and winning performance, and Moretz does what she can with an underwritten part. This isn't really a bad film. It's just sort of there, filling time. Richard Jenkins also does what he can with his underwritten and yet overly explicit role as Abby's 'guardian', a role which Reeves apparently felt needed flashing neon lights around it so that we would 'get' the similiarities between Owen and Jenkins's character. Thank you, Matt Reeves. Your stolidly plodding command of film is hereby noted. Not recommended.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)

The Brain from Planet Arous, written by Ray Buffum, directed by Nathan H. Juran, starring John Agar, Joyce Meadows and Robert Fuller (1957): Hilariously bad, blessedly short (70 minutes) D-Movie science fiction from the swingin' 50's. John Agar, the patron saint of bad actors, gives a command performance as Steve March, a nuclear scientist possessed by Gor, an intermittently incorporeal brain from, well, planet Arous.

Gor is an escaped criminal who intends to rule the Earth because he can blow stuff up by thinking about it. Also, he seems to be a sex addict. Maybe he should just run for Congress!

Steve and his friend Dan discover Gor inside one of those caves that are in every cheap movie and TV show made in California, in the heart of Mystery Mountain, which looks like a rocky hill in that valley that appears in every movie and TV show that needs a rocky valley (it's in the Gorn episode of Star Trek, I'm pretty sure). Gor kills Dan and possesses Steve. Steve tries to date-rape his fiancee, who is saved by her plucky dog and is surprisingly forgiving about the whole date rape thing. Steve emotes like a crazy man, with John Agar's superb acting being supplemented by wacky contact lenses and a surprisingly inspired shot of Steve's face taken through a water cooler.

Gor blows up a couple of model planes and demands that the rulers of the world bow down before him to so he can use humanity as a cheap labour force to build a space battlefleet and conquer the universe. Vol, apparently planet Arous's least competent police officer, shows up to stop Gor and, after telling the fiancee and her father that he has powers greater than Gor's, spends the rest of the movie hiding inside the body of the fiancee's dog.

But wait! Vol does tell us that Gor has to leave Steve's body every 24 hours to breathe. And when he does so he becomes solid, and can be killed with a blow to the part of the brain called the Fissure of Rolando. Huzzah! Is that a handy axe I see lying around Steve's living room?

Aside from wretched dialogue, terrible visual and special effects, and lousy acting, The Brain from Planet Arous also has hilariously off-beat voice acting for the character of Gor, world conqueror. And a plucky dog! And, so far as I could count, maybe two different sets, along with a lot of outdoor work, some stock footage of atomic explosions, and an inexplicably abrupt exit by Vol at the conclusion of the film. It's like the good brain suddenly remembers he left his car running. Recommended for sheer awfulness.

Extra points if you notice that the film seems to have loaned its plot to the 1980's sci-fi actioner The Hidden, starring Kyle MacLachlan and Claudia Christian's breasts.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Magical Mystery Tour

John Constantine: Dark Entries, written by Ian Rankin, illustrated by Werther Dell'edera (2009): DC's Vertigo Crime imprint releases black-and-white graphic novels in a normal (for print, not comics) hardcover-sized format. Technically, this isn't really a crime (graphic) novel, and would have made more sense as part of DC's normal Constantine releases. However, author Rankin is best known for his detective series starring Scottish hardcase Inspector Rebus, so I assume that simple fact went into the decision as to the proper format.

Rankin does a solid job here of giving us a standalone story about Vertigo's (and now and again the normal DC Universe's) jaded, working-class English occult detective/magician John Constantine. A British reality-show producer offers Constantine a wad of money to investigate why it is that the contestants on a reality show are being haunted by strange visions and occurrences. Constantine joins the cast, and weirdnesses multiply.

Rankin nails Constantine's bruised and damaged cynical heroism, that of a man who's opposed demons and angels in his day and knows enough to trust neither side. Artist Dell'edera didn't impress me much in colour on the short-lived Loveless Western series, but here black-and-white seems to have freed him up an awful lot -- there are hints of B&W hardboiled master Jose Munoz in the work here -- and the work remains grounded in a grimy reality regardless of how weird things get on the supernatural end. All this and Sawney Beane too. Recommended.

Friday, June 10, 2011

All the Darkness

DAW Year's Best Horror XIV (1985), edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1986):


Introduction: Nurturing Nightmares by Karl Edward Wagner
Penny Daye by Charles L. Grant
Dwindling by David B. Silva
Dead Men's Fingers by Phillip C. Heath
Dead Week by Leonard Carpenter
The Sneering by Ramsey Campbell
Bunny Didn't Tell Us by David J. Schow
Pinewood by Tanith Lee
The Night People by Michael Reaves
Ceremony by William F. Nolan
The Woman in Black by Dennis Etchison
...Beside the Seaside, Beside the Sea... by Simon Clark
Mother's Day by Stephen F. Wilcox
Lava Tears by Vincent McHardy
Rapid Transit by Wayne Allen Sallee
The Weight of Zero by John Alfred Taylor
John's Return to Liverpool by Christopher Burns
In Late December, Before the Storm by Paul M. Sammon
Red Christmas by David Garnett
Too Far Behind Gradina by Steve Sneyd

By 1985, the horror boom that had begun in the late 1960's was starting to ebb, though it would be another ten years before horror fiction started to become really scarce on the bestseller lists. However, a rich list of small and large press horror magazines were still extant, giving editor Wagner a lot to choose from while assembling the newly expanded DAW anthology.

As usual, his selections are excellent and wide-ranging, both in terms of source and in terms of sub-generic classification. Psychological horror dominates in stories that include the university-set "Dead Week", the mournful "Pinewood" and the creepy "The Night People." Short, Hitchcockian shockers are nicely represented by "Red Christmas" and "Mother' Day." The supernatural is mystifying in "John's Return to Liverpool", in which a resurrected John Lennon shows up at the house of the first Beatles fan, and in the lengthy and unnerving "Too Far Behind Gradina," about a British housewife's bizarre vacation in Yugoslavia.

More conventional supernatural horrors await in "The Weight of Zero", a dandy bit of cosmic horror in the tradition (and time-period) of Arthur Machen, the neo-William Hope Hodgson sea-faring terrors of "Dead Men''s Fingers", and William F. Nolan's "Ceremony", about a hitman who takes the wrong bus.

Writers who'd effectively created their own genres by this time, Dennis Etchison and Ramsey Campbell, weigh in with fine entries in which the psychological and the supernatural collide mysteriously and horrifically. Campbell's piece is one of a subset of his fine horror stories in which the problems of getting old are explored in ways that blur the line between the supernatural and the natural, all within that signature Campbellian landscape of off-kilter description and terrible things moving just at the edge of vision. All in all, highly recommended.