Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Adaptations and Mutations

Fright Night: written by Marti Noxon, based on the 1985 movie written by Tom Holland; directed by Craig Gillespie; starring Anton Yelchin (Charlie Brewster), Colin Farrell (Jerry), Toni Collette (Jane Brewster), David Tennant (Peter Vincent), Imogen Poots (Amy) and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Ed) (2011): Buffy the Vampire Slayer veteran Marti Noxon manages to rewrite Fright Night so as to make it a lot better than its original. Only Roddy McDowall's delightful horror host Peter Vincent is sorely missed here, though former Doctor Who David Tennant does the best he can with a somewhat unfocused role as a Criss Angel-like Vegas magician who's also an occult collector a la Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page.

Frankly, the Vincent role would be funnier (and truer to the original) if we had someone like Steve Coogan playing Vincent as an aging, occult-obsessed rock star suddenly faced with the real thing. Oh, well. Tennant does have a terrific smoking scene. But I'd still like to see an old rock star with a fetish for Aleister Crowley and The Lord of the Rings taking on the hounds of Hell. Wouldn't everybody?

The bare bones of the story remain the same as in the original: geeky Charlie Brewster comes to believe a vampire has moved in next door to him. Almost no one believes him, but he's right. Vampiric shenanigans ensue.

The movie cleverly moves the action to Las Vegas, where despite the anti-vampiric sun, there's lots of good eating in a town with a lot of itinerants and a large population of people who are already nocturnal due to their night jobs at the casinos and hotels. There's real wit in our first look at Charlie's subdivision, which seems to sit in the middle of an empty desert.

Yelchin and the other actors do nice work here, though the character of 'Evil' Ed gets shoved off-stage rapidly so as to focus more on Charlie's ass-kicking girlfriend Amy, played by hellacute Brit Imogen Poots (!). The always reliable Toni Collette, who now seems to be the go-to actress for American single moms, also gets to be a bit more pro-active on the vampire-fighting front.

Colin Farrell plays the vampire (incongruously named Jerry) as an Alpha Male thug, and it works nicely as a counterpoint to all those more refined vampires out there. Director David Gillespie stages some nifty setpieces, most notably a funny/scary car chase in which a realtor's sign makes a surprisingly welcome appearance. All in all, an enjoyable romp. Recommended.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark: written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins, based on the 1973 movie of the same name written by Nigel McKeand; directed by Troy Nixey; starring Bailee Madison (Sally), Katie Holmes (Kim) and Guy Pearce (Alex) (2011): As with Pan's Labyrinth, this film can either be viewed as a fairy story told not to but by a child, or it can be viewed as a story with annoying plot holes and lapses in character motivation.

I'd go with the first choice, as the tone, the atmosphere and even the performances would support such a view even if one didn't know that Guillermo del Toro had something to do with this.

Based on a 1973 TV movie that got del Toro interested in horror in the first place. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark features plucky, misunderstood 10-year-old Sally, a girl suffering through the divorce of her parents and, soon, persecution by tiny monsters living beneath the basement of the old New England house her father is renovating for profit.

Oh, it's Rhode Island -- that an H.P. Lovecraft allusion whether one wants it or not. Explicitly referenced in the film is Welsh fantasist Arthur Machen, whose stories often featured the monstrous real creatures behind the myths and legends (Machen's "The White People" and "The Shining Pyramid" are the two stories most relevant to this one). A doomed 19th-century painter and naturalist gets named (Ralph Waldo?) Emerson (Algernon?) Blackwood. Hoo ha.

The father is distant and somewhat thick (remember the fairy tale elements here or you'll obsess over stupid parents a bit too much), his new girlfriend sympathetic to Sally and, ultimately, an ally. The little, talkative monsters are a bit of a letdown -- they're basically Gollum crossed with a rat -- but occasionally scary, though if someone had the sense to buy a tennis racket, they'd be a lot less dangerous. Troy Nixey summons a lot of atmosphere and a real sense of place; the opening titles (directed, I assume, by someone other than Nixey) are stunning. Recommended.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Dark Tower 4.5

The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King (2012): AKA Dark Tower 4.5, this novel takes place between Wizard & Glass and The Wolves of the Calla. Very little action takes place in the frame tale, as Roland the Gunslinger and his ka-tet of three people and a raccoon-like billybumbler have to shack up for a couple of days because of a "starkblast" (note the Game of Thrones allusion), a freezing cold wind system that can occasionally scour parts of dying Mid-World.

While holed up, Roland tells his people (and us) two stories, one nested within another. The first story involves the then-young gunslinger's assignment to find a murderous, shape-changing "Skinman" in one of the outlying, salt-mining towns of dying Gilead. Within that story, the young Roland tells a boy survivor of one of the attacks the Gilead fairytale of "The Wind Through the Keyhole."

The fairy story (which dovetails pretty neatly with what we already know of Roland's dying Earth/Mid-World, and ultimately seems more history than legend) involves the quest of a just-pre-adolescent boy to avenge his father's murder. This being Mid-World, where magic and technology co-exist (or are perhaps the same thing), the quest takes some wild turns before the end.

It's quite pleasant to once again be in the world of the Gunslinger, especially with such a low-key situation in the frame story. King gets in some allusions and references to a wide variety of influences here, including most notably Yann Martel's novel The Life of Pi. But we also get an incongruous gear shift, the aforementioned supercold (Ned?) starkblast, the almost de rigeur Wizard of Oz reference, veiled references to perennial King douchebag Randall Flagg, a dragon, a Tinkerbell-like fairy, the world's most useful GPS, some odd but endearing mutants, a horrific shapechanger, and at least some closure to the young Roland's lingering guilt over his role in the death of his doomed, malignly magicked mother Gabrielle.

While this may seem like a novel meant only for those who've already read the Dark Tower series, I'd hazard a guess that it would also work well as a brief (well, 300 pages -- for Stephen King, that's basically a short story) gateway book for the series, seeing as it's concerned almost entirely with the past of Roland's world and Roland's own story. Recommended.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

There's Something Wrong With That Kid

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003): The novel's back-cover blurb makes no secret of the horror shown only at its climax -- a 1999 New York school shooting perpetrated by 15-year-old Kevin, the son of successful tourbook writer Eva Khatchadourian and advertising location scout Franklin Plaskett. There's nothing to spoiler in the bare facts. Nearly two years later, Eva struggles to make sense of her intensely problematic relationship with her now-imprisoned son in a series of letters to her "estranged husband" (so the blurb also tells us).

If it matters to the reader, Lionel Shriver is a woman -- she changed her first name in her late teens, as she hated her given name. The school shooting in the novel takes place 11 days before Columbine, and this does get repeatedly mentioned in the novel, as do a number of other real-life school shootings from the 1990's.

Anyway, it's the details of this detail-oriented novel that shouldn't be spoiled: Eva's lacerating and self-lacerating evaluations of herself and others drive the book. Is she a reliable narrator? Was Kevin born bad, made bad, or resulted from a combination of the two? Well, that's the novel, isn't it?

I note that some reviewers have referred to this novel as a "thriller," though there's nothing thrilling about it: I found it difficult to put down, but not because I was having a wild romp. You're stuck inside Eva's head for the entire novel, and that's going to be trying for a lot of readers. She isn't instantly sympathetic. I'm not entirely sure that she's even finally sympathetic, a judgement I'd extend to the two other main characters of the novel, her husband Franklin Plaskett and the eponymous Kevin.

Plaskett needs desperately to believe in the possibility of the American Dream's happy nuclear family. This desire plays out in the novel as an escalating series of what seem to be willfully ignorant (or deludedly optimistic) evaluations of Kevin's escalatingly awful actions as a child and as a teenager. But Eva's also evaluating how much these evaluations are 'real' and how much they're feigned as part of a desperate need to believe in normalcy. But Eva's also the only window into the text we've got. So we return to reliability.

Kevin himself is a marvelous creation, a Bad Seed who seems fully realized without at any point being explained. Is his growing darkness a matter of biology, upbringing, society, or all three? Is Eva's belief that there's something more recognizably and sympathetically 'human' beneath his facade of apathetic cynicism, a belief based on only a couple of incidents from Kevin's entire life, 'real' or just wishful thinking? But Eva doesn't indulge in wishful thinking in her narrative. Or doesn't appear to. Much. So we return to the evaluations the reader must make.

If Shriver hadn't already been an established mainstream novelist when she delivered this novel, I'd imagine it could only have been marketed as horror. Some reviewers seem to believe that the novel is 'useful' as part of a national (American) conversation about school shooters and what creates them. I don't think so, really, except as a warning against moral and psychological reductionism, and a warning to tread carefully when attempting to assess blame. This is real horror: unnerving, nonexploitative, harrowing, anti-cathartic for the most part, built painstakingly through the accumulation of telling, closely observed and minutely portrayed detail. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Crime Does Not Pay

Crime Does Not Pay: Blackjacked and Pistolwhipped: A Crime Does Not Pay Primer: edited by Denis Kitchen, John Lind, and Philip Simon; written by Bob Wood; illustrated by Charles Biro, Jack Alderman, Dan Barry, George Tuska, Carmine Infantino, Dick Briefer, Bob Montana, Fred Guardineer (1943-49; collected 2011): Once upon a time, there were mass-market comic books that featured stories that didn't involve superheroes, and these comic books sold millions of copies a month. That is, each title sold that amount. It was the late 1940's and early 1950's. Superheroes were on their way out after World War Two. Crime, horror, and romance comics were on their way in.

A juvenile delinquency flap in the U.S. and Canada would ultimately do in comic books when they seemed poised on the brink of becoming, as they would in France and Japan, something with a much broader readership base than children. Superheroes would come back. And some of the finest American comic books ever created would die on the vine.

Crime Does Not Pay was the most popular comic book of the late 1940's, selling as many as five million copies a month (for the sake of comparison, the best-selling monthly American comic book now clocks in at around 125,000 copies a month). Its violence and its creepy narrator, Mr. Crime, looked forward to the violent, brilliant EC comics of the 1950's and the creepy narrators of EC's horror books, the Cryptkeeper being the one who remains in the popular consciousness thanks to HBO's Tales from the Crypt series of the 1980's and early 1990's.

These short tales, all 'based on a true story', still pack a kick today. Their graphic violence would get them targetted by censorship groups looking to protect children from violence in the media. And as a terrible bonus, the head writer of the series, Bob Wood, would himself be involved in a lurid murder trial for his killing of his lover with an iron and, once released from jail, would eventually be murdered himself. Wood's downfall occurred after Crime Does Not Pay had been forced off the market.

Anyone who thinks today's kids are exposed to an unprecedentedly violent media universe would do well to read this compilation. Heads are mashed into flames, brains are blown out, babies are killed in their cribs -- and at the end of each story, we're informed that crime doesn't pay because these criminals were finally caught and/or killed. But I don't think most readers were there for the moral uplift at the end. Boy, though. Boy, wow. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Hell on Wheels

Christine by Stephen King (1983): King's novel about an evil car has one of his more potent evocations of high-school life, as amiable jock Dennis Guilder tries to protect longtime friend (and outcast geek) Arnie Cunningham from bullies and jerks galore. And a domineering mother. And a guy selling a rundown 1958 Plymouth Fury for too much money. And the supernatural. And, ultimately, Arnie himself.

The big mistake here isn't, as some critics claim, that King never solved a narration problem involving Dennis being sidelined for the middle of the story. Dennis narrates parts one and three in first person, while part two comes at us in third person, mostly omniscient narration that is nonetheless also 'written' by Dennis after the events of the story. The third-person narration allows us to follow characters other than Dennis -- most notably Arnie himself and the fascinating auto-yard owner Will Darnell -- when Dennis isn't around.

This third-person middle section solves two problems -- one, the depiction of events Dennis isn't present for, including a spectacular car chase; two, the problem of Dennis's own narration. Set in 1978 and narrated from late 1982, Christine gives us a narrator who reads a lot more like someone in his mid-thirties in terms of vocabulary and observation. Dennis just isn't credible as a 22-year-old narrator. But setting the main events of the book in 1968, or moving the frame narrative to 1992, would both have created new problems. So it goes.

As I noted, King's evocation of high-school life is mostly first-rate stuff. Arnie is one of King's most tragic characters, a good kid whose moral sense has been toxically compromised by incessant bullying and by his parents' obsessive, meticulous micromanaging of his life. When the intoxicating, demonic Christine comes along, a car only its owner could love, Arnie is pretty much doomed. That the 1958 Fury was not a popular or a particularly good-looking car is really part of the point: Arnie has fallen in love with an automotive outsider.

As with many of King's novels, the supernatural functions like a surrogate for addiction: the car becomes Arnie's obsession, and its corrosive effect on his own personality goes mostly unchecked by him, though much commented upon and protested by everyone around him. Like King's Carrie (or a thousand real-world high-school shooters), Arnie's been primed to be a murderer in the name of vengeance.

And he's ultimately the foil not just of the demonic car, but of her awful, bullying, resentful, deceased owner -- King's other great creation here. Christine's first love, Roland LeBay, manages to embody murderous obsession and self pity. His catch-all term for anyone who crosses him in any way -- "shitter!" -- is a small Kingian gem of condensed characterization.

There are a few narrative hiccups and at least one 'Wow!' moment of unbelieveable character stupidity towards the end of the novel, stupidity that serves only the plot and not common sense or what's been established up to that point. It's a novel that could have used more thinking through, but the scenes of high-school life -- and Arnie's squirm-inducing outcast status -- represent some of King's finest character work. Recommended.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Shine On, You Crazy Caretaker

The Shining: written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson, based on the novel by Stephen King; directed by Stanley Kubrick; starring Jack Nicholson (Jack Torrance), Shelley Duvall (Wendy Torrance), Danny Lloyd (Danny Torrance), Scatman Crothers (Dick Halloran), Joe Turkel (Lloyd the bartender) and Philip Stone (Delbert Grady) (1980): So much has been said and written about Kubrick's version of Stephen King's novel that there's not a lot left to say.

It's fortunate that Kubrick's original ending got cut from subsequent releases, as it rendered the rest of the movie nonsensical in a way that anticipated M. Night Shlamayan's descent into climactic shock for shock's sake. Go look it up. It's also fortunate that Kubrick's addition of a supernatural element absent from King's original (reincarnation) is also muted in the film, though still there. As with a lot of great artists, Kubrick often seems dumber than his work.

If you're watching The Shining for the umpteenth time, note how much heavy lifting sound and music do in the movie. Take away the audio and half the scares evaporate. Also note the astonishing number of symmetrical shots in the film, most but not all of them in the Overlook Hotel (I count a few in Dick Halloran's Miami apartment, but all of those occur while Danny is telepathically contacting him, and once the contact is over, Halloran's apartment becomes scrupulously asymmetrical and dominated by diagonal lines).

The symmetry comes from two elements -- the position of the characters and the mise-en-scene, which is to say the layout of the set and the props in the shot. I'll leave you to theorize what it all means, what all the mirror shots mean ('Redrum' is, of course, the movie's big 'mirror reveal'), what the static shots of Nicholson's face at various points mean, what all the Native American elements mean, and so on, and so forth.

As with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick herein also plays with a sort of metapsychology playing out inside a gigantic metaphor for the human mind. In 2001, it's the brain-and-spinal-cord spaceship Discovery, carrying an emotionless and sterile technohumanity to its ultimate rebirth and rejuvenation. In The Shining, it's the haunted mind of the Overlook Hotel, carrying Jack Torrance metaphorically backwards in time to the early moments of 2001, leaving him without language and howling, running around with a weapon he will ultimately be unable to use (or triumphantly throw into the air).

It's a fascinating film that rewards multiple viewings, if only to admire the bizarre, seemingly meaningful colour choices Kubrick makes with the various rooms in the set. Dig that red-and-white washroom! Highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Usher's Passing by Robert R. McCammon (1984)

Usher's Passing by Robert R. McCammon (1984): There's more than a whiff of the Southern Gothic about the writing of McCammon (an Alabama native). It doesn't come out in his prose, which has remained sturdy and serviceable throughout his career, but in the plots and characters, which can sometimes jostle with one another in odd, baroque ways. There's about three novels' worth of plot and characters in Usher's Passing. It's about half-a-novel too much, but I was never bored.

After a prologue that establishes Edgar Allan Poe as having based "The Fall of the House of Usher" on a real American family of arms dealers, the novel leaps to the (then) present day of 1984. The patriarch of the Usher family is dying of a peculiar, terrible ailment that only Ushers get. Two of the three heirs are jostling for position, while the third, horror novelist Rix, really just wants to be left alone as he mourns the recent suicide of his wife.

But Rix will come home to Usherland, the Usher family complex that somehow keeps the Ushers unnaturally young-looking so long as they live on its grounds.

Once home, Rix begins to work on a secret history of the Ushers in the hopes that such a book about the immensely secretive clan will jumpstart his faltering writing career. Meanwhile, in the poverty-wracked homes that surround Usherland, a boy searches for his stolen brother. A mythical being called the Pumpkin Man has supposedly been stealing children from the countryside surrounding Usherland for generations. A mythical, giant snake-panther hybrid called Greediguts has been terrorizing the woods for just about as long. A mysterious old man with what appear to be magical powers lives in the ruins of a devastated, forgotten town whose crumbled walls are branded with Hiroshima shadows, at the top of the area's highest hill.

Something lurks inside the original, now-abandoned, gigantic, Winchester-House-like Usher mansion -- abandoned decades ago but still dominating the landscape. Sometimes people who go into the mansion never come out. There are stories of strange earthquakes, comets falling on the mountains, people possessed of magical powers. The fate of the Usher patriarch is always terrible. And the current Usher patriarch is secretively creating a new, devastating weapons system for the U.S. government.

And that's the set-up. Mostly. There are a couple of other subplots that ultimately feed back into the main narrative. McCammon gives us a wealth of creepy historical incident and a number of sharply drawn, sympathetic characters, most prominently Rix and the boy searching for his brother. It all fits together nicely, this story of Gothic horror and nuclear terror and family secrets. Recommended.