Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Possums of the Unknown

Mark of the Vampire: written by Guy Endore, Bernard Schubert, John L. Balderson, Tod Browning, H.S. Kraft, and Samuel Ornitz; directed by Tod Browning; starring Lionel Barrymore (Professor), Elizabeth Allan (Irena), Bela Lugosi (Count Mora), Lionel Atwill (Inspector Neumann), Jean Hersholt (Baron Otto), and Henry Wadsworth (Fedor) (1935): Enjoyable, concise (61 minutes!) remake of Browning's mostly lost silent film, London After Midnight.

Lionel Barrymore clearly has a hoot playing a vampire-fighting professor called in by the police somewhere in Early Hollywood Europe, where none of the accents match, to solve the murder of one man and the harassment by vampires of his daughter and her fiance. Lionel Atwill is his usual sturdy self as the inspector in charge of the case, and Jean Hersholt does some version of a European accent that could be German, could be Russian, could be almost anything. As everyone else in the movie has either American or British accents, it's a bit anomalous.

Bela Lugosi appears in several scenes, but doesn't speak until the last one of the movie. There are some nice special effects for the time, and an enjoyable atmosphere of menace and decay. The ending is a humdinger. Also, dig that possum incongruously wandering around a European castle! Maybe he's looking for the armadillo Browning put in Dracula's castle in his version of Dracula (1931)! Recommended.

The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy 1931-1951: written and drawn by Chester Gould (Collected 1970): The nostalgia boom of the late 1960's and early 1970's led to a lot of comic strips from the 1930's and 1940's being collected in hardcover. This is one of those collections.

Dick Tracy's Golden Age, which this collection covers, was one of the finest and most popular in the history of dramatic American comic strips, with a readership that may have been up to 70% of the American reading public at its peak.

By the late 1930's, writer-artist Chester Gould had reached his stylized peak of artistic form. And it's quite a peak for the dramatic comic strip, one matched perhaps only by Milton Caniff and Harold Gray.

Tracy now fought increasingly grotesque villains with increasingly descriptive names and increasingly horrifying actions. The graphics are amazingly, well, graphic, and this in a collection that actually censors the more violent endings of some villains, including one in which a Nazi spy ends his life impaled on a flag pole waving the American flag. Tracy's Rogue's Gallery is a clear influence on Batman's similarly twisted foes, while Tracy's use of forensic methods also foreshadows the Batman's expertise in that area.

The reproduction of these strips is mostly competent, especially later in the run. The large Sunday panels are missing, which means certain key events are referred to but not shown. A serious reader would want to track down some of the excellent contemporary reprint volumes of Dick Tracy, but this is certainly worth picking up used as a sampling of the great detective. The stories are clever, suspenseful, and very entertaining. Recommended.


Saturday, April 27, 2013

Holidays In and Out of the Sun

Total Recall: adapted by Kurt Wimmen and Mark Bomback from the screenplay for the 1990 film of the same named adapted by Ronald Shusett, Dan O'Bannon, Jon Povill, and Kurt Wimmer from the short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick; directed by Len Wiseman; starring Colin Farrell (Quaid/Hauser), Kate Beckinsale (Lori Quaid), Jessica Biel (Melina), Bryan Cranston (Cohaagen), and Bill Nighy (Matthias) (2012): Surprisingly enjoyable, relatively non-campy remake of the 1990 film that was itself a very loose adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story. Neither film has the courage to go all the way with the mind-fuck that Dick's story ends with, but it's Hollywood, where Inception is the height of reality-bending.

This Total Recall leaves out Mars entirely and instead posits a future Earth where chemical warfare has reduced the world to two liveable zones, one a British Federation (though few have British accents) and the other the Australian Colony that supplies the Federation with manual labour. Travel between the two zones is with a massive and fairly nifty elevator through the centre of the Earth. Admittedly, I'm pretty sure a civilization capable of building a massive elevator through the centre of the Earth would probably find a little chemical warfare clean-up to be an easy task. Oh, well.

As with the first film, a visit to Rekall, a company that imprints false fantasy memories into the minds of people looking to escape their humdrum lives, causes Doug Quaid to discover that his own memories are false. Or are they? Much shooting and exploding ensues.

The original was funnier, and there's no substitute here for Kwato, but the three-breasted hooker does have spectacular breasts. Three of them!!! Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale are decent as good and bad love interests, while Colin Farrell invests his character with humanity and a seriousness of purpose that actually make one care about what happens to him. Recommended.

Chernobyl Diaries: written by Oren Peli, Carey Van Dyke, and Shane Van Dyke; directed by Bradley Parker; starring Ingrid Berdal (Zoe), Dimitri Diatchenko (Uri), Olivia Dudley (Natalie), Devin Kelley (Amanda), Jesse McCartney (Chris), Nathan Phillips (Michael), and Jonathan Sadowski (Paul) (2012): Oren Peli, patron saint of the second generation of found-footage horror movies, here supplies some of the writing for a conventional narrative horror film that nonetheless borrows all its camera tricks (by which I mean shaky-cam, and lots of it) from Peli's Paranormal Activity movie.

Six stupid twenty-somethings and one Russian guide visit the area around Chernobyl, long evacuated of people, still somewhat radioactive. You know hilarity will ensue. And it does! The stupidity quotient is quite high here -- for everything to happen as it does, the guide has to do something inexplicably stupid in the middle of the night.

I'm pretty sure I know more about the effects of radiation than the people who made this film. Disappointingly, none of the film was actually shot around Chernobyl. Serbia apparently has a lot of abandoned stuff. The characters range from unlikeable to just plain stupid. And the shocking climax lacks both shock and horror. If you figure out what the 'Diaries' of the title refers to, please contact me. Not recommended.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits: adapted by Gideon Defoe by his book of the same name; directed by Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt; starring the voices of Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, Brian Blessed, and Salma Hayek (2012): If not for Paul Meahan, I would have gone to my grave believing this was another one of those crazy-ass Christian Veggie-Tales movies. Instead, it's an enjoyable romp from the people at Aardman (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run).

Much pirating, Charles Darwining, and poking fun at Queen Victoria fills the movie. It's not the greatest animated movie I've ever seen, but it's funny, with a number of fine set-pieces and some nice voicework from everyone involved. There are also a surprising number of gags based on the reaction that occurs when baking soda meets vinegar. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Carrie by Stephen King (1974)

Carrie by Stephen King (1974): King's first published novel still has zing. Or zip. Or whatever. It's not particularly representative of his work as a whole, though its telekinetic namesake is representative of a lot of King novels from the first ten years of his novels.

Carrie gives us a powerful telekinetic; The Shining gives us a boy and a man who are both telepathic and precognitive; The Dead Zone gives us a precognitive man; Firestarter gives us a pyrokinetic girl. King's interest in psychic abilities seems very much a product of the similarly interested 1970's America. I'm surprised he didn't do a novel involving pyramid power.

Carrie also features atypical King narration, a combination of third-person omniscient and 'clippings' from fictional books, magazines, and letters. It works, though just barely: some suspense is leeched out of the text by our knowledge that something extraordinarily dire is going to happen from pretty much the first page onwards. Of course, the movie strips these documentarian elements away, leaving only the high-school narrative that is Carrie's greatest strength.

King himself noted that in going back to Carrie after Columbine, he found her much less sympathetic than he remembered. Pitiful, perhaps, and warped by persecution and a loopy, homicidal mother, but not sympathetic. Anyone who has been an outcast can feel pangs of horror at Carrie's sad life, but she's ultimately no more sympathetic than John Gardner's Grendel, and much less so than Anthony Burgess's Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

This is still a tight, fascinating read (it may be King's shortest novel). Separated from high school as a student by a few short years and as a teacher not at all, King conjures up a world that's a nightmare for students who are low in the pecking order, where even a good deed can lead to horrible consequences. Recommended.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Skeleton Crew (1968-1985; collected 1985) by Stephen King

Skeleton Crew (1968-1985; collected 1985) by Stephen King, containing the following stories: The Mist, Here There Be Tygers, The Monkey, Cain Rose Up, Mrs. Todd's Shortcut, The Jaunt, The Wedding Gig, Paranoid: A Chant, The Raft, Word Processor of the Gods, The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands, Beachworld, The Reaper's Image, Nona, For Owen, Survivor Type, Uncle Otto's Truck, Morning Deliveries (Milkman#1), Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game (Milkman#2), Gramma, The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet, The Reach :

Stephen King's second short-story collection ranges from the beginnings of his published career as a writer in the late 1960's to stories that were not published until the release of this collection. As always with his collections, King rewrites a lot from the originally published versions. Indeed, "The Raft" is entirely recreated: King has never been able to locate the original published story from the late 1960's, a story he was paid for but which he's not entirely certain was actually printed.

The result is a collection with more range than the first collection -- Night Shift -- but a certain drop in intensity and consistency. One negative is the inclusion of two of King's science-fiction horror stories, "The Jaunt" and "Beachworld," neither of which are particularly scary or well-imagined. The science fiction of interplanetary travel and robots and alien planets is not an area in which King is especially good. But by God, he's going to keep trying to write it even if doing so kills either him or us or possibly both.

Thankfully, both the straightforward horror and the darkly fantastic are handled a lot better. "The Reach" is probably King's best tale of non-horrific supernatural doings, a meditation on mortality set off the coast of Maine. "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut", a more Bradburyian effort, is also a lot of fun, while "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet" is a solid examination of madness and writing.

On the horror front, we get the Lovecraft-by-way-of-the-drive-in romp "The Mist." "The Monkey" and "The Raft" are the best of the horror stories here, turning the mundane (a wind-up monkey toy, a popular swimming destination just a bit out of season) into the terrible. That wind-up monkey is one of King's best distillations of strange, explanation-resistant horror. I'd like to see it go a few rounds with the more benevolent wind-up Chattery Teeth of the much-later story of the same name.

Other stand-outs include the understated story of supernatural revenge, "Uncle Otto's Truck," and the murderous road-odyssey "Nona." The latter works beautifully as a gender-flipped companion to King's earlier novel Carrie, as it deals with many of the same gender and social issues from a different perspective. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Night Shift by Stephen King (1978)

Night Shift by Stephen King, containing the following stories:
The Woman in the Room, One for the Road, The Man Who Loved Flowers, The Last Rung on the Ladder, Children of the Corn, I Know What You Need, Quitters, Inc., The Lawnmower Man, The Ledge, Strawberry Spring, Sometimes They Come Back, Trucks, Battleground, Gray Matter, The Boogeyman, The Mangler, I Am the Doorway, Night Surf, Graveyard Shift, and Jerusalem's Lot (Collected 1978):

Stephen King's first collection of short stories spans a decade of his writing life, more than half of it before he broke big with the sale of the novel Carrie. Overall, it's his best collection of pure horror, though there are also studied, moving, non-horror outliers contained here, "The Woman in the Room" and "The Last Rung on the Ladder."

King shows his early range, as the horror stories range from the Lovecraft pastiche "Jerusalem's Lot" through the fairly straightforward thrillers "Quitters, Inc." and "The Ledge" to the loopy tale of beer gone bad, "Gray Matter." There's also a quasi-sequel to Salem's Lot, "One for the Road," and a dry run for The Stand, "Night Surf," inspired in part by a line from a Bruce Springsteen song ("The kids are huddled on the beach in the mist").

The scariest stories showcase King's early mastery of fantasy Grandmaster Fritz Leiber's committment, all those years ago, to trying to come up with a formula for new horrors for the industrial age in the 1940 short story "Smoke Ghost" and subsequent efforts. In stories like "The Mangler" and "Sometimes They Come Back", a matter-of-fact approach to the supernatural that recalls Leiber's Conjure Wife is super-collided with modern technology.

So we get a possessed industrial steam-press in "The Mangler" or magic that partially relies on recorded sound and visual effects in "Sometimes They Come Back." "Gray Matter," while straightforwardly horrific, has as its sinister contaminant a bad can of beer -- this itself a play on a 1970's incident involving beer that had seaweed extract intentionally put into it, with dire (but non-lethal) results.

The scariest story here, and maybe the scariest story King has ever written, is "The Boogeyman." It works perfectly on the surface level of horror, but it also could be a case study for King's occasionally misguided belief that horror is really all about subtext: the monster seems to be a metaphoric stand-in for a child-abusing, wife-hitting husband. But it also isn't. Or is everything in the protagonist's head? In any case, the damn story has made me afraid of closets ever since. All in all, I think this is probably one of the ten best, non-best-of horror collections in English ever assembled.

There are occasional stretches of clumsy prose and a couple of laughable mis-steps in the description department ("The Last Rung on the Ladder", otherwise excellent and understated, gives us dimensions for a barn that would roughly be the size of NASA's vehicle assembly building. Coupled with the ladder shenanigans in The Shining, this makes me wonder if King has never actually climbed a ladder, or at least been told how high those ladders actually were). But like Robinson Crusoe's amazing disappearing-and-reappearing pants, these mistakes simply add a bit of rough charm to an otherwise terrific performance. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

100 by 54

100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories: edited by Al Sarrantonio and Martin Greenberg with stories by Washington Irving, Chet Williamson, Steve Rasnic Tem, Donald A. Wollheim, Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Al Sarrantonio, Henry Slesar, Richard T. Chizmar, Avram Davidson, Gary L. Raisor, E. F. Benson, Saki, Frances Garfield, Mark Twain, Phyllis Eisenstein, William F. Nolan, Ed Gorman, Eric Frank Russell, Melissa Mia Hall, Joe R. Lansdale, Ruth Berman, H. P. Lovecraft, Edward D. Hoch, James E. Gunn, Robert Sheckley, Barry Pain, Fritz Leiber, Richard Laymon, Jerome K. Jerome, Ramsey Campbell, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Norman Partridge, Juleen Brantingham, Barry N. Malzberg, Thomas F. Monteleone, James H. Schmitz, Frank A. Javor, E. G. Swain, Bernard Capes, Nancy Holder, Charles Dickens, William Hope Hodgson, David Drake, Mort Castle, Bill Pronzini, Dennis Etchison, Charles L. Grant, Susan Casper, Rudyard Kipling, Sharon Webb, F. Paul Wilson, Manly Wade Wellman, and Stephen Crane (1993).

Fun, long anthology of horror stories of ten pages or less, arranged alphabetically. The book covers a range of about 150 years, starting with Dickens and Poe and ending up in the early 1990's with Norman Partridge. It's entirely inevitable that I'll find some of the selections odd and some of the omissions odder.

What I do like, though, are the multiple selections from Donald A. Wollheim, known much better now as the founder and name-giver of DAW Books, but also a fine short-story writer. "The Rag-Thing" is a terrific little piece, as is "Babylon: 70 Miles." In a perfect world, I suppose one could ask that every story be written by a different person. And in my perfect world, the parodies would be in their own anthology, as neither a Twain nor a Jerome K. Jerome piece raise any hair at all (nor are meant to, as they parody the form and content of ghost stories).

I've noticed this penchant in a lot of horror anthologists -- there's always a couple of parodies that aren't scary and were never meant to be. But there they are in something labelled 'horror.' I actually don't get it. There are great humourous horror stories of various types, and there are extremely subtle parodies that can still work as a horror story.

However, the overt 'ha-ha' stuff just seems out of place in a horror anthology because it isn't actually horror. Is there some unconscious nervousness about horror's respectability that causes the insertion of the parody into a non-parodic anthology? I don't know. I also dislike not knowing the year a story was published, but I seem to have grown resigned to anthologies generally omitting what I think is a necessary piece of editorial machinery. In any case, recommended.