Thursday, June 27, 2013

Ancient Images

Sinister: written by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill; directed by Scott Derrickson; starring Ethan Hawke (Ellison Oswalt), Juliet Rylance (Tracy), Fred Dalton Thompson (Sheriff), and James Ransone (Deputy) (2012): From the producers of the Paranormal Activity movies (which I mostly enjoy) comes another supernatural tale pitting dumber-than-average humans against the forces of darkness.

The title, as with the similar Insidious, has no specific relevance to the movie. It's a generic horror title, so don't start watching with the expectation that the monster's left-handed or anything.

Ethan Hawke plays a formerly best-selling true-crime writer who needs a bestseller to pay the mortgage. Juliet Rylance plays his wife, who's never in the house during the day but doesn't seem to have a job, either. Their older boy suffers from a combination of Night Terrors and sleep-walking, which seems a bit odd to me given that Night Terrors generally involve sleep paralysis, but I'll go with it. Their younger daughter likes painting on walls.

Hawke's character cleverly moves the family into a house where a brutal multiple murder took place about a year earlier. Ah ha, but he doesn't tell his wife! And as his wife apparently neither speaks to anyone in town or is in any way curious as to why they moved where they moved, she doesn't find out the truth until fairly late in the movie.

Anyway, the supernatural forces in this movie really enjoy recording everything on Super 8 film. Then they stick the Super 8 projector and carefully labelled film canisters in the attic for the next family to find. Yes, there are a series of serial murders taking place across America. As one of the murders involved setting fire to a car inside a garage in the dead of night, I'm a little unclear as to how the house in that case survived for someone else to move into. I assume they had really good fire suppression installed. But not monster suppression, more fools they!

Sinister is nicely photographed. Much of the horror comes from the voyeurism of watching (fictional) snuff films along with Ethan Hawke. But boy, is everybody in this movie dumb except for Sheriff Fred Dalton Thompson and Vincent D'onofrio in a cameo as an expert in occult mythology and iconography. There's probably a pretty good movie to be made about D'Onofrio and his trusty coffee-dispensing sidekick Jessica, but I'm not sure these filmmakers could make a movie about what happens when smart people deal with occult forces, and do so by actually going to a library instead of relying solely on the Internet for potentially life-saving information. Lightly recommended.


The Awakening: written by Stephen Volk and Nick Murphy; directed by Nick Murphy; starring Rebecca Hall (Florence Cathcart), Dominic West (Robert Mallory), Imedla Staunton (Maud Hill) and Isaac Hempstead Wright (Tom Hill) (2011): Broody ghost story set in 1921 follows the efforts of professional debunker Rebecca Hall to solve the mystery of whether or not a boy at a boarding school in the North of England was a-scared to death by a ghost.

World War One is the major intertext here, as Hall lost her fiance and several of the teachers fought in the conflict and came home with both physical and mental wounds. Hall's character also has a somewhat bizarre past, as she was adopted after her parents were killed and she was mauled by lions.

Debunking and debunkers are again portrayed as sad bastards screwing it up for everyone else, which seems to be the default setting of every fictional movie that ever dealt with debunkers. Given the real-world cost that awful, awful 'psychics' such as Sylvia Browne exact when they insert themselves into police investigations (which Browne has never once actually helped solve) and the lives of the bereaved (whom Browne has put through the wringer on numerous occasions by describing horrible modes of death for victims who in fact did not actually die the way she described), it would be nice if a movie dealt with this fairly important aspect of debunking: namely, that it keeps 'psychics' from doing terrible things to innocent people in the name of publicity.

In any case, once you realize that Hall's character is indeed another sad orphan who really wants to believe, you know where the movie is going. Well, sort of. The final major plot twist verges on O. Henry Playhouse territory, though it is somewhat foreshadowed. Enjoyable and atmospheric. Lightly recommended.

Trouble with the Curve: written by Randy Brown; directed by Robert Lorenz; starring Clint Eastwood (Gus), Amy Adams (Mickey), John Goodman (Pete) and Justin Timberlake (Johnny) (2012): Once you get through the hilarious scene of octogenerian Eastwood talking to his bladder, this is a slight, pleasant movie about an old baseball scout, father-daughter issues, and how wily old baseball scouts are way better than computers at locating baseball talent, even though in the real world they actually aren't. Lightly recommended.

Ghosts and Allegories

Joyland by Stephen King (2013): A melancholy coming-of-age story narrated by the late middle-aged protagonist in the present day, Joyland's main narrative is set in 1972 and focuses on three college students working the summer at the North Carolina amusement park that gives the novel its title.

While there are two ghosts, two psychics, and one serial killer in the novel, these elements often take a back-seat to King's depiction of his protagonist's struggles with love, loss, and a giant dog costume. It's an enjoyable, low-key affair in line with other relatively recent King efforts that include Blockade Billy and The Colorado Kid, in which the genre elements often fade away behind the more realistic concerns of the text.

Indeed, the ghosts and psychics make me think of the Yeats poem "The Circus Animals' Desertion" in the sense that King might be better off abandoning such elements entirely when he writes novels that are so much concerned with other things: the supernatural and the suspense tropes herein feel like props, taking up the space that might be better expended on straight-ahead, non-genre world and character creation instead. Recommended.

Blood and Fire: A Star Wolf Novel by David Gerrold (2003): The fourth Star Wolf novel is a humdinger of a 'bottle show,' as the crew is mostly confined to one of two starships as they seek to find a cure for a deadly plague of...Regulan bloodworms. Though they're never referred to in that exact phrase, they are bloodworms and they are from Regula.

The novel began life as a script for a first-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, for which Gerrold was contracted to work upon during its development and first season. The bloodworms were meant by Gerrold to be a metaphor for AIDS, with the episode exploring the stigma of the disease allegorically (as many Star Trek episodes did with many topics).

However, Gene Roddenberry ultimately turned it down (or perhaps his infamous late-life attorney did -- the introduction and conclusion go into some detail on the behind-the-scenes shenanigans on TNG's first season that ultimately led Paramount to essentially freeze Gene out of all decision-making for the Trek franchise). The AIDS story, and a brief dialogue exchange that would have established that there were actually gay people in the 24th century and that they were serving on the Enterprise, were both scrapped (these two bits were separate -- gayness had nothing to do with contracting Regulan bloodworms!).

As the Star Wolf series is Gerrold's attempt to show how Star Trek could have been done much, much better, he reworked the rejected episode into this novel. And it's a doozy, especially if you like technically specific science fiction that doesn't skimp on characterization and social theorizing. Highly recommended.

The Arrow Book of Horror Stories: edited by Elizabeth Lee (Collected 1965): Enjoyable, very much traditional horror anthology of stories from the 19th and early 20th century. Classics include F. Marion Crawford's "The Upper Berth", H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror", and Bram Stoker's "The Squaw." For some reason, Lee includes two stories by several authors, making the anthology more idiosyncratic than representative. Recommended.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Carnacki the Ghost-finder

Carnacki the Ghost-finder: written by William Hope Hodgson, containing the following stories: "The Find", "The Gateway of the Monster", "The Haunted 'Jarvee', "The Hog", "The Horse of the Invisible", "The House Among the Laurels", "The Searcher of the End House", "The Thing Invisible" and "The Whistling Room" (1910-1947; Collected 1974):

One of the earliest recurring paranormal investigators in horror literature, Carnacki remains a delight today, a century after the stories were first written. William Hope Hodgson made him fallible and capable of fear, thus making him a much more interesting protagonist than Algernon Blackwood's nigh-omniscient John Silence or Seabury Quinn's hyper-competent Jules de Grandin.

Science, or at least the appearance of science, plays a big role in Carnacki's investigations. Behold the Electric Pentacle, proof against supernatural powers. Carnacki's theories on what certain supernatural entities actually are give the reader glimpses of the weird world Hodgson has created: the malign, eponymous monster of "The Hog" may look and sound like a giant hog when it manifests on Earth, but it's actually some sort of massive, gaseous enemy from space that's trying to force its way into our world. The cosmic gulfs are haunted by things much worse than ghosts.

There's much quoting from fictional magical texts, and references to the codified and catalogued powers with which Carnacki contends. It all seems about twenty years ahead of its time, Lovecraft before Lovecraft, but with happier outcomes and a more interventionary race of Good Cosmic Beings.

Carnacki tells these tales to a small circle of friends. He refers throughout to his own fears and mistakes, and to his own fallibility. Several of the stories deal with fake hauntings or with explicable events of the natural world which only seem like the supernatural. Throughout, Carnacki marshals science and magic to do his job. Really a fine series of stories. Highly recommended.


Sunday, June 16, 2013

Short Horrors

Masters of Terror Volume 1: William Hope Hodgson: edited by Peter Tremayne, containing the following stories: "The Voice in the Night", "A Tropical Horror", "The Mystery of the Derelict". "The Terror of the Water-Tank", "The Finding of the Graiken", "The Stone Ship" and "The Derelict" (1905-1914; Collected 1977): This 1970's collection concentrates on early 20th-century horror and science-fiction writer William Hope Hodgson's fantastic tales of the sea. Well, OK, and a water tank. That seems a bit anomalous. But water! His great stories about ghostbuster Carnacki are collected elsewhere.

Hodgson spent years as a sailor before turning to writing, so the tone of the stories rings true even when the events become improbable. Two of the stories deal with the debris and seaweed-choked Sargasso Sea, a location Hodgson would often use for his tales of horror. His fine horror novel The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig' also spends some time there among crabs the size of houses; giant, man-eating octopi; hordes of rats; and an assortment of other awful animals, plants, and dire weather and oceanic conditions.

One of the great lessons learned from these stories and other Hodgson work is that if you're not sure what it is, don't poke it with a stick. And if a 100-ton carnivorous sea-monster invades the deck of your ship, stop running around on the deck.

Besides their dialogic verisimilitude, Hodgson's stories excel in their depiction of the weird and sublime creatures and events on Hodgson's wide and fear-haunted ocean. The finest and most-anthologized stories herein are "The Voice in the Night", a seminal story about a particular type of oopy goopy monster, and "The Derelict", a nice bit of science-fictional horror. Hodgson's major horror stories and novels are well worth seeking out in newer editions than these, or older. Highly recommended.

Monster Mix edited by Robert Arthur containing the following stories:
The Day of the Dragon by Guy Endore (1937); Mrs. Amworth (1922) by E. F. Benson; Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent (1937) by Stephen Vincent Benét; Creature of the Snows by William Sambrot; Aepyornis Island (1894) by H. G. Wells; Fire in the Galley Stove (1937) by William Outerson; The Mannikin (1937) by Robert Bloch; The Wendigo (1910) by Algernon Blackwood; The Derelict (1912) by William Hope Hodgson; O Ugly Bird! (1951) by Manly Wade Wellman; Mimic (1942) by Donald A. Wollheim; The Hoard of the Gibbelins (1911) by Lord Dunsany; and Footsteps Invisible (1940) by Robert Arthur (Collected 1968):

Fun Young Adult-directed horror anthology edited by the prolific writer and editor Robert Arthur, who ghost-wrote a lot of the early Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators novels and ghost-edited a lot of Hitchcock-brand short-story anthologies.

And yes, "Mimic" by Donald A. Wollheim was adapted into the movie of the same name, though the movie has a much different take on the whole affair. Guy Endore, prose source of the 1930's Wolfman movies, could probably have sued the makers of Reign of Fire over his dragon story here. Or his estate could have, anyway.

The monsters in this anthology aren't all bad (the Benet story is comedy, not horror), though most of them are. Algernon Blackwood's "The Wendigo" is one of his two undeniably pivotal novellas (the other being the even-better "The Willows"). While Blackwood wasn't Canadian, many of his horror stories were set in Northern Quebec. It's interesting to see how he reconfigures the Native-American legend of the Wendigo to fit his own fears about the dangerously Sublime wild country of Canada. In its original, the Wendigo story is a cautionary legend about the dangers of greed and gluttony, not about getting spiritually overwhelmed by the wilderness.

Arthur's own story, "Footsteps Invisible," is one of my favourite short stories about Egyptian curses: I'd actually forgotten who'd written it until I read it again here for the first time in thirty years. Recommended.

Raising Hell: The Unmaking of Ken Russell's The Devils by Richard Crouse (2012)

Raising Hell: The Unmaking of Ken Russell's The Devils by Richard Crouse (2012): Fascinating account by the ubiquitous Crouse about Ken Russell's The Devils, possibly the most controversial film ever released by a major studio. And I was fascinated even though I, like a lot of people, have never actually seen the movie.

Russell was a stylistic iconoclast in even his most pedestrian films, but never moreso than in The Devils, which adapted a non-fiction-based Aldous Huxley book about a possession frenzy in a 17th-century French nunnery into a metaphysical and carnal horror story about faith and politics.

Widely reviled by critics and moral pillars alike when first released in 1971, The Devils was cut and recut by the studio afterwards. Today, I'm pretty sure it's still impossible to get a non-bootleg director's cut of the film. Puritanical Warner Brothers has spent 40 years trying to pretend the film doesn't exist. Nonetheless, it's a cult film among viewers and film-people alike, as testimonials in this book to its greatness from Alex Cox, Guillermo del Toro, Joe Dante, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, and many others show.

Crouse also does a solid job of demonstrating how studios have changed since 1971, and not for the better in an artistic sense: no major studio would even think about making or releasing an expensive, controversial 'Art' film like The Devils today. The blockbuster mentality has pushed most movies that aspire to do something more than sell action figures to the fringes, while 'serious' studio movies must be dignified or feel-good in their quasi-artistic pretensions. Because as we all know, mental illness can be cured by ballroom dancing. David Cronenberg taught us that in Spider. Oh, wait a minute, no he didn't.

If there is such a thing as an auteur, Russell was one, though Crouse does a fine job of laying out the necessity of Russell's collaborators, most especially the protean wild-man actor Oliver Reed and set designer (and later director) Derek Jarman. Man, I really want to see The Devils now. Highly recommended.

Dybbuk in a Box

The Possession: based on "Jinx in a Box" by Leslie Gornstein; written by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White; starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Clyde), Kyra Sedgwick (Stephanie), Natasha Calis (Em), Madison Davenport (Hannah) and Matisyahu (Tzadok) (2012): Quarter-baked horror movie about a Jewish demon in a box and the family that encounters it.

Mom, Dad, two daughters. Virtually all characterization in the movie is as follows: Mom and Dad are divorced because Mom is a shrew and Dad is always away coaching his college basketball team. Daughters are mad at Mom and Dad. One daughter dances with her high-school dance team. One likes funny hats. The latter daughter gets Dad to buy her a wooden box at a yard-sale. Now you know as much about these characters as the film-makers seem to.

Oh-ho! That isn't just any curiously alluring, seemingly unopenable wooden box. It's a box with a Dybbuk -- a Jewish demon or spirit of malevolent intent -- imprisoned inside!

Hijinks ensue. Many of them seem to involve the belief that moths are really scary when in fact they really aren't, or at least the moths chosen for this movie aren't. Unless you're made of upholstery, I guess. This may be the first movie possession that could have been solved with a $2 box of moth balls.

As no one involved with this movie sat down and came up with a reasonable list of powers for the Dybbuk, it's one of those supernatural beings whose powers are exactly configured to the requirements of the plot. And it seems to be just as dangerous inside the box as it is outside. This is what Republican cutbacks on governmental oversight for Dybbuk-box construction have brought us to.

About the only thing the Dybbuk can't do when it's in the box is move its own box. You'd think this would make it really easy to get rid of. You'd be wrong. In place of interesting, intellectual explanation and exposition of matters supernatural, the movie simply has the father read about Dybbuks and possession on the Internet. Probably on Wikipedia. He learns it all in one night.

Of course, one thing may occur to you very early in the film. If we don't want the Dybbuk out of the box, why put a secret latch on the box? And if the thing is so dangerous even in the box, why does the woman at the beginning have the box sitting in her living room? Is this some sort of Free Will for Dummies thing? In any case, Fyvush Fynkel was much scarier as a possible Dybbuk in the Coen Brothers movie A Serious Man. If his face showed up on an MRI of your stomach, then you'd be a-scared. Based on a true story in much the same way, I expect, as Shrek was based on Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Not recommended.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Mumbling Towards Gotham

The Dark Knight Rises: written by Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, and David S. Goyer; directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Tom Hardy (Bane), Michael Caine (Alfred), Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon), Anne Hathaway (Selina Kyle/The Cat), Marion Cotillard (Miranda), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (John Blake), and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) (2012): I enjoyed seeing this again, this time on the small screen, but unlike The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises doesn't become more understandable on TV.

And by 'understandable,' I mean, 'What the hell was Nolan thinking with the godawful sound-mixing on this movie?

Either Christopher Nolan is deaf or the sound mixing on The Dark Knight Rises was designed for some ideal, 100-channel speaker system that most homes and theatres don't have or Christopher Nolan was trying to make the action-movie equivalent of Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, with its purposefully muffled dialogue. Whatever. Add in the periodically incomprehensible electronically altered voice of Tom Hardy's Bane and the periodically self-parodic growl of Christian Bale as Batman and you've got a movie that should be sub-titled.

I suppose the other funny thing is that the Nolans lifted a bunch of stuff from Batman comic books for the TV show Person of Interest, and Person of Interest is a better take on Batman than any Batman movie. So it goes. I mean Jesus, Fusco IS Harvey Bullock! Recommended.

Friday, June 7, 2013

House of Bones by Dale Bailey (2003)

House of Bones by Dale Bailey (2003): Tense, sharply written haunted-house story about a Cabrini-Green-type public-housing estate in Chicago and the supernatural thing or things that haunt its abandoned corridors.

Stylistically, Bailey is a much wittier and more poetic prose writer than many of his contemporaries. Also somewhat unusually, House of Bones tackles the issue of race in America, something horror novels aren't traditionally known for. Thematically, the supernatural element has risen organically from the excluded and terrorized population of the housing project over years and decades.

Now, with the housing project closed and all but one of the apartment towers demolished, a billionaire has brought four seemingly unrelated people to Dreamland (the so-nicknamed last tower and center or decades of horror) for a two-week stay to attempt to delve into whether or not Something exists in Dreamland.

The team-investigates-haunted-house sub-genre of horror is a venerable one, with at least two towering (ahem) examples, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Richard Matheson's Hell House. Bailey's novel doesn't quite reach those heights. It is, nonetheless, a thoughtful and occasionally harrowing read, with more on its mind than simply scaring the reader, and with solidly and believably rendered protagonists. Recommended.


Bob Powell's Terror!: edited by Craig Yoe; illustrated by Bob Powell and others (Collected 2012): Terrific selection of horror-artist-great Bob Powell's 1950's comic-book work, including such bizarre gross-outs as "Wall of Flesh" and "It." Powell was great at depicting gooshy, gushy, blobby monsters and zombies and the busty women who were threatened by them.

All of these stories were published before the Comics Code Authority, so they're plenty violent and often quite grim. In somewhat bizarre fashion, one of the stories anticipates the ending of the Frank Miller/Walt Simonson miniseries Robocop vs. Terminator.

I'd have left out the misogynistic "What Next Then" in favour of something involving a monster and not a serial killer. The introduction gives a nice overview of Powell's career; I would be willing to sacrifice the over-sized tabloid-scale reproduction in favour of more, smaller pages, though. Recommended.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane: adapted by Laird Koenig from his own novel; directed by Nicholas Gessner; starring Jodie Foster (Rynn), Martin Sheen (Frank Hallet), Alexis Smith (Mrs. Hallet), Mort Shuman (Miglioriti) and Scott Jacoby (Mario) (1976): Oddball 1970's movie that's part horror movie, part distaff Catcher in the Rye.

Jodie Foster, fresh off Taxi Driver, plays main character Rynn, a 13-year-old girl who rents a secluded house in a small town with her reclusive poet father. She's befriended by town cop Miglioriti and his amateur magician nephew Mario, and befiended by the owner of her house and the owner's pedophiliac son, played by a young and intensely creepy Martin Sheen.

Apparently, Foster hated making this movie and has implied that she mailed in her performance. It doesn't show -- Rynn has been written as an emotionally distant character, and Foster's enunciation, facila expressions, and body language convey this quite smartly. As noted, Sheen is creepy, and the other actors are also effective in their roles. Mostly low-key but weirdly affecting and even haunting. Recommended.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Houses on Borderlands

The House by Bentley Little (1999): A straightforward, meat-and-potatoes horror writer stylistically, Little tends to be innovative in terms of his subject matter and his approach to it. Magic and the supernatural can be jarringly weird in his novels, even as they also inspire more normative thrills and chills.

I don't know if Little has taken the conversation about what real absolute evil would look like in Arthur Machen's pivotal century-old story "The White People" as his model (real absolute evil would be a complete violation or inversion of accepted natural law: roses singing, or stones walking, for example), but the effect is sometimes the same. Though there's lot of more normal supernatural and natural horrors in The House as well.

We begin with four bizarre, seemingly supernatural and seemingly fatal occurences. Then we meet five seemingly disparate people from across the United States who turn out to have very similar memories of their weird and scary childhood homes, even though none of them lived in the same house. For the most part, they've repressed those childhood memories, and never gone home again. But now they have to go home again. Supernatural events have started to occur across America, and those childhood experiences somehow explain why.

Little is a dab hand at sympathetic characterization, even with characters who turn out to be increasingly unsympathetic as a novel progresses. It's that characterization that holds the novel together through its oddities and idiosyncrasies. The absolute weirdness of many of the supernatural events goes too far for scares at times (a rose in a block of cheese being the least scarifying of these things), a problem shared with another Little novel, The Return. But there are also many effectively horrifying bits, along with an adversary who really does make one squeamish whenever it appears.

Little's skill at plotting is also at work throughout -- the narrative rockets along, and while one may be underwhelmed by certain inventions, one won't stop reading. There's no poetry here, just muscular prose and invention that sometimes gets a bit out of control.

Little's tendency to two word titles can make it difficult to remember what novel is what -- this plain-style stuff can go too far, though calling a collection of short stories The Collection is pretty funny, given the number of The [Something] novels that preceded the publication of The Collection. Oh, well. Recommended.