Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tombstone Blues

A Walk Among the Tombstones: adapted by Scott Frank from the novel by Lawrence Block; directed by Scott Frank; starring Liam Neeson (Matt Scudder), David Harbour (Ray), Adam David Thompson (Albert), Dan Stevens (Kenny Kristo), and Brian 'Astro' Bradley (T.J.) (2014): It looks like one thing the American box office doesn't want is a movie starring Liam Neeson that doesn't suck. Oh, well. Adapted by screenwriter-turned-director Scott Frank from one of Lawrence Block's hardboiled, modern detective novels featuring world-weary ex-NY-cop Matt Scudder, A Walk Among the Tombstones is refreshingly old-school noir in its sensibilities.

And such grim sensibilities, with little of that bang-bang, pop-pop revenge crap Neeson's been doing so much of lately. As Scudder, Neeson takes punishment but only reluctantly dishes it out. Frank lets Scudder loom in certain shots, taking full advantage of Neeson's over-sized presence. And the actor occasionally known as 'Astro' throws in a solid performance as T.J., the smart-ass street kid who decides he wants to be a private detective because Neeson makes the whole enterprise look sorta cool.

The case involves unlicensed P.I. Scudder being hired by the brother of a fellow A.A. member to hunt down the kidnappers-turned-rapists-and-murderers-and-dismemberers of his wife. But this isn't one of those movies about loveable innocents being screwed over by a harsh and uncaring world until Shane rides into town. The brother is a dealer in hard drugs ("A trafficker, if you understand the difference," he tells Scudder). And it turns out that the kidnappers have been targetting the families of other mid-level drug dealers because the dealers won't notify the police.

Remembrances of Scudder's own sins form a structural element in the film, used to good effect especially in the climax, which is brutal and messy and jarringly realistic. Like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe (both of whom T.J. namechecks), Scudder walks down the mean streets mostly alone, but not quite. The characters he meets will be colourful, to say the least (when one asks Scudder how he figured out that he had something to do with the murderers, Scudder tells him, "You're a weirdo."). And the depiction of the violence is unsettling, never moreso than in the opening credits. 

Frank situates much of the action among decaying streets and cemeteries and houses and rooftops in Brooklyn, with a few forays into the high-toned habitats of highly successful drug dealers. Set in 1999, the film uses the Manhattan skyline and the planes flying over it as a pre-9/11 commentary on cultural doom in some scenes: "People are afraid of all the wrong things," one of the killers notes, amused by the Y2K fears that dominate the newspaper headlines. It's a smart, faithful adaptation of the novel, and a fine addition to cinema's hardboiled detective films. Highly recommended.

River of Doubt

Deliverance: adapted by James Dickey and John Boorman from the novel by Dickey; directed by John Boorman; starring Jon Voight (Ed), Burt Reynolds (Lewis), Ned Beatty (Bobby), and Ronny Cox (Drew) (1972): James Dickey and John Boorman's nightmarish canoe trip continues to resonate more than 40 years later as one of the greatest horror movies ever made. It evokes horror in the white-water expanses of the river the four unfortunate Atlanta men canoe upon, and in the claustrophobic nooks and crannies of the forests and cliffs that surround that river. Through these spaces move men who are comfortable within them, and men who are assuredly not.

The acting of the four primaries is superb, with a charismatic turn by Burt Reynolds as the only outdoorsman among the four, and with nervous, overwhelmed performances by new-to-the-screen Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox. As the conflicted protagonist ("Now you get to be the hero," one injured character mumbles), Jon Voight is smart and emotionally overwhelmed. It's as raw and varied a performance as his great work in Midnight Cowboy.

I suppose there are obvious subtexts to be mentioned, most notably the idea that this screwed-up, violent misadventure in the Great Outdoors can stand in for America's contemporaneous follies in Viet Nam. The movie rewards such interpretations because it is wholly itself in its horrors -- at no point are we asked to believe that this is a story about anything other than four city slickers on a vacation gone bad.

The horrors include grievous bodily injury and rape and murder, all framed within the context of an increasingly hostile natural world that hints at the supernatural. The human antagonists could just as well be orcs or some of Lovecraft's inbred human monsters. But they have ties to the world outside, and because of that, the authorities can't be trusted, at least not anywhere near the river. These monsters have suspicious, angry relatives.

The return to civilization is signalled by a rusting vehicle. A taxi gets delayed by a church being transported away from the soon-to-be-inundated banks of the river, which is being turned into a lake. For the surviving characters, there will be nightmares and guilt and at least some doubt as to what actually killed one of their number -- and, perhaps, a dead and bloated hand rising from the water. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Prequels, Sequels, and Adaptations

War Against Crime! Volume 2: Issues 6-11: written by Al Feldstein, William Gaines, and others; illustrated by Johnny Craig, Graham Ingels, and others (1949-1950; collected 2001): Beginning in 1950, EC's New Directions comic-book line would represent a brief high point in American comic books. But it didn't spring full-blown from the forehead of publisher William Gaines. A couple of years of experimentation preceded it as Gaines acclimated to the comic-book business and the talents began to assemble at EC.

War Against Crime! ran for eleven issues. It fed off the post-WWII crime comics boom. But by the end of the run collected here, it was clearly showing the way to the artistic and writerly excellence of the approaching New Directions line. And it didn't really die after 11 issues -- it was retitled The Vault of Horror with issue 12 and became one of EC's great horror comics. The stories and art in this volume aren't up to the standards of the approaching EC books, but they're still well-crafted, occasionally gonzo tales of suspense and horror. Recommended.

The Incal: Orphan of the City Shaft: written by Alexandro Jodorowsky; illustrated by Zoran Janjetov (1988-1991; collected 2001): Part of the prequel series to Alexandro Jodorowsky and Moebius's Incal series of the 1970's, The Incal: Orphan of the City Shaft features sharp, detailed, and often grotesquely imaginative artwork from Zoran Janjetov. Jodorowsky's story is bananas, as one would expect. It's all Euro-Comics-SciFi in the tradition of Heavy Metal/Metal Hurlant, a dystopian adventure story explaining the origins of Incal anti-hero John DiFool.

Weird, occasionally unpleasant, occasionally poetic, visually and narratively imaginative, it's also compulsively readable and extraordinarily dense compared to most American comic books. The whole thing pays homage to Metropolis and The Time Machine with its stratified society, a literalized hierarchy oriented around a vast shaft sinking deep into a planet. But there's a lot more sex, drugs, and fetishes than in either of those estimable forebears. This is the sort of European comic book that the TV series Lexx tried and mostly failed to emulate. Highly recommended.

Just a Pilgrim: Garden of Eden: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Carlos Ezquerra (2002): Ennis and Ezquerra's brutal post-apocalyptic Western continues here, as the gun-slinging religious fanatic known only as the Pilgrim encounters a team of scientists attempting to flee the devastated Earth to the stars. Terrible monsters and events abound, and Ennis and Ezquerra flinch neither in the grimy, bloody writing nor the grimy, bloody art. Recommended, but not for the squeamish.

Hypothetical Lizard: written by Alan Moore and Antony Johnston; illustrated by Lorenzo Orente and Sebastian Fiumara (1987 - 2004/2005): Alan Moore's World Fantasy Award-nominated novella from the 1980's gets the graphic treatment from Avatar Press. Antony Johnson preserves much of Moore's prose (the album includes the novella) while doing an able job of turning it into a sequential comics narrative.

The art by Orente and Fiumara is competent, though perhaps somewhat too prosaic (haha) for the fantastic goings-on. The novella appeared in a shared-universe anthology with its roots in the weird, magical cities of writers that include Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance, and M. John Harrison. Moore's tale focuses on one tragic relationship in the city of Llaiven, all of it playing out in the weird and sinister brothel known as The House Without Clocks. Recommended.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Thomas Ligotti's Comics and Stories

The Nightmare Factory Volume 1, adapting stories by and with essays by Thomas Ligotti, including the following stories: The Last Feast of Harlequin, written by Stuart Moore and illustrated by Colleen Doran; Dream of a Mannikin, written by Stuart Moore and illustrated by Ben Templesmith; Dr. Locrian's Asylum, written by Joe Harris and illustrated by Ted McKeever; and Teatro Grottesco, written by Joe Harris and illustrated by Michael Gaydos (2007).

The rapidly defunct Fox Atomic comic-book line has to be credited with a whole lot of WTF chutzpah. Adapting four stories by cult horror writer Thomas Ligotti into a graphic album looks almost as odd as some of Ligotti's stories. Who thought this was a good idea? Kudos for risk-taking.

The adaptations are certainly solid. Much of Ligotti's prose has been preserved, and the art on all four stories is more than competent. However, the strangeness of Ligotti's work rests to a great extent on what a reader makes of the strange events and deadpan delivery of most of his protagonists and narrators. Illustrating the stories literalizes them, freezing a reader's ideas into an artist's singular interpretation of events.

The most straightforward story adapted, the Lovecraftian "The Last Feast of Harlequin," showcases a mostly understated art job by Colleen Doran. But once literalized by Doran's art, the creatures of the story lose a lot of their menace. The more surreal stories that follow also lose something in the translation. These are illustrated stories that never needed to be illustrated. A fascinating failure. Lightly recommended.

The Nightmare Factory Volume 2, adapting stories by and with essays by Thomas Ligotti, including the following stories: Gas Station Carnivals, written by Joe Harris and illustrated by Vasilis Lolos; The Clown Puppet, written by Joe Harris and illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz; The Chymist, written by Stuart Moore and illustrated by Toby Cypress; and The Sect of the Idiot, written by Stuart Moore and illustrated by Nick Stakal (2008):

This second volume of Fox Atomic's comics adaptations of the work of horror writer Thomas Ligotti is weaker than the first, with only "The Clown Puppet"'s eerie visuals by Bill Sienkiewicz really adding anything to one's appreciation of the original stories. The exaggerated, cartoony approach favoured by artists Vasilis Lolos on "Gas Station Carnivals" and Toby Cypress on "The Chymist" seems to me to be a colossal mis-step.

In the former, the surreal paranoia of the piece would be better served by a more realistic style, perhaps even a hyper-realistic style. The cartooniness defuses the horror of Ligotti's conception, which here and in other stories requires a combination of hyper-realism and the surreal to be effective. The story should be a sinister, over-rendered Magritte piece with the distortions in reality coming from artistic juxtaposition, not distortion.

The latter is an astonishingly unpleasant romp featuring a mad scientist, a prostitute, and terrible experiments. It's like a debased homage to the EC Comics horror shorts of the 1950's, except that the female character has done nothing wrong other than being female and a prostitute, and the male character will be triumphant and unpunished at the end. I haven't read the original, but this adaptation is predictable, unpleasant without being horrific, and grindingly long. I have no idea how it got selected. It's the worst story by Thomas Ligotti I've sort-of read. In total, not recommended.

Thursday, September 18, 2014


The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898): One of the great horrors of a lot of first-year university English courses is The Turn of the Screw. It's really not something that should be inflicted on anyone below third-year English. And besides the complicated sentence structures of Henry James, there's a cruel tease in handing students a ghost story that's too attentuated to be viscerally scary.

So it goes. The striking things about the story have nothing to do with horror, and everything to do with a realistically imagined reaction to horror. It's one of the first psychological examinations of the workings of terror on the human mind. For actual scares, James' admirer Edith Wharton was much more forthright and reliable. Her ghosts stories would be fine first-year texts. James, not so much.

The distancing effects of the text play into its very title, which is, as explained in the story, a metaphoric description of the effects of a particular type of narrative, the ghost story itself. In the narrative, the revelation of the events of the story of the governess comes as a result of a bout of fireside ghost-story telling. The typical ghost story elicits certain reactions: to imperil children in such a story represents a further "turn of the screw" to increase the emotional and horrific "pressure" on the audience.

The two schools of thought on The Turn of the Screw roughly divide up into 'There are ghosts' and 'there are no ghosts.' The latter requires narrative duplicity on the level of The Usual Suspects: pretty much everything in the main part of the story that describes the struggle between a young governess and two malign ghosts for the souls of her two young charges must either be confabulation on the part of the governess or, at a further remove, confabulation on the part of the frame character who has ostensibly set down her narrative.

The former requires suspension of disbelief, something the average reader will accept but that many academics are incapable of accepting. There are no ghosts in the real world; hence, the ghosts in James' story must be fiction. If there are ghosts, though, what then? We know they did something to the young girl and young boy when they were still alive. What?

James isn't necessarily going to answer such questions. There's a reticence born of his own sensibilities and the sensibilities of the time. That reticence occurs within the story-world as well: the governess is at all points constrained by what is or is not proper to talk about, by what is or is not mentionable in polite company. Within that story-world in which there are malign ghosts, propriety allows those ghosts much more free rein than they might have in other circumstances.

But the genius of the story lies in the aforementioned psychological examination of the effects of terror on a human mind. The governess' mind must circle, returning again and again to its own reactions to things others cannot see, forced to deal again and again with feelings of horror the source of which only she seems to see. How much do the children see? How many of the children's actions constitute clever play-acting? What do the ghosts want now?

Around and around we go. The chills here are almost entirely of a philosophical or existential nature: how does the mind in isolation react to that which should not be? How can action be taken against incorporeal beings that never really act against one, but instead appear and disappear, trailing clouds of malevolence? How complicit is the governess in what happens? And why does she write exactly like Henry James? Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Strain Trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2009-2011)

The Strain: Book I of The Strain Trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2009): Apparently, the new F/X series based on this vampire trilogy is something of a slow-moving mess. That's too bad, as this book and the next two may have flaws, but being slow-moving isn't one of them.

Guillermo del Toro seems to have come up with most of the concepts, monster designs, and all-around ickiness for the series, with thriller writer Hogan supplying the actual prose. It's a pretty good match, as del Toro's main flaw in his film work has been the occasional aimlessness of his plotting.

The Strain builds to a climax that really sets the stage for greater, more apocalyptic events to come. The chief villain is a vampire known only as the Master, one of seven Vampire Ancients who have existed since pre-history. With the help of an extremely unscrupulous zillionaire named Eldritch Palmer (a nod to Philip K. Dick's malevolent cyborg Palmer Eldritch), the Master comes to New York to break the long truce with the other six Ancients and take over the world.

Against the Master are set a Van Helsing figure -- Setrakian, a survivor of the Holocaust who first encountered the Master at Treblinka -- and a ragtag group that also includes Ephraim Goodweather, a top-ranking doctor with the Centres for Disease Control; Nora Hernandez, his female co-worker; Gus, a Hispanic gang-banger; and Fet, a New York exterminator.

The Strain focuses on the quasi-scientific aspects of the vampire plague, while dropping hints throughout that these are nonetheless not simply the products of the world's worst Ebola outbreak. Scenes set beneath the streets of New York and in its increasingly vampire-infested bedroom communities are the strongest. Hogan keeps the plot zipping along while also doing a fairly strong job of arousing sympathy for both our heroes and for the unfortunate victims of the Strain.

As the first book of a trilogy, The Strain asks more questions than it answers. But the questions are pretty interesting. And the mix of science and, well, magic, suggests a world in which supernatural forces must occasionally work through scientific means to achieve their ends. The vampires have a viral pathology that's fairly well-explored herein, in the manner of Richard Matheson's landmark 'rational' vampire novel I Am Legend. But it's in service to something from Outside human and scientific experience. The scientific explanations for the efficacy of silver and UV-C rays against the vampires don't fully explain the speed with which silver and sunlight work in dispatching them.

As in his work on Cronos and Blade 2, del Toro heavily invests in de-eroticizing the vampire and returning it to its plague-bearing, rotting, drooling roots. The vampires here share some physical traits with his super-vampires in Blade 2. However, the squalid pathos of the turned also echoes some scenes in Cronos -- these are vampires who foul themselves while eating, and rapidly lose their sexual organs as the cancer-like apparatus of the vampire physiology takes hold. Shiny and sparkly they are not. Recommended.

The Fall: Book II of The Strain Trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2010): The vampire apocalypse accelerates in the second book of The Strain Trilogy, with lots of ickiness and tragedy for all. The supernatural starts to assert itself, as we gradually see that while the vampire plague seems to be viral in nature, it's supernatural in origin and intent.

There are a lot of nice set-pieces here, ripe for visual interpretation. One of the threads -- that the Master has learned new ways to be cruel from humanity -- begins to come to the forefront. So, too, the weaknesses of his human opponents, who are themselves compromised by their fear for their relatives, by old age, by alcoholism, and by ignorance of the Master's origins.

Part of the novel involves the quest to secure an ancient book that explains everything you need to know about vampires and how to kill them. Thankfully, the quest for this item is handled in a refreshingly off-beat but pragmatic way: the book is up for auction at a major New York auction house. It's these touches of the mundane that help make the second volume stronger in many ways than the first. Recommended.

The Night Eternal: Book III of The Strain Trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2011): This is the end. The Master, his vampires, and his human collaborators have won. Much of the Earth has been enslaved. Society continues to function under a pall of nuclear winter which has blotted out the sun for the most part. Inspired by his experience with the Nazis, the Master has created concentration camps to provide his vampires with a reliable source of liquid nourishment. People still live and work outside the camps, either as collaborators or as the cowed servants of the Vampire elite. The world is now one big factory slaughterhouse.

But the Resistance lives on, outnumbered and outgunned. The surviving protagonists of the first two books have been bloodied and beaten. The Master has now survived two attacks that should have killed him, were he simply a vampire like all the other vampires. Madness, alcoholism, and in-fighting plague the surviving rebels as much as the vampires do. Ephraim Goodweather, nominally the leader of the Resistance, has almost succumbed to alcohol-fueled despair when the novel opens. Can he get off the mat?

The supernatural elements introduced in Book Two now become ascendant, as del Toro and Hogan's narrative begins to resemble The Lord of the Rings more than anything else (and remember that del Toro was going to direct The Hobbit movies before he bowed out, and retains a screen-writing credit on them). The book delves into the secret history of vampires, thanks to the book that was the quest-item of The Fall. There is a way to end vampirism forever, one that the Master himself has shown them in the way he eliminated the other six Vampire Ancients at the end of Book Two. It's time to nuke it out to duke it out!

Even with a certain number of scenes of psychological anguish and equivalence on the part of several characters, the plot of The Night Eternal moves quickly and efficiently towards its climax, with a few enjoyable stops in the realms of myth and legend. The Master's origin story is bizarre and striking, as is the explanation for all the weaknesses of vampires derived from that tale. I was entertained. Recommended.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Out of the Blue and into the Black

The Blue Dahlia: written by Raymond Chandler; directed by George Marshall; starring Alan Ladd (Johnny Morrison), Veronica Lake (Joyce Harwood), William Bendix (Buzz), Howard Da Silva (Eddie Harwood), Doris Dowling (Helen Morrison), and Hugh Beaumont (George) (1946): A rare case of hardboiled detective great Raymond Chandler writing a new story expressly for the screen, The Blue Dahlia also shares a history with one of the most infamous Hollywood murder cases of all time.

Eight months after the film's release, the mutilated body of an aspiring actress named Elizabeth Short was discovered. Her nickname was 'the Black Dahlia,' and forever after the movie and the still-unsolved case would be mentioned whenever the other was mentioned.

The movie involves the efforts of now-retired bomber pilot Alan Ladd's Johnny Morrison, just home from the Pacific theatre,  to discover the identity of his wife's murderer. And he'd better. He's on the run from the "coppers" because he's the prime suspect.

Ladd looks and acts polished and sharp throughout, though his character can also be stubborn and hot-headed at times. Given that he's returned home to find an unfaithful wife and a son killed as a result of her drunk driving, and within 12 hours she's been murdered...well, that can wear on a man. Especially when he flew 112 successful bombing missions. Screw those lightweights and their 50-mission caps.

The narrative twists and turns, to the extent that even though I'd seen the movie twenty years ago, I couldn't remember who the killer was. Veronica Lake is beautiful and cool, as is Ladd, and William Bendix is believable as a wounded, shell-shocked comrade of Morrison's who really hates big-band music and flowers. Apparently, Veterans' Affairs wasn't any better after WWII at looking after the wounded than it is now.

Some casual gunplay in somewhat unlikely locations will probably raise a laugh or two, as may Morrison's amazingly hard head. He's the Bruce Campbell of 1946. The direction is workmanlike, the script sparkling with tough/sentimental dialogue and weird little bits, including a scene involving a hood with a broken leg that seems like the Ur-Moment for all those scenes of talkative criminals in Quentin Tarantino movies. Recommended.