Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Horror and the Trauma: Holes for Faces (2013) by Ramsey Campbell

Holes for Faces (2013) by Ramsey Campbell, containing the following stories:

"Passing Through Peacehaven" (2011) "Peep" (2007)
"Getting It Wrong" (2011)
"The Room Beyond" (2011)
"Holes for Faces" (2013)
"The Rounds" (2010)
"The Decorations" (2005)
"The Address" (2012)
"Recently Used" (2011)
"Chucky Comes to Liverpool" (2010)
"With the Angels" (2010)
"Behind the Doors" (2013)
"Holding the Light" (2011)
"The Long Way" (2008)

Excellent collection of horror stories from the 21st century, with the venerable Ramsey Campbell -- first published in the early 1960's by Arkham House -- demonstrating that he's still a master of both terror and poignance. Many of these stories deal with the effects of childhood trauma as remembered and re-experienced by an adult. Sometimes the antagonist is a supernatural menace, though in many of the stories, the problem could actually be a delusion. Throughout the stories, Campbell's often near-hallucinatory descriptions of people, things, and events keep the level of unease high. 

The stories also deal with children facing supernatural and non-supernatural terrors, perhaps none more acutely than the increasingly confused 13-year-old protagonist of "Chucky Comes to Liverpool." Here, his mother's involvement in a community campaign against horror movies -- and her obsessive 'protection' of him from all evil media influences -- causes major psychological problems. It's a fine story that works even better if one has read Campbell's essays on some of the censorship 'debates' he attended during various English campaigns against horror movies, including those focused on the Chucky movies..

The effects of old age are the focus of several stories, sometimes aggravated by those recurring childhood traumas, sometimes twinned with a separate character facing new childhood trauma. There are parents inflicting psychological traumas on their children. And there are trains and train stations. Seriously. 

Sometimes the train is the problem, sometimes the station, sometimes both... and sometimes not being able to find a train station leads one into dire supernatural peril. Given the focus on (as the back cover says) "Youth and age," the emphasis on trains and train stations, on arrivals and departures, seems only natural. There may be non-human and formerly human monsters throughout the collection, but they're mostly seen only in vague half-glimpses of terrible import. Their occasional complete manifestations, when they come, can be shocking, but it's the reactions of the various characters to the supernatural, or the seeming supernatural, that makes the stories so strong. We may not all meet ghosts, but we all know guilt and fear and regret. Or a hatred of Physical Education classes. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975)

Barry Lyndon: adapted from the William Makepeace Thackeray novel and directed by Stanley Kubrick; starring Ryan O'Neal (Barry Lyndon), Marisa Berenson (Lady Lyndon), Marie Kean (Barry's Mother), and Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon) (1975): Stanley Kubrick takes the static shot just about as far as it can go without breaking a movie, from lengthy establishing landscape shots inspired by period painters such as Gainsborough to tableaux involving large groups of actors immobilized by either Kubrick's aesthetic decisions or the necessities of film-making in the early 1970's while attempting to use only low levels of natural light.

Thackeray's novel is often cited as being the first English novel featuring an anti-hero, one specifically designed to be an unappealing and often monstrous creature set up as the antithesis of such lovable picaros as Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews. Kubrick takes this idea and runs with it. Ryan O'Neal's Barry Lyndon is often inexpressive and almost always a terrible, terrible person. 

However, pretty much everyone in the movie is a terrible person, or an unsympathetically weak or cowardly one. This isn't accidental. Kubrick clearly means this as a critique of the overwhelmingly terrible society of 18th-century Europe in general, and the godawful gentry in particular.

The end result, as someone once observed, is an awful lot like watching a science-fictional docudrama about an alien culture. Kubrick's movies had been dealing with the inescapability of violence in human culture since at least Paths of Glory, and Barry Lyndon is, among other things, yet another examination of the dark heart of man. 

It may be the most tedious great movie of all time, and that certainly is intentional. John Fowles had to explain the boredom of the gentry in the 18th and 19th centuries in The French Lieutenant's Woman. Kubrick shows it, along with the brutality and general indifference to human life that walked hand in hand with that tedium, punctuating 95% boredom with 5% horror.

There are chilly, funny moments throughout. The drollest touch comes with the narration, which is the warmest piece of acting and writing in the movie. The disjuncture between that narration and what we see and hear in the narrative itself is ironic as all get-out. So, too, the gorgeous, painterly shots of the landscape. Kubrick seems to be looking for intelligent life and finding it nowhere. But Jesus, can he frame a shot! Highly recommended.

David Lean's Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations: adapted from the Charles Dickens novel by David Leane, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Kay Walsh, and Cecil McGivern; directed by David Lean; starring John Mills (Pip), Tony Wager (Young Pip), Valerie Hobson (Estella), Jean Simmons (Young Estella), Bernard Miles (Joe), Finlay Currie (Magwitch), Alec Guinness (Herbert Pocket), Martita Hunt (Miss Havisham), Ivor Barnard (Wemmick), and Francis L. Sullivan (Jaggers) (1946):

Excellent adaptation of the Dickens novel skimps a bit on the middle sections in order to concentrate on the exciting parts at the beginning and ending of the source text. It also makes an ending even happier than the one Dickens tacked on after people were disappointed with his original downbeat ending. So it goes. 

This is the much looser and warmer David Lean of the 1940's and early 1950's, before his desire to film epics caused him to calcify. The performances are all top-notch, especially those of a young Alec Guinness as Pip's friend Herbert Pocket and Francis Sullivan as the fascinating, ambivalent Jaggers. Joe is a humble, comic charmer, while John Mills does nice work as Pip, though the movie's compression of the middle section omits quite a bit of Pip's unsympathetic, snobbish period prior to the revelation of just who has been funding Pip's gentlemanly lifestyle.

The set design, cinematography, and direction heighten the Gothic elements of the novel when we're searching the marshes for escaped convicts or lingering in the decayed and sinister dining room of Miss Havisham. Otherwise, Lean alternates between the bustle of high society and the homey touches of Pip's childhood home in the English marshes.

Estella's adult character comes across as quite a bit warmer than that in the novel, setting up that revised ending. This may simply be the result of an actress who herself is too warm a presence for the role, though the ending perhaps makes this warmth a necessary part of the character development: this Estella hasn't entirely been emotionally neutered by the malignly self-pitying Miss Havisham. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

House of Windows (2009) by John Langan

House of Windows by John Langan (2009): John Langan's first novel is terrific, an erudite ghost story informed by Langan's knowledge of the horror genre and by his experiences in academia. It's a first-person tale within a frame -- a perennial structure in horror. It's a novel of academia. And its main narrator would seem utterly persuasive if it weren't for brief, gem-like moments throughout her narration that seem to highlight a pronounced lack of self-knowledge. Or do they?

Over the course of two long nights, SUNY-Huguenot graduate student and sessional instructor Veronica Croydon tells the story of her husband's mysterious disappearance to a narrator who seems to be John Langan. She does so because Langan writes horror stories and thus may be a good choice to hear the tale. During the day between the two nights, Langan and his wife discuss the possibility that he may also have been chosen for his perceived gullibility when it comes to the supernatural.

Veronica's narrative voice is sharp, self-assured, and intermittently unsympathetic. She's a great creation. Overall, her story of the supernatural seems convincing. It's the sudden revelations of a pronounced lack of self-evaluation spotted throughout the text that raise the possibility that her narration is flawed or possibly confabulated in its entirety. But these moments are few and far between, and subtle enough in most cases to sneak by.

Langan's depiction of academic life rings utterly true to this former academic. Veronica reminds me of a handful of graduate students I've known without in any way being a stereotype. The 40-years-older, married professor she herself marries within about a year of starting her graduate studies is also familiar without being a type. But we learn of him (and everything inside the frame) only from Veronica's point-of-view. Do we trust her? Do we trust any first-person narrator? Do we trust any narrator at all?

I don't know. In general, the discontinuities in the narrative include moments in which Veronica engages in stereotypical gender constructions of the male while at other points bristling at such constructions being attached to the female. She denigrates Herman Melville for being a detail-obsessed windbag while occasionally relating such a list of minutiae that the narrative almost bogs down in soporific descriptions of making dinner or sitting in a living room. She may have become her near-future husband's favourite student in the space of one class, with their out-of-class socializing beginning immediately thereafter, but she doesn't believe in being familiar with her own students. The failure of the earlier marriage was all the fault of the first wife -- but we learn of the first wife only through Veronica's narration. Well, we learn almost everything only through Veronica's narration. And a story that details the tragically flawed relationships of at least two sets of fathers and sons -- as commented upon throughout by Veronica -- also features Veronica's distant, annoyed relationship with a mother with whom she goes years between conversations. 

The major characters filling out the novel's pas de quatre are Ted, Roger's 30ish son from his previous marriage, and the house the Croydons have lived in for decades, Belvedere House. It's an old house. And it's about to become haunted. Or something.

Langan's vision of the supernatural in this novel bridges a gap between the cosmic, impersonal, non-traditional horrors of the Lovecraftian and the more traditional wonders and terrors of a ghost story, with psychology hanging over all. It helps to have read Fritz Leiber's great Our Lady of Darkness before reading his novel, but one doesn't need to: Langan lays everything out that the reader needs to know. Knowledge of the Leiber novel enriches one's enjoyment of House of Windows, though. And it's a swell novel.

As is this novel. The horrors here are both gross and subtle, supernatural and strictly human. There may not have ever been a haunting. But whether or not there was, there's a story of a haunting and the haunted -- there's horror and sorrow. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Jason and the Argonauts: written by Jan Read and Beverley Cross; directed by Don Chaffey and Ray Harryhausen; starring Todd Armstrong (Jason) and Nancy Kovack (Medea) (1963): Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion wizardry gives various scenes in this mythological adventure movie the quality of a dream -- or a nightmare. 

The actors may not be great, the plot may meander, but the film's stop-motion/live-action integration achieves remarkable effects. It's not that the creatures look realistic. It's that they look just realistic enough while maintaining a look that also suggests their otherworldly nature within the narrative.

Jason and the Argonauts contains two of Harryhausen's greatest achievements -- the giant bronze 'robot' Talos and the great skeleton battle. We also get a nifty battle between Jason and the Hydra and a somewhat disappointing sequence involving Harpies, who never seem to be integrated as effectively as the other stop-motion creatures. Oh, well. 

Jason and his crew of merry Greeks search for the Golden Fleece, Hercules screws up, and many great battles are had with monsters while the Greek gods help or hinder Jason in his quest. The battle between Jason and several reanimated skeletons occurs at the end of the film, and it really is a show-stopper. Highly recommended.

Freaks (1932)

Freaks: written by Tod Robbins; directed by Tod Browning; starring Wallace Ford (Phroso), Leila Hyams (Venus), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra), Henry Victor (Hercules), Harry Earles (Hans), Daisy Earles (Frieda), and Rose Dione (Madame Tetrallini) (1932): You really don't watch Freaks for the acting or the writing or that static, early sound-era direction. You watch it because the disabilities and deformities are real, because the story has the crude power of a fable, and because Tod Browning does manage a couple of effective scenes in the dark and the rain, when he's able to stage something that doesn't require camera movement.

So far as I can tell, the longest restored version runs 64 minutes, lacking about 20 minutes of lost footage that were cut from the film after its first couple of weeks of release. The lost footage apparently deepened the horror while also making the 'Freaks' of the travelling carnival more sympathetic and the 'normal' people much less so. What's left is still stunning, and surprisingly sympathetic in its treatment of the carnival grotesques who are simply trying to make a living in a world where the best they can hope for is life as a sideshow attraction.

Besides the unnerving night-time attack scene and the late-movie revelation of what revenge the carnival folk took on the homicidal trapeze artist, other scenes also achieve a sort of Grimm's pastoral. A scene involving 'pinheads' and their protector playing in the woods near the village they're visiting has a grace to it, and a grace note of kindness involving one of the townspeople's treatment of the frolickers. 

Only a coda added to the movie after its bowdlerization rings absolutely false. The rest is crude and powerful and impossible to imagine being made today. The horror of the movie begins as a contemplation of distortions of the human form and ends as a classic tale of horrific revenge in the manner of EC Comics or Poe's "Hop-Frog." The viewer's identification moves inexorably towards that of the 'Freaks,' and away from those who would harm or kill or even just mock them. Highly recommended.

What We Do In The Shadows (2014)

What We Do In The Shadows: written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi; starring Jemaine Clement (Vladislav), Taika Waititi (Viago), Jonny Brugh (Deacon), Cori Gonzalez-Macuer (Nick), Stu Rutherford (Stu), Ben Fransham (Petyr), and Jackie van Beek (Jackie) (2014): Hilarious fake documentary from the people who brought you Flight of the Conchords centered on the exploits of four vampires rooming together in the Greater Wellington Area of New Zealand. There are jarring moments of violence throughout, but the movie overall is surprisingly genial in its portrayal of the vampires and their kith and kin. 

One of the things that makes the movie so enjoyable is its rigorous attention to the details of living as a vampire, spun at most points for maximum hilarity. It's hard to groom when you can't see yourself in a mirror, for instance, and for a young vampire, learning to fly can be a real hassle. The vampires are aware of fictional constructions of their habits -- they even crib one bit of hypnotic shenanigans from The Lost Boys, all the while mispronouncing 'spaghetti' as 'basgetti.' 

The laugh-out-loud moments are often truly gross -- Dandy vamp Viago's problems with tapping the vein of a victim lead to an awful lot of spurting blood, while new vamp Nick learns the hard way why vampires shouldn't eat chips. Meanwhile, 8000-year-old Petyr lurks in the basement listening to his headphones and refusing to attend house meetings. But he's a good listener!

I mean, really one wishes a 'serious' vampire movie would be this well-thought-out. The writers know their vampire mythology. But they also work some ridiculous changes on their sources, whether it's through Vlad's problems with shape-shifting or the eternal war between vampires and werewolves. What We Do In The Shadows is a sheer delight. Leave your reflection at the door. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King (2015)

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams (2015) by Stephen King, containing the following short stories:

Mile 81  (2011): Jaunty, fairly basic horror collaboration between the King of 2011 and the college student King of the late 1960's. Kids, cars, and a monster.

Premium Harmony  (2009): Rueful, comic slice of life.

Batman and Robin Have an Altercation  (2012): Rueful, comic slice of life.

The Dune  (2011): Minor dark fantasy piece... with a twist!

Bad Little Kid (2015 first English publication here): Great horror story is also quintessential King in the way it puts an almost homey, American 'pop' spin on a long-standing horror trope while also making a completely innocuous object into a source of gradually earned terror.

A Death  (2015): Mildly ironic bit of Old West existentialism.

The Bone Church  (2009): Interesting, not entirely successful poem.

Morality  (2009): King's much creepier take on the premise of something like Indecent Proposal.      
Afterlife  (2013) : There's a sinister underlier to this post-mortem fantasy that makes it work. More in the vein of Charles Beaumont than Ray Bradbury.

Ur  (2009): A good modern riff on an old fantasy chestnut gets derailed about 2/3's of the way through by the introduction of another chestnut that makes the whole thing seem like King's 11/22/63 writ very small. 

Herman Wouk Is Still Alive  (2011): Another slice of life with a horrifying conclusion.

Under the Weather  (2011): Return of the Unreliable Narrator.

Blockade Billy  (2010): King's 1950's novella about baseball and madness is a mostly understated gem.

Mister Yummy (2015 first publication here): One of those later King stories that seems as if it should be about half as long. An interesting idea drags on and on.

Tommy  (2010): Another interesting, not entirely successful poem, this time meditating on the 1960's and loss.

The Little Green God of Agony  (2011): Supernatural 'gotcha' story ends several paragraphs too early for me.

That Bus is Another World  (2014): It's the set-up to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple novel 4:50 from Paddington...on a bus! But without an ending!

Obits (2015 first publication here): Interesting, overlong horror-fantasy sort of trickles out at the end.

Drunken Fireworks (2015): Intermittently funny piece seems like a sort of Stephen Leacock Mariposa piece for a much more scatological millennium.

Summer Thunder (2013) : Rueful, dire end-of-the-world story seems like a much lesser book-end to King's 1974 gem "Night Surf" -- and the book-ending includes the use of men in their sixties in this story as opposed to the teenagers of "Night Surf." Will the circle remain unbroken?

Overall grade: Recommended. It's not up to the quality of King's first two collections (Night Shift and Skeleton Crew and very few horror collections by anyone are), though it may almost be as good as Nightmares & Dreamscapes, and seems to me to be superior to Everything's Eventual and far, far superior to King's previous short-story collection, the mostly skippable Just After Sunset

The best story (and best horror story King's written in a very long time) is "Bad Little Kid," which is a deft and very much quintessentially Kingian reimagining of a horror trope that's been seen in such all-time classics as Sheridan Le Fanu's "Green Tea" and "The Familiar" or M.R. James "Casting the Runes" and "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook," among so many others.

I suppose the difference between the King of 1975 and 2015 could be explained thusly: had he written "Bad Little Kid" in 1975, it could still have been a great horror story. However, it would have been half the length. And odds are that a relatively stereotypical supernatural ritual might have been tried by a character or characters to deal with the supernatural menace. Instead, there's a sorrowful, almost elegaic tone to the story as something terrible torments somebody again and again over the years. It's a terrific, terrific story: the old man can still bring it.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

The Mothman Prophecies: adapted from the novel by John Keel by Richard Hatem; directed by Mark Pellington; starring Richard Gere (John Klein), Debra Messing (Mary Klein), Will Patton (Gordon Smallwood), and Laura Linney (Connie Mills) (2002): I suppose there's an alternate universe out there in which Mark Pellington has been an acclaimed director of horror and suspense films for the past two decades. Here, he seems to have poured much of his energy into TV production after The Mothman Prophecies came out in 2002. More's the pity.

When the publisher of the mid-1970's 'true-life' book you've based your movie on classifies that book as a novel (as Tor did John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies), you might as well run with it. I suppose if this movie were advocating the dangerous practice of exorcism while purporting to be a true story, I'd find it repugnant. 

As it instead generates a cosmic thrill-ride that ultimately comes out against pseudoscience and occultism, and as it's extremely well-made and well-acted -- well, I think The Mothman Prophecies is just swell. Pellington's games with visual and audio distortion give the film the unnerving quality of cosmic horror. The script's intentional vagueness about just what the hell is going on also helps.

Basically, back in the 1960's, a bridge collapsed in a small town in West Virginia, killing 46 people. There had been a Mothman craze in the town, fueled by a character on the Batman TV show and by our old friend, the barn owl, which has been linked to erroneous reports of aliens and monsters ever since people invented artificial lighting and started walking and driving around at night.

Nearly 10 years after the bridge collapse came the publication of John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies, a surprisingly boring mix of facts, speculation, and loopy metaphysics. More than 25 years after that came this movie, which pretty much invents all its characters and moves the bridge collapse 30 years forward in time while oddly reducing the death toll by 10.

But while the 'true facts' of the case are a lot of Hoo-Ha, Pellington's movie is smart and ambiguous and clever on both the narrative and visual fronts. Richard Gere's perennial insularity as an actor serves the movie well, as his character is an obsessive emotional cipher following the death of his wife. The rest of the cast is also fine, with Laura Linney and Will Patton keeping things low-key. Even Alan Bates underplays the role of John Leek, a stand-in for writer John Keel. With Gere as John Klein, that's two author stand-ins for the price of one! Recommended.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Spider Baby (1967)

Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told (a.k.a The Liver Eaters; a.k.a. Cannibal Feast): written and directed by Jack Hill; starring Lon Chaney Jr. (Bruno), Carol Ohmart (Emily), Quinn Redeker (Peter), Beverly Washburn (Elizabeth), Jill Banner (Virginia), Sid Haig (Ralph), Mary MItchell (Ann), and Karl Schanzer (Schlocker) (1967): The Merrye family has a problem: as they age, they gradually turn into cannibals. Then they turn into bipedal spiders. Then they turn into spiders. Yikes.

Made for the grand total of $65,000 in 1964 and unreleased until 1967, Spider Baby is a weirdly awesome piece of schlock cinema. It plays for the most part like a bleak horror comedy. The producers, perhaps not entirely sure of what to do with their movie, placed a jokey credit sequence at the beginning, complete with star Lon Chaney Jr. singing a title song in the vein of "Monster Mash."

Oh, Lon Chaney Jr.. He's a tribute to the working actor here, gamely playing the Merrye family's caretaker/butler/chauffeur with a sort of wounded, lunatic comic sympathy. He got all of $2500 for the role and earned every bit of it.

The actors playing 'normal' people are all pretty terrible, though that may be a matter of direction. The Addams Family-style farce they seem to be acting in doesn't seem to synchronize at all with the bleaker, blacker comedy of the merry mutating Merryes. Besides faithful Bruno, there are Virginia and Elizabeth, homicidal sisters, and Ralph, simple-minded devourer of cats. 

The production's cheapness and crudity serve it in good stead, though. There's a perverted sense of authenticity to the movie, along with moments of horror and revulsion. There's no graphic violence to speak of, but what's implied is generally more than enough. 

Whether or not later film-makers were actually influenced by the movie may be irrelevant -- though I"d certainly believe that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre shares more than a few DNA strands with Spider Baby. It's an authentic, primitive American horror original. Casual racism and what may or may not be a rape scene will almost certainly offend some people. Nonetheless, Spider Baby is a weird little masterpiece when taken on its own terms. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Grimscribe: His Lives and Works (1991/This edition 2015) by Thomas Ligotti

Grimscribe: His Lives and Works (1991/This edition 2015) by Thomas Ligotti, containing the following stories:

  • Introduction: Grimscribe: His Lives and Works (1991): Janus-like, the introduction peers toward pomposity and parody.
  • "The Last Feast of Harlequin" (1990): Almost certainly Ligotti's most-reprinted work, a novella that is both somewhat obliquely an homage to H.P. Lovecraft's "The Festival" and its very own thing, a striking, funny, droll, disturbing journey through a small town and its mysterious festival and the narrator who gets pulled into stranger and stranger situations as he investigates the town for anthropological reasons. Ligotti takes a number of horror tropes and makes them seem new and horrible again through the sheer force and inventiveness of his imagination and his narrative POV. One of the all-time great stories of cosmic horror, and perhaps Ligotti's most accessible major work.
  • "The Spectacles in the Drawer"  (1987): Quintessential Ligotti in its combination of reality-busting and extraordinarily idiosyncratic characters.
  • "Flowers of the Abyss" (1991): Another tale of a polluted reality and its peculiar attraction for people who should probably know better.
  • "Nethescurial" (1991): Another oft-reprinted piece of Ligotti's Major Arcana. Vaguely Lovecraftian in tone and content, but distinctly a working-through of these things from Ligotti's assured, unique perspective. Puppet alert.
  • "The Dreaming in Nortown" (1991): Reality breaks down in disturbing ways, all narrated by Ligotti's most Poe-esque protagonist.
  • "The Mystics of Muelenburg"  (1987): Oblique, bleak reality-bender.
  • "In the Shadow of Another World" (1991): Very strange and distinctive tale takes the haunted-house story and utterly scrambles it.
  • "The Cocoons" (1991): Very, very horrific piece of absurdism, or at least near-absurdism. One of Ligotti's stories that disturbs without offering anything in the way of an attempt to frame things within a rational explanation.
  • "The Night School" (1991): Worst night class ever.
  • "The Glamour" (1991): A trip to a movie becomes a nightmarish, inexplicable tour of some peculiar, horrible sights and sounds. One of Ligotti's stories that leaves one shaken without any real way to parse what has happened in the story.
  • "The Library of Byzantium" (1988): Sinister drawings, sinister priests, a sinister book, and a surprisingly traditional use of holy water.
  • "Miss Plarr" (1991): Nothing really terrible happens in this tale of a boy and his nanny, yet the story defies simple explanation while it constructs a world that alternates between claustrophobic interior spaces and fog-erased exterior spaces.
  • "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" (1990): One of Ligotti's more straightforward stories in terms of its construction of what Evil is and what position it occupies in the universe. Another horror trope (the scary scarecrow) becomes revitalized by Ligotti's imagination. 

In all: a great collection of Ligotti's late 1980's and early 1990's work with all its cosmic, absurdist, horrific, comic, infernal devices. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Klarkash-Ton Cycle: Clark Ashton Smith's Cthulhu Mythos Fiction: edited and with notes by Robert M. Price (Collected 2008)

The Klarkash-Ton Cycle: Clark Ashton Smith's Cthulhu Mythos Fiction: edited and with notes by Robert M. Price (Collected 2008):

Chaosium reprints the Cthulhu Mythos-related short stories of Clark Ashton Smith in three volumes, with this being the one containing stories that aren't set in the distant past when the Book of Eibon was being composed nor those Smith stories that focus on his quasi-tricksterish god Tsathoggua.

Despite the availability of Smith's work in multiple editions, this text is valuable because it reprints several variant versions of Smith's stories that aren't available that easily, along with a long story fragment -- "The Infernal Star" -- that is otherwise out of print.

'Klarkash-Ton' was the nickname H.P. Lovecraft gave Smith in their correspondence in the 1930's. The stories range from straightforward horror to science fiction to science-fiction horror, while Smith's prose style ranges from the relatively plain to the poetically baroque, almost arcane diction that one really either loves or hates. I love it, in part because there's clearly a sense of humour at work behind the occasionally loopy word choices.

One caveat: the stories have been proofread and copy-edited with mind-boggling ineptitude. You may want to grab a pen and correct all the errors for the next person who reads the collection. Think of it as a fun game!

  • "The Ghoul" (1934): Smith's ghoul isn't as idiosyncratic as Lovecraft's ghouls, though it sure loves to eat dead people. 
  • "A Rendering from the Arabic" (Variant of "The Return of the Sorcerer" [1931]): Slightly different version of the oft-reprinted "The Return of the Sorcerer." Lovecraftian references abound in a story about the walking, shuffling dead.
  • "The Hunters from Beyond" (1932): One of those Smith stories that plays with his own multi-talented career as a painter and sculptor as well as a writer of prose and poetry. It does seem a bit derivative of both HPL's "Pickman's Model" and Frank Belknap Long's "The Hounds of Tindalos."
  • "The Vaults of Abomi" (Variant of "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis" [1932/1989]): A few hundred words flesh out the beginning of one of Smith's two or three finest works of science-fictional horror, set on his version of Mars and possessed of imagery and situations that anticipate such later horrors as Alien, The Thing, and The Puppet Masters.
  • "The Nameless Offspring" (1932): Well, we get the offstage rape of a woman in a coma by a ghoul, followed by the resultant offspring. One of Smith's most obliquely disturbing works.
  • "Ubbo-Sathla (1933)": Much-reprinted reincarnational horror story.
  • "The Werewolf of Averoigne"  (Variant of "The Beast of Averoigne") [1931/1984]): The variant is superior to the standard version, preserving as it does Smith's original multi-viewpoint epistolary format.
  • "The Eidolon of the Blind" (Variant of "The Dweller in the Gulf" [1933]): Another creepy science-fiction horror story set on Smith's version of Mars, which makes most other early 20th-century writers' versions of Mars seem like a goddam Disneyworld.
  • "Vulthoom" (1935): Another Mars story, much lighter on horror and, as Price comments in the notes, not that different from many other contemporary interplanetary stories involving humans and decadent, Orientalist civilizations.
  • "The Treader of the Dust" (1935): Excellent, concise horror story with a strikingly creepy evil god or demigod or whatever you want to call it.
  • "The Infernal Star" (Fragment) (1935/1989): Fascinating, long fragment of what was to be a novella-length dark fantasy involving reincarnation, atomic 'memory,' and a Sun made, basically, of Evil.

In all: highly recommended, though I do wish for an edition with better copy editing.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Lovecraft Unbound: 20 Stories (2008): edited by Ellen Datlow.

Lovecraft Unbound: 20 Stories (2008): edited by Ellen Datlow.

I think this anthology, which consists of 16 new stories and 4 reprints, is the award-winning, veteran editor Datlow's finest anthology. It's not all killer, but there is no filler. Many of the stories that first appeared in this anthology have already been anthologized several more times since Lovecraft Unbound appeared in 2008. Highly recommended overall.

  • "The Crevasse" by Nathan Ballingrud and Dale Bailey: Antarctic setting recalls HPL's At the Mountains of Madness, but this effective and low-key (in a supernatural sense) story also riffs on "Who Goes There?," the basis for The Thing movies.
  • "The Office of Doom" by Richard Bowes: Never order the Necronomicon on an Inter-Library Loan. Just don't.
  • "Sincerely, Petrified" by Anna Tambour: Elliptical tale of fictional myths attached to... The Petrified Forest? Yes. Unusual and very enjoyable.
  • "The Din of Celestial Birds" (1997) by Brian Evenson: Interesting but a bit too murky for my tastes.
  • "The Tenderness of Jackals" by Amanda Downum: Writers really get entranced by the idea of making HPL's ghouls into a fully realized society. Not a bad story, but crippled by those tricky ghouls, who have frustrated many a writer.
  • "Sight Unseen" by Joel Lane: Moody, low-key riff on HPL's "The Shadow Out of Time."
  • "Cold Water Survival" by Holly Phillips: Very science fictiony and of-the-moment as Global Warming releases monsters. Nebulous, Swiss-Army-Knife monsters when it comes to their skill-sets, which are too vast and ill-defined to allow me to suspend disbelief beyond page 3.
  • "Come Lurk with Me and Be My Love" by William Browning Spencer: Another entry in Spencer's often serio-comic explorations of Lovecraftian themes and variations as seen in the terrific novels Resume with Monsters and Irrational Fears.
  • "Houses Under the Sea" (2006) by Caitlin R. Kiernan: A solid mix of first-person narration and pseudo-documentary collage dissipates with the big reveal, which is amazingly underwhelming.
  • "Machines of Concrete Light and Dark" by Michael Cisco: Creepy bit of philosophical horror; slight but solid.
  • "Leng" by Marc Laidlaw: Skirts the very edge of parody in its visit to Lovecraft's famous, infamous Plateau of Leng, which is not a place you want to visit. Hold the mushrooms.
  • "In the Black Mill" (1997) by Michael Chabon: Chabon's story hammers on obvious parody during its first half, which is rife with winky, coy,  obvious shout-outs to various Lovecraftian names and places (a woman named Brown-Jenkin? Really?). The spell of HPL seems to overcome Chabon in the second half, as the story suddenly plays everything straight -- but the parody undoes any ability to take the story seriously while also being obvious and awfully thudding in its humour.
  • "One Day, Soon" by Lavie Tidhar: Oblique, mysterious bit of cosmic horror involving a forbidden book.
  • "Commencement" (2001) by Joyce Carol Oates: Deceptively light-hearted narration darkens throughout in a story that feels an awful lot like Oates doing a riff on Thomas Ligotti, who does this particular sort of thing better.
  • "Vernon, Driving" by Simon Kurt Unsworth: Relationship horror with a sorrowful cosmic twist.
  • "The Recruiter" by Michael Shea: Light black comedy with serious undertones ties in to several other Shea stories involving Lovecraftian beings.
  • "Marya Nox" by Gemma Files: Files nails the documentary aspect of Lovecraftian horror while offering an interesting geopolitical setting for a tale of a buried church that should have remained buried.
  • "Mongoose" by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette: Unusual space opera plays with Lovecraftian names while being tonally and thematically so far from HPL that the story (one of a series) could probably do without its space-traevling Arkhamites and reconfigured Hounds of Tindalos (now complete with Linnaean taxonomy -- Pseudocanis tindalosi).
  • "Catch Hell" by Laird Barron: Oddly, one of Barron's least cosmic, least Lovecraftian stories. Good for Barron would be great for almost anyone else.
  • "That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable" by Nick Mamatas: Low-key, purposefully mundane slice-of-life from the days after the Great Old Ones rose to destroy humanity and reclaim Earth. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: written by Paul Schrader and Steven Spielberg; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Richard Dreyfus (Roy Neary), Francois Truffaut (Lacombe), Melinda Dillon (Jillian Guiler), Bob Balaban (Laughlin), and Teri Garr (Ronnie Neary( (1977): It's amazing how much Close Encounters of the Third Kind plays like a horror movie for much of its length -- indeed, like an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu." The film moves from location to location to show various strange events and mysteries that occur across the planet. There's a documentary feel to the location work and the narrative structure, as mysterious U.N. investigators led by Francois Truffaut and Bob Balaban travel the Earth to investigate UFO-related incidents. 

In the purposefully mundane domestic sequences that focus on dissatisfied husband and father Richard Dreyfus and single mother Melinda Dillon, we see Spielberg and uncredited screenwriter Paul Schrader ground the movie in the day-to-day life of working-class Americans. And then the UFO's show up and gradually change everything. And as with many of the characters in "The Call of Cthulhu," Dillon and Dreyfus are tormented by nightmares and visions as the alien arrival on Earth approaches.

I don't know that either Schrader or Spielberg ever read "The Call of Cthulhu." It has such a sturdy narrative approach to the creation of globe-spanning cosmic horror that it's more of a surprise that more film-makers haven't stumbled upon the approach before. The main difference here being that the story is ultimately about the arrival on Earth of friendly aliens and not all-conquering alien monsters. But the aliens do enough odd things along the way that a certain measure of fear recurs throughout the movie, most notably when aliens kidnap Dillon's young son for reasons that are as murky as anything else when it comes to possible alien motivation.

The arrival of the UFO's at the conclusion of the film stands as a high point of practical, non-CGI visual effects. It's a showcase of model work, cloud tanks, mattes, and an assortment of other 'tricks' honed to near-perfection during the non-CGI years. It's also a beautiful-looking climax, with its glowing alien spacecraft set off against the night sky and the looming stump of the mountainous Devil's Tower.

The Lovecraftian melding of documentary-style attention to detail and the unfolding of revelations to increasingly weirded-out protagonists serve Spielberg's vision well. The acting is solid throughout and, in the case of Truffaut's visionary, quite charming. What the aliens are doing doesn't necessarily make much sense, and there are some groaners in the dialogue towards the end (an exchange about Einstein is especially dumb). But overall, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is still a splendid movie, and one that probably would never be made in today's marketplace. Highly recommended.

The Call of Cthulhu: adapted by Sean Branney from the story by H.P. Lovecraft; directed by Andrew Leman; starring Matt Foyer (Narrator), Ralph Lucas (Professor Angell), Patrick O'Day (Johansen), and David Mersault (Inspector Legrasse) (2005): The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS)'s first long-form foray into film-making is now 10 years old and still dandy. An amateur film made for a pittance, it outshines most professional horror movies with far larger budgets both in its faithfulness to its source material and in its aesthetic pleasures.

Lovecraft's seminal Cthulhu Mythos novella saw publication in 1926. HPLHS adapted the novella under the conceit that it had been adapted for film in its publication year. Thus, The Call of Cthulhu is a silent movie that looks and acts like a silent movie, right down to the occasional defects in the viewing experience (dig that hair on the lens in the early going!). 

We do get an excellent musical score, so one can either assume that one is in a 1926 film theatre with live music or that The Call of Cthulhu has had a score added for its 'modern' release. Whatever suspends your disbelief. But The Call of Cthulhu isn't simply an homage to the film-making tropes of the late Silent Era: it's a compelling horror movie in its own right. 

Clever visual riffs on Van Gogh and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari seem appropriate to the subject matter; the stop-motion Cthulhu we see towards the end of the film is a terrific use of period-appropriate visual effects that actually manages to be disquieting as it lurches across the screen. Model and prop work are also beautiful throughout the movie, with a couple of different yet equally disquieting Cthulhu idols and a terrific approximation of Cthulhu's home/prison R'lyeh, risen from the waves for a brief moment.

It's a worthwhile expenditure of an hour to watch The Call of Cthulhu. Would that big-budget horror and fantasy movies showed this level of skill and artistry. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Songs of a Dead Dreamer (With these contents 2010) by Thomas Ligotti

Songs of a Dead Dreamer (With these contents 2010) by Thomas Ligotti, in Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (2015). Introduction by Jeff VanderMeer; containing the following stories:

The Frolic • (1982)
Les Fleurs • (1981)
Alice's Last Adventure • (1985)
Dream of a Manikin • (1982)
The Nyctalops Trilogy, consisting of The Chymist • (1981), Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes • (1982), and Eye of the Lynx • (1983)
Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story • (1985)
The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise: A Tale of Possession in Old Grosse Pointe • (1983)
The Lost Art of Twilight • (1986)
The Troubles of Dr. Thoss • (1985)
Masquerade of a Dead Sword: A Tragedie • (1986
Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech • (1983)
Professor Nobody's Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror • (1985)
Dr. Locrian's Asylum • (1987)
The Sect of the Idiot • (1988)
The Greater Festival of Masks • (1985)
The Music of the Moon • (1987)
The Journal of J.P. Drapeau • (1987)
Vastarien • (1987) 

Songs of a Dead Dreamer first appeared in 1985 as Thomas Ligotti's first short-story collection. Its contents changed in different editions over the years. In this Penguin 'Double,' paired with Grimscribe, his second collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer uses the same contents as the 2010 Subterranean Press edition.

Ligotti is a relatively unknown quantity outside horror fiction -- his biggest career exposure came as people on-line debated whether or not he'd been plagiarized in the first season of True Detective to supply Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle with all his best lines.

Prior to that, Ligotti was a mysterious figure. After that, he was also a mysterious figure. His reclusiveness isn't at the level of Pynchon or Salinger, but it's still remarkable in today's media-saturated age. His stories and essays tell the story. He doesn't write novels, though he has written one fairly long novella (My Work is Not Yet Done). He's certainly not for everybody, but then again, what writer is?

Ligotti's literary universe, already distinctly Ligottian early in his career, resembles something assembled in a laboratory from pieces of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, and Jorge Luis Borges. Then someone threw in an obsession with puppets, mannequins, and marionettes. Then someone set Phasers to Nihilism and roasted everything for about an hour. And that doesn't really describe his corpus all that well. He's got a more noticeable sense of humour than the four named authors, for one. Poe occasionally had a similar sense of humour in his blackly comic stories, but he didn't tend to exhibit that sense of humour in his horror stories. Ligotti often does.

But while there will always be attempts to classify Ligotti as Weird (including one by Weird spokesman Jeff VanderMeer in his clumsy, vague introduction to this Penguin volume), he's horror all the way down. His narrative structure and voice sometimes seem more Absurdist than horrific, but next to Ligotti, Kafka and other absurdists look like Pollyannas. 

There are no happy endings in these stories. There aren't even any points where one can imagine that anyone, anywhere is happy, or fulfilled, or anything other than Totally Damned except when that person is fulfilled by doing terrible things to other people. The biggest positive moral triumph in any of these stories comes when a mind-blasted person manages to kill himself, leaving a "victorious corpse" as a rebuke to his nemesis, a nemesis which is in actuality the personification of the Universe as a malign chaos at eternal play with everything that composes its body. That's a happy ending. 

For all that nihilism, the stories are exhilarating, witty, unique, intellectually challenging, aesthetically pleasing, and often bleakly hilarious. Ligotti riffs on predecessors such as H.P. Lovecraft and genre tropes such as vampirism at certain points ("The Cult of the Idiot" posits a cult devoted to Lovecraft's burbling, bubbling, atomic chaos of an idiot god Azathoth; "Alice's Last Adventure" bounces Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl and several other writers off some very hard and unforgiving walls; "The Lost Art of Twilight" makes vampires both horrible and absurd). 

Throughout, Ligotti offers short stories with enough Big Ideas to support entire novels. Ligotti may not write novels, but he certainly doesn't write miniatures. Stories such as "Vastarien" and "Les Fleurs" supply massive mythologies in Fun-Size form. And "The Frolic" presents one of the most annoying and tired of modern horror tropes, the antic and seemingly omniscient serial killer, in such a fresh and sinister way that in other hands it would have supported a trilogy. 

"The Frolic" is the first story in the collection and it's a killer -- a serial killer who makes Hannibal Lecter and his ilk look like the tired pop contrivances that they are and a horror mostly implied that clutches the heart. "The Frolic" also showcases a relative rarity for Ligotti as 'normal' suburban characters are set off against the horror of the world. It could almost be a Charles Beaumont or T.E.D. Klein story except for the bleak, nihilistic cosmic vistas described by the serial killer. 

Songs of a Dead Dreamer is an extraordinary collection, one that does indeed make one nervous about the realities of, well, reality. If your perfect model of horror runs to Stephen King (or John Saul, gods help you), then one should probably avoid this collection -- or buy it and shake yourself up. To lift Buzz Aldrin's phrase about the Moon, this is Magnificent Desolation. But Jesus, does Ligotti love puppets. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sphere (1998)

Sphere: adapted from the Michael Crichton novel by Kurt Wimmer, Stephen Hauser, and Paul Attanasio; directed by Barry Levinson; starring Dustin Hoffman (Dr. Norman Goodman), Sharon Stone (Dr. Beth Halperin), Samuel L. Jackson (Dr. Harry Adams), Peter Coyote (Captain Baines), Liev Schreiber (Dr. Fielding), and Queen Latifah (Fletcher) (1998): A fairly famous mess in 1998 and still something of a mess now. But separated from tales of budget over-runs and what Dustin Hoffman correctly noted was a movie that needed a lot more re-writing and editing before release, Sphere just seems like a dud now and not an indictment of studio interference. 

The U.S. military discovers a mysterious spacecraft 1000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean near Guam. Inside that spaceship is a giant glowy sphere that seems to be made out of liquid mercury but really isn't. A team is sent to investigate. Dustin Hoffman, at the conclusion of his brief flirtation with the big paychecks of Event Movies, plays a psychologist who has been chosen to lead the civilian portion of the team because he wrote a paper on First Contact procedures for the first Bush administration. The two other big names in the cast, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson, play a biologist and a mathematician respectively. The lesser names in the cast play Cannon Fodder 1-4. 

Barry Levinson's direction gets as much tension out of some of the exterior underwater scenes as it can, generating a real sense of panic in a couple of sequences as strange marine lifeforms menace our intrepid but whiny team. Sphere's fatal flaw is a scrambled, creaky script that results in scenes that are under-explained and long stretches of gratingly repetitive dialogue that even a solid cast can't make interesting. Even the threat, once revealed, doesn't make as much sense as the film-makers and the characters seem to think it does. 

The movie is also rife with stupidities that exist solely to create plot tension (Hey, let's park the emergency escape sub a five-minute swim from the base, and while we're at it, let's not give the team any powered underwater craft to move between the base and the sub or the base and the spaceship!). There's also a truly incredible late howler involving the decoding of an alien message that I'm pretty sure a smart four-year old would catch. Not anyone involved with this movie, though!

There is one great twist early in the movie. Unfortunately, once we're past that twist, Sphere's fairly amazing similarity to a pair of Star Trek episodes* -- one from the original series and one from the Next Generation -- becomes more and more noticeable. Only much slower, stupider, and more boring and punctuated again and again with frustrating, repetitive scenes of people talking around and around in circles. Sphere could have been interesting, a fresh riff on movies like Alien and The Thing with a high-level cast and a major director. Instead it's a botch, though you may find yourself watching to the end just to see how big a botch it is. Not recommended.

* Spoiler alert: Sphere mashes together TOS's "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and TNG's "Where No One Has Gone Before." I kid you not.

The General: written by Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, Al Boasberg, Charles Smith, Paul Smith, and William Pittenger; directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton; starring Buster Keaton (Johnnie Gray) and Marion Mack (Annabelle Lee) (1926): Buster Keaton's big-budget Civil War comedy astonishes in part because pretty much everything on-screen involving trains actually had to be filmed live. The timing of the various stunts and comic bits is impeccable, and the direction superb. 

Keaton was the most gifted comic director of his time, a much more innovative figure than Chaplin in that regard. The sting of cheering for the Confederacy has been muted by Keaton in a number of ways, most notably by his complete omission of African-Americans from the screen. It's a comic triumph that will nonetheless infuriate some people for its glib view of the South. There are also some odd bits in which soldiers for both the Union and the Confederacy being shot to death get played for laughs. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Crimson Peak (2015) and The Innocents (1961)

Crimson Peak: written by Matthew Robins and Guillermo del Toro; directed by Guillermo del Toro; starring Mia Wasikowska (Edith Cushing), Jessica Chastain (Lucille Sharpe), Tom Hiddleston (Thomas Sharpe), Charlie Hunnam (Dr. McMichael), and Jim Beaver (Carter Cushing) (2015): Guillermo del Toro delivers a love letter to Edgar Allan Poe, Gothics, haunted houses, ghost stories, and the 1950's and 1960's horror movies of Hammer Studios and Roger Corman. Oh, and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Rebecca. "The Turn of the Screw." "The Beckoning Fair One." And a whole lot of others. Also, a guest appearance by Buffalo, New York. 

The production and costume design are extraordinary, colour-super-saturated in the manner of many of Corman's Poe adaptations while also supplying the requisite amount of decay and disintegration. Mia Wasikowska is solid as the late-19th-century American woman who chooses the wrong English guy, Tom Hiddleston conjures up some Vincent-Price-like morbid empathy as he plays that wrong guy, and Jessica Chastain is sinister and loopy as the wrong guy's sister. 

There are even elements of steam punk in Hiddleston's clay-digging machine, and a tribute to Sherlock Holmes (and creator Arthur Conan Doyle, fully name-checked in the narrative) in the person of Charlie Hunnam's opthamologist/ghost-hunter/amateur detective. 

There's nothing subtle about the movie -- it wears its metaphors on its brightly coloured sleeves. All this, and the ghosts -- as in the del Toro-produced Mama -- are stunningly creepy, a triumph of visual effects and the imagination of del Toro and his designers. This movie isn't for everybody. The build is just a tad slow in the first half, while in the second half del Toro pulls away from the cataclysmic finale antecedents such as "The Fall of the House of Usher" have primed us to expect. Highly recommended.

The Innocents: adapted from the Henry James novella "The Turn of the Screw" by John Mortimer, William Archibald, and Truman Capote; directed by Jack Clayton; starring Deborah Kerr (Miss Giddens), Megs Jenkins (Mrs. Grose), Martin Stephens (Miles), Pamela Franklin (Flora), Peter Wyngarde (Quint) and Clytie Jessop (Miss Jessel) (1961): Director Jack Clayton's adaptation of "The Turn of the Screw" is also an adaptation of a stage play based on "The Turn of the Screw." The play supplies many of our governess-protagonist's speeches, which Deborah Kerr pretty much nails -- though I'd always pictured Miss Giddens as being much younger than Kerr was at the time of her performance.

The set-up is simple and direct. A governess is hired to take care of the two orphaned charges of their uncle. They reside at a country estate. Miss Jessel, their previous governess, died under mysterious circumstances, as did the estate's head groundskeeper Mr. Quint. But the longer the governess stays at the estate, the more disturbing the circumstances become. The children begin to behave strangely once older brother Miles returns, expelled from boarding school for unnamed acts. The governess starts to see strange figures and hear strange noises. But the cook doesn't see or hear any of these things. The Uncle in London doesn't want to be bothered with anything to do with the children. The governess is in charge of the household. What will she do?

The movie doesn't really answer the faulty either/or binary posited in much of the 150 years of literary discussion about "The Turn of the Screw." Are ghosts haunting the governess' two young charges or is everything in her head? The movie, like the text itself, evades the binary and instead works best with both possibilities existing simultaneously. They're not mutually exclusive.

The Innocents manages to create a genuinely creepy atmosphere through direction, cinematography, sound, and the occasionally unnerving performances by the two child actors. There are a couple of 'Gotcha!' moments that involve the sudden appearance of a specter, but for the most part the movie relies on a gradual accumulation of distressing details.

Two changes from the original text limit some of the film's possibilities. "The Turn of the Screw" was told as a narration inside a narration decades after the events of the story; the movie omits this construction. James' original forces the reader to consider the fact that the governess went on being a governess for decades after the events of the story while also parenthesizing the entire story inside the governess' own telling of it, recounted to another person decades later. The movie also tries to be a bit more overt in explaining why Miles got expelled from boarding school, limiting the more unnerving possibilities of what Miles is capable of -- and of what Quint and Jessel subjected he and Flora to.

The whole thing works very well, though it is occasionally a bit mannered. Both the supernatural and the psychological work within the movie to gradually build a sense of dread. The acting is fine throughout, from the salt-of-the-Earth cook to Kerr's increasingly freaked-out governess to the two preternaturally coy and manipulative children. Highly recommended.

Re-Animator: adapted from the H.P. Lovecraft novella "Herbert West, Re-Animator" by Dennis Paoli, William Norris, and Stuart Gordon; directed by Stuart Gordon; starring Jeffrey Combs (Herbert West), Bruce Abbott (Dan Cain), Barbara Crampton (Megan Halsey), David Gale (Dr. Carl Hill), and Robert Sampson (Dean Halsey) (1985): Richard Band's score channels Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho as Vertigo-riffing opening credits zip by.  Then we get this weirdly faithfully unfaithful adaptation of a novella that H.P. Lovecraft essentially wrote on a dare and considered complete schlock uncharacteristic of all his other stories.

Schlock and grue and hyper-violence and nudity are all in writer-director Stuart Gordon's wheelhouse. Indeed, Re-Animator would help make his name and his studio's name as a creator of enjoyable, bloody, violent, witty, and low-budget horror movies. Gordon on less pulpy Lovecraft fare such as "Dagon" or "The Dreams in the Witch-House" -- not so good. Gordon on Re-Animator, From Beyond, or the Re-Animator sequels? Just fine.

I had forgotten the lamely acted romantic plot that weighs down parts of this movie. Really, I'd forgotten Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton, the ostensible leads of the movie, completely. Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West and David Gale as Dr. Carl Hill are the real stars, along with a whole lot of resurrected dead people, mobile body parts, and extremely angry resurrected cats. Gordon throws blood and guts around, but he does so with wit and a fair idea for what makes a horror movie gross and funny even as it occasionally verges on disturbing the viewer. I'll be damned if I completely understand part of the climax, though: sometimes a little exposition is a good idea.

Jeffrey Combs holds the screen whenever he's on it, which is never enough. He certainly captures the gonzo spirit of Lovecraft's obsessed Resurrection Man. And Gale is a hoot, never moreso than when he's menacing people while his head is separated from his body. The splatter effects are cheerfully bright, as is West's day-glo-green Resurrection Fluid: in reality, the liquid from inside a glowstick. Recommended.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Unborn (2009)

The Unborn: written and directed by David Goyer; starring Odette Yustman (Casey), Gary Oldman (Rabbi Sendak), Cam Gigandet (Mark), Meagan Good (Romy), Idris Elba (Wyndham), and Jane Alexander (Sofi Kozma) (2009): Poor Odette Yustman has to spend the first half of this movie as a scantily clad victim who shows an awful lot of camel-toe in one scene. The cheesecake doesn't do the movie any favours. Writer-director David Goyer has actually fashioned a pretty interesting horror movie that uses Jewish legends to good effect. It also throws several startlingly distorted monsters at the viewer. 

Yustman does a good job with an occasionally thankless role. The movie would probably have benefited from not air-lifting Gary Oldman and Idris Elba in to play surprisingly small parts that might have been better served by character actors (the more rumpled and lived-in the character actor, the better). Still, this is a surprisingly good modern horror movie, especially from a major studio. It would actually be better if it were about a quarter-hour longer, so long as those fifteen minutes were spent on plot and character and scares and not more camel-toe. Lightly recommended.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein (1984)

The Ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein (1984): The Ceremonies isn't the greatest horror novel ever written, but it may be the greatest horror novel ever written in which the stakes are the survival of the world. There were a lot of those apocalyptic and pre-apocalyptic horror novels in the late 1970's and 1980's, during the later nuclear-war-fear years. I'd probably give the edge to The Ceremonies over all of them, 1980's or otherwise, though Ramsey Campbell's The Hungry Moon and Midnight Sun would offer stiff competition.

T.E.D. Klein is a Top-Ten American horror-writing talent despite his meager output: this novel; the four novellas collected in Dark Gods (1985); the novella The Ceremonies is based on, "The Events at Poroth Farm" (1973); and maybe 200 pages of ephemera. Horror readers sit and wait, hoping that second novel announced in 1985 will some day see publication.

The Ceremonies looms large for a number of reasons. It's beautifully written. Its allusions, intertexts, and interpolations of what sometimes seems to be the entire history of horror fiction are fascinating, keenly observed, and essential to the unfolding of the plot. The plot itself is expertly machined, building slowly until the climax explodes in the last thirty pages or so. The characterization of players minor and major is deft and witty and occasionally heart-breaking. The novel follows certain tropes and conventions while exploding others along the way. It's structurally and stylistically complex in an unshowy manner -- its use of three distinct, linked narrative streams in three different voices and tenses, for one, has thematic significance that only dawns on the reader gradually as the novel and its voices accumulate in one's head to increasingly disturbing effect. And it's capable of both cosmic uneasiness and gross-out horror, the latter used sparingly but to great effect, especially in the climactic scenes.

To appreciate The Ceremonies fully, one should read at least some of the texts it interacts with. But if one doesn't do so, one of the main characters labours away on a graduate English thesis on horror fiction throughout the novel. Along the way, we get his thoughts on texts ranging from The Castle of Otranto to The Haunting of Hill House. Some of these texts are important to the novel as a whole. All of the observations are, at the very least, interesting. Some are even hilarious. Because one can certainly agree with the protagonist's view that The Castle of Otranto sucks, or that Dracula stops being interesting once the novel exits Transylvania.

The protagonist of the novel, Jeremy Freirs, takes lodging on a farm near the small New Jersey town of Gilead for the summer in order to finish his M.A. thesis. His landlords are Sarr and Deborah Poroth, members of a small Christian sect that settled in the area more than a hundred years earlier. The sect bears some resemblance to the Pennsylvania Dutch or the Amish, though the Poroths have a truck and indoor plumbing. But it's not the Poroths or their sect or even Jeremy that are the real problem. 

The real problem is something that waited in the surrounding woods for 5000 years to be born again, something that spent centuries clinging to a tree branch in the distorted heart of a section of the forest initially called by the adjacent Native Americans "The Place of Burning." No one ever lived there or near there until settlers started to encroach in the 19th century. Then the thing's waiting ended, along with its life, and the Ceremonies began. And even in the 19th century, the forested heart of darkness sat only about 50 miles from New York City. 

Something beyond all measure fell into or broke through or seeped up into our universe; the novel leaves the thing's means of entry a "mystery." But the novel also suggests that the thing somehow also broke through into human mythology, folklore, rituals, stories, and even folk dances. Fragments of the rituals needed to resurrect the being hide in all these things, waiting to be reassembled and used so that the thing can be reassembled and reborn. Even a Coney Island Ferris Wheel and a grumpy cat fit into the Ceremonies.

One of the keen pleasures of The Ceremonies is its combination of mystery and precision. We're taken through various rituals and preparations and signs and portents. Strange, tarot-like cards are read. Complex ceremonies that must be followed with an anal-retentive attention to detail are enacted. But the mysteries of what awaits, of what will be done to the world and how it will change, remain to the very end of the text. At no time does Klein feel the need to have the ultimate antagonist of the novel deliver an expositional speech. 

And even the acolyte of the antagonist remains vague and refreshingly unglib to the very end. And this henchman, Rosie -- this short, fat, seemingly jolly old man -- is one of the novel's many terrific creations. He's awful. He's also pitiful, but only in terms of what he was before he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, nearly 100 years before the main action of the novel takes place. The third-person description of his thoughts doesn't give us the exterior charm of so many antagonists, from Hannibal Lecter all the way back to Milton's Satan. We see Rosie from inside, a manipulative and remorseless engine of death. Well, death for all humanity. If humanity were lucky. Which it probably won't be if Rosie gets his way. There are worse things than death.

The indispensable references for the novel are several late-19th and early-20th-century stories by the Welsh horror-writer/mystic Arthur Machen. The novel's title refers to three sets of ceremonies named but never fully explained in Machen's (mostly) first-person tour de force "The White People"; Machen's novella is also discussed by Jeremy in the novel itself. A short, cryptic Machen piece called "The Ceremony" also adds to one's appreciation of the novel, as do Machen's "The Novel of the Black Powder" and "The Great God Pan." These are all in the public domain, and worth reading regardless of whether or not you read The Ceremonies

But you should read The Ceremonies. You really should. It's both its own evocative, poetic, ruthless piece of horror and a terrific act of play with what sometimes seems to be every major horror and Gothic work ever written, either explicitly or implicitly. The Ceremonies rewards close and careful reading. It rewards multiple readings. And it has a killer inversion of a horror trope that horror readers will probably associate most with Stephen King's The Shining, as creatures almost never associated with goodness nonetheless ride to the rescue by accident, driven by instinctual fury, even as Nature itself comes under existential assault. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Virus (1999) and Westworld (1973)

Virus: adapted from the Dark Horse comic-book series created by Chuck Pfarrer by Chuck Pfarrer and Dennis Feldman; directed by John Bruno; starring Jamie Lee Curtis (Kit Foster), William Baldwin (Steve Baker), Donald Sutherland (Captain Everton), Joanna Pacula (Nadia), Cliff Curtis (Hiko), Sherman Augustus (Richie), and Marshall Bell (Woods) (1999): On the bright side, this first directorial effort from visual effects maestro didn't destroy John Bruno's career... as a visual effects maestro. 

The problems with the movie aren't his fault, however -- comic-book adaptation or not, Virus is an insanely derivative piece of work. It is, however, relatively competent in its direction. It's also produced by Gale Ann Hurd, and derivative of many of the other films she produced. 

The crew of a salvage ship caught in a hurricane comes across an abandoned Russian science ship. Or is it abandoned? After all, there's blood and destruction everywhere. But kooky Captain Donald Sutherland -- who appears to be acting in another, funnier movie -- wants the giant vessel for the $30 million salvage fee it will bring from the Russians if they want it back. However, there's SOMETHING ON THE SHIP.

Virus might be at least a slightly better movie if the prologue were moved into the centre of the film as a flashback. It's as if Aliens (another Hurd-produced film, and one Virus cribs from shamelessly) showed us what happened to the colonists in the first five minutes of the movie. It's a dumb storytelling decision that suggests that the studio may have thought a prologue-less Virus was too hard for an audience to follow. Given what a colossal bomb Virus turned out to be ($15 million domestic gross on a 'Where did they spend it?' budget of $75 million), maybe they'd like to travel back in time and fix some of the movie's narrative decisions.

Other than trite dialogue and some dodgy visual effects (most of the storm shots of the Russian vessel in the hurricane clearly involve either miniatures or terrible CGI work), Virus also gives the viewer a mostly underwhelming nemesis. Or nemeses. Sometimes the crew has to fight evil versions of the cute robot from Short Circuit, sometimes they have to fight mechanical spiders from about a dozen SF films and TV shows, and sometimes Donald Sutherland gets assimilated by the Borg... and the Borg are nice enough to leave his captain's hat on him. That at least is some funny stuff, and surely a great leap forward in human-cyborg relations.

The actors do what they can with what they've got. Well, except for the aforementioned Sutherland, who clearly said 'To Hell with a naturalistic performance!' on Day One of shooting. He's sort of a hoot, as is Marshall Bell chewing the scenery as an untrustworthy helmsman. William Baldwin and the rest of the male cast members have almost nothing interesting to say. 

The Sigourney Weaver 'action woman' part gets split between Joanna Pacula and Jamie Lee Curtis in an almost schematically on/off way -- which is to say, when one is kicking ass, the other is cowering in a corner, and vice versa. Curtis really hated this movie. It's not hard to see why. It's vaguely watchable, and some scenes in the robot abattoir have a sort of cyberpunk-meets-Grand-Guignol thing going on. But it's also relentlessly derivative when it's not just being dumb. Not recommended.

Westworld: written and directed by Michael Crichton; starring Yul Brynner (Robot Gunslinger), Richard Benjamin (Peter Martin), James Brolin (John Blane), Dick Van Patten (Banker), and Majel Barrett (Miss Carrie) (1973): Before Michael Crichton gave us a murderously malfunctioning dinosaur them park in Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton gave us a murderously malfunctioning robot theme park in Westworld.  

Yes, this is the Delos Corporation's adult theme park of the near-future in a desert area of the American Southwest. It's divided into three independent sections that intentionally remind one of similar divisions in Disney theme parks: West(ern)world. Medievalworld, and Romanworld. Except for the guests, everyone you meet in a park is a robot.

The fact that you can bang the human-form robots of these three worlds is clearly part of the appeal of these expensive vacations for adults. You can also shoot them, stab them, punch them, and insult them with impunity. They're just robots, albeit incredibly sophisticated sex-doll robots. Nothing can go wrong. Or is that worng?

James Brolin as a beefy American blowhard and Richard Benjamin as his sheepish, emasculated, divorced pal play our two protagonists. Or maybe increasingly cranky robotic gunslinger Yul Brynner is the protagonist. It really depends on where your sympathies lie. The film-makers dress Brynner like his heroic gunslinger in The Magnificent Seven. But in Westworld, he's something of a dink even before his programming goes astray. Then Brynner becomes the unstoppable forerunner of the Terminator, complete with the occasional bit of pounding background music as he pursues his prey through the three worlds and down into the warren of maintenance tunnels and work rooms and labs below the Delos parks.

The movie works pretty well as a recurringly dumb bit of SciFi action with just a tinge of obvious satire. Unable to solve two narrative problems with anything involving cleverness, Crichton just stupids his way through. How do you tell robots from humans? Um, Delos couldn't get the hands quite right. On robots that are indistinguishable otherwise from human and which you can boink away to your heart's content, it's the hands that are the design flaw. 

Secondly, how can the bullets be real? Oh, all guns have a sensor that shuts down the gun if it's pointed at a human being. That wouldn't seem to help if one got clipped by a ricochet or a bullet coming from a few hundred yards away, something that seems pretty likely given the giant shoot-outs we hear in the background throughout the first half of the movie. Maybe they're magic bullets. 

These are the dumb solutions to problems created by Crichton himself. Surely one could put a small tattoo or mark somewhere prominent and always visible on a robot to distinguish it from a person. And surely you couldn't have real, lethal bullets flying around and maintain a perfect safety record. But Yul Brynner's gunslinger needs real bullets for Crazy Time!

Oh, well. Westworld is still an enjoyable slice of pre-Star Wars Sci Fi movie-making. The suspense in the second half is engaging and competently directed by Crichton. And now HBO will turn Westworld into a series with tons of graphic sex and nudity because that's what HBO does. So look forward to more human/robot sexual shenanigans in 2016. Surely nothing can go worng. Recommended.