Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Poppet (2013) by Mo Hayder

Poppet (2013) by Mo Hayder: Mo Hayder's troubled, brilliant DCI Jack Caffery continues his Major Crimes work in Bristol in this satisfying horror-procedural. Caffery again and again finds himself investigating cases that seem to be just this side of the supernatural, and Poppet keeps that going. Caffery also has a couple of problems to deal with from previous novels, but these are explained well enough that one need never have read a Caffery novel to understand everything that goes on in this one.

Hayder gives us multiple third-person limited narrative focuses for Poppet. The narrative is handled deftly (though Boy, are some of the chapters short!), with Caffery and mental-institution worker AJ being the main protagonists. AJ calls Caffery in when events at his privately funded institution seem to get dangerously weird. And they are dangerously weird, and have been intermittently for years.

Poppet does a number of things tremendously well. Foremost is its sensitive treatment of catastrophic mental-health issues both through the sympathetic, haunted AJ's interactions with his patients, and partially through Poppet's plot, which does not go where it seems to be going. Hayder should get some sort of prize for not giving us the same old mentally ill boogeymen and women, or for ot simply dressing up yet another impossible Joker and unleashing him on her novel.

Terrible things do happen, and marvelous things, some of the latter verging on the supernatural without necessarily getting there. Throughout it all, Caffery -- isolated, alcoholic, workaholic -- holds himself together as he also strives to follow the labyrinthine thread to the truth. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Jacob's Ladder (1990)

Jacob's Ladder: written by Bruce Joel Rubin; directed by Adrian Lyne; starring Tim Robbins (Jacob Singer), Elizabeth Pena (Jezzie), and Danny Aiello (Louis) (1990): Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost, which came out the same year as this, 1990) seems to have gotten indigestion from a combination of Roman Catholicism, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Viet Nam-era conspiracy theories. Director Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks) is not the first person I'd choose to direct an occult thriller. Though he does give us a lot of naked Elizabeth Pena, and Tim Robbins seems to be shirtless for two-thirds of the movie.

But Lyne does base the 'look' of some of the film's 'demons' on things like Francis Bacon paintings rather than traditional horns-and-tails depictions (though there are also horns and tails). These, including a recurring hooded, vibrating figure, work pretty well. Well, well until Lyne goes to the well once too often, in the process showing us so much of 'Shaky Man' that it ceases to be creepy and instead clearly becomes a mannequin attached to a paint mixing machine. 

Admittedly, if I came across a mannequin attached to a paint mixing machine during my travels, I'd probably be weirded out. Well, no. Now that I've seen Jacob's Ladder, I'd know that Adrian Lyne was around somewhere.

I think this movie probably works pretty well for a viewer who hasn't read or watched much horror. From my standpoint, the horror peaks early, in a genuinely terrific subway sequence featuring Robbins and one bad subway stop. Things gradually fall apart after that.

The main plot problem is that the Viet Nam conspiracy stuff and the occult stuff ultimately have no real connection to one another by the very rules set up by the movie. Rubin clearly intended the Viet Nam stuff to be important -- there's even a portentous title card about secret Viet Nam drug trials as the film concludes. But the occult stuff seems meant to be a separate, universal phenomenon that stitches together Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism. 

The performances are all fine, especially that of the perennially under-appreciated Elizabeth Pena, who's much better and more interesting than her character has been written. Tim Robbins is good, as pretty much always. Lyne makes one terrible, terrible choice in sound effects, however. During the opening scene set in Viet Nam, one of the recurring sound effects for an explosion is a long-standing sound effect that I remember from 1970's TV shows that include Battlestar: Galactica and Buck Rogers. This completely destroyed my suspension of disbelief for the Viet Nam stuff. I kept expecting Twiki to show up. Lightly recommended.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Best New Horror Volume 2 (1990) and Volume 3 (1991): 2015 Revised PS Publishing Editions

Best New Horror Volume 2 (1990): 2015 Revised PS Publishing Edition: edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell, containing the following stories:

  • Apostate in Denim* by Roberta Lannes: Removed from the original edition by the publisher due to concerns over its violence. It's well-written and very unpleasant.
  • The First Time  by K. W. Jeter: Brutal road trip/coming of age story becomes graphic and surreal towards its end.
  • A Short Guide to the City  by Peter Straub: Straub's most Borgesian work, complete with a shout-out to a famous Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story.
  • Stephen  by Elizabeth Massie: Award-winning and right on the cusp of unintentional hilarity, especially if you remember In Living Color's Head Detective.
  • The Dead Love You  by Jonathan Carroll: Bonkers, surreal, disturbing, weird.
  • Jane Doe #112  by Harlan Ellison: Another Ellison story that starts off as horror and ends as a shrill condemnation of anyone who doesn't lead what Ellison considers an exciting, meaningful life -- which is to say, anyone who isn't either famous or well-regarded in a creative field. Thanks for the lecture, Mr. E!
  • Shock Radio  by Ray Garton: Enjoyable revenge piece involving, well, a shock-radio jock.
  • The Man Who Drew Cats  by Michael Marshall Smith: Moody, very Bradburyesque piece was one of the soon-to-be-prolific Mr. Smith's first published stories.
  • The Co-Op  by Melanie Tem: Augh! Very disturbing, feminist take on body horror. 
  • Negatives  by Nicholas Royle: Brilliant short piece in which the horror arises from distorted perception.
  • The Last Feast of Harlequin by Thomas Ligotti: Probably still the estimable Mr. Ligotti's most anthologized story, a creepy, oddball reimagining of concepts from H.P. Lovecraft's "The Festival."
  • 1/72nd Scale  by Ian R. MacLeod: Mournful tale of a boy, his dead brother, and his grieving family builds both sorrow and horror with careful, slow precision, and then moves in an unpredictable and cathartic direction in the last few pages. Quite brilliant, I think.
  • Cedar Lane  by Karl Edward Wagner: Minor, late-career Wagner with a nifty twist and a story that overall riffs on a famous Bradbury story from the 1950's.
  • At a Window Facing West  by Kim Antieau: Interesting but weirdly unfinished.
  • Inside the Walled City  by Garry Kilworth: Disturbing, claustrophobic horror in Hong Kong.
  • On the Wing  by Jean-Daniel Breque: Pretty minor.
  • Firebird  by J. L. Comeau: Witchcraft and embattled cops in decaying Detroit.
  • Incident on a Rainy Night in Beverly Hills  by David J. Schow: Much more Hollywood humour than horror.
  • His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood by Poppy Z. Brite: A career-defining early work from Brite riffs on Lovecraft's tale "The Hound" in disturbing, erotic, and decadent ways. 
  • The Original Dr Shade  by Kim Newman: Brilliant, horrifying, metafictional riff on British pulp heroes, racism, and Thatcherism.
  • Madge  by D. F. Lewis: Pretty minor.
  • Alive in Venice  by Cherry Wilder: Nice 19th-century period piece.
  • Divertimento  by Gregory Frost: Science fiction horror.
  • Pelts by F. Paul Wilson: Don't catch, kill, and skin raccoons from a haunted forest. Just don't.
  • Those of Rhenea  by David Sutton: Interesting but not entirely successful piece set on a haunted Greek island.
  • Lord of the Land by Gene Wolfe: Great, mysterious nod to Lovecraft from the great and giant Mr. Wolfe.
  • Aquarium  by Steve Rasnic Tem: Weird near-horror from the finely tuned, poetic Mr. Tem.
  • Mister Ice Cold  by Gahan Wilson: Oh no, another unstoppable serial killer. Yuck.
  • On the Town Route  by Elizabeth Hand: Weird, atmospheric jaunt through extremely rural America.

Overall: Many of these stories have become repeatedly republished classics, and others merit rediscovery. There are very, very few misses. Fine editorial work from the team of Jones and Campbell. This new edition updates the biographies for the writers, so there is new material if one already owns the original edition. As well, a story meant to appear has been added back in (See * above for details). Highly recommended.

Best New Horror Volume 3 (1991): 2015 Revised PS Publishing Edition: edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell, containing the following stories:

  • True Love  by K. W. Jeter: Really disturbing character study.
  • The Same in Any Language  by Ramsey Campbell: A visit to the Greek islands turns out badly for a boy and worse for his annoying father.
  • Impermanent Mercies  by Kathe Koja: Totally weird and strangely disturbing.
  • Ma Qui  by Alan Brennert: Marvelous piece of posthumous narration set during the Viet Nam War.
  • The Miracle Mile  by Robert R. McCammon: Pretty slight entry from a zombie anthology.
  • Taking Down the Tree  by Steve Rasnic Tem: A weird, poetic piece from the prolific and valuable Mr. Tem.
  • Where Flies Are Born  by Douglas Clegg: OK bit of body-horror.
  • Love, Death and the Maiden  by Roger Johnson: Moody horror-quest sort of fizzles out in murkiness.
  • Chui Chai  by S. P. Somtow: Another unimpressive piece of horror from someone who was a really impressive science-fiction writer in the 1970's and early 1980's.
  • The Snow Sculptures of Xanadu  by Kim Newman: Fun metafictional oddity for Citizen Kane fans.
  • Colder Than Hell  by Edward Bryant: Chilly psychological horror story recalls Sinclair Ross' classic "The Painted Door."
  • Raymond  by Nancy A. Collins: Collins creates a sad werewolf.
  • One Life, in an Hourglass  by Charles L. Grant: Riff on Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes is low-key but mostly satisfying.
  • The Braille Encyclopedia  by Grant Morrison: Creepy horror piece suggests that mostly-comic-book-writing Morrison is riffing hard on Clive Barker.
  • The Bacchae  by Elizabeth Hand: Brilliant piece of feminist, mythological horror set in a rapidly disintegrating near-future.
  • Busted in Buttown  by David J. Schow: Interesting, but it really feels like Schow is riffing on Dennis Etchison here.
  • Subway Story  by Russell Flinn: Flinn abandoned writing soon after this was published, which is a shame -- he was like a somewhat more surreal but quite horrifying version of Ramsey Campbell in terms of his subject matter and descriptive focus.
  • The Medusa  by Thomas Ligotti: One of Ligotti's relatively early, much-anthologized, weird pieces.
  • Power Cut  by Joel Lane: Sharp, satiric horror about homophobia.
  • Moving Out  by Nicholas Royle: Excellent, unusual, disturbing ghost story.
  • Guignoir  by Norman Partridge: Fun, pulpy piece of American ultraviolence, complete with carnival.
  • Blood Sky  by William F. Nolan: Unusual, affecting character study of a serial killer.
  • Ready  by David Starkey: Interesting.
  • The Slug  by Karl Edward Wagner: Writer's block horror from the late, great writer and anthologist who faced these demons and others at the time of publication.
  • The Dark Land  by Michael Marshall Smith: Excellent early bit of horrifying, somewhat surreal journey into... something.
  • When They Gave Us Memory  by Dennis Etchison: A typical Etchison oddity, which is to say unusual in subject matter, elusive in meaning, keenly observed in physical detail.
  • Taking Care of Michael  by J. L. Comeau: Sort of yuck.
  • The Dreams of Dr. Ladybank  by Thomas Tessier: Tessier works some very modern, gender-bending, boundary-pushing changes on the basic set-up for such horror classics as Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Parasite."
  • Zits  by Nina Kiriki Hoffman: Bleak, disturbing vignette.

Overall: Many of these stories have become repeatedly republished classics, and others merit rediscovery. There are very, very few misses. Fine editorial work from the team of Jones and Campbell. This new edition updates the biographies for the writers, so there is new material if one already owns the original edition. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

It Follows (2015); Unfriended (2015); It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955)

It Follows (2015): written and directed by David Robert Mitchell; starring Maika Monroe (Jay), Lili Sepe (Kelly), Keir Gilchrist (Paul), Olivia Luccardi (Yara), Jake Weary (Hugh/ Jeff), and Daniel Zovatto (Greg) (2015): It Follows is a terrific horror movie with surprising depth, especially for a film written and directed by a newcomer, David Robert Mitchell. It knows when to be subtle. It knows when to be gross. And it knows the iconic, John-Carpenter-related value of a synth-heavy score.

The film takes a horror-movie staple -- the apparent violent punishment of teenagers in slasher movies for having sex -- and makes it the central conceit. Have sex with the wrong person and something terrible will follow you and try to kill you. Escape death by sleeping with someone else and 'passing it on.' Return to a state of danger if the person you 'infected' dies before passing it on.  Really, it's a lot like sex in the 1980's.

But the movie works because of its pacing, the fine performances by the young and unknown cast, and some of the finest 'sudden-shock' moments I've got from a horror movie in a long time. The movie looks great as well. It juxtaposes its locations in ways which open up further discussion about just what the movie may be about under the surface: suburbia and the beach play off against deserted, ruined areas in and around Detroit. 

There are other things that enrich the subtextual eddies of the film: the voyeurism of our female protagonist's pre-pubescent male neighbour; a visual reference to self-cutting that ties into the protagonist's problems with body image and possible depression; the almost complete absence of parents except as represented visually by the It of the title.

Ah, It. The film gives us a Something while wisely withholding exposition from anyone with authoritative knowledge of what that Something is or does. Everything we learn of It comes from the observations of people whom it follows. It appears to be slow. Is it really? Or is it playing with its victims? It can appear as almost anything human (we think!). Some of the forms it chooses horrify those it pursues because they're the forms of loved ones. But sometimes its appearances are less personal, though sometimes even more horrifying. Is it a ghost? Is it a monster?

This may be a fairly serious, often melancholy horror movie, but it deploys that melancholy with wit and verve, with surprising moments of comedy and empathy. And boy, It is a dick. Highly recommended.

Unfriended (2015):  written by Nelson Greaves; directed by Leo Gabriadze; starring Heather Sossaman (Laura), Matthew Bohrer (Matt), Courtney Halverson (Val), Shelley Hennig (Blaire), Moses Storm (Mitch), Will Peltz (Adam), Renee Olstead (Jess), and Jacob Wysocki (Ken): Shockingly good horror movie from the more-miss-than-hit low-budget horror studio Blumhouse. Be warned, though, that you should watch this on your computer screen. It's eye-strainy business on even a large TV.

Why? Because the entire narrative unfolds on a computer screen. We watch a group of high-school friends interact on-line through various social media platforms and programs one Saturday night. But then someone uninvited appears within their group webcam chat. And then things go very, very wrong.

Aside from the eyestrain, the conceit works very well. The moments of violence come and go quickly, sometimes disturbingly unclear as to what exactly just happened (did that guy just stick his hand in a blender? what did she just stick in her mouth?). The plot is boiler-plate revenge-horror reimagined for the Age of Social Media, a repugnant act of online bullying. Sympathies shift as the movie progresses. But boy, this is one angry, tech-savvy ghost! Recommended.

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955): written by George Worthing Yates and Hal Smith; directed by Robert Gordon and Ray Harryhausen; starring Kenneth Tobey (Commander Pete Mathews), Faith Domergue (Professor Lesley Joyce), and Donald Curtis (Dr. John Carter): Atomic tests rouse a really, really gigantic octopus from the abysmal depths of the Pacific and send it on a death rampage up and down the U.S. West Coast. There's a solid attention to suspense and believable detail in between the stop-motion octopus appearances, as well as a surprisingly feminist female scientist. 

But it's stop-motion giant Ray Harryhausen's octopus that owns the movie, especially once it gets to San Francisco and starts tearing up the town. Yes, a few brief flashes of the entire octopus reveal that it only has five arms for the sake of keeping the animation time and expense down. So I guess it's a quintopus. Believably integrating the live-action and stop-motion footage in 1955 was almost impossible, but Harryhausen manages some terrific juxtapositions, never moreso than when a group of soldiers repeatedly wields a flame-thrower against one of the monster's giant tentacles. Kill it with fire! Recommended.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories (2007) by Laird Barron

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron (Collected 2007) containing the following stories: Old Virginia (2003); Shiva, Open Your Eye (2001); Procession of the Black Sloth (2007); Bulldozer (2004); Proboscis (2005); Hallucigenia (2006); Parallax (2005); The Royal Zoo is Closed (2006); and The Imago Sequence (2005): 

Not the first, not the second, but the third time I've read this collection in the last four years. So I guess I like it. I'll add only that the third reading allowed the connections among the stories to stand out more in my mind. 

And Barron's generally-doomed tough-guy protagonists sometimes bring to mind some of Jim Thompson's characters along the same lines, though Thompson's characters didn't have to deal with screamingly awful occult menaces. I sort of wish Barron would write a story in which one of his tough, morally dubious protagonists beats a Shoggoth to death with a shovel. That would be awesome. Highly recommended.

Think Yourself Lucky (2014) by Ramsey Campbell

Think Yourself Lucky (2014) by Ramsey Campbell: One could see this as the third novel in Ramsey Campbell's Internet Trilogy, though no such thing has ever been codified. The uber-veteran Liverpudlian horror writer understands the New Media better than a lot of young punks a third his age, possibly because he always connects what can happen on the Internet with what has always happened in the unmediated real world.

There's an occasionally melancholy, occasionally slapsticky, and always observant feel to this novel. Travel agency grunt David Botham has a job made recently more difficult because of the end of his relationship with his boss. His current girlfriend, a cook, is having boss problems of her own at work. And Botham's recent verbal outburst has attracted the attention of the leader of a local Liverpudlian writers' group who thinks Botham's verbal talents suggest untapped potential as a writer.

Like the amiable, almost-accidental serial killer of Campbell's The Count of Eleven, David is something of a repressed soul. Various factors involving his (still living) parents and assorted childhood experiences have led him to keep pretty much everything in, all the time. And the writers' group guy seems to be right -- indeed, David's near-hysteria at someone suggesting he try writing and publishing confirms this fact very early in the novel.

But it's the Internet Trilogy, isn't it? While The Grin of the Dark explored the conspiracy theories and strange online feuds of the Web and Seven Days of Cain explored online dreams of wish fulfillment erupting into the real world, Think Yourself Lucky examines the ways in which the anonymity of the online world can encourage a person to say and electronically do things far too vile for the real world.

David discovers there's a blog with a name seemingly plucked from a phrase he uttered during his verbal rant. And the blogger has begun to recount terrible acts of revenge on people for even the slightest of slights or accidents. For instance, the blogger describes severely crippling a man who had inadvertently caused him to scratch his car. That man is David's neighbour, and the car that got scratched is David's.

Think Yourself Lucky works as a character study of someone who's almost morbidly withdrawn when it comes to honestly expressing his emotions. It bears some resemblance to Stephen King's The Dark Half. However, Campbell's characters are both more finely drawn and a whole lot funnier than King's. And the relationship between the mysterious blogger and David is a more complex one than that between the writer and his doppelganger in The Dark Half

The blogger has a certain amount of right on his side, though not when it comes to the apparently injurious and homicidal acts he says he commits. If there actually are injuries and murders committed by this blogger. This is very satisfying fare that rings changes on the long-standing horror trope of the Doppelganger or the Other. Recommended.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Visions from Brichester (2015) by Ramsey Campbell

Visions from Brichester (2015) by Ramsey Campbell; illustrations by Randy Broecker: containing the following stories and essays (dates are first publication, not composition):

  1. The Stone on the Island (1964): Campbell begins his transition from Lovecraftian pastiches to his own style of horror here, as he mixes an idea from M.R. James, a Lovecraftian island, and his own experiences at work. 
  2. Before the Storm (1980): Written in the 1960's, the story again shows Campbell mixing cosmic body horror and his own Lovecraftian deities with the daily grind at an office.
  3. Cold Print (1969): Campbell's first truly great short story by my reckoning. A quest for a particular form of (perfectly legal, now anyway) pornography by a Physical Education teacher takes him to a bookstore he never, ever should have gone into.
  4. The Franklyn Paragraphs (1973): Fun, disturbing metafiction about a mysteriously vanished horror writer.
  5. A Madness from the Vaults (1972): Really a deft riff on the sort of stories Clark Ashton Smith used to write, set on an alien world and involving all-alien characters.
  6. Among the pictures are these: (1985): Campbell describes a series of sketches he made back in the 1960s. Interesting.
  7. The Tugging (1976): Campbell suggests that this is a too-literal interpretation of the Lovecraftian chestnut about the "stars being right" to bring back certain deities. I like it a lot -- it may be literal, but the images are grand.
  8. The Faces at Pine Dunes (1980): A great, great story. Its imagery climaxes in something deeply disturbing and chilling; its 20-year-old protagonist is sympathetic and carefully drawn.
  9. Blacked Out (1985): Fun scare is, as Campbell notes, Lovecraftian primarily because it appeared in his previous Lovecraftian collection Cold Print because the editor wanted to include at least one previously unpublished story. Rarely has a Campbellian protagonist had a more emblematic last name.
  10. The Voice of the Beach (1982): Maybe Campbell's crowning achievement in writing a Lovecraftian story without any recourse to all the machinery of Lovecraftian terms for 'gods' and creatures and menacing books. It most resembles Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space." The imagery and situations are sinister, horrifying, vague, and often uncomfortably vertiginous and hallucinatory.
  11. The Horror under Warrendown (1995): Very funny pastiche turns a famous English children's book series into a source of cosmic body horror.
  12. The Other Names (1998): Very solid combination of a sensitive character study and a Lovecraftian menace.
  13. The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash (2010): Funny, satiric examination of one very bad Lovecraft fan.
  14. The Last Revelation of Gla'aki (2013): Campbell's return to his Lovecraftian god Gla'aki manages to be both disturbing and weirdly soothing at points -- and it does a better job of showing why people might find comfort in the embrace of these terrible 'gods' than any story I can think of after David Drake's brilliant Lovecraft-meets-Joseph-Conrad novella "Than Curse the Darkness."
  15. The Successor (First draft of Cold Print) (2015): Fascinating look at the early version of a story.
  16. The Franklyn Paragraphs (First draft) (2015): Fascinating look at the early version of a story.
  17. Mushrooms from Merseyside (2015): Campbell's often hilarious salue to Lovecraft's sonnet cycle Fungi from Yuggoth sees the writer summarize all of his Lovecraftian fiction in a series of... limericks.
  18. Two Poems by Edward Pickman Derby (2015): Interesting early poetry.
  19. The Horror in the Crystal (Story fragment) (2015): 1960's fragment; interesting.
  20. Rusty Links (Essay) (2015): A snarky Ramsey Campbell from the 1960's.
  21. Lovecraft in Retrospect (Essay) (1969/1994): A very pissy Campbell from the late 1960's gets critiqued by the lovable Campbell of the 1990's.
  22. On Four Lovecraft Tales (Essay) (2013): As good an explanation of Lovecraft's strengths as a writer as you'll ever read, this essay really caused me to re-evaluate certain aspects of Lovecraft's work. It's a concise piece that explains how much more complex Lovecraft's style and structure were than he's generally given credit for from even his greatest admirers.
  23. Afterword (Essay) (2015): Campbell contextualizes all the pieces in the book. Invaluable, but I want more!

Overall: The stories are great, the non-fiction pieces are great, and the illustrations by Randy Broecker are extremely enjoyable and often very much 'Old School' in an early 20th-century pulp magazine way. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Experimental Film by Gemma Files (2015)

Experimental Film by Gemma Files (2015): As brilliant a new novel Canadian or otherwise as I've read in a long time, Experimental Film is also a dandy horror novel. It's an almost perfect expression of the sort of documentary approach to horror that H.P. Lovecraft codified. It's also a moving character study of its narrator and her troubled relationships with pretty much everyone in her life, but most notably her young, autistic son.

Lois Cairns has lost her regular jobs as both a film journalist and as a teacher of film at a Toronto diploma factory dedicated to film. But a freelance assignment to review the latest experimental offering from a pretentious, obnoxious film-maker ends up revealing to Lois what appears to be footage from an unknown, early 20th-century Canadian director that the pompous contemporary film-maker has interpolated into his own work. And so the detective work begins -- and the eternal quest for grant money!

Cairns' investigation soon suggests that the mysterious footage was filmed by the even more mysterious Mrs. A. Macalla Whitcomb. Whitcomb was the wife of an early 20th-century Canadian businessman. She vanished without a trace from a sealed train compartment in the 1920's, leaving behind only a film projector. Decades earlier, her only son had also vanished somewhere in or around the Whitcombs' house in Ontario's cottage country. 

And we're off. Experimental Film does many things very, very well. Files' narrator earns our sympathy despite (and also because of) her bouts of self-pity, self-loathing, and nastiness. This sympathy comes in part because the narrator is intensely self-aware, and aware of her many moments of nastiness. She's also surrounded by keenly observed and rendered supporting characters, most notably a brilliant former student whom Cairns hires to work on the movie about the search for the movie and Cairns' autistic son.

The accumulation of documentary detail, and the details of the search for the lost movie or movies, all work very much in long-standing horror traditions. More importantly, they're expertly done in this novel. Files creates a convincing alternate history of Canadian film. And she does so in a gradually building horror narrative in which both sudden, almost epiphanic shocks and the creeping terror of the slow build are both given their moments. 

Perhaps most rarely for a horror novel, Experimental Film is genuinely funny throughout. And it's not the tiresome horror humour of the Crypt-keeper and his ilk, nor the deadly jolité of many an omniscient serial killer or Joker knock-off. It's just funny -- sardonic at certain points, cynical about the art scene.

In all, this is a fine novel, and one that will hopefully win readers and appear on courses of study for years to come. It's also a hell of a travelogue for certain portions of Toronto. It even has a scene set in Sneaky Dee's. The only thing it's really lacking is a climactic appearance by the helpful ghost of Al Waxman. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Witches (1990)

The Witches: adapted by Allan Scott from the book by Roald Dahl; directed by Nicolas Roeg; starring Anjelica Huston (Grand High Witch), Mai Zetterling (Helga Eveshim), Jasen Fisher (Luke Eveshim), and Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Stringer) (1990): Dark children's movie made from an even darker Roald Dahl novel. Orphaned Luke and his grandmother must battle the Grand High Witch and all the witches of Great Britain in order to save the children of Great Britain from a terrible fate. The Jim Henson studio puppetry and animatronics are terrific. 

Anjelica Huston is comically terrifying as the Grand High Witch, while Jasen Fisher makes for an appealing and heroic boy hero. The movie is gratifyingly horrifying, though a tacked-on ending that isn't in the book really needed at least a couple of lines of set-up: it's perilously close to a concluding title card that reads 'Poochie Died on the Way Back to His Home Planet." And yes -- that Nicolas Roeg! Recommended.

Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Dolores Claiborne: adapted by Tony Gilroy from the novel by Stephen King; directed by Taylor Hackford; starring Kathy Bates (Dolores Clairborne/St. George), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Selena St. George), Judy Parfitt (Vera Donovan), Christopher Plummer (Det. Mackey), David Strathairn (Joe St. George), and John C. Reilly (Constable Stamshaw) (1995): Little Tall Island off the coast of Maine supplies the setting for this terrific character study, acted terrifically and generally directed and adapted successfully from Stephen King's novel. 

While the direction and screenwriting are solid if a bit programmatic, the performances by Kathy Bates, Christopher Plummer, David Strathairn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Judy Parfitt should have netted the film a host of acting Oscar nominations. It's a Stephen King adaptation that merits the sort of robust second life that The Shawshank Redemption received after its theatrical release. It's also the most affectingly feminist of all King adaptations, the one most attuned to the casual humiliations of patriarchy. Nova Scotia plays Maine, btw. Highly recommended.

Scrooge (1951)

Scrooge (aka A Christmas Carol): adapted by Noel Langley from the novella by Charles Dickens; directed by Brian Desmond Hurst; starring Alastair Sim (Ebenezer Scrooge), Mervyn Johns (Bob Cratchit), Michael Hordern (Jacob Marley), Francis De Wolff (Spirit of Christmas Present), and Michael Dolan (Spirit of Christmas Past) (1951): The 1951 version of Charles Dickens' venerable holiday novella remains the gold standard, though I wish CBC would stop showing the colourized version on Christmas Eve. 

It has a real sense of horror about it, never moreso than in the scene in which the Spirit of Christmas Past shows Ebenezer Scrooge that all around people swarm the ghosts of those damned to impotently try to help people because in life they failed to help people. This is Hell. It's also great because Alastair Sim is great. He's convincingly angry and shriveled at the beginning, and he's convincingly nutty at the end after his reformation. His giddiness suggests a sort of ecstasy that initially terrifies his housekeeper, in one of the funniest scenes in any Scrooge movie. Highly recommended.

Gremlins (1984)

Gremlins: written by Chris Columbus; directed by Joe Dante; starring Zach Galligan (Billy), Phoebe Cates (Kate), Hoyt Axton (Randall Peltzer), Keye Luke (Mr. Wing), and Polly Holliday (Mrs. Deagle) (1984): Gremlins is a blissfully nasty critique of capitalism, the commercialization of the American Christmas, 'small-town values,' and the American family in general. That it was a huge box-office success in 1984 seem remarkable, though having Steven Spielberg's name attached to it didn't hurt. He did produce it, after all, through his newly formed Amblin Entertainment.

But boy, does the small town of Kingston Falls ever get dismantled literally and figuratively! When Zach Galligan's Billy gets the mysterious creature known as a Mogwai from his generally absent, incompetent inventor of a father (Hoyt Axton), he names it Gizmo and then pretty much ignores the three warnings about what one must never do with a Mogwai. 

His casual attitude leads to a small-town apocalypse that is, admittedly, really his father's fault more than his: the Mogwai wasn't actually for sale from Keye Luke's mysterious shop owner. The shop owner's grandson's need to make some money off a Hoyt Axton desperate for a unique gift for his son to compensate for his lengthy absences from home -- whew! -- sets the whole disaster in motion.

And so it goes as all Hell breaks loose after an initially idyllic beginning with the lovable Gizmo, voiced by a cooing Howie Mandel. Once the army of Gremlins is unleashed, Christmas is ruined. Really, really ruined. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates make for an appealing pair of leads, but it's the real-world special effects of the Gremlins and the Mogwai that dominate the movie. They're marvels from creature creator Chris Walas and his studio. 

The script from a young Chris Columbus is sharp and nasty (indeed, it was rewritten by Spielberg and company to tone it down). Joe Dante's direction has a real sense of anarchic menace throughout, though he's also very good at the quiet, slightly askew Norman Rockwell world of the movie's first act, a 'happy' small-town mask that's already slipping off as the movie begins to reveal the shiny happy skull beneath the skin. The mohawk on the chief evil Gremlin is one of a long string of signalling evil through a haircut generally favoured by harmless punk rockers and their fans at the time the film came out. Oh, culture! Recommended.