Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Devil's Bride (a.k.a. The Devil Rides Out) (1968)

The Devil's Bride (a.k.a. The Devil Rides Out): adapted by Richard Matheson from the Dennis Wheatley novel The Devil Rides Out; directed by Terence Fisher; starring Christopher Lee (Duc de Richleau), Charles Gray (Mocata), Nike Arrighi (Tanith), Leon Greene (Rex), and Patrick Mower (Simon) (1968): Fun, tightly plotted period piece (it's set in England in the 1920's) pits Christopher Lee in a rare heroic turn against the forces of Satan himself as conjured up by Aleister Crowley-esque black magician Mocata.

The great Richard Matheson does solid work turning a novel by the often clunky Dennis Wheatley into a crisply executed occult thriller that clocks in at barely 100 minutes. Lee commands the screen as a reluctant, learning-on-the-fly white magician who must battle the powerful Mocata (a terrifically oily, ingratiating Charles Gray) for the souls of two people who have been pulled into Satanic worship. 

The rites and spells sometimes sound so odd that you'd swear they were lifted from H.P. Lovecraft or William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki the Ghost-Finder series and not from actual occult sources. This Hammer film has a fairly low budget, as Hammer films always did, but the cinematography, direction, and set design mostly make up for it. There are a couple of goofy moments involving visual effects, but a couple of things also work quite well.

The film is at its creepiest when it keeps its demons off-stage, but that's true of virtually all horror movies. Wait for the moment in which a crucifix operates pretty much like the Holy Hand-grenade of Antioch. Reportedly this was Christopher Lee's favourite of his many Hammer Horror Films, partially because he himself suggested they make it and partially, I assume, because he got to be a commanding good guy for once. Recommended.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Ancient Images (1989) by Ramsey Campbell

Ancient Images (1989) by Ramsey Campbell: Probably the sleekest, most thriller-like novel in the prolific Ramsey Campbell's catalogue, Ancient Images is a story of detection with occult elements that begin to dominate as the novel progresses. 

It's 1988 in London, England. Metropolitan TV film editor Sandy Allan witnesses the baffling, apparent suicide of her friend and mentor, a film historian who had just announced that he'd secured a copy of a long-lost 1938 Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi British horror film. But the film isn't in Sandy's mentor's ransacked apartment. 

In order to help deal with her trauma, Sandy uses the mentor's notebook to reconstruct a list of people to contact for information about the film. She takes holiday time and with the help of an American film writer sets out to see if she can track down another copy of the film.

Her quest takes her across much of England. Many of the actors and production staff remain alive 50 years later. Not so much the director, who died in a car crash mere days after the completion of filming.  

Campbell does such a fine job of describing the fictional film that one starts to wish it were real -- if so, it would be one of Karloff and Lugosi's finest on-screen team-ups. Along the way, Campbell deals with anti-horror, censorship crazes in Great Britain in both the 1930's and 1980's. The English peer responsible for the initial quashing of the film invoked the good of the British people back in 1938 as to why this horror film -- and horror films in general -- shouldn't be allowed in Great Britain. In 1988, the 'Video Nasties' censorship hysteria is in full-blown inferno.

But Sandy won't be dissuaded, despite increasingly weird goings-on, the mysterious death of her cats Bogart and Bacall, and a growing sense of being followed. Campbell has noted that Sandy is perhaps his least tortured, most 'normal' protagonist. This aids in the generation of suspense -- she's not the sort of Campbell character who would believe in even the possibility of the supernatural. All those times she thinks she sees something at the edge of vision -- well, they can be explained away. Can't they?

Its likable, uncomplicated protagonist and its detective-thriller architecture make Ancient Images Campbell's most accessible book to non-horror readers, in my humble opinion. It's a terrific ride with a tense climax. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Church (La chiesa) (1989)

The Church (La chiesa): written by Nick Alexander, Dario Argento, Fabrizio Bava, Lamberto Bava, Franco Ferrini, Dardano Sacchetti, and Michelle Soavi; directed by Michele Soavi; starring Hugh Quarshie (Father Gus), Tomas Arana (Evan), Feodor Chaliapin (The Bishop), Barbara Cupisti (Lisa), and Asia Argento (Lotte) (1989): So vaguely based on the M.R. James story "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" that I don't view it as an adaptation, The Church is a highly enjoyable though somewhat disjointed piece of melodramatic, religion-soaked Italian horror. 

After a wild 12th-century-set prologue that verges on Monty Python and the Holy Grail territory, we move to the late 1980's and a historic church with a very big secret buried beneath it. As this is a horror movie, that secret will be unearthed. There's some attempt at a slow build in the first 45 minutes or so. That build goes on a bit too long and a bit too slowly. 

Thankfully, the horror that eventually kicks in is lurid and visually shocking. Michele Soavi is a solid director, and he's working in the traditions of Dario Argento (who helped write) and Mario Bava. Terrible things begin to happen, a couple of them pretty much out of left-field (I'm looking at you, subway train!). All hell's a coming. And the movie shifts its narrative focus in the last third to a totally different protagonist than the first two-thirds. This is strangely liberating, and not something I can recall an American or British horror film ever doing, though I'm sure there are precedents.

Overall, The Church is startling and worthwhile despite the early slowness and what one could charitably describe as somewhat indifferent dubbing in the English-language version. Sometimes it visually quotes medieval woodcuts, sometimes it visually quotes Boris Vallejo paintings. It's that sort of over-heated horror-melodrama. The set design, make-up, and sculpture work are all very impressive and very disturbing. Recommended.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Incarnate (1983) by Ramsey Campbell

Incarnate (1983) by Ramsey Campbell: Structurally, Incarnate most resembles early Stephen King novels that include Salem's Lot and The Stand insofar as it follows multiple third-person POVs that gradually dovetail as the novel moves to its climax. And this structure works beautifully, suspense being generated from both the narratives and the moments in which we leave one POV for another.

Superficially, Incarnate also falls into the sub-genre of horror novels in which events are set in motion by an ill-advised experiment that unleashes either telepathic or supernatural powers in those who were experimented upon. But it's not really much like Firestarter or any of a dozen other 'wild-talent' novels of the 1960's, 70's, and 80's. 

This time around, an Oxford study of several people who seem to have prophetic dreams disintegrates as the subjects seemingly start to go collectively insane. Eleven years later, one of the scientists in charge of the experiment writes to the subjects to enquire if any of them have suffered long-term problems as a result of the study. Well, maybe they have. Or maybe they simply drew the attention of Something to themselves and our little world. The next 450 pages of the novel will be spent examining what happened, what continues to happen, and what may happen next.

Campbell's strength at creating horrors that are always just a bit undefined even when they take center stage is in full evidence throughout the novel. There are glimpses of odd things that suddenly disappear. There are flashes of vaguely remembered cityscapes. There's a loathsome, terrible, needy thing sleeping in someone's bed. There are stairways that go on forever and crucifixes that move and leer. Through it all, Campbell's command of characterization is first-rate. We may not like all the characters, but even for the worst of them is aroused a fearful pity for what broke them, and why. 

It's also got one of my favourite-ever scenes involving a minor character wisely running away when confronted by a horror. It's creepy, but it's also funny -- and it rings completely true.

Incarnate gradually builds towards a Sublime and mysterious climax. There's a refreshing ruthlessness at points when it comes to the fate of some of the characters, though that ruthlessness works in concert with mystery: we don't really know what happens once certain people wander out of the light. It's a grand novel, minutely observed and gigantic in its revelations. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Etrigan Again

Garth Ennis' The Demon Volume 1: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by John McCrea and others (1993-94/Collected 2015): Ennis and McCrea's anarchic, vulgar take on Jack Kirby's non-anarchic, non-vulgar Etrigan the Demon is a hoot for those with a strong stomach. It's no more faithful to Kirby's original conception of a demon who fights on the side of the angels than, well, pretty much every other take on The Demon after Kirby's. Indeed, the only comic book that ever came close to Kirby's energetic mix of super-heroism and the supernatural is Mike Mignola's Hellboy

Ennis and McCrea, like Alan Moore and Matt Wagner before them, make Etrigan a barely controlled monster. They make the human Etrigan shares a body with, Jason Blood, into a whiny incompetent. They make the various supporting characters into buffoons and punchlines. So it goes. It all works because Ennis and McCrea are really good at ultraviolent horror comedy. It also works because they introduce their super-powered hitman character (cleverly dubbed Hitman) in the course of these issues. Hitman would get his own series. As is pretty much always the case with Ennis, he'd seem a lot more comfortable and a lot less scabrous writing his own character.

The standout story arc here sees Ennis and McCrea bring back DC's venerable weird war series The Haunted Tank. The cognitive dissonance generated by a story of an American tank haunted by a Confederate general taking on a bunch of resurrected, supernatural Nazis with the help of a nihilistic Demon is a wee bit mind-blowing. Perhaps never moreso than in a scene in which the Demon explains to the Nazis why he finds them repugnant. It's crazy fun, and it allows Ennis to himself resurrect some of the ridiculous maneuvers the dinky little Haunted Tank once performed so as to defeat seemingly endless hordes of vastly superior Nazi machinery.

Is this Kirbyesque? No. And Ennis' decision to have Etrigan speak in rhymes all the time -- based on a long-standing, DC-wide misreading of Kirby's original Etrigan , who only occasionally spoke in rhyme -- can make for some truly godawful writing at points. But, you know, Nazi zombies in tanks! Recommended.

Ramsey Campbell, Probably (2015 edition)

Ramsey Campbell, Probably (1968-2015/Collected in 2015 Revised Edition) by Ramsey Campbell, edited by S.T. Joshi: 40 years of non-fiction pieces by World's Greatest Horror Writer Ramsey Campbell. There are autobiographical pieces which illuminate Campbell's often harrowing early life, essays on various writers, pieces on social issues related to horror, and essays and introductions originally written for Campbell's novels and short-story collections. 

In all, they're dandy. And so many of them in this big book from PS Publishing! Campbell is thoughtful and often self-effacing when he writes about his own work, and those essays that do this offer a wealth of information about how and why certain decisions were made in the writing process, and what Campbell thinks about those decisions in retrospect. 

He's also debilitatingly funny in many of the essays, never moreso than when he deals with The Highgate Vampire hoax. There's also hilarity to be had in portions of his self-appraisal (for some reason, a section on his attempt to include the word 'shit' in a Lovecraftian story submitted to August Derleth's Arkham House nearly had me lying on the floor). 

His essays on writers are occasionally scathing but for the most part positive. A melancholy essay on the late John Brunner stands out as a painful meditation on what happens when a very good writer is forgotten in today's publishing climate. A wide-ranging essay on the novels of James Herbert is a sensitive reappraisal of that (alas, also late) best-selling writer's work as a foundational stratum of working-class, English horror shot through with deeply held social concerns not usually seen in English horror up to that time.  Many of the writers Campbell writes about are also friends, thus shedding a certain personal light on writers ranging from Robert Aickman to the (then) Poppy Z. Brite.

General pieces include the almost-obligatory '10 horror movies for a desert island' essay, several examinations of horror in general and the general public's attitude towards horror, the 'Video Nasties' censorship hysteria in the Great Britain of the 1980's and early 1990's, and examinations of the history of horror. Campbell's lengthy autobiographical essay "How I Got Here" is also invaluable in understanding his life and work. He's almost painfully self-revelatory at points, while remaining refreshingly free of self-pity. 

Oh, and there's an essay on British spanking-based pornography. Really, you can't go wrong with this collection. How often is one going to find revelatory close readings of major H.P. Lovecraft stories and brief 'plot' synopses of faux-English-school-girl spanking pornography in the same book? Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


The X-Files: [Fight the Future]: (1998): written by Frank Spotnitz and Chris Carter; directed by Rob Bowman; starring David Duchovny (Agent Mulder), Gillian Anderson (Agent Scully), John Neville (The Well-Manicured Man), William B. Davis (Cigarette-Smoking Man), Martin Landau (Kurtzwell), and Mitch Pileggi (Assistant FBI Director Skinner): 

Released to theatres between Seasons 5 and 6 of The X-Files TV show, The X-Files: [Fight the Future] is actually less satisfying than the shows that led directly into and out of it. So it goes. It does codify certain things about the show's alien conspiracy, in part because John Neville's character delivers two minutes of exposition that explains about five years of show. In riffing on dire conspiracy theories about the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, the movie accidentally seems to forecast some of the more dire theories about 9/11. So it goes in the Ourobouros of paranoia. 

The movie does take advantage of having a much larger budget by delivering a couple of cinematic set-pieces and a lot of black helicopters. It also takes advantage of being a movie to give the viewer several widescreen panoramas dominated by the sky, something that didn't happen a lot on the show. It's still a bit incoherent and riddled with coincidence as a plot device. The final Antarctic set-piece gives us the series' most exaggerated and unbelievable example of Scully looking the wrong way when something extraordinary happens. Recommended for X-Files fans.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe: (2008): written by Frank Spotnitz and Chris Carter; directed by Chris Carter; starring David Duchovny (Agent Mulder), Gillian Anderson (Agent Scully), Billy Connolly (Father Joe), Amanda Peet (Agent Whitney), Xzibit (Agent Drummy), Callum Keith Rennie (Abductor), and Mitch Pileggi (Assistant FBI Director Skinner): 

Low-budget, enervated attempt to bring back The X-Files as a movie series six years after its TV cancellation was a critical and box-office disaster back in 2008. The main plot would barely have warranted a shrug on the series. The $20 million or so spent on the movie somehow looks cheaper than most of the show's much lower-budget British-Columbia-lensed episodes of its first four seasons, possibly because series creator Chris Carter isn't a very good movie director.

More unfortunately, Carter simply ignores the final episodes of his own show in this movie. That may not be a bad thing entirely, but the result reminds me of the exasperated cry of Sam Rockwell's character to the main cast members of the TV show in Galaxy Quest -- "Did you guys ever WATCH the show?" 

Billy Connolly does good work as a pedophile Roman Catholic priest searching for redemption. David Duchovny's fake beard looks really fake for the 30 minutes of film he's stuck sporting it prior to "shaving" it off. A sub-plot involving Gillian Anderson's Scully and her medical career would be great on a TV show. In a movie, it feels like 20 minutes of filler. Not really recommended except for X-Files completists