Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Void (2016)

The Void (2016): written and directed by Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski; starring Aaron Poole (Officer Carter), Kenneth Welsh (Dr. Powell), Daniel Fathers (The Father), Kathleen Munroe (Allison), Ellen Wong (Kim), Mik Byskov (The Son), Art Hindle (Mitchell), and Grace Munro (Maggie): Delightful Lovecraftian horror made in Canada -- specifically in and around Sault Ste. Marie. There are gooshy bits, but they're in service to a story about an invasion from OUTSIDE

Canadian acting stalwarts Art Hindle and Kenneth 'Wyndham Earle' Welsh rub shoulders with relative unknowns in this tale of a stripped-down, soon-to-be-closed rural hospital assaulted from within and without by cult members, monsters, and a terrible FORCE FROM OUTSIDE. Dread and fun combine in productive ways, and the movie even quotes from that cult sf classic The Quiet Earth. Highly recommended.

Get Out (2017)

Get Out (2017): written and directed by Jordan Peele; starring Daniel Kaluuya (Chris Washington), Alison Williams (Rose Armitage), Catherine Keener (Dr. Armitage), Bradley Whitford (Dr. Armitage), Caleb Landry Jones (Dean Armitage), Marcus Henderson ('Walter'), Betty Gabriel ('Georgina'), LilRey Howery (Rod Williams of the TSA), and Stephen Root (Jim Hudson): 

A zippy, suspenseful horror movie about racial relations. Rod Serling, who did so many allegorical stories on The Twilight Zone, would be proud of Jordan Peele's creepy, satirical story about an extraordinarily bad visit to the country by art photographer Chris (a great Daniel Kaluuya) to meet the parents (creepy Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) of his girlfriend of four months (Alison Williams, perfectly cast). 

Peele builds the suspense gradually over the first half, lightening some scenes with comic-relief TSA agent/Chris's best pal Rod on the phone (one of the jokes is that Rod's paranoid fantasies about what rich white people want with black people is neither paranoid nor fantasy). The ending descends into cathartic violence that seems to comment on both current events and the tragic ending of George Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead, with its heroic African-American protagonist. 

Peele has a nice director's eye, giving us colour-saturated scenes of privileged gentility and night-time scenes of startling horror. The movie also nods to The Wicker Man (the original), Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," and Star Trek episode "Spock's Brain" in interesting ways. I think Peele's just-announced Twilight Zone reboot should be a blast. Highly recommended.

Gojira (1954)

Gojira (1954): written by Takeo Murata, Ishiro Honda, and Shigeru Kayama; directed by Ishiro Honda; starring Akira Takarada (Ogata), Momoko Kochi (Emiko), and Akihiko Hirata (Serizawa): Gojira/Godzilla is a colossal prick in this American release of the Japanese original. There's no Raymond Burr here to explain things, as he was added to the mass release/re-edit of Gojira known as Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956). Instead, we get what is often a traditional horror movie, occasionally an intermittently shocking disaster movie. 

There's also a love story, some commentary on atomic bombs and atomic testing, a doomsday weapon called The Oxygen Destroyer (what a band name that would be!), and a lengthy prayer/song sequence. Gojira is all monster here. It's sometimes forgotten that Gojira is naturally 150 feet tall, though the atomic tests that awoke him probably gave him that deadly radioactive fire breath. 

Some effects don't work at all, most notably a sequence in which jet fighters engage Gojira with some hilariously inaccurate firecrackers meant to be missiles. Other effects still work, though, especially those involving the devastation of Tokyo and the pitiful fates of those caught on the ground by this new God of the Atomic Age. Where are the heroic Mothra larvae when you need them? Recommended.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Vampyr (1931) and Eraserhead (1977)

Vampyr (1931): Loosely based on J. Sheridan Le Fanu's "The Room In the Dragon Volant" and "Carmilla" by writers Christian Jul and Carl Dreyer; directed by Carl Dreyer; starring Julian West (Allan Grey), Maurice Schutz (Father), Rena Mandel (Gisele), Sybille Schmitz (Leone), Jan Hieronimko (The Doctor), and Henriette Gerard (The Vampyr): Carl (best known as the director of the excruciating classic The Passion of Joan of Arc) Dreyer's intentionally nightmare-like, early sound film remains one of a handful of the most unusual vampire movies ever made. There's a fairly tight, simple plot. But that plot is secondary to the images that come and go, images that often defy the plot. 

Does our protagonist have a number of dreams, waking or otherwise, during his pursuit of a vampire? What is up with that creepy doll in the corner of that shot? What the Hell is going on with all the shadows doing weird stuff? And so on, and so forth. It's a languorous movie in the best possible way, best watched late at night. Highly recommended.

Eraserhead (1977): written and directed by David Lynch; starring Jack Nance (Henry Spencer), Charlotte Stewart (Mary X), Allen Joseph (Mr. X), Jeanne Bates (Mrs. X), Judith Roberts (Beautiful Girl Across the Hall), and Laurel Near (Lady In the Radiator): Watching David Lynch's first full-length movie -- filmed over the course of several years! -- is always a disturbing treat, but Twin Peaks: The Return makes it almost mandatory today. 

That terrific, innovative, terrifying miniseries (maxiseries?) echoes with the sounds of Eraserhead. Literally, at certain points, given the sound design of the two projects. Eraserhead is a necessity on its own, of course, a masterpiece of horrors cloachal, bodily, existential, and cosmic. It remains as essential now as it was 40 years ago, one of the crowning moments of 'Art Cinema' and cult horror and WTF movie-making. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Dark Places (2009) by Gillian Flynn

Dark Places (2009) by Gillian Flynn: Flynn gained fame and fortune and a bit of controversy with her third published novel, Gone Girl, and its movie adaptation which she scripted. Once a TV and film critic for Entertainment Weekly, Flynn's writing in this novel seems aimed at film adaptation, though none is as yet forthcoming.

Dark Places is a dark romp occasionally undercut by its glibness and by an ending that seems aimed at some sequel down the road. Its strengths are its strong though sometimes programmatic characterization, especially of its protagonist, Libby Day.

Day was the sole survivor at age seven of the 1985 massacre of her mother and two sisters in their small Midwestern town. Her 15-year-old brother went to jail for the murders, primarily because of Libby's coached, fictionalized testimony. 

24 years later, a bunch of wonky murder hobbyists who debate various solved and unsolved homicides online and at conventions pay Libby to appear at one such convention, where she discovers that the "Kill Club" believes that she lied on the stand and that her brother is innocent.

Libby may have lived a horrid life of depression and mania and seclusion, but the lure of money gets her out of the house. Initially that's because her inheritance is about $500 away from running out. So she negotiates various fees with the Kill Club in exchange for her visiting anyone and everyone who might know something about the murders that the police never investigated. The quest will ultimately involve meeting with her brother in jail after not talking to him in 24 years, as well as a meeting or two with her absent, alcoholic, deranged father.

Libby is a great character -- wounded, acerbic, cynical, self-lacerating, other-lacerating. The novel alternates her first-person, present-day narration with third-person chapters focused on brother Ben and their single mother, depressed and beaten down and poor and about to lose the family farm to the Bank.

Aside from that ending, Dark Places also has a problem more peculiar to Hollywood movies than novels: its mystery is compromised by the novelistic equivalent of a combination of Chekov's Gun and the 'Unmotivated', secretly Motivated Close-up that reveals the identity of the killer or the mole an hour before that character steps on stage (see: the cook in The Hunt For Red October). 

One seemingly random bit of conversation early in the novel reveals a major late-novel revelation. It screams for attention because there's no other similar information surrounding it. There might as well be a flashing neon sign pointing to it. 

The rest of the mystery seems to be telegraphed about halfway through the book by virtue of several Neon Moments of Fore-shadowing. Oh, well. I guessed the major plot revelation of Gone Girl before watching the movie without ever reading the novel. Flynn maybe needs to work on this. Or not. Certainly a lot of people like her stories just the way they are, ready to hit the screen and partially predigested when it comes to Twists.

In any case, Dark Places is a mostly fun, fast read. Its level of mystery will probably depend on just how many mysteries you've read and seen. Its narrative use of the 1980's Satanic Cult scares that put a lot of innocent people in jail doesn't quite work as commentary because there are actual Satanists in the novel, no matter how puerile. Though that's almost paid off by Libby's discovery that the Satanic teenager of 1985 becomes the feed-store operator of 2009. Recommended.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Paperbacks from Hell(2017) by Grady Hendrix

Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of 70's and 80's Horror Fiction (2017) by Grady Hendrix: A delightful book about the boom in horror paperbacks that lasted from roughly 1968 to 1993. What a time it was to be alive! I know! I was there!

Copiously illustrated. Maybe obscenely illustrated! Horror writer Grady Hendrix keeps things zipping along, aided by all the crazy covers from those paperbacks (and discussions of some of the more famous cover artists of the period). A chronological discussion of the era shares space with thematic discussions (Insects! Incest!) and pieces on notable writers of the boom. 

Nazi leprechauns!
The covers, though. Really, even if this were just a picture book, it would be worth the money, even for a casual horror reader. I'm not casual, so I really loved it. 

Hendrix begins the story of his own infatuation with horror paperbacks by discussing his discovery of John Christopher's batshit-crazy novel The Little People, thanks to its batshit-crazy cover art. 

Holy moley! I have to buy and read this book!

I noticed a few factual errors (most puzzlingly, the misidentification of the writer of Watership Down). But overall, Grady has an interestingly idiosyncratic take on the Golden Age of Paperback Horror, along with the reasons for its rise and fall. Will Errickson supplies an essay at the back of the book, along with a lot of help Hendrix gleaned from Too Much Horror Fiction. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Edge of Running Water (1939) by William Sloane

Even the cover is quiet. Too quiet...
The Edge of Running Water (1939) by William Sloane: William Sloane remains somewhat known today for this pseudo-science-fictional horror novel and To Walk the Night, another pseudo-science-fictional horror novel from the 1930's. They're both horror but very quiet horror -- Charles L. Grant would have been proud.

Filmmakers adapted The Edge of Running Water in 1941 as The Devil Commands, a solid and relatively faithful Boris Karloff movie with a completely anomalous title

The Edge of Running Water concerns the efforts of a scientist to build a machine that can contact the dead. He's motivated by the death of his wife from pneumonia. He has a strange woman as his helper. And he's called upon an old friend and former student he hasn't seen for years to provide some vital information needed to complete the experiment. Near a small town in the wilds of pre-Stephen-King Maine, the scientist's experiments have already attracted attention and rumour-mongering among that small town's residents.

And periodically, a strange thunder-like sound booms out from the scientist's house, a sound he will not explain to anyone.

The novel is long on mood and gradually-building suspense and somewhat short on actual scares. Sloane's first-person narrator -- that old friend -- can seem a bit glib at times, and perhaps even a little dense. However, that denseness works in the novel's favour when it comes to the cosmic horror that underlies the novel. 

Our narrator -- and, indeed, everyone else in the novel -- seems to be blithely unaware of the possibility that the experiment creates something much more disturbing than a telephone line to the dead. A terrible mystery may have been solved by the climax of the novel. But is a mystery solved when no one knows it, or at least admits to its solution?

Yes. Yes it is.

The Edge of Running Water is a quiet book, dominated at one point by an overly lengthy police investigation and throughout by the love story that develops between the narrator and the dead wife's sister, who has also come to find out what her uncle is up to.  Recommended.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Devil Commands (1941)

No devil appears in the movie.
The Devil Commands (1941): adapted by Robert Andrews and Milton Gunzburg from the novel The Edge of Running Water by William Sloane; directed by Edward Dmytryk; starring Boris Karloff (Dr. Blair), Cy Schindell (Karl), Amanda Duff (Anne), Anne Revere (Mrs. Walters) and Richard Fiske (Richard): 

Moody, atmospheric horror film with Karloff as a Mad Scientist, or more accurately a sane scientist driven mad by his wife's death and the subsequent revelations about the afterlife as revealed by his investigations into brain function.

Frame narration from Karloff's daughter doesn't really help with suspense, but the movie as a whole is enjoyable. Karloff is more mournful and far less threatening than usual as the increasingly loopy scientist who believes that he can build a machine to communicate with the dead in general and his wife in particular. And what a machine! The final form of his 'Dead Set' really makes the whole movie worthwhile. It's Vacuum-Tube Gothic.

Other elements are perhaps a bit more rote, from the grieving daughter and her boring love interest to the wily sheriff. Karloff's hulking henchman Karl possesses a bit more pathos than most such characters, as we see the accident that 'creates' him. An unscrupulous 'fake' medium who turns out to have real psychic powers (shades of Ghost!) rounds out the major players.

Director Edward Dmytryk is better at mood and atmospherics than he is pacing -- the whole thing drags a bit, which shouldn't really happen with a 65-minute movie. Nonetheless, a grim and surprisingly downbeat movie for its time. Recommended.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Cthulhu's Reign (2010): edited by Darrell Schweitzer

Cthulhu's Reign (2010): edited by Darrell Schweitzer:

  • Sanctuary by Don Webb 
  • Her Acres of Pastoral Playground by Mike Allen 
  • Spherical Trigonometry by 朝松健 [as by Ken Asamatsu] 
  • What Brings the Void by Will Murray 
  • The New Pauline Corpus by Matt Cardin 
  • Ghost Dancing by Darrell Schweitzer 
  • This Is How the World Ends by John R. Fultz 
  • The Shallows by John Langan 
  • Such Bright and Risen Madness in Our Names by Jay Lake 
  • The Seals of New R'lyeh by Gregory Frost 
  • The Holocaust of Ecstasy by Brian Stableford 
  • Vastation by Laird Barron 
  • Nothing Personal by Richard A. Lupoff 
  • Remnants by Fred Chappell 

Entertaining anthology goes with the depressing scenario 'What happens AFTER H.P. Lovecraft's Great Old Ones return to reclaim the Earth?' and runs with it in enjoyable albeit often oppressively depressing ways. But some of the stories contain faint hope, and the overall selection ranges broadly from Heist Comedy ("The Seals of New R'lyeh" by Gregory Frost) to hard science fiction ("Nothing Personal" by Richard A. Lupoff) to post-modern stream-of-consciousness ("Vastation" by Laird Barron).

Along the way, stories attempt to portray what the world post-Cthulhu would look like. A writhing mass of endless screaming meat? A patchwork of broken reality? A maze haunted by sadistic smaller versions of Cthulhu? A world in the process of being changed to suit its new masters, the Moon already transformed into a red and glaring five-pointed star in the squirming heavens? A seemingly normal neighbourhood that gets less normal the closer one looks? A baleful orb of anti-matter? 

Yes, all this and more!

The stories are all at least competent. Many are inspired. "The Shallows" by John Langan is a modern classic, I think, counterpointing the mundane and the weird both in setting and in the (one-sided) conversation a survivor of the rise of Cthulhu tells to, well, an unusually crabby house-guest. Fred Chappell's "Remnants" offers a slice of hope in what sometimes seems like the first part of an epic, hard-science-fiction series. Recommended.

The Dunwich Horror (1970), or Gidget Goes To Dunwich

The Dunwich Horror (1970): loosely and hilariously adapted by Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum, and Ronald Silkowsky from the story by H.P. Lovecraft; directed by Daniel Haller; starring Sandra Dee (Nancy Wagner), Dean Stockwell (Wilbur Whateley), Ed Begley Sr. (Armitage), Lloyd Bochner (Cory), Sam Jaffe (Old Whateley), and Talia Shire (Nurse Cora): Oh, great Cthulhu, what a terrible movie. Yet the cast is terrific. Too bad script, direction, set design, and budget let them down.

H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" (published 1929) is one of the central stories in what would be dubbed by other the Cthulhu Mythos. This movie... whew. Well, at least there's nudity. And the producers add a character played by Sandra (Gidget) Dee to... well, get raped by an extra-dimensional entity. 

It doesn't help that Dee has to play the world's dumbest academic librarian who is immediately (albeit with some magical prompting, also not in the story) smitten with Dean Stockwell playing a shaggy-haired hipster-Lothario who wants to summon the Lovecraftian god Yog-Sothoth to Earth. The story's version of Stockwell's character is an eight-foot-tall monstrosity with a lot of alien limbs and tentacles hidden under his shirt. Oh, well. At least Stockwell has some bitchin' torso tattoos...

Lloyd Bochner and Ed Begley (Sr.) soldier on as the forces of Good, trying to halt the apocalypse. Sam Jaffe wanders through occasionally, looking for his paycheck. Sandra Dee looks baffled. Dean Stockwell does what he can, which is very little. And The Godfather and Rocky's Talia Shire has a brief role under her birth name, Talia Coppola. And Curtis Hanson, who would go on to direct L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, and 8 Mile, shares screen-writing credit. Hoo boy.

The filmmakers wisely keep the monster of the story invisible for the most part, as in the story. We do occasionally get some exciting monster POV shots! Great stuff! It's the same sort of colour-flipping that cloaked Igor while he was dancing on Hilarious House of Frightenstein!

In terms of film history, The Dunwich Horror does feature the most-ever utterances of the word 'Yog-Sothoth.' And when he's casting some of his spells, Stockwell occasionally puts his hands to either side of his face and seemingly imitates a puffer fish. He's also got some crazy moves with his knife.

The Dunwich Horror would be more fun if it were a bit zippier -- somehow, with all the craziness and a 90-minute running time, it often drags. Still, it can be entertaining. I imagine on pot it's probably hilarious. On LSD, you would probably die.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Nocturnal Animals (2016): adapted by Tom Ford from the novel by Austin Wright; directed by Tom Ford; starring Amy Adams (Susan Morrow), Jake Gyllenhaal (Edward Sheffield/ Tony Hastings), Michael Shannon (Bobby Andes), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ray Marcus), and Armie Hammer (Hutton Morrow): Fashion designer Tom Ford previously directed the Colin-Firth-starring A Single Man several years ago. That film prepares one in absolutely no way for the weird magnificence that is Nocturnal Animals.

In the past, we watch the characters played by Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal meet, get married, and fall apart. In the present, Amy Adams works as one of the directors of a very high-end, pretentious Manhattan art gallery. And in the novel that Jake Gyllenhaal sends Adams, a man's family is abducted by hooting rednecks along a lonely stretch of desert highway. Gyllenhaal also plays the protagonist in scenes from that novel as imagined by Adams while she reads it.

Production design and cinematography separate the three strands of the narrative, beautifully (or grungily) dividing the dirty world of the novel from the naturalistic scenes from the past and the high-contrast colours of the artificial present. Adams and her cohorts at the gallery wear often hilarious outfits. A meeting of the gallery's directors, shot against stark white backgrounds, looks like what might have happened had Stanley Kubrick shot a talking-head ad for Chanel in the late 1980's.

Gyllenhaal and Adams are terrific, as is Michael Shannon as the vengeful cop of the novel. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is unrecognizable, and terrific, as the monstrous leader of the murderous thugs. He's got a scene on a toilet that's... startling. So, too, the opening few minutes of the movie, which depict a very... startling gallery installation.

This is an accomplished, witty, horrifying movie. I hope Ford doesn't wait 8 more years before doing another. He's already a better director than the vast majority of directors out there with many more films on their CVs. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Full Dark, No Stars (2010) by Stephen King

Full Dark, No Stars (2010) by Stephen King: King's third four-novella collection (after the great Different Seasons and the indifferent Four Past Midnight) is a bleak affair in which three of the four novellas feature women revenging themselves against monstrous men.

1922: This is the closest thing King has ever written to a noirish novel by James M. Cain (Double Indemnity) or Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me). Out in the bleak Midwest of  the Year of Our Lord 1922, a farmer plots to kill his wife because she wants to sell her land to a hog-butchering firm. Narrated by the farmer in first-person, 1922 is a bleak tale of (possibly) spectral revenge with a hint of Poe's "The Tell-tale Heart." 

King does a great job here of writing a protagonist whom, while well-spoken, is as dumb as a fencepost. He doesn't go Blood Simple -- he's simple long before he sets out on his murderous course. And he takes a lot of people with him. It's a haunting, distressing piece of work with no particularly sympathetic characters.

Big Driver: Things go terribly wrong for a female mid-list mystery novelist on her way home from a speaking engagement. Is revenge in the cards? Yes. Yes it is. The protagonist is sympathetically drawn (and is one of King's few characters with a cat as a pet, for what that's worth). The antagonists sort of slide off the believability plateau about two-thirds through, allowing for gruesome revenge without any need to parse the rightness or wrongness of it all.

Fair Extension: The shortest piece is also the grimmest. Well, maybe. A cancer-stricken man makes a deal with the Devil (or a devil, perhaps), possibly the same one from King's award-winning short story "The Man in the Black Suit." Things go poorly, though perhaps not as one thinks. It's a sort of one-note horror piece, drawn out a bit too long.

A Good Marriage: Revenge will be served again, as a woman married for more than 20 years to a seemingly good-guy accountant discovers that he's a serial killer. The novella's examination of what one would do under these circumstances is nuanced and suitably thrill-filled, backed by a sort of existential dread about just how much anyone knows about even their closest friends and loved ones. The investigator who shows up at the end seems to be a dry run for Bill Hodges in character if not in physical appearance.

Overall: Well worth a read. Nothing here hits the heights of the four bruisers in Different Seasons (Apt Pupil, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, The Body, and The Breathing Method). Really, what could? And when do we get a goddammed movie of The Breathing Method, btw?

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Ghost of Yotsuya (Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan) (1959)

The Ghost of Yotsuya (Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan) (1959): written by Masayoshi Onuki, Yoshihiro Ishikawa, and Nanboku Tsuruya; directed by Nobuo Nakagawa; starring Shigeru Amachi (Iemon), Noriko Kitazawa (Sode), Katsuko Wakasugi (Iwa), and Shuntaro Emi (Naosuke): Apparently based on a Japanese folk tale, Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan starts slowly, almost infuriatingly so, before moving in its second half into an inspired, creepy, occasionally amusing piece of spectral revenge. 

Along the way, you'll ask yourself such important cross-cultural questions as 'Why did he think it was a good idea to nail dead bodies to wooden shutters before throwing them in the river?' and 'Why does the deadly poison also make someone hideously ugly along the way?'. It's a very satisfying, somewhat oddball horror story, strangely affecting as it lingers in the memory. Recommended.

Population Zero (2016)

Population Zero (2016): written by Jeff Staranchuk; directed by Julian T. Pinder and Adam Levins; starring Julian T. Pinder (Director): Approach this documentary as I did, knowing nothing about it, and enjoy it. Or look it up and enjoy it differently. Either way, this is a masterful job by the Canadian film-makers. That's all I'm saying. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Cure for Wellness (2016)

A Cure for Wellness (2016): written by Justin Haythe and Gore Verbinski; directed by Gore Verbinski; starring Dane DeHaan (Lockhart), Jason Isaacs (Volmer), and Mia Goth (Hannah): Who knew Gore Verbinski had so much Poe in him? Edgar Allan Poe, that is, whose shadow looms over the work done by co-writers Verbinski and Justin Haythe and director Verbinski.

I'm glad I watched A Cure for Wellness at home, broken up over three nights. It's a slow movie. Almost a languorous movie. Poe's great horror short stories often had this same feeling, a slowness, a creeping that was at odds with their brevity. There were whole worlds there being revealed in a slow pan.

Dane DeHaan plays a young American stockbroker sent by his firm to retrieve a colleague from a mysterious wellness clinic located in the Swiss Alps. Needless to say, nothing goes as planned. 

Instead, a parade of horrors results, counterpointed by a critique of capitalism and its modern discontents. There's a mysterious young woman played by the aptly named Mia Goth (seriously, is that her real name?). And there's the soothing, reasonable, yet menacing head of the clinic as played by Jason Isaacs in a mode of subtle dread.

Production design makes the clinic foreboding from the beginning, but also realistically dated in its colour schemes and appearance -- it looks like a hospital from the 1940's. Below the ground, it looks like a hospital from the 1540's. Or a castle's dungeons.

Terrible things await Dehaan and Ms. Goth. There are subtle moments and gross-out moments and a repeated use of the reliably nightmarish 'My teeth are falling out!' trope. DeHaan, who looks oddly wormy at the best of times, is perfectly cast as the protagonist. He looks like a Poe protagonist. How odd that this perfect casting should come in the same year as his most perfect miscasting as the jaunty hero of Valerian.

Verbinski is relatively fearless when it comes to those moments when the horror stops creeping and starts leaping. It's fascinating to see a director best known for bringing adaptations of modern Japanese horror to North America and for that Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy plumb the depths of good old Gothic body horror, incest horror, and monstrous secrets from the cloachal depths. I'd love to see him tackle a Poe anthology next. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Mirrors (2008)

Mirrors (2008): adapted by Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur from the movie by Sungho Kim; directed by Alexandre Aja; starring Kiefer Sutherland (Ben Carson), Paula Patton (Amy Carson), and Amy Smart (Angela Carson): Intermittently enjoyable adaptation of a Korean horror movie that I'm pretty sure was a whole lot better and more coherent. Kiefer Sutherland does what he can, as does Paula Patton, but there's not a lot for them to do. Director Aja manages some creepy visuals among the ruins, though they cease to be interesting after the first hour or so.

Grieving cop Sutherland (he shot someone, or something, not wrongfully, or maybe wrongfully -- if the movie-makers can't be bothered to clearly explain what drives Sutherland's character, why should I?) takes a job as night watchman at a burned-out, high-end New York department store in the tradition of Macy's. 

Something terrible lurks within all those mirrors still standing around years after a store-wide fire that killed dozens. 

Actually, nothing seems to have been removed from the store after that fire. And the store's still there. Isn't New York real estate worth a lot? Why is this structure still around?

Oh, well.

The last third of the movie is so ridiculous as to reduce the stakes to zero. The female characters are there for the most part to get horribly killed, act as the shrieking voice of reason in the midst of crazy supernatural events, or be the monsters themselves. And that last third. Hoo boy. If nothing else, we learn that the ghosts and demons of this film spend a lot of time dusting. They're tidy. Good for them. Not recommended.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Night Shift (1978) by Stephen King

Night Shift (1978) by Stephen King:

  • Jerusalem's Lot (Previously unpublished)
  • Graveyard Shift (October 1970 issue of Cavalier)
  • Night Surf (Spring 1969 issue of Ubris)
  • I Am the Doorway (March 1971 issue of Cavalier)
  • The Mangler (December 1972 issue of Cavalier)
  • The Boogeyman (March 1973 issue of Cavalier)
  • Gray Matter (October 1973 issue of Cavalier)
  • Battleground (September 1972 issue of Cavalier)
  • Trucks (June 1973 issue of Cavalier)
  • Sometimes They Come Back (March 1974 issue of Cavalier)
  • Strawberry Spring (Fall 1968 issue of Ubris)
  • The Ledge (July 1976 issue of Penthouse)
  • The Lawnmower Man (May 1975 issue of Cavalier)
  • Quitters, Inc. (Previously unpublished)
  • I Know What You Need (September 1976 issue of Cosmopolitan)
  • Children of the Corn (March 1977 issue of Penthouse)
  • The Last Rung on the Ladder (Previously unpublished)
  • The Man Who Loved Flowers (August 1977 issue of Gallery)
  • One for the Road (March/April 1977 issue of Maine)
  • The Woman in the Room (Previously unpublished)

Stephen King's early short stories appeared for the most part in markets that don't exist any more -- "girly" magazines that published stories in between the sections of nude photos. And those markets paid much better than the genre markets for short stories. 

Night Shift appeared the same year as The Stand, after the success of Carrie (novel and movie), 'Salem's Lot, and The Shining (and after the pseudonymous publication of Rage as by Richard Bachman). 40 years (and many re-readings of many of the stories) later, a few observations.

King was very generous here with unpublished material -- four stories! And they're good stories. "Jerusalem's Lot" is King's most Lovecraftian pastiche, and it's a lot of fun. "Quitters, Inc." is a solid thriller with a twist. And "The Last Rung on the Ladder" and "The Woman in the Room" are moving, "slice-of-life" stories then atypical for King.

The published stories are almost all horror. And they're still very effective. "The Boogeyman" is my all-timer here, one of King's ten best horror stories. Throughout the collection, King's ability to synthesize horror and the mundane waxes and wanes. I do love the transformative, tainted beer in "Gray Matter" (based on a true story, sort of!). 

King's world in these stories is one in which, pushing H.P. Lovecraft to the fringes of absurdity, eldritch tomes of forbidden knowledge are available at your public library. King goes to the well of easily-acquired magical books a couple of times too many. He would lose this tendency very quickly, coming up with more normative, intuitive ways for his characters to do battle with the forces of darkness. 

The suspense/thriller stories are also top-notch, none moreso than "Battleground," with its cool-headed assassin faced with a most unlikely payback. "The Ledge" and "Quitters, Inc." are also nice, taut pieces of suspense based on clever ideas. The latter two were memorably filmed as part of the under-rated Cat's Eye movie, while the former was brilliantly adapted and filmed for the Nightmares and Dreamscapes miniseries of more than a decade ago.

I count six other film or TV adaptations besides the ones noted above. But no "Gray Matter" or "Jerusalem's Lot"! Ridiculous! Highly recommended as one of the five or six greatest original horror collections ever published. All-timer!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Gwendy's Button Box (2017) by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

Gwendy's Button Box (2017) by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar: In 1974, twelve-year-old Castle Rock native Gwendy Peterson meets a man in black sitting on a park bench. He's peculiarly convincing but no pervert. No, he wants her to take on stewardship of a peculiar small wooden box covered with buttons. She's the best person for the job. And as compensation, the box dispenses rare silver dollars on occasion and one exquisite chocolate once a day.

So begins this peculiar, affecting coming-of-age novella/short novel (it's really an abbreviated kunstlerroman). King handed it in unfinished form to writer-editor-publisher Richard Chizmar, who came up with ways to finish the narrative. The two work seamlessly together. The prose is a bit leaner, perhaps, than the King norm, but I'd be hard-pressed to figure out who wrote what.

The gem here is the character of Gwendy, who is perfectly believeable in the midst of increasing weirdness centered on that box and those buttons. As to who the Man in Black is -- well, I'll leave that to you. He sure does like the word 'palaver.' 

The horror in Gwendy's Button Box is mostly quiet and psychological, though King and Chizmar do throw in one gross-out scene, a brief one. In all, a rewarding, short read. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Horror in the Museum by H.P. Lovecraft and Others

The Horror in the Museum  by H.P. Lovecraft and Others (1970/1989/This edition 2007): edited by August Derleth, Stephen Jones, and S.T. Joshi:

Primary Revisions: Which is to say, stories that are almost entirely rewritten by HPL from stories or notes from other writers.

  • The Green Meadow (1918) by Winifred V. Jackson and H. P. Lovecraft [as by Lewis Theobald, Jr. and Elizabeth Neville Berkeley]: Really a Dunsanian prose-poem more than anything else.
  • The Crawling Chaos (1921) by Winifred V. Jackson and H. P. Lovecraft [as by Lewis Theobald, Jr. and Elizabeth Neville Berkeley]: Again, really a Dunsanian prose-poem more than anything else.
  • The Last Test (1928) by H. P. Lovecraft and Adolphe de Castro [as by Adolphe de Castro] : Enjoyable, overlong novella about a scientist's descent into madness, his descent speeded by the advice of a monstrous survival from eons past. Set primarily in late-19th-century San Francisco.
  • The Electric Executioner (1930) by H. P. Lovecraft and Adolphe de Castro [as by Adolphe de Castro]: So far as I know, the only story written or rewritten by HPL to be set primarily on a train. 
  • The Curse of Yig (1970) by H. P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop [as by Zealia Bishop]: Should be moved to the HPL canon. One of Lovecraft's generally top-notch "collaborations" with Zealia Bishop that moved the Cthulhu Mythos into the Midwestern environs of Oklahoma.
  • The Mound (1940) by H. P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop [as by Zealia Bishop]: Another top-notch, almost-canonical Lovecraft-Bishop Joint. A secret land of Great Old One worshippers hides about a mile below the surface of Oklahoma. Well, that explains a lot! 
  • Medusa's Coil (1939) by Zealia Bishop and H. P. Lovecraft [as by Zealia Bishop]: Oh, Lord. Brace yourself for the most racist ending in Lovecraft's stories and revisions, so anomalously ascendant over much more dire information that the ending almost seems like a parody.
  • The Man of Stone (1932) by H. P. Lovecraft and Hazel Heald [as by Hazel Heald]: Minor horror stuff.
  • The Horror in the Museum (1933) by H. P. Lovecraft and Hazel Heald [as by Hazel Heald]: Solid Mythos material set at... a wax museum?
  • Winged Death (1934) by H. P. Lovecraft and Hazel Heald [as by Hazel Heald]: Somewhat goofy Africa-set horror story.
  • Out of the Aeons (1933) by H. P. Lovecraft and Hazel Heald [as by Hazel Heald]: Another piece that could be considered canonical Mythos horror.
  • The Horror in the Burying-Ground (1937) by H. P. Lovecraft and Hazel Heald [as by Hazel Heald]: Very minor horror material.
  • The Diary of Alonzo Typer (1938) by H. P. Lovecraft and William Lumley [as by William Lumley]: Promising beginning, somewhat muted ending to a haunted house story with shades of the Great Ones looming behind it. Bears more than a passing resemblance to Stephen King's early-career homage to HPL, "Jerusalem's Lot."

Secondary Revisions: Which can range from a lot of HPL to almost none at all.

  • The Horror at Martin's Beach (1923) by H. P. Lovecraft and Sonia Greene  (variant of The Invisible Monster) [as by Sonia H. Greene]: Minor horror stuff with hypnotic sea monsters.
  • Ashes (1924) by C. M. Eddy, Jr. and H. P. Lovecraft [as by C. M. Eddy, Jr.] : Minor science-fictional horror that seems inspired by Robert W. Chambers.
  • The Ghost-Eater (1924) by H. P. Lovecraft and C. M. Eddy, Jr. [as by C. M. Eddy, Jr.] : Really minor lost-in-the-woods horror.
  • The Loved Dead (1924) by C. M. Eddy, Jr. and H. P. Lovecraft [as by C. M. Eddy, Jr.] : Oh, brother. Controversial (for its time) story about a guy who, though his actions are never completely described, seems to be a necrophiliac.
  • Deaf, Dumb and Blind (1925) by C. M. Eddy, Jr. and H. P. Lovecraft [as by C. M. Eddy, Jr.] : Minor piece of cosmic horror.
  • Two Black Bottles (1927) by H. P. Lovecraft and Wilfred Blanch Talman [as by Wilfred Blanch Talman] : Droll tale of zombies and churchyards.
  • The Trap (1932) by Henry S. Whitehead and H. P. Lovecraft [as by Henry S. Whitehead] : Minor piece of horror revolving around optics.
  • The Tree on the Hill (1934) by Duane W. Rimel : Under-developed piece of cosmic horror.
  • The Disinterment (1935) by H. P. Lovecraft and Duane W. Rimel [as by Duane W. Rimel] : Minor horror that seems mainly inspired by Poe.
  • "Till A' the Seas" (1935) by H. P. Lovecraft and R. H. Barlow  (variant of "Till All the Seas") [as by R. H. Barlow] : Downbeat fragment of end-of-the-world melancholy.
  • The Night Ocean (1936) by H. P. Lovecraft and R. H. Barlow [as by R. H. Barlow]: Probably the "weirdest" tale here in the modern sense, as atmosphere and suggestion take front place over specific, horrific occurrences. Extremely strong piece. 

Overall: Essential to the Lovecraft fan and/or scholar, and with enough rewarding tales of horror and the macabre to satisfy the casual reader as well. Highly recommended.

Acolytes of Cthulhu (2001) edited by Robert M. Price

Acolytes of Cthulhu  (2001/ This edition 2014): edited by Robert M. Price:

  1. Doom of the House of Duryea  (1936) by Earl Pierce, Jr.
  2. The Seventh Incantation (1963) by Joseph Payne Brennan
  3. From the Pits of Elder Blasphemy (2008) by Robert M. Price and Hugh B. Cave 
  4. The Jewels of Charlotte (1935) by Duane W. Rimel
  5. The Letters of Cold Fire  (1944) by Manly Wade Wellman
  6. Horror at Vecra (1943) by Henry Hasse
  7. Out of the Jar (1941) by Charles R. Tanner
  8. The Earth-Brain (1932) by Edmond Hamilton
  9. Through the Alien Angle (1941) by Elwin G. Powers
  10. Legacy in Crystal (1943) by James Causey
  11. The Will of Claude Ashur (1947) by C. Hall Thompson
  12. The Final War (1949) by David H. Keller, M.D.
  13. The Dunstable Horror (1964) by Arthur Pendragon
  14. The Crib of Hell (1965) by Arthur Pendragon
  15. The Last Work of Pietro of Apono (1969) by Steffan B. Aletti
  16. The Eye of Horus (1968) by Steffan B. Aletti
  17. The Cellar Room (1970) by Steffan B. Aletti
  18. Mythos (1961) by John S. Glasby
  19. There Are More Things (1975) by Jorge Luis Borges
  20. The Horror Out of Time (1978) by Randall Garrett
  21. The Recurring Doom  (1980) by S. T. Joshi
  22. Necrotic Knowledge  (1976) by Dirk W. Mosig [as by Cemetarius Nightcrawler]
  23. Night Bus  (1985) by Donald R. Burleson
  24. The Pewter Ring  (1987) by Peter Cannon
  25. John Lehmann Alone  (1987) by David Kaufman
  26. The Purple Death  (2001) by Gustav Meyrink  (trans. of Der violette Tod 1902)
  27. Mists of Death  (2001) by Richard F. Searight and Franklyn Searight 
  28. Shoggoth's Old Peculiar (1998) by Neil Gaiman 

Excellent selection of Lovecraftian short stories spanning the years 1932 to 2001. Acolytes of Cthulhu is probably better suited to a reader well-acquainted with Lovecraftian weird fiction. Not all the stories are great. But I hadn't run across most of them, making the anthology a lot of fun as it avoids reprinting stories that have become familiar from multiple appearances.

In some stories, the Lovecraftian taint is faint -- perhaps as little as some curious tome of apocalyptic demon lore sitting on a desk. Other stories are just plain nuts, David Keller's "The Final War" chief among them. I won't even try to describe it in detail. It's just plain bananas.

Jorge Luis Borges' nod to HPL, "There Are More Things," gratifyingly appears, and is about as Borgesian a nod to Lovecraft as one could hope for. A piece of juvenilia by Weird-Fiction Historian-Supreme S.T. Joshi is a fun pastiche. 

The stand-out is Randall Garrett's tricky, fun "The Horror Out of Time." The kicker really kicks. Neil Gaiman's humourous "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar" closes the anthology with a wink. A squamous, batrachian wink.  Though the winner for best title has to be "From the Pits of Elder Blasphemy" by editor Robert M. Price and Hugh B. Cave, whose career in weird fiction began around the same time that HPL's ended in the 1930's. 

Price has done an admirable job of seeking out stories previously excluded from virtually all Lovecraftian anthologies. They may not all be great, or even good, but they are a historic delight. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Born To the Dark (Book Two of The Three Births of Daoloth) (2017) by Ramsey Campbell

Born To the Dark (Book Two of The Three Births of Daoloth) (2017) by Ramsey Campbell: In The Searching Dead (2016), narrator Dominick Sheldrake told of his early teen-aged years in 1952 Liverpool. Along with friends Roberta (Bobby) and Jim, Dominick encountered increasingly weird occult occurrences, though by the end of the book he alone faced the final horrors. 

Now it's 1985 and Dominick is all grown up, teaching film studies at a Liverpool college, married, with a five-year-old son. But the son has a curious sleep disorder. A nurse recommends a new clinic specializing in successful treatment of this disorder. And Dominick finds himself plunged into new iterations of the horrors of the past.

Ramsey Campbell is at the height of his multitudinous powers in this, the middle novel of The Three Births of Daoloth. Narrated again at some time after the events of the novel by Dominick, Born To the Dark is cosmic horror amplified by Sheldrake's fears for his son, his friends, and his sanity. We view much of the cosmic terror through Sheldrake's son's descriptions of his dreams and the strange things and events lurking there. Somehow, this makes it worse.

Like many protagonists of horror novels, Dominick struggles to find someone -- anyone -- who will believe his story. And he also struggles with the consequences of telling his wife and others about the cosmic threat that seemingly only he sees: paranoia, abandonment, the threat of divorce, the threat of police action, public humiliation...

But this isn't simply psychological horror about an unjustifiably paranoid narrator. Something is coming, something worse than whatever it is that's already there. The novel climaxes with a lengthy journey into a place being undermined by an invading reality. And with a third book to go, there are (as Manly Wade Wellman once observed) Worse Things Waiting.

The characterization of Dom and the other characters is sharp, the mood and description unnerving throughout. As in many of H.P. Lovecraft's seminal tales of cosmic horror, Born To the Dark gives us a protagonist who continues to attempt to stop a rising tide of horror that is almost certainly beyond his powers to stop. Yet he persists. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Stephen King's Graveyard Shift (1990)

Stephen King's Graveyard Shift (1990): adapted by John Esposito from the short story by Stephen King; directed by Ralph S. Singleton; starring David Andrews (John Hall), Kelly Wolf (Jane), Stephen Macht (Warwick), Vic Polizos (Hose Guy), and Brad Dourif (Exterminator): Singleton's only film-directing credit; he was primarily known as a producer on such projects as Pet Sematary, Clear and Present Danger, and... Juwanna Mann? Well, at least he had range.

Rats are a problem at a decrepit Maine cotton mill in both the superior short story and this inferior movie.

Stephen King observed that the movie dumped a lot of money into the Maine economy. That's high praise!

But it's an enjoyable piece of trash, with mostly decent acting (though Pennsylvanian Macht's over-the-top struggles with a Maine accent are intermittently hilarious). Brad Dourif has an almost entirely self-contained and pointless cameo role. But he's always good, even in this dog.

Director Singleton seems to have no idea how to create mood in a horror movie. The basements, sub-basements, and sub-sub-basements are unterrifyingly well-lit, and Singleton is no Kubrick when it comes to well-lit horror. 

Pre-CGI problems abound with the rat actors as well. Real trained rats can't actually flood areas with people in them the way they do in the claustrophobic, rat-crowded story. So they instead put in appearances from time to time, looking unbearably cute. By the end, the movie seems to be about a heroic human saving a bunch of cute rats from a lifetime of servitude to a mean, giant rat-monster tyrant.

The giant rat-monster (you knew there was a giant rat-monster in this, right?), so effectively revealed in the short story, instead just keeps showing up throughout the movie. Apparently it has a clock to punch. As it seem to have free access to the upper levels of the mill whenever it wants that access, its Final Boss Monster status has been completely eroded by the conclusion, when we see it for about the hundredth time (subjectively).

Still, there are worse ways to spend 100 minutes. And the beefy, yelling guy with the high-pressure hose is an unintentional bit of exquisite comedy. Badly recommended (new rating!).

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Aliens vs. Predator 2: Requiem (2007)

Aliens vs. Predator 2: Requiem (2007): based on characters created by Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shushett, Jim Thomas, and John Thomas; written by Shane Salerno; directed by Colin and Greg Krause; starring Steven Pasquale (Dallas), Reiko Aylesworth (Kelly), John Ortiz (Morales), Johnny Lewis (Ricky), and Kristen Hager (Jesse):

Fun fact: so far as I could tell, 'Requiem' never appears as part of the title in the actual movie. Which makes a certain amount of sense because there's very little that's Requiemesque about this production.

Aliens vs. Predator 2: Requiem (AVP2R?) surprised me by not being terrible. It's not good. But it entertained me sporadically for two hours. Its main strength is its absolute ruthlessness towards characters minor and major, and ruthlessness in its scenarios. An egg-laying Alien gets into a maternity ward. Hoo boy, is that brutal both in what's shown and what's implied! The Alien, actually a Predator-Alien hybrid, can lay multiple eggs out of its mouth. Ha ha! That's some grotesque stuff! Those mothers and fetuses are totally screwed!

And there's more where that came from. 

On a television screen, the action is sometimes so dark as to be incomprehensible. That's not really a bad thing in a horror movie, though because of the darkness it took me two-thirds of the film to figure out which Alien was the ill-advised Alien/Predator hybrid. And good luck differentiating that hybrid in some scenes from the actual Predator sent to clean up the mess caused by a Predator research vessel crashing near a small town in Colorado and thus releasing a truckload of Facehuggers and that nasty hybrid.

The cast is anonymous but perfectly serviceable. British Columbia plays Colorado effectively. It's a decent time-waster and, though it' s a direct sequel to the first Aliens vs. Predator movie, one doesn't need to have seen that movie to understand this one. I do wish Robocop would get involved in these franchise crossovers, though. And Wolverine. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Color Over Occam (2012) by Jonathan Thomas

The Color Over Occam (2012) by Jonathan Thomas: Set in and around the New England town of Occam, The Color Over Occam is narrated by Occam city clerk Jeffrey Slater.  Slater and his friend Wil run a public access cable show involving their investigations of the supernatural. As the novel begins, they're paddling around the city reservoir -- once farmland but flooded since the 1920's -- investigating claims of "ghost lights" on the waters at night. And they find them. But they're not ghosts.

You see, Occam was renamed from its original 'Arkham' a couple of decades back. And readers of H.P. Lovecraft's seminal horror story "The Color Out of Space" will quickly recognize that demon-haunted reservoir...

Thomas' first novel is a witty, cynical, often satiric addition to the Cthulhu Mythos. The problems of civic politics (and politicians covering their own asses) make for a welcome new spin on cosmic horror. There are points at which The Color Over Occam is quite funny, and not always bleakly (though Thomas does bleak too!).

I think one can read The Color Over Occam without having read "The Color Out of Space." Or perhaps preferably, read or re-read Lovecraft's story AFTER reading The Color Over Occam. Thomas deftly weaves the original into his novel without imitating Lovecraft's prose or narrative emphases.

While there's drollery and a bit of comic over-emphasis at points in the narrative, the text maintains a sense of verisimilitude throughout. How would a small-town government deal with cosmic horror building in its town? How would an amateur ghost-finder deal with potentially world-shattering events? How will Slater deal with his low alcohol tolerance? Why does office work suck so much?

The Color Over Occam compares favourably with several novels I can think of. Its occasionally hapless protagonist and the cosmic but town-centric events he's trapped within remind me of Ramsey Campbell's Creatures of the Pool and The Last Revelation of Gla'aki. The office- and civic-based comedy repeatedly reminded me of William Browning Spencer's hilarious Resumé with Monsters. And the subject matter recalls Michael Shea's fun, pulpy sequel to Lovecraft's original, The Color Out of Time.

But this novel is also its own self with an unusual mix of wit, satire, cosmic horror, and body horror that pay suitable homage to Lovecraft's great original without attempting to mimic "The Color Out of Space" in form, style, or mood. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Life (2017)

Life (2017): written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick; directed by Daniel Espinosa; starring Jake Gyllenhaal (David Jordan) and Rebecca Ferguson (Miranda North): A movie riddled with scientific, engineering, logical, and character idiocies -- that's Life

I'm pretty sure the pitch for this movie was "Gravity meets Alien!" even though Alien was also set in and around space because Life has a lot of zero-G shots and ostensibly takes place in the present day, albeit a present day with radically different laws of physics. 

There could easily be a good version of this movie in which a Martian octopus with an eating disorder attacks the International Space Station. Indeed, there have been many good versions of this movie, from both versions of The Thing to Alien to, I don't know, Hitchcock's Lifeboat.

This version, though, is an exercise in grim dumbness, surprisingly from the screenwriters of the jaunty Deadpool. By the end, you will be cheering for the Martian octopus, which is smarter than an entire station filled with astronauts because as we all know from Armageddon and many other movies, astronauts are really stupid when compared to Just Plain Folks. Not recommended.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Southern Gods (2011) by John Hornor Jacobs

Southern Gods (2011) by John Hornor Jacobs: An enjoyable, bloody, thoughtful piece of hardboiled Southern Gothic Lovecraftian cosmic horror blues. 

In 1951 Tennessee, enforcer Bull Ingram gets loaned by his criminal employer to a record-company owner who has lost one of his employees in Arkansas. The employee was pursuing rumours of a strange bluesman named Ramblin' John Hastur. Yes, Hastur. As in Robert W. Chambers' THE KING IN YELLOW.

Oh oh is right!

Meanwhile, a parallel narrative introduces us to abused wife Sarah and daughter Franny, who have fled her husband back to the old family home in Arkansas. That family home was the site of a mass murder of a family by its young son decades earlier. And the library of that home contains some extremely odd volumes, ones familiar either in name or content to fans of the Cthulhu Mythos and all its tentacular offshoots.

Haunted by his experiences in the Pacific Theatre in World War Two, Bull Ingram is also haunted by an essentially decent nature that has been sublimated so that he can get on with his work collecting loans for his employer. He's an almost quintessential figure for hardboiled fiction, a tarnished knight, a grey man sent into battle against the pitch-black (and bone-white) forces that seek to devour the world. Jacobs also does a nice job of investing Sarah with increasing assurance as the narrative progresses.

Southern Gods is unusually bloody for cosmic horror and unusually cosmic for bloody horror. Jacobs deftly creates a sense of place throughout, especially in the dives and small-town radio stations Bull investigates during his mission. The climax and its aftermath are also rewarding, a rejection of the occasionally easy nihilism of many works of horror without moving into unearned sentimentality. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 25, 2017

mother! (2017)

mother! (2017): written and directed by Darren Aronofsky; starring Jennifer Lawrence (Mother), Javier Bardem (Him), Ed Harris (Man), and Michelle Pfeiffer (Woman): 

Holy Moley. The most divisive movie of 2017 starts off weirdly and maybe even a touch soporifically. The last half-hour is a lot like being punched in the head. If you're looking for something weird, visually arresting, or even sort of awful, mother! is the movie for you. If your idea of Art Cinema is any movie without a superhero in it, you should probably stay away. 

Writer-director Darren Aronofky and principal actors Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem have accomplished something here horrific and horrifying and possibly, depending on how much you buy into the allegory, hoary. Highly recommended yet not recommended at all

Saturday, September 23, 2017

IT (2017)

It (2017): adapted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman from the novel by Stephen King; directed by Andy Muschietti; starring Bill Skarsgard (Pennywise), Jaeden Lieberher (Bill), Jeremy Ray Taylor (Ben), Sophia Lillis (Bev), Finn Wolfhard (Richie), Chosen Jacobs (Mike), Jack Dylan Grazer (Eddie), and Wyatt Oleff (Stanley): Solid, occasionally inspired adaptation of Stephen King's enormous 1986 novel clearly aims at the mass market and, based on that stunning box-office performance, succeeds. One loses some of the best elements of the novel because of the crowd-pleasing approach. On the other hand, a halfway faithful adaptation of (half of) IT would be longer than Berlin Alexanderplatz.

The filmmakers ditch the three-timeline structure of the novel (roughly, for those counting at home, the 1950's narrative, the 1980's narrative, and Mike Hanlon's archival narrative that fills in the history of Derry, Maine as Mike moves closer and closer to the 1980's narrative). 

Instead, we get It Chapter 1, set in autumn 1988 and then summer 1989. That moves It up from its 1950's/1980's original timeline so as to avoid the entire movie being a period piece. King has done this with his own novels (The Stand was jiggered forwards in time for its 'Director's Cut' 1990 edition, for instance), so no big whoop. Well, except for the chuckleheads who immediately started comparing It to Stranger Things instead of the other way around. Idiots.

I do wonder if there's a 3-hour director's cut of It waiting on the shelves. Changes to the late-summer portion of the narrative almost suggest that a big chunk of material was filmed and then edited out so as to keep the movie below 2 1/2 hours. The kids lose a certain amount of that Hollywood touchstone AGENCY in this version, not so much planning their engagements with It as running willy-nilly into them. 

Unfortunately, the communal bonding elaborated upon in the novel is here reduced to one happy set-piece (swimming at the quarry) and one grim one (cleaning Bev's bathroom of spectral blood that only the kids can see). Gone, too, the Native-American smokehouse vision of It's arrival on Earth, apparently shunted to Chapter Two.

There are some decisions -- especially to temporarily make Bev into Penelope Pit-stop near the end -- that suggest the film-makers are setting up things to be paralleled in the next movie that are not paralleled in the novel (specifically, using the wife of one of the grown-up kids as bait, and even subjecting her to It's mysterious, brain-frying Deadlights). I'd have also liked more emphasis on the rotten nature of Derry in general. 

And Mike Hanlon really gets hosed, though again this looks like a decision glancing forward to a greater role in Chapter Two. The monsters and the dread are here. And Pennywise is creepy, though neither the filmmakers nor Pennywise-portrayer Bill Skarsgard seem to have the slightest idea how to make Pennywise appealing as a prelude to the revelation of his/Its true nature. He/It is just too scary to draw anyone into his web. The kids, though -- the kids are dynamite. Recommended.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Boy (2016)

The Boy (2016): written by Stacey Menear; directed by William Brent Bell; starring Lauren Cohan (Greta), Rupert Evans (Malcolm), and Ben Robson (Cole): Who names their son Brahms? Oh, well. Lauren Cohan plays an American hired as a nanny/au pair by an elderly English couple. She's there to take care of their eight-year-old son while they go on vacation. The son is a life-sized doll. OK!

The Walking Dead's Cohan carries much of the film's best moments, as improbable as they often seem. And the movie plays fair until the epilogue, which one could argue is as much an imagined nightmare as the 'hand shots' that appear near the ends of Carrie and Deliverance. Rupert Evans brings a muted affability to the thankless role of New English Love Interest. The doll is pretty creepy. 

The director whiffs several times on disguising the fact that the movie was shot in and around Victoria, British Columbia rather than England. Either that or The Boy takes place in an alternate universe in which England has redwood trees. Lightly recommended.