Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Girl With All the Gifts (2016)

The Girl With All the Gifts (2016): adapted by Mike Carey from his own novel; directed by Colm McCarthy; starring Gemma Arterton (Helen), Glenn Close (Dr. Caldwell), Sennia Nanua (Melanie), Fisayo Akinade (Kieran), and Paddy Considine (Sgt. Parks): Tight, taut, thoughtful zombie movie adapted by the great novelist and comic-book writer Mike Carey (Lucifer, The Unwritten, the Felix Castor series) from his own novel. 

Barely released in North America, The Girl With All the Gifts presents a world several years into a plague of zombies unleashed by a fungal strain that attacks the human brain. But second-generation 'zombie' children seem to be sentient and 'human' so long as they don't get hungry -- or get triggered to be hungry. Why? 

While biologist Glenn Close tries to cure the disease, Gemma Arterton's school-zombie teacher tries to keep the most tractable and intelligent of the child-zombies happy and educated and non-lethally inclined. A very interesting piece of work, though a lot of the military stuff needed some serious consulting. Or me on the set to yell, "There's no way they'd put a plate-glass window there." Recommended.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca (1940): based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, adapted by Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison, Philip MacDonald, and Michael Hogan; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Joan Fontaine (The Second Mrs. De Winter), Laurence Olivier (Maxim De Winter), George Sanders (Cousin Jack), and Judith Anderson (Mrs. Danvers): Alfred Hitchcock's first American film for hands-on producer David O. Selznick won the 1940 Best Picture Oscar, but Hitchcock was denied Best Director in favour of John Ford on the treacly How Green Was My Valley. Sigh.

Hitchcock said many times over the years that Selznick's interference before, during, and after Rebecca's production meant that the movie wasn't a Hitchcock movie. Critics and historians disagree. I'd say it's about 75% Hitchcock, and I'd say it's the finest Gothic Romance ever put on the big screen. 75% Hitchcock is well over 100% for virtually any other director.

Rebecca is magnificent and melodramatic, shot in high-contrast, moody, threatening Black-and-White per Hitchcock's wishes. Joan Fontaine, her second Mrs. De Winter never given a first name in the movie or originating novel, undergoes a bildungsroman over the course of the movie from timid orphan to self-assured Lady. Fontaine is terrific, supplying the small human touches that make her character feel like a fully realized dramatic character walking through a world of melodrama and comedy turns from supporting players that include the oily George Sanders and the affable, blustery Nigel Bruce.

The set design of mammoth, haunted Manderley mansion and grounds is superbly realized and menacingly shot. The exteriors don't show a real mansion: it's a miniature, and a great one. Tim Burton clearly liked some of the interiors, as he homages several in his two Batman movies.

Laurence Olivier's Maxim De Winter is abrasive and distracted and occasionally filled with rage. It's a solid performance, though Olivier is stuck to some extent playing a version of Ronald Colman, who turned down the movie.

Judith Anderson's housekeeper Mrs. Danvers is the crowning achievement, one of the great movie villains of all time. Bird-like, menacing, unblinking, and always turning up when the second Mrs. De Winter doesn't expect her -- it's brilliant acting and brilliant directorial management of an actor. If the exposition gets a little leaden over the last 15 minutes of the movie -- well, there's always that finale to wake you up again. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Dark Tower (2017)

The Dark Tower (2017): adapted by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Nikolaj Arcel from the series by Stephen King; directed by Nikolaj Arcel; starring Idris Elba (Roland), Tom Taylor (Jake), and Matthew McConaughey (Walter): Shortly before its release, The Dark Tower was called a sequel to the 8-novel+ Stephen King series by its creators. And it actually makes sense as one if you've read the series. 

Is it a great movie? No. It's bracingly short and compact, though maybe 20 minutes' more questing and world-building would have been nice. Idris Elba does fine work as a more tortured Roland the Gunslinger than we see in the novels. Tom Taylor does fine work as Jake, the boy on 'our' Earth who dreams of the Gunslinger and his fantastic quest to save the Dark Tower at the centre of reality. And Matthew McConaughey is suitably smarmy and smug as Walter, the Man in Black who's trying to bring down the Dark Tower in service to his own dark god(s). 

There are Stephen King Easter Eggs galore (Hello, Charlie the Choo-Choo! Hello, Room 1408!). There are rat-men and assorted other servants of darkness. Its weakness is occasionally seeming rushed, though that's better than bloat in my book any day. The Dark Tower also understatedly offers a multi-racial cast, something that seems to have gone unremarked upon the curious critical rush to pan the movie. Oh, well. Recommended.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Invisible Hindu Zombies of the Stratosphere

28 Weeks Later (2007): written by Rowan Joffe, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, Enrique Lopez Lavigne, and Jesus Olmo; directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo; starring Robert Carlyle (Don), Rose Byrne (Scarlet), Jeremy Renner (Doyle), Imogen Poots (Tammy), and Mackintosh Muggleton (Andy): An astoundingly dumb sequel to an excellent original (28 Days Later). And even though the original film's director (Danny Boyle) and writer (Alex Garland) are credited as executive producers, the makers of this film don't seem to have ever seen 28 Days Later.

In 28 Days Later, the Rage Virus that turns people into murderous "fast zombies" fully dilates the pupils, causing these rage zombies to hide inside during daylight hours and hunt at night. Within five minutes of the start of 28 Weeks Later, Robert Carlyle is fleeing across the sunlit fields of England, pursued by hordes of rage zombies who should by all rights be inside taking a nap.

Along the way we're also told that the Rage Virus can't "jump species," which may surprise viewers who remember it doing just that -- from chimps to humans -- to start the apocalypse in 28 Days Later. OK. It's a scientist who makes this observation (Rose Byrne in a thankless role), so I assume she knows what a species is. Or not. The film-makers don't know how nerve gas works, how long it would take a car battery to die left unused in the open, or when you can push a car to start it, so I'll put the species mistake on them and not the character. 

These problems ultimately pale in comparison to the endless chain of idiocies, improbabilities, and impossibilities that crowd the screen from beginning to end. 28 Weeks Later could be used as a perfect example of Roger Ebert's Idiot Plot: nothing in this movie could happen if everyone wasn't an idiot. It's blazingly stupid and preciously self-important because, like, this is like Iraq, dude! The film-makers also must have really liked it when Roy Batty gouged out Tyrell's eyes in Blade Runner because we get not one but two eye-gouging scenes. Hoo ha! Not recommended.

The Other Side of the Door (2016): written by Johannes Roberts and Ernest Riera; directed by Johannes Roberts; starring Sarah Wayne Callies (Maria), Jeremy Sisto (Michael), and Suchitra Pillai (Piki): A privileged white American couple get up to shenanigans in India. First their son dies. Then he comes back from the dead thanks to the mother's intentional misapplication of what seems to be intended to be some sort of Hindu ghost-raising ritual. Oh, white people. Is there anywhere and any way you can't cause trouble? 

Only one Indian actor has a role with more than a couple of lines of dialogue. Sarah Wayne Callies does that perpetually constipated look that seems to be her default facial expression. Jeremy Sisto has almost nothing to do. It's an even dumber version of Pet Sematary. The Guardian of the Underworld looks pretty cool, though, and technically she's the heroine of the movie. Just bad enough to be fun.

The Invisible Man (1933): adapted by R.C. Sherriff from the novel by H.G. Wells; directed by James Whale; starring Claude Rains (Griffin), Gloria Stuart (Flora), and Henry Travers (Dr. Cranley): The voice of Claude Rains does terrific work as our titular mad, invisible scientist. It's a bit jarring to see Clarence the Guardian Angel (Henry Travers) as a scientist, though. Other than Travers, the supporting cast is surprisingly weak. 

The odd use of English bumpkins as comedy relief in James Whale's Universal horror movies continues here, and is just as unfunny and distracting as its use in his Frankenstein movies. However, the invisible effects hold up, and Whale manages some moments of creepy terror and unease throughout the film. Though given the necessity of the Invisible Man being naked to be completely invisible, he really should consider trying to conquer a country with a more tropical climate. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Enjoyable Badness

The poster reflects nothing in the movie!
The Happening (2008): written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; starring Mark Wahlberg (Elliot Moore), Zooey Deschanel (Alma Moore), John Leguizamo (Julian), Ashlyn Sanchez (Jess), and Betty Buckley (Mrs. Jones): This is great bad movie-making, stupid and weirdly acted and filled with scenes that will blow your mind, including repeated scenes of people trying to run away from the wind. 

It's a Must-See, the moment at which M. Night Shyamalan bottomed out. Zooey Deschanel and Mark Wahlberg (the latter as the least likely high-school science teacher of all time) don't even seem to be acting in the same movie. Highly recommended as a great bad movie.

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016): written by Juliet Snowden, Stiles White, Mike Flanagan, and Jeff Howard; directed by Mike Flanagan; starring Annalise Basso (Lina Zander), Elizabeth Reaser (Alice Zander), Lulu Wilson (Doris Zander), Henry Thomas (Father Tom), and Parker Mack (Mikey): I had completely forgotten pretty much everything from the first Ouija movie when I saw this, so certain things did surprise me that were not in fact intended to be surprises. Unlike the tedious Ouija, this one has an increasingly gonzo sense of horror that, by the end, has made it oddly satisfying without really being any good. 

One of the great pleasures of the movie derives from the decision of the Casting Director to cast three actresses as a mother and two daughters who look nothing like one another, and then the CD compounds the problem by casting a priest and a girl's boyfriend with very similar-looking actors. There are many other pleasures, most of them from the 'WTF?' school of enjoyably bad movie-making. One of the few supernatural movies that embeds a debunking seminar on Mediums in the narrative. Highly recommended as a great bad movie.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Mighty Mighty Swamp Things

Swamp Thing: The Root of All Evil (1994-95/Collected 2015): written by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar; illustrated by Phil Hester and Kim DeMulder: After a lengthy run by writer Nancy Collins, Grant Morrison and Mark Millar were tapped by DC to give Swamp Thing a jolt. And that they do, in the 'Everything You Know Is Wrong' tradition of beloved Swamp Thing writer Alan Moore.

Everything we know really does seem to be wrong in the opening pages of Morrison and Millar's collaboration (Morrison would leave Swampy in Millar's solo hands after six issues). Alec Holland and Swamp Thing now seem to exist separate from each other. Indeed, Holland's 22 years of Swampitude now seem to have been an elaborate hallucination. Meanwhile, Swamp Thing homicidally tears up the Louisiana swamps and bayous.

Of course, not everything is what it seems when not everything is what it seems. Nonetheless, like Alan Moore before them, Morrison and Millar dynamite an awful lot of Swamp Thing mythology, kill off a lot of long-term supporting characters, and introduce weird new quests, situations, and characters to the ongoing saga of our favourite muck-encrusted mockery of a man. Along the way, they also resurrect at least one supporting character who seemed to be irretrievably dead since Moore's days.

Phil Hester and Kim DeMulder do fine work throughout the volume. Hester's rough, sketchy linework works especially well in the swamps and dark corners of the Swamp Thing universe. This volume collects the first third of what would ultimately be the longest sustained story in Swamp Thing's career up until 1994, a 30-issue, 700-page quest with only a couple of standalone issues. Given Millar and Morrison's popularity, it's hard to understand how it took 20 years for DC Comics to collect this run in trade paperbacks. Oh, well -- it's here now. Recommended.

Swamp Thing: Darker Genesis (1995/Collected 2015): written by Mark Millar; illustrated by Phil Hester, Kim DeMulder, Phil Jiminez, Chris Weston, Jill Thompson, Brian Bolland, Tom Taggart, and John Totleben: Once upon a time, Swamp Thing was the mind and nearly-destroyed body of scientist Alec Holland, transmuted into a seven-foot-tall muck monster by an explosion, his own 'bio-restorative' formula, and the alchemical processes of the Louisiana swamp in which Holland's lab was located. 

Then Alan Moore revealed that Swamp Thing was really Earth's Plant Elemental, that Alec Holland had really been dead all those years, and that Swamp Thing was simply one in a long line of Plant Elementals with consciousnesses built on the framework of a human who died as part of their births. Over the Plant Kingdom reigned the Parliament of Trees, a South American grove containing all the plant elementals that ever were.

Now, Swamp Thing has been coerced into running a gantlet of four trials to gain the powers of the other Parliaments. In the previous volume, Root of All Evil, he reconciled the long-standing rift between the two Earth Elemental factions, Plant and Stone, thus gaining control over all aspects of rock on Earth. Here, Swamp Thing faces the Trial of the Parliament of Waves and then begins the Trial of the Parliament of Air.

Writer Mark Millar, regular artist Phil Hester, and guest artists Chris Weston and Jill Thompson seem to have a lot of fun in this volume taking Swamp Thing on a tour of alternate universes where he has different appearances and powers (including being trapped in the body of a Golem on an Earth where the Nazis won WWII). Classic characters that include perennial Swamp Thing nemesis Anton Arcane and forgotten 1970's sword-and-sorcery hero Nightmaster are resurrected in strange new ways and forms. A standalone visit to England brings us Swamp Dog and a story that seems more like an issue of John Constantine Hellblazer than Swamp Thing

All that and a recurring James Joyce reference. It all holds together for the most part, and towards the end of the issues here John Totleben, co-artist extraordinaire during the Alan Moore years, returns to Swamp Thing to draw the (splendid) covers. So there's that. Recommended.

Swamp Thing: Trial by Fire (1995-96/Collected 2016): written by Mark Millar; illustrated by Phil Hester, Kim DeMulder, Curt Swan, and John Totleben: Mark Millar and Phil Hester's run on Swamp Thing draws to an end after 30 issues, as does the book itself, cancelled with the final issue here so that it could be resurrected scant months later. 

One could view this as the finale to all the Swamp Things from his first appearance in 1972 to 1996. Certainly Millar writes that way, and subsequent revivals avoid the ramifications of the conclusion of Millar's run because they would make writing Swamp Thing nigh-impossible. In essence, they lived happily ever after. Sort of.

Swamp Thing tries to avoid completing the Trial of the Elemental Air for fear that his increasing power will cause him to lose his moral core of humanity and go on a world-wide killing spree. Alas,, if he doesn't face the Trial of Air, Earth will die screaming. So off he goes. And after that the Trial of Fire. And after that, the two magical factions struggling for world domination believe, the End of the World. Well, unless the one faction successfully summons The Word, a uber-powerful stand-in for uber-powerful 'hero' The Spectre. The Word is here because God is pissed off at Swamp Thing. Or maybe not. Maybe The Word is just a dick. 

In any case, if you're red-green colour-blind, The Word and The Spectre will look exactly alike!

In any case, this is an enjoyable end to this incarnation of Swamp Thing. Well, unless you were a fan of Tefe, Swamp Thing's part-human, part-elemental, part-demonic daughter conceived during Rick Veitch's first issue (#65) as both writer and artist and born during Doug Wheeler's brief stint as post-Veitch writer (#90). Her storyline just gets overwritten again. All this and Magic Wish Matches, complete with a Secret Origin. Hoo-ha! The conclusion of the Trial by Air section does suggest that Millar holds devoted readers of fantasy novels in contempt, so make of that what you will. Recommended.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The House Next Door (1978) by Anne Rivers Siddons

The House Next Door (1978) by Anne Rivers Siddons: Colquitt and Walter Kennedy are upper-middle-class semi-twits (demi-twits?) in a posh suburb of Atlanta. On the lot next to them, a young architect plans and builds his first house. A couple moves in. And then things start to go horribly wrong for anyone living in the house and, occasionally, for anyone even remotely connected to anyone living in the house.

But as the Kennedys (make of that last name what you will) joke at one point relatively early in the novel, there's no record of the new house being built on an Indian burial ground or any other such stereotype of ghostly house haunting. It's a new house. And the things that happen could, for the most part, just be a string of increasingly dire coincidences.

Well, up to a point.

Stephen King praised The House Next Door in his early 1980's non-fiction book on horror, Danse Macabre. And it is excellent. Siddons has not, so far as I can tell, ever ventured again into the realm of horror. Pity. Just in terms of the horror elements, she's very good here, avoiding pitfalls that plague many a gifted, committed horror writer.

And as King observed, this is a horror story involving reputation -- the house strikes again and again at the social standing of its inhabitants and their friends. It's a monster devoted to embarrassment, at least initially. But it gets hungrier and more dangerous as the narrative progresses. 

Siddons creates a fascinating world of privilege and gossip and extremely reluctant 'heroes.' Just the act of trying to save people from the house brings down embarrassment, loss of social standing, and loss of work on the heads of the Kennedys. In trying to defeat the house, they feed it. And where does the colossal enmity and growing danger of the house come from?

Well, Siddons will answer that last question, sort of, by the end of the novel, in a manner that satisfies while also preserving the mystery of Evil in the world of The House Next Door. This is a deeply satisfying horror novel with finely observed sections of social commentary and satire. Really, a remarkable work, and one of the four or five finest 'Haunted House' novels I've ever had the pleasure to read. Highly recommended.

The Glamour (1984) by Christopher Priest

The Glamour (1984) by Christopher Priest: Priest is best known for his novel The Prestige, made into a movie by Christopher Nolan, and for taking the piss out of Harlan Ellison with his non-fiction screed The Last Dead-Loss Visions, a.k.a. The Book on the Edge of Forever. Here, he writes a tricky novel that spans the gap between urban fantasy and literary metafiction.

An unnamed narrator begins the book. At other points, we follow the story of an amnesiac London film journalist who's been sidelined for months by injuries sustained in an IRA bombing. Then we follow the story of the girlfriend he doesn't remember. Who is the unnamed narrator, though?

Tricky, though, right? The journalist's memories may be faulty or altogether invented. The girlfriend claims that the two of them possess the power of the Glamour, the ability to make themselves invisible in all ways to other people. She describes a wainscotting society of people with the Glamour, no longer able to make themselves visible to anyone without the Glamour. Is this true? And is her former boyfriend shadowing them at every turn, possessed of a Glamour so powerful that no one is aware of him unless he wants them to be aware of him?

Well, read the novel. It's curiously gripping and repeatedly bewildering in its play with narrative expectations. I suppose if Philip K. Dick and Robert Aickman had embarked on an unlikely collaboration, it might have read something like this. Recommended.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Sh*t Sandwich, Cthulhu-style

The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu (2016) edited by Paula Guran, containing the following stories:  

  • “In Syllables of Elder Seas” by Lisa L. Hannett
  • “The Peddler’s Tale, or, Isobel’s Revenge” by CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan
  • “It’s All the Same Road in the End” by Brian Hodge
  • “Caro in Carno” by Helen Marshall
  • “The Cthulhu Navy Wife” by Sandra McDonald
  • “Those Who Watch” by Ruthanna Emrys
  • “A Clutch” by Laird Barron
  • “Just Beyond the Trailer Park” by John Shirley
  • “The Sea Inside” by Amanda Downum
  • “Outside the House, Watching for the Crows” by John Langan
  • “Alexandra Lost” by Simon Strantzas
  • “Falcon-and-Sparrows” by Yoon Ha Lee
  • “A Shadow of Thine Own Design” by W. H. Pugmire
  • “Backbite” by Norman Partridge
  • “In the Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro” by Usman T. Malik
  • “Legacy of Salt” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • “I Do Not Count the Hours” by Michael Wehunt
  • “An Open Letter to Mister Edgar Allan Poe, from a Fervent Admirer” by Michael Shea
  • “I Dress My Lover in Yellow” by A. C. Wise
  • “Deep Eden” by Richard Gavin
  • “The Future Eats Everything” by Don Webb
  • “I Believe That We Will Win” by Nadia Bulkin
  • “In the Sacred Cave” by Lois H. Gresh
  • “Umbilicus” by Damien Angelica Walters
  • “Variations on Lovecraftian Themes” by Veronica Schanoes

The Mammoth Book of Occasionally Lovercraftian Horror, Occasionally Written by People Who Despise H.P. Lovecraft would have been more accurate. In her sloppy, poorly researched introduction, editor Paula Guran admits that the title is a bait-and-switch: “This anthology has little to do specifically with Cthulhu and everything to do with ‘new Lovecraftian fiction.’ ” Why call it The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu? Because Cthulhu sells, now more than ever.

There are a few stand-outs. OK, one. “Outside the House, Watching for the Crows” by John Langan is excellent, evoking fear and cosmic horror in the seemingly most mundane of situations. “In the Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro” by Usman T. Malik is also a solid piece, though it fails to stick the landing. Admittedly, HPL occasionally failed to stick the landing. But Malik may be a writer to watch.

Caitlin Kiernan, W.H. Pugmire, and Brian Hodge deliver solid work, none of it all that related to the Cthulhu Mythos (Kiernan riffs on HPL's Dunsanian period; Pugmire is, well, Pugmire, and God bless him for it; and Hodge's story is a solid one with unusual elements that goes on about five pages too long). Norman Partridge riffs on HPL's pre-Cthulhu "The Hound" to decent effect, albeit with a dud of an ending. Laird Barron seems to have had an homage to Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance sitting on his desk when the call for submissions came in -- or at least that's what his atypical, mildly diverting "The Clutch" reads like.

That's about it. Looking at the titles of the stories, I note that I can't remember what most of them were about. I think HPL got accused of misogyny in Paula Guran's introduction, which is actually a very difficult case to make. However, Guran doesn't give the impression of having read much about HPL in that introduction. Honestly, it's possible she's never read any HPL. That could explain how one gets an anthology with Cthulhu in the title and pretty much no Cthulhu in the stories.

The final piece, a biographical attack on HPL's racism and anti-Semitism that we're apparently supposed to believe is a story, is a hell of a way to end the anthology. It's easy to score points off HPL's racism. Writing a great story that deals with that racism -- a story like David Drake's "Than Curse the Darkness" or Elizabeth Bear's "Shoggoths in Bloom" -- requires talent, something the writer of the concluding 'story' does not seem to possess. 

It didn't help that the writer quotes a racist outburst about New York by then-Atlanta Braves reliever John Rocker near the beginning of her 'story.' The quote dates from 1999. How long was this shitty essay... sorry, 'story'... sitting in a drawer? Why resurrect the words of a now-forgotten relief pitcher in a screed... sorry, 'story'... about H.P. Lovecraft? Oh, well. Hidey ho. So it goes.

Anyway, save your money. If you're going to buy a new anthology of Lovecraftian-themed stories, look for S.T. Joshi and avoid Paula Guran. Avoid this book in particular. It's a waste of money.