Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Stuff: You’ve seen the movies, you’ve read the books and comic books, you’ve eaten the hot sauce, now buy the portraits.

I’m going to let you in on a little tip. You know, just betwixt me, you, and the wall. Don’t tell nobody I told you, but I think the next big thing in horror is going to be zombies. I’m serious. They’re an underused concept and I think they’re completely ready to blow up.

Canadian artist Rob Sacchetto must think so too. He’s offering to create zombified portraits of you and your loved ones. Just send him a photo reference and $80 US (+ $5 shipping and handling), and he’ll dead you up something fierce.

Sample works and order info can be found on his site.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Book: House of thieves?

Even the most cursory summary of Stephan Graham Jones’s newest novel, Demon Theory, begs the comparison, so let’s just get it out of the way. The links between Demon Theory and the experimental landmark horror novel House of Leaves are both obvious and only superficial. Both revolve around the retelling of fictional films, both play with narrative conventions in an overtly postmodern way, and both books are laced with pop cultural and academic references in the form of asides and footnotes. I bring this up because, upon reading the jacket cover summary, I think anybody who has read House of Leaves (which Jones acknowledges as an influence in the back of the book) is immediately going into the book with preconceived notions about what they’re getting into. And, unfairly, this works against Jones’s novel. Despite the similarities, Demon Theory is very different beast.

Demon Theory, the novel, is written as a collection of three “film treatments,” the larval stage of a screenplay. It presents the story of a trilogy of horror movies surrounding a cursed family and a horde of bat-like demonic entities. The first film, a pseudo-slasher flick, takes place in an isolated country house during Halloween night. A young medical student, who needs to bring insulin to his mentally disorganized diabetic mother, convinces his friends to join him on his errand. As such errands seem to do, this one goes horribly wrong and the gang ends up trapped in the house and facing down a masked killer with dark connections to the family’s past. The sequel involves a series of possessions in a local hospital. Several of the original cast (some of whom actually didn’t make it out of the first flick) race against time in order to stop a full-on demonic invasion. The third, and strangest of the three films, follows our cast back to the old country house of the first film. Again, strangely, several of the characters are inexplicably back to help face down the secrets of the old house and end their demonic troubles forever.

Jones rolls through these three sections like a big freakin’ truck. His plots don’t advance so much as they montage forward in leaps and bounds. The gore is there, but, mainly due to the treatment-style language he employs, it is merely stated and moved over. Jones doesn’t leave himself time to linger over the details of the carnage. His characters start as the stock characters familiar to fans of the slasher genre, but ultimately gain an uncanny, but very uneven, depth as they must confront the rising levels of surreality in their lives, becomes less stereotypical as Jones’s plot becomes more atypical.

Unlike the chopped-up, concrete-poetry style of House of Leaves, Demon Theory is written in a clipped, propulsive, minimalist “filmese.” The language is spare, littered with film production jargon (POV, f.g.), and vigorous. It drives the action along, dragging the reader somewhat breathlessly through scenes. The idea, one assumes, is that, in a film treatment, where the writer doesn’t have control over the visuals anyway, one favors plotting and dialogue. Here, instead of describing an action, setting, or detail, Jones might just drop a film reference in its place. For example, when describing a demon nesting site, Jones evokes the queen alien’s lair for the Aliens franchise and pretty much leaves it at that. This is probably the biggest make or break point in the book. Readers will either adapt to the distinct rhythms and limitations of this approach, rolling along with the book’s often breakneck pacing, or they’ll find the writing thin, clunky, and lazy. You’ll either find it a “literate film treatment” or a “film treatment-like novel.” I suspect that those with the former point of view will feel the book is a greater success than those who adopt the latter. Personally, I alternated between the two extremes. Often, especially during the action scenes, found myself tearing along with the book. Though, in other places, it becomes a bother that you don’t really know what the characters or setting look like.

This occasional frustration with Jones style was sometimes amplified when Jones would congratulate himself on a particular image or detail, actually inserting self-praise like “nice effect” into the prose after one of his few descriptive passages. It is never clear if this grating effect is meant to be taken on some meta- level. Perhaps, were meant to think that this is not how Jones writes, but how a Jones who was selling film treatments to Hollywood would write. Either way, in the end, it doesn’t matter. Whether intentionally or unintentionally grating, either you can go along with it or you can’t, questions of intentionality won’t save it or damn it. In fact, the question of just which Jones – the near hack or the clever postmodernist imitating a near hack – is paradigmatic of the whole book. Sometimes the plot comes off as a bit hokey, but is that because his plot is hokey or because the plots of so many of the films he’s paying homage to are a bit hokey. The strained dialogue: awkward writing or expertly imitated awkward writing? One could take the occasionally pointless footnotes as either the work of a Hollywood treatment writer trying to show he’s made an important work or as Jones trying to make light fun of the post-David Foster Wallace hip-lit crowds love of foot- and endnotes.

The real question is: Does it matter? If you have to read awkward and unrealistic dialogue (and it is awkward precisely because it is so polished and “crisp,” to use the Hollywood term – Jones’s characters talk in the overly allusive jabber of Kevin Williamson characters) for some three hundred pages, does it make a difference if you’re in on the joke?

If the answer is yes, then Demon Theory is written for you. Its curious plot and knowing genre mischief make for light, but witty entertainment. If your answer is no and you enjoy your horror with more straight-up kicks than po-mo tricks, I suggest looking elsewhere.

Demon Theory was published last April by MacAdam/Cage and will cost you 24 smackers, US, in hardback. I don’t believe it is available in paperback yet.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Stuff: Little plastic ghosts of Christmases past.

Have a little fun this weekend poking around Raymond Castile’s excellent Gallery of Monster Toys website.

Castile started the site in 1996 and, though the site doesn’t seem to have any place notifying visitors of the frequency of updates, the gallery has plenty to entertain the monster-minded. The site is organized into “wings,” each focused on a specific decade. Altogether, these wings offer the curious an idiosyncratic and delightful sampling of monster toys from the 1950s to the 1990s.

Personally, I think the best thing about the gallery is the seemingly random material that will pop up from time to time. Sure, fancy-targeted art dolls, such as the mini-statues cranked out by the likes of Todd McFarlane, appear on the site; but you’ll also find oddities like the freakin' kick-ass chupacabra doll shown below.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Book: My money is on the giant, super-strong, un-killable guy.

I’ve praised the joys of mix-and-match style stories before. While I might be curious about a story containing Dracula, tell me that it features the Lord of Vampires going toe-to-toe with Al Capone and you’ve got my undivided attention. In The Shadow of Frankenstein, another in Dark Horse Press’s new line of Universal Monster tie-in novels, Stefan Petrucha offers readers just such a promising match-up: Jack the Ripper meets Frankenstein’s monster.

Unlike Di Filippo’s freewheeling and heavily revisionist take on the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Petrucha’s book is more overtly an extension of the Universal film franchise. It is meant to fall in between James Whale’s legendary The Bride of Frankenstein and Rowland V. Lee’s excellent 1939 follow-up, Son of Frankenstein. The novel begins with the Frankensteins, the mad doctor Henry and his long-suffering and increasingly unhinged Elizabeth, fleeing legal scrutiny and the hatred of the villagers in their native land. They are off to England with Minnie, trusty but annoying maid servant in toe. Unfortunately for them, the good doctor’s most famous bit of work tags along for the ride.

The Frankensteins and their eponymous monster get separated once they reach the shores of England. Henry, unable to let was he believes to be his dead monster rest, begins investigating the history of the brain he purchased to install within the creature. Meanwhile, the monster saves the life of a Whitechapel prostitute and is taken under her care. In one nice touch, the whores of Whitechapel, used to seeing the effects of urban squalor on their neighbors, find the monster’s horrific appearance somewhat unremarkable.

Into this mix comes Jack the Ripper. After years of retirement, the killer is once again stalking the streets of Whitechapel. Jack’s life, we discover, has been unnaturally prolonged through black magic. Sadly, for our active-senior/serial killer, the old spells just aren’t working like they used to. After encountering Frankenstein’s monster on one of his bloody patrols through the city, Jack comes to believe that, if installed in such a body, he could live forever. All Jack’s got to do is get the good doctor to see things his way. And, it turns out, Saucy Jack can be quite persuasive.

Petrucha’s novel is a fun, light romp through the universe created by the classic Frankenstein movies (and they are extremely movie-centric - if there was an allusion to the novel that started it all, I missed it). Petrucha sacrifices description and mood for a brisk and action-filled narrative that resembles less Whale’s surreal and atmospheric classics and more the crowd-pleasing, but less accomplished later entries in the series, such as 1944’s House of Frankenstein. His book is almost exclusively focused on getting his main characters into position and then letting all holy heck breaks loose. Along the way, he makes sure to hit all the archetypal scenes any self-respecting Frankenstein movie must have. You can almost imagine Petrucha with a check-list of required, archetypal scenes he needs to hit: “Body harvesting in the graveyard. Check. Frankenstein raging at God. Check. Kites training electrical wires. Check.” The presence of Jack the Ripper and the perceived needs of a presumably more bloodthirsty audience means we get considerably more gore out of Petrucha’s work than any classic Universal flick would give us, but all in all is stays true in spirit to the source material.

Not that Petrucha’s novel is without clever flourishes and nice touches. Lines from the classic films are recontextualized throughout the book to good effect. Nod and wink allusions are sprinkled about for the close reader – including my favorite, a short discussion on transferring the captured monster to Seward’s asylum. Petrucha also finds time, despite the pace of the book, to work in some excellent bits of characterization. Most notably, when we get an entire chapter’s worth of backstory on the man whose famously abnormal (“Abby someone”) brain was placed inside Frankenstein’s monster. That chapter is actually a stand out.

Overall, Shadow of Frankenstein is an entertaining tribute to classic horror icon. It is less innovative than Filippo’s entry to the series, though, if in a more narrow way, it is really no less enjoyable.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Music: The Gruesomes for yousomes.

As regular readers already know, I’m a sucker for garage bands with any sort of gimmick. One of my favorites are the off-again, on-again Gruesomes, a garage revival outfit from Montreal. Taking the name of the Addam’s Family-like neighbors who appeared in The Flinstones, the band formed in 1985 and managed to build a fan base and crank out two EPs all in their first year. Their very first, titled Jack the Ripper, included an excellent cover Screaming Lord Sutch’s signature tune.

The Canadian music ‘zine What Wave interviewed the group in the pages of their eighth issue, scans of which are available online.

The band brought out three more LPs before packing it up in 1990. During their glory days, The Gruesomes only put out two videos: one for their wonderfully creepy “Way Down Below” and another for their more goofy Monkees-inspired “Hey!” I wanted to hit you with this Gruesomes twosome, but sadly I can only find footage of “Hey!” This means we're doing more silly than scary today, but lighten up Maurice, it's my blog and I'll roll like I feel.

If I ever find “Way Down Below,” I’ll post it.

The Gruesomes reunited in 2000, putting out a new album and touring in Canada. Garage archive label Sundazed Records has an amazing anthology of the Gruesomes that collects pretty much everything they did before the reunion. It is good stuff.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Movies: We prefer the term "metabolically challenged."

So, zombies. Maybe you’ve heard of them. The living dead. They’re kinda popular right now so like maybe you’ve seen them in a movie or read a comic book about them.

With the passage of the Zombie Mono-Culture Dominance Act of 2002, it has been a legal requirement that every third horror movie produced either in America or within the boarders of its NATO allies must be a zombie movie. The creators of the act would prefer it if the plot of the movie involved an unlikely group of survivors trapped and surrounded by the numberless legions of the dead. It is best if creative variation focuses on mobility issues (fast versus slow), the source of zombification (government screw-up versus ecological disaster), and the levels of gore reached. Otherwise, the more formulaic the better.

It is a sign, then, of how far US/French relations have disintegrated that France has produced one of the few truly original zombie movies to come out in the last four years. In fact, They Came Back (which, in France, goes by the considerably cooler name of Les Revenants) pushes the zombie-flick envelope ‘till it rips open.

The film, by writer/director Robin Campillo (who also co-wrote Time Out, a devastatingly eerie, but non-horror, psychological study of a laid-off white collar worker), starts right off with perhaps the most clichéd of zombie flick shots: a horde of the recently revived shuffling out of the local cemetery. Although, immediately, you notice a difference. These are not rotting ghouls. They are silent. Despite the fact that they number in the thousands, the only sound they make is the tread of their feet on the street leading into town. As the zombies reach the middle of town, the living gather to watch the strange sight. Some walk out to greet their loved ones, stunned to see them alive again. A voice over, which we later learn be the mayor’s voice, explains that somehow, all over the world, the dead came back. They are in perfect physical health. They seem to be mentally slower than their living counterparts, but for the most part they remember their lives. They want to go back to living with their families. They want their jobs back.

Throughout the rest of the film, we watch as the living, both on a personal and cultural scale, attempt to accommodate the dead. In the small town in which this film set, 130,000 recently dead people need reintegration. Worldwide, we’re told, the number is astronomical. On a personal level, what happens when your young child returns? Your lover of several years? Your wife?

To further complicate things, the dead come back physically well, but mentally there is something uncanny about them. Sometimes they seem pathetically retarded in their mental capacities. Other times, however, this quiet reserve seems sinister, as if they are patiently waiting for something.

They Came Back is not outright scary. There is no bloodshed. The “zombies” eat normal food and this they seem to do mainly to humor the living. Instead of a feeling of horror, Campillo builds a sustained paranoid and melancholic eeriness that is equal parts unsettling and heartbreaking. This he does through the slow accumulation of perfect little details. For example, when we are first introduced to the holding center that houses the dead while their loved ones come to get them, we get the striking and not immediately sensible image of uniformed soldiers painting blue lines on the floor of a gym. It takes a few moments to understand that they are setting up rows and rows of beds for what amounts to a flood of refugees. The images resonates with pictures from Katrina or the heat wave that struck Paris and this moment of recognition comes with a little extra punch because Campillo let the scene hang unresolved for a moment.

In a way, Campillo’s trust in the poetry of images over the power of narrative logic reminds me of his compatriot, Alexandre Aja. Both build emotionally valid impressions that, when they work, are strong enough to provide their own validation. Perhaps it is a French thing. Despite this similarity, it is impossible to imagine Aja creating a movie this subtle (or Campillo cranking out something as visceral as the circular saw/unlucky driver scene in High Tension). There’s another way in which this is a very French film. It seems to me that only France, with is secular semi-socialist ways would be more concerned about the effects of the returning dead on the pension system than they would be about whether or not returning from death yields any truths about life after death. Only one person, a nameless child character, asks one of the dead what it was like. Otherwise, everybody seems more concerned about how the return of dead relatives will effect their lifestyle. Seems to me that an American version of the movie would have talking heads arguing what this meant for religion, whether the dead would vote Republican or Democrat, and whether dead/living marriage is a sin. I’m not saying the latter would have been preferable. I’m just suggesting that it reflects a cultural difference.

Mermaid Heather, horror-blogger of note (see sidebar), has a policy of never giving out a perfect score for a movie unless it is actually scary. A movie might be technically flawless, contain great acting, and blah, blah – if it doesn’t bring the scares, then it doesn’t get the blue ribbon. This is a wise policy and, though I’ve broken this rule at least once already, I’m going to follow it here. As great a movie as They Came Back is, and as unnerving as it can be, it does not scare so much as unsettle. Therefore, using the Olympic Gold Performances of Amy Van Dyken handed down to me by my father and his father before him, I give They Came Back a 2000 Sydney 4 × 100 m freestyle relay. A winner of a film and certainly gold-worthy, but just short of a full 1996 Atlanta 100 m butterfly.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Movies: People who need people (for foodstuffs) are the luckiest people in the world.

Cannibal Holocaust is something of jewel in the grindhouse crown. In a subgenre that takes pride in its ability to upset the cinematic sensibilities of the common Joe and Jane, Cannibal Holocaust holds a special place as one of those films that, in the words of the re-release trailer, "goes all the way."

After seeing it for the first time, I have to say that Cannibal Holocaust is one of those odd films that, at once, is both so much less than the rep that proceeds it and fully worthy of its reputation of as grade-A mind-fuck.

The plot (which is an acknowledged inspiration of the love/hate horror landmark The Blair Witch Project) features a professor from NYU who goes into the Amazon jungle in search of four American documentary makers who disappeared after they entered the jungle to film what they presume to be the last cannibal tribes in existence. He finds the footage of the first documentary crew and we learn that they pulled a Heart of Darkness trip, going insanely violent against the natives of the jungle before encountering, fighting, losing to, and feeding the cannibals they hoped to film.

The structure of the film is more complex than this plot summary suggests. Through a combination of flashbacks, faux documentary style footage, and standard narrative filmmaking, we jump back and forth between the various parts of the story. The film begins with a few minutes of the first expedition. Then we get the full story of the second expedition. Then, through a series of screenings of the first expedition's footage, we fill in the details of the first expedition. It is an effective narrative structure and works to build suspense even though the viewer knows before the end of first 30 minutes that first expedition didn't survive.

On many levels, Cannibal Holocaust is better than any movie with the title Cannibal Holocaust has the right to be. Filmed on location in New York and the Amazon, the sets are often breathtaking and, on multiple occasions, invest the exploitation proceedings with a strange and powerful beauty that exceeded what I'm certain were the filmmaker's intentions. Not that director Deodato can't set up a haunting shot. Even when he's not serving up gore by the truckload, Deodato wrings as much detail as possible out of his shots. One scene, for example, features two members of the first expedition engaging in some rough sex while the members of a native tribe they have previously attacked and terrorized watch silently in the distant background. The image is so stagey and its meaning so strange that tableaux of sex, domination, and sorrow sticks in the mind despite the lack of bloodshed. However, for the most part, Deodato's film sensibilities are overwhelmed by the power of his locations.

Deodato should also get some credit for the inclusion of some wonderful character moments. He captures excellent character moments: a wicked grin here, a worried look there. There's a surprising amount of subtle work in this film considering the number of times we're also treated to images of the characters vomiting.

For violence junkies and gorehounds, there's plenty to see. Characters are raped to death, torn apart, devoured, and otherwise discomforted. I didn't keep track of a body count, but those who enjoy having their senses assaulted are in for good time. This does, however, bring up the animal killings that the film is infamous for. In three scenes, Deodato filled the details of his actors killing animals. Deodato brought his same of love of detail to these scenes, so we're not talking about off-screen killings either. In the first incident, a small swamp rat of some sort is stabbed in the throat multiple times and then gutted. In the second, a large sea turtle is beheaded, dismembered and cracked open. Finally, a small monkey has its face chopped off and is bled (in the audio commentary, we're told by the director that the monkey's mate died shortly thereafter of what Deodato claims was a broken heart). These scenes, showing authentic death, ultimately undercut the special effects violence that appears throughout the movie. Ethical considerations aside for a moment, the rawness of these scenes emphasizes the falseness of the rest of the film. In the way the jungle trumped the filmmakers' skills, real violence trumped the filmmakers' moral imaginations. As a viewer, you'll care more about these three animals than you do about any of the human characters, and that, more than anything else, takes what might have been a film that transcended its grindhouse origins and reveals is tasteless, heartless, and exploitative core.

There's plenty more to discuss about the film: Vietnam conflict imagery, a sub-plot criticizing colonial exploitation, internal critiques of sensationalist media (believe it or not, the film actual includes a heavy handed critique of shock-for-shock's-sake entertainment), and more. The problem is that the levels of violence, the ruthlessness of the filmmakers' vision, and the raw nature of the real blood and guts spilled to make the viewer squirm all dwarf those considerations. Deodato has made a movie that is little more than a showcase for horrific violence and he did it so well that his attempts to stack ideological concerns on top – most often in the form of a sanctimonious speech by one of the leads – seems laughable. The violence mocks the philosophy.

Cannibal Holocaust is an exhausting, frustrating, and unsatisfying film. Its few grace notes hint at greatness, but are these moments ultimately drown in a sea of meaningless, exploitative, and genuinely brutal gore. Even its eagerness to shock works against it, as it often feels less like the work of a harsh but clear-eyed nihilist and more like the work of a hack who, when in doubt, simply pours fake blood everywhere. Though it must get some credit for representing something like the Platonic expression of the grindhouse aesthetic, its pleasures are narrow and, finally, shoddy. But that isn't the worst thing about the film. The most frustrating thing about the film is the teasing hints that it could have been better. Instead of being a monument to the gross-out MO of the exploitation crowd, it could have been the Apocalypse Now of horror cinema.

For fans of exploitation cinema, I recommend Cannibal Holocaust as the sort of logical conclusion of the genre's most common themes. For anybody else, the film is involving, but ultimately in a sort of disappointing and un-fun way. Using the famed Drums of Sri Lanka Movie Rating System, I give this flick a middling Hand Rabana, bumping it up to Bench Rabana to recognize its infamous and historic status.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Book: "Even I, Lucas, have heard the legend of the Fish-Man. And I, Lucas, have read the book too."

Dark Horse, one of the longest running and most successful independent comic book publishers in the history of the medium, is no stranger to pulp tinged horror. For example, the Kirby-by-way-of-Lovecraft Hellboy comes out with Dark Horse's distinctive chess piece knight logo on the cover. The more frantic and over-the-top Goon is also a Dark Horse publication. Dark Horse also puts out a wide range of horror-related film adaptations. They've cranked out endless Aliens and Predator books. They even produced two issues of a Dr. Giggles book, believe it or not.

Dark Horse also does business in books of the non-comic variety, under the Dark Horse Press imprint. Here to, horror and licensed work is their bread and butter. Novels based on Aliens, for example, appear on the DHP backlist.

Recently, Universal Studios licensed their iconic stable of monsters to DHP. It is, in many ways a perfect fit. Novels based on the films Dracula, Wolf Man, Frankenstein (and his bride), and The Mummy are all in the works or already waiting for you on the bookshelves of you preferred vendor of fine readables.

The book that first caught my attention was DHP's Creature from the Black Lagoon tie-in: Paul Di Filippo's Time's Black Lagoon. Not being the biggest sci-fi fan, I don't recognize the names of many sci-fi authors, but Di Filippo's is one of the handful of guys whose work I'm familiar with. I read his Steampunk Trilogy with great pleasure, enjoy the reckless way Di Filippo blended high and low culture references, as well as the reckless, but ultimately respectful, way in which treated the various genres his works borrowed from. To me, his involvement in this venture was reason enough to take notice.

Time's Black Lagoon, like the Di Filippo's steampunk work, is a carefree mash-up of 50's horror, contemporary speculative fiction, and pulp action novel. Set mainly in the humid, post-climate change New England of 2015, the novel focuses on the adventures of Brice Chalefant, a marine biologist who, as the novel opens, has pretty much flushed his promising scholarly career down the toilet. At the end of a well-attended lecture on the impact of global warming on the environment, Brice went off on a tangent about how humans would be better equipped to handle the water-logged future if their genetics where altered to make them amphibious. This suggestion is soundly mocked and Brice goes from rising star to "the Merman Guy" overnight. However, not everybody at his university thinks he's nuts. The well-loved but eccentric Professor Hasselrude thinks Brice's fish-man idea is not only reasonable, he's seen it before. Turns out that Hasselrude was the nephew of the late Dr. Barton, the man who attempted to surgically alter the creature of permanent land-bound existence in the 1956 The Creature Walks Among Us. Hasselrude hips Brice to the history of the Gill-Man, suppressed and complete forgotten by 2015. The Gill-Man, they agree, would be the perfect template for Brice's theories. Unfortunately, the long-dead Gill-Man from the 1950s seems to have been the last member of Devonian species. It's another dead end for Brice until a friend of his, a DoD funded physicist working out of the University of Georgia, shows him what he's been working on: a time machine made out of an iPod. Suddenly, the Devonian is accessible and Brice and his significant bother, pro-outdoor guide Cody, mount an expedition to the Devonian. What they find completely rewrites the backstory of Creature of the Black Lagoon and opens up an entirely new mythology for the most neglected of Universal's famous monsters.

Like good pulp entertainment, Time's Black Lagoon aims to entertain. And on that level, it delivers. I suspect hardcore sci-fi fanboys will be disappointed in the lack of detail given such issues as time travel, but Di Filippo is less interested in science as he is in how science was presented in the wonderful sci-fi/horror flicks of the '50s. Despite the updated info about quantum physics and genetic manipulation and climate change, TBL is an intentional throwback to the '50s films that inspired it. Even the dialogue resembles that weird everything-is-a-speech dialogue that was a hallmark of classic sci-fi/horror. For example, on telling Cody he wants to study the Gill-Man, she tells Brice:

"Brice, I understand why you have to pursue this until you can't take it any further. It represents the possible culmination of everything you've been striving for. But all I ask is that you don't let it become an obsession, as it for Barton and the others. This creature and the knowledge it represents has ruined too many lives."

Of course it has sweetie; of course it has.

TBL never makes a bid to be anything other than a good time. It is unlikely that, even within Di Filippo's backlist, it will be considered a must read. But, for fans of pulpy fun and geeks of the Gill-Man franchise, it is well worth the admission price (about $7.00).

Friday, November 17, 2006

Comics: A cut above.

Previously in this humble little blog, I reviewed the first issue of DC/WildStorm's new Nightmare on Elm Street series and bemoaned the wussification of a title that, when it was home at the upstart indie press Avatar, was messy fun. To recap the situation for those who are just showing up: indie press Avatar had a deal with New Line Cinema that gave the comic publishers access to New Line's trio of slasher icons. Avatar produced several mini-series based on Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Avatar books were clunky, but the covers were great, the action gory, and, all and all, the books were simple, gross fun. Earlier this year, somewhat unexpectedly and without much fanfare, New Line pulled their franchises away from Avatar and handed them to the much larger DC, home of Superman and Batman. DC's first New Line franchise series, Nightmare on Elm Street, hit the stands in October. The book was a big disappointment. The story was no better than anything Avatar produced and the art was worse than Avatar's. More significantly, the blood and violence had been tamed and toned down to the point where the book lacked any of the energy and force of the source material at its best. Given this lame first outing, I did not have high hopes for the other New Line series.

The great thing about low expectations is that they are easily exceeded.

Shipping well ahead of schedule (the cover has a January '07 ship date on it) is the first issue of DC/WildStorm's new The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series and, unlike the lifeless Nightmare series, this one shows real promise.

The new series takes place one year after the events in the TCM remake of Hopper's classic. While I'm somewhat disappointed that the new series seems to have effectively become the new canonical ur-text for all future works, I'm not going a bitch and moan here 'cause New Line's got to promote their franchise and complaining that economics trumps taste (especially when were talking slasher-flick inspired comic books) is a waste of breath. After Leatherface chopped his way through a couple of cops in a supposedly secured crime scene and then vanished, the massacre at the Hewitt house became national news. For a year, local law enforcement gathered mountains of evidence, but was unable to find and apprehend the Hewitt family. Determined to give the outraged nation some sense of closure, a group of FBI cold case investigators shows up to take over the case. That's the plot so far. Simple, reasonable, and effective.

The art is suitably Rabelaisian. Along with the requisite blood and decay, we get vomit, trucks full of human remains, and generic sub-Deliverance levels of backwater squalor. The layouts can sometimes be inadequate to communicate the action and the line work is a bit sketchy (was there a rush to ship early?), but these flaws are relatively minor. The coloring has a drained look, which I feel is not a flaw as much as it is a nod to the sun-bleached colors of the original film.

The writing is crisp and efficient. Unlike the dialogue in the weirdly PG Freddy-themed series, these characters are allowed to swear, which is nice. Despite being set in the revised TCM universe, there is a nice nod to the original classic: the lead agent of the FBI team is named Hopper. All and all, a good little package that is a solidly pleasant read. Perhaps the best thing about the new series is the determination to expand the story with going into wild tangents. One of the major flaws of the Chainsaw franchise has been the relentless sameness of the plots. A group of kids, car trouble, saw, bad cop, dinner, escaped final girl, the end (or is it?). This basic plot showed up several times in the films and formed the basis of the Avatar series. By pitting the Hewitt family against armed and trained FBI agents who know what the Hewitts are and are gunning for them, at least we're promised a new sort of conflict. I understand the importance of fomula conventions in any genre, but the effort at variation is appreciated.

After the misstep that was the Nightmare series, this TCM adaptation is a massive improvement. On the strength of this debut, "Screaming" is officially going to upgrade the DC/New Line effort from "cause for regret" to "cautiously optimistic." Worth checking out, especially for fans of the franchise.

For the record, though, I still hope we get the Batman/Hewitt family cross-over.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Movies: "As a mass killer, I'm an amateur by comparison."

Chaplin's most enduring contribution to the collective imagination was the character of the Little Tramp. The bowler-wearing, cane-twirling persona that Chaplin wore through a considerable portion his career, not only survived the transition from silents to sound films, but managed to become shorthand for Chaplin's entire filmic output. In fact, the character is so essential to the legacy of Chaplin that the two are often conflated. As the film poster for the 1992 biopic attests, you want to evoke Chaplin, you just evoke the Little Tramp. It is something of a shock then to see Chaplin play Henri Verdoux, the title character of his 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux.

Herni, like the Tramp, is an awkwardly charming character. He also shares the Tramp's goofy fussiness. The Tramp, for example, can be fastidious about the flower on his lapel even when he is homeless and wearing trousers with holes in them. Similarly, Henri Verdoux stands on manners and an over-sensitive sense of social grace, especially in situations where they are comedically out of place.

However, there are crucial differences. The Tramp, while sometimes mischievous, exists in a world where human goodness is the ultimate end of all actions and the right can be expected to prevail. By contrast, Henri Verdoux is a nihilistic serial killer who, in his words, "liquidates members of the opposite sex."

That's right, in Monsieur Verdoux we get the odd spectacle the man responsible for creating the mostly cloying cutesy film character outside of a Disney flick eagerly playing the role of serial killer. Freaky, non?

The film, from an original idea of Orson Welles' and inspired by a true story, opens with a shot of Henri's gravestone and he explains, in posthumous voice over, that, for many years he was a bank clerk. However, he lost his job in the global Depression of the 1930s. Unable to find conventional employment, he explains in a matter of fact voice, he turned to killing women for their estates.

Cut to a thoroughly unpleasant family arguing about the fate of a relative. Seems she met a man in Paris, was caught up in a whirlwind romance, withdrew all her money from the bank, married the man, and then promptly disappeared. They debate calling the police, but decide to give it a few more days. They look at a photo of her husband, Chaplin with a humorously ugly little moustache, and one of the family members suggests the woman may have been murdered. This theory is promptly dismissed as alarmism.

Meanwhile, at a small country home in the south of France, Monsieur Verdoux is tending his garden. Behind him, ominously, a constant stream of thick black smoke pours from his backyard incinerator. We learn from the neighbors that he's been burning the incinerator for three days straight.

Viewers quickly get acquainted with Verdoux and his MO. Using several aliases, Verdoux criss-crosses France, seducing women and then dispatching them. Between these murders, Verdoux spends his days on a quiet country estate, enjoying the company of his wheelchair-bound wife and his young son.

It is the odd attractiveness of this charming monster, who takes the role of the film's hero without ever becoming anything but a villain, that is the chief pull of the film. Verdoux can be humorously meek. He's a vegetarian who carefully removes caterpillars from walkways, lest they get stomped, and chides his son for playing too rough with the pet cat. "You've got a vicious streak in you and I don't know where it came from," he tells his boy. But, on the job, which he refers to euphemistically as the "fight in the jungle," we see Verdoux sociopathically attempt to seduce a new victim while the body of the last is burned away in the incinerator out back. Verdoux is one of the founder fathers in that long line of smiling monsters that descends from this flick down through Tom Ripley on to Hannibal Lecter and Dexter Morgan.

The film itself is almost proto-Hitchcock, though you'll have to imagine a Hitchcock film in which the sympathies are almost entirely on the side of the killer. The murderous acts occur off-screen and the entire film is bloodless. Chaplin instead focuses on the manner in which Verdoux's plans are carried out or foiled. The comedy is dark and dry in tone. The plot, while adequate, is mainly a character study. The story contains several show piece scenes, including one in which Verdoux must confront a determined detective who is on to his game and another in which Verdoux meets a victim that causes him to question his own murderous ways. Ultimately, though, the suspense plays second fiddle to the pleasure of watching Charlie Chaplin relish the chance to play somebody evil. He had, in The Great Dictator (his film previous to this one), done a broad and devestating satire of Hitler, but that film was lightened by Chaplin's Tramp-like barber, the safe and familiar character serving as the film's comforting moral core. In Verdoux, Chaplin does away with the counterpoint, letting Verdoux's greedy brand of malignancy take center stage.

Though this lacks the violent kicks that attract folks to modern serial killer flicks, I dug this flick and cannot recommend it highly enough. Using the celebrated Five General Classifications of Bones Movie Rating System, this flick gets a full and unqualified Sesamoid rating. You read that right: Sesamoid!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Music: "And the swart fins of doom race underfoot!"

I feel bad that I vicariously dragged everybody through the crap sci-fi/horror of Jason X. So, to make it up to you all and try to repair whatever damage that film might have done to our friendship, I humbly offer you the epic-on-a-budget sci-fi wonder that is the video for the Volumen's indie-pop "Sexy Astronaut." Thrill to the sight of uncharted planet-spheres, tremble before the horror of the sand shark, fear the otherworldly rage of the land octopuseses-es-ez-si. Enjoy.

The Volumen are a new wave outfit that hails from Missoula, Montana. They formed in 1996, went through some line up changes, and settled into the current roster by 2000. The band put out EPs in 2000 and 2001, but it wasn't until 2006 that they finally produced the full length Science Faction. You can find this album and more on their official site.

To keep my spook-site cred, here's the Volumen working a more traditional horror-vein in the video for the song "Snakes."

Monday, November 13, 2006

Movies: In space, nobody can hear you groan.

Somehow – presumably because I was doing something I thought more important, like alphabetically arranging the forks in my utensil drawer or creating plans for a time machine fueled solely by my contempt for the revival of the skirt-over-leggings look – I managed not to see Jason X, the tenth installment in the interminable Friday the 13th franchise, in either the theaters or on DVD.

To my great puzzlement, that problem was rectified last weekend.

Jason X starts in bowels of the Crystal Lake Research Center, an institution that, while high-tech enough to contain an elaborate cryogenic facility, looks pretty much like an abandoned parking garage. Here, scientists have been holding the infamous and unkillable Jason Voorhees using state of the art incarceration tech – by which I mean he's held still by a handful of what appear to be bicycle chains. The head of this fine institution, one Dr. Hottie McFinal-Girl, intends to freeze Jason until such time as a proper disposal system can be developed for him. Unfortunately, her brilliant scheme is disrupted by Dr. Stupid (played by, of all people, famed art-horror director David Cronenberg, shown above, who, I assume, lost some drunken bet and was obliged to appear in this flick) and his crack team of highly trained soldier-victims. They want to take Jason to another location and study his remarkable regenerative properties. Dr. McFinal-Girl objects. Apparently Dr. Stupid's lab would be less secure, though that scarcely seems possible. What, they don't have bike chains at the Saratoga site? Jason, of course, busts free seconds after Dr. Stupid and company arrive. The soldiers, with all their guns and training, prove no match for Jason, now armed with one of his bike chains. Jason then chases Hottie to the cryogenic lab where he and she, through a series of misadventures, get frozen and, Buck Rogers-like, are thrown four centuries into the future.

Our lead icicles are found by a scavenger crew from Earth 2, where humans fled after years of environmental decay made Earth: Original Formula uninhabitable. The scavengers bring both of the frozen folks back to their ship: the Grendel. (We later encounter a ship called the Tiamat – in the future all ships are named by D&D players and it is not unusual to serve on ships with names like the S.S. Encumbrance Check.) They carefully thaw out Dr. Hottie. To her credit, she takes the news that she has just woken up four hundred years in the future and that everybody she knows, and even the plant she called home, are now dead with remarkable aplomb.

Jason, who thaws out on his own (because he's Jason, dammit, and it'll take a bit more than 400 years of exposure to absolute zero to keep him down), also takes the transition well. After several milliseconds of adjustment to his new, high-tech surroundings, he decides that this new context does not radically alter his core competencies, and he begins killing like his old self. After all, teens making whoopie is teens making whoopie no matter what century you're in. And where folks is making whoopie, Jason's got killing to attend to.

Mostly he relies on a future version of his trusty ol' machete, but he finds time to expand his repertoire to keep pace with the rapid changes around him: freezing a woman's face with liquid nitrogen and then smashing it off (in the future, people keep sinks of room-temp stable liquid nitrogen in their labs), impaling folks by dropping them on large drill bits, impaling folks on what appears to be some sort of space anchor.

As an aside, in many ways, Jason's machete is a symbol for the downward spiral of the entire franchise. The young, pre-zombie Jason was a tireless innovator of the fatal applications of garden impliments and construction tools. This was a trait he got from his mother, who, though blinded by murderous rage, found novel ways of dispatching teens. Though, even she seemed like some middle-class housewife once Jason hit his stride and was approaching McGuyverish levels of tool use. However, as time went on, Jason came more and more to rely on the old machete. In many ways, it became as much a part of his persona as the hockey mask. But there was a difference. The hockey mask, which didn't even arrive on the scene until the third flick, was an inspired bit of branding (if a bit of a rip from the less prolific Halloween franchise). The machete, however, is a concession to laziness. Why put in the extra effort when you can just chop away with the good ol' machete? Yep, the ol' machete never lets you down. It is as if, twenty years of unlife later, Jason's lost the fire in the belly. He can still kill as well as you please, but he doesn't want it any more.

As the bodies and contrivances pile up, eventually Jason gets nano-tech'ed up and appears as Uber-Jason – at least, that's how he's credited. This is a bit of a let down as the Uber-Jason is basically the same old unstoppable killing machine who likes to bash people around and whack folks with his machete. That's right. No laser eyes. No death ray from the palm. No missile launcher built into his chest. He gets his eye-color changed and they chrome some parts of him, but otherwise the transformation is shrug-inducing. He comes off like Iron Man's retarded baby brother.

Though somebody deserves some credit for trying to aggressively rejuvenate an increasingly stale series, the combination of genre elements in Jason X adds up to something less than the sum of its parts. The sci-fi trappings, which are only a shade better than a made-for-TV original, work against the horror genre – Jason seems incongruous and silly among the flashing lights and hissing, Trek-style doors. The efforts at self-aware humor – while providing one conceptually brilliant scene, the idea of trapping Jason in a holodeck-style simulation of Crystal Lake circa 1980 – kill the already weakened fright-factor. The gore seems more goofy than visceral; the change in context works against the recognition of frailty that makes slasher flicks work. We can imagine getting whacked in the head by an axe but when you've got to puzzle out exactly what it is somebody was killed with, your fear devolves into slight confusion.

Really, the only thing Jason X has going for it is the also the only convincing reason to rent it: the concept of putting Jason in space is just so bizarre that it has its own attraction beyond the actual elements of the film. There's a certain odd pleasure in watching such a strange and obviously bad concept play out. As such, Jason X is a lame movie that still has an undeniable charm of sorts. Using the justly controversial, but wholly appropriate Order of Battle in the Indochina Expedition of 1940, I'm giving this movie an overall score of the 9th Infantry Brigade, with a bonus 3rd Regiment Tirailleurs Tonkinois in recognition that the film is still kinda fun in a goofy sort of way.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Book: Dreaming my life away.

The blurbs on book jackets are almost universally a load of crap. Like some currency with an exchange rate that sucks like a black hole, these plugs are exchanged between authors, agents, and publishers as the smallest denomination of favor, but the value for those wishing to translate them into something useable outside that small circle is virtually nil. Funny thing about this is that I know all this (and now you do too, if you didn't before) and, yet, I can still be dragged into purchasing a book on the basis of blurbs. Though I know on some objective level this is somewhat like thinking you're making out in a deal where you knowingly exchange a fiver for a twenty so poorly counterfeited that it will fool no one, I can't help but be intrigued when the right combo of authors appears on a book, singing the books praises in the generic and shopworn terms otherwise talented wordsmiths dust off for these things. And that's what usually gets me: not what the blurbing authors say, but the combo of authors who have thrown in their semi-compulsorily two cents. Did the publisher go for the shock and awe approach, assembling a sort of Justice League of genre all-stars to overwhelm the consumer? Sometimes authors find a single, famous voice to bestow its blessing on the book. This gives the enterprise an air of ceremony: the legend is passing on the torch. My favorite strategy, or at least the one that makes me actually pay attention and money, involves finding an unusual mix of folks. This suggests that work is complex, appeals to multiple groups, has a little something for everybody.

This is the strategy behind the blurbs on Sarah Langan's debut horror novel The Keeper. The front cover of the mass market paperback from Harper Torch ($6.99) sports a blurb from genre-stalwart Peter Straub, letting horror novel regulars know the new girl's bona fides check out. Meanwhile, on the back, we get indie publishing icon and McSweeney art crowd approved Kelly Link, letting the hipper-than-thou crowd know that it will be okay to be seen with this book even though it isn't a $16 trade paper back and tends to be (gulp) earnest in its efforts to entertain and scare.

In this case, I'm glad I was a sucker. Langan's debut delivers the goods.

The Keeper centers on the town of Bedford, Maine. Bedford has seen better days. The paper mills that once provided the town with a steady source of revenue have shut down. People are out of work. The town is decaying under the weight of this economic draught. To make matters worse, the abandoned mills are toxic disasters, poisoning the forests surrounding Bedford. Facing the slow disintegration of their homes, the residents of Bedford are all feeling the strain of living in a town with no future. The kids dream of escape or simply don't think about the future at all. The adults drink, feud, and pretend their world isn't dying. The misery seems to even taint the weather: Bedford's seasonal rains, which settle in like a Biblical judgment, last for weeks.

To make things worse, the town is host to a frightening and spectral girl whom many believe is a witch. The mute Susan Marley, haunted and insane, stalks through the streets of the town. She's watching and waiting. The town's residents avoid her during the day (exceptin' those men who use the disturbed Susan as an easy lay) only to find that, at night, she finds them in their dreams. These dreams get worse as the flooding rains come and seal the town off from the outside world. The town's slumber becomes increasingly disturbed by nightmarish and apocalyptic visions that warn of a doom coming to Bedford, something even the strongest of them will be powerless to stop. And, when Susan dies in a bizarre accident, the horrible meaning of these dreams becomes clear.

Langan's debut is a genuinely involving portrait of decaying small town America that, even when the supernatural spookshow begins, never loses it emotional realism: depicting with psychological astuteness the fear, guilt, and horror of a way of life in decline. The broad canvas of Langan's sprawling book allows her to sketch vivid portraits of Bedford's residents. We see Susan's mother and sister, paralyzed by the past they share with their otherworldly family member. The inner lives of teens, single mothers, drunks, cops, eccentrics, and everyday working folks are all sketched with careful attention. And the horrors, when they begin to pile on in earnest, come with the dreamlike concreteness of a particularly grim surrealist canvass.

Though her New England setting is well-trodden ground, Langan's novel looks further back than fellow Northeastern horror novelists Lovecraft and King. Instead, Langan taps a deeper source of American horror. She evokes the ancient specters of blood-guilt, the fear of being accursed in a way so primal that your own actions are irrelevant. This is mainstream horror as Nathaniel Hawthorne would have delivered it, though Langan takes that author's witch-haunted New England and injects into its landscape a distinctly modern horror aesthetics.

Langan's fine eye for characterizations sometimes gets the better of her, leading to initial chapters that sometimes seem directionless, fussy, or overly detailed – including at least one incident involving a major scare that is never sufficiently explained in anything that follows. However, when it is time to kick the story into high-gear, Langan's prose becomes focused, taut, precise, and vicious, showing that the earlier meandering was an aesthetic mistake, and not the product of any limitation on the writer's part.

web site informs me that her next novel with take place in the same Bedford setting as The Keeper. I, for one, am looking forward to revisiting those haunted, poisoned forests.

For a taste of Langan's prose, you can check out the handful of short stories posted on her site.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Music: Something is rockin' in the state of Denmark.

Alright ghouls and gals, to send you off into your weekends with a little swing in your step, I submit to you the necro-tinged psychobilly of the Horrorpops. This Danish group formed out of the members of various punk groups – ably supported in their live acts by two go-go dancers recruited from the piercing shop where the leader singer worked her day job.

Perhaps not as rough edged as some of their psychobilly predecessors (like the Cramps), they blended a slightly more polished and lush pop sensibility to the music, making it sound something like a rockabilly take on Siouxsie and the Banshees. The guitars swing between punk infused retro stomp and standard indie-pop, while the lead vocalist sugarcoats her schlock-horror references in a sweet but naughty delivery that could be mistaken for the work of the chick from No Doubt.

The Horrorpops started performing live shows in 1998 and, after a couple of line-up changes, produced a single in 2003: "Ghouls" backed with a ditty called "Psychobitches Outta Hell."

Here's their first A-side:

Here's their sauntering "Walk Like a Zombie":

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Movies: Worst. Roommate. Ever.

Now that they're on DVD, I'm finally catching up with the first season of Showtime's Masters of Horror series. I know, I know. Dude, look: I've got a full time job, okay? I get to stuff when I get to it. Last night, I got to Stuart Gordon's Dreams in the Witch-House.

The short stories of H. P. Lovecraft are perversely unsuited to film adaptation. I say perversely in the sense that Lovecraft almost seems to have created them a trap for the incautious filmmaker. On one hand, their pulpy origins, genre importance, and seemingly built-in cult audience makes them look like prime material for filming. But the stories are the product of a talent so radically lonely in outlook and essentially literary in bent that the material is almost inherently resistant to visual storytelling.

The world of H. P. Lovecraft is built almost entirely out of isolated and profoundly alone people – they are usually decadent shut-ins, solitary researchers into the mysteries of the unknown, lonely dwellers in ancient houses, and people trapped, sometimes literally, within worlds of their own creation. Those who are not alone are either paired with some near mirror image of themselves (the pair at the center of "The Hound"), keep the company of a inscrutable ciphers (in the case of the Dorian Grey-like Herbert West or the strangely personality-free farm family in "The Color Out of Space"), or they are quickly cut off from their fellows (I'm thinking here of "Mountains of Madness"). To frame it in cinematic terms, Lovecraft's works always have a cast of one. Consequently, they rarely feature any significant human interaction; which is to say they contain conversations and the like, but character development is usually restricted to the main character and his relationship to one of those eternal, unspeakable, and eldritch things that exist in every corner of Lovecraft's world. Furthermore, the stories are really stories that exist entirely inside the head of a single character. And, as they are almost always the stories of a mentality shattered by the infinitely inexplicable, the real meat of the plot is in the relation of the mental state of fear. Lovecraft can only depict this state though a sort of madly tangled language that always seems on the verge of bursting at the seams. It is that beyond-purple prose that is Lovecraft's most distinctive trademark and, without the actual prose itself, without Lovecraft's distinctly off-kilter language, you really aren't left with much. A "literal" adaptation of Lovecraft stories would be a single long-take of some wide-eyed crazy man ranting at the camera for a couple hours.

This makes the career of Stuart Gordon, the go-to Lovecraft adapter, something of a minor cinematic miracle. Dreams in the Witch-House is a fine adaptation of the short story of the same name, and it joins the famed Re-Animator and the unjustly dismissed Dagon, both helmed by Gordon, in the select category of Lovecraft adaptations worth checking out. Gordon has managed this trick by balancing two seemly antithetical approaches: respect for the original mixed with little loyalty to the letter of the piece. Gordon knows that the originals, as written, would make bad movies. They are meant to be short stories and not scripts. So Gordon takes the original and reinvents it, keeping Lovecraft's details, but making a viable film out it. Witch-House is a perfect example of this approach.

A typical of Lovecraft's hero, Gilman, who in the original short story is one of those obsessive hunters of dark mysteries, takes up residence in the cursed home precisely because of its witch-haunted past. He is looking for trouble and finds it. In the film, Gordon makes Gilman a likeable student who is just looking for a cheap and quiet place to finish off his dissertation. He's a point of identification for us who might not spend all our time searching out eldritch things best left undisturbed.

As luck would have it, he finds a cheap room in a rundown house not far from Miskatonic University, where he's doing post-grad work in physics. Shortly after moving in, Gilman notices an odd architectural detail in the home, a series of corners that seem to reproduce a theoretical multidimensional crossing that Gilman has hypothesized as part of his research. He also becomes acquainted with the other residents of the boarding house: a slimy manager, a religiously fanatical old man who divides his time between hard liquor and flagellant-style holy self-torture, and the cute red-headed single mother across the hall. This woman serves as the love interest. My normal reaction to the addition of love interests is a groaning comment about bad Hollywood habits. But, in this case, it works. For viewers to care about Gilman, he cannot be the single-minded, somewhat creepy character Lovecraft created. He needs to be human.

Unfortunately, there isn't much peace and quiet at the ol' Witch-House. Shortly after arriving, Gilman notices the odd architecture of his room resembles a theoretical dimensional cross-over that he's been studying for his dissertation. And, the way food left out means mice, inter-dimensional rifts mean Satantic witches. Before you can say "string theory," Gilman's sleep is being disturbed by visions of a rat with a human face and worse. Before long, the house's resident witch is making a bid for Gilman's soul and ripping the flesh off his back with her talon-like finger nails. As the story progresses, we find out the witch likes child sacrifices (who doesn't?) but needs a human to does the actual dirty work for her. She's got her eye on the infant son of Gilman's new love interest and she wants Gilman to do the stabbing. What's a guy to do?

Like Lovecraft's work, Gordon's film skits goofiness at several points, but ultimately finds its groove and starts chugging along. The effects are fine. Gordon was working with television-sized budgets, and he's got to make do with what he's got. For the most part, the visuals are effective but nothing show-stopping. The major exception to this is the witch's human-faced rat familiar. This character never rises above the level of silly. The acting was better than it probably needed to be. The tension between Gilman and Frances is charming and feels genuine and Godden (a veteran of Gordon's Lovecraft adaptation Dagon) plays Gilman in a naturalistic manner, letting us believe his slide from mild-mannered student to unhinged victim of the unexplained.

All and all, Witch-House is an entertaining, but slight flick that is more Twilight Zone uncanny than genuinely frightening. It fills its hour-long runtime with enough fun to never drag, but you won't spend much time thinking on it afterward. On the lab-tested and mom-approved Canadian Stamps Featuring Fish film rating system, I give this flick a respectable 1980 17-cent Atlantic Whitefish.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Stuff: "Even I, Lucas, have heard the legend of the Fish-Man. And I, Lucas, have played the game too."

Poor Gillman, seemingly doomed to eternally play second fiddle to the rest of the immortal Universal Monsters icons. Unlike Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, or the Invisible Man (all of who inspired more sequels than our amphibious friend) he had no great literary heritage to boast of. Supposedly, the Creature from the Black Lagoon had his humble beginnings in a legend a Mexican cinematographer once told film producer William Alland. The only other "un-sourced" beast in the Universal stable was the Wolf-Man, and the werewolf turned out to be a vastly more popular monster in the long run.

Given his second tier status, it is nice to find that the Creature gets a little love from culture industry now and again. Over at Boing Boing, the popular link-dump site, news that a new novel from sci-fi author Paul Di Filippo would feature the Creature caused a reader to send in a link to images of the 1992 Creature from the Black Lagoon pinball game.

The game had a nice meta-twist in that it combined the movie's plot with details from the drive-in culture of the 1950s, including a soundtrack featuring the classic "Rock Around the Clock." The game also featured a hologram (pictured above) of the Creature: a fun detail that was also a clever allusion to the fact the film was shown in 3-D.

Fun times with the Fish-Man!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Comics: Hell is other people, but the demon roommates don't help any.

Hellish urban settings are a fixture of noir writing and films. Even the titles suggest that these tainted burgs are essential features, sometimes almost characters, in the genre: Miller's Sin City, Hammett's Nightmare Town, Ellroy's L.A. Confidential, Thompson's Pop. 1280, Himes's Cotton Comes to Harlem, and on and on. Hellcity, the clever new three-part mini-series published by Gigantic Comics, takes the archetypal noir conceit of the demonic urban landscape and makes it literal.

Scripted by Macon Blair with art by talented new comer Joe Flood, this series is a gleefully mean romp through noir clichés by way of Dante's inferno. Like all good hardboiled detectives, Bill Tankersly is down on his luck. You could say definitively down on his luck. Tankersly's is dead and living in Hell. In life, Bill didn't have it so bad. The detective gig was regular work and he had a good girl, the angelic Allie. Bill wasn't a bad guy. Detective work is almost inherently morally compromising and Bill had the unfortunate tendency to chase extracurricular nookie, but for the most part he was a stand-up guy. One day, while Bill was out, some nut in a Bela Lugosi-style Dracula outfit gave the long suffering Allie the business end of a shotgun, sending Allie to Heaven. In despair, Bill ate a bullet, ensuring his residence in the afterlife's least attractive address. There he must punch the clock as a short order cook in one of Hell's least sanitary diners and attend regular sessions with his case worker, a demon who reminds him of all his failings and reminds him of how he earned eternal damnation. Into Tankersly's dead-end afterlife saunters a hot incubus named Mary D'Metre. This demonic hot tomato has a proposition for Tankersly. Seems the Big Boss of Hellcity is losing it. He's not his old Satanic self. Is he going crazy? Is he being pushed out? If Tankersly will investigate and find out what's going on with Satan, D'Metre will pull some strings and get him moved to a slightly nicer part of hell. With nothing to lose, he takes the case. Tankersly immediately finds himself hip deep in the political back-channels of Hell. And what does Satan's apparent mental deterioration have to do with an underground humans-only anarchist rock club and a secret pathway between Hell and Heaven?

Despite superficial similarities to The Damned, another supernatural crime series I gave the thumbs up to, I'm giving Hellcity the CRwM Seal of Good Housekeeping. The mystery plot is standard stuff. It is neither compelling nor annoying and it keeps things moving along, which is all it needs to do. The real pleasure of the series comes in the details of Hell itself. There's an old Elvis Costello song called "This is Hell." In it, he describes a Hell that is not flames and bloody torture, but is instead simply an endless piling up of discomforts, unpleasantness, and petty humiliations. Hellcity is just such a place. The choicest torture is the assignment of roommates. Every human in Hell is assigned a roommate. This demonic roommate makes your stay unpleasant by simply being the world's worst roommate. He'll always find and drink your last beer. He'll eat all your food and never replace it. He'll leave stains on the furniture. He'll deface your personal possessions. You get the idea. Part of the joy of Hellcity is in these delightfully mean-spirited details, all capably rendered by Flood in the sort of detailed but cartoonish-style that seems to be the official style of crime comics these days. Blair's dialogue, which has some of the ol' noir crackle without becoming an exercise in vapid imitation, is also worth noting.

Hellcity may not rise to level of essential reading, but it is a fun read that delivers the goods. Check it out if you get the chance.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Television: For the little monsters.

Kids get all the cool stuff in our backwards mixed-up culture. Despite their relative uselessness in the workforce, their inability to hold a decent conversation, their complete lack of appreciation for me, and their alarming tendency to support the careers of pre-fabricated Disney-produced pop groups, the culture industry of North America continues to waste its most creative, interesting, and wonderful ideas on this completely ungrateful demographic.

Here's two pieces of irrefutable evidence of this disturbing trend.

First, for some historical context, I submit to you: The Hilarious House of Frightenstein This gem was brought to my attention by eagle-eyed Screaming regular cattleworks.

Produced by CHCH Channel 11 in Canada, this children's gag-comedy show ran for an amazing 25 years in Canada and the US. This was all the amazing in that the show was only in production for about a year. The production of HHF sounds like some dada-ist provocation. For nearly 12 months, random skits were shot of various characters doing different funny things. These segments were then spliced together to produce several seasons of the show. This is all the more amazing when you consider that many of the characters to appear on HHF were played by a single man: the excellent Billy Van. The incomparable Vincent Price was also a regular, playing the role he was born to play: himself.

Here's a clip of Price doing the intro the show:

Here's a clip of Van as the Count and his sidekick Igor:

For the full rundown on Frightenstein, you can check out this excellent tribute site.

Jump to today. Ghoul a-Go-Go is a cable access show that is part cheese horror host shtick and part variety show. Vlad, his hunchbacked co-host Creighton, and the Invisible Man (host of the Tiki-Lounge) entertain the kids and host out-there bands like Hasil Adkins and, in the clip below, the 5, 6, 7, 8's.

One of the things I like about Ghoul a-Go-Go is how incompetent a host Vlad is. He's not very fond of children, which, in my humble opinion, makes him the perfect host for a kid's show.

Check out the Ghoul a-Go-Go web site for the skinny on these cool ghouls.

A huzzah for Dave over at Digital Download for hipping me to this show.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Movies: The jig is up.

Saw III is most likely the last installment of the popular franchise. So, before we focus in on the last flick, humor me while I take stock of the whole series.

Despite the flaws of the individual films, the first and second Saw films managed to do something that horror films haven't done since the 1980s: They established a genuinely viable franchise. Bigger commercial and critical hits were unable to survive the sophomore slump - Ring, Grudge, The Blair Witch Project - and any franchise that managed it past movie two tended to lapse into straight-to-video territory for the latter flicks – the Final Destination series, for example. Indeed, this trend was powerful enough to take down franchises that had already been established. The collective shrug that met the second film in the Chainsaw Massacre relaunch is interesting given we're talking about a film property that already produced one long running franchise.

This wasn't for lack of trying on the studios' parts. After the runaway success of the Scream franchise (the other notable exception to the slump slaughter), people were eager to crank out franchise films. But even the Scream blueprint proved far trickier than producers thought. After initially successful efforts like I Know What You Did Last Summer, would be franchises died as quickly as the victim teens that populated them.

In this glutted market of one-hit wonders, Saw was an unlikely success. The first film was essentially a knock-off of the superlative thriller Se7en. Saw's star power was notable for a horror flick, especially when the current crop tended to be filled with the forgettable and completely replaceable stock casts of endlessly monotonous WB clone-shows, but the film's stars were still strictly second string when compared to Se7en's major names. The film's appearance, with it's slick production values and lavishly represented squalor, simply underscored Saw's debt to the first flick and gave critics more fuel for unflattering comparisons. According to critics, all Saw did as take Se7en off-screen horrors, brilliantly suggested but never shown, and relentlessly focus in on them.

I think critics missed what made the Saw franchise unique. First, there was the manic characterization of the victims. Critics who said we did not need to see the murders that drive the plot of Se7en were right, but they leveled this complaint at the wrong flick. The victims in Se7en are there solely to exist as corpses. Their murders are simply moves in a chess game between the cops and the killer and we wouldn't gain anything from knowing how these characters died or what their last moments were like. Everything the victims do is part of the killer's message to the cops and, therefore, they exist most fully and totally as dead people. Even the police detectives in the film immediately discount the idea that the victims themselves are important – they are simply "the fat guy," "the lawyer," or, as the outlines of the murderer's plan become clear, they become entirely the sin the killer identified them with, literally rewriting their names onto the scene, so the cops can come to identify them as "Gluttony," "Sloth," "Greed," and so on.

By contrast, the victims in the Saw franchise are equated almost wholly with the decision they are required to make. We equate them with the trap and, in a semantically telling chronological tendency, usually with the effort they must make and not with the results: "That's the girl who has to get the key out of the dude's stomach before her mouth rips open" or "That's the guy who has to go after the antidote in the furnace." Unlike the Se7en victims (none of whom survive, notably), the central drama of the Saw flicks involves what a given person will do when faced with a horrific life and death choice. Se7en is about the creepy feeling of being played so effectively that you have no control – which makes the God-obsession of that killer all the more poignant. The Saw flicks are about literalizing the metaphors we use to describe the no-win, soul killing, back stabbing, lousy decisions we need to make everyday. The victims are, in a potent way, the real "heroes" of each picture. Even when they aren't given detailed backstories or careful characterization, the fact that they have a choice and must act makes them genuine protagonists worthy and capable of becoming on-screen avatars of the audience members' fears and desire to escape. (This is also what separates Saw from the more gory torture-porn of Hostel, where the characters are simply abused until one is freed accidentally.)

The second aspect of the film had to do with the development of a remarkably odd, detailed, and explicit character mythology for the killer. In this, the film more resembled Se7en than it resembled the slasher/torture horror films in its genre category. Though the killer has one of those one word IDs that we equate with slasher flicks, by the last flick, he's just known by his real name. Furthermore, he gets to provide careful exposition for himself, giving his pseudo-philosophical speeches and carefully explaining his motivations to each of his victims. He also, weirdly, comes off as one of the more "moral" characters in his film universe. This is a sort of cinematic trick in which we tend to judge the realistic (by which I mean, characteristics we might actually experience) moral characteristics as more important than the more morally extreme, but ultimately too fantastic characteristics. That Jigsaw keeps his word seems more weighty than the fact that he kills people and seems delusional about it. (This is the same movie morality that lets us value loyal gangster characters despite the fact that this loyalty drives them to commit often atrocious crimes.) This odd character design was made all the more interesting with the inclusion of a father/daughter aspect when Jigsaw took on a protégé. Most horror flick killers are simply bodies with murderous motivations. Or, if they do have characterizations, they are simply to bizarre to identify with. There's something fakey about the Chainsaw and Firefly families – we're told they are family, but it doesn't matter because they are killer's first. We all know that family thing is just an excuse to let them hang out in a pack. The mentor/student relationship dovetailed nicely with the pedantic nature of Jigsaw and felt genuine.

This brings us to Saw III. Sadly, the last Saw flick is an interesting, but failed flick. The secret of the Saw franchise was the in the characterization of the victims as protagonists and the character of Jigsaw. Unfortunately, director Darren Lynn Bousman and the several folks behind the screenplay emphasize the second aspect at the cost of the first. The plot of Saw III is typical of the franchise. Jigsaw has kidnapped a doctor named Lynn (in a mirror of the first flick, this doctor is unhappy in her marriage and having an affair) and Jeff who is shutting himself off to the world since the death of his son, who was run over by a careless driver. The doctor must keep the increasingly sick Jigsaw alive while he and his Jigsaw-in-training, Amanda, put Jeff through the ringer. Jeff encounters a series of people who he feels are responsible for the death of his son. He must decide whether to save them or not. All the while, the doctor fights Jigsaw's deteriorating heath and the increasingly deteriorated relationship between Jigsaw and Amanda.

For fans of the franchise, the extended look at Jigsaw and Amanda adds value to the series, but is the only thing this latest move adds. The traps are uninspired, which is a problem given that this flick essentially competes with the diabolical traps of the previous films. Jeff seems to sleepwalk through his tests, making his success or failure seem profoundly unimportant. Jigsaw's victims are passive bodies waiting for Jeff to figure out what to do with them. Unlike the two previous films, they are just being tortured and have no decisions to make. The gore, while there, seems less visceral than it did in the first two films. Like the sickly, weakened body of the franchise's signature killer, the series seems to have grown tired, a pale imitation of what it first was.

For serious fans of the franchise, I recommend this film only for its extension of the killer's backstory. In fact, that's about the only aspect of the film that was done right. Though I'm a fan of the series as a whole, I'm afraid that even using the perhaps overly generous Abeyant Titles of the Peerage of England Rating System, this disappointing film only scores half a Baron Badlesmere.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Stuff: And then the disembodied hand kicks into a big musical number . . .

Links to an archive of Bollywood horror film posters have been popping up around the net. I have no idea what any of these movies are about or whether or not they are any good. Despite that, many of the images are cool in a raw, sideshow banner sort of way.

If these images spark any curiosity about the horror output of Bollywood, you might also find this capsule history of Bollywood horror, with an extensive collection of Bolly-horror reviews, worth your attention. Of special interest are the paragraphs on the Ramsey Brothers, who the article credits with defining the Indian B-movie horror genre.

Special thanks to Hulver site regular ad hoc for leading me to these subcontinental scares.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Comics: A new mini-series to die for.

Okay. Look. Man can't live on bread alone, so I'm going to start this entry by talking about a new comic book that isn't strictly horror . . .

WAIT! Hold on! Don't go! There will be killing and blood and trust me on this. I'm your blog buddy – would I steer you wrong?

Thanks for indulging me. So there's this new mini-series out called Nightly News. The first issue hit stands yesterday and the comic does not take its time getting to the thick of things. When the story begins, a methodical and calculating sniper takes out an anti-globalization protestor at a march in New York's financial district. However, all is not as it seems and, when the press arrives, it turns out to be an ambush. The sniper, working with two other shooters, starts taking out journalists left and right.

The rest of the comic is dedicated to giving us back story. The snipers are part of a quasi-religious terror group composed of people whose lives were, they believe, destroyed by the media. Cops who were tried in the court of public opinion, people who were the media fall guys for crooks too high up to bust, you get the idea. This whole Network meets Fight Club tale is sprinkled with data on media consolidation and the ugly underbelly of globalization, making it something like the brutally angry agitprop Brian Wood used to crank out (see Channel Zero). Personally, I didn't find the politics overwhelmed the plot, which is compelling enough without the added sloganeering.

Visually, the comic is an odd combination of stylized comic art and abstract visual design. This gives the book a strikingly unique look, but the fusion is sometimes distracting and brings up questions about whether or not some visuals are inherently antithetical to developing a critical stance. Can you criticize the media while employing the techniques of a fun and wacky Target ad? That said, the flaws in Nightly News are the product of experimentation and over-reaching. They seem less annoying because they feel like the cost of innovative work.

All and all, it's worth checking out the first issue. I should also point out that Nightly's cover is created from the same paper stock as the pages and is published advertisement free. Cutting costs and commercials to bring us innovative work. I like it.

Okay, now here's the part I thought would be fun for horror fans (thanks for waiting):

The comic's creator, writer-artist Jonathan Hickman, is looking for people to kill. If you want to see yourself offed by a terror cell that is half Situationist and half Taliban, here's your chance. From the Hickman interview at Comic Book Resources:

You have a fun little contest at the back of the book, where people can win the opportunity to be written into the book to “die.” Can you tell me more about this and how people can enter?

Ideally, I'm looking for one Democrat and one Republican. Both of these fine individuals will be written into the series where they will tragically meet their end. In the hopes of not hurting any feelings, I will allow them to choose their manner of demise from a pre-approved list.

The winners get two complete signed sets of the series, a signed limited edition promotional poster, and an original drawing by me of them in character. The submission rules and instructions are in the back of the first issue out in November. So…have at it.

See, I told you there'd be some killing. Good luck. And if you, dear reader, are the one who gets shot, blown-up, poisoned, or whatever, let me know.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Music: That's not how Jonathan Harker remembers it.

In the fall of 1957, television stations all over America signed deals with Universal for access to Universal's massive library of 1930s and 1940s horror flicks. Though often unacknowledged by genre fans who prefer to wax poetic about the more hip grindhouse theaters (which are now more eulogized than they were ever patronized) or the short-lived drive-in B-movie scene, the injection of this archive into the media bloodstream of the nation was probably the single most significant in the history of the American horror film since the filming of Dracula. Suddenly, any boy of girl with a television in their home access to what cold rightly be considered the founding texts of American cinematic horror. Perhaps even more than their original theatrical runs, it was this nation-wide boom in televised horror that permanently fixed certain horror figures and tropes in our collective imaginations.

The return of these long dormant monsters also gave rise to a new kind of horror icon: the horror host. Suddenly in possession of a cheap bounty of fright flicks, many television stations scrambled to create suitably gruesome hosts. Over night, all over the country, the airwaves became the home of funerary funny men and schlock scare-masters.

One of the first of this new breed was John Zacherle, a.k.a. Zacherley, host of WCAU Philadelphia Channel 10's Shock Theater. Once a bit player in a handful of now forgotten TV westerns, the future Zacherley's first horror host gig was under the nom de ghoul Roland. As Roland, the host innovated the "break-in" or "jump-in," inserting himself into the films he was hosting for comedic effect. It was something not unlike that presence of Joel or Mike and the robots in the much later Mystery Science Theater 3000. He also recorded his fist single: the novelty hit "Dinner with Dracula."

Legend has it that "Dinners" lyrics were originally more shocking and weird, but Dick Clark's refusal to play the single on his wildly popular American Bandstand forced Zacherley back to the studio to record a new, more Dick-friendly version. The new version was a charting hit and Zacherley would release dozens of singles and even a few LPs.

Roland hosted WCAU's Shock Theater for nearly two years before jumping to the Manhattan-based WABC and adopting the persona of Zacherley. There he stayed until the end of the creature feature era made hosts like him a thing of the past. However, Zacherley hasn't slipped into dustbin of pop culture history. He regularly cameos in b-grade horror flicks, contributes to the albums of worthy fans, makes the convention circuit, and generally acts the role of spookshow elder statesman. Check out his cool site to get the full rundown.