Monday, January 28, 2008

Stuff: Happy birthday, you little Lego blocks.

Today is the 50th anniversary of Lego! It sure as shootin' is!

To commemorate, here's the worst idea in Lego film adaptations ever: Lego Hostel.

Um, enjoy. Or something.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Comics: City stompin' mega-monster action; cheap as free.

Boom Studios, an indie comics publishing house, recently made comic biz buzz by offering one of its new series in simultaneous print and free online formats. Though retailers groaned, Boom claimed the strategy was a success and that the print edition sold out. (It is actually nearly impossible to judge the accuracy of their claim due to some quirks in the comic biz publishing model – still, it was news.)

"You will let me know when I should start caring, right?" you may well ask.

Tough crowd.

Fair enough. Here's why you, Mr. and Mrs. Joe Q. Horror Fan, care. Boom has picked up the reprint rights for Steve "30 Days of Night" Niles's 2005 mini-series Giant Monster. Several years ago, Niles – then the one-man vanguard for horror comics – was tearing through the dusty horror subgenres, trying to revive them with a crazed mix of off-kilter approaches and over the top ultra-violence. His take on the BFM subgenre was fun, but it didn't capture the imagination the way his vampire epic did and ended up gathering dust while other his other works were republished in nice collected editions.

Boom has taken upon themselves to correct this oversight. And they're doing it up nice. For Boom's new collected Giant Monster, the publisher is revisiting their double-barreled online/print approach. This time, though, the online edition is being released in a serialized form. Comic Book Resources started things off by posting the first 22 pages of the comic. Every day, CBR will post the next page. Eventually, all 90-some pages will be available, completely free.

Here's the first pages.

If you get impatient, the hardcopy book is available at your local comic shop.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Movies: Crimson and Cloverfield, over and overfield . . .

There are two schools of Cloverfield reviewing. The New York School, spearheaded by print journalists across the political spectrum, and the Majority School, which pretty much covers reviewers everywhere else.

If this was a New York School review, I would be required to suggest that the film is "the horror of 9/11 to be repackaged and presented to us as an amusement-park ride" (from Salon, which boasts a NYC office). I might give the flick's makers the benefit of the doubt and claim that the film "inadvertently disses New York for what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, by re-enacting scenes of buildings exploding and massive clouds of debris for fun and profit" (this from NYC based FOX News). I could always take the high road, dismissing the film on the premise the filmmakers are simply boorish and tasteless rather than manipulative or slick: "Like Cloverfield itself, this new monster is nothing more than a blunt instrument designed to smash and grab without Freudian complexity or political critique, despite the tacky allusions to Sept. 11. The screams and the images of smoke billowing through the canyons of Lower Manhattan may make you think of the attack, and you may curse the filmmakers for their vulgarity, insensitivity or lack of imagination. (The director, Matt Reeves, lives in Los Angeles, as does the writer, Drew Goddard, and the movie’s star producer, J. J. Abrams.) But the film is too dumb to offend anything except your intelligence, and the monster does cut a satisfying swath through the cast, so your only complaint may be, What took it so long?" I should point out that the Times Manohla Dargis isn't the only one to underscore the Left Coast origins of the film, FOX drops that tidbit in too: "Cloverfield was truly made by California movie people. No one in New York would ever be this insensitive." In case you missed the point, I would bring up 9/11 again and again and again:

From the Times:
"Rob and his ragtag crew behave like people who have never watched a monster movie or the genre-savvy “Scream” flicks or even an episode of “Lost” (Hello, Mr. Abrams!), much less experienced the real horrors of Sept. 11."

The Daily News:
"Manhattan has always been a fat target for apocalypse filmmakers, but with its 9/11-inspired imagery, Matt Reeves' breathlessly fast-paced "Cloverfield" is going to resonate with New York audiences in a way no other horror film has . . . But it's fun in its morbidly campy way."

The Sun:
"If you were in the city on September 11, 2001, you'll feel something dark slither through your gut."

The last paper takes the carpetbagger imagery the furthest: "Like some tourist from the Midwest, once the creature stumbles into Manhattan and visits Central Park and the Empire State Building, there's nothing left for it to do but knock around aimlessly, getting in trouble and making a mess on the sidewalks."

Outside of Gotham, the press has been kinder and the blogosphere has been downright giddy. If this were a Majority School review I might dismiss the overt 9/11 imagery, as Illinois State Journal Register does: "Unlike 'The Blair Witch Project,' there’s not a hope for confusion with actual events, although the 9/11-esque dusting of New York is . . . a cheap tonal misstep . . . [but] minor aftershocks can’t crumble this mammoth, rock-’em-sock-’em movie, though. It’s unapologetically B, what with its magnificent monster, melodramatic smooches, overly scripted comic relief and unsympathetic pecking order. Yet it also is a thrilling, exhausting tale of an incomprehensibly horrible beast lovingly crafted in H.P. Lovecraft’s remorseless style." Or I might make a claim for the value of including such imagery, as the online reviewer for the UK film rag Empire does when they write, "Is this attack so terrifying because it has obvious shades of 9/11 or because the handheld camerawork leaves us disoriented, glimpsing the enormous creature only when Hud’s view quivers that way? It’s both. We live in a time when global violence is recorded not by professionals, but by shaky-handed bystanders with camera phones. We believe bad camerawork and suspect professional broadcast of hiding something from us. Stripped of the comfort of rhythmic editing and frenzied strings that tell us it’s time to be scared and instead served the sort of frantic footage we associate with unfathomable terror brings a new, more primal fear to the monster movie. It starts, bizarrely, to feel like something that could happen." I might even go so far as to claim that this isn't just a case of appropriation – the film is about 9/11. From the horror news site Bloody Disgusting: "Of course, all good monster movies aren't really about the monster at all. When Godzilla came out, it was Japan's allegory for Hiroshima. Cloverfield is obviously ours to 9/11 and, in all honesty, it does a better job of conveying those feelings and emotions we have about that infamous day than any of the straight forward films that tackle the subject."

I bring this up because I reckon you've got to put your cards on the table before giving your opinion on the film which will also inevitably drag you into the whole 9/11 imagery debate.

I'm a New Yorker. I was in Manhattan on that day. I walked across the Manhattan Bridge.

Now, here's my take: Cloverfield is a great giant monster flick, perhaps one of the best ever made. But it is neither the cheap and exploitative exercise in 9/11 button pushing it has been accused of being nor is it the great allegory for 9/11 some defenders have suggested.

Let's start by talking about what it is. If you have somehow managed to avoid all forms of media for the past year and a half, this recap is for you. A group of bobo hipster-yuppies in what appears to be the Lower East Side throw a going away part for one of their amigos. Unfortunately, they just couldn't not invite the 30-story tall sea monster that lives off the coast of Coney Island – I mean, what would the monster think? So the monster shows and turns the movie in one big damn chase scene. A chase scene so big, it takes our viewers through other movies: The Host, Aliens, The Blair Witch Project, 28 Days Later, and more. We watch the military battle the creature to seemingly little effect. Throughout the flick, we get flashbacks – provided by glitches in the camera (apparently not digital as there are a couple references to tape) – to happier pre-Big Freakin' Monster times.

At a slim 70-odd minutes if you don't count the time it takes the credits to roll, the movie is a ruthless plot machine. The characterizations are so minimal that they barely qualify as types, let alone archetypes. There's the lover, his girl, the irresponsible younger brother, the dumb one, the bossy girl, and the girl with black hair. The motivations of the lover, who will drag the rest of the crew all through the monster-besieged burg, will suffice for all of them.

The dialog is minimal as the plot requires no real exposition. The characters repeatedly ask about the monster and nobody seems to know anything and, in truth, it really doesn't matter. It’s a big angry monster – what else do you need to know? In a way, the refusal to disclose even the most minor details about the beast is a brilliant move. Giant monsters don't make a lick of sense. The more you think about them, the less it is possible to look past the glaring illogic of such an animal. Do you have any idea how much energy is would take to move an arm the size of a subway train? There's a reason that there's an upper limit to the size of land-bound animals and limit is regulated by the laws of physics rather than the rules of narrative. But, by never getting into the details of what is happening, the filmmakers never have to worry about getting trapped while trying to talk their way out of the impossibility of the story. The PG-13 dialogue, however, is a source of unintentional comedy. Certainly somebody should have said, "Did somebody just fucking throw the fucking head of the Statue of Liberty at us?" Instead we get a lot of screams and strangely censored oaths: "The head of Lady Liberty, well odd's my bodkin!"

The film's about the action and the action is relentless. A few of the set pieces will push even the most generously suspended disbelief, but the pace of the flick is such that you don't get a lot of time to reflect on the absurdity of what you're watching. The monster looks good, though the spider-like creatures it seems to exude (themselves essentially meaner, toothier versions of the face-huggers – in the effort to leave no film unplundered, we get hints of chest-bursting action) are fairly uninspired. As a thrill machine, Cloverfield's success is complete. I recommend seeing it on the large screen as the visual effects, which are brilliantly integrated into the picture, will be completely overwhelmed when the picture is shrunk down.

So, what about all this 9/11 stuff?

Well, I think NYC critics have, by and large, overacted. They are correct in pointing out that this film's actual engagement with the trauma of 9/11 is minimal. As an allegory for the age of terrorism, this flick fails utterly. Godzilla wasn't an allegory for nuclear war because the details of the a-bomb were worked into his origin story. It's an allegory for nuclear war because the human characters in Godzilla face a very atomic age dilemma: do you deal with the unintended consequences of a weapon by trotting out an even bigger stronger weapon and, if you do, how long will it be before that decision comes to haunt you? That's the thrust of the flick. The point is the human characters wrestling with making that call. What's the allegory in Cloverfield? By making the threat a monster with no backstory or reason to attack, you basically lock the human protagonists into a military response. They don't understand anything about the monster, but what is there to understand. Would we find something in its background that made us say, "Oh, well then, all this devastation is perfectly reasonable. We're sorry we dropped those bombs on you. It all just looked so bad from down here, you know?" The military response fails again and again, but what other option is there? This isn't a fitting metaphor for America's current military failures as the humans don't have any other options in the flick. Negotiate? Send more foreign aid to monsterized nations in the hopes of eliminating the conditions that encourage monsterized terror? Critics have sited Lovecraft as an influence and I think they're spot on there – but then they pull back from the obvious conclusion. In Lovecraft's works, people are simply screwed. There's bigger things than them out there and it didn't matter what they did or what they do to try to escape your fate; they're screwed. Much the same is true of the humans in Cloverfield. There's a sort of bracing nihilism at work here, but the whole thing's bust as a political allegory. (Besides, if it was really about 9/11, the characters would have run into a gaggle of nutcases who knew the "truth" about the monster: that it was sent by the US government to justify the on-going occupation of monsterized oil-rich nations.)

Cloverfield isn't so much about 9/11 as it proximate to the televised images of 9/11. That's about as deep as it goes. The issue becomes whether or not it is going to be eternally verboten for popular filmmakers to reference what is part of our shared visual culture. By virtue of being alive, we have all seen buildings collapse. We know what they look like. How could any filmmaker make a disaster pic, monster movie, or large scale war movie and not end up in some way accessing that shared visual imagery? I don't think it is reasonable to suggest they should. This movie comes out "too soon" for many New Yorkers. But when will it no longer be "too soon"? What's the magic number of years that must pass? There's no logic to the stance. Artists, both good and bad, need access to our shared visual culture. That said, there's nothing wrong with somebody pointing out that wrapping you movie in visual allusions to infamous events doesn't automatically give you film depth and gravity, but that's not the same as suggesting that there was some cynical manipulation going on or that the filmmakers were ignorant (but allegations seem to exist in the NYC critics' reviews).

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Books: The Great Pumpkin it ain't.

Norman Partridge's short novel Dark Harvest has the kick-ass junkshop rawness of a perfect garage rock single one finds forgotten and gathering dust in some Salvation Army record bin. Even the title, which is about the only lame thing about the book, fits: like the clumsy moniker of some band of talented teens that have lucked on a killer cover of some under-praised slice of American rock, it undersells what you've got your hands on. Partridge's slim book – 169 pages of nice-sized print – is Jackson's classic American-gothic short story "The Lottery" filtered through B-horror flicks, juvie delinquent movies, slasher films, pre-Invasion rock, and episodes of the twilight zone.

The story takes place on Halloween night, 1963, in a nameless American town somewhere in the Corn Belt. Every Halloween, the October Boy, a living scarecrow with a bad tendency to take knives to folks, makes a run from the cornfields outside the town to the church in the town's center. The October Boy, aka Sawtooth Jack, aka Ol' Hacksaw Face, is this creepy avatar of the holiday he's named after: he's got a flaming Jack O' Lantern head, a body made of twisted vines and roots, and candy spills from his body and mouth.

You'd think that the annual visit of the October Boy would cause the townspeople to lock their doors and wait the night out. But, instead, the Boy is at the center of a strange coming-of-age ritual. Every Halloween, as Sawtooth Jack prowls the streets of the town, the teenage boys take to the streets to hunt him. Fathers who survived previous runs arm their boys with the weapons they carried years ago – pitchforks, machetes, nail-spiked boards – and the streets fill with panicked, hyped, marauding teen boys on the hunt for a monster. They even ritually starve the boys – no for days – so that they'll be hungry for the candy inside the October Boy.

The prize? The boy who kills the October Boy gets to leave this crap town. He blows on out of this nameless nightmare burg in the middle of nowhere and never looks back. In fact, it seems to be the only way anybody ever gets to leave.

Partridge tells his story in a jazzy, ironic first person narration – as himself, apparently as the voice links to nobody in the story. His story-tellers voice gives the whole work a quick, rocking pace:

There's a soft rustle behind Charlie. As he turns, he's certain he's going to see Mitch or Bud catching up to him, but you've already figured out that isn't what's creeping up on him out there in that cornfield.

Hey, that's no surprise, because you're a whole lot smarter than our buddy Charlie, aren't you?

Tell the truth now – who the hell isn't?

Fans of the epic horror fiction of King or the mythology-building works of Barker might find this book a little thin. Ultimately, it belongs not with those but with the sort of magical parables of writers like Steve Millhauser or the off-kilter fantasy of Kelly Link – though Partridge is clearly writing from the horror genre's traditions in a way those to writers are not. This is a nightmare vision of the classic All-American coming-of-age story, a counter-myth to the great myth of Smallville, USA. It reminds me of "The Lottery," "Sleepy Hallow," the Japanese splatter sci-fi novel Battle Royale, and the YA classic The Outsiders; the things just that densely built. Pound for pound, I can’t think of a horror book that packs in this much good stuff in so few pages.

Dark Harvest is available from Tor and, in paperback, will run you about $12. That's a good night or two worth of reading and for the price of Manhattan movie ticket. Not bad.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Stuff: For your next Faustian pact.

Bob Partington, member of the Keystone Design Union, has designed a fountain pen that writes with blood. Pictured above, the pen includes a hypo to extract the "ink" and act as the reservoir and, for a touch of class, a dashing silver quill. Follow the link to watch the pen in action. Yep.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Movies: There goes the neighborhood.

In extra features of the new-ish DVD release Jack Ketchum's Girl Next Door (the attribution added presumably to prevent folks from mistaking this brutal horror flick with the zany semi-raunchy comedy Girl Next Door), one of the screenwriters mentions that it took nine years to get the project to the screen and mentions that, at one point, he assumed the film would simply never get made. It isn't had to imagine why. Though I've never pitched a script before, I can see how this would be a hard sell.

Screenwriter: "Its about a girl who gets sent to live with her aunt after her parents die."
Producer: "Oh, a tragic angle."
Screenwriter: "Yeah. And her sister – she's got a little sister – who is in leg braces. Like polio kids had, you know?"
Producer: "Hmmm."
Screenwriter: "It's set in the '50s. It's all town carnivals and cars with fins and bikes with cards in the spokes. That sort of stuff."
Producer: "Like Wonder Years."
Screenwriter: "Sorta, but even earlier. The years leading up to the Wonder Years."
Producers: "Like Grease."
Screenwriter: "Right, but with younger kids. Think of the little bothers and sisters of the kids in Grease."
Producer: "Alight. I'm with you."
Screenwriter: "So the new girl comes to town and this young kid, our narrator . . ."
Producer: "Our what? You didn't say this was a religious picture!"
Screenwriter: "No. Narrator. The dude the voice over is coming from . . ."
Producer: "Oh, right. I thought you said something else."
Screenwriter: "What did you think I said?"
Producer: "Nothing. Never mind. So this so-called narrator boy . . ."
Screenwriter: "Yeah, so the narra . . . guy who talks to the audience, he falls for the beautiful new girl I town."
Producer: "A love story."
Screenwriter: "Kinda. They catch crayfish together and go to the county fair together."
Producer: "Very sweet. So what happens next?"
Screenwriter: "Next? Oh, the aunt who is taking care of the girl flips out and ties her up in the basement. She and her sons take turns physically abusing her. Eventually other neighborhood children are invited to join in. They cut her and burn her and rape her and stuff."
Producer: "Oh."
Screenwriter: "And she dies."
Screenwriter: "Um. The end."

Based on Jack Ketchum's novel of the same name, The Girl Next Door has, joking aside, pretty much the plot I outlined above. After losing their parents in a car accident, tow young girls – Meg and Susan – end up in the care of Aunt Ruth, an embittered widower whose tenuous grasp on sanity in no way improve through the course of the film. Because Ruth's a crazy, her dislike of Meg and Susan quickly devolves into psychological and physical abuse, with then launches off a cliff into Hostel grade tortures. The central character is this drama isn't Meg or Susan, but David, the young neighbor who falls for Meg and ends up becoming a reluctant witness to her slow destruction.

In order to defend themselves from charges of exploitation, the filmmakers repeat, mantra-like, that their film is "based on a true story." The phrase appears in front of the film and is recited again and again in the extra DVD material. Whether being or not being loosely based on a historical crime automatically proofs one against exploitative tendencies is debatable, though one does need to go into that debate here: the film is, in fact, based on a novel that was itself a fictionalization of a true crime. This is a true story in the same way that the movie Psycho was the story of Ed Gein – in as much as it was an adaptation of a fictional work inspired by said murderers real crimes. I don't bring this up because I think it was wrong for artists to fictionalize real-life situations. In fact, the value in Ketchum's original work is that it brings what no documentary, non-fictional treatment can bring to such a subject: it allows the reader to get inside the head of a witness and possible collaborator in order to explore fully the dynamic of authority and its abuses, of leaders and their followers. And it did this so successfully that the quality of the work became its own defense. Ketchum doesn't need to obsessive remind people he's not exploitative because a reading of the book dispels the notion. The film, with its defensive mantra of "this isn't exploitation, it really happened," underscores how little the movie can rely on the same self-evident claim for seriousness.

The movie itself is well made. For a straight to DVD production, the flick is high-gloss. Gregory Wilson directs with a solid confidence that only occasionally strains to add intrusive POV shots that seem to exist solely to remind you a director is around. The plot is an efficient condensation of the novel which leaves most of the major plot points intact and earnestly attempts to get at the moral core of Ketchum's grim book. (Though the character of Aunt Ruth sometimes slips and mentions details that seem to be not from the book, but from the truly life crime on which the book is based. For example, in real-life, the girls' parents were alive and sending money to the women abusing their daughters. Ruth mentions how she's not getting paid enough to watch the girls – a flashpoint in the real case as she started to starve the girls at that point. In the context of the film, however, she's not getting paid anything at all to watch the girls.) Those deviations from the source are almost always smart moves that add value to the story in some way.

The problem with the film is that it ultimately fails to communicate what made the book more than a semi-serious exercise in shock aesthetics. By film uses a narrator as a framing device, but once the viewer is transported to the 1950s, the film becomes takes the sort of third-person objectivity most common to film as part of the nature of the medium. The book told us rather than showed us because the telling was the story. The film can only show us. A cast of stellar performers might have been able to communicate the shades of internal conflict we get in the book, but that's on the abilities of the cast here. No to say that they do a bad job. Meg's got a thankless role, spending most of the film being tortured really restricts what an actress can show, but TV regular Blythe Auffarth does as much as one can with such a role. Soap opera regular Daniel Manche does a praiseworthy job too. But, ultimately, this plot requires A-grade chops to elevate it beyond becoming a numbing endurance test and these kids just aren't that good. I must admit that I'm not sure anybody could have pulled it off. Still, the lack of that interior thought process, the inability to get in the skin of David, makes it too obvious. We see evil and recognize and suffer through it to the end. There's no evolution, no awakening to our understanding. The condensed plot exacerbates this thinness: David realizes almost immediately that this is all crazy and spends very little time wondering what his role in the crisis is. His journey to full morality is shortened to irrelevance for the sake of narrative compactness.

Despite the nastiness of some of the elements in the film, I believe the filmmakers when that claim they didn't set out to make an exploitative horror flick. If Girl Next Door falls into the loose pseudo-genre of torture porn, then it serves as a sort of boundary marker indicating the limit of moral serious one can bring to the mode. If Passolini's Salo is the genre's most stylistically accomplished example, then GND is the genre's most earnest entry. But, just as Salo's technical virtuosity couldn't save it from leveling off into a sort of spectacle of horror, the earnest intentions of the filmmakers get somewhat buried by GND's more hideous excesses.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Stuff: Moving right along.

Here's the trailer of Rob Zombie's House of a Thousand Corpses remade with clips from the Muppets. God bless the Internet.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Movies: The reason for the season.

Martin and Season of the Witch are two of the most interesting films legendary horror director George Romero ever made. Of course, Romero will go down in fright flick history for his "Of the Dead" series, the In Search of Lost Time of zombie cinema. Romero's soon to be five pic cycle (six films if you count the remake he made of his own Night of the Living Dead) pretty much defined the modern zombie flick by replacing the tropical voodoo trappings with the massed mindless flesh eating hordes that have dominated horror cinema for the past six or so years. And this fame is justly deserved. Though Romero's latest outings have bogged down under increasingly obvious semi-subversive political content, taken as a whole the films are perhaps the most sustained, relentless, and insightful critique of late capitalist Americanism yet produced in the genre. Still, Romero's strangest, most inventive writing and visuals appear not in his monumental zombie epic, but in these two one-gems.

The first, Martin, is a radical revision of the vampire film. Tossing the Romantic Gothic trappings, Romero centered his tale around a disturbed young man who obtains blood by drugging victims and extracting it through small slits made with a razor blade. He can't turn into a bat or compel the actions of nubile victims with his captivating gaze. Is he just some sick nut case? Or does he suffer from an ancient curse? Your humble horror host reviewed said flick earlier.

The second, Season of the Witch, is similarly open-ended. Originally entitled Hungry Wives by a distributor who hoped confused skin-flick fans would attend mistaking it for a porno, Season was filmed after Night of the Living Dead and before Dawn of the Dead. The film is a character study of Joan Mitchell, a stifled housewife who begins exploring witchcraft in the hopes of discovering the passionate self her dead-end domesticity has all but completely buried.

In my review of Martin I mentioned how weirdly non-stylish Romero's style was. In his zombie flicks and in Martin Romero seems confident to simply set up the camera and meticulously capture the details of life passing before his lens. Season of the Witch shows a remarkably different visual aesthetic at work. The film begins with a blatantly allegorical dream sequence, a surreal combo of dead-pan Monty Pythonism and the overtly meaningful stuff of "art house" cinema. Jump cuts and stutter editing borrowed from French New Wave cinema make the already curious scene and even stranger exception to Romero's typical filmmaking approach. Though the film will calm down a bit as the narrative starts to spool out, Romero never fully packs away the tricks he has on full display in these first few minutes. Visually, Season is his most daring film.

Once the plot gets underway, we follow Joan through the tedium of her loveless family life. Her husband is mentally abusive in a sort of low-grade, dismissive way. Her daughter, a "switched on" fully realized product of the early '70s, is similarly dismissive of her square mom. Eventually, in search for some kicks to help yet another pointless night pass as quickly as possible, Joan and a friend visit a tarot card reader that professes to be a real life witch. Joan becomes obsessed. Plagued by nightmarish visions, Joan begins to dabble in witchcraft, following the steps in a sore-bought primer called To Be a Witch. It I in these scenes, a Joan begins to dabble in witchcraft, that Romero's usual attention to the minute details of mundane existence best meshes with the experimental style of the flick. Joan, like any other housewife-turned-witch, must gather materials at antique shops and specialty gourmet stores in order to collect the tools of witchcraft. Where does one get eye of snake in suburban Pittsburg? Eventually Joan uses her newfound powers to seduce the sometime boyfriend of her daughter. Convinced that she has frivolously tapped into dark forces or trivia purposes and that she'll be punished, Joan starts to spiral into a more and more pit of dangerous paranoia . . . Dum da dum!

Like Martin, Joan's not your typical cinematic witch. She stumbles through her conjuring as she sits on the floor of her extremely '70s living room, a sacrificial blade in one hand and her copy of Witchcraft for Dummies in the other. At turns sexy and tired, dangerous and wounded, sympathetic and frustratingly dense, Joan is possibly Romero's most realistic character. And Romero goes even further in Season in leaving the question of whether Joan's going nuts or whether her witchcraft is genuine than he did in leaving Martin's vampirism unresolved. Unlike Martin, however, which is Romero's least political film, Season is Romero's The Feminine Mystique, a film essay in unfulfilling domestication.

As an aside, the film benefits from the wonderful job Jan White does playing the unhappy, haunted Joan. I've read somewhere that folks are planning a remake of the film. I can't imagine who could be a better Joan. This isn't because White is such a magnificent actress. She does a great job, sure; but this isn’t Oscar grade stuff. What she has that I can't imagine the remake producers looking for is authenticity. She looked like the kinda hot housewife next door. The kind of uptight, quiet woman who, under the right light, sudden looks like a passionate, hungry woman. Some box office drawl would be simply too obvious, too movie-ish to be the convincing witch next door.

Season of the Witch isn't for everybody. There's almost no gore and it is paced like a drama and not a horror flick. Still, for fans of Romero, this is an essential display of a range you wouldn't guess he has based solely on the zombie flicks.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Books: As if slowly starving to death in the arctic wasn't crappy enough already.

Dan Simmons is a hardworking journeyman writer who has, for decades now, happily hopped from genre to genre, steadily producing reliable solid entertainments. Such writers are not uncommon in the ghettos of genre lit: they produce a huge body of work and patiently wait the day when history decides to elevate them to the status of "forgotten genius" or, more likely, lets them fall into the collective forgetting of the genre fan's group-consciousness. With The Terror, his 2007 genre-bending historical fiction/adventure/fantasy/horror novel, Simmons may have short-circuited the normal critical appraisal and secured himself an A-list slot among those genre writers who have leapt from the genre ghetto into the mainstream.

The Terror is a meticulously-detailed, fantastically-imagined novel that fills in the blanks on one of maritime history's most enduring mysteries: the fate of the 1845 Franklin expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. And there are plenty of blanks to fill. After nearly three centuries of failure, the British Admiralty decided to get serious about this stuff and authorized Sir John Franklin, experienced arctic explorer and former colonial governor of Tasmania, to make another attempt. The expedition would sail on The Erebus and The Terror, two arctic exploration ships that featured several cutting-edge technologies: new reinforced hulls that pre-figured the later iron-clads, a steam hating system, retractable iron propellers and rudders that were driven by train engines ad could be pulled up out of freezing water to prevent their being damaged during arctic winters. The crew was a hand-selected collection of experienced arctic explorers, seasoned sailors, and scientific experts. The expedition was fitted-out with more than three-years worth of fuel and food. Never was any expedition for the passage so well staffed and equipped.

The expedition set sail from Greenhithe, England on the morning of May 19, 1845. Captain Dannett, of the whaler Prince of Wales, encountered them in Melville Bay moored to an iceberg in the summer of 1845.

And that was the last time anybody saw them alive.

Rescue and research expeditions have since found scraps of the doomed expedition. But the two ships have never been found and no journals or logs have ever been recovered.

Working with such a broad, blank canvass, Simmons creates an epic story that pits the expedition crew against the murderous arctic conditions and against a seemingly unstoppable killer beast prowling the frozen wasteland. Not to get all high-concept on this review, but think of some bizarre combination of Poe and C. S. Forester. Simmons' historical research is exhaustive and detailed, but he doesn't let his commitment to rigorous detail stop him from creating a surreal and magical nightmare beast and using it the way Peter Benchley used his own toothy white monster. The result is an excellent fusion of historical fiction and gothic fantasy – a fully realized artic exploration adventure that weaves in and out of top-notch horror tale. (If these genres are all that different: many of the details of arctic exploration are as scary and horrific as any imaginary threat a horror writer cold come up with. I'd take getting eaten by an abominable snowman over death by scurvy any day.)

The book's not perfect. Simmons' book can be a slog. At 700+ pages, it isn't a quick read. Further, Simmons' exhaustive research sometimes gets a little exhausting. For example, tangential scenes involving the Fox sisters, two fraud spiritualists who feature as stray footnotes in the story of the actual Franklin expedition, pop up twice without much explanation for readers who are less versed in arctic exploration lore. Still, for the most part, Simmons doesn't waste his research. I rarely felt that Simmons was filling pages with unprocessed research notes, exposition for the sake of using details he discovered but couldn't work into the narrative in any thematically important way. Though he does fill his pages: Darwin, colonialism, politics, the works of Poe, Eskimo mythology, environmentalism, and class warfare all get play on the pages of Simmons' book. In less confident hands, this would be a mess. But Simmons lets his strong narrative sense take control and this keeps the book from chasing down some random tangential rabbit hole.

All and all, The Terror is not only one of the best horror novels in recent memory, it’s a great read for non-genre fans. It's available in a trade paperback format - $15.00 from Back Bay Books – less than the cost of dinner and a movie.