Friday, December 29, 2006

Movies: Crust for Frankenstein.

Here's the scene: 1997, a mountainous seaside resort town in Spain. There's a small villa on the hillside facing the sea – a white tangle of stucco cubes, irregularly punctuated with balconies and windows. On one of those balconies sits infamous Spanish schlock-horror director Jess Franco (in flick reviewed today he's billed under his Christian name, no pun intended: Jesus Franco). He sips a cappuccino. It's his second of the morning. A newspaper, perhaps the local rag, sits folded on the small table to the right of his wicker chair. He holds the rich, bitter coffee in his mouth a moment. Then breaths in slightly through pursed lips, noticing how the sea air changes the flavor of the drink. Normally, small details like this would please Mr. Franco. But not this morning.

See, Jess has a problem. He's got something like 170 directing credits to his name (names actually, he's helmed flick under nearly thirty different identities) and he's not proud of a single thing he's done. In fact, he's made it a matter of public record that he hates every single one of his films and, as far as he's concerned, he's never made even a halfway decent flick.

But he wants to. He wants to make a Citizen Kane or a Grapes of Wrath. Something enduring, something profound. A film, at last, to be proud of.

Then suddenly, it dawns on him: "I'll make a Frankenstein movie – except it'll be Frankenstein's daughter and the monster will be a woman with a sort of penis stub for a clit and they'll have lots of sex."

And the very next year – taa-daa – the world gets "treated" to Franco's Lust for Frankenstein. This is actually the second film this month that puts a kinky twist on the Frankenstein story. The first was the B-grade Italian production Lady Frankenstein. Weirdly, there's a strange Orson Welles connection between the two. The later starred Joseph Cotton who worked with Welles in Kane. The former was directed by Franco who assisted Welles during his on-again, off-again Don Quixote shoot and who later "finished" the film for Welles. This simply a coincidence and has no really impact on the film in question. I bring it up only because that minor detail is about 1,000 times more interesting than anything that happens in the film.

A plot description will, unfortunately, make this dog of a flick sound more interesting that it is. Frankenstein had a daughter, Moira (played by Lina Romey – hot stuff when she started working in flicks back in 1973). Shortly after her birth, Frankenstein's wife passed away. The doctor then remarried, but his new wife turned out to be an a-class superfreak who not only slept with the good doctor, but the help, passing strangers, human-sized housewares – you get the idea. She also, frequently, turned her attentions on young Moira (though, later, Moira in flashbacks will clearly be played by her older self – perhaps lesbian incest prematurely ages one). Then the doctor passed on. Moira married and moved out of the home. Her marriage was a lousy one and Frankenstein, from beyond the grave, decides to visit his daughter and lead her his last creation. This, we learn, he does because he wants to teach her "lust." That's right. Dad doesn't think his little girl gets her nasty groove on so he's going to hook her up with a monster. We learn all this in voice over narration. When the film starts, an older, somewhat saggy Moira is visited, Hamlet-like, by her father's ghost. He sets her on a mission to find his last monster.

Mercifully, his last monster was stashed in a glass display case in Moira's old room, in the closet. The monster is a beefy woman with sockets in her neck and several lines of baseball-grade stitches running across her body. She tells Moira that if she revives her, she'll initiate frumpy Moira into the ways of ecstasy. Personally, from this woman, I would have taken that as a threat. But Moira must be lonelier than we thought because she promptly uses the life of one of her stepmom's many young bucks to bring the creature to life.

After some creaky-on-chunky action, Moira ends up going out to a stip-club and bringing back a young dancer to fuel her monster butch. Shortly after that, Moira's hubby shows up and gets dispatched. In between, Moira catches her monster top humping a tree and she has several nonsensical flashbacks to what I guess is her childhood (though, since the same actress plays her in these scenes, Moira appears to have been in her early 50s all her life).

This movie was crap. It had visual effects that would have been considered embarrassing in the first year of MTV music videos. I've had plates of linguini with more structure than this film had. Finally, and perhaps most damning, the only time this film was scary was when it was trying to be sexy. Watching this film feels like catching your parents fumble through something they thought was sexy, but is really just embarrassing. The combination of limply clumsy un-erotic pawing and utter humiliation makes the whole misadventure doubly scarring. Dusting off my Noteworthy Canadian News Events of 1998 Film Rating System I'm giving this flick an abysmal Crash of Swissair 111, and it is only getting that because it did consist of moving pictures and, therefore, qualifies on some minimal level as a film.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Comics: The good bad girl versus the bad Good Guy doll.

Hack/Slash, an irregularly released series of mini-series from Devil's Due Press, is one of those guilty pleasures that makes horror comic reading at once so embarrassing and, yet, so much damn fun.

The premise, cooked up by writer Tim Seeley, is so brilliantly obvious that it makes you wonder how we've gone through more than 20 years of slasher flicks without somebody hitting on it. Follow me here: Cassie Hack was kinda the pretty/ugly girl at high school. Apparently, regardless of how obviously hot one is, not being blonde is enough to ensure you grief. Her mother, the slightly over-protective lunch lady at Cassie's school, took revenge for her daughter's constant petty humiliations by killing and serving up several of Cassie's tormentors. Eventually, Cassie had a confrontation with her own mother and killed her.

Unfortunately for Cassie (but luckily for fans of clever meta-horror cheese), her mother came back as The Lunch Lady, a classic post-Jason style supernatural slasher. In the world of Hack/Slash, the slasher is a specific type of undead – denied the pleasures of life, the vengeful creatures hunt out youth, sex, fun and so on, killing that which they can never have. Cassie was forced to once again put her mother down. And in doing so, found her calling. Cassie (after trading in her pretty/ugly look for something with a more naughty Goth school girl vibe) travels the country with her hulking, reformed slasher-trainee sidekick Vlad, hunting down and disposing of slashers.

That's whole premise: Hot chick in naughty Goth schoolgirl outfits and heavily armed Frankenstein-looking mammer jammer hunt down and kill slashers.

Sure, The Watchmen it ain't – but who cares when you've got a hot chick in naughty Goth schoolgirl outfits and heavily armed Frankenstein-looking mammer jammer hunting down and killing slashers? Honestly. Sure, the entire character of Cassie Hack is sort of nothing more than a over the top experiement in the delivery of fan service. And sure the whole thing is often more goofy then scary. But I mentioned the whole "hot chick . . . mammer jammer . . . kill slasher" thing, right? The defense rests.

I bring the comic up now because, normally, the slashers Cassie and Vlad face (when not fighting demonically possessed toys or zombie house pets) are satiric homages to famous slasher characters and not, actually, famous monsters from filmland. However, according to an interview with the series writer, Devil's Due plans to produce a genuine franchise cross-over. That's right! My favorite subgenre of horror cheese: a freakin' Monster Mash!

The cinematic slasher in question is the pint-sized psycho Chucky. Look for the dame versus doll battle royale to hit shelves this March.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Music: In praise of gimmicks, cheese, insincerity, and everything else that makes rock great.

Something seems vaguely unfair about The Horrors. They look like a Brit version of The Gruesomes, play a sort of simplistic retro-punk that's so sloppy one imagines The Ramones would shake their heads, and they smacked of indie press approval well before they even had an EP out. Their rep was such that they even managed to lure Chris Cunningham out of semi-retirement to handle their first video – not bad for a band that, at that point, only had a single to their name.

Although all of it is instantly suspect, ain't it? Bands that seem to spring, fully grown, out of the club scene and into instant celebrity, like some rock Athena popping fully-armored out of the head of some PR Zeus, seem to have their backlash built in. And if any band was asking for it, The Horror's seem to be. The look, a sort of mod by way of Edward Gorey shtick, flirts with being a novelty gimmick. Their overly-conscious rejection of musicianship and their choice of materials - the B-side to their first hit was a cover of Screamin' Lord Sutch's "Jack the Ripper" - almost seems calculated to tick-off a musical culture that has even managed to buff even punk rock until it has a sanitized mall-ready Blink 182 shine to it. It all seems fake, too ready-for-prime-time, too pre-counter programmed.

And that, dear readers, is how I like it.

Authenticity is the biggest sham. I like my bands to dress in matching outfits. They want to pretend they're rock and roll morticians or robots sent back from the future or hard rocking 18th century French aristos, all the freakin' better. Rather than the endless rants against the state of the world or self-indulgent art pretensions, bands that show up wearing flower pots on their heads send a clear, honest, and unmistakable message. They say, "We're here to make some music you hopefully will enjoy." End of story.

A bunch of dudes in powdered wigs or factory worker uniforms aren't going to lecture you about world poverty and then hop their private jet to their next show. They aren't going to wank away on some 20-minute prog rock sonic circle jerk and then demand you "understand" their aural sploogings. Nope. When a group shows up wearing Mexican wrestling masks and announcing that they plan to, musically speaking, give your sorry ass the atomic drop – well, now we're talking. They're here to get the freakin' job done! That's admirable, in my twisted and limited view of things.

The Horrors are a bunch of dandied-up, insincere, fakers. And that makes them a-okay in my book.

Here's what Cunningham cranked out for them, the video for their first single: "Sheena Was a Parasite."

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Book: Second to the last house on the left.

With is combination of retro-50s setting, first person narration, and horrific torture scenes, Jack Ketchum's justly infamous novel The Girl Next Door seems like some nightmare version of The Wonder Years as re-imagined by the creators of Hostel.

The novel is one extended flashback, told in the bitter and brittle voice of a guilt crushed man looking back at a horrific incident from his childhood. When he was a boy, the dead-end suburban street where he lived was just the sort of American Eden that Hollywood sells, historians dismiss, and cultural conservatives morn. Kids catch crayfish in tin cans, boys sneak peaks at their fathers' hidden Playboy stashes, and the arrival of the carnival – hosted by the Kiwanis Club, natch – is the highlight of the summer season.

Into the Mom-and-apple-pie world of the narrator's youth came Meg, the proverbial girl next door. Smart, beautiful, a bit of tomboy, the narrator immediately develops a crush on Meg. Which is unfortunate as she's the chief victim of this story.

Meg and her polio stricken sister, Susan, are orphans who lost their parents in a car wreck. They've been placed in the care of Ruth, a divorced mother of three boys, known in the neighborhood for her sailor's mouth and her negligent parenting style.

At first, Meg fits easily in this Leave It To Beaver world. The carnival comes and goes. The boys debate rock and roll lyrics, read Plastic Man comics, and wonder if they'll ever actually see a real, live breast.

But, slowly, things start to sour. Ruth's carefree persona begins to rot and warp. She starts to become vicious and brutal. Meg goes from her boarder to her prisoner. Standard juvenile punishments become more intense, more sexual, more perverse. Soon, Ruth is keeping Meg bound in her basement, naked and dangling from ropes tied to the crossbeams in the roof. And Ruth's influence extends to her children and their friends. Given permission to indulge in their baser desires, the children of neighborhood become willing accomplices in the brutal tortures Ruth inflicts on Meg. As the narrator fitfully tries to develop some moral sense in a world were the adults are vouchsafing even the most horrific acts of rape and abuse, we watch as Ruth and her brood heap outrage upon outrage on their powerless teen captive. Eventually, the story reaches its climax as the narrator, alternately repelled by what he witnesses and fascinated by the spectacle of power, is forced into a moral reckoning.

The Girl Next Door is a thoroughly unpleasant book. The sustained intensity and duration of its violence is mind-numbing and, in that department alone, outdoes many more-famous "transgressive" works: next to Ketchum's novel, the excesses of American Psycho seem absurd and melodramatic. The long dark tale of what becomes of poor Meg is relentless, grisly, and unleavened by humor, redemption, or hope. This is, I think, the darkest horror novel I've ever read.

But, for all its disturbing imagery and stomach-churning violence, Ketchum's novel is still essential. Despite the detail Ketchum brings to his scenes of rape and torture, what Ketchum's really focused on, what he is really chronicling, is the terrible moral flexibility of humans. Fear, authority, desire, power, and vulnerability all clash in the voice of the narrator. Even when the narrator refuses to describe the worst that happens (in a brilliant move, Ketchum leaves many of the worst acts "off-screen"), we know that these events are keenly felt by the narrator. When the parental voice, the lawgiver of a young boy's world, goes mad, we see the narrator struggle to create his own moral sense. We see him wrestle with the better and worse angels of his nature, forging a genuine morality out of the wreckage of Meg's degradation. Ketchum's narrator is a real achievement, one of the most finely drawn characters in genre.

Ketchum's other characters, while not so well built, help bring his story to chilling life. The neighborhood children devolve from Normal Rockwell-esque icons of American youth to exemplars of banal evil. Like hardened concentration camp guards, they crack jokes while inflicting heinous tortures. When they grow bored of branding Meg or cutting her, they open bottles of Coke and watch game shows upstairs. The mad Ruth, pack leader and subversive symbol of parental authority run amok, is rendered as a sort of force of nature. Though it means she often seems a bit thin, more symbol than human, it does resonate with how one imagines the narrator would have seen her as a young boy.

Meg and Susan are perhaps the most important weak points in the Ketchum's characterization. Besides being thinly built characters, Ketchum's inability to fully humanize them becomes the book's sole moral misstep. For all attention given to the narrator's inner being, Meg and Susan never come to life. As soon as the action begins to pile up, Susan drifts into the background to never fully resurface. Meg, on the other hand, is blandly "good." She's smart, funny, kind, caring, trustworthy, dignified, strong, etc. etc. She's tiresomely one note. I presume Ketchum wanted to make her unquestionably good to emphasize how undeserved her fate was, but this in a mistake. First, she seems less human, and therefore her fate less important, for her lack of characterization. Second, isn't the real point here that nobody, no matter who they were, would ever deserve what happens to Meg? Finally, and most importantly, the dehumanizing lack of characterization and the dehumanizing psychological aspect of torture dove-tails uncomfortably. For all of Ketchum's compassion for the narrator, he seems weirdly incapable of sympathizing with the victim. This compassion for the narrator/witness rather than the victim comes dangerously close to authorial self-indulgence, as if it was the narrator who is to be pitied for having to watch Meg's torture and not Meg.

Still, the uneven characterization does not dull the impact of the book's main idea. Though its violence makes it unsuitable for younger readers, this books nearest literary relative is not American Psycho, but The Outsiders. It is actually a finely detailed and emotional valid depiction of the birth of a truly moral individual. It's this theme, this important moral center, that redeems the novel's excesses, makes them necessary, and elevates them to the point that Ketchum makes the whole miserable trip worth taking.

The Girl Next Door is rightly viewed as one of the most brutal works of modern horror. The label is fair. And it would be possible to read it as the literary equivalent of those cinematic endurance tests that so capture the indie underground's attention. But to do so misses the achievement of what Ketchum's done. If you've got the stomach for the dark stuff, I recommend subjecting yourself to The Girl Next Door.

NB: Ketchum's inspiration for The Girl Next Door was a actual 1965 murder case dubbed "the single worst crime perpetrated against an individual in Indiana's history". Follow the link for details, but be forewarned that they are, if anything, even worse than what happens in Ketchum's novel.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Movies: Stumped.

Little Otik, a 2000 film from Czech surrealist auteur Jan Svankmajer, is one of those nearly unclassifiable films. It is a horror flick, a dark comedy, a surrealist parable, and an updating of a children's fairy tale all in one.

The plot of Little Otik is simple and devastating. The begins with a young Czech couple, Karel (who looks like an Eastern European Mark Mothersbaugh) and Bozena (who bears no resemblance to Mark Mothersbaugh) finding out that they will not be able to have children. This seems like a minor disappointment Karel, but the news totally destroys Bozena. She plunges into a deep depression, obsessing over the child she will never have. Karel, in an effort to get his wife's mind off of the slowness of his sperm and barrenness of her womb, purchases a weekend cabin in the country.

Sadly, the cabin does not improve Bozena's condition. Karel, in an attempt to please her, carves a tree stump he dug up from the property into the rough shape of the baby boy. Unfortunately, the mock-baby works too well. Bozena begins to care for it as if it were a real baby boy. Karel, worried his now clearly insane wife will take the baby home and start introducing it to folks, convinces her to leave their "son" in the country where they can visit it on weekends. Appealing to her obsession, he warns her that the sudden appearance of the child would be taken as evidence that they kidnapped (stump-napped) the boy. Again, Bozena runs with this, faking eight months of pregnancy to fool the neighbors. (It is only eight months because she grows impatient and decides their "son" will be a premature birth.) Strangely, despite the fact that Bozena is only faking it, she gets morning sickness and the like, as if she were really pregnant. In one particular poignant scene, she refuses he husband's sexual advances because she's worried about crushing her baby.

Eventually, the child is "born" and Bozena moves into the country cabin to spend more time with her tree stump. Karel visits every weekend and, one horrific day, finds Otik, the stump son, nursing at Bozena's breast. Not pretend nursing, but nursing nursing. Bozena's love for Otik has made him come alive. He still looks exactly like a roughly shaped tree stump, but he cries, and moves, and eats. Mostly eats.

The problem with Otik is that, for an inanimate object, the boy sure puts away the grub. At first he's content to eat heroic portions of formula, but eventually he devours the family cat. His parents find a well worked over feline corpse next to the crib. A few months after that, a nosy mailman becomes Otik food.

As Otik grows and his appetites become more monstrous, his parents must decide whether or not to destroy their uncanny off-spring.

Little Otik is not your traditional horror flick. It's closest American equivalent is something like Edward Scissorhands, with its premise of the fantastic suddenly spilling into everyday life. Only, in this case, the magical figure at the center of the story is a whole sinister presence. In true surrealist form, Svankmajer shots the film with lavish detail (the surrealist always presented their dream-scapes and fantasies with crisp detail – not blurry edges and wavy lines for them). Only Wim Winders can invest the emotionless blocks of the modern European city with such loving beauty. The characters are carefully drawn and even the minor characters get serious time to develop. The SFX used to bring Otik to live are primitive by the CGI standards of contemporary American movies, but Svankmajer uses them to emphasize the alien otherness of the monster child. I could easily imagine some American filmmaker creating a seamless, "better" Otik and the effect would actually have less punch.

The pace of the film is a bit slow, though this may be more due to the fact that I suspect the film was not created as a traditional horror flick, and is instead a dark update of a traditional Czech fairy tale (which is read to viewers in the film, so you'll be up to speed on the cultural references). Rather than building suspense, the film is more interested in following its own fairy tale logic to its conclusion. Consequently, we get the horrific without getting the scares. If you're prepared for this going into the flick, it isn't so bad. If, however, you crave suspense, you and this flick are not playing at the same game.

Like They Came Back, Little Otik is a movie that uses horror elements, but ultimately is not really a horror film. It is smart, creepy, moving, and brilliant – but it is not scary. Still, it is a great flick and worth watching on its own terms. Using Land Conditions as Described in the Beaufort Wind Force Scale Movie Rating System, the ranking system that's taking the nation by storm, I give Little Otik an excellent "widespread structural damage."

Friday, December 22, 2006

Contest: We have a wiener.

It was a close race that ultimately came down to a choice between a touching and heart-felt ode to notable actor and a haiku that mentioned carrot rape. And carrot rape won out in the end. Because, I think, that's how Basho would have wanted it.

The books go to Screamin' Dave!

Thank you Screamin' Sasquatchan and Screamin' Cattleworks (especially for your innovative Alien life-cycle series) for sounding off. And Scared of the Television – who is actually my old lady and was therefore disqualified – thanks for the poem anyway.

Stuff: What I should have asked for this Christmas.

More proof that there's a horrible conspiracy afoot to ensure that the youth get all the neatest stuff - leaving adults nothing to play with except tax forms and spider derns.

Archie McPhee's fan-toy-bular site of funtastic random stuff comes perhaps the greatest battle ever staged between small, easily lost plastic figurines.

Ghouls and gals, I give you . . . Frogmen vs. Radioactive Octopus!

Though I want the octopus to win, smart money is on the frogmen. There are 12 of them, so even if the octopus gets each of its tentacles around one of these tricky bastards, there are still four frogmen free to torment it. Unless, of course, radioactivity has given the octopus the ability to shoot deathrays from its eyes or something. Then all bets are off.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Stuff: Monsters out of the closet?

Here's one of the cooler horror sites I've stumbled across in my young, but storied and thrilling, un-career as an un-professional horror blogger.

Punningly titled Camp Blood, this site is a one-stop source for those interested in all things queer and horrific (well, maybe not all things – I couldn't find any mention of Mary Cheney's book on the site). Reviews, news, and other features; all written in an insightful and often funny voice that deserves attention regardless of how you may (or may not, as the sad case may be) get your bad groove thing on.

If you’re a horror fan, it is well worth a visit.

Contest Update

We now have a three horse race for ANTSS's first ever contest: the horror haiku whoopjamboreewho!

Never has the Internet seen such a battle of literary titans! This is why poetry was invented!

And there's still time to get in on the action! It is still anybody's game!

And the winner – besides becoming the toast of the intellectual elite – will get not one, not two, but THREE, that's right THREE, as in the magic number, horror novels free of charge! I won't even charge you shipping.

What are you waiting for? Go clicky on the linky and read the embarrassingly simple contest rules. Then go haiku the crap out of the competition and claim your prize already. Your books await.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Movies: Lay, Lady Frankenstein, lay.

The scariest thing about Lady Frankenstein, a mildly kinky Italian-produced re-imagining of the Frankenstein story, is what it reveals about the career paths of even major Hollywood stars. I have to figure that a some point during production, perhaps while stuffing a clearly rubber-foam brain into the head of his monster, Joseph Cotton had to wonder how he ended up here. From Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons to Mel Welles' Lady Frankenstein (note his misspelled name on the poster). Where did it go wrong? Not that this move was an outlier in an otherwise sterling late-stage career. Sadly for Mr. Cotton, it was just a trashy rest stop on a long trip down from Cukor's Gaslight and Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt to spots on Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Would-be actors and actresses, look on Cotton's works and tremble.

In all fairness, as rungs on a downward ladder go, Lady Frankenstein isn't that bad. It is an entertaining mix of B-movie schlock that, in its final half hour, starts developing some delightfully perverse themes. Unfortunately, as they always do, angry villagers come to cut the fun short. The resulting sleazus interruptus means the film ends up being more of a flirtation with the seamy side than an all out embrace of the kinky. Still, the shift in gears gives the somewhat flagging film a needed and appreciated boost in energy.

When the story begins, Baron Frankenstein (the gamely unembarrassed but still completely phoning it in Joe Cotton) and his assistant, Charles, are doing what Frankensteins do best: building a monster. I can't help but wonder if the name Charles wasn't some sort of allusion to Citizen Kane. The assistant's name allows Cotton several opportunities to drawl out the name Charles, much as he did as Leland Smith, long-time friend than enemy of Charles Foster Kane.

The good doctor and Chuck take a short break in their work to welcome back Tania, the hottie daughter of the Baron played by Rosalba Neri (credited under the name Sara Bey). Tania, we learn, has been off at med school and she has now returned a full-fledged surgeon like her pops. We also learn that Chuck has a thing for his boss's daughter. Shortly after Tania's return, she discovers her father's life-work on a slab in the basement. She wants to help her father with his work, but he rejects the offer of assistance. This is how Tania happens to be absent from the lab when daddy's monster awakens, kills the Baron, and wanders off into the world for some indiscriminate violence.

Tania decides to fight fire with fire and create a second monster to kill the first. She offers to give herself to the older and decidedly un-sexy Charles if he will agree to have his brain put in the body of the family's dull-witted but perfectly hunky handyman and use the super-human strength the monsterization process will give him to fight Monster 1.0. Chuck agrees. Tania seduces the handyman. She takes the big lug to bed and, while she rides him, Chuck smothers him.

Meanwhile, villagers are getting killed, the authorities are getting suspicious, and Monster 1.0 is stumbling around the countryside killing side characters and tidying up loose ends in the plot. Whether by random wandering or intentional design, Monster 1.0 ends back up at the Baron's castle, a gaggle of torch wielding villagers hot on his heels. Chuck gets his brain put in the handyman's body in time to revive and fight Monster 1.0. Monsterized-Chuck is successful and the thrill of combat has apparently turned Tania on. They proceed to get down right there in the lab, on the lab table, while the villagers burn the castle down around them. The film ends with a Tania being strangled by Monster Charles as they rut. Why? I don't know.

This was another title from one of the several shovelware collections currently littering my home. As is typical of the format, the print is pretty bad quality but, happily, it seems to be a genuinely uncut, uncensored version of the film. The effects were horrible and the plot, until Tania starts shedding her clothes and moral qualms in the effort to create a second monster, was fairly cheesy. However, before the viewer loses interest, things start to heat up a bit and the bizarre dynamic between Tania, pre-, and post-monster Charles makes for entertaining viewing. Strictly B-grade fare, but a nice diversion for a lazy afternoon or evening. Using the seasonally appropriate Finland's Ministers of Finance from 1918 to 1958 Movie Rating System, I'm giving this flick a lightly likable Sakari Tuomioja.

Hey Screamin' Regulars and Welcome Newcomers

Don't forget to submit an entry to ANTSS's first-ever contest: Horror haiku.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Contest: Horror haiku.

On this blog, I've reviewed three novels from Dark Horse Press' Universal Monster tie-in series. The first was Paul Di Filippo's Time's Black Lagoon featuring everybody's favorite man-fish. Next up was Stephan Petrucha's monster versus madman showdown, Shadow of Frankenstein. Finally, today, I reviewed Witcover's excellent Dracula: Asylum. I going to give you all three of these books, slightly used but free of charge!

What do you have to do? Nothing.

Well, almost nothing.

And Now the Screaming Starts is holding its first ever contest and entering is as easy as counting to five, then seven, then five again.

Write a haiku featuring your favorite horror figure. It could be an 80s slasher or one of the Universal stable or one of those creepy ghost chicks that J-horror can't get enough of. I can't tell you who to pick. How the hell do I know who your favorites are? Get your head in the game, man. Think.

Here's the rules:
1. Write in English.
2. Submit your haiku as a comment to this entry. Haikus that show up elsewhere can't win.
3. The title of your haiku should be the character's name.
4. Submit as many as you like. Go to town.
5. Contest limited to residents of the continent of North America.
6. I'm choosing a winner on the afternoon (NYC-time) of the 22nd, so get your best efforts in before then.

Here's a sample:

Nightmare teen stalker.
Can do anything he wants,
Except pick his nose.

Like that, only not sucky.

The winner will be the one I like best. If I pick your haiku, I'll send you my copies of all three books (they've been read – if you're anal about that, don't enter) and I'll pay the postage.

Have fun, dear readers.

Book: To be read . . . to be truly read . . . that would be magnificent.

A film critic whose name now completely escapes me once opined that the strength of the Aliens film franchise was its willingness to allow every director who helmed an installment of the series the freedom to re-invent the franchise and stamp their unique mark on it.

The same can be said of the Universal Monster novels released by Dark Horse Press: Despite the pulpy concept behind the project – a series of new novels based on the classic Universal monster characters – each entry in the series has been not only enjoyable, but distinctive in its approach, mood, and handling of the film source.

In Dracula: Asylum, critically acclaimed but sadly overlooked fantasy author Paul Witcover builds a moody, Gothic tale around the most famous filmic vampire of all time: Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Written as a genuine sequel to the 1931 film (the Universal franchise spawned several "sequels," but unlike the Frankenstein films, the Dracula sequels blithely ignored continuity and stubbornly refuse resolution into a single grand narrative), the novel is set several years after Dracula's destruction in the ruins of Carfax Abbey, in the final year of the first World War. Seward's asylum, where most of the film took place, is now the Carfax War Hospital. Shell shocked and physically ravaged soldiers fill the rooms once populated by mental patients. However, one recognizable patient still haunts its halls. Renfield, once Dracula's thrall and now an aged mute, works as a janitor in the hospital.

Enter Lisa Watson, an American psychologist who has used powerful family connections to get stationed at Carfax. She's come to treat Captain Faulks, an American soldier who, after being wounded and left for dead in what amounted to a suicide mission, lost his mind and began believing that he was Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson's interest is not solely based on the charming literary coincidence: Faulks is her fiancé.

Watson's efforts to restore her would-be husband's memory soon take a back seat to her struggle to survive. A German bombing raid on Carfax disturbs the vaults of the neighboring abbey and awakes Dracula. With Renfield once again serving as his slave, Dracula begins to prey upon the patients and staff.

Witcover's entry to this series might be the slyest of the bunch. The novels narrative hews very strictly to the details provided in the original. Along with the asylum, the abbey, and Renfield, Mina reappears as well. Its plot is fairly straight forward and the details of trench warfare and early 20th century psychology (including extend scenes of a brutal night raid and the details of shock therapy) are well-researched and finely drawn. Witcover's characters are among the most developed in the series and Witcover manages to give the readers a sense of real depth without detracting from the novels steady forward momentum. However, in many ways, the book is more postmodern than Di Filippo's overtly revisionist Creature from the Black Lagoon novel. Witcover makes allusions to British literature, from overt references to Doyle and Lewis Carroll to lit-scholar in-jokes about Milton. These literary allusions are found side by side with pop culture references, such a re-contextualized lines from the original film and the Holmes/patient and Watson/shrink plot device from the obscure film comedy They Might Be Giants. I especially enjoyed the cameo of a character named Frye, a nod to Dwight Frye, the actor who brilliantly portrayed Renfield in the film. Unlike Petrucha, who spiked his retro style plot with some modern splatter tricks, Witcover saves the gore for the World War I battlefields and cloaks Dracula in a sort of decadent and opulent dread. While it never gets frightening, it is effectively suspenseful and compelling.

I really only have two complaints with the novel. First, Witcover takes his time to allow the menace and suspense to build. Overall the effort works, but occasionally I felt it dragged a bit. Second, and perhaps more seriously, a subplot involving Dracula's origins derails the novel temporarily and introduces a whole bundle of confusing and unresolved questions. Without going into the details of it, Witcover connects Dracula to the Biblical stories of Jesus and Judas. Unfortunately, this whole bit of backstory is so unexpected and, ultimately, so unimportant that it is more confounding that interesting.

So far, my personal favorite of the DHP series is still Di Filippo's quirky take on the Gill-Man. But I suspect that most readers will actually find this the more engrossing and better written novel. Arguably it is the best written, most developed work in the series to date.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Meme proliferation: Movie questions.

Regular readers (and, from this point on, all regular readers will be identified with the word "Screamin" in front of their names - the ANTSS equivalent of being a Mouseketeer) Screamin' Cattleworks and Screamin' Mermaid Heather both tapped me to answer this series of film related questions and, though they're not specifically horror related, I was so tickled folks would even think of asking me that I'm going to dedicate this entry to my answer.

Back to the regularly scheduled horror stuff tomorrow. We'll be talking about Dracula and World War I and Sherlock Holmes and shock therapy, I promise. You'll dig it.

Today, though, the questions:

1. Popcorn or candy?

Candy. Aside from Halloween, movies are the major candy-related event in my life. Plus, I have fond memories of my mother, determined to cheat the over-priced concession stands out of their pound of flesh, sneaking candy into movie theaters. Normally, my mom was a straight and narrow type. This seemed, when I was young, to be her only moral failing: sneaking in food against the theater rules. This also meant we bought our movie candy at the local supermarket. Instead of eating a single-serving bag of Reece’s Pieces, we’d be hiding super-sized family bags of that stuff on our person. Good times.

2. Name a movie you've been meaning to see forever.

Aguirre: Wrath of God. I don’t know. It is one of those things that’s on my list. But whenever I have the requisite 4,057 hours of free-time needed to partake in said acknowledged masterpiece, I find my wondering whether I want to use this huge block of time watching something that’s going to drag me through the emotional wringer and leave me longing for the sweet oblivion of death.

3. You are given the power to recall one Oscar: Who loses theirs and to whom?

I would have rather had the first Oscar for Best Flicker go to Keaton’s still-wonderful The General rather than the indifferent Wings. I feel that if it had started off on the right foot, we could have avoided some of the more regrettable choices that came later.

Though, every year, whenever there’s and Oscar pool, I write in Deep Blue Sea for best picture. Every year. ‘Cause it had giant, super-smart, killer sharks. That’s pretty boss. So, Plan B is that: American Beauty’s loss is LL Cool J’s gain. ‘Cause American Beauty didn’t have giant, super-smart, killer sharks.

4. Steal one costume from a movie for your wardrobe. Which will it be?

The exquisitely tailored suit of Petey Wheatstraw, Son-In-Law of the Devil. That or the mask of lucha legend Blue Demon.

5. Your favorite film franchise is…

The Santo movies are a particular favorite of mine. I once actually wrote a biography of Santo which treated his real life and the events depicted in his films as both equally true.

And that’s probably the geekiest thing I’ve ever confessed to.

6. Invite five movie people over for dinner. Who are they? Why’d you invite them? What do you feed them?

We’re going to break the dead/live barrier so I can invite anybody I want. Here’s the guest list: El Santo, Buster Keaton, Vincent Price, Chuck Jones, and W.C. Fields. Mainly so I could pose for a group photograph El Santo, Buster Keaton, Vincent Price, Chuck Jones, and W.C. Fields. We’ll be having chili dogs. Damn, man; I could really go for a chili dog. I wonder if I could sneak away from work, get down to Nathan’s, and sneak back before anybody noticed I was gone.

7. What is the appropriate punishment for people who answer cell phones in the movie theater?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record - giant, super-smart, killer sharks.

8. Choose a female bodyguard: Ripley from Aliens. Mystique from X-Men. Sarah Connor from Terminator 2. The Bride from Kill Bill. Mace from Strange Days.

I’m going to go with Mace because she is, after all, actually a bodyguard. Since I’m not a small and vulnerable looking female, I don’t think Ripley’s maternal instincts will be properly stoked. Mystique lost her powers, so she’s out. Conner has the same mom thing that took Ripley out of the running. And the Bride – Let’s face it, outside of a universe predicated on Tarantino’s love of Uma, the Bride wouldn’t stand a chance. She got the physique anorexics crave and some sort of block against the use of firearms. If you need a job done right, hire a pro.

9. What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever seen in a movie?

Joey Adams trying to act.

10. You’re favorite genre (excluding comedy and drama) is?

Horror. Comedy and horror are, for my buck, the two most emotionally realistic genres film has to offer. Screaming and laughing are just about the only sensible reactions to life.

11. You are given the power to greenlight movies at a major studio for one year. How do you wield this power?

Here’s a short list of what I’d do if given the power of life and death over a major studio:

Spike Lee attached to direct the Jackie Robinson story re-make, scripted by Colson Whitehead.

My now infamous “You telegraph the emotional punches because you don’t trust the audience” lecture ruins my first Spielberg lunch, but ultimately he comes around and our friendship is stronger for it.

Snap up rights to Tom Franklin’s “Poachers” and get David Gordon Green on it.

Give the entire studio a new rule: “Romantic comedies must be both genuinely romantic and genuinely funny.” I’ll happily greenlight any romantic comedies that meet the rule, though I suspect the issue won’t come up.

Sit down with Alexandre Aja and explain the idea of a logical narrative structure. “And here’s the take home, Ally Cat: cause and effect.”

Finally get the William Faulkner vampire script, Hateful Hollow, underway.
Bring back serials and short cartoons to show before the features.

12. Bonnie or Clyde?

Honestly, I’m more C. W. Moss.

13. Who are you tagging to answer this survey? (Three or more)

I’m too new at this. I don’t think I have three or more blog-amigos. Cattleworks already hit them all. I guess this means the chain stops with me. Faboo. A million years of bad luck. I’ll probably get eaten by giant, super-smart, killer sharks or something. Thanks a metric pant-load Cattleworks.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Stuff: Just in time for the holidays.

Before we get to today's entry on gore furniture, let me state right up from that my taste in interior decorations is crap. My decorating style has been charitably described as "haunted brothel." It is really only the diligence of my beloved Significant Other that prevents my home from devolving into something like a dumping ground for rejected props from Disney's Haunted Mansion ride.

Keeping that in mind, I submit, dear readers, for your approval, a link to an outfit called Horror Décor - corporate motto: "Make every day a living nightmare." This company makes "blood-splattered" furniture for the homes of folks whose personal style is more Lizzie Borden than Martha Stewart.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Movies: “Whatever it takes to get through the night. Right, Count?”

George Romero has gone on record saying that his underappreciated 1977 vampire flick Martin is his personal favorite of all his films. Considering the fact that his justly famous Night of the Living Dead stands as an ur-text for just about every zombie flick made since and is universally considered a modern horror landmark, Romero’s love for this relatively unsung flick is initially surprising. At least, it is until you see the film. Martin is one of the most engrossing and innovative vampire flicks ever made and it ranks easily as Romero’s most thoughtful and emotionally involving film.

Martin begins with our title character, a pale and awkward man in his late teens or early twenties, taking a train from Pittsburgh to the town of Raleigh, Pennsylvania. As the train rolls through the endless, anonymous landscape of suburban blight, a legacy of the financial downturns of the late 1970s that can still be found on long stretches of the Eastern Corridor’s right of way, Martin notices a young woman traveling alone. That night, as most of the passengers retire to their berths or sleeping compartments, Martin attacks the nameless young woman. He breaks into her sleeping compartment, injects her with a heavy-duty sedative, undresses her, possibly rapes her, before, finally, opening up her forearm with a razor blade and lapping up her blood. Then, calmly, methodically, he cleans himself up, positions the body, and scatters sleeping pills around the sink in her compartment lavatory to make it look like a suicide. Martin leaves her cabin and returns to his seat. He takes out a small paperback about stage magic and reads distractedly.

This is our introduction to Martin.

We learn later that Martin is on the train because he is being sent to a small town far from Pittsburgh. There he will stay with his uncle, Tada Cuda, an old Eastern European who has taken charge of Martin in order to, as Tada tells Martin, “save your soul and then destroy you.” Martin’s family line, according to Cuda, is cursed. Every generation or so, one of the family becomes nosferatu. Martin, according to Cuda, is just such a creature. But it isn’t that simple. For a vampire, Martin’s a pretty lame specimen. Sunlight bothers his eyes, but it doesn’t kill him. He’s not particularly fond of garlic, but that’s a matter of personal preference. He’s got no aversion to crosses and even attends church with his uncle. He can’t hypnotize ladies (he’s kind of afraid of girls) or turn into a bat. He doesn’t even have fangs. Even Cuda, who clearly expected something more majestically sinister, seems a bit under-whelmed by this supposed creature of the night.

Cuda’s granddaughter, a thoroughly Americanized young woman (played by Romero’s wife) thinks that Martin is just a poor, mixed-up kid who has been driven crazy by his family’s twisted Old World superstitions. In her opinion, Martin is the unwitting actor in a grotesque psychodrama sustained by the family. He needs therapy, not an exorcism. Although, if that’s true, why does Martin maintain he’s more than 80 years old – despite the fact that he’s clearly younger than his uncle’s granddaughter? And what’s with the flashes Martin has to scenes of him killing a young woman in what appears to be 1920s Europe? Are these head trips the movie-fueled delusions of an insane wannabe vampire or is Martin remembering the early days of his unnaturally prolonged life?

Martin is Romero’s most meditative film and its wounded and haunted central protagonist is Romero’s most carefully constructed character. In many ways, the surreal mix of the mundane decay of small town Pennsylvania, the dark struggles of Martin, and the guilt-ridden actions of his family make if almost Kafka-esque. It has this uniquely American take on what I feel is a very European sort of dreadful absurdity. If Samsa had awoken to find himself a vampire instead of a giant insect, the Metamorphosis would have resembled this film. I say the film is uniquely American, however, in that it strips away the mist shrouded gentility of the fussy European Gothic aesthetic, even going so far as to lightly lampoon that lush sensibility. Despite the leisurely pace of much of the film, Romero knows his audience and delivers several exciting and tense set pieces, mostly gathered around Martin’s efforts to secure blood. Without the powers of your standard cinema vampire, getting blood is a major undertaking.

As an aside, I suspect gorehounds will find Martin a serious disappointment. The body count is tiny and the blood, what there is of it, is that cherry red latex paint stuff that seemed to be go-to blood stand-in for ‘70s horror flicks.

The film has its flaws. Romero’s filmmaking consistently falls short of his creative ambitions and his intellectual aspirations. He understands the complexity of the characters and the uncanny beauty of their decaying landscape, but too often his set ups are uninspired. I can’t help but wonder if, as a young indie guerilla-style filmmaker, Romero found such success that he never bothered to advance his art. Even as his budgets and scope have increased, he continues to rely on a remarkably small vocabulary of basic shots and set-ups. This leads to the other amateurish aspect of the film: a sort of naïve belief in the power of the camera to render things interesting. Part of the meditative pacing comes from Romero’s unfortunate tendency to just linger on a scene or shot long after it has been drained of significance. This could be a long and silent shot of people walking to their car or an over-long moment of Martin watching empty train tracks. The line between introspection and self-indulgence is a thin one and Martin wobbles across it more than once.

The creativity and intelligence of the film, however, far outshine the films few short comings. Martin is not my favorite Romero flick (that’s still Dawn of the Dead) but it is genuine masterwork from an accomplished legend of the genre and I recommend it to anybody interested in thoughtful, moody horror. Using the revamped and improved Named Summits of Georgia Movie Ranking System, I’m giving Martin an unqualified Hickory Knob.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Music: What goes on mission, stays on mission.

Giant robots, cheesy blue-screen action, furry space monsters, go-go dancers, exploding heads, and punk-spiked rockabilly kicks.

If any of the above interests you, then you’ll want to check out the video for “Mission” by the Phenomenauts.

Formed in 2000, this San Francisco based sci-fi themed outfit of genre-blending rockers comes complete with wonderfully goofy monikers: Commander Angel Nova, vocals and guitar; Corporal Joe Bot, vocals and guitar; Major Jimmy Boom, drums; Captain Chreehos, stand-up bass; and Professor Greg Arius on keyboard and sound effects. You can check out their web site for more info.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Comics: Two out of three ain’t bad.

The third of the New Line/DC Wildstorm franchise-theme horror books got its official launch this month. After a regrettable start with the vapid Nightmare on Elm Street series and a considerably more promising Texas Chainsaw launch, Friday the 13th has arrived.

I must admit that I had my doubts about this series. Outside of a film context, Jason’s a bit of a hard sell for me. As a character, Jason works best simply as an icon. By which I mean to say that his mindless and relentless persona rewards lack of development. He’s at his best, really, on covers and in posters, just standing there, all implied threat and malice. The hockey mask doesn’t hide his face, it is all the face he needs. The character is made to be thoughtless, free of motivations, in a paradoxical way, characterless. Movies, with their strong visual element, are his natural medium. He can move and kill and that’s all the medium will demand of him. Books and comics, with the interiority that prose implies, seem contrary to the spirit of the character. Before picking up the comic, I had this vision of the comic book Jason stomping through the woods, covered in gore, silent; blood dripping from his machete, but above him is a thought balloon that reads: “Being in-itself and Being for-itself were of Being; and this totality of beings, in which they were effected, itself was linked up to itself, relating and appearing to itself, by means of the essential project of human-reality. What was named in this way, in an allegedly neutral and undetermined way, was nothing other than the metaphysical unity of man and God, the relation of man to God, the project of becoming God as the project constituting human-reality. Atheism changes nothing in this fundamental structure.”

What could a comic do that 1) couldn’t be done better in a movie and 2) wouldn’t fall into the trap of trying to flesh out a character that become less interesting and less scary the deeper you looked into him?

Happily, like the TCM series, Jason’s new showcase bucks the low expectations set by the lame Freddy-based series and promises some genuine good times.

Penned by Justin Grey and Jim Palmiotti, the team behind the mostly successful Jonah Hex relaunch, the new series starts with a gutsy narrative move: Jason, the iconic anchor of the entire franchise, barely appears in it. The move not only pays off, but it signals to the readers that this series aims to be something more than comic book redo of your standard slasher romp.

The book starts with a lone RV cruising through a forest road. Suddenly, out of the woods, in front of the RV, a girl tumbles into the road. She’s naked, bruised, and half of her right hand is missing. (Injury to the hand, specifically finger-loss, is the signature wound of new horror, replacing, I think, the downward-jabbing knife wound to the body that’s been the hallmark injury since Psycho.) Behind her, making his patented deliberate and calm way through the woods, is Jason. The RV passengers get out, help the girl into their vehicle, and take off before Jason can reach them. This will be the last we see of Jason in the first issue: a splash page with him standing on the lonely forest road, machete in hand, watching the RV tear off, a small cloud of mist near his mouth wear his breath shows against the cold night sky.

Flash forward: hospital, the girl we’ve seen earlier is thrashing in a hospital bed. Nurses rush to sedate her. The local sheriff looks on and makes a comment about how, when he first arrived in town, he didn’t buy the stories of a death curse on Camp Crystal Lake. But, now, he says, they should burn the whole damn camp down.

Flashback: Camp Crystal Lake. The victim, presumably our “final girl,” and a handful of other young men and women are being lectured by a young business “shark” type. He explains that the horrific past of Crystal Lake makes it a unique camping opportunity and he intends to turn the decrepit camp into a sort of horror-themed camp. He’s even run off a bunch of “I Survived Camp Crystal Lake” t-shirts. (Do these really exist? If not, New Line, you’re missing a wonderful merch opportunity.) He explains that he’s hired this group to clean up the camp and get it ready.

We can see where the rest is going. Or can we?

One of the most interesting aspects of this new take is the inclusion of more backstory not only for Jason and his clan, but of Crystal Lake. Grey and Palmiotti seem to be working in two different threads of horror, hoping to add some more depth to the franchise’s shopworn formulas without ruining the basic premise. The first is a return to the giallo inspired suspense genre that helped first spawn the series. Instead of rushing straight into the slaughter and relying on revved up gore levels and body counts, this series promises to work on a slow burn. Second, the groundwork is laid for the idea that something was very wrong with Crystal Lake long before the Voorhees family made it their personal al fresco abattoir. By the laying the groundwork for a sort of “cursed land” theme, this series establishes the franchise in the context of the classic strain of New England horror, connecting a modern horror icon to a deep and traditional source of American horror.

It is an ambitious, creative, and strong start to the series.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Book: Mean acres.

Whatever faults it may possess, Scott Nicholson’s over-stuffed horror novel, The Farm, cannot be accused of a lack of imagination. Among the supernatural and occult phenomenon that packs the book, including pagan sacrifices, a headless housewife ghost, a blood-thirsty serial killer scarecrow, and an undead Methodist preacher on the prowl for souls, The Farm also gives the reader a vast herd of man-eating goats.

Seriously. Man-eating goats.

What rural New England is to Stephen King, the haint-saturated and God-haunted hills of the North Carolina Appalachians are to Scott Nicholson and, in this novel, he returns to that familiar setting. The Farm tells the story of Katy and Jett, a remarried mother of one and her Goth teen off-spring. After the collapse of his first marriage, Katy left the big city to marry the intellectual and charismatic, but emotionally distant Gordon, a professor of religion specializing in the fading local Christian traditions. Katy hopes the move to Gordon’s isolated mountain farm will give her a fresh start and be good for her trouble prone daughter. For Jett, whose style is move Cure than Clampett, Gordon’s farm, located outside the tiny mountain town of Solom, might as well be on the moon. Her fashionably gothic clothes make her a target for bullying at school and her rebel attitude clashs with Gordon’s old-school mountain bred Christianity.

As if these troubles weren’t enough, Jett runs face to face with the Circuit Rider, star of several local spook stories and the undead ancestor of her new stepfather. According to the locals, the Circuit Rider was a Methodist minister given to pagan-leaning habits like animal sacrifice. Jealous of his local popularity and the unsavory and heathenish manner in which he gets right with Jesus, ministers from three local churches did the Christian thing: ambushed him on his rounds and slew him. Then they divided his body among them. Each church buried a third of the man in its cemetery. Now, for your regular traveling clergyman, that would have been enough to ensure that his worldly ministry was ended. The Circuit Rider, however, continues to make his rounds. Every few years, he makes an appearance in the hills around Solom, finds some unlucky person, and claims their soul. This is especially bad luck as, once you're claimed by the Rider, you're doomed to remain a specter in this world, appearing whenever the Rider does, acting as a harbinger of his arrival.

Katy’s adjustment doesn’t go any better. She quickly finds her husband is alternately overbearing and isolating. Living with the too real memories of his deceased wife would be bad enough (Gordon can only fulfill his marital obligations if he pretends Katy is Rebecca, his departed dear), it seems as if she still haunts the house. To Jett’s horror and Katy’s confusion, Katy begins to adapt Rebecca’s ways, becoming the ghost that seems to haunt her.

Oh, and then there’s that living scarecrow stalking the forests and fields of Solom, cutting down the town’s citizens with it scythe. And the herds of goats with an unnatural taste for meat . . .

With The Farm, Nicholson has constructed a distinctly Southern horror tale that manages to wind its way through a tangle of subplots with snap and suspense, before bringing everything together at the last second. The dialogue is witty, if sometimes a bit too clever to be believable. The characters are well drawn and Nicholson’s use of strong images always rises to the needs of his story. He’s even able to pull off his most questionable artistic decision and make the killer goats of Solom seem genuinely creepy.

If anything, the books suffers from an excess of good stuff. The haunted house, the killer scarecrow, the Rider, the goats – any one or two of which would have been sufficient to hang a story on – all struggle for the reader’s attention. As it is, the Rider and the goats get the most pages. The ghost of Rebecca ultimately serves as a sort of exposition device and the scarecrow, a worthy invention that deserved more use, gets only a handful of brief appearances. This wealth of material also strains Nicholson’s narrative structure. As the story winds down, Nicholson has to rely on a handful of deus ex machina contrivances to get all of his characters were they need to be for their final confrontation. But these are minor complaints that never overwhelm the novel.

You can get The Farm wherever you score your readables. It is published by Pinnacle and will cost you about seven Washingtons.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Movies: Less fun than alligator bobbing.

My first exposure to the famed grindhouse shocker Blood Sucking Freaks (neé House of the Screaming Virgins, a.k.a. The Incredible Torture Show, a.k.a. Sardu, Master of the Screaming Virgins, and so on . . .) was not cinematic. The first time I heard the film referenced was on De La Soul’s classic debut LP Three Feet High and Rising. If you’re unfamiliar with that group or their first album, the Soul was one of the last gasps of mainstream experimentalism in rap before bling-obsessed gangsta-ism became the norm for rap and truly unique artists either went to the backpack underground or roamed the music landscape as professional guest stars (this is how Q-Tip ended up in a Deee-lite song and KRS-One appeared on REMs Out of Time). The outfit consisted of two MCs and a DJ and they brought to their tracks a laid back, quirky, dense, and humorous style that was drenched in retro-60s hippie aesthetics. As a sort of framing device on their first album, the band pretended to be contestants on a game hosted by Tommy Boy producer Prince Paul. Mimicking the typical game show format, there was a short segment of host asking a series of mindless questions to the players in order to introduce them to the audience. One of the contestants announces that he likes to “alligator bob” and that his favorite movie is “Blood Sucking Freaks, just like your mama.” Whether he meant that he, like your mother, enjoyed the film or he meant that your mama was a blood-sucking freak was never clarified.

Now, having finally seen the film, I find it very odd that a group known for their hippie vibe name checked it. The spiritual predecessor of torture porn like Hostel and Touristas, Blood Sucking Freaks is as mean-spirited, shock-driven, and joyless a bit of cinema as your likely to find.

The film opens with two gentlemen, Sardu and some nameless character that never appears again, driving a van through the snow clogged streets of NYC in 1976. Sardu, we quickly learn, is the master of ceremonies of a Grand Guignol-style theater, The Theater of the Macabre, in SoHo. In this dirty and unfinished showplace, hip New Yorkers gather to watch Sardu as he apparently tortures a series of young women to death. What the theater-goers don’t know is that there is no clever slight of hand or stage effects in Sardu’s performances. He and his midget sidekick, Ralphus, are actually torturing and killing women on stage.

After taking viewers through a single performance – in which women are crushed in various torture devices, dismembered, get their eyes scooped out and eaten, and are otherwise definitively discomforted – the “plot” of the film lurches in sight. Among members of this initial audience are a famed critic, a famous football star, and a famous ballet performer. The latter two are a couple. After the show, Sardu and the critic have a confrontation. The critic dismisses Sardu’s show as crap and Sardu vows revenge. He hatches a scheme to prove to the critic that Theater of the Macabre is an artistic triumph. He decides to kidnap the critic and the ballet dancer and use them both in an S & M torture show ballet that, we assume, will the artistic pinnacle of Sardu’s career.

The rest of the movie alternates between four different sorts of scenes: 1) the QB and a sleazy NYPD detective searching for the dancer, 2) Sardu harassing the captive critic, 3) Sardu “convincing” the ballet dancer to perform by making her watch various tortures, and 4) random acts of torture that serve as scene breaks between the three others. Eventually, without much interference from logic or meaning, enough people die that the flick can no longer grind its way onward and the film comes to a sudden halt.

I’m not going to deny that there isn’t something weird compelling about much of Blood Sucking Freaks. Human suffering is, on an animal level, arresting to see. However, once the rubbernecking reflex relaxes, you’re left with a mess of a film. Much like the “plot” of porn flicks, the story here is little more than an excuse to frame scenes in which interchangeable nude females are tortured to death. The pointlessness is compounded by a near complete lack of characterization for everybody except Sardu. And Sardu, sadly, cannot save the film. Sadru minces across the stage either lecturing the audience on the artistic merits of torture or dropping lag-wit jokes that could have been delivered by Dr. Evil only on his most off days. On watching a woman get killed on a rack, Sardu says, “This will go far beyond every stretch of the imagination.” Oh, Sardu! You scandalous card! That’s what passes for clever satire in this film.

Lacking any other effective draw, Blood Sucking Freaks is thrown back upon its gore to deliver whatever cinematic goods the film can offer. The effects, while shocking on a conceptual level, almost always fall below expectations. For example, the blood used for most of the scenes appears to have been candy red house paint. The tortures rapidly become tiresome and the sheer number of hideous acts presented tends to deaden the effect of any one given scene rather than add to the overall horror. Actually, near the end, I found myself fast-forwarding through such scenes simply because they were getting boring. In short, less would have been considerably more.

Simply put, Blood Sucking Freaks is an archetypal example of the torture porn subgenre and it brings the strengths and weakness of that particular horror flick category into stark relief.

The entire subgenre of torture porn rests on a single, universal strength: The appearance of a wounded human body in a suffering state is an inherently a captivating image. Unless one is a sociopath, it is hard not to empathize and, to some degree, suffer along with a victim when one is presented to you (even in a fictionalized context). However, this empathy quickly overwhelms and the punch to the gut one feels fades fast. We get quickly calloused to the suffering of others. This is especially true when, as in the simulated suffering depicted in a film like Blood Sucking Freaks, one can’t do anything but watch or turn away. Helpless to stop the suffering, we thicken our sensibilities against it. And this is the fatal flaw behind all torture porn. It is forced by its own rules to play a game of constantly diminished returns. Every successful shock must be followed by a succession of more horrific shocks to counter the viewers' rising levels of numbness.

There is, however, an out from this spiral. The numbness that I believe creeps over the watcher is a product not just of shock, but of futility in the face of horror. It is a fatalism born out of the meaninglessness of resisting suffering. Consequently, when resistance isn’t futile, I don’t think the audience has the same reaction. The horror stays sharp because there is some hope that it can be defeated or otherwise overcome. When there is a genuine conflict and the end is not clearly already decided, then every shock is registered fresh as part of a moving, changing situation. Even smaller incidents are magnified because they are relevant for the outcome of the scene. Humans pay attention to the meaningful. For this meaningful conflict to happen, the victims need to be protagonists. Furthermore, viewers have to care about their fates. This doesn’t mean they have to be likable or that they have to survive. But it does mean that the viewer has to perceive that something other than the whims of the filmmaker decides whether they live or die.

The problem with torture porn is that, regardless of any tacked on moral justifications (such as Hostel and Touristas, each claiming to be some sort of satire on American mores), a more powerful mechanism of viewer identification is at always at work. And this identification is, before any would-be lesson, the real point of the film. Whether it is intended or not, all torture porn disintegrates into a game of ratcheting up the level or torture to evoke a reaction in the audience. As such, it is predicated on the irrelevance of the victim who, by design, vanishes under the weight of the nearly mathematical operation of the genre. There is an irony that the most common defense found in torture porn flicks is that it is a criticism of the arrogant exploitation of others as the genre requires a simulation of arrogant exploitation. Ultimately, such films are imaginatively on the side of the torturers.

Sick thrills are all good and well. It is a rare human being that doesn’t want to emotionally slum it now and then. Part of power of art is what Keats referred to as negative capability: the ability to imaginatively become somebody or something else for a moment. And there is a value in empathizing with villains as well as with heroes. Even bad art such as torture porn contains its own redemption (though it is rarely in the self-deluding lessons the filmmakers would have us take away) in that we can, without hurting anybody, stand in the shoes of the torturer for a brief moment. This is powerful stuff. These days, when we know our government cavalierly takes on the role of torturer and the court of world opinion tars us all with that brush, it would be odd if nobody explored this dark part of our human potential. However, even done “well” (Pasolini’s Salo stands artistically, if not intellectually, so far ahead of the pack that the producers of Hostel must be thanking their luck stars that Americans don’t watch foreign films) the subgenre seems incapable of producing anything but intellectually dishonest, artistically lazy shock engines. Blood Sucking Freaks is no exception.

I didn’t ever want to do this, but I’m completely breaking out my AM Stations of Tulsa, Oklahoma Movie Ranking System. I know, I know. It is way harsh. But there’s no other system that can handle a movie like this. I’m giving Blood Sucking Freaks, under all of it two thousand titles, a low KRMG 740 rating. It is of historical interest to grindhouse junkies, but otherwise there’s little to recommend it.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Movies: Like a B & B with a body count.

Murder Mansion is a giallo-influenced Spanish/Italian production that hangs its modest horrors on an old school Ten Little Indians-style plot. A group of strangers gets lost in a deep fog. After a series of auto accidents and wrong turns, they all end up seeking shelter in a gothic, decaying mansion. The mansion’s sole occupant, a mysterious young woman, welcomes the visitors into her home and spins several tales about the home’s former occupants, her ancestors. She explains that many of her ancestors were witches, which explains the surreal paintings scattered about the house (the witches liked rip-off Bosch and over-sized prog-rock covers). She also tells her guests that the mansion was once centrally located in a busy mountain town. However, tragedy struck and the town was abandoned. Just what happened is unclear, but the locals blamed the predations of vampire. The trapped motorists, being thoroughly modern Euro-types, laugh this off and make for bed.

Of course, one by one, the guests start to bite it. Desperate to avoid becoming next on the list, a young couple (a motorcyclist named Fred and Laura, the hottie hitchhiker he picked up) tries to get to bottom of the things. Who is the mysterious lady of the house? Why the uncanny resemblance between her and the painting of the old crone that hangs above the living room fireplace? What is she hiding in the locked and bolted basement? And, perhaps most importantly, is it a coincidence that the meddling self-appointed junior detective in this mystery/horror flick shares the same name as the cravat wearing driver of Scooby-Doo’s mystery machine?

Murder Mansion is incredibly lightweight as far as Euro-horrors go. In many ways it owes more to creaky house mysteries, such as The Old Dark House (1932) and The Bat Whispers (1930), than it does to the stylish and gory Italian fare it superficially resembles. The body count is modest, the gore is restrained and minimal, and the plotting, which plods at first, gives maybe too much time to the development of a gothic mood so overripe as to almost lapse into campy self-parody. The story is engaging on a strictly entertaining level. The acting is serviceable, but without any notable performances. Altogether, this is an unremarkable pop confection. I suspect most viewers will breeze through the flick without being shaken or deeply engrossed.

There’s not much to love or hate here. To be honest, I enjoyed purely for personal reasons. When I was a little kid, my pops and I had this sort of arrangement. If I pretended to go to bed without fuss or muss, then, after mom was asleep, I could sneak out of my room and join him in watching the late night horror flicks shown on television. These films were universally low-budget cut rate stuff. I remember very few of the particular films, instead remembering them as an endless series of gothic houses, mysterious murders, and so on. While watching Murder Mansion, I thought that it was exactly the sort of film that might have shown up on one of those nights. As such, it was impossible for me to really dislike it.

Still, that’s just me and I recognize that, on an objective level, we’re talking about a pretty weak film. On its own slim merits, using the tried and true Settlements of the Novi Sad Municipality Film Rating System, this gets a Futog.

NB: My copy of this flick comes from what I’ve since learned is a heavily edited shovel-ware version. Other reviewers have noted the films gore, nudity, and excellent use of color – all of which was absent in my print. If somebody has seen the original and would like to supplement this review with their take on the full cut, I and my readers would find it interesting.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Stuff: For those who like their horror travel-sized.

I haven’t decided yet whether or not these PVC figurines of classic Universal monsters (with one stray non-Universal nosferatu-style vampire thrown in) are cool or insufferably cutesy. And when the blogger is in doubt, then it is you, citizen reader, who must decide!

These three-inch tall figures are the product of Spanish toy-art creator dKiller Panda. As a dude who has capitalization issues with his own handle, I can’t take issue with the name; but I remain hesitant about the entire ethos of the “toys meant to be looked at and not played with” thing.

That said, I love that Mr. Panda dug up a delightful second stringer like the not-a-vampire from London After Midnight.

These figurines will be available from Dark Horse comics this coming March. A set of three is going to run you about 20 clams.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Music: But, seriously though, what did happen to his Transylvania Twist?

The Bonzo Dog Band (originally the Bonzo Dog Dada Band and then, briefly, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) was the creation of a group of Brit art-school students in the mid-1960s. Their sound was a deliberately comical and awkward mix of jazz, pop, rock, and out-of-date vaudeville influences. Part corny joke and part art house provocation, they are either the laughing fringe of the psychedelic crowd or the visionary forerunners of the post-punks, depending on how you like to take your rock history.

Most importantly, they were good, goofy fun. Here’s their cover of the novelty classic “The Monster Mash.”

The Bonzo Dog Band got some mainstream attention when they hooked up with the Beatles. Paul, under the Bonzian pseudonym “Apollo C. Vermouth,” produced the BDB’s “Urban Spaceman.”

The BDB also appeared in the Beatles flick Magical Mystery Tour, performing their tune “Death Cab for Cutie.” Sadly, this tune also provided the name of certain emo outfit, revealing that, in this fallen world, there are no human acts of unalloyed good.

The BDB broke up in 1969. Members of the group later collaborated with Monty Python, including writing the music for the Python’s Beatles parody The Rutles.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Movies: Location, location, location.

There are many flicks that get a qualitative upgrade from fair to great on the strength of strong casting choices. Though academic-fashion has often made it the norm to think of directors as owning a film, certainly the success of Casablanca is due more the top-notch work of a stellar cast – Boogie, Bergman, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre – than to the efficient but uninspired directorial skills of Michael Curtiz. The opposite is also true: talented directors can take indifferent material and fashion it into something truly amazing. Hitchcock, for example, had something like the cinematic equivalent of the Midas touch. Who still reads the book Psycho? (To be fair, Hitchcock’s casting was often perfect; but even on films were the stars were of a grade below Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, he managed to craft classics.) There are also films that rise above the limitations of director and cast on the strength of the story (and by story, I don’t necessarily mean a literary aspect of the script – a strong story might be a simple one that has a powerful emotional impact). These are less common, but I think they do exist. Often, they’re cult artifacts. For me, The Blair Witch Project is an example of this. There little direction to speak of and the acting is nothing to write home about. Instead, its power comes from the fact that the story itself taps into this primal fear of getting lost.

Considerably fewer films can claim to have been pushed over the fair/great divide on the strength of its setting. One of this rare breed is the excellent Session 9. Filmed on location at the abandoned Danvers State Insane Asylum in Massachusetts, Session 9 is rises above what would have been a perfectly fine ghost story and becomes one of the best flicks in “haunted” sub-genre.

The plot is fairly simple: a hazmat team has been called to Danvers (playing itself in the flick) to clean up the old pile in anticipation for its rejuvenation as the new town hall. The crew is packed with familiar blue-collar archetypes: the old boss who might be losing his touch, his trust right hand man, the new kid, the bookish guy, and the smart-ass. Since this is in Massachusetts, much of it is plaid with an Irish working man touch – but these characters could populate ranks of any crew doing thankless labor anywhere. The actors filling out these somewhat generic work boots do a fine job (including Caruso of NYPD Blue fame and the kid who played Warren in Empire Records), but their roles are fairly limited.

(As an aside, I realized how nice it is to see adults in a horror film. There’s something about the expectations of grown professionals that gives the horror extra punch. One can imagine an alternate universe where the characters of Session 9 were punk kids trespassing on the site to smokus the dopus and engage in criminal acts of vandalism as well as morally questionable pre-marital sex. They would, of course, getting in all manner supernatural shit and be dispatched. However, in that other universe, the famed slasher ethos makes the whole exercise laughable. Punk kids do stupid things and get whacked. That’s how things work in horror movies. There’s something creepier about adult men doing the job that they’re supposed to and, unwittingly, coming face to face with the monstrous.)

Over the course of the next week, the ominous hospital and its sinister past begin to close in our working class heroes. Their personalities begin to fray. In the tradition of movies like the The Haunting, it is unclear whether the characters are being haunted or whether they are simply falling apart. To parallel the general disintegration of the hospital and the team, Brainy discovers a series of nine audio-taped therapy sessions with a former asylum inmate. Over the course of the film, this patient’s bizarre history will intersect with the fate of our heroes. Things come to a head when one of the workers, Smartass (of course – it was gonna be him or New Kid), disappears.

In several ways, Session 9 is a fair film. The plot drags in the beginning, but eventually finds its groove and builds to a suitably taut climax. The dialogue is realistic, if prone to occasionally stalling out in the sort of working-stiff monologues that creative types think passes as the hard-won wisdom of the laboring classes. The acting, while not spectacular, is probably better than it needs to be. The real star, for me, of Session 9 is Danvers itself. Danvers is a place blessed with an awesome excess of personality. And, knowing they had a star on their hands, the filmmakers treat Danvers something like the way von Sternberg treated Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress. The camera wallows on every beautifully squalid detail of the building, turning it into the greatest single horror set since Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel. Like the ancestral home of the Ushers, Danvers is practically the plot of the film writ large. Every detail of the place practically hums with dark menace and dread. From meat hooks in the kitchen to the broken windows throughout, it seems like it was built to scare. (After seeing the film, it is hard to imagine anybody actually being treated in the place.) Danvers takes a fair film and makes it a great one.

I really dug Session 9 and, using the highly experimental Commonwealth of Virginia Area Codes Film Ranking System, I’m giving it solid 703.