Monday, November 26, 2007

Books: Missing around.

Et tu, Langan? A zombie story? Is that what we've come to?


Regular readers might remember my gushing review of The Keeper, the debut novel of Sarah Langan. That novel told the tale of the ghost of Susan Marley and the grim fate of Bedford, the blue-collar Maine village that ends up on the business end of her spectral wrath. Langan's ability to intertwine working class desperation with lyrical Gothicism made that first novel one of AANTS' best reads last year.

For her second book, a sequel of sorts to The Keeper, Langan returns to the darkened woods of Maine. This time, the story takes place in Corpus Christi, the affluent hamlet neighboring the now mostly abandoned Bedford. While Bedford's fortunes declined with the retreat of industry, Corpus Christi's hospital became one of the nation's foremost cancer research centers. The influx of grant money and affluent doctors kept Corpus Christi yuppie while Bedford rotted. Before the action begins proper, we learn that the events of The Keeper have turned Bedford into a ghost town. Nobody outside Bedford knows about the sinister events surrounding the death and unlife of Susan Marley, but the lingering environmental fallout of the chemical fire that closed The Keeper is enough to keep most folks away.

Into the ghost town goes a class of school children on a fieldtrip. Seriously. The school approved a field trip into what would rank as America's most famous superfund site. One of the boys on the trip uncovers the remains of some of the Bedford incident's victims. He's quickly infected with a bizarre disease that slowly begins changing him and those he comes into contact with into ravenous cannibals.

It's basically your standard zombie holocaust scenario.

That's not to say that Langan phones the story in. In an unusual twist, the infected aren't utterly mindless. They can talk and communicate with one another. The disease organizes them into a hive-like system with one zombie queen at the top. They can plan and practice deception. And, strangely, they seem capable of limited telepathy. There's also intimations that the virus is an ancient intelligence that's been hunting humans for centuries. Still, despite these innovations, mostly what the infected do is roam the town of Corpus Christi looking for people-meat to chew on.

Despite the reliance on the now relentlessly over-flogged zombie story and its clichés, Langan grew more ambitious with this book. The cast of characters seems larger, but Langan manages her efficient characterizations without losing the focus of the plot or relying heavily on stock characters. Her plot rolls along at a greater clip; Langan trades in the Gothic slow burn for something more like the ever tightening downward spiral of an action/horror tale.

These developments act as much needed counterbalances to the tiredness of the central zombie concept. They also help the reader ignore the confusion that comes from the massive retcon that must be done to shoehorn the Marley ghost story into the new zombie virus framework. Marley wasn't a ghost? She was a psychic zombie? Then why didn't she act like it? Oh well. I think both books would have been better served if they'd just been treated as separate stories.

The Missing isn't a bad book. If you've already read The Keeper and want more of Langan's literate and smart horror, then this is a worthy follow up. If you haven't read The Keeper yet, that's really the place you'll want to start.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Movies: The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Hello, Screamers and Screamettes, welcome to a special edition of this humble horror blog. Today we cover three – count 'em: one, two, three – horror flicks in one entry. Within a single entry, your headstrong horror host will try to cover the 1980 creature feature B-flick classic Alligator, the Masters of Horror episode "Homecoming," and Jess Franco's Dracula.

We've discussed somewhat peripherally the idea that some cats botch their perfectly serviceable horror flick ideas by loading so high with ideological baggage that the flick collapses under the weight. The first two flicks on the docket today are perfect case studies in the do's and don’ts of adding political commentary to your horror flicks.

Alligator is – truth in advertising – about a big ol' gator. But, instead of sitting around in some swamp, gobbling up small mammals and harassing retirees, this ambitious descendant of the dinosaurs terrorizes a city. The plot riffs off the classic urban legend: A pet alligator gets flushed down the toilet and takes up residence in the sewers. This would be fun enough, but a local chemical research firm sweetens the pot by dumping the corpses of illegally-obtained and growth-hormone besotted test animals down the drink. These become gator chow and, after a couple decades of such treatment, we've got an angry gator the size of a car. After a local reporter definitively proves the existence of the giant lizard, the police swarm the sewers to exterminate the beast. Fortunately for viewers, this just flushes the beast up into the city where wacky high-jinks ensue.

Now, admittedly, there's a lot horror fans could dismiss about Alligator: the goofy plot, the no longer all that special effects, and the unfortunate efforts the filmmakers made at representing African American street culture. These elements haven't aged all that well. But, I say that people who can't look past that stuff just hate life and joy and I'm glad – GLAD, I sez – that the pleasures of such top quality cinema-cheese are lost on them. Seriously. Alligator is a freakin' hoot. The script, which is much better than it needed to be, was one of the earlier efforts from later indie icon John Sayles. Lewis Teague, who helmed the pic, is one of those sadly underused bastards who just never got the chance to direct real flicks. He learned his craft as the second unit director for The Big Red One, a production manager on the Woodstock documentary, and as editor on Monte Hellman's Cockfighter. Together Sayles and Teague manage a narrative efficiency and flashes of ruthlessness that echo the (superior) Jaws. An excellent performance by Robert Forster (speaking of sadly underused bastards) as the cop who knows the truth, but gets hushed up by the powerful interests pulling the department's strings, is the cherry on top. Dean Jagger also turns in a wonderful performance as Slade, the "great white hunter" character who comes to the city to hunt the out-sized reptile.

Now, as to the political content of Alligator, Sayles' script manages to get clever little ideological digs in without letting any of them overwhelm the central issue of the film: the fact that a big, hungry gator is stomping its way through the city. We get to see how corporate interests influence the politics of the city, we get some scenes which reflect the racial tensions in the city, and we get a strong environmental message. The film is at its most political in the depiction of how the police react to the gator. After an initial embarrassing show of force, they "play by the book" and make showy, but ineffective, efforts (such as hiring Slade, a more violent version of the late Steve Irwin). So long as the gator is chewing its way through the ghettos, the cops don't sweat it too much. Once it starts eating its way through the white suburbs, people start taking it seriously. Finally, when it threatens the mansions outside town, the cops have no problem throwing out the rulebook and trying anything at their disposal. What's great about Alligator is that all this is thoroughly integrated into the plot without some character, standing in for the conscience of the filmmakers, patting themselves on the back over its inclusion. We understand how ingrained these issues are by watching them play out. We never get a speech in which somebody bemoans that fact that our own environmental negligence has caused this crisis. We never get the hero cop lecturing viewers on how institutional racism has made the gator problem worse. The political content is, in the advice of writing classes everywhere, shown and not told. We don't get a lecture on the ills of the modern city; we just see those ills.

In almost perfect contrast, "Homecoming" is a political lecture thinly disguised a zombie flick. Helmed by Joe "Gremlins" Dante, this episode of the Masters of Horror is the weakest of the series I've seen so far. The plot is about as satisfying as a pundit's talking points. Mired in a war overseas – a war launched on with the justification of non-existent WMDs, natch – the President (clearly Bush) makes a public statement to the effect that he wishes the soldiers who have died in the war could come back so they could express how deeply they believed in the cause they died for. Soon thereafter, dead vets start digging themselves out of graves in order to vote against the simulacrum Bush. Along they way we get a faux-Rove and a not-a-Coulter (interestingly, we get no analogs to Powell or Rice, two of the most important players in the lead up to the Iraq War – one wonders if the filmmakers hesitated to create African American villains out of fear of offending the PC sensibilities of fellow travelers). Lest we miss the too-naked political content, we even get a helpful first person narration that explains things like "We'd said we’d count their votes and we hadn't" and "Our lives are precious." To steal a phrase from Raymond Chandler, the whole flick's about "as subtle as a tarantula on a wedding cake." The film feels like some sort of bizarre loyalty oath for modern liberals: a lopsided with-us-or-against-us history of the contemporary political scene as written by the gents who used to crank out EC's horror comics. It isn't enough to believe the current administration is dishonest (which it is), but the flick needs you to believe that it would kidnap and torture Cindy Sheenan into supporting the war (which they obviously didn't). In his brilliant essay "Paul, Horror Comics, and Doctor Wertham," Robert Warshow brilliantly described the cartoonishly simple-minded morality of this thinking:

The assumption that human beings will always follow out the logic of their characters to the limit is one of the worst elements in comic books, and is pretty widespread in them. If a man is a burglar, he will not hesitate to commit murder; and if he is going to commit murder, he is often likely to think of boiling his victim in oil as of shooting him.

Warshow mentions how poachers illegally trapping beaver in the Mark Trail radio serial would unhesitatingly shoot any game wardens they came across, as if the moral flexibility that made one hunt game off season would also, obviously, mean you were cool with capping officers of the law. Often we're smart enough to recognize the stupidity of this moral logic. When an old "educational film" suggests that the first puff of a joint inevitably leads to a life of prostitution and a death in the gutter, we call it camp. When, however, the Village Voice sees the same level of thinking in "Homecoming," it declares the flick "one of the most important political films of the era." What was good enough for the narrative logic of Mark Trail comics is now good enough for political rhetoric. What's remarkable about Bush is not his stupidity, but how he's made all of his critics stoop down to his level.

Alligator is a fun horror movie with a clever social consciousness that elevates the project rather than swamps it. "Homecoming" is an embarrassing indicator of how much the modern left has lost by capitulating to a organized disingenuousness that replaces engaged moral and intellectual effort with a vulgar irony that auto-excuses our own lack of commitment to our ideals. The former is today's good; the latter is today's bad.

Today's ugly is Jess Franco's Dracula. In a misguided bid for credibility, Franco shot a straitlaced version of the famed Stoker novel, eschewing his trademarked sleaze while failing to improve on his lackluster visual style or his lazy grasp of filmmaking basics. Imagine a porno flick that's got all the actual sex cut out of it and you'll have a good idea of what watching Franco's film is like. Let's never ever discuss this movie again.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Books: The road less traveled.

John Maberry is a curious cat.

He's an inductee into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame – an institution I'd wager most folks didn't even imagine existed. In 2003 Maberry joined such luminaries as Toshiro Mifune, Sonny Chiba, Bruce Lee, Steven Segal, and Jackie Chan in the Hall on the strength of his numerous martial arts guides, a program he runs teaching cops self-defense techniques, and – no fooling – his creation of a self-defense program for handicapped folks, including a program for the blind and one for people in wheelchairs. Seriously. It's called "Steel Wheels."

If that wasn't enough, Maberry is also the founder of an online literary magazine called The Wild River Review and he helps run a writing center called Career Doctor for Writers. He's qualified to give advice, seeing as he's got 900 article, two plays, several songs, and sixteen non-fiction books under his belt.

All this feeds into his paying gig as a motivational speaker.

But wait, there's more. He's written extensively about supernatural folklore and, in 2006, he wrote his first horror novel and it won the Stoker Award for Best First Novel. It was also nominated for Best Novel, but not even Maberry can win all the time.

Basically, Maberry is a freakin' overachiever and he'd be easy to hate. Only problem is, Ghost Road Blues, the aforementioned award winning novel, is an excellent book that deserved the praise heaped upon it.

Almost makes it worse, don't it?

Ghost Road Blues is the opening book of a trilogy of grand-scale horror novels set in the fictional Pennsylvania town of Pine Deep. Pine Deep is a mostly rural hamlet with a thriving historic downtown area full of artsy shops aimed at snagging tourist dollars. Many moons ago, a sinister serial killer stalked Pine Deep. A mob of angry townsfolk lynched the killer and, as time has gone on, Pine Deep has embraced the grand lessons of capitalism and turned their bloody past into thriving Halloween-centric tourism industry. The town markets itself as "The Spookiest Town in America."

Only problem is that horror fiction relishes irony and a civic development plan based on something so clearly sinister is bound to bite you in the ass.

Pine Deep's homegrown serial killer isn't dead. The man the angry citizens lynched was the wrong man: a local blues musician who, in fact, had just struggled with the real murderer and had left him for dead. Now both the serial killer – an evil creature that seems to simply wear the guise of a human – and the ghost of the wrongly executed man are going to duke it out again. And right during tourist season, when the potential chaos and body count will be at their highest levels. Into this mix, add a trio of drugged up and homicidal bank robbers who crash in Pine Deep in an effort to escape a drug deal gone amuck. Season with a mayor who sees visions of dead relatives. Stir in a fundamentalist Christian garage worker who has decided that he's the Sword of God – which means blood will be spilled. Arrange against this plague of evils a police force straight out of The Andy Griffith Show. Finally, garnish with too-smart crows, ghost deer, and a sinister living scarecrow animated by the legions of insects that dwell within him. Good times.

GRB is a classic, post-King American horror epic. That means you get otherworldly forces, a semi-rural setting, and multiple interwoven plotlines that blend supernatural scares with the banal evil of dysfunctional families and small town injustices. A thumbnail sketch makes it sound like a same-old, same-old exercise in horror lit, but that doesn't take into account Maberry's writing. Maberry keeps everything snapping along. The descriptions are well-observed, the characters do exactly what's needed of them, and the plot hums. The horror and gore are expertly controlled: you get just enough to scare without tipping over into bloody absurdity. My wife, curious about what was in these horror paperbacks I bring home, read the first few chapters involving a scare that, as the plot moves along, turns out to be a false alarm. She later said to me, "If that's the fake scare, I don't want to know about the real one."

If I've got any caveat to give, it's that Ghost Road Blues is not really a stand-alone book. It has a narrative arc all its own, but it is clearly ends on the assumption that you'll stick around for the next two installments. The second novel, Dead Man's Song, is already out and the third book, Bad Moon Rising, is due out mid-2008. If you don't want to be in for a pound, then don't start. Personally, I think the pound's worth it.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Movies: I came, I saw, I kinda wanted my money back.

Recently, I was brought into a blog discussion as the local authority on the aesthetics and morality of torture porn. It was a bit of miscasting, really, as I'm not that much of a defender of it, but that's neither here nor there. The point of this was the question that kicked of this virtual hubbub was the news that, on its opening weekend, Saw IV snagged the top spot in the ranking of that weekend's ticket sales. The question was something like "What possesses some many people to see such a sick flick?"

I propose that a more appropriate question would be "What possessed so many people to see such a mediocre flick?"

In my review of Saw III I erroneously announced that I had seen the last film in the dwindling Saw franchise. I sincerely wish I had been correct.

The new latest edition to the Saw franchise is superior to the third flick, but that gets you awfully little. The traps take a set back from the Bond-villain grade devices that appeared in the third installment, with a single truly super-villain style device involving being perched on a block of melting ice while two other blocks of ice threaten to swing down and squish the victim's head.

What's actually weird about the Saw franchise is, against the grain of most horror franchises, the move has been towards increasing narrative complexity and a deepening of the backstory an relationships surrounding Jigsaw, the series now dead star who, through the miracle of nested flashbacks, gets plenty of screen-time. This is less promising than it sounds. When he was reviewing the first Saw flick, Roger Ebert mocked Jigsaw as another one of those bizarre and needlessly complex serial killers who invent overly fussy ways of offing folks main so the plots can drag on. Where's the motivation to do all this work? I have no idea if the men behind the saw franchise read that review, but they've basically reacted to in every subsequent flick by adding on yet another motive for Jigsaw to do what he does. In the first flick he did what he does 'cause he's dying and he's got a big ol' brain tumor that is probably scrambling his regular thoughts. Basically, he's not got long to live and he's batshit crazy so he concocts this bizarre religion around subjecting folks to life and death decisions. In the second flick, this nebulous religion got reified so that we get rules and disciples. The theory here being that adding more crazies to a delusion makes it a religion. In the third film we actually added a whole new reason for Jigsaw to be Jigsaw. See, before he got a tumor, he was in a car wreck that nearly killed him. At the moment, he had this epiphany. His traps are meant to recreate that transcendent moment for the suckers he traps. So, the brain tumor's out. That's just crap that came later. Car wreck, that's the new reason. Plus, in the third flick, what was a vague religion gets so codified that we can actually have an ideological split between Jigsaw and one of his disciples (astute readers just caught the feeble hook on which the plot of S4 hangs – there's more than one Junior Jigsaw). Finally, in S4, we get yet another reason for Jigsaw to be Jigsaw. In this flick we learn that Jigsaw's ex-wife was a social worker at a drug clinic. When she was preggers, one of the junkies she was trying to help robbed the place. She was injured and had a miscarriage. In the hospital, she is drowning in doubt. "I just wanted to help them," she says.

Jigsaw says something like, "You can't save people. They must save themselves."

So, here we have yet another motive – revenge – and a weird reworking of the pseudo-religion of the early Jiggy into something like a serial killer version of mainline libertarianism. In this flick he actually puts a cop through all varieties of hell to "prove" to the cop that he can't save everybody. One assumes that firemen are next, followed by ambulance drivers, then people from child services. Perhaps EPA guys after that. Since we're on the topic, the arc of the flicks has been to make him less crazy and transform him into a gory libertarian superhero. The alpha victims in the first flick were a doctor who was cheating on his wife because he'd lost the zest for life and a private eye who was a semi-creep. Jigsaw's treatment of them was entirely out of proportion. It was the work of crazy man. The victims in this installment include a violent junkie who injured a preggers woman, a serial rapist, a child abuser, a woman who we're told "will go to jail," and a lawyer who defends what we're supposed to feel is scum (Hollywood, for all the use they've gotten out of lawyers, seems feel that not everybody deserves the best legal defense available).


We've already spent too much time talking about it. With its Thousand and One Nights worthy flashback-in-a-flashback-in-a-flashback structure, its slick production values, and its incessant need to heap on needless complexities, no horror franchise has ever worked so very hard to achieve so little. In fact, in that way, the filmmakers resemble their star mass murderer. With his Rube Goldberg inventions meant to teach us that we shouldn't try to teach people stuff, Jigsaw is self-defeating. The filmmakers are in the same boat. They harder they work at this thing, the less it means.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Movies: April might be pretty cruel, but it never chopped up its lovers and made a big freakin' doll out of their parts. Right?

Lucky McKee's debut feature film, the 2002 film May, is a fine addition to the long tradition of revenge-horror flicks.

Unbalanced underdog revenge is one of the more prominent themes in horror cinema. In the alternate universe of horror movies, it makes complete sense that, for example, being taunted and bullied as a kid would make you, later in life, an axe-wielding madman who got your kicks by turning nubile camp counselors into cutlets. Though a host of contemporary characters spring to mind (Carrie, Jason, Crowley from Hatchet, the melty-faced guy from The Burning, and so on), it is a remarkably old pattern. The Golem, one of silent film's landmarks of horror, follows the same pattern. You start with an underdog group (in this case, we've got an entire ghetto of Jewish residents instead of your mutant kid or awkward teenage girl), give them a means for revenge, and then let the revenge get out of hand.

From a filmmaking perspective, this theme does double duty: it gets you a motive for your villain and it's a clever bait and switch that suckers viewers into sympathizing with a character, thus pulling them into your flick.

It's a smart little way to exploit of our innate ethical sense of reciprocity. Some evolutionary biologists have suggested that a handful of hardwired prejudices are at the root of all moral codes. One of these inherent concepts is reciprocity: we expect people treated nicely to behave nicely and people treated poorly to behave poorly. We such behavior sensible and, regardless of the consequences, there's something comfortable in the word making sense. That is, of course, until the mechanics described in part one final start to disgust us. Horror films can exploit our perhaps ingrained sense of reciprocity by pushing it too and absurd and crazy level. By some weird quirk of film watching psychology, events viewed on the silver screen often seem to happen outside any framework of ethical scale. It doesn't make any sense, really, that Jason's mom would decide to arbitrarily show up and slaughter a random group of counselors because, years and years ago, a different group of counselors negligently allowed her boy drown. Why the wait? Why kill other counselors? But, in a film context, we somehow accept that blood demands blood and we accept the notion that it is a sort of permanent rupture – once there's a dead person, all the rules that would limit your response are off. The rupture is, in horror films, the essence of "crazy." Ironically, in action films, it's often not a sign of being crazy, but of holding a monopoly on appropriate violence because you're "justified." Imagine a world in which every kidnapping elicited an institutional response similar to what we accept as appropriate in Commando. In genre films, "crazy" and "righteous" function in pretty much the same way, the key difference seems to be in their selection of targets. What horror films do it find the limit of the mediated moral flexibility, showing how far we can let moral frameworks slide and remain in our comfort zone.

(As an aside, I suspect that the moral flexibility of cinema is a trait of all media, regardless of content. We often talk about content influences on the genre. One popular theory has it that Halloween is the product of news coverage of 'Nam – the latter making the violence of the former a possibility. What if, instead, the capacity to stomach violence and accept its extreme depiction wasn't a matter of content exposure, but something allowed by the medium itself. That is to say, what is the very fact of mediation changes what we will and will not accept as tolerable. We'll happily watch something on a screen that we wouldn't watch with our naked eye, regardless of what it happens to be. If this is true, what does horror cinema tell us about our reactions to, say, the news and what implications would it have for how we ethically evaluate political leaders? I don't have any theories on that. I just bring it up as something worth thinking about.)

May is a classic revenger's tale. The titular character, an awkward woman who had a lonely and psychologically traumatic (though, honestly, not that psychologically traumatic) childhood, finds herself suddenly involved with two lovers. The first is a garage mechanic who, in his off-time, is a would-be horror film maker. The second is a none-to-bright predatory lipstick lesbian who works with May at an animal clinic. These erotic connections start to bring May out of her shell, leading her to volunteer time at a daycare for handicapped kids and to adopt a cat. But, since this is a horror flick, it isn't long before May gets her fragile sense of self completely shattered. Neither affair ends well, the kiddie thing goes disturbingly South, and she ends up braining the cat (perhaps by accident). This all pushes May into a short and bloody downward spiral. Out come the shears and scalpels, off comes the body parts or friends and acquaintances, and everything comes to an appropriately nasty climax - culminating in May stitching together a human sized doll out of the parts of her victims. It all gets tied up with a curiously downbeat and almost gentle conclusion which would seem almost anti-climactic if it wasn't so appropriate.

McKee's direction is assured and he beings a low-key naturalistic feel to much of the movie. In fact, he's so good at making his weird story feel accidental and natural that it sometimes feels like you're watching an off-kilter slacker flick – Edgar Allan Poe's Reality Bites. Though McKee's more acidic view of the people who populate his world is considerably less self-serving then gently ironic flicks of Generation X's awkward twenties. This isn't to say that there aren't some efforts as visual lyricism. In this case, we get flowing scraps of fabric whenever May's at her sewing machine. These scenes are not embarrassing, but they're less compelling than when McKee and Co. are out on the streets, among the full mess of everyday life.

He and his production crew are also great at capturing the telling details of his characters' lives. After we watch a truly goofy black and white short film "created" by May male love interest, the film-within-a-film rolls credits and we see that the character has credited himself in Italian, as if he was an Argento.

Finally, the film hinges on a wonderful performance by Angela Bettis, who has to carry most of the flick. Bettis, who is really too good looking to convince us that May would live in isolation, manages to give us a character who is sad and painfully awkward, while never letting us forget that something really nasty is building up within May. The truly horrific stuff in May doesn't shake until the last half hour or so, and it is a testament to Bettis's chops as an actress that the lead-up never seems to drag.

May is not a by-the-numbers horror flick. Most of the films is a slow burn character study of a figure who wobbles on the line between sympathy and repulsion. In that, it reminds me of Romero's excellent Martin (another M name title – hmmmm – a pattern perhaps?).

Monday, November 05, 2007

Comics: One if by land, two if by werewolf.

As regular readers of ANTSS know, yours truly has got a serious soft-spot for that most wonderful of horror genres: the mash-up. Tell me you've got a movie about a zombie outbreak, and I may give it a look if I'm not otherwise engaged. Tell that your movie take place in the 1800s and features zombie cowboys fighting zombie Indians, and you've got my attention. Tell me that the zombie outbreak was caused by the mad experiments of an in-exile Dr. Frankenstein and it is up to Billy the Kid and the Wolf Man to save the day- well, then, amigo, I'll be there.

Today's mash-up de jour is Revere: Revolution in Silver. This four-issue mini is now available in a high-quality hardback collection by Archaia Studios Press. Archaia has been responsible or some of the more interesting titles on the fringe of the caped-do-gooder besotted comic biz. They brought out Lone and Level Sands, a graphic novel that retold the story of Exodus from the point of view of Pharaoh. They're also the cat who published the strangest breakout title in recent memory: Mouse Guard.

Revere continues Archaia's tradition of putting out high-quality stuff that avoids treading the same ol' masked superduper hero territory. The debut series for both writer Ed Lavallee and artist Bond, Grant Bond, Revere takes the opening days of the American Revolution and filters them through a horror/action lens. Set in Ye Olde Colonial America, the titular hero is none other than the Paul Revere of the famous midnight ride. Only, in this alternate reality, Revere belongs to a secretive society of adventurers called the Order of the Silver Star. Apparently, beginning with the mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke Colony, there's been a curse on the colonies. The members of the Order are dedicated to fighting this supernatural evil. Think of them as the 18th century predecessor to Hellboy's BPRD.

As the story begins, Revere is frantically hunting down a pack of ravenous werewolves responsible for a hundred or so victims throughout the Massachusetts colony. Because werewolf hunts are one of those human endeavors that just seems to attract complications, Revere's work gets derailed when he finds himself swept up into the opening battles of the American Revolution. More trouble comes on black wings when one of the revolutionaries, the Reverend Tobias Hodge of Old North Church, is suddenly and inexplicably beset by a flock of bloodthirsty Harpy-like creatures.

The plot of Revere is a bit overpaked. Lavallee has to juggle redcoats, werewolves, revolutionaries, the Battle of Lexington, swarms of harpies, and the characterizations of a cast of eight significant characters and dozens of bit parts. He also manages to weave in historical allusions and excerpts from the writings of Longfellow, Emerson, and Poe. And all this in just four issues! This isn't to say that Lavallee does a bad job. In fact, I think he does a swell job. The crux of the problem is that the job is simply bigger than four issues.

Bond's art is also pushed to its limits. It seems some times that a sort of photo-reference driven hyperrealism is slowly taking over the comic world. It is good to see artists like Bond still working in a cartooning medium and working it all so effectively. Bonds characters are vivid, his splash pages (especially the one depicting the "shot heard round the world") are exciting, and his werewolves are excellent. Seriously: Bond's werewolves are these enormous, bristling, pissed off things the size of bears with mouths like blood-spattered steel traps. These are werewolves that could well tear their way through entire colonies! The colors are moody and somber. Without the restraint the coloring provides the action and violence would seem almost-too cartoony. The mist-shrouded backgrounds occasionally make everything feel a bit muddy and confused, but overall the effect is suitably grim.

For a first-time outing, Revere is a strong debut. A one-page add in the back promises a second series: Revere: Salem's Plot (a pun on King's Salem's Lot perhaps). I, for one, am looking forward to it.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Movies: It's my party and I'll cry if I want to.

After watching and loving CasaNegra's fabulous edition of the Mexican horror classic The Witch's Mirror (El espejo de las bruja), I went off in search of some of the other South of the Boarder horror gems presented by the company. I quickly found CasaNegra's first release, a 1961 Mexican horror flick called The Curse of the Crying Woman (La maldición de la llorona).

First, a bit about the legend of the La Llorona . . .

The ghostly La Llorona, "The Crying Woman," is to many children of Spanish-speaking North and America what the spectral Bloody Mary is to English-speaking Anglo youngsters. Just as Bloody Mary's backstory changes from region to region (I heard it had something to do with the Titanic), the tale of La Llorona varies depending on where you hear it. The key elements, however, remain fairly stable: a mother, dead children, and a restless spirit. In Mexico and New Mexico, the story of La Llorona centers around a young woman, seduced and abandoned by a local man who left her with several children. La Llorona then killed her offspring, either to spare them a life of poverty or to free herself to marry another man or to wound the man who left her. In some sections of Texas, the legend specifies that La Llorona was a Native American woman and that her fate was God's punishment for killing her children. In some variants, La Llorona doesn't kill her children but rather dies in a failed attempt to stop her brutal husband or father from killing the children. In at least on variant, La Llorona's children are the victims of a natural disaster. Regardless of how La Llorona's children end up dead, the result is always the same: La Llorona's ghost ends up roaming the Earth, wailing and calling out for her dead children. In the cities of Southern California, the banshee-like specter travels the flood control channels. In Las Cruces and El Paso, La Llorona haunts the banks of the Rio Grande.

In Guatemala, the ghost's wail gives the name of her dead child: Juan de la Cruz. Also, in a truly weird and unique detail, La Llorona's wail reverses the normal relationship of space and sound. If she sounds close, she's actually far away. If you can barely make out her cries, then she's right next to you. (Potentially cool sound trick – would-be makers of La Llorona films take note.)

The children of Honduras know the same ghost by the name La Ciguanaba, "The Dirty One." A more sinister variant of the traditional La Llorona tale, The Dirty One drowns other people's children (notably school children) and her cry translates to something like, "Drink from my breast because I am your mother." In Peru, she haunts the tourist-clogged beaches. In Panama, she's called "La Tulivieja" and haunts the banks of rivers.

Got all that? Good. Now forget it.

Despite the fact that "The Crying Woman" is nearly the national spook of many Central and South American countries, the The Curse of the Crying Woman seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the legend. Which is weird. It is kinda like a director making a superhero movie called Superman, only, you know, not THAT Superman.

That strange quirk aside, The Curse of the Crying Woman is an excellent "old dark house" style horror flick that CasaNegra can count as another feather in their cap. A pleasingly overstuffed tale of murder, witchcraft, and madness, the flick has a stylish and classy look that brings to mind the golden age of Universal horror.

The Curse begins with a strange "false" start in which the Crying Woman, a witch with black cavities for eyes, and her malformed henchman dispatch a carriage full of travelers that are passing near her mansion. And I do mean dispatch: a thrown knife, a pack of man-eating attack dogs, and one woman-crushing carriage wheel make quick work of these filler folks. It operates much the way the opening scenes of the Scream films did. By ripping through a trio of disposable characters right away, the movie sets the bar for the craziness to come. After that initial scene, we settle into the real story, involving a young woman who is coming home to visit her aunt after an absence of many years. During these years, many things have changed. The young woman has gotten herself a hubby – who comes along for the visit. The aunt, for her part, started worshipping the dark spirit of an evil witch whose corpse she found in a chamber underneath her mansion. She's also trapped her horribly mutilated husband up in the tower of her home and has taken up random homicide as a hobby. What, you want her to wither up and die just because the children have finally left home?

In a display of dramatic unity that would please Aristotle, the rest of the movie spools out over the course of a single evening. The aunt tries to convert our heroine to witch worship, the hunchback servant attempts to kill the husband, the mutated uncle breaks loose and goes on a rampage, at one point police officers show up and face off against the aunt's pack of killer hounds, and eventually the house begins to literally break apart. All in one night! That’s narrative efficiency for you.

The visual effects, if somewhat dated, are still enjoyable. The direction, by Rafael Baledón, is effective, but not showy (in contrast to the pull-all-the-stops approach of Urueta in The Witch's Mirror). The acting, with the exception of the husband who's a bit wooden, is suitably over-the-top and dramatic. Curse is well worth the time of any horror fan who wonders where the melodramatic aesthetic of classic horror went. Apparently, it went south.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Movies: 29 days of night.

Over at Comic Book Resource blog Comics Should Be Good they run a regular feature on rumors, urban legends, and lingering questions regarding comics and the comic biz. Recently, they had a curious bit about the history of the recently adapted vampire mini-series 30 Days of Night.

From Comics Should Be Good:

URBAN LEGEND: 30 Days of Night was a movie pitch BEFORE it was a comic book series.


The success of Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith’s 30 Days of Night comic was an influential event in comic book history, as the series demonstrated to many others the value of having a comic book to use to make a movie pitch. Soon, a great deal of independent publishers began to look at comic pitches as basically, “Could this be optioned for a film?”

Reader Kris N., though wrote in last week to ask, “Is it true that 30 Days of Night was a movie screenplay before it was a comic?”

And the answer, interestingly enough, is basically yes.

I say basically only because it was not actually a screenplay, but the development from comics to film for 30 Days of Night did, in fact, begin in the realm of film.

I think Steve Niles can tell the story better than I can, so here he is, courtesy of an excellent article by Scott Collura and Eric Moro over at

“I pitched it as a movie for two or three years,” recalls Niles, who prior to 30 Days has been best known for his work in the comics industry. “I pitched it to just blank faces. And they’d say, ‘It sounds like Buffy, it sounds like Buffy.’ And honestly I had just about given up.”

Following the rejection of the 30 Days pitch, Niles continued to focus his energies on his comics work, writing various books for Todd McFarlane including Spawn: The Dark Ages and Hellspawn. It was on the latter comic that he first worked with Ben Templesmith, a first-time artist who would go on to partner with Niles on the 30 Days comic.

“It was just one of those weird things,” says the scribe. “Ted Adams from IDW called and said, ‘We want to do some comics. We can’t pay, there’s no money, but you can do whatever you want.’ So I just pulled out a sheet of my pitch list and said, ‘Here’s pitches that nobody ever bought.’ And he was like, ‘This vampire in Alaska thing looks kind of cool!’ Ben liked it, IDW wanted to do it, so we just did it and didn’t get paid a dime. And the day the ad for the first issue hit, we started getting calls from every studio, every producer, even people I had pitched before. People to this day deny that they rejected it, and I love it! Even one of the producers on the movie had originally rejected it.”