Sunday, October 04, 2015
6WH: Week 3 - Frank Henenlotter
The "Obscure Horror Auteurs" theme continues with the grossest auteur yet, Frank Henenlotter. With his trademark combination of shameless bad taste and an almost complete lack of self-restraint, Henenlotter made quite a name for himself in the 80s and early 90s, after which he became involved with Something Weird Video
, a film distributer specializing in rescuing obscure exploitation films (most notably the gory films of Herschell Gordon Lewis). He made a brief return in 2008, but has essentially remained silent since the early 90s. In terms of what he goes for, it's, uh, difficult to really encapsulate. His movies are generally set in pre-Giuliani New York, they go for sleazy melodrama, often touching on the intersection of sex and gore, and they are, of course, very low budget. I can't say as though I love his aesthetic, but it's sometimes fun to spend some time in the gutter, you know?
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VII: The Thing and I
- Horror Movie Daycare (short)
- The X-Files: Humbug
- Basket Case - As mentioned above, Henenlotter is all about the seedy New York city before it was cleaned up in the 90s, and this movie revels in that setting. A naive young man named Duane Bradley arrives in town with a wad of cash and a locked wicker basket, quickly taking up residence at the Hotel Breslin. You see, Duane was once part of a Siamese twin that was separated against his will. Now he's reunited with his deformed brother Belial (who lives in the titular basket) to take revenge upon the doctors who so rudely performed the operation. Along the way, Duane meets a woman who, er, comes between him and Belial.
This is clearly pretty silly stuff, but while there is some sense of perverse humor here, Henenlotter is mostly playing it straight. The other folks at the hotel are colorful, Belial's an amusing little monster, and Duane is weirdly, like, under-the-top naive. It's one of those so bad it's good kinda things here, which is good because it doesn't really work without that added level of ironic detachment. You really just have to go with the flow on this one. Looking for meaning in these films is probably a fool's errand, but hey, separation anxiety is a thing, so let's go with that. The ending gets to be a little on the ridiculous side and one character is unnecessarily dispatched (rumor has it that Henenlotter's crew walked out on him before filming that scene), which leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth, but then, I'm pretty sure that's what Henenlotter's going for. All that being said, this is the "tame one" of his films, so if this is too much for you, you might not want to explore more of his work. I find it impossible to rate these movies, so I'll just use question marks instead of stars: ??
- Shivers (trailer)
- Slither (trailer)
- Bad Milo (trailer)
- Brain Damage - This is probably the Platonic ideal of a Henenlotter movie. It's all here, sleazy melodrama, gross sex metaphors, perverse dark humor, psychadelic drugs, disturbing gore... This movie has it all, and while I wouldn't say restraint was involved, the elements are kinda proportional here. Brian is just your typical guy with a girlfriend and a roommate... until he unexpectedly encounters a smooth-talking, brain-eating, slug-like parasite named Aylmer.
Aylmer injects a highly addictive blue hallucinogen directly into the brain in order to control Brian, who takes Aylmer out to find unwitting victims. It's an incredibly gross movie, featuring another infamous scene in which Henenlotter's crew walked out on him (this one much more taboo than the previous instance, I must say), but there's something at the heart of this movie that kinda clicks. As mentioned above, looking for thematic heft is probably a bad idea, but this is probably a better anti-drug movie than anything kids are likely to see at school. While the budget is still microscopic, this one actually looks pretty good, with some decent shots and not wholly incompetent acting (I mean, it didn't win any Oscars, but it's a big improvement over Basket Case). The voice of Aylmer, played by famed television horror host John Zacherle, is utterly brilliant, and it's a testament to the performance that his generally evil actions don't seem to matter much. We're even treated to a quick history of Aylmer, who seems to have originated in the Fourth Crusade (though it's implied he was a lot older than that) and passed from host to host.
The ending goes to some batshit insane places (including, once again, the death of our protagonist's girlfriend - one wonders about this recurrent motif in Henenlotter's work), but the final shot is actually pretty fantastic, even if I have no idea what the hell is going on. ????
- Bride of Frankenstein (trailer)
- Frankenstein's Fiancee (Robot Chicken)
- Frankenweenie (trailer)
- Frankenhooker - Yeah, so you know pretty much exactly what you're in for just from the title alone. A mad scientist's girlfriend dies in a freak lawnmower accident, so he seeks to bring her back. The only problem is that the lawnmower did a number on her body, so he'll need to find some more viable parts to rebuild her... but he only has a short time to put all this together, so where's he going to get the parts? Yep, let's take a trip to New York and pick up some hookers. A pretty despicable premise actually, but Henenlotter's in on it this time, and the ironic ending of the film puts a nice cap on it (even if it probably doesn't actually make up for what came before). Not as balanced or gross as Brain Damage, this one leans pretty heavily on the comedic side of things. There are actually a lot of great lines here, and our mad scientist's plan to lure crack-addicted hookers to him with his "supercrack" is inspired lunacy (if, again, totally disgusting). Here's an example of some dialog:
Jeffreys Mother: Oh Jeffrey! I'm worried about you.
And another, from the news broadcaster describing the girlfriend's demise:
Jeffrey Franken: Yeah, well so am I, Ma. Something is happening to me that I just don't understand. I can't think straight anymore. Like my reasoning is all twisted and distorted, you know? I seem to be disassociating myself from reality more and more each day. I'm antisocial and becoming dangerously amoral. I've lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad. I'm scared, Ma. I mean I feel like I'm plunging headfirst into some kind of black void of sheer, utter madness.
Jeffreys Mother: You want a sandwich?
In a blaze of blood, bones, and body parts, the vivacious young girl was instantly reduced to a tossed human salad... a salad that police are still trying to gather up... a salad that was once named Elizabeth.
So yes, lots of absurdist dark humor and even one-liners here. What initially seems like a deeply misogynistic is at least somewhat mitigated by the ending, if not completely. Like I said above, looking for meaning here is probably not wise. It's fun batshit insanity, but yikes. ???
Well that was fun? Lets, uh, take a break from this whole Obscure Horror Auteurs thing and maybe go a little more lighthearted next week, shall we? I've got plans for some horror dummies and comedies, and perhaps even a currently playing post in the works. Stay tuned!
Sunday, September 27, 2015
6WH: Week 2 - Larry Cohen
Continuing with the theme of "Obscure Horror Auteurs", this week we tackle Larry Cohen. As B-Movie filmmakers go, he's pretty successful and some of his films have become well known. He made his name with some blaxploitation flicks like Black Caesar
, but pretty quickly transitioned over to more traditional genre fare like the films we're looking at today. There are a bunch of other Cohen movies worth watching that I won't cover, like The Stuff
or Q: The Winged Serpent
. In general, Cohen likes to mix his sleazy premises with social commentary and while it's not often subtle, his pet concerns do give his films a veneer of relevance that, um, keep them relevant today. Let's get started:
- Pet Sematary (trailer)
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V: Time and Punishment
- It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (trailer)
- It's Alive - I don't have kids, but I'm beginning to suspect that pop culture has given me a false expectation as to how births normally go. I mean, yeah, I assume 25% of births occur in cabs on the way to the hospital, another 25% happen at the workplace, and the remaining 50% are just regular frantic rushes to the hospital during rush hour, but there's got to be more variety than that, right? On the other hand, It's Alive goes in the complete opposite direction. I've never seen a more leisurely trip than the one portrayed at the beginning of this movie. We open on the mother waking her husband to let him know it's time. They smile and share a tender moment before he yawns and walks into the closet to pick out his ensemble. What does one wear in the waiting room? I mean, all the stuff they do are sorta natural consequences of a trip to the hospital, but the lack of urgency here is notable. Anywho, once at the hospital, the father hangs out in the waiting room with a bunch of other guys as they BS on environmental catastrophes and pesticides and poison-resistant cockroaches and whatnot (no social commentary here, move it along) while the mother begins to experience... difficulties. We don't see the actual birth, but we do see the aftermath wherein it appears our intrepid heroes' baby has murdered all the doctors and nurses in the room and escaped the confines of the hospital. From here, we settle into a bout of angsty hand-wringing as the cops begin their manhunt (er, babyhunt). It appears the father has taken a hard stance on his son, namely that he's an abomination that should be destroyed at the first opportunity. Things pick up again in the third act, where our father has a sudden, Grinch-like transformation into a good father (but not before, you know, shooting his son). It's not exactly great storytelling, but it's got just enough trashy elements to be fun. If memory serves, the sequels cash in a little more on the sleaze factor (I have a distinct memory from the third movie which, come to think of it, starts with a birth in a cab, and what I remember is someone saying something like "Oh no, it's one of them!" while pulling out a gun and blasting away.) A modest effort, but maybe worth checking out for students of the genre. **
- M. Night Shyamalan's The Twist (Robot Chicken)
- The Fourth Kind (trailer)
- The Exorcist (amazing unreleased trailer)
- God Told Me To - If you thought killer mutant babies were weird, you ain't seen nothing yet. This movie starts with a sniper gunning down random pedestrians in NYC (super pleasant way to start a movie, though in all seriousness, some notion of relevance here). When asked why, the gunman simply states "God told me to..." After a spate of other, similar incidents where the perpetrator simply states that God told them to do it, our intrepid detective hero begins to put some pieces together. And then it gets really weird. Not completely batshit, but I also don't really want to ruin it. What initially seems like it could be an exploration of faith and religion goes in a completely different direction, turning towards science fiction and conspiracy thriller territory.
Some plot machinations are tough to swallow, but look at what we're watching here. Good central performance from Tony Lo Bianco (most famous for The French Connection), and some nice visual elements too. It's got all the makings of a cult classic and I can see why it has a following even to this day. Great B movie flare, and the new Blu-Ray transfer is actually a dramatic improvement over the previous DVD that I saw many moons ago. Hey, look, I mentioned this in the 6WH from 2008, though I was not quite as impressed then as I was this time around. Upgrade to: ***
- The Stuff (trailer)
- Night of the Creeps (trailer)
- White Zombies (Key and Peele)
- Maniac Cop - It turns out that I've never actually seen this one before. Maybe parts of it, but what I remember most is stuff from Maniac Cop II or III (which, to be fair, I probably never saw from start to finish either). What we have here is the Face versus the Chin. Yes, this movie stars a veritable plethora of B-movie icons, including Robert Z'Dar (aka The Face), Bruce Campbell (aka The Chin), horror icon Tom Atkins, even folks like Richard Roundtree and Sheree North pitching in.
This was only written by Larry Cohen, and it sorta represents his take on the vaunted slasher film. Most of the elements are there, except that our Maniac Cop sometimes uses a gun. Directed by William Lustig, who, come to think of it also directed a quasi-slasher movie called Maniac where the killer also uses a gun. Must be his thing. Anyway, Maniac Cop is actually a guy named Matt Cordell, an old school cop framed by corrupt police chief and mayor and sent to prison, where his admiring public gets the chance for revenge (in the shower, naturally). Declared legally dead, his body nevertheless disappeared or something (don't kid yourself, it's not that important) and now he's out to avenge his wrongful prosecution. And also, apparently, anyone who runs across his path, including innocent pedestrians and other cops. Speaking of which, Maniac Cop somehow manages to almost inadvertently frame another cop for his spree. This guy is played by Bruce Campbell, who goes about trying to clear his name and uncover Cordell's tragic origins. Robert Z'Dar is absolutely perfect in this movie, mostly because of his physicality. Lustig keeps his face pretty well hidden in shadows for most of the movie, but you know, with a face like that, all you need to see is the silhouette in order to identify him (plus, he's a big dude to start with).
Atkins and Campbell are fine, but don't really have anything to do that is as good as the roles that made them famous (except, I guess, for that scene where Atkins smiles. That's awesome.) You know what else also works for me? The theme is actually really nice. I mean, it's not going to win awards or anything, but it perfectly captures the enduring glory that is Maniac Cop. I'm only being slightly facetious, I swears! It's all in good fun, and strikes a particularly relevant chord given all the police abuse showing up in the news these days. I had a lot of fun with this, even if it isn't doing anything particularly noteworthy. **1/2
- Maniac Cop III: Badge of Silence (trailer)
- Honest Zombie (Robot Chicken)
- Hell No (fake trailer)
- Maniac Cop 2 - Bonus! Since a lot of what I remember about Maniac Cop comes from the sequels, I figured I should check at least one of them out, and this did not disappoint. Generally more of the same, only a little sleazier. Campbell, whose character has just officially been exonerated from the tragedy of the first film, is dispatched fairly quickly. His female partner in non-chrime has a better go of it, including a wonderful setup where she takes on Maniac Cop with a fucking chainsaw.
Alas, it doesn't work out quite as awesome as that sounds, and she is thus dispatched pretty quickly. In their stead, we've got two new characters; one played by Robert Davi, who I must admit, does a much better job as a brooding badass than Campbell or Atkins did in the first movie, and the other played by Claudia Christian playing a psychologist (you nerds probably remember her from Babylon 5). And this time around, Maniac Cop makes a friend! A serial killer who stalks strippers and talks way too much gives Cordell a place to stay for a while, and for some reason Maniac Cop breaks him out of prison when he finally gets caught. Or something. The plot makes no real sense, and once Davi and Christian suss out the commissioner's corruption and force him to confess in public, Cordell can rest in peace. Or something. This is getting ridiculous and the whole thing makes no sense, but like the first movie, it's a whole lot of trashy fun. **
Another common theme that emerges out of all these movies? Cohen loves a good media leak. Whether it's initiated by our heroes (both Maniac Cop
movies and God Told Me To
) or whether our hero is simply suffering from the consequences of a leak (It's Alive
), it's always there. And the consequences of the leak are always ambiguous. In Maniac Cop
, no one trusts the police and we even see one random pedestrian shoot a cop in a panic. Heck, media leaks even play a role in The Stuff
. Larry Cohen clearly has some thoughts on news media influence. I think I might just have to rent Maniac Cop III
tonight to see if the pattern holds. Anywho, stay tuned for more obscure horror auteurs next week!
Thursday, September 24, 2015
6WH: Wes Craven's Twilight Zone
These days, we tend to look askance at reboots and remakes, but it's not like it's a new thing. In the mid-80s, CBS revived the beloved 50s/60s classic Twilight Zone television series, and looking back on it now, they managed to assemble a pretty impressive amount of talent at the time, including: Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Greg Bear, Arthur C. Clarke, Joe Haldeman, Robert McCammon, Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Robert Silverberg, John Milius, Joe Dante, William Friedkin, George R.R. Martin, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, heck, even the Grateful Dead performed the new theme song. To kick the series off, they tapped Wes Craven, hot off the success of Nightmare on Elm Street
. Craven would go on to direct seven segments of the show (mostly in the first season), most of which I have not seen, so I thought it would be a fitting tribute
. Each show has two or three segments, so here's some assorted thoughts on each segment:
- Shatterday (S01E01) - The opening salvo of the new series was this character piece starring Bruce Willis in a dueling role, directed by Craven and written by Harlan Ellison (which was a big deal, given how dismissive Ellison always was about TV). It features one of the pure Twilight Zone ideas. Willis accidentally dials his own phone number, but is then surprised when... another, better version of him answers the phone. Some back-and-forth cat-and-also-cat follows, Willis doing an admirable job in both main roles. It's an introspective piece, and a bit of a departure for Craven (in fact, all of these episodes are a bit of a departure for Craven; I'm guessing he relished the opportunity to work in the spooky but bloodless realm after mastering the raw, bloody slasher or hillbilly horror sub-genres). The ending is a bit anticlimactic, but it works well enough. A good opening to the series.
- A Little Peace and Quiet (S01E01) - This second segment in the episode doesn't quite boast as much starpower, but it's Craven branching out again, this time looking at a frazzled housewife with the worst family evar (she's played by Melinda Dillon, who you may remember as the mother in A Christmas Story). They all scream at each other and her and Craven does a good job playing up the unbearable nature of her situation. All she wants is a little peace and quiet, and whilst gardening, she finds a box with a nice looking necklace on it. Later in the day, while her family is once again acting crappy, she gets fed up and screams "Shut up!" and everything freezes (er, sorta, it's clearly a bunch of actors just trying to stand still, but it works well enough). It turns out she's able to press pause on the world, then resume it whenever she wants. This comes in handy at a busy grocery story and in a few other situations, then the hammer drops with the ending. I won't spoil it here, but it's a pretty dark one, fitting for the Twilight Zone. A fitting end to the series opener...
- Wordplay (S01E02) - I should probably stop referring to these premises as very Twilight Zoney, huh? In this one a salesman (played by Robert Klein) starts to hear people substituting words for other words. For instance, suddenly people are referring to lunch as "Dinosaur". At first, it's only a couple isolated words, but by the end of the episode people are talking full on in this new style (which is weird because it's not quite gibberish... words are generally the same, they just mean different things). The ending is perfectly bittersweet, and Klein really sells it well. It's interesting to contrast a segment like this with, say, Tales from the Crypt, which almost always ends with comeuppance or darkness. The Twilight Zone can make that work when it wants, but it can also make a story like this one, with an almost uplifting ending and everything.
- Chameleon (S01E02) - Ah, well, I guess this one is less Twilight Zoney than your typical episode, so there's that. A shapeshifting alien returns with some astronauts on a shuttle mission and starts absorbing some humans. It's an interesting segment, though it doesn't really do a whole lot. Some mysterious stuff happens, and then it ends. I would have expected to like this one more than I did, but hey, they can't all be brilliant pieces of work, I guess.
- Dealer's Choice (S01E08) - Now this is the stuff! Craven directs a Murderers' Row of character actors playing cards. Included are Morgan Freeman (you know him), M. Emmet Walsh, Dan Hedaya (a little Blood Simple reunion with those two, not to mention a gazillion other movies each), Garrett Morris (of SNL fame), and Barney Martin (probably best known as Seinfeld's dad). Four friends and a strange newcomer who's having a streak of luck. In fact, his hands always hinge on having a three of a kind... three sixes each time. Yes, our intrepid heroes are playing cards with the Devil, who's very sorry he had to put on a ruse about filling in for a regular, but he just wanted to get a few hands of cards in before moving on to his next job. Oh and one of the other players is that job. A final, double or nothing bet is made over a hand of cards... dealer's choice!
This is a darkly humorous segment, perhaps my favorite so far, and it tickles one of my soft spots. I love it when larger-than-life evil is personified as a blue collar dude just doing his job, and the segment wrings a lot of humor out of this inherently goofy premise. I like the idea of the Devil really just doing his job, not being all that into it, and welcoming the opportunity to let the puny humans win one every now and again. It turns out that the Devil is actually a pretty good sport, not to mention a good loser. In fact, the Devil comes off as the most likeable character of them all.
- Her Pilgrim Soul (S01E12) - Two scientists working on a holographic system suddenly find the spirit of a woman displaying without having been programmed to appear. What follows is surprisingly tender, another example of The Twilight Zone's ability to shift gears and go with a different tone. It is perhaps overlong, and the surprises not quite as snappy as your typical segment, but yet, they are more emotionally resonant. (Also, while not directed by Craven, definitely watch the other se segment in this episode, "I of Newton", one of my all time favorites and one that obviously made an impression when I saw it as a youngster way back when...)
- The Road Less Traveled (S02E07) - A Vietnam draft dodger begins to see visions of an alternate history where he did go to war. Interesting exploration of guilt, written by George R.R. Martin (who would go on to work on some other stuff you may have heard of), and it resolves itself well, once again finding a tone not normally reserved for such stories. Not the best episode, but still an effective one.
This was a pretty good run for Craven, and as mentioned above, allowed him to branch out and try something other than gruesome slashers or Swamp Things. He would go on to work on a few other shows, but nothing of quite this caliber. I'm glad I made the effort to watch these episodes though, and will almost certainly be posting about some other episodes in the coming weeks of Halloween! RIP Wes Craven, you will be missed.
Sunday, September 20, 2015
Six Weeks of Halloween 2015: Week 1 - Mario Bava-Thon
The most wonderful time of the year has rolled around, bringing with it the requisite leaf piles, mutilated pumpkins, paper skeletons, pumpkin spiced abominations, decorative corpses, "fun" cobwebs, and other oxymoronic traditions that are nominally ghastly but suddenly become socially acceptable during this season of seasons. To celebrate, I always embark on a six week long horror movie marathon
. That's like two weeks longer than most Halloween movie marathons, because we're pretty awesome, that's why.
Today we examine a trio of films from Mario Bava, the godfather of Italian horror cinema and one of the more influential visual stylists of the 20th century. Bava is famous for his Gothic works and for popularizing the Giallo sub-genre
(plus numerous pre-slashers), thus inspiring other Italian horror maestros like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. Bava is the first of what I'm calling "Obscure Horror Auteurs", though he's probably the least obscure of the ones I'm tackling (then again, he's obscure enough to general audiences, I think). Others will follow in the coming weeks.
It should be noted that I've already seen a good deal of Bava's work, so the below is actually filling in some gaps, rather than an ideal collection of his films. If you're looking for a good intro to Bava, go for Blood and Black Lace
, Black Sunday
, Black Sabbath
, or A Bay of Blood
(aka Twitch of the Death Nerve). I've covered
some of these
in past Six Weeks of Halloween posts. Several of these are available to stream on Netflix, and upstart horror streaming service Shudder
recently had a big event. Check out this gif from Kill Baby, Kill
So let's get into it, here's three of Bava's lesser-known works:
- Alien (Trailer)
- Doctor Who: State of Decay (Episode)
- Alien's Acid Blood (Robot Chicken)
- Planet of the Vampires - This movie is perhaps best known as a precursor and influence on Ridley Scott and Dan O'Bannon's classic film Alien, and yes, there are definitely some similarities here. A group of astronauts find themselves on a mysterious planet and begin to turn on each other as they are influenced by mysterious forces native to the planet. The most Alien-esque sequence involves the crew investigating an old spaceship wreck (dare I call it a derelict spacecraft?), discovering the long-dead remains of a species of giant creatures who must have succumbed to the planet's spooky inhabitants.
You could also argue that some of the visuals also influenced Alien, though Bava's tone is a decidedly more pulpy, Flash Gordon style of vivid colors and ulta-low budget cheese. There the similarities end. Bava's film starts off a bit talky and the plot is minimal, but there are some neat visual flourishes, such as when a number of buried crew members rise from their hasty graves or the aforementioned trip to a derelict spacecraft.
Bava's no-budget effects, all done with lighting, miniatures and forced perspective, are pretty interesting, though some don't hold up so well. Also of note: the distinct lack of vampires. There is nothing even remotely vampiric in the film, just some sorta space ghosts. Ultimately a film that is probably only of interests to students of the genre, though perhaps some of you normals might find something to like here (Like those bitchin leather uniforms!) I had a decent enough time with it, but wasn't super impressed either. **
- Grindhouse: Don't (Fake Trailer)
- Black Sunday (Trailer)
- The Pit and the Pendulum (Trailer)
- Baron Blood - Modern-day gothic horror, a young man named Peter visits his ancestral home in Austria, a castle that once housed a sadistic Baron who was cursed to a violent death by a witch the Baron had burned at the stake. Peter has found a series of incantations amongst his family belongings and decides to read them aloud in the castle not once, but twice. The first time, he and his lady friend hear strange noises and bumps in the night, so he reads the incantation to reverse the summoning spell. But that wasn't enough, they do it again the next night, only this time he drops the paper into a fire, thus losing the ability to fight the Baron, who is now free to roam about the castle and get up to murderous mischief. Yeah, so not a particularly clever setup, but there's some gorgeous and elaborate production design here, and Bava crafts a few decently suspenseful sequences. The ending almost turns into a dark Scooby Doo episode, which I actually appreciated, though the film as a whole never really took off for me. Lesser Bava and probably my least favorite of the weekend... *1/2
- Village of the Damned (Trailer)
- Young Frankenstein (Trailer)
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror IV: Bart Simpson's Dracula
- Kill Baby, Kill - Now this is more like it. A more traditional gothic horror tale, this one is set in a cursed town. A doctor arrives to assist an inspector looking into several mysterious deaths. In performing an autopsy, he discovers mysterious coins placed inside the corpses. Meanwhile, a mysterious young blond girl is seen about town (often peering through windows and laughing), and the local witch is also on the case (interestingly, the local witch is actually a protagonist, and she's pretty awesome).
An altogether more successful tale than Baron Blood, this one contains some similar elements, but it is executed much better. Again with the gorgeous production design, and Bava's use of vivid colors, camera movement, and zooms are quite effective. Not really his best work, but this does seem to be one of the more underrated films in Bava's oeuvre, and worth checking out for fans of gothic horror. **1/2
That wraps up the first week. Stay tuned for another obscure horror auteur next week, the films of Larry Cohen! Also check out fellow practitioners of the six week marathon at Kernunrex Six Weeks of Halloween
and Film Thoughts
. Lots of fun stuff to come!
Wednesday, September 16, 2015
Buried in an excerpt of Neal Stephenson's interview with Locus Magazine
is a throwaway line that mentions his next project:
Fall, featuring some characters from Reamde, is forthcoming.
Well that's interesting, isn't it? It certainly doesn't say much, and there's almost nothing else being reported out there. After many machinations, I managed to discover a slightly more descriptive notice at Publisher's Weekly (it has since gone off the first page and thus requires a login, but Google Cache
still has it, and this blog
picked it up as well):
NYT bestselling author, including the most recent SEVENEVES, Neal Stephenson's FALL, pitched as a high-tech retelling of PARADISE LOST featuring some characters from REAMDE, to Jennifer Brehl at William Morrow, in a major deal, for publication in Fall 2017, by Liz Darhansoff at Darhansoff & Verrill (World English).
The plot thickens. Sorta. I have no idea how a story about Lucifer's quest to poison God's most favored creation (with flashbacks to angelic wars) would play out in a high-tech fashion (with characters from a contemporary thriller like Reamde), but hell, I'm on board. And Fall of 2017 (I see what they did there) is not that far away in Stephensonian timescales (most books are separated by 3-4 years), so I'm sure we'll find out more in due time. While I have no idea how this will work, it's not at all surprising that Stephenson is working on a Milton-themed book...
No word on the series of historical novels Stephenson teased in an interview a few years ago
Stephenson says he has returned to the past to tap a "similar vein" to that covered in his globe-spanning Baroque Cycle.
"They're historical novels that have a lot to do with scientific and technological themes and how those interact with the characters and civilisation during a particular span of history," he says of the new series, refusing to be specific about the exact period.
"It looks like it will start with two back-to-back volumes.
"One of those is largely done and the other will be done early next winter. So I think [they will be released] mid-to-late 2014 perhaps - something like that."
Well clearly that didn't happen, as Stephenson must have switched gears to put out the long gestating Seveneves
. No word as to when or even if these novels will ever happen. Whatever the case, I'm all aboard the Stephenson train, as per usual.
Sunday, September 13, 2015
The End of All Things
When John Scalzi started his little serialized publishing experiment a few years ago with The Human Division
, it felt a little like a television series. Each story was self contained and episodic in nature, and Scalzi even went as far as to call each installment an "Episode". The book (unexpectedly and distressingly) even ended on a cliffhanger, and when he announced the sequel, he did so by saying that it had been "renewed for a second season
". Well, the new season has finally arrived, in the form of The End of All Things
To continue the television analogy, though, this is less like a season two and more like a mini-series. The first book/season consisted of thirteen stories/episodes, and they were very episodic in nature. There was a burbling background conflict that wound its way through, like one of those procedural TV shows that has a monster of the week, but an overarching conspiracy that gets mentioned every now and again. This new book/season only consists of 4 novellas (each of which is significantly longer than most of what preceded it), and instead of focusing on self-contained, episodic conflicts, this one focuses pretty intently on bringing that background conspiracy to the forefront in a more longform narrative way. As a result, this feels like a bit of a turn in the series, and lends itself to the mini-series analogy. This is all well and good, and the narrative here is more cohesive than the previous entry, but then, one of the things I loved about the first book was the way some of those standalone stories worked. So yes, this is more cohesive, but not quite as much as a normal novel, which makes it a bit of an oddity. Let's take a look at each episode.
The Life of the Mind
is the first story, told by Rafe Daquin, who is basically a brain in a box. He wasn't always that way, but here he tells us the story of how he became that way and what he did about it. It actually explains a lot about the mysterious disappearing ships from the previous book, but it is also the most clumsy story in the series in terms of exposition. Maybe Scalzi was concerned that the head-in-a-box thing would be confusing, but even inexperienced SF readers don't need you to repeat something three times or extrapolate every piece of information. I was a little concerned at the outset of this story because Scalzi's last novel, Lock In, also started with an unnecessary and egregious example of info-dumping. Fortunately, while this grated on me a bit, it wasn't nearly as bad as last time, and I was able to quickly move past it. I liked the character of Rafe and I liked where this novella went.
This Hollow Union
is up next, and it follows alien diplomat Hafte Sorvalh as she attempts to keep her Conclave of alien races together while dealing with those pesky human factions. You may remember Sorvalh as the Churro loving diplomat from the previous book, and it was nice to revisit her. While told from a different perspective, this basically continues the narrative set up in The Life of the Mind
, in particular the fallout of various information leaks and revelations about third party factions out for their own purposes. It's a little talky, but it reminded me a bit of the previous book's focus on the diplomatic corps and while Lieutenant Harry Wilson shows up at one point, the zaniness factor isn't quite what it was. Since we're finally getting down into the details of the shadowy conspiracy hinted at in the first book, the tone is necessarily more serious here, and Scalzi did manage a few little surprises. All in all, a solid story.
Can Long Endure
is told from the perspective of a 4 person CDF squad as they're sent out on riot patrol, keeping the Colonial Union in line (instead of their normal conflicts with alien species). There's some of Scalzi's snappy dialog here, and that part goes pretty well. The story itself is a little repetitive and the ending is a little anti-climactic, but that's kind of expected for the penultimate episode of a series, right? It was my least favorite episode, but even then, it was a good story, well told.
To Stand or Fall
brings things to a close on a strong note. Due to its episodic nature, it's hard to call any one character the protagonist of the series, but the one man present throughout almost all the stories would be Lieutenant Harry Wilson. He's a fun character, and breathed fresh life into all the preceding stories whenever he showed up (even if only for a short time). Here, he's the viewpoint character, and while the overarching narrative has become more serious, Wilson's stories always feel breezy and fun. It helps the Scalzi is able to devise a plausible solution to the challenge facing our various factions and heroes (you can nitpick if you like, but I was more than willing to go with it).
As a whole, it all works out, even if it comes off a bit disjointed. That's just a natural result of the whole serialized publishing thing though, and I think the overarching narrative was pretty solid. Personally, though? I think I appreciated some of those lowish-stakes diplomatic missions from the first book a lot more. This sequel reminds me of a TV series that started out episodically, then got bogged down in the mythology and ended up devoting all its attention to the continuity story rather than coming up with a series of small, fun adventures for our heroes. I can't really fault the book for being something different than what I desired though, and it still fares really well in my book. I am on the fence with this one with respect to the Hugos though. None of the stories are really suitable for inclusion in the novella category (The Life of the Mind
might be, but the glaring exposition issues make it a tough sell), but the disjointed nature of the narrative also makes best novel a tough sell. On the other hand, I liked this more than most of the stuff on the past two years' worth of novel ballots, so there is that! Of course, we've got plenty of time here, so there's no need to make snap decisions. Let's see how this one ferments in my head over the next few months. All of which is to say, this is a solid successor to The Human Division, and it resolves all the cliffhangery elements of that first book well. The resolution here does not seem to lead to a natural third "season", but who knows? I would certainly like to spend more time with some of these characters...
Wednesday, September 09, 2015
I don't listen to podcasts as often as I used to because all these audiobooks aren't gooing to listen to themselves, but after a few of my old standbys went dark lately, I decided to look for some new ones, and what do you know, a few of them fell into my lap. I'm sure there are plenty of others I should be listening to, but these are the ones that struck a chord recently:
- The Style Guide - Two guys talking about a given (usually movie focused) topic for about an hour, and it's pretty solid stuff, especially if you like to parse out what defines a genre, and what the outliers are. I just discovered this one and it's a pretty young podcast, but they seem to be off to a great start and am looking forward to devouring their (small) backlog and keeping up with new eps...
- The Canon - The premise is a pretty standard one. Every week, they choose a new movie and evaluate whether or not it belongs in the Canon of great movies or somesuch. The "or somesuch" piece is because the actual definition of the Canon is pretty loose and they engage in arbitrary limiting exercises like versus episodes where they, for example, say that Alien or Aliens can make the Canon, but not both. The hosts have a weird chemistry too. They have strong opinions, bicker a lot, and often talk over each other. It's probably not for everyone, and if I were to make a podcast, it would not be like this at all, but that's kinda what I like about it, I guess. They do make a lot of good points though, and the annoyance factor isn't quite as bad as the initial episodes these days. Worth checking out. Bonus points for their Cannon-like logo.
- I Was There Too - What a fabulous idea for a podcast. A guy interviews people who played bit parts in big movies, like the guy who played Nicholson's secretary in A Few Good Men (two lines, but memorable) or the guy who played the Apple store employee in Captain America 2 (also a tiny yet memorable part). Some are more substantial, like Jenette Goldstein, who is probably most famous for playing Vasquez in Aliens, but also had bit parts in a bunch of other James Cameron movies. Like most "interview" based shows, this one depends greatly on the guest, but so far, they've been pretty great. Not frequently updated, but that's quite alright by me!
- Birthcast, Moviecast, Deathcast, Padcast Podcast - I think I may have mentioned this before, back when they were the Badass Digest Padcast Podcast, but that one was always very inconsistently updated. A while later and their site has rebranded, and the host situation solidified and they started updating more frequently. It's still a bit on the rambly side and it comes from a goofy perspective that might not appeal to everyone, but I enjoy it. They've been watching a bunch of "Future Cop" movies recently, which has been fun.
And that's all for now. Go forth and listen to yonder podcasts.
Sunday, September 06, 2015
As per usual, I'm a week late to this post, but Wes Craven passed away on August 30 after a fight with brain cancer. I'm not normally in the habit of writing this sort of thing, but since we're heading into my favorite time of the year, the fabled Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, I figured I should look at Craven's oeuvre and perhaps find something of his I haven't seen before (or, perhaps, something to revisit).
As genre filmmakers go, I'm hard pressed to think of a single, more influential horror director. I mean, maybe Alfred Hitchcock (do you consider him horror?) or Mario Bava (probably too obscure for most folks), but that's fine company to keep. You could make an argument for Craven's contemporary, John Carpenter, as he does have two classics to his name (Halloween
and The Thing
), but he also veered away from horror and managed to produce a string of mediocre (at best) films later in his career. Craven, though, has directed three of the genre's most iconic and influential films. Oh, and he did it across three decades
The Last House on the Left
was Craven's first film (1972), and in some ways it shows. But it's also a clear example of what Craven always manages to do. It's a crude, nasty film that taps into something dark and raw. That's, uh, a good thing when it comes to horror movies. A Nightmare on Elm Street
(1984) is slicker and more commercial, but no less effective because of that. Indeed, its brilliant premise is the purest distillation of horror ever committed to film: a monster that gets you in your dreams
. Inescapable and supremely terrifying (especially to my childhood self, who was stricken with fear before even having seen the film), the film's inferior sequels only serve to illustrate Craven's ability to tap into something elusive and terrifying. Craven's X factor only returned to the series when he retook the reigns for New Nightmare
, a winking, fourth-wall shattering exercise that was really more of a dry run for his third genre classic: 1996's Scream
. Another winking, self-referential exercise, this one captured audience's imaginations and revived a flagging genre right when it needed it the most. It wasn't the first film to attempt this sort of thing, but it's the best.
Craven's also got a large catalog of underrated works that are often more effective and influential than you'd think. Stuff like The Serpent and the Rainbow
or The Hills Have Eyes
are relevant to this day. Even his out and out failures contain that Craven X Factor that gets under your skin and never lets go. I mean, yeah, My Soul to Take
isn't his best work, but man, I could see that thing garnering a cult following someday (and apparently, Shocker
Yet by all accounts, he was one of Hollywood's kindest, sweetest fellas. He had a rough childhood
, but apparently worked that out on screen, rather than by lashing out at folks.
For an example of his good-natured spirit, check out this story from Edgar Wright
The intertextuality of 'Scream' was a surprise to some, but in reality there was a winking side to Craven's movies that goes all the way back to 1977's 'The Hills Have Eyes'.
That film began a series of funny intertextual references between horror film directors that became a game of one-upmanship. In the first 'Hills Have Eyes', there was a ripped poster for 'Jaws' on the wall of a ravaged trailer, as if Craven was saying 'that's not scary, this is scary'. Then in response Sam Raimi featured a ripped 'Hills Have Eyes' poster in the cabin in 'The Evil Dead'. Craven's reply to this was to have his characters watching 'Evil Dead' on television in 'A Nightmare on Elm Street'. Finally Raimi responded once again by putting the iconic razor glove of Freddy Krueger, in the basement of the cabin in 'Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn'.
I loved this running gag between horror directors. So you can imagine my answer when we got word that Craven wanted to use a clip of our film 'Shaun Of The Dead' in 'Scream 4'.
Horror is a weird genre that often forces viewers to grapple with tough questions, not the least of which is often "Why the hell am I watching this depravity?" If you've ever seen an interview with Wes Craven, you'd get a pretty eloquent response. He's always a welcome sight in horror documentaries and was even compelling in his short appearance on Project Greenlight's third season. I can't put it any better than Scott Tobias:
My initial plan for this year's Six Weeks of Halloween was to cover a series of "obscure horror auteurs", and while Craven is certainly an auteur, he's anything but obscure. Still, while I plan on tackling those other, obscure directors, I may have to dedicate some time to finding something from Craven that I haven't seen (there are only a handful, if that). In the meantime, I'll leave you with this: