Saturday, October 11, 2008

Event Horizon

We all have "guilty pleasures" - movies or books that we know we probably shouldn't like, but we do. One of the movies that fits into this category for me is Paul W. S. Anderson's 1997 sci-fi horror flick Event Horizon. Although I know it has flaws, I've seen it several times, and love it. It is two-thirds of a great movie (more on that later).

In the year 2047, man has moved out into the solar system, exploring and exploiting the resources of Earth's fellow solar orbiters. The ship Lewis and Clark operates as a sort of deep space Coast Guard. Commanded by the conscientious Captain Miller (Lawrence Fishburne), they are sent on a mysterious mission to the limits of explored space, the orbit of Neptune. With the crew, which represents all the English-speaking countries, travels a scientist, Doctor Weir (Sam Neill), who holds the key to the mission.

Seven years earlier, a deep space explorer called the Event Horizon was lost when its engine exploded. Weir reveals to the cynical crew that this was a lie, the Event Horizon was designed to be the first ship from earth to travel to another star. In the requisite mumbo-jumbo exposition sequence, Weir explains how the Event Horizon's "gravity drive" was designed to create a controlled black hole, to enable the ship to almost instantaneously reach across immense distances. Instead of the accident that was the official story, after the gravity drive was engaged, the ship disappeared, and was never heard from again. Until now, when the ship has reappeared near Neptune. The Lewis and Clark's mission is to investigate the Event Horizon and find out what happened.

Once they reach their destination, they find that none of the original crew has survived, and the ship itself has brought back something from the void outside our dimension. What ensues is a classic haunted house story in space, with the Event Horizon serving as the haunted house. This is much the same story structure used in Alien. Each crew member is visited with a sin from their past that still haunts them. Captain Miller sees a crew member who died under his command, Doctor Weir an apparition of his dead wife, etc.

As is usual in this sort of movie, it is creepier when the crew is trying to figure out what is going on. After a tremendous first two acts, it devolves a bit in the third act, when the story falls back on traditional movie devices ("when in doubt, blow shit up"). The cast, which includes Jason Isaacs and Sean Pertwee in addition to Fishburne and Neill, is superb. The basic idea is wonderful, the payoff doesn't quite live up to it. Still, as I said, one of my favorite guilty pleasures.

The Book of Lists: Horror

Back in the 70s and 80s, The Book of Lists was a bestselling series. The franchise has now been revived, specializing in specific genres and subsets. One of the new entries is The Book Of Lists: Horror, edited by Amy Wallace, Del Howison (owner of Dark Delicacies, one of the premier bookstores specializing in horror), and Scott Bradley, with contributors including Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Eli Roth, and many others.

It's a pretty simple format ranging from fact ("The Top Six Grossing Horror Films in the United States") to opinion ("The Twenty Best Opening Lines"). The opinion lists invite challenge and dissent, but that's what they're there to do (see my sidebar for examples). There's something here to interest anyone interested in horror, and the format encourages reading in short bursts. Many of the individual contributors will be familiar to fans of horror movie or horror fiction. My one quibble with the book is I wish it were better indexed. If you want to refer to a remembered list, you have to thumb through the book to find it. Still, for $14.95, it will probably find its way to the bookshelves of most horror fans.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Night Boat

I’ve been a huge fan of Robert R. McCammon since early in his career. He was one of the stars of the horror surge of the 80s, and it is our loss that he no longer writes in the genre. At one point, he was probably second only to Stephen King among horror fans, and he was pushing King for the top spot when he abruptly took an extended sabbatical from writing, after a disagreement with his publisher. (On an irrelevant note, I’ve met McCammon a couple of times, since we lived in the same city for a while, and he is a genuinely nice guy. As I have found writers generally to be, although Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a definite exception to that. But I digress.) The Night Boat was one of his first four novels, which he semi-disowned after a while, thinking he did not come into his own as an author until Mystery Walk. As a result, this book and the other three (Baal, Bethany’s Sin, and They Thirst) have been mostly out of print for a while. I would agree that McCammon’s writing took a great leap upward with Mystery Walk, becoming much more polished and assured, and delving deeper into his characters. However, I still feel the early books are well worth seeking out, and while they may be lesser McCammons, are still better than mostwriters.

The Night Boat is the story of a man named David Moore. After a boating accident killed his wife and child, he fled to the fictional Caribbean Island of Coquina, where he runs an inn. One day, while scuba diving in the waters just off the island, he dislodges a WWII-era depth charge, which explodes. The explosion dislodges a Nazi submarine buried throughout the years under the silt, and it rises to the surface, where it drifts toward the island, eventually beaching itself in the harbor. Unfortunately for the residents of the island, the crew of the submarine was placed under a gypsy curse after shelling the boat docks of the island during the war, and its crew has been condemned to exist as the living dead. Now released, the zombified Nazis wreak havoc on the island. Don't ya just hate when that happens?

This is not an overly deep book. It won’t change your life or make you re-evaluate your existence. But, c’mon. Nazi zombies attacking from a haunted submarine? Who can resist that? Although some of the characters are a little bit cardboard, it is still pretty well written. If Mr. McCammon doesn’t wish to claim it, I sure wish I could.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Call Of Cthulhu

Few authors are as revered to horror fans as H. P. Lovecraft. Although his stories were not overly popular during his lifetime, his influence has carried down through the years, and his accomplishment in liberating the genre from the traditional tropes of horror literature weighs heavy on all writers working today. He is certainly the most name-checked among authors today (Stephen King is his only real competition). His stories are required reading.

But he has not fared so well when it comes to translating his stories to the screen. Imdb lists 75 adaptations of his work, and with few exceptions, they are dreck. Although there are gems like Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator sprinkled in, the average quality is closer to abominations like H.P. Lovecraft’s The Tomb.

Part of the blame lies with the stories themselves, I think. The typical protagonist of a Lovecraft opus was a passive narrator, who observes what is going on (often with great confusion) and rarely interacts with events. We want our movie heroes to be more aggressive, and to watch Mel Gibson grab his sword and go forth to battle the evil Jews, or whatever he’s against. If Lovecraft’s POV characters see something too scary, they often faint. So for this reason, and because most movies tend to be terrible, anyway, Lovecraft adaptations have been something to be feared more than Cthulhu himself.

A group of Lovecraft enthusiasts have decided to take matters in their own hands. The HP Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS) raised a small amount of money, and decided to film Lovecraft’s seminal work, The Call of Cthulhu. The biggest problem was in the budget constraints. The story calls for several elaborate dream-sequences, and a gigantic special effects piece where great Cthulhu rises from R’lyeh and attacks a ship. Clearly they couldn’t afford this.

The budget shortfall was dealt with in an ingenious fashion. The movie was filmed as it would have been when the story was published in 1928 – which meant a silent film (except for score) in black & white, with crude practical effects. I hope the idea of a Black & White silent flick hasn’t turned you off to The Call of Cthulhu, because this is the best Lovecraft adaptation I have ever seen.

The movie, which clocks in at just under 47 minutes, is faithful to the original story, and its convoluted narrative structure, a flashback within a flashback with a flashback. The stark, impressionistic lighting and artificial aging of the film adds eeriness to the production. The dream sequences owe a lot to the silent classic The Cabinet of Caligari, and the stop motion animation of the Cthulhu scene, rather than detracting from the story, adds a sense of otherworldliness. The actors do a good job, and the direction is bold. They have overcome the limitations of their budget through creativity.

I urge everyone to order The Call of Cthulhu from the HPLHS by clicking here. The package is well worth the dough, and the HPLHS is planning to have their second production, The Whisperer In Darkness, ready next year. I can’t wait.

30 Days of Night

BW and I watched 30 Days of Night a while back. I was a big fan of the Steve Niles/Ben Templesmith book, so my hopes were high, and I was generally satisfied.

The plot is simple. The movie is set in Barrow, Alaska, where the sun sets for 30 days at once (hence the title). As the long night begins, a wave of vampires arrive, to take advantage of the long period without the sun. These vampires are the ugly sort, with blue-white skin, black eyes, and unnaturally distending jaws lined with sharp teeth. They wreak havoc, while a small band of survivors tries to last until the next sunrise.

I loved the fact that the vampires in this are hideous and repellent, and don’t just lounge about in ruffled shirts, spouting junior high-level poetry. The cast was also quite good. I have never been a Josh Hartnett fan, but his laconic personality works here. Melissa George is good, and the star is the great character actor Danny Huston as the lead vampire. Huston is always great, you should check out The Proposition for another fine example of his work.

There were things I didn’t like. Northern Alaska is a place that most of us are unfamiliar with, with an inhospitable climate. Little use is made of that. It was cold, it snowed, but other than that, it could have been anywhere. There was also no explanation for why the vampires had gathered to do this, except for a desire to Fuck Shit Up.

Overall, though, I think they did a good job of adapting the look of the book, and I would give it a thumbs-up. If you’re looking for a horror movie for Halloween, this should fill the bill.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

'Tis The Season - Halloween Books

To many horror fans, Halloween is a significant holiday. It's the one day of the year when normal people behave like us. It's extra important to me, since I was born on October 31st, and if that hadn't happened, it would be difficult for me to write this blog.
Every year, I try to read as much Halloween-themed horror as I can, to milk the season for all it's worth. Here's a list of some of the horror novels I have which feature the holiday:

Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes (Recommended)
Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree
Al Sarrantonio, Halloweenland (On the shelf, I'll read it this month)
Al Sarrantonio, Horrorween
Al Sarrantonio, Hallow's Eve
Brian Keene, Ghost Walk (Just read - review to follow. Recommended)
Norman Partridge, Dark Harvest (Highly recommended. Probably the best Halloween-related book I've ever read)
David Nial Wilson, Roll Them Bones (Highly recommended. Along with Dark Harvest, I'll be re-reading this one for Halloween, and probably for years to come)
James A. Moore, Harvest Moon (I've been saving this one for months, waiting until closer to Halloween.

I'm sure I've overlooked some obvious ones. If you have any suggestions/corrections, please let me know.

Ночной дозор

I recently read Ночной дозор (Night Watch) by Sergei Lukyanenko. I’m not usually into fantasy – cute dwarves, elves and fairies just don’t do it for me – but this grabbed me. It is definitely written for adults, not children.

The book is set in present day Moscow (I read an English translation – when I was in college I probably would have given the original Russian a try, but at my current speed of comprehension, I would have run out of space on the actuarial table before I finished). Moscow is the grimy, run-down, post-Soviet metropolis as it is today, but in this Moscow, magic exists. Among the human inhabitants there also reside magicians, vampires, shape-shifters and the like. The supernatural beings have divided into two camps: The Light and The Dark. After gaining powers, one must choose which of the two groups to which he or she will belong. It is not as simple as Good and Evil, although that is the underlying conflict. Although The Light is devoted to being selfless and acting for the greater good, and The Dark acts in its own self interest, The Light can do bad things, and The Dark can do good. This moral ambiguity adds a great deal of depth to the books. For centuries the two sides fought a war, but a thousand years prior, a treaty was signed, ending open conflict. Since the two sides don’t trust each other, each side keeps an eye on the other for treaty violations. The Light calls their group the Night Watch, and The Dark calls theirs the Day Watch.

The main character of Night Watch is Anton Gorodetsky, a low-level mage who is something of a bureaucrat thrust into doing field work. (If you have read much Russian literature, you know The Bureaucrat is the basic stock character of fiction). He ends up fighting both sides in a struggle for a young boy who may be the key to resolving the ancient struggle. Along the way, he begins to discover some truths about himself, and about the organization t which he belongs. His internal conflict over whether he's following the right path adds a lot to the book

The book is full of metaphor, which is typical of the better Russian authors. I guess if you live for over seventy years under a repressive, censoring regime you become expert at that. Check back here in 2070.

Night Watch is the first of four books in a series. The others are: Дневной дозор (Day Watch), Сумеречный дозор (Twilight Watch), and Последний дозор (Final Watch). All but the last are available in English translations. For those so inclined, an outstanding film version of Night Watch (based on the first section of the book) is available on DVD, dubbed or subtitled, as is the slightly lesser Day Watch.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

John Hornor Jacobs

One of the perks that result from making connections with other people involved in this genre is occasionally getting the opportunity to read something that has yet to be published. This can be a two-edged sword, since sometimes there's a reason something hasn't been published, but by and large, it's a great opportunity to get an early glimpse at what's to come.

Recently, a friend, John Hornor Jacobs, asked me to take a look at the novel he is working on and let him know what I think. I hesitated a bit. I like John a lot, and one of my flaws is I will answer a direct question truthfully, which I think is a mental disorder (if you don't think this is a flaw, try it for a day). I've already pissed off one or two people I like by telling them I wasn't thrilled with something they wrote, and John darkly hinted at deep problems. But he assured me he wouldn't hold it against me, so I told him to send it on.

I'm not going to do a full review of the novel here. I'll save that for when it's published. I will tell you that the story (currently titled Southern Gods) is a Lovecraft-influenced blast set in the Mississippi Delta region of the early 50s, filled with rich characters, and infused with the Southern blues that would change music forever. It's a world of smokey dives, small-time radio stations, and the Tennessee Williams-style sexual humidity of the mid-20th century South, in which a man takes a journey from villain to hero.

The novel, in second draft, does have a few weak points, as anticipated, but they are correctable, and even in its current incarnation I think it falls into the top 10% of what is currently published. I don't know when it will find a publisher, the vagaries of the business being what they are, but when it does (and it will), it will make a splash. So remember the name: John Hornor Jacobs. With two "o"s.