Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pan's Labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro has established himself as one of the more interesting visual stylists working in film today. From The Devil’s Backbone to Hellboy, even including Blade II, he has shown a unique camera eye, with a strong focus on fantasy. His most recent release was Pan’s Labyrinth, which I missed during the two minutes it was in the theaters here, and which I ended up watching on DVD.

I went in with high expectations. Pan’s Labyrinth has won a number of awards, and seen mainly favorable reviews since its release. And the movie does have a stunning look to it. Del Toro creates a believable, horrible and beautiful world of fantasy. But the story didn’t connect with me.

This is the story of Ofelia, a young girl at the time of the Spanish Civil War (also the backdrop of The Devil’s Backbone). Ofelia’s father has died, and she has journeyed with her mother to the country estate of her mother’s new husband, a cruel captain in Franco’s fascist army. There she finds adventure in two worlds. The first is the real one, with Ofelia struggling against the captain, who is beset by partisans. The other is the world of the labyrinth. Ofelia may be the lost princess of the kingdom reincarnated, and she is given a series of tasks to perform to determine this.

I found myself wishing del Toro had simply ditched the fantasy elements of the story, and concentrated on the more realistic. The story of Ofelia, her pregnant mother, the sadistic captain, and the rebels is gripping. But the fantasy plot contains the worst flaws that usually afflict fantasy. Ofelia solves puzzles with no explanation given why. She is told to choose the center of two boxes to find a needed key, but she enigmatically chooses the correct one, on the left. Ofelia behaves stupidly when it is needed to showcase a character. In one test, she is repeatedly warned ”Don’t eat anything”. Naturally, just as she has completed her task, she eats a grape, which awakens an eyeless demon.

The film is certainly beautiful, and the story of the captain and Ofelia hints at a greater movie. But, all in all, it just left me flat.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dead Earth: The Green Dawn

I ordered Dead Earth: The Green Dawn because the authors, Mark Justice & David Wilbanks are the host/creators/ex-host of the Podcast of Horror, which I listen to religiously. Since I listen to the podcase for free, I figured buying their book would be a good way of showing support. I figured the book itself wouldn’t be a big deal.

I was wrong, and very pleasantly surprised. Dead Earth: The Green Dawn is a superlative addition to the current zombie-fiction trend. Set in the New Mexico of the near future (2048), it is a story from the perspective of a young sheriff’s deputy named Jubal Slate, as he watches his world come to an end. An infection breaks out, from a disputed source (A military experiment gone wrong? An alien invasion?). Jubal doesn’t know how it begins; he just has to deal with its effects. He watches as a wave of illness sweeps his beloved town, people sicken and die, and then are resurrected as zombies. (Flouting a horror convention, the zombies are referred to as such in this story.) All Jubal can do is try to escape with his fiancée. The story is exhilarating, shocking and funny.

The one complaint I would register is it’s too short. However, this is billed as the prelude to subsequent books, and I’m eager to see them. Dead Earth: The Green Dawn is available through PS Publishing and the Horror Mall.

The Truth Behind the Swine Flu

Thanks to Val:

Monday, April 27, 2009

Threshold (Not The Series)

You’ve got to love the Sci Fi Channel – excuse me, that’s now the SyFy Channel, as they’ve now changed their name to take advantage of an apparent cross-promotion with syphilis. They take a lot of crap over the generally pitiful quality of their original programming, but without them, where would we go to see movies about moths from outer space trying to take over the world? It also has a cast made up of people from various sci-fi related series, including Nicholas Lea (The X-Files), Steve Bacic (Andromeda), Teryl Rothery (Stargate SG-1), and Jamie Luner (I’m sure she was in something, the name’s familiar).

An astronaut is floating in space, on an urgent mission to repair some space stuff, when a cloud or two blows past him. It’s better not to think about clouds blowing around airless space. One of the clouds strikes the astronaut, blowing through his suit, and into his arm, although he shows the Right Stuff by taking this calmly. It’s just the type of shit you have to put up with when you’re an astronaut.

Back on earth, the astronaut is treated by NASA’s head doctor, Dr. “Geronimo” Horne. Dr. Horne makes a pair of startling discoveries. There is living, insect-type cells in the fragments that struck the astronaut! And some are still embedded in his arm! Dr. Horne tells the astronaut there’s nothing to worry about, he doesn’t even need to be quarantined, and sure, he can sleep with the window open. He does call in entomologist Dr. Savannah Bailey to study the new DNA. Drs. Horne and Bailey clash upon first contact, which we know means they’ll fall in love. Horne tells Bailey they’re keeping the discovery of the first alien life form a secret even from the government for a while. What could possibly go wrong?

Bad news for the astronaut. His fingers turn into cocoons, moths hatch out, and he bleeds to death. That open window turns out to have been a bad idea after all. The moths escape into the outside world (Houston, Texas) and beginning biting people. Apparently, they bite anyone with the same blood type as the late astronaut, and convert them into man-bugs, complete with extra hidden appendages and nictitating eyelids. Those with different blood types shouldn’t feel left out, as they can serve as food.

One of the unusual things about this film is that through the first 40 or so minutes, the bug people only attack obnoxious jerks. An alien invasion where they kill only the assholes? I’m thinking this may not be such a bad idea.

Government spy types show up and tell Horne and Bailey if they don’t find and destroy the bug people in a day or so, the spy guys will blow up Houston with a bag of explosives. Having had generally poor experiences in Houston, I am ambivalent.

Fortunately for our heroes, the bug people have produced a giant larva, and they have to stick together to worship it, and also because they are a part of a hive, although I thought moths…oh, forget it.

Threshold is actually done with a reasonable level of competence, and the acting isn’t bad. It’s fun in a cheesy, mocking Sci Fi/SyFy sort of way.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The 10 Best Horror Novels of the 21st Century

A while back, I produced a list of the 10 Best Horror Novels of All Time. For reasons discussed in that post, more recent novels were not considered. So as to not neglect them, here is a supplemental list of the The 10 Best Horror Novels of the 21st Century. Some of these will probably make it to the all-time list when I’ve had a long time to ruminate on them, but for now they are here, without any real elaboration. As usual, this list changes from day to day, and has changed drastically since I first did one of these last year. And, of course, it really isn’t a list of the best, but a list of my favorites, but I have to use the more provocative title to get you to call me a “dipshit” in the comments. A note on dating: I did not use a precise date of January 1st, 2001 as the cutoff. I have kept a book published in 1999, but dropped one from 1993. It is more books I associate with the 21st century I guess. The list does not include collections or anthologies, nor does it include books I have read that haven’t been published (There are at least three contenders there.). I’m sure there are wonderful books I either haven’t read or have omitted by accident.

1. Dark Harvest, by Norman Partridge
2. The Freakshow, by Bryan Smith
3. Ghoul, by Brian Keene
4. This Is My Blood, by David Niall Wilson
5. Heart-Shaped Box, By Joe Hill
6. The Conqueror Worms, by Brian Keene
7. Scarecrow Gods, by Weston Ochse
8. Duma Key, by Stephen King
9. Soultaker, by Bryan Smith
10. The Folks, by Ray Garton

The Hollower

Here is a book I had heard a great deal about before I read it. It is the first book by Ms. Sangiovanni, a highly regarded member of the horror community (she has written several short stories that I’ve enjoyed a great deal), and a number of the authors I admire, like Brian Keene and Gary Braunbeck, have lavished praise on the book. So I came to it expecting a lot from it.

But I found it a mixed bag. The novel has an interesting concept. The characters are stalked by a mysterious creature (the titular Hollower), who appears as a man in a black trench coat, black fedora, black gloves – and no face. The Hollower exploits the deepest fears of its victims until they break, then it eats them. This a new take on horror and an interesting premise. In my opinion, it is partially undone, however, by a few flaws.

First of all, the book plunges directly into the action, with very little time devoted to developing the characters, or in making us care about them. Characterization is the key to horror. It isn’t enough just to have someone decapitated, you have to have a reason to care that they have been decapitated. The novel fails in this regard, producing mostly cardboard characters, with little to even distinguish them one from the other.

There is also a common flaw in this type of story. The menace faced by the protagonists is absolutely invulnerable – right until you reach the time where it needs to be destroyed, and then it is suddenly susceptible to something that hasn’t been adequately set up in the story thus far.

I don’t want anyone to think I am completely down on this novel. The writing is quite capable, and some individual sequences are quite suspenseful. I will certainly be looking forward to reading Ms. Sangiovanni’s next book.

Monday, April 20, 2009

R.I.P. J. G. Ballard

British author J.G. Ballard has died at 78 after an extended illness. BBC News has the story here, although I would differ with the term “cult author”. With a couple of high profile films made from his work, I think he surpassed that status.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


24 Season 10: Jack Bauer versus the demonic mirrors! More or less.

Ben Carson (Keifer Sutherland) is an ex-police detective suspended for accidentally shooting another cop (we guess – they never go that deep into it). It would seem this would be a major character development point, but the shooting incident is never directly dealt with, which is passing strange. While awaiting re-instatement, and estranged from his family, he takes a job as a night watchman at an old department store. Or rather, the remains of one, since it burned many years previously. This is a bad career choice, since we’ve already watched Ben’s predecessor cut his own throat with a piece of mirror. Still, he needs the job.

On his first night at work, he starts to notice weird things. The burned-out store is full of mirrors, and he begins to see things happening in the reflections of the mirrors that differ from reality. This, to me, is the best part of the movie, quite eerie, with a number of jump scares. We don’t know exactly what is going on, neither does Ben, but we are all feeling very creepy about it.

It turns out the mirrors, or whatever is in the mirror, wants Ben to find someone named Esseker. It’s given the same task to many before Ben, and those who haven’t found the mysterious Esseker have died as a result. One of the weak plot points is that Esseker isn’t really that hard to find. Jack Ben doesn’t even have to torture anyone. Like any good employer, the mirrors work to incentivize the workers, in this case by killing the family of the employees if they don’t achieve quick results. Even better than a 401(k), in this market.

In my opinion, the movie goes off the rails when it abandons the moody approach of the first part, and turns into an action, blow-shit-up spectacle at the end. I couldn’t explain precisely what was going on at the climax, and I doubt if anyone connected with the movie could, either. Keifer Sutherland isn’t bad in his role, but he is essentially playing Jack Bauer from 24 (my wife’s favorite TV show, so I’ve seen way too much of it), complete with fits of rage, and the tendency to shoot his gun at the drop of a hat. Sutherland is capable of more, so it’s a pity he didn’t choose to show a little more range here. The weakest link is actress Paula Patton, who plays Ben Carson’s wife. She is a beautiful woman, but her acting in this movie is terrible.

The movie was directed by Alexandre Aja, who directed the excellent Haute Tension, and the better than expectedly good Hills Have Eyes remake. It is an adaptation of a Korean film, Geoul Sokeuro.

More Free Fiction on Audio

Acclaimed author David Niall Wilson (Maelstrom, Ennui & Other Tales of Madness) has joined the ranks of authors who are recording their work and offering it as a free download. The stories are from a series of short stories based on emoticons, believe it or not. Wilson has the first two up for download at his podcast page. Check 'em out.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary)

Jeff Strand, author of the “creature feature” classic Mandibles, has staked out territory as the top of the pack of authors blending horror with humor. Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary) is the first of four books (so far) featuring his character Andrew Mayhem, a hapless private investigator who gets embroiled in macabre doings somewhat beyond him. It is also the second of three straight novels I’ve read sold to the horror market with a PI protagonist. Not that I’m complaining.

Andrew Mayhem is trying to make it as an unlicensed private detective, while taking care of his children ( his wife supports the family) and dealing with mostly cheating spouse cases. The latest of these gets him his opening beating. He needs a break, and seems to get one when a beautiful woman offers him and a friend $20,000 to recover a key. She even tells them where it is. The only small catch is that it is buried with him, but she assures them the grave is shallow, and located in a convenient part of the park. What could go wrong?

For starters, hubby isn’t quite as dead as Andrew and his pal might have wished, and there is someone else involved, who begins playing a deadly game with Andrew. The case leads to a company called Ghoulish Delights, which makes mini-horror movies starring their well-paying clients.

Despite the clever setup, it took me a little while to get into the book. Part of it, I think, was because the Mayhem character is fairly incompetent, something the character freely admits. But once I got in the proper mood, the book moves fairly quickly. A very entertaining read, and I’ll be looking for the other books in the series.


Quarantine is one of the latest American remakes of a foreign movie, in this case, the Spanish film [REC]. Adherents of the original say it is a much superior version, but I haven’t seen it, so Quarantine will have to be judged on its merits.

Angela (Jennifer Carpenter) is a news reporter, apparently one pretty far down on the food chain. She and her cameraman are doing a ride-along with some firemen on the night shift when they are called to a scene at an old apartment building, where an elderly woman has taken violently ill. And by violently, I mean she is attacking people and biting them in the neck. It gradually develops the building is the site of an outbreak of a disease that seems like an incredibly fast working version of rabies. The zombie-esque victims attack the unafflicted and convert them with their bites.

Even worse, when those inside the building try to leave, they discover the building has been sealed by the authorities in an attempt to contain the outbreak – to the point of killing those inside if need be. Those inside try to find a means of escape while fighting off the attacks of the increasing number of diseased people.

The movie has all the elements of a great horror flick. People trapped in an isolated setting, a sense of claustrophobia and increasing paranoia, etc. The acting is solid, and the script develops the situation well without overplaying its hand.

However, the movie is presented in the “first person camera” POV of The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. The only things you see are what is seen by the television cameraman. Although I liked the other two movies mentioned, I think I’m getting a little tired of the gimmick. There is no reason for the guy with the camera to keep filming while he’s fighting for his life, but he does (at one point beating someone to death with the extremely sturdy camera) because if he did the logical thing and dropped it, the movie would end. The trademark jittery, bouncing camera work combines with the low-light situation in most of the movie to make you wonder what the hell is going on in many scenes. I was grouchy and just wanted a professional film crew to step in and do a better job of filming the action.

Still, if the handheld camera gimmick doesn’t bother you, you may well like this one. The closing sequence, filmed with the night-vision feature on the camera, is exceptionally effective and scary.

As a caveat, I watched this right after my Habs lost the first playoff game to the Boston Bruins, so my opinion is possibly affected by my rotten mood.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Some Recommended Sites

A couple of links have been added to the sidebar. The first is to the website of author William Meikle, whose book The Amulet I just reviewed (and whose The Sirens is forthcoming). Check it out.

The other is for the excellent horror news/reviews site Bloody Good Horror. The proprietors of the site also feature a very informative and entertaining podcast available for download.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Amulet

The modern versions of two genres I love, the private detective story and the horror tale, trace many of their standard tropes back to a common birthplace, the pulp fiction outlets of the 1930s. While H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Seabury Quinn were providing the template for fright fare to come in Weird Tales, Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammet and others were creating the hard-boiled detective in Black Mask. It seems very natural, therefore, that there would be attempts to merge the two. One of the latest, and one of the best, is William Meikle’s recently launched Midnight Eye series. The Amulet is the first in this series.

Derek Adams is a private eye in Glasgow, Scotland (Meikle is a Scotsman transplanted to Canada) with all the hallmarks of a classic private eye. He’s somewhat sick of the world, has a love-hate relationship with the city in which he lives, a penchant for one-liners, and a certain code of honor that doesn’t allows coincide with the law. One day, a beautiful dame comes into his office. She wants Derek to track down a lost family heirloom. A routine case, except this heirloom, the titular amulet, has mystic powers to reach beyond our reality, and the stars are coming into alignment to allow someone with the amulet and the will and knowledge to use it to open a gateway and allow the Old Ones to return to earth. This would be good for the Old Ones, not so good for the rest of us.

Meikle has done a good job with something any writer attempting a classic PI story must do: make the city in which it is set a vital character. Glasgow lives, in all its beauty and ugliness, in this book. The writer flows well, and the story is kept concise and lean. It is easy to read in one or two sittings. His PI character fits well into the pantheon of Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, while the eldritch elements of the plot would do Lovecraft proud. I ordered the second book in the series, The Sirens, when I was about halfway through this one, and I certainly hope Mr. Meikle continues with the adventures of Derek Adams.

Thoroughly and wholeheartedly recommended.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Dying Breed

It’s that time of the year: The Eight Films To Die For have been released. Or as I like to call it: Masochism Theater!

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A group of callow young people journey into a wilderness for some half-baked purpose, and run into inbred cannibals. If you are a huge fan of the Twilight series, this might be a new one to you, but if you watch the sort of mind-corrupting stuff featured on this site, you’re probably tired of the concept. But that is the plot of Dying Breed. It is the first horror movie I can think of set in Tasmania.

Two young men and their two girlfriends go to one of the more isolated parts of Tasmania in search of the allegedly extinct Tasmanian Tiger. The sister of one of the girls previously came to the same location to look for the beast, and ended up drowned after being missing for a year. It ultimately turns out she was kidnapped, gang-raped, forced to give birth, and had her teeth forcibly extracted, none of which is discovered by the authorities, which makes me think there probably isn’t a show called CSI: Tasmania. Anyway, they are determined to find the TT so sis’ life won’t have been in vain.

Problem is, the portion of Tasmania they explore exploring was the old stalking grounds of Alexander Pearce, an escaped convict and cannibal from the early 19th century. The current residents of the area are all descended from him, and have inherited a taste for human meat. Pretty soon, the expected happens.

The first big problem is the potential victims just aren’t likeable enough to make us root for their survival. One of the quartet (Jack) is one of those characters that only occur in fiction, and we’ve talked about his type before: the character so obnoxious he couldn’t exist in real life. Yet here he is, and soon after we meet him, we’re looking forward to his horrible death. The others are almost as bad, being completely useless in a crisis. They go to pieces when things go bad. One of them, Matt, finally weapons up with an axe (after the axe has already been the hero prop in a couple of scenes) but manages to drop the damn thing four times before finally losing it without putting it to use. The basic strategy for the victims is to immediately split up in the face of danger, so they can be picked off one by one. The ending is supposed to be a shock, but I mainly found it goofy.

Australia has produced some good horror movies in the last few years: Wolf Creek (which this seems to be inspired by), the underrated Rogue, the quirky Undead, and so on. This isn’t one of them.

No More Haunt For Me

A few people have e-mailed me to ask what happened to my page at The Haunt. Speculation has been that I committed some unspeakably vile act that caused me to get banned for life from all decent venues. Thanks guys, for having such an accurate opinion of me, but it isn’t true in this case.

I think the concept of Twitter is cool, and if you are a horror-loving Facebook/MySpace type, it is probably something you’ll enjoy. Unfortunately, I’m pretty anti-social by nature, so after I got the page set up the way I wanted it, I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. I talked to the same people I talk to everywhere else, and couldn’t get into the message boards. So, I nuked the page.

This is not meant in any way to be a criticism of The Haunt, it is just my personal preference. And to John, who implied that it was odd that I shun Facebook and MySpace, but set up an account at The Haunt, the universe is now back in alignment.

Friday, April 3, 2009

It's Like Christmas and Your Birthday, At The Same Time

After long delay, the most sought-after horror movie of the modern age will be released on legal DVD in October. That's right, Night of the Creeps will finally be available, in a deluxe edition. Happy happy joy joy. A few more details here:

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Piñata: Survival Island

Also known as Demon Island. Also known as simply Piñata. Also known as just Survival Island. This movie may be in the Witness Protection Program.

A lot has been said about how horror movies tend to overuse the traditional bad guys. Vampires, zombies, werewolves, mummies, masked slashers, etc. have been featured in numerous films each. Why, some ask, can’t movie makers come up with something we haven’t seen hundreds of times? If you are one of those people, I give you Piñata: Survival Island, which is one of the few horror movies to use a killer piñata.

Hundreds of years ago, an Indian village in Mexico was plagued by misfortune. There was rampant disease, and due to crop failure, everyone was starving. This was true even though the shirtless Indians were all noticeably obese. The village’s master piñata maker (a profession which has gone the way of the buggy-whip manufacturer) makes a special piñata, in which he places the evil from everyone in the village. Okay. Once the evil is sealed in the piñata, everything turns to roses, and the villagers break the Piñata of Good Will, which is filled with food so the fat Indians can finally eat. Not wanting to keep the bad piñata around for obvious reasons, they push it out into a river, where it floats away to become someone else’s problem. The Indians then all die from obesity-related diseases (not shown).

Hundreds of years later, a group of 30-year old actors and actresses pretending to be are merrily motor-boating to a remote island. Included among the cast are Kyle (Nicholas Brendon, who played Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Tina (Jaime Pressley, who plays someone on My Name is Earl; probably not Earl). The aging kids are members of fraternities and sororities at some fictitious college, and they are arriving at the island for a scavenger hunt. All of them are utterly stupid and completely unlikeable. The scavenger hunt consists of looking for 2500 pairs of underwear scattered on the island, whoever finds the most wins. This seems like a dumbed-down version of a scavenger hunt, but I think the planners knew who the contestants would be. As added incentive, the judges tell them there are piñatas filled with booze around the island also. Ruh-roh. I’m getting a sense of foreboding. The contestants are to run around the island handcuffed together boy-girl, which should give them some nice wriste scars.

One of the couples comes upon – surprise! – the piñata of evil from the prologue. It apparently drifted out to sea and ended up on the island. Thinking there must be booze inside, the dimwits pound it with a rock until it cracks. The cracks close instantly, but too late. The piñata is awake, and as they are wont to be, pissed. You’d think the piñata would be grateful to the morons who released him (her? It? How do you sex a piñata?) but nosirree. A murderous rampage ensues.

As the number of scavengers is rapidly depleted, we are treated to great inconsistency in piñata size. Sometimes it is larger than a man, sometimes smaller. Occasionally, its legs disappear completely, it grows a tail and can fly. Apparently, the producers of this gem meant for the piñata to be played by a guy in a piñata suit, but because it looked too lame (even worse than the rest of the movie), they shot some scenes of a CGI piñata and inserted them. The CGI is Commodore Amiga quality, so I can’t see how it helps, but there you are.

Eventually, the survivors, who are just who you think they would be, trap the piñata and incinerate it, using gasoline that doesn’t burn in a manner consistent with the known Universe. This doesn’t work. However, after it escapes the large conflagration, Kyle sticks a small fire on the back of its neck and it blows up real good.

The movie, as you might guess, is beyond ludicrous. The scene of the piñata slowly lowering itself on a vine behind the contestants is laugh out loud funny. I don’t know why the people behind the movie didn’t abandon the attempt to make a straight horror movie and turn it into an intentional comedy instead.

Oh well, it was the best Killer Piñata movie I’ve ever seen.