Monday, May 24, 2010

The Reptile

I’m a big fan of the Hammer horror cycle that began in the mid-50s and ran until the early 70s, so I’ve accumulated most of their films on DVD, but I’ve mostly re-watched the ones I already knew. This weekend, I finally got around to the 1966 movie The Reptile.

Harry Spalding and his wife move into his brother’s old house in a remote part of Cornwall, after the mysterious death of the brother. The movie is set in an indeterminate time, like a lot of Hammer films, but it is probably the 19th century. The village is, to say the least, hostile to outsiders, with the pub clearing of all patrons every time Harry walks in, and only Tom the publican will talk to Harry, although I don’t understand why, since Harry is killing his business. Harry learns there have been many strange deaths in the area.

Harry and wife also meet their neighbor from across the swamp, Dr. Franklin, and his strange daughter, and their stranger daughter. Despite the fact that Dr. Franklin couldn’t be worse toward the Spauldings if he beat them on sight, they begin to socialize with him. English manners, I suppose. Perhaps manners also explains why everyone just walks into someone else’s house without knocking when they come to it, or maybe it’s because everyone doesn’t own guns with which to shoot intruders over there.

Tom and Harry, Dick nowhere to be found, begin to investigate the deaths, and find the bodies have fang marks and display the same signs as a cobra bite. In due time, the secret is revealed: Dr. Franklin somehow offended a Borneo devil cult, who then turned his daughter into a snake woman, who sheds her skin and becomes a poisonous reptile. Pretty much the same thing happened to my cousin Benoit. Obviously, they have to put a stop to this.

Hammer was always tops at producing the right atmosphere for Gothic horror films, and The Reptile is no exception. The film has a creepiness that belies its low budget (It was shot back-to-back with Plague of the Zombies, with whom it shares sets and a partial cast). The makeup for the daughter-turned-snake-creature is simple but very effective. There are some plot holes, mainly the implication that the girl is dangerous only when she sheds her skin once a year, but the story indicates she switches back and forth more like a werewolf. The biggest thing missing is an appearance by one or both of Hammer’s stalwarts, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Their absence drops the story a bit, but it does give Hammer stock company veteran Michael Ripper a chance at a larger part, and that is welcome.

Final judgment is The Reptile is a fine addition to the Hammer canon, and if you share y love for the studio’s output, you will want to give it a try.

One odd note: The version of The Reptile I own is one of Anchor Bay’s double-feature titles, which includes The Four-Sided Triangle. The only problem is, The Reptile was released matched with The Lost Continent, which is shown on the spine of the DVD case, although the front art shows the correct two films. The twofer of The Reptile/The Lost Continent seems to be a very real item that according to Anchor Bay and other internet sources never existed. Spoooooooooky.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sorority Row

Slasher movies. They have been the dominant form of “horror” movie for the past thirty years or so, ever since Halloween demonstrated you could make a lot of money on a movie that could be made for peanuts. All you needed was a mask, a knife, and some young victims, and you were set. The slasher sub-genre has ebbed and flowed since Halloween, and has recently been in a periodic resurgence. Since I’m a fairly creepy person who blogs about horror, everyone assumes I’m an aficionado of the field, but that’s not really the case. Oh, I love the original Halloween, and here and there there’s been a decent flick, but they have mostly been repetitious gore fests, only worthwhile if you want to see young people skewered by a maniac. The only time I’ve felt that way was when I watched an episode of MTV’s Real World, and it didn’t happen there.

Hope springs eternal, and I keep trying them, which leads to the current topic of discussion, last year’s movie Sorority Row, a more-or-less remake of 1983’s The House on Sorority Row. A group of vapid sorority sisters learn that one of their sisters has been cheated on by her boyfriend. In a genius plan to teach him a lesson, they give the boyfriend some vitamins, tell him they are roofies, and get him to give them to the girl before sex. Then the girl will pretend to have a seizure and die, and that will show him. Unfortunately for these Master Planners, immediately after telling the lad the “body” will have to be dismembered before disposal, and all of them conveniently turn their backs and walk away. Boyfriend may be a cheater and a Rohypnol Rapist, but he doesn’t shirk from work, and launches into the dismemberment of the momentarily-still-living girl with gusto, using a tire iron. She doesn’t make it through the procedure.

This precipitates a genuine crisis, and, showing the kind of love the Greek system loves to express, they decide to dump the body, tell everyone she ran off, and forget about it. This works pretty well until graduation night, when a caped stranger starts killing the co-conspirators with a tire iron tricked out with a variety of weapons for no apparent reason than it looks cool and a movie killer is supposed to have a unique weapon. Who could be the killer, the dead girl returned from the grave or one of the extraneous characters? I don’t think you’re supposed to care, but unless this is your first one of these movies, you’ll figure it out pretty quickly. People die right down to Final Girl, when the killer is unmasked, and gets his just reward. Or does he?

The first problem with the movie is the five girls are more stereotypes than actual characters. There’s the Queen Bitch, the Queen Bitch’s Toadie, The Slut, the Milquetoast, and the Good Girl, although the Good Girl isn’t that great. None of them show any real redeeming qualities, and when the slaughter starts, there’s no reason for the viewer to root against the killer. No one behaves in a logical manner, but rather to suit the needs of the plot. In the final third of the movie, the sense of humor that can elevate some of these films is suddenly discovered, and lifts it a bit, but you wish it was there all along.

Despite all this, the movie is very competently done for a film of this type. The producers certainly hit all the marks, with blood being spilled in a variety of ways, and every actress not among the principle cast getting naked at every opportunity. It certainly is miles above the recent remake of Prom Night, and several others of recent vintage. If you enjoy this sort of movie, you’ll probably like this one. It is exactly what it purports to be.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Invisible Fences Now Shipping

A while back I posted my thoughts on Norman Prentiss' upcoming book Invisible Fences. To put it mildly, I was blown away, and experienced the odd excitement you get when you have knowledge of something great when it happens. I've talked about a lot of books here, some of which I liked and some I didn't, but if you are ever going to pay attention to me, do so here and order the book. You can get it through Cemetery Dance.

In keeping with my recent habit of self-plagiarism, here is an excerpt from what I said about the story in December of 2008:

The story starts in Maryland, in the 1970s. A brother and sister, Nathan and Pam, live with their protective parents. Their father tells them stories of the horrible things that happen to kids who cross busy highways, who go into the woods by themselves, and so on, in order to keep them from doing the same dangerous things. In effect, erecting “invisible fences” like those used for pets around his children (this is one of those metaphors that is so perfect, you feel envious for not having thought of it yourself). But no fence is completely impervious to children, and the kids pass through them, with life-altering results.

The second part of the book takes place in Alabama, where the family moves, and involves a grown-up Nathan coming to grips with his past. I won’t give anything away, except to tell you it is a ghost story (although you could certainly interpret it in non-supernatural terms if you wish).

The story most closely reminded me of the work of the late Charles L. Grant, who was the dean of the school of so-called “quiet horror”, although I liked Invisible Fences better than Grant’s work. Although it is short, Prentiss brings his characters to vivid life, and makes you feel some of their angst and turmoil, like good writers do. This could be the beginning of a great career, and I’m eager to see what Prentiss does next.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It Must Be Nice to be Talented

My friend John Hornor Jacobs is shopping around his novel This Dark Earth to publishers. It's good, as you will learn one day (although Southern Gods is the novel that will knock your socks off), but that's not what I wanted to bring to your attention. John is also a graphic artist, and he has developed an interactive map for the novel. You can read his post here, or if you're lazy, click straight to the map here. This is all kinds of awesome.

Me, if I draw a stick figure, everyone asks "What is that supposed to be?"

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Horrifying Photo Found on Internet

My interview with Rick Hautala, part of a new series I'll be doing called "We Interrupt This Author", has been posted over at the Cemetery Dance website. In an affront to all that's decent, the powers-that-be decided a photograph of me should accompany the interview, so here's your chance to see what I look like (as well as learn my true name!). I am not responsible for any retinal damage sustained by looking at this.

I would like to thank Mr. Hautala for being a sport about this, and urge you to order his new collection from Cemetery Dance, Occasional Demons.

I'll keep you posted on future victims as they appear.

Flesh Welder

Another post reprinted because I'm too lazy to come up with anything new. Actually, it's a triple-dip, reprinted from my old blog, where it was reprinted from the late, very much missed Skullring. It's a shame I don't pay myself royalties. Anyway, since I first wrote this, Croatoan Publishing has come and gone, unfortunately, although you may still be able to get a copy by contacting Ron Kelly through his website (See link at right. No, your right.) The one thing that hasn't changed is Flesh Welder is still a heckuva good story, but if you are familiar with what Ron writes, that's a given.

Flesh Welder is a short story, originally published in the relatively obscure Noctulpa back in 1990, and unfamiliar to most. It is a post-apocalyptic tale, taking place in Houston about ten years from now. The city, and probably the world, is in ruins from an unexplained war. The area is covered with radioactive zones, and there is a vicious, guerilla-style war still raging, apparently along ethnic lines.

One of the most important survivors in the area is Doctor Rourke, who has acquired the ability to weld flesh – that is, to replace missing body parts with scavenged meat from the many casualties in the area. With traumatic amputations common due to the nature of the fighting, he is important to all sides. The story concerns what happens when Jeremiah Payne, the most cruel of the commanders, needs his services, a man who Rourke despises.

Flesh Welder is a highly entertaining story, and Croatoan has produced a very handsome book. The cover, by Zach McCain, is striking, and the book includes an extensive interview with Kelly by Mark Hickerson, as well as an excerpt from Kelly’s upcoming novel, Undertaker’s Moon. It’s always good to see anything from Ron Kelly.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Hypericon 2010

Just a few weeks now until my favorite convention, Hypericon, which will be held in Nashville June 4th through 6th. Fortunately, the hotel suffered minimal damage in the recent flooding. Looking forward to meeting Ramsey Campbell this year, as well as seeing Bryan Smith, Steve Shrewsbury, and a number of other friends. If you are interested in attending, check out the Hypericon website for details. If you make it, be sure to tell me hello. Unless you are angry about what I said about your book or movie and are looking to beat me up, in which case you can keep your distance.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Ancient Eyes

Authors tend to have themes that fascinate them, things they return to again and again, such as Jack Finney’s longing to return to a by-gone day, or Philip K. Dick’s obsession with human identity. For author David Niall Wilson, there is a recurrent theme of the nature of religion, or more exactly the role religion serves in his characters lives. Sometimes the religious themes are font and center, as with his classic novel This Is My Blood, and sometimes it serves as subtext. Since this is something of deep interest to me, this is possibly part of the reason I enjoy his work so much. Ancient Eyes is another novel with this as a focal point.

The principal character in the novel is Abraham Carlson, who grew up in an isolated community in the California Mountains (despite the California location, it seemed more rural Southern to me, but that would be a personal prejudice). Abraham’s father was the spiritual leader of the community, and when Abraham was a boy, took action against a dark presence residing in the mountain and vanquished it, although not permanently. In the years since, Abraham’s father has died, and he has moved away, becoming a writer and putting his past behind him. Until he receives a cryptic message from his mother, “He is returned…come home, boy”. It seems that Abraham’s family is part of an ages-old struggle against evil, and Abraham must return to his birthplace to continue the fight.

Ancient Eyes works just fine as a simple classic good vs. evil story, with the “good” stone church opposing the “evil” white church. But Wilson is one of the best authors working today, and for those who want something deeper, there is plenty here. Of particular interest is the fact that Reverend Koz, the nemesis of Abraham’s father, doesn’t see himself as some disciple of evil. He truly believes he is following the proper path of God. The parallel to modern religious fanaticism is clear. No matter how evil we see religious extremists; to themselves they are doing the right thing.

Whether it was deliberate or not, the book shows (I think) influence from Welsh writer Arthur Machen, who used similar motifs in his work. For those looking for a decapitation or an evisceration on every page, it may not be quite what they are looking for, but for anyone who appreciates good writing. The book was published by Bloodletting Press, and is very well put together, with a gorgeous cover (seen at right) and internal illustrations by Don Paresi.

Since I’ve been doing this little blog, I’ve posted on several of David Niall Wilson’s books, including This Is My Blood, Roll Them Bones, and now Ancient Eyes. I think it bears mentioning not only are they three great books, but they are very dissimilar to each other. Many authors basically write the same book over and over again, but Wilson gives you something new and different each time, and does it well.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

20 Million Miles To Earth

Ray Harryhausen is the undisputed master of stop-motion animation, the process of creating special effects using articulated models, photographed with incremental motion and then turned into a movie clip. He is best known for his fantasy films, including a number of adventures of Sinbad and the original Clash of the Titans. In the 1950s, he had an impressive run of “Giant Creature” movies, including The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and It Came From Beneath the Sea. These and Earth Versus the Flying Saucers also moved his work into a more science-fiction direction. In 1957, he took his crew to Italy to film 20 Million Miles to Earth. Why Italy? According to Harryhausen himself, he wanted to take an extended vacation in Italy, and this was the only way he could afford it.

A fleet of Sicilian fishermen have their work interrupted by the splashdown of a giant spacecraft. Before the craft sinks, two of the fishermen rescue two survivors. It turns out to be an American spaceship, returning from a mission to Venus, a mission that was kept secret because…well, just because. A young boy with the fishermen recovers a container with what appears to be a giant larva inside it. The boy is an enterprising and mercenary lad, the president of his school’s chapter of FMS (Future Mafioso of Sicily), and sells the larva to a vacationing professor for pocket change. Fortunately for the plot, the professor has a beautiful daughter to serve as a love interest for an astronaut.

The larva soon hatches a cute little Venusian creature called an Ymir. Well, that’s its name, but it isn’t actually called that in the film because the producers thought it would be confused with Emir, a type of Middle Eastern ruler who is apparently a giant reptile. The cuteness of the Ymir doesn’t last long, because its size is increasing exponentially. By the time it reaches Rome, it has reached Godzilla size and is ready for a rampage. Only the astronaut, the professor’s daughter, and the Italian army stand in the way of the beast wrecking the ancient ruins of Rome.

The highlight of the film is definitely Harryhausen’s animation. The Ymir fights an elephant, has a face-off in the Coliseum with the army, and generally tears stuff up. The style of animation used in the film has become passé today, but it still stirs the imagination. Few have ever had the affinity for creating giant monsters as Ray Harryhausen, and the Ymir is a thrilling.

There are also quite a few weaknesses. Harryhausen’s preference seemed to be for fantasy (the original storyboards depict the Ymir as a giant Cyclops) and the sci-fi elements are weak. Where does the creature get the mass to increase its size so dramatically, and why does Earth’s atmosphere make it grow in the first place? There are also plot holes, such as why the Italian professor, who speaks with an Italian accent, naturally enough, has a daughter with an American accent. The plot serves a s a vehicle to get to the monster mayhem, logic be damned.

The acting is fairly wooden. The only recognizable actor is William Hopper as the astronaut, who was a supporting player on the Perry Mason TV show, and the actors aren’t helped by dialogue that clanks and groans. My favorite line is from the press conference after the spaceship crashes, when the American representative reveals the ship was on a mission to Venus. One of the reporters asks, “You mean Venus…the planet?” Fortunately for the reporter, the guy holding the press conference wasn’t as prone to sarcasm as I am.

Despite its flaws, 20 Million Miles to Earth is a lot of fun, and you get exactly what you would expect (a giant monster running amok). If this sort of movie appeals to you and you haven’t seen the movie, you should give it a try.

One final note: Like most movie buffs, I am fervently opposed to the “colorization” of old black and white movies. 20 Million Miles to Earth is presented on the blu ray both in the original black and white and a colorized version done for its 50th anniversary, and it might be the one exception to my opposition. Harryhausen himself, who wanted to film the movie in color but couldn’t afford it, supervised the process himself, and I have to admit it looks good. I’m glad both versions are available on the disc.

The Man Eating Bookworm

I would like to invite you to check out my friend Andrew's new blog The Man Eating Bookworm, definitely an unusual title. Please overlook the spelling, he's Canadian, and you know how they butcher the President's English.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Lost Boys: the Tribe

There was talk of doing a sequel to The Lost Boys even while making the original movie. The director, Joel Schumacher, went to great pains to give Kiefer Sutherland a “death” that would allow him to return (the antlers missed his heart, although why he became so still afterward is a mystery) in a sequel. When a sequel with Sutherland’s character didn’t pan out, talk turned to a distaff sequel, The Lost Girls, but that never came to pass either. It would take 21 years for the second Lost Boys film to appear.

In 2008, filming was completed on Lost Boys: The Tribe. Even if Kiefer Sutherland was available, he wouldn’t have worked in the role. Vampires don’t age, but actors do, and while Sutherland remains in good shape, he no longer has the boyish look of 1988. To replicate the feel of the original, Kiefer’s much younger half-brother Angus was cast as the new leader of the vampires. Sadly, this is where the movie goes off the rails. Angus lacks Kiefer’s charisma, which allowed him to play a vampire who could either become your friend or rip your throat out.

The movie starts with a vignette showing an older vampire (makeup great Tom Savini, always a welcome sight) confronting a group of younger vampires, with unfortunate results. This establishes the “tribal” theme of the picture, and the idea of vampires forming opposing tribes is an interesting one, but there is no follow through on this idea.

Meanwhile, Chris and Nicole Emmerson, the children of Jason Patrick and Jami Gertz from the first movie (you have to pay attention to get this) arrive in California. Chris was a champion surfer, but has been banned after an incident, apparently involving knee-capping another surfer. Hey, all the vampires are surfers, too! They even include the surfer Chris maimed! Welcome to Coincidenceville, California. Soon Chris and Nicole are recruited to join the vampires, Corey Feldman shows up as Edgar Frog from the first movie, and the head vampire has to die to save Chris and Nicole. Sound familiar?

Other than Angus Sutherland’s sub-par performance, the biggest thing dragging the movie down is an over-reliance on replicating the first movie, a common problem with sequels. The first movie had a nutty grandpa, this one has a nutty aunt. The motorcycle chase scene is repeated, this time including skateboards. It isn’t a terrible movie, but I would say its appeal would be to hard-core fans of the first one.

If you would like to see the late Corey Haim’s final appearance, be sure to watch the credits. Another sequel, Lost Boys: The Thirst, is due on video later this year.

Note: I just realized I don’t have the original Lost Boys on this site. I’ll have to rectify that.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Sparrow Rock

Some years ago, I signed up for the Leisure Horror Fiction Club. It’s a good deal; you get the two titles Leisure publishes each month at a reduced price and they come straight to you. I also had grand plans to read the two books as they came to me. By keeping to this, I reasoned, I would be exposed to new writers and get out of the comfort zone of reading writers already familiar to me. You know where good intentions lead, and real life got in the way. Soon I was hopelessly behind. One of the casualties of my lapse was a new writer named Nate Kenyon. He has been well-reviewed, but since I wasn’t familiar with his work, it was easy to place his book to the side for “later reading”. The problem compounded itself, and when the most recent shipment arrived, I realized I was holding Kenyon’s fourth published novel, Sparrow Rock. Even my sloth has limits, so I decided to read it to judge whether the positive buzz was deserved.

Sparrow Rock
is set in the separate-but-attached, self-absorbed world of a small group of New England teenagers. Pete (the POV character) is the joker of the group, with a disabled mother, a dead father and a terrible secret. Jimmie is a screwup, but Pete’s best friend. Tessa is the girl next door, Jay the class brain, Big Sue who is sweet on Jay, and Dan, the jock and leader of the crew. On a fateful night, the group goes to an elaborate fallout shelter belonging to Big Sue’s grandfather, to drink, smoke dope and generally do what teenagers do.

It turns out the fallout shelter is the place to be, since while they are down there Armageddon arrives, in the form of a widespread nuclear assault. While everything above-ground is being obliterated, they are safe in the shelter. That isn’t the worst of it, however, since something else follows in the wake of the nuclear holocaust, something that wants into the shelter…and into them. The teens will soon be fighting this strange new menace as their fragile group dynamic crumbles under the strain.

In my opinion Sparrow Rock is well worth the hype. Maybe it could have been trimmed a bit (but then I think every books needs cutting these days) but the writing does a great job of projecting the claustrophobia of the shelter, and the growing sense of hopelessness of the survivors, who may not have been the lucky ones after all. There are some interesting revelations along the way, both personal ones from the group, and in things learned about the attack itself. Whenever I had to put it down, I thought about it, and looked forward to getting back to it. A page-turner, in other words.

So, if you haven’t read Nate Kenyon’s books, you should, and Sparrow Rock would be a good place to start. Me, I’m off to dig three more books from my to-be-read pile.

One irrelevant side: Part of the menace faced by the teens could be described as "zombie-ish" in nature, yet the Z word is not mentioned on the cover. Does this mean the zombie wave has crested? I sure hope so.