Thursday, November 17, 2011

Halloween H2O: 20 Years Later


After Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, the Halloween franchise seemed to have run out of steam, tangled in its own convoluted continuity. Was Michael subject to the Curse of Thorn? The result of a genetics experiment? It was unclear where to go with the story, and the box office receipts had been in decline for some time, while costs were rising. I suppose in 1996, it seemed doubtful Michael Myers would ever be given a chance to increase his body count. A couple of things happened, though, which brought him back to life, just as he always revived from whatever apparent death he suffered on screen.

First of all, Scream came out, which led to a brief revival of slasher movies. Secondly, Jamie Leigh Curtis became interested in doing a follow-up to the earlier films, something she had been deadfast against. I’ve always assumed this was partially because her career was slowing as she hit the 40-year-old wall that limits the opportunities of actresses, but that’s just speculation. The fact that so many A-list actors and actresses appeared in the Scream franchise probably helped remove some of the career stigma as well. Whatever the reason, with her involvement, a new sequel was prepped to take advantage of the twentieth anniversary of the original, with the somewhat kludgey title of Halloween H2O: 20 Years Later. Story ideas were supplied by Kevin Williamson, the writer of the Scream franchise. John Carpenter was approached to direct and was interested, but the studio balked at his $10 million fee, which seems to have stemmed from lingering resentment at being done out of a rightful share of the profits for the original Halloween. Instead, the movie was directed by Steve Miner, a producer on the original Friday the 13th, and director of the first two sequels in that series.

The movie opens in Langdon, Illinois, presumably close to Haddonfield. (At first, I thought the government might have just given up and nuked Haddonfield due to the carnage there, but I guess that wasn’t the case.) On the day before Halloween, a familiar person visits Nurse Chambers (Dr. Loomis’s nurse from the first two movies), killing her and two neighbor boys. Michael is back! We get one final look at the (cinematic) incompetence of Illinois policemen, as they take forever to respond to the report of a burglary, then go to the house next door to where three murders are being committed.

The scene shifts to California, the next day (finally, they won’t have to work around all the greenery at Halloween). Laurie Strode (Jamie Leigh Curtis) has faked her own death, changed her name to Keri Tate, and is working as headmistress at a posh boarding school, living with her son John (Josh Hartnett, in his first film role). No one knows of her secret, but she hasn’t exactly ended up well adjusted, and still suffers from various psychological problems centered on Halloween. Frankly, she’s a bit of a shrew, but who can blame her? At Halloween, the school is deserted except for Jamie, her boyfriend Will (Adam Arkin), her son, his girlfriend Molly (Michelle Williams in another early role), two of their friends, and a security guard played by LL Cool J. Michael shows up to continue his life mission of killing his entire family, and soon various actors and actresses are being impaled by sharp things.

Although there was originally to be plot points that explained how this movie fit with the fourth through sixth installments, the decision was made that they would be ignored as if nothing had happened since Halloween II, although Laurie’s fake death remains as a remnant of that earlier version. No explanation is given for where Michael has been for the last twenty years, although I like to think he was working as a chef at Benihana. Poor Jamie from the preceding films never existed, although since she ended up spending most of her life being raped as part of a breeding experiment, that may be for the best.

Anyway, carnage ensues, many secondary characters die, and we get a face-off between Laurie/Keri and her big brother. Blood is spilled, although H2O continues the tradition of the series being less gory than most of its counterparts (never fear on that point, gore fans, Rob Zombie is on the way), and Michael is once again killed for good. Despite the seeming finality of his demise this time, having seen his previous five appearances, I’m betting he’ll get better soon.

So, what’s the verdict? Surprisingly good, to be honest. I’ve never been much of a fan of Steve Miner, but the film does a good job of building suspense, swapping a high body count for increased tension. The cast is pretty good, and film buffs will enjoy the small part played by Janet Leigh (Psycho) who is of course Jamie Leigh Curtis’ real life mother. She gets to repeat the “one good scare” line from the first movie, and give us an in-joke when she asks Laurie if she can “be maternal for a moment.” I think if you are a fan of the first two, you can segue right into this one without any real disappointment.

For the trivia buffs, the two movies seen briefly on TV sets (a series trademark) are the legendarily awful Plan 9 From Outer Space, and writer Kevin Williamson’s Scream 2.
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WITA #3: Greg F. Gifune


Resuming the series of reprints of interviews I did for Cemetery Dance, today we reprint an interview with author Greg F. Gifune which originally appeared on Cemetery Dance' website on July 7, 2010. As always, these reprints appear courtesy of Cemetery Dance, and the reader should remember the interview is over a year old, so if the subject says "coming soon", the book is probably already out there. So, fire up the old Wayback Machine...

The author we’re pulling away from work this time is Greg F. Gifune. A Massachusetts native, Greg is the highly-regarded author of such works as The Bleeding Season and Children of Chaos. His most recent book from Cemetery Dance is Catching Hell.

WITA -Your new release from Cemetery Dance is Catching Hell. Tell us a little about it.

Greg Gifune - It’s set in 1983, and is about three young actors and a stagehand from a summer stock theater who take off from Cape Cod to visit a resort in Maine as a kind of last hooray before they either go on to college or move to New York City to chase their dreams. On the way, they encounter a bizarre storm and wind up in a peculiar town that seems to be stuck in the 1940s. But the town is anything but the quaint and harmless little hamlet it appears to be at first glance, and once they become trapped there they realize the locals are harboring some horrible secrets and that they’ll have to fight their way out to survive the night, or risk falling prey to a cycle of depravity and violence at the hands of a demonic creature so horrifying few will even speak its name.

WITA -Compared to many of your peers, you are quite prolific (Your website shows 14 books written by you). How do you manage to be as productive as you are without sacrificing quality?

GG - Do nothing but work and have virtually no life? No, seriously, it may appear that I’m a bit more prolific than I really am, as I’ve been writing professionally now for more than a decade full-time, so when you spread my list of published novels out over a 10 or 11 year timeframe it’s probably not quite as impressive. And also, usually (not always but usually) my novels sit in my head literally for years before I write them, so by the time I’m putting them to paper I have a solid grasp of what I’m doing with it and what I want. Still, I have managed to produce a good amount of work, you’re right. Much of that has been because I’ve been in demand from the publishers I’ve worked with so I’m very grateful to them and the fans for that. I’ve learned how to juggle projects and to do the things required of a professional novelist these days, and to do them in a manner where quality is not sacrificed. I also work very hard at what I do and strive for that quality. The harder I work, the more it pays off.

WITA -Now that you’ve been writing for a while, how has your style changed over time? Does the process come easier to you now?

GG - Although it took time to find my voice and develop my style, because I wrote for years before I ever wrote a novel, I was able to have both established by the time I did. Since then I think my style has remained the same, more or less, but it has evolved, and continues to (hopefully for the better). The only thing is that I’ve had to speed my process up a bit, which is not entirely natural for me, but it’s a shift I’ve learned to live with because it’s a necessary.

WITA -Everyone wonders what the chef eats when he’s away from his restaurant, so what do you read for entertainment? Who are some of the writers who have had an influence on your work?

GG - Unfortunately I don’t have the time to read for pleasure like I used to, but when I do have the time I tend to mix it up between fiction and nonfiction. I have very eclectic tastes when it comes to just about everything, so it’s a wide range in both. I read The New Yorker too, have for years, and I enjoy that. As for writers who have influenced me, there have been many, but I rarely list them because I always forget some. Here’s a few: Virginia Woolf, Jim Thompson, Tennessee Williams.

WITA -Writing can be lonely work, and sometimes it takes a while to receive positive reinforcement for what you do. What made you decide on writing as a career?

GG - Very true, writing is very isolating at times and can be very lonely, and it’s also (at times) a very brutal business. I never really decided on it though, it decided for me. I’ve always known what I wanted to do, always wanted to be a writer and an actor, and from the time I was a little kid, I mean, I don’t ever remember not knowing what I wanted to do. I studied, worked in and pursued both for years. Sounds corny but it’s true, it’s who I am. The literal decision came in my early 30s, when I decided if I didn’t commit and really go after a career as a writer, I never would. So I did and fortunately it paid off.

WITA -What should we be looking for in the near future from Greg Gifune?

GG - More novels coming later this year and next, and recently I’ve had quite a bit of interest from Hollywood (and some indi filmmakers as well) regarding several novels of mine, so we’ll see what happens there. My website is probably the best way to stay on top of things: www.gregfgifune.com.
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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers


Although this is the sixth film in the series, it is the first not to have the number in the title (some of the home video releases do call it Halloween 6). This was done so that when you put them on your shelf, you have to look closely at the production date to figure out which order to place them. You don’t shelve your movies by category, sub-category, production dates, etc.? Oh, well. I have a touch of CDO, which is OCD but with the letters alphabetized, they way they should be.

It’s six years after the events of Halloween 5, and a strange cult attends a young woman giving birth. When the baby is born, it is taken by the Man in Black from the preceding film for a ritual involving painting a rune on its stomach. With the help of a sympathetic nurse, the girl escapes and takes the baby, only to be pursued by Michael Myers. We eventually learn the girl is little Jamie from the preceding two films, that she was kidnapped along with Michael, and that apparently the cult has been breeding her with her uncle Michael. (May I say: Ewwww!) She heads back to Haddonfield, with Michael on her trail.

Back in good ol’ Haddonfield, there isn’t any of the Myers family left, but relatives of the Strodes, Laurie Strodes’ adoptive family, are now living in the old Myers house. That’s convoluted. Meanwhile, next door, there is a boarding house where Tommy (Paul Rudd, in his first film), the little boy Laurie baby-sat back in the first film, now lives. Tommy has grown up to be a little weird, which is understandable, and is watching the Myers’ house for the inevitable return of MM.

It seems that Michael is as Michael is because of the ancient Curse of Thorn, which causes one person in the village to become a mad killer so that…something or other. The cultists want the curse to be passed from Michael to his son/grand-nephew because…they just do, that’s all. Michael kills everyone he meets, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) shows up once again to save the day, the Man in Black is revealed to be anti-climactic, and there is another open-ended ending.

By this point, the series had degenerated into a twisted mess. The production was famously complicated, and delayed by various lawsuits. Endless re-writes and changes meant the “Curse of Thorn” angle which is the main plot point of the early part of the film disappears at the end, and the cult is revealed to be doing genetic experiments instead, for some unknown reason. There are several bootleg alternate versions of the film floating around, and many claim they are better. They would almost have to be.

Casting was a problem. Danielle Harris was willing to come back, but producers supposedly wouldn’t meet her salary demands, which were for the amazingly low price of $5000, which shows how seriously the production company took the project. The producers wanted to bring back the actor who played Tommy in the original, but apparently couldn’t find him, although I doubt they put that much effort into it. Instead Paul Rudd got his first part. I’ve never been a fan of Rudd, and feel he is the opposite of charismatic, but he doesn’t do a bad job here as the damaged-to-the-point-of-weirdness Tommy. Donald Pleasance has been the heart and soul of the series to this point, but here he seems old and weak, and with good reason, as the legendary actor would pass away before the film was released.

The movie was savaged by critics, and with good reason. It also opened on the same weekend as Se7en, which was a much more sophisticated look at a serial killer movie, and suffered in comparison. Despite this, the sixth installment of the franchise did surprisingly good business, drawing a box office about three times its production budget. Thank Thorn they saved that five grand.

Oh, and everyone still mispronounces “Samhain.”

By the end of Curse, it was difficult to see where the franchise could go. The last two installments had strangled themselves trying to create an overly complicated mythology, and it was going to be hard to continue the story and deal with the sometimes contradictory subplots that had been created. Not to worry, though, this would be dealt with by retconning the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth movies out of existence. The next movie would pretend nothing had happened in the story since Halloween II.
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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers


When last we left the Halloween franchise, Michael Myers was finally dead, due to being shot a lot, and lovable moppet Jamie had turned evil, icing her adopted mother with a knife. So, Halloween 5 would be the first in the series without Michael Myers (omitting Halloween 3, which is part of the series, but not really part of the series. Continuity, I mean. Oh, you either know what I mean or don’t care, so let’s move on.) and would feature a pre-teen girl on a rampage with a knife, right? Not so fast, my friend…

The movie opens with a recap of the ending of Halloween 4. Everybody shoots Michael Myers repeatedly until he falls down a mine shaft. They then rush forward and drop explosives down the shaft, blowing everything up real good. They do everything they can to insure that MM is dead, other than, you know, checking to see if there actually is a body. There isn’t, because we see MM crawl out of the bottom of the shaft and exit in a nearby river. His body floats downstream until he is found by a hermit, who takes his comatose body to stay at his shack with him and his parrot. This is too obvious an homage to Bride of Frankenstein to be unintentional.

Meanwhile Jamie (Danielle Harris), who only managed to wound her mom, is institutionalized, rendered completely mute by her experiences. She is frequently visited by creepy Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and big sister Rachel (Ellie Cornell). She also has a friend at the institution, Billy (Jeffrey Landman) who stutters. If the stutter fascinates you, please listen to the commentary on the DVD, because Landman and Harris go on about how much of it was scripted longer than you would imagine possible.

On October 30th one year after the events of Halloween 4, Myers wakes up in the old man’s shack and kills him. I couldn’t help wondering why someone would live with a stranger in a coma for a year, but I guess hermits are supposed to be that way. The fate of the parrot is unknown, which is surprising since this series is very hard on canine pets, with the fourth death of a pet dog coming in this installment.

Back in Haddonfield, where I guess people continue to live because of low housing prices, Jamie has developed a telepathic link with her uncle Michael, which would be more helpful if she could talk, since MM is soon butchering a brand new crop of the town’s teenagers. (Graduation ceremonies at the local high school must have felt like a wake.) There is also a mysterious man in black stalking around town, although we never see his face.

Finally, we reach the climax, when MM confronts Jamie, who has regained the ability to talk now that it’s too late. Before he can kill her, Loomis rushes in and saves the day. For a change, Michael doesn’t “die” at the end of this one; Loomis just shoots him with a tranquilizer gun and beats the crap out of him with a two-by-four. Jamie is saved and Michael is taken to jail, which seems like a Really Bad Idea. As it proves to be, when the man in black shows up at the station, kills all the cops, and releases MM. This is the end of the movie, which is an obvious setup for the next one, where hopefully we’ll find out who the man in black really is. I’m betting on Johnny Cash.

Up until now, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the series, but it begins to go off the rails here. It’s too much of a generic slasher movie, and probably seemed tired even when it was released. Most of the characters exist only to be killed, and many of them are the types who seem to deserve it. One of the girl’s boyfriends is supposed to be a “bad boy” type, but comes off as a sullen version of Fonzie from Happy Days. In keeping with the tradition of showing everyone in Haddonfield as a moron, there are two bumbling cops who are useless even by the Haddonfield PD’s dubious standards. They even have their own “clown music” musical cue, which is supposed to be an homage to the original The Last House on the Left.

Danielle Harris does a commendable job with what she has to work with, since she has no lines for most of the film, and has to show some variation of the same frightened face throughout the first two-thirds of the movie. Donald Pleasance does a good job of chewing the scenery, which is what his role calls for. Overall, though, I don’t feel very confident as I move on to the next installment.

Halloween 5 did reasonable business at the box office, but it was obvious the slasher genre it had spawned was running out of steam at the end of the 80s.
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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dark Score Stories


Yes, I'm going to finish the Halloween movies, hopefully before next Halloween. In the meantime, check out the website A & E Television has launched that serves as sort of a prequel/backstory for their upcoming miniseries of Stephen King's Bag of Bones, starring Pierce Brosnan and Melissa George. It's called Dark Score Stories, and is fairly creepy. King fans can have fun finding the King references in the background of the photographs.
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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers


I intended to finish my recap of the Halloween series on Halloween day. I also intended to be rich and handsome; that didn’t work out either. Even though the holiday itself is over, it lives on in the hearts of each of us, whether those hearts still beat in our chest or sit in a jar on the desk of the local serial killer. So, we continue on with Project Halloween. No more Roman numerals!

Ten years have passed since the night Michael Myers “came home” in the original Halloween. Contrary to what we saw at the end of Halloween II, neither Myers nor Dr. Loomis died in the fiery climax, they just picked up some interesting new scars. Michael is in an apparent coma at an insane asylum, while Loomis continues his new career of telling everyone that Michael is going to wake up and kill them all. He is the Cassandra of this series. Naturally, he is proven right when Michael wakes up, kills a few attendants, and hits the road back home to see his family.

Meanwhile back in Haddonfield, life has gone on. Laurie Strode grew up, got married, had a child and was killed in a car wreck along with her husband. (Don’t worry, in about three movies she’ll get much better.) Her daughter, Jamie (Danielle Harris), is now Michael Myers only living relative, and therefore his principle target. Jamie lives with her foster family, including Rachel (Ellie Cornell). Jamie is getting ready for Halloween by picking out her costume – a clown costume nearly identical to the one l’il Michael Myers wore at the beginning of the first one. This won’t end well. Donald Pleasance, who plays Dr. Loomis, is the only cast member to return from the first two movies.

A brief digression: I mentioned the incompetence of everyone in my review of Halloween II, but in this movie I was really struck by what a miserable place Haddonfield is to live, even if you discount the periodic spree killings. Jamie is teased mercilessly for having a dead mother; a group of teenagers taunt an old man trying to get a ride, and a bunch of local rednecks grab their guns and take off after hearing word of Myers’ escape, managing to shoot innocent bystanders in the process. The police are as clueless as in the rest of the series. In short, if I lived in Haddonfield, I’d move.

Once MM reaches Haddonfield, he goes on the usual massacre, including killing the only teenager who has sex, as is the custom. After being thwarted for several movies by the fact that Michael is impervious to being shot, the townspeople find the way to kill him: shooting him a lot. It seems the not-so-good people of Haddonfield can get back to the lives they lead between bloody massacres. After being suspiciously absent during the chaos, Jamie’s foster family picks her up and carries her home. All is well until we hear Jamie’s mother give a blood-curdling off-camera scream, and Jamie emerges in her clown costume, holding a bloody knife. It looks like Halloween 5 is going to be a nine-year-old girl on a rampage.

After the semi-failure of Halloween III, the Halloween franchise set dormant for a few years, while Michael Myers’ “offspring” such as Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger went on regular, money-grabbing, killing sprees. This inspired the studio, led by Moustapha Akkad to revive the series and get it back to its roots. John Carpenter and Debra Hill were contacted, and, with noted horror author Dennis Etchison, produced a treatment that dealt with the psychological aspects of a town such as Haddonfield dealing with the aftermath of tragedy. Supposedly, Akkad read it, pronounced it too cerebral, and said he wanted a guy in a mask running around stabbing people with a knife. Carpenter and Hill sold their rights to the franchise, Etchison was canned, and the series re-started. I’d love to know what Carpenter and Etchison intended for the movie, but that dwells in the realm of Things That Were Not Meant To Be.

Supposedly, the producers felt there was too little gore in the completed cut, and the bloody scenes were re-shoots, added later. One of the things that have surprised me in re-watching this series is how relatively bloodless it is, and Halloween 4 isn’t that gory even with the new scenes. The franchise was at its best when it suggested bloody horror, not when it was shown.

So, how is Halloween 4, after all that? Surprisingly decent, in my opinion. It is very low on originality, but as a by-the-numbers slasher film, it is well put together. The cast does a good job, the clothing and hairstyles have as little 80s embarrassments as possible, and the script and direction are solid. If you like slasher films, you should like this one.
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Monday, October 31, 2011

From A Buick 8


For the Halloween season of October this year, I resolved to spend most of my reading time re-reading old favorites. Grand masters like Stephen King, Robert R. McCammon, Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, and my annual re-read of “The Colour Our of Space” guaranteed a spooky time. Throw in a couple of modern things (Bryan Smith’s Kayla and the Devil and Norman Partridge classic Halloween story Dark Harvest) and I was set.

For my King selection I decided to go with a book I hadn’t read since its release, and one of his books that inspires a great division of opinion among his fans: From A Buick 8.

In western Pennsylvania, a mysterious man drives his vintage Buick Roadmaster into a service station and disappears, leaving the car behind. The car is taken into custody by the local barracks of the State Police, and stays in a storage shed on their property for the next quarter of a century. The troopers learn the thing really isn’t a car, just a mimicry of a car. Strange lights are occasionally seen around it, there are mysterious temperature fluctuations nearby, and sometimes things come through. People, animals, and things also vanish nearby, indicating the “car” may be some sort of portal to…somewhere else. The story is told as a flashback, with the older troopers telling it to Ned Wilcox, the young son of one of the troopers who first encountered the object, and who has been recently slain in a roadside accident.

The story ties into King’s larger Dark Tower mythos, but it reads perfectly well without any knowledge of that series, and in my mind, not knowing anything else heightens the sense of mystery, so it shouldn’t make it difficult to read for someone who hasn’t read the other books. Many King fans dislike the book because there is a lack of a definite conclusion, and most of the mysteries are not solved in the end.
From A Buick 8 features two themes of King’s work. The first is the obvious connection to cars. Like Christine, the central object is a vintage car (or something that looks like one) with malevolent intent. King, like me, is old enough to remember the glory days of American car culture, so classic cars are a strong nostalgic totem in his work.

The other theme is one found in some of King’s later work, and is what frustrated many readers, the lack of a definitive conclusion. My pet theory is this relates to the age of the writer. When you are young, you have an often-misplaced confidence that in time all things will be revealed, all mysteries will be solved. Thus the more definitive endings and explanations of King’s earlier work. Carrie dies, the Overlook hotel explodes, Salem’s Lot burns to the ground. As you get older, you start to realize that not all puzzles will be solved, not all truths will be made clear. Sometimes, Godot never arrives. This is found in a good deal of King’s later work, in fact; his next novel, The Colorado Kid, is structurally identical to From A Buick 8. Old-timers tell a young person about a mystery, and that youngster is frustrated by the lack of an ending.

Although I understand why a lot of people don’t like From A Buick 8, the story works for me. Not every secret will be told, and sometimes you have to use your imagination to fill in the blanks.
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Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Crystal Skull For My Birthday

Sounds a little like the title of an old Gold Medal paperback, doesn't it?

So next Monday is my birthday. The fact that I was born on Halloween explains a lot, doesn’t it? So, I saw my Mom, and she gave me part of my birthday present:

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That’s the 1.75 liter size of Crystal Head Vodka, and yes, it is a life size crystal skull. This is an incredibly cool present, although the thought of my mother, a teetotalling Southern Baptist, shopping for booze at the commissary gives me the giggles. Obviously, she went out of town to do it.
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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Halloween III: Season of the Witch


And now for something completely different…

Although Halloween II was a bit of a box office disappointment by the standards of the original film, lost amid the glut of early 80s slasher films, it was still very profitable, and therefore talks on continuing the series were almost immediate. John Carpenter was adamant that Michael Myers had died at the end of the second film, and that his story was over. To continue the film series, Carpenter had the idea of a yearly series of movies set around some aspect of Halloween but independent of each other, an anthology series on a grand scale. This would begin with Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which would have little or no connection to the first two films, at least in terms of story. Carpenter chose Tommy Lee Wallace, art director on the original Halloween, to direct the movie, and commissioned a script by Nigel Kneale, the British writer of the Quatermass films.

A businessman is chased by mysterious figures, clutching a Halloween mask and saying “they’re gonna kill us all.” He collapses and is taken to the hospital, where he is placed under the care of Dr. Challis (Tom Atkins), who continues in the Halloween movie tradition of drunken doctors. After one of the pursuers follows the man to the hospital and kills him, Challis for no good reason begins to investigate the case himself, with the man’s daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin). The trail leads them to Santa Mira, California (no fake leaves this time) and the Silver Shamrock Halloween mask company, run by kindly Irishman Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy). Except Cochran isn’t so kindly. He has created an army of robots to do his bidding, and, as a follower of the ancient Druid religion has stolen Stonehenge and shipped it to America (!). A chip from Stonehenge is in each of his Silver Shamrock masks, and when the wearer hears the Silver Shamrock jingle while wearing the mask, he will be killed. Thus millions of children will die, and the ancient Druid gods will be appeased. Or something.

It was a bit of a troubled production. Kneale didn’t like the amount of violence being added to the movie, so he sued to have his name removed from it. John Carpenter did a rewrite of the script, and so did Wallace, although Wallace gets sole credit for screenwriting. The plot demanded several special effects shots and the tiny budget ($2.5 million) just wasn’t enough to do a good job. The effects in the climactic scene are particularly cheap looking. The movie was savaged by critics. Appropriate, since there is an apocryphal story that carpenter wanted to do the film because Rex Reed had said he would resign as a film critic if they made a Halloween III.

Still, Atkins, Nelkin, and O’Herlihy do a good job with their roles, and the anti-corporate message was ahead of its time. There are too many problems to call it a really good movie, but it isn’t the complete waste critics railed about at the time. Oh, there is a connection with the first two, as footage from the original film is shown on a television set in the background.

The movie took in less than half the receipts of the previous one in the series. While profitable, this decline killed the concept of a Halloween anthology series in its infancy, leaving future entries in the “What Might Have Been” category. When next the series returned, we would learn Michael Myers wasn’t all that dead after all.
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Monday, October 24, 2011

Halloween II (1981)


Continuing Project Halloween…

When we left off at the end of the first movie in the series, Halloween had become a surprise hit. Director John Carpenter and Producer Debra Hill were satisfied with their work and saw no reason for a sequel. The story of The Shape ended with the disappearance of his body, and somewhere, he’s still out there. Laurie Strode survived and can try to put her life back together after her ordeal.

But…

When they made the first film, Carpenter and Hill had been focused on just getting it made. The contracts they signed were not very favorable for them, typical for filmmakers without any clout. Halloween had made a fortune for the distributors, but not for the creative people. The only way to see money from it was to be involved in a sequel, so Carpenter and Hill wrote a new script, although Carpenter was not interested in directing the sequel, instead picking newcomer Rick Rosenthal.

The sequel is a little unusual in that it starts immediately after the end of the first movie. In fact, the opening scene is a replay of the end of the first Halloween. We watch as the injured Laurie is taken by paramedics to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, bodies are collected, and Dr. Loomis starts badgering the police to keep looking for Michael Myers, referred to by name in this movie (in the first, he is simply The Shape, and Carpenter intended him to represent faceless evil). We find out that Laurie is actually Michael’s sister, a bit of retconning that was never intended in the original movie, but there had to be some reason for Michael to keep chasing that one particular girl. He follows her to the hospital, and some there are numerous openings among the hospital staff.

The movie was pretty well savaged by critics when it was released, and the general opinion was that it lacked the originality of the first one, and was just a generic slasher film. In retrospect, it deserved better than that. It is just a slasher film where the first was something fairly fresh, but it is a well done slasher film, much better than the pale imitations flooding the theaters of the day. The first one is a superior movie, but the first sequel holds up much better than I remembered. Supposedly, Carpenter was disappointed with Rosenthal's direction and shot a number of the scenes himself, upping the gore factor.

It’s also a little odd. Everyone in authority is laughably, criminally incompetent. The police chief and Dr. Loomis chase an innocent teenager into the street, where he is struck and killed by a police car, and no one seems to care. The ER doctor is drunk, the lead paramedic is smoking pot, and a nurse abandons her station in the nursery to have sex in the therapy room. The hospital security guard is reading a magazine, so he doesn’t see the psycho killer slip into the building. Another paramedic takes a pratfall in a pool of blood, either knocking himself out or killing himself, depending how you want to look at it. It’s a fairly playful movie, considering the subject matter.

There are a few gaffes. Southern California is still standing in for the Midwest in late fall, so the trees and grass are way too green. Dr. Loomis mispronounces “Samhain”, but if he pronounced it correctly, 99% of the moviegoers would have been confused. (It’s pronounced “sow-in” by the way. Those crazy Celts!) Loomis bizarrely fails to recognize his old nurse, although by the movie timeline it has only been a few hours since he last saw her. The hospital, on a night when there have been over a half dozen fatalities and accidents in town, is staffed by just one doctor and four nurses. All in all, though, if you’ve been putting this one off because you are in the “sequels suck!” crowd, you might be surprised at how well done this is.

A personal note. Like the first one, I saw this in the theater. I was dating a very sweet girl who was a nursing student in college. When the movie reached the scene where the neo-natal nurse sneaks off for a tryst and gets boiled in the hot tub, I heard my date muttering under her breath, “Kill her. Kill her. Kill her.” This seemed uncharacteristic, so afterward, I asked her why she was so eager to see the nurse die, and she explained she was outraged that the nurse would leave the children in the middle of her shift, and thought she deserved to die for it. I haven’t seen the young lady in question for many years, but I bet she made a very conscientious nurse herself.

The horror movie playing on a TV in the background of this one is The Night of the Living Dead.
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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fear & Undertaker's Moon



After much anticipation, the first two volumes in The Essential Ronald Kelly Collection are available from Thunderstorm Books. The series will feature all eight of Ron’s books published by Zebra in the early 90s, with beautiful covers by Alex McVey, and each will feature a new novella by Ron set in the world of that particular novel, as well as a “writing of” feature which will delve into the circumstances behind writing the book. The first two titles to be released are UNDERTAKER’S MOON and FEAR. I’ve read both in previous editions, and they are horror classics, with a lot of people considering FEAR to be the definitive Ronald Kelly novel.
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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Halloween (The Original)


In 1978, John Carpenter was a very promising graduate from USC film school. He had directed a student film called Dark Star, which was pretty good – for a student film, and a praised low budget film called Assault on Precinct 13. He was developing a good reputation, but the major studios weren’t exactly breaking down his door. For his third feature, he and producing partner Debra Hill had written a script called The Baby-Sitter Murders, about a series of killings stretching over several days. The movie was budgeted at $320,000, half of which went to renting the cameras. Largely to save money by reducing costume changes, the decision was made to condense the action to just one day, and a certain date seemed perfect. So the movie’s name was changed to Halloween, and it was shot on a 21 day schedule in Southern California.

The movie is set in Haddonfield, Illinois, and opens with a flashback in which a small boy murders a young girl at Halloween. Jump forward a few years, and the now grown boy escapes from an insane asylum and heads back home, again on Halloween. Laurie (Jamie Leigh Curtis), Annie (Nancy Loomis), and Lynda (P.J. Soles) are getting ready for the holiday. Laurie and Annie are baby-sitting, while Lynda is looking for a place to be alone with her boyfriend. Michael Myers (actually identified as The Shape in the original) arrives to wreak mayhem, with psychiatrist Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) in hot pursuit.

Expectations were low for the movie, but it struck a nerve with movie goers, going on to gross the equivalent of $150,000,000 today. In those pre-home video days, it became customary to see it multiple times, and it stayed in theaters for months. (In the movie theater where I saw it, it was customary to turn off all the exit and other lights during the frenetic last fifteen minutes – regulations were a little lax in those days – and if there was a full house, a tall usher would put on a mask and walk down the aisle waving a fake knife. Good times.) It wasn’t the first slasher movie, but it largely gave birth to the slasher genre.

Since the movie was shot in the spring in southern California, everything is too green for late fall in Illinois, but the low-fi solution was to make a number of fake leaves, scatter them about for a scene, then gather them up and re-use them for the next. The ubiquitous pumpkins were also difficult since they were out of season, and gourds painted orange were substituted, which is why all the jack-o-lanterns look unusually squat. As most people know, the mask is a cheap William Shatner mask painted white with the eye-holes stretched. As he did in most of his early films, Carpenter did the soundtrack (recorded mostly in unusual 5/4 time) himself.

A personal note: Back when I and a friend were doing our late, unlamented horror podcast, we took the name from a line in Halloween, One Good Scare, which you can see on the poster in the previous post.

The two horror movies playing on TVs in the background are the original The Thing from Another World (which Carpenter would remake in about four years) and Forbidden Planet.

I read once that it is impossible for modern audiences to fully appreciate Citizen Kane, since the innovations in that film have been copied so many times in subsequent movies they don’t seem fresh and original any more. There is some of the same problem with Halloween. When it arrived at the theaters in October 1978, its use of camera angles and narrative, especially scenes shot from the POV of the killer were mostly new to audiences, but some of their impact has been blunted by dozens of inferior films mimicking them. Still, it is a tight, focused, suspenseful film, and as close to Citizen Kane as the slasher genre ever got. I think it holds up very well. One of the peculiar things is the movie was seen as shockingly graphic at the time, but there are only two brief scenes of blood, and if you took out a couple of topless scenes, it could probably be shown on prime time TV without complaint. Times change. Carpenter and the rest of the creative people knew they had gotten as close to perfection as that sub-genre would stand, and there would never be a need for a sequel.
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Friday, October 21, 2011

Project Halloween


Usually in October (Blogtober!) I go into a frenetic posting pace to rev up for Halloween, but this year, real-world considerations have made that impossible. Still, I wanted to do something for the season that would be a little special, at least to me. A couple of years ago, I went through the entire Friday the 13th series in order, and my brain didn’t melt or anything, so, in honor of Halloween, I’m going to try to get through the complete Halloween series of movies. I’ve only reviewed the second Rob Zombie movie here (which will save me from having to watch it again) and there are a couple of them I don’t think I’ve seen. I hope the later movies in the series are better than I remember.
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Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Midnight Meat Train


I am old enough to have been reading horror when Clive Barker’s work (Dread, The Book of Blood) exploded like a bomb in horror fiction with the publication of the first Books of Blood. The collections of short stories introduced a new emphasis on body horror to the genre, and new and fantastic variations on traditional horror tropes. The vibrant, amazing imagery in the stories soon attracted movie makers, and to date there are 31 movies (according to imdb.com) adapted from Barker’s work, although many of these are continuations of characters in long-running horror series. Like with most authors, the cinematic interpretations of Barker’s work have been spotty at best, with only a few truly good films in the mix. Hellraiser? Yes. Candyman? I think so. Lord of Illusions? Well, I liked it.

A few years ago, Lionsgate Films committed to a reasonably high budget adaptation of the first of the stories in The Books of Blood, “The Midnight Meat Train” (Barker had a way with titles), to be made under the supervision of Barker himself. The movie starred Bradley Cooper (before he got famous playing self-centered drunks), British tough guy Vinnie Jones, Leslie Bibb, and Brooke Shields. The movie got an enthusiastic response from advance screenings, but there was a shakeup in management at Lionsgate before its release. The VP who had advocated The Midnight Meat Train was out, and his successor, in time-honored fashion, did everything he could to torpedo the movie to make the other guy look bad. As a result, the movie had little or no theatrical run.

Leon (Cooper) is a photographer in New York, looking to make a breakthrough in the art world while his girlfriend (Bibb) has a real job to pay the bills. After prompting by a socialite art patron (Shields) he starts photographing people in the subway late at night. A chance encounter with a model who later disappears starts an obsession with the Butcher (Jones) who Leon believes is a serial killer riding the late night rails. (Incidentally, despite the title, the train in question leaves at around 2:00 AM) His friends and girlfriend are soon drawn in as he seeks the Butcher’s dark secret.

Is Midnight Meat Train worth the hype? For the most part, yes. The film is well acted and expertly photographed, with a weird ending that is true to Barker’s style in a way most adaptations of his work are not. There are moments of true suspense, and plenty of gore for the gorehounds. You’ve heard the phrase “not for the faint of heart”? Certain sequences, particularly where the Butcher removes the teeth, eyes, and fingernails from a victim may not be for the strong of heart. Maybe we could have done with a little more sympathy for the main character – Leon’s obsession destroys the lives of everyone around him, so it’s hard to feel very kindly toward him – but in general, this should appeal to horror fans.
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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Priest


While I am pretty much up for any horror/supernatural/sci-fi movie that comes down the pike (as a casual perusal of this blog will attest), my beautiful wife is a little more discriminating. She likes some movies you wouldn’t guess in a million years (John Carpenter’s The Thing) but nothing will tempt her to watch most horror flicks (anything where someone has a knife or other sharp object). So, when something in the genre catches her interest, I make sure we see it. Which brings us to Priest.

Based on a Japanese graphic novel, Priest is set in an alternate reality where humans have been at war with vampires for centuries. The vampires here are more creature-like than human, although they do keep a few human familiars, who seem to have some sort of derived power themselves. After all the fighting, the humans, led by a theocratic, rigid Church, got the upper hand by creating an army of warriors called Priests, who are easily distinguishable by a tattoo of a cross that runs from their forehead down the bridge of their nose. The Priests turn the tide, and the few surviving vampires are driven onto reservations. We see one of the last battles of the war as the main character, Priest (Paul Bettany), enters a large hive of vampires, and sees his best friend, Black Hat (Karl Urban), carried away after an ambush. The authors did not seem to waste a lot of time working on names for the characters. Anyway, they win the war, everybody moves to heavily fortified, massively polluted cities, the Church disbands the Priests and limits their power lest they become a threat to their authority, and everyone settles down to a grim lifeless existence.

Priest’s brother, sister-in-law (Priest’s old flame) and niece (or is she?) are working out in the middle of a wasteland, prospecting for something or other when the vampires stage a surprise attack. The adults are killed, and the girl is taken prisoner. The young girl’s boyfriend (Cam Gigandet), who is too old for her, frankly, tells Priest he’s going after her. Although the Church tries to stop this, saying the vampires are no longer a threat, Priest goes anyway, eventually joined by Priestess (Maggie Q). I told you they didn’t waste a lot of time on names, although, disappointingly, Gigandet’s character is named Hicks, not Sidekick. Much fighting ensues, and Priest is shocked to discover who is leading the vampires, although if you hang around with a guy named Black Hat, you shouldn’t be surprised by this.

Was the movie any good? It’s a little hard to say. It’s certainly no Citizen Kane, but anyone who goes to see a vampire/apocalyptic/martial arts movie and expects to see Citizen Kane probably has something wrong with them. I was reasonably entertained, in a watch-the-good-guys-kick-the-bad-guys way. The plot, as you have probably noticed, is more or less the same as the classic western The Searchers, which seems a good source of material to use, but it definitely could have done with more character development. Bettany is a good actor, although he persists in choosing these dour, emotionless roles. I also like Karl Urban a lot, but he is under-utilized to the point of well, pointlessness here.

In closing, if it looks like something you’d enjoy, you probably will, although it won’t change your life. The director and star are the same as for 2009’s Legion, so this may be an ongoing working partnership.
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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Kayla and the Devil


At the time of the implosion of Dorchester Publishing’s imprint Leisure Books, it was the principal mass market source of horror fiction, publishing 24 new and reprint titles a year. Since its fall, the authors of those books have had to find new means to get their books to the public. The best writer working in the Dorchester stable at that time was Bryan Smith (House of Blood, Soultaker, Freakshow), who has moved on to publish with Deadite Press. He has also ventured into e-publishing, and his latest book is Kayla and the Devil.

Kayla Monroe is a sophomore at Vanderbilt, and not that nice of a person. She is sarcastic and the definition of a “mean girl.” Since she’s also rich and pretty, her personality has never been an obstacle in her social life. In the last year, however, everyone has begun to shun her. She has no friends and even nerds won’t sleep with her. This is a mystery to her until she meets a stranger in the park, who explains to her she has been placed under a shunning spell which will keep everyone away from her. The stranger can lift the spell, however, and will be glad to do so in exchange for a couple of things: Kayla has to kill an innocent person, and give up her soul. If you paid attention to the title, you know who the stranger is.

As Kayla seeks to fulfill her end of the bargain, she finds out she might not be quite as mean as she thinks. She also gets to meet, courtesy of her benefactor, Jack the Ripper and the Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who functions as sort of middle management for Lucifer. Kayla has to make a choice between eternal satanic servitude and being unable to get a date for the rest of her life.

Stories about deals with the devil have a long history in literature, from Faust to “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and so on. It is a rich subject for exploration, and Smith handles it exceptionally well. There has always been an element of humor in Smith’s books, and that gets a lot of play here. The book is a bit of a hybrid between the author’s previous work and urban fantasy. There is plenty of elements of each genre, enough visceral scenes to satisfy horror fans, and enough of a playful element to attract readers who are more likely to favor Jim Butcher over Stephen King. Highly recommended.
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Friday, September 23, 2011

Shotgun For Two

My friend Kent Gowran has a story by that name up at A Twist of Noir. You should check it out, get in ahead of the rush.Link

Thursday, September 1, 2011

New Kealan Patrick Burke E-Mail Newsletter


Kealan Patrick Burke (Seldom Seen In August) has started a new e-mail newsletter. To subscribe, send a blank e-mail to elderlemon2010@aol.com with “newsletter” in the subject line. Those who subscribe will receive an electronic copy of his excellent novel Currency of Souls, and will be entered into a drawing to receive a copy of his forthcoming novel Kin. For a little more about Mr. Burke, I interviewed him a while back here. Kealan Patrick Burke is one of the very best writers working in the genre today; if you aren’t reading him, you should be.
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Invasion


“It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.” – Bob Dylan

In the case of William Meikle’s (The Amulet) Invasion, it’s more of a green rain (or snow), but it is pretty hard on those on whom it falls anyway.

On a winter day in the Canadian Maritimes, a strange snow starts to fall. It is green, for one thing, but more ominously, has an acidic effect on anything living on which it falls. People, dogs, plants, all are dissolved by contact with the eerie precipitation. The only people who survive are those who have immediate access to shelter, and the phenomenon is not localized, but is spread all over the east coast, and elsewhere in the world. Civilization begins to collapse under the onslaught, and it gets worse. Alien organisms begin to grow in the biological sludge left behind, and the survivors soon learn this is the precursor to a full-fledged alien invasion.

The story follows Alice, a biologist who gives some of the scientific exposition for the benefit of the readers and John Hiscock (I realize this is a real name of a real person, but I could hear Beavis and Butthead going “heh, heh” in my head every time I read it.), a survivalist and unlikely hero. Alice has a psychic ability to resist the invaders. They manage to find each other and join the military in a desperate attempt to stop the onslaught.

The whole thing has a 50s sci-fi movie feel, and the obvious point of reference is John Wyndham’s classic sci-fi disaster novel The Day of the Triffids, the most famous alien plant invasion story. The author does a good job of keeping the action moving. I could quibble about some minor details that are wrong, mostly military related (no one in the American military, Army or Navy, has held five star rank since Omar Bradley died, for instance) but I won’t. Although I guess I just did. There does seem to be too much story for the relatively short length (it’s more a novella than a full novel) and both Alice’s powers and the appearance of the professor are a bit deus ex machina.

The good far outweighs the minor problems, however. This is meant to be a fast-paced action piece, and I enjoyed it. It isn’t the deep sort of thing you read to reveal some existential truth about your life, but how often do you want to read something like that anyway? Invasion is available as an e-book or as an archaic tree-killing print edition.
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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Under The Dome: The Series


Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome will become a TV series for the Showtime cable network, according the Deadline Hollywood. This will be developed for television by Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks production company, so look for an addition of a precocious tween boy with a distant father to the story. Hopefully it will do better than the ill-fated plans for The Dark Tower films and series.
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Bloodrayne: The Third Reich


If you watched 2005’s Bloodrayne and 2007’s Bloodrayne: Deliverance, then the third installment in the series, Bloodrayne: The Third Reich (seriously) shouldn’t disappoint you. It shouldn’t disappoint you because the original Bloodrayne was a mess, with slumming “name” actors and an incomprehensible plot, and Bloodrayne: Deliverance was bad enough to make the first one look like Citizen Kane, so you shouldn’t have any positive expectations to be shattered. Why you would watch this after suffering through the first two is another question.

(Which leads to the question: I watched the first two, so why did I do this? Anyone who can answer that can probably get a nice research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. I suspect repressed masochism enters into it, although I try not to think about it.)

Having disposed of the vampire Billy the Kid (!) in the previous installment, the Dhamphyre (Half-human, half-vampire) Rayne (Natassia Malthe) is now fighting Nazis in Eastern Europe during World War II. There’s no deeper motivation than hey, they’re evil, which I guess is good enough. While laying waste to a Nazi train carrying prisoners to a concentration camp, Rayne doesn’t quite kill Commandant Brand (Michael Paré) dead enough. He gets splattered with some of her blood, and transforms into a Damphyre/Vampire/Something. Rayne hooks up with some anti-Nazi fighters, while the undead Brand enlists Doctor Mangler (Clint Howard. Doctor Mangler. Really?) to help him capture Rayne and use her blood for nefarious purposes. The major subplot is to use the blood to make Hitler immortal but even Brand and Mangler don’t seem to have their hearts in that.

I think you’ve figured out by now, the plot is lacking a certain something. This is partially obscured by truly horrible dialogue. Sample, spoken by Rayne: “I need to do what needs to be done!” Thanks for the exposition there, Rayne. Although Howard does a decent job chewing the scenery, the rest of the actors appear overmatched, although it’s difficult to tell whether that’s due to lack of talent or lack of material.

The movie is directed by everyone’s favorite archenemy, Uwe Boll. Everyone piles on Boll, and his oeuvre is not terribly distinguished. He does seem to be a good sport about it, and I have to admire his ability to continue to get movies made, which is no small accomplishment. I’m also tickled by a director who stages boxing matches against his critics, and it doesn’t hurt that Michael Bay hates him, considering Bay is also the enemy of good taste. Here, Boll directs about as well as you would expect. It may be just me, but there is something unsettling about seeing a real-life horror like the Holocaust used as a backdrop for a frivolous movie like this, but this movie is hardly the first to do that, and your mileage may vary.

About a third of the way into the movie, it briefly morphs into a late-night Cinemax feature, as Rayne visits a brothel and there is a fairly lengthy soft-core lesbian sequence. I realize a substantial portion of the male readers who have been wondering why anyone would watch this just added it to their Netflix queue.

For an opposing opinion, here is a video question-and-answer with director Boll and the beautiful Ms. Malthe:



In closing, I’d like to say something nice about Bloodrayne: The Third Reich, so here it is: at 75 minutes, it goes over very quickly.
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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Thriller: A Cruel Picture


I’m a fan of Quentin Tarantino, and a while back I read an interview in which he talked about his influences and his favorite films. High on the list, and cited as the biggest inspiration for Kill Bill, was a Swedish movie called Thriller (known as They Call Her One-Eye - the connection to Kill Bill being fairly obvious - on its original American release,and as Thriller: A Cruel Picture in its home video version). Naturally, I had to see it although it took some work tracking it down.

Thriller is a revenge movie. Innocent young Frigga is kidnapped by a cruel pimp, raped, and forced into prostitution. When she balks at what he wants her to do, she is blinded in one eye (hence the American title). After the pimp kills her only friend at the brothel, she runs away, only to find her parents have committed suicide due to the hate-filled letter the pimp forced her to write. Frigga snaps, arms herself, and goes on a rampage, slaughtering everyone who has exploited her. Not the most convoluted plot in the world.

As I said, the movie has a pretty simple, obvious plot, and overall is not badly done (it would probably be even better if you spoke Swedish). However, it is for the strong of stomach, and, let’s say, enlightened tastes. In the scene in which Frigga is blinded with a knife, the visual effect was allegedly achieved by mutilating a real corpse from a local morgue. Although the scene is brief, it could be difficult to take. There are several sex scenes (understandable, considering the plot) and the sex is very obviously not simulated, with penetration being shown explicitly. Apparently the Swedes are a little more liberated than we Americans, and a lot of people would probably consider it porn. So if it interests you, be forewarned. Also, the DVD is available in a heavily cut and uncensored version. If you want all the explicit sex and gore, look for the version with the red cover.
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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Supergods


In the collective opinion, people who read comic books are geeks, and the lowest of the comic book geeks are those who read superhero comics. The general idea is, if you are going to read funny books at least read gritty realistic ones, refer to them as graphic novels, and salvage at least a little of your dignity. Books that feature guys (and gals) flying around in long underwear with magic powers are embarrassing according to general belief.

Grant Morrison, one of the more prominent comic writers of the modern era, disagrees with this. In his new book Supergods (not a comic book, for the record), he argues that the traditional superheroes like Superman, Batman, The Flash, etc., are important to us for their totemic power, and their sometime unrealistic devotion to a higher moral code is necessary to inspire us. We want to see our heroes soaring through the heavens above us, not wallowing in the muck like an ordinary being.

Supergods is both a memoir of Morrison and a history of the superhero genre, going back to the inception of superhero comics in the 1930s with early versions of Superman and Batman, kicking off the Golden Age, the revitalization of the form in the late 1950s in the Silver Age, and where our heroes stand now in the modern age. Along the way, he discusses his first exposure to American comics, brought to his native Scotland by American sailors, and his personal journey from novice to one of the more acclaimed writers in the field today. Along the way, he does an excellent job in explaining the subtext of most of the major comic storylines, divergent philosophies in writing the characters, and interestingly, the influence of mind-expanding chemicals on the superhero art form. (I got an unintentional laugh when Morrison explained the epiphanic vision he had in Thailand could not be explained by the relatively small amount of hashish he had ingested.)

Morrison discusses past legends of the genre like Bob Kane, Siegel and Schuster, Jack Kirby, and John Broome, as well as the work (and his personal relationships) with creators such as Alan Moore, Mark Waid, and Mark Millar. He is very blunt in his assessment of these writers and artists, even those who are his contemporaries. There is at least a hint of some minor feuds with other writers, particularly Alan Moore, and I do wish he had delved a little deeper into what seems a disapproving attitude toward his former protégée Millar. The book also deals with Morrison’s personal spiritual journey – he is a practioner of a shamanic form of personal religion.
Morrison is best known for his work re-inventing the previously minor DC character Animal Man, his own The Invisibles (which was an inspiration for The Matrix), the re-invention of the Justice League of America in JLA, and an interesting and controversial stint writing X-Men. I think his re-imagining of the moribund Justice League from what had become mostly a joke into a re-telling of ancient myths to be one of the better feats in comic book history. I also enjoyed his take on the X-Men, although the purists were up in arms at the time. (X-fans can be passionate and a little crazy. The other X-writer during Morrison's tenure was Chuck Austen, who was basically hounded out of comics by zealots angry at his take on the X-Men. I thought Austen did a good job, too.)

This is probably a book only for comic book fans, but if you are an aficionado of the gents in long underwear, you shouldn’t miss Supergods.
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Saturday, August 27, 2011

WITA # 2: Tim Curran


Continuing to reprint the older We Interrupt This Author series, here is the second interview, originally posted on Cemetery Dance’ website on June 28, 2010. At the time of the interview, Tim’s book The Corpse King had just been released, so once again, this is taken a bit out of temporal context. The only change in the text is the re-insertion of a mention of the book Four Rode Out, which was deleted from the original post, as the official announcement for the book had not yet been made. As always, remember that what was on the horizon in mid-2010 may now be in the rearview mirror.

Here we are for the second in our series of short interviews with horror authors, following the success of the first one (I define success as: Didn’t get fired, didn’t get sued. Set the bar of success low, and you won’t have to deal with disappointment, kids). Our latest author to interrupt is Tim Curran.

A resident of Michigan, Tim Curran is the author of the acclaimed novels Dead Sea and The Hive. His most recent book is The Corpse King, now available from Cemetery Dance. Tim’s home on the web is www.corpseking.com. Here are a few questions with which we bothered him.


WITA: Tell us a little about The Corpse King. Am I correct in assuming Burke and Hare were a partial inspiration?

TIM CURRAN: Yes, definitely. Those two are the most famous of the 19th century Resurrection Men. So I certainly had them in mind. During my research of grave robbers I came across a fellow named Ben Crouch who operated out of London as part of the Borough Gang as it was known. He was a real entrepreneur of the dead. Not only did he and his friend Joseph Naples supply corpses to order for the medical schools, but they ran something of a cadaver supermarket—skeletons, body parts, entire corpses of men, women, and children preserved in vats in their makeshift warehouse which was in a cellar, I believe. They ran the truly first medical supply house in the UK. Crouch was known as “The Corpse King” which I, of course, stole for my novella title. I based my graverobbers, Clow and Kierney, upon Crouch and Naples to a certain extent, though I moved the action to Edinburgh, the traditional home of bodysnatching ever since Burke and Hare and Robert Louis Stevenson’s story. Nearly everything that happens in The Corpse King is based upon firsthand accounts of the time. Although most of the Resurrection Men were illiterate, some either told their tales to others or wrote them down themselves. I read quite a few of these and was amazed at the morbid, gallows humor these guys had. I incorporated that into Clow and Kerney. Other than my supernatural ghoul—The Corpse King of the title—there’s nothing truly imaginary in the book. Edinburgh in the 1820’s was a horrible place of overcrowded slums, rampant infectious disease, child labor, rats and lice, poverty and crime. Life was cheap. People worked fourteen hour days in linen mills with machinery that was extremely dangerous and when you lost a limb or were too sick to work, you were replaced that same day. It was no wonder the girls turned to prostitution and the boys to crime…including grave robbing.




WITA -You live in the U.P. (the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, for those not in the know), known for being remote and sparsely populated. Do you find this helps set the mood to write horror fiction?

TIM CURRAN - I think so in some ways. Winters are long and harsh up here and it’s not unusual for towns to get completely shut down for days because of blizzards sweeping down from Lake Superior. It can be a very eerie, surreal experience. Up in the Keweenaw—or the Copper Country as locals call it—the winters are so severe that it’s pointless to shovel the snow so they have tunnels connecting the buildings. When I wrote my novel Hive, all I had to do was step outside on a dark January night with the wind howling and the snow flying, the windchill down to twenty or thirty below, and it was very easy to channel Antarctica. The woods up here are another factor. They can be very weird and primeval when you’re deep out in them by yourself. Algernon Blackwood tapped into that very well with stories like “The Wendigo” and “The Willows.” There’s these very disturbing moments when you’ll be out in the forest, miles from the nearest logging road or fire-cut. The birds are singing, insects droning, wind up in the trees…and then, nothing. It’s like somebody threw a switch. Dead silent. No wind, no birds, nothing. And you wonder what causes something like that. It’ll make your skin crawl. Besides those two factors, there’s a lot of eccentric characters up here. When I was a kid there were remote villages where the locals still spoke Finnish and French, and the old Cornish copper miners—Cousin Jacks, they were called-would spin pretty wild tales out of their native Cornwall.



WITA -It’s easy to see by the titles of some of the anthologies in which your work has appeared H.P. Lovecraft is a source of inspiration. Who are some of the other writers who have influenced your work?

TC - Lovecraft, along with Robert E. Howard, was one of the first authors of the weird I came across as a kid so I’ll always be standing in his shadow to some extent. I’ve been influenced by just about everyone from Ray Bradbury to Jack London, James Herbert to Elmore Leonard. I’m a big fan of Simon Clark and Ramsey Campbell and I honestly think that Thomas Ligotti is probably the greatest writer of the weird since H.P. Lovecraft. I’m absolutely in awe of that man.


WITA -Speaking of things that influence you, what are some of the things other than books which stimulate the writing process for you?

TC - Just about anything, I find. Like most horror writers I tend to unconsciously look for shadows and weirdness in just about everything. I see two men hauling crates into a house and I wonder what’s in them. I find an abandoned shoe in the woods and I wonder what happened to the person who wore it. I see a lake by moonlight and I wonder what might crawl out of it. I watch a movie or a TV show and the whole time my mind is making the connections, plotting out what will happen next and how it will end. And when it doesn’t work out the way I thought, sometimes, if my idea is powerful enough, I have to write it the way I think it should have been done.


WITA - There was some talk a while back about your novel The Hive being optioned for film. Is this still a possibility, or has that opportunity passed?

TC - No, that’s all done with. I had two different production companies looking at it and they both backed out. What they promised and what they delivered were two different things. It did not leave me with a real upstanding opinion of the people in that business. I’d love to see Hive made into a movie, but I’m honestly leery of the whole process. I guess I wouldn’t believe it until I got a check in my hand!



WITA - What’s on the horizon for Tim Curran? What projects are you currently working on?

TC - I just finished writing up the afterword for my short story collection, Bone Marrow Stew, which will be published in winter 2011 by Tasmaniac Publications of Australia. I’ve been publishing stories since the mid-’90’s and always wanted to do a collection of them but I held back because I wanted it done the right way. And now, thanks to Steve Clark of Tasmaniac, it’s being given the royal treatment in a hardcover, lettered edition with a wraparound cover and 10 awesome internal illustrations by the great Keith Minnion. Simon Clark, one of my favorite writers, is doing the introduction. I’m very excited about it. If it sells well enough—and I hope it does—there’ll be a volume two. There’s two original stories in the book and 15 reprints from anthologies and small press magazines, many of which are pretty hard to come by now. It opens with my very first short story and goes on from there. Other than that, I just wrapped up the second Hive book a couple months ago and that should be out from ESP in late summer/early fall. I’ll also be in another Cemetery Dance book with Steve Vernon, Brian Keene, and Tim Lebbon called Four Rode Out, a collection of weird western novellas that’s really going to kick ass and we’re all pretty pumped about. I’m also working on a collection of my zombie stories for Severed Press that’ll be bookended by two new novellas. The latter of which I’ll be returning to Lovecraft for a Herbert West story concerning his exploits in World War I. Let’s see, I’m working on an alternate world/steampunk vampire novel, another about a necrophiliac, another about veterans of the Iraq War who can read the fears in your mind and externalize them, and still another about a life-eating car haunted by a demon. There’s others, but you get the picture: I like to keep busy.
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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Silent Land


Some writers are difficult to fit into the narrow categories we widely use to describe fiction, and Graham Joyce is one of those. His books have elements of fantasy, science fiction, suspense, a little horror, and other sub-genres, and his work can be classified as all or none of those. This should only affect you if you separate the books on your shelves according to these categories, however. What should matter instead is Joyce is one of the better writers working today. His latest is The Silent Land.

Jake and Zoe are a young married couple on a ski holiday in France. Life seems to be going well for them, and Zoe is searching for the right time to tell Jake she’s pregnant. Their luck turns when they are caught in an avalanche on the slopes. Zoe is buried and barely rescued by Jake, and then the story takes a turn into Twilight Zone territory. When they reach the resort, they find it is deserted. Apparently, it was hurriedly evacuated, with food still standing on prep tables in the kitchen. They believe this is because of danger from another avalanche, but a hike into town finds it just as deserted.

Attempts to leave the area are fruitless, as the two always end up back where they started. They discover the food left out doesn’t appear to spoil, as if time isn’t passing. At first, they make the best of having the exclusive hotel to themselves, but things go into a decline. Zoe gets garbled calls on her cell phone and glimpses eerie figures outside the hotel. They speculate they have died in the avalanche, and apprehension over what comes next begins to grow.

The story itself isn’t outstandingly original. By the halfway point of the book, you can assume it will end in one of two or three ways, and it does. Despite this, Joyce is a master at creating characters you care about, and slowly ratcheting up the tension. If you were going to call this a horror novel, and that fits as well as any other shorthand description, it would definitely be in the “quiet horror” tradition, lacking the exploding heads and other over-the-top psychodrama that fills most current horror fiction. Instead you have a growing feeling of dread, which to my mind is more effective. I found myself glancing over my shoulder when Zoe started seeing the mysterious figures, and it’s a rare book that gets to me like that. I had read about 50 pages when I opened it again at one o’clock in the morning, and, simultaneously dreading learning the fate of the young couple and needing to know it before I could sleep, I didn’t close the book again until I was finished.

If you’ve read Joyce’s brilliant previous books, you know what a good writer he is, and you won’t want to miss this one. If you’ve never read anything by him, this would make a good start. Either way, this is a book I whole-heartedly recommend.
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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

WITA # 1: Rick Hautala


As mentioned yesterday, here is the first of the We Interrupt This Author interviews. It was originally posted on Cemetery Dance' website on May 18, 2010, and featured author Rick Hautala. The interview is presented here exactly as it appeared in its original form. Obviously, time has passed, and when an author talks about a "forthcoming" book in one of these, it is a book that has now been published. But you knew that. Because you're smart.

Writing is a solitary endeavor. Your favorite authors toil alone to produce the fiction that keeps you going. Here we reward them by…interrupting their precious writing time with a few questions. The first author we will annoy talk with is Rick Hautala.

Since the publication of his first novel, Moondeath, in 1980, Rick has been at the forefront of horror fiction. His next book is the forthcoming Cemetery Dance volume Occasional Demons, his first collection of short stories since Bedbugs, selected by Barnes & Noble as one of the distinguished horror publications of 2000.

-Everyone is looking forward to your forthcoming book Occasional Demons, your first short story collection since 1999. Tell us a little about the book.

At the time I signed the contract, Occasional Demons included every story I had written and published to date that wasn't in Bedbugs, but since then, I've got enough stories for a third collection, which Rich and I are talking about CD doing ... What's unique about this collection is that it includes all the "Little Brothers" short stories and a handful of stories I wrote as collaborations with friends and two of my sons ... The artwork by Glenn Chadbourne is, as always, stunning, and I hope the stories don't disappoint. I have a few personal favorites in the collection, but I won't say what they are. That's like trying to pick your favorite child.

-The publication dates on the stories in this volume range from 1987 (“Every Mother’s Son”) to 2010 (“The Call”). How has your style changed and evolved over this period?

Well, for one thing, I stopped writing my stories with crayons, so that's an advance. Seriously, though, I'm not sure how my style has evolved or changed, other than I hopefully have gotten better each time out. Writing is a tough "craft" as well as an "art," and no one ever really masters it. If they say or act like they have, they're delusional. Even the simplest advice, like drop the passive voice whenever you can, will hit you with the force of a religious revelation if you're ready (or need) to hear it. Of course, I have worked to eliminate passive voice, and useless intensifiers ( ... like "really"), and make the environment more active ( ... like instead of saying "She heard a dog bark in the night" becomes "A dog barked in the night.") But overall, I just try to do the best job each time out, and know when I finish something it could always have been better ... Resting on laurels or repeating past successes to the point of self parody are the pathways to creative death.

-It is the “Who cuts the Barber’s hair?” question, but readers always seem interested in what a writer reads for his own amusement. So, what does Rick Hautala read these days when he wants to kick back and relax?

Sad to say, I don't read much fiction. After writing fiction all day, I need to blow the stink off, as it were, so I read a lot of non-fiction--history, biography, political books. For fiction, I do a lot of what I call "social reading," which means I read books written by friends of mine so I can tell them I read their new book and loved it. (Speaking of which: I read Chris Golden and Mike Mignola's book Baltimore and loved it!) And as I get older, I find myself drifting back to sf, fantasy, and horror I read when I was young. Kind of a nostalgia trip, probably. Of course, I will always read and savor James Lee Burke's writing. Hands down the best writer working today. And of course there are other writers who, when I read them, make me think I want to do that!

-Your career spans from the early days of horror as a separate genre in American Publishing, through the horror boom and bust, the rise and fall of the major lines and the growth of the small press. You’ve seen contemporaries come and go, and you’re still standing. To what do you owe your longevity?

The Finns have a word for it: "Sisu." The positive spin is that a Finn will stand tough and do whatever needs to be done, no matter what, but the negative connotation is that a Finn is too damned stupid to stop doing something even when the odds are stacked against him or her. Look, writing is hard work, and it never gets easier. If anything, it gets harder, and the economy can take a toll. If your sales figures start to flag (and mine have gone up and down), you have to reinvent yourself. I think it was Harlan Ellison who said (this is a close approximation): "Writing is easy; it's staying a writer that's hard." You have to develop your craft and you have to expand your horizons and challenge yourself every time out. (re: my "pass success--self parody" remark). And the material has to stay fresh and exciting for you, the writer, otherwise it becomes a drill, a routine which will bore you and your readers.

-And finally, Maine is one of the smaller states in terms of population. In the horror fiction field, though, it’s as big as California. Is there something about Maine that lends itself to dark writing? What is in the water up there?

The glib answer is "Stephen King's success." Writers who have never visited the state set their stories in Maine and more often than not get it wrong, wrong, wrong! Sure, setting is important to a story, and Maine (and all of New England, being the oldest colonies ... if we ignore the Spanish in Mexico and the Caribbean) has its creepy places. But a writer has to write about what he knows. Imagination is only one element. To really get a story, you have to know the bones of the land and the people who live there so your story rings true and--hopefully--will be universal enough to reach readers even in, say, Europe (which has its own share of creepy locales). The only thing in the water is ... well, I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you.

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