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.

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:


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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


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.

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.