Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Plot: Composer David Winter stays up late scoring a horror film, one which stars his own beautiful wife, Mary. But while he works at their home in the country, she’s off in London sleeping with physician friend Charles. With a thunderous storm on the horizon, David goes to batten down the horse stables when he discovers a cloaked woman amongst the bales of hay. She claims to be Lucinda Jessop, a witch from the 17th century who escaped her puritanical persecutors through magic. She soon makes David her own tortured servant and attempts to extricate his harlot wife from this existence.
As I alluded to in my introductory post, Hammer Studios found themselves in a creative rut during the onslaught of the 70s that lead to their films losing some of the potency that had made them a force to be reckoned with during their heyday. As the new swinging decade descended upon the world, the terrors that had formerly been the company’s bread and butter began to wane and weaken at the box office. With such urbane and gritty horrors as LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) being released, how could they not? Shambling Cornish corpses and serpentine women with killer looks rendered in glorious Technicolor seemed to pale in comparison to killers and maniacs who wanted to feast on flesh and bathe in blood in films where the celluloid looked as unseemly as the villains. The neck-biting and heaving bosoms that had made the Dracula films so taboo-breaking now seemed passé and old-hat, so much so that Chris Lee picked up his cloak and hot-footed to the 21st century in order to stay relevant in the last few entries of the series that were diminutive in power compared to the originals.
So with the studio’s terrifying cinematic fare shuddering off their mortal coil, the boob tube looked to be the last saving grace of Hammer, the place that made gushy, red blood a viable marketing tactic in the beginning. So how, the newcomer to HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR may ask, does this anthology TV series stack up against the original films?
“Witching Time” was our first glimpse into the world of Nu-Hammer and, in the opinion of this reviewer, the glimpse is a good one. Although we get our fair share of fleshy pleasures and bloody shocks, “Witching Time” opines to dig into more interesting territory than mere horror eye candy. If anything, this episode proves to be a sly and sophisticated inversion of some of the tropes that Hammer made their name on, especially in the form of gender roles and dynamics.
In the character of Lucinda Jessop (played with feline ferocity and sensuality by Patricia Quinn, or Magenta of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW to us midnight freaks), we find a familiar figure albeit in a decidedly more womanly form. For Lucinda is a master of the supernatural, a cloaked monster who appears to defy death and control time, not at all unlike one Count Dracula.
She preys on David, but whereas Dracula’s victimization was a not-too-subtle metaphor for sexual predation, Lucinda’s hold is almost explicitly carnal. Although she comes and goes in the blink of an eye (and, in another tie-in to Drac, bears no reflection in a mirror) and can conjure up visions and maelstroms, one gets the feeling that the brunt of Lucinda’s torture tactics deal with coital relations. At one point David sits, exhausted and near-mad, while Lucinda laughs darkly, naked, from the bed, commanding her slave to return to her. David is tormented by Lucinda’s visions and hauntings, but it appears that the main factor in his devotion to and obsession with her is their bedroom affairs. With Lucinda leaving deep scratches (like fang marks, eh?) on David’s back in a fit of passion and later referring to this as her making her “mark” on him, the association cannot help but be made.
So now that our witch has assumed the power role originally left to her male, vampiric counterpart, we see a further inversion in that David essentially becomes the damsel in distress that so frequently appeared in Hammer’s undead dramas. He becomes a sniveling wreck by the second act, completely incapable of relieving himself of his unnatural malady or taking any proactive steps whatsoever, non-duties usually essayed to beauties in nightgowns that opened their French doors to bloodsucking gentlemen callers during the Hammer output of the 50s and 60s. David even becomes an agent of evil at the episode’s climax, reflecting the races-against-time the heroes of the Dracula series would have to face in order to ensure that the pretty maiden did not succumb to the Count’s dark charm.
In a neat twist, David finds himself assuming the role of the witch as well. His attempts to prove Lucinda’s presence to Charles and Mary are fruitless, for a while, and the two characters begin to think that David is suffering from hallucinations. Not only does this play into the “poor, deluded woman” stereotype that other horror films have used, but it harkens back to the victims who were persecuted of black magic in the real days of witch-hunting.
Though David is by no means drawn and quartered by his “judges”—at one point Mary does believe that David has lost it and that he’s responsible for the tub filling up with blood along with various attempts to kill her—it’s still amusing to see him attempt to prove that there is a supernatural cause to the voices he is hearing and the visions he is seeing, a claim made by witches (and martyrs) of the past. This is even more ironic given that at one point Charles tries to steer David away from the knowledge that there is a woman in his life (David suspects Mary's infidelity but doesn't know who her lover is) while David is trying to do the exact opposite by proving Lucinda's existence.
With our would-be traditional savior effectively enslaved and made essentially useless, the hero pants are in turn donned by David’s wife Mary (equally tough and beautiful Prunella Gee). She assumes the role that so many pretty boy fiancées and beaus did in Hammer’s earlier vampire films; she is the one who consults with the elderly sage (here a church rector) and she is the one who has the climactic showdown with the monster.
This is made all the more refreshing because when we initially see Mary, she is phoning David from the mattress she shares with her lover Charles (Ian McCulloch, who fills the necessary requirements of having an adequately punchable face to match his character’s personality). The story leads us to believe that Mary is the heartless cheater that will get what’s coming to her, just like that lusty servant girl who was strangled by the Creature in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Lucinda frequently refers to Mary as a “whore” and a “harlot,” even creating an exhibition complete with voodoo doll and pentagram (?) that calls Mary out on her marital crimes, further solidifying Mary's destiny as imminent victim.
But “strumpet whore” is not a hole Mary will be pigeoned in as Anthony Read’s script flips that traditional notion right on its hindquarters. Though Mary goes through a moral failing, we see her character grow wiser and take action when it’s called for. Her heroic role is jump-started by the indoor tornado that Lucinda summons in the Winters' home; it signifies her realization that there’s more at work than her husband’s potentially unhinged state. Her teary whispers of “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry” clearly have a double meaning, and it is here that she transforms.
She comes to realize what a yellow coward Charles is and uses the knowledge she gained of Lucinda and her witchcraft to bring about her demise (she really gets her hands dirty, matching the bravery Van Helsing displayed in HORROR OF DRACULA when she grabs the witch by her garments and gives her a good dunking). She also shows true final-girl resourcefulness when she busts her way out a cellar that her possessed hubby locked her into. In a world full of Charleses (meek, “learned” men) and Davids (slaves to sensation), Mary rises above them all as the only who knows what the hell is going on and how to kick the problem right in its ass.
The episode doesn’t skimp on the horror goods, though in comparison to other entries from the series it may seem a little light. Still, what it might lack in nail-biting suspense or unbridled terror it certainly makes up for in the brilliant subversion of the tropes that were part of Hammer Studios’ trade. Its fearlessness, rather than its fearsomeness, deserves applause, and it shows that the old company was more than capable of adapting to new terrain. The story might be old hat, but the approach and the execution are positively bewitching.
Monday, May 20, 2013
The house of Hammer was built over the course of the late 50s to the mid-70s; it was one constructed of rich Victorian wood and peopled by everyone from homicidal men of medicine and their patchwork creations to lordly vampires and lycanthropic dons. Though the company dabbled in contemporary chillers of the psychotic variety (PARANOIAC , DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! ), the foundation of this house and the main feature that drew viewers back into its hallowed halls time and again was the combination of the opulence of the past and the flesh-and-blood workings of the horror genre.
After the passage of almost two decades parts of the house started to fall into disrepair, and soon cobwebs and dust began to coat the same hallowed halls that had once been the toast of Britain’s fantastic cinema. After Hammer Studios closed out its horror productions with TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER in 1976 it seemed like the public wouldn’t be hearing much from the boys at Bray Studios.
But a few scant years later headquarters were relocated to Hampden House in Buckinghamshire and the purveyors of hoary historical horrors invaded British television in the form of the aptly-named HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR for a total of thirteen episodes, presenting a self-contained story each week that came from the house that genre fans loved visiting so much.
The “how” of my first exposure to HAMMER HOUSE eludes me, but being an unabashed lover of genre anthologies, I knew that the series would have to be acquired in short order when I heard about it during my freshman year of high school. I obtained the four-disc set put out by A&E some years ago and watched it in all due haste. I was surprised and thrilled by the levels of creativity, craft, and good old fashioned blood and thunder that the studios made their stock and trade that were presented in those thirteen chilly little tales.
When the idea came to do a retrospective on a horror television series, HAMMER HOUSE was the first that came to mind. I hadn’t seen any of the entries (barring one or two) since my initial viewing, so I thought that a journey back to the misty manor would be both exciting and insightful. And any chance I get to see that awesome opening is fine by me.
I’ll be reviewing all thirteen episodes of Hammer’s first and only horror television series (there is HAMMER HOUSE OF MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE, too, but we’ll save that for another day) here on the blog. I won’t make any promises as to how long this will take, but whether in a week or a month I will see the series to its conclusion. I’ll also try to veer away from the simplistic “I liked it/I din-like it” appraisals and try to dig into the meaty parts with cutting critical flair, though I’ll still tell you if an episode blew chunks or not. I’m hoping to do this with other series and “themes” of works from my collection in the future. So, what I’m trying to say is there are many things to look forward to. But for starters let us appease ourselves with one awesome opening.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
I don't recall where, but I believe I saw someone once refer to Robert Fuest's AND SOON THE DARKNESS (1970) as being similar to a Robert Aickman story. Now, I haven't read much of that author's work, but from what I have purveyed and what I do know about what Aickman calls his "strange stories," I don't think this film really merits the comparison since, for all intents and purposes, Aickman was a writer of weird tales, the kind where inexplicable supernatural (or, you know, just weird) forces impinge on reality without any amount of explanation whatsoever.
Unless you squint really hard, AND SOON THE DARKNESS is really not a weird tale in the traditional sense or at all, but it does leave certain things unsaid and there is a creeping sense of mistrust and danger lurking in the sun-dappled French countryside that is presented here. It's more akin to a thriller, perhaps even a giallo since it has that foreign flavor working in its favor, of the "Abducted Character in a Setting Where Anyone Can be Crazy" school ala Richard Matheson's "Dying Room Only." I enjoy variants of the theme like this, ones where killers leer at the camera in the glow of an afternoon sun and corpses are glimpsed at almost as an after-thought. It's warm atmosphere leaves one perfectly chilly.
[Ed. Note: I have actually been informed by Jeffrey Canino, author of the superb Nessun timore, that this film is in fact very Aickman-esque. As he puts it: "[t]hat thing is filled with Aickman's patented 'I-can't-quite-put-my-finger-on-why-everything-feels-so-horribly-wrong' atmosphere and tension." As someone who isn't familiar with the author's work all that much, I take Jeffrey's word for it over my own and you may all know consider me properly skooled.)
DERANGED (1974), however, is the antithesis of all that. Presenting what will probably-be-the-closest-to-accurate account of the exploits of Ed Gein, cheerily dubbed "The Butcher of Plainfield" and the source of all those horror film characters you already know about, co-directors Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby (who penned the script, along with being the deliciously sick and morbid lead from CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS ), give us this pseudo-docu-drama that wears the trappings of exploitation cinema proudly like the withered face of a deceased relative. It's snow-crusted, dirty environs manifest themselves in the character of Ezra Cobb (Roberts Blossom), an emotionally stunted farmer who has no qualms about shooting women in the face and using cemetery skulls as china.
I like this type of horror film too, the kind where it's evident that the director asked his neighbor to fill in a bit role and maybe lend him his pickup truck. The direction is plain and unfussy, but little puffs of flair come up occasionally, namely in the pictured scene where the pretty barmaid victim-to-be almost gets the upper hand before Ezra picks a bone with her. The final moment with Cobb sitting at the table, weeping and bloody like a stuck pig, capped by our intrepid reporter's somber narration exemplifies the ridiculous and dark charm of exploitation movies of this period pretty well.
I had picked up a lot of good word-of-mouth about THE FRIGHTENERS (1996) amongst my convention friends. Everyone seemed to love it and I seemed to be the only one who never saw it, barring the occasional glimpse on AMC. So I finally slipped into my conformity pants and decided to give this one a try. If that preamble sounds like I'm leading you to believe that it turned out to be the worst thing I had ever seen, then you'd be wrong. Like you always are. This was a film worth its weight in fun and imagination. It's ideal for an autumn season viewing; I imagine this would play like gangbusters at a Halloween party or in a packed theater.
It's a spritely supernatural yarn that director Peter Jackson manages to successfully fluctuate between effective slapstick and genuine creepiness (the flashbacks of the hospital massacre are surprisingly and welcomingly chilling). The movie brings the fun up to 11 by featuring Jeffrey Combs as a pale-lipped, simpering sociopathic bureaucrat. He commands attention every time he slinks into the room and, at the risk of perpetuating a cliche of cinematic critique, the movie is worth watching for him alone.
This image says more about my reaction to THE ABCS OF DEATH (2012) than anything I could type out here. Well, maybe not really, I just wanted to communicate how dissatisfied I was with it in the forcibly pseudo-clever way that is the Golden Standard of the Internet. But anyway. I grew cautious the moment I heard the premise of the film when it was announced who-knows-when; it sounded like an idea I might have dreamed up in middle school that I would have then rallied all my friends to pitch in for. A short story for each letter of the alphabet that had to do with death. And we'd draw pictures for them too! That's exactly what this is.
If the folks behind this joint had really watched anthology films, they might have noticed that, on the whole, the nature of the beast is that some entries are better than others. And we're talking films that typically deal with three to four tales, five tops. So who was the genius who said "Hey, you know what we need to introduce to that formula? Twenty one more stories!"? Stories that are roughly three minutes long and look like they took as long to think of and shoot. And with so many of them here, they're not so much being presented as they are vying for our attention, each filmmaker fervently trying to appear insightful or Internet-clever with their spins on mortality. We get such desperate attempts at absurdity as "F is for Fart" and the type of "hardcore" horror that induces rigor mortis in me ("L is for Libido" and "P is for Pressure"), though I will admit to enjoying the "Furries" segment and "W is for WTF" just for their surreal-sans-toilet humor quality. And, perhaps worst of all, watching an anthology of 26 shorts ceases to be entertainment at a certain point. It becomes an endurance test of the worst kind.
Even though I have never actively pursued them, I could not help but soak up the various modern iterations of the vampire in all their chiseled, morgue-chic horror through osmosis. This sad state of affairs is alleviated all the more when I return to the mist-shrouded land of the real and true Nosferatu, the carrion of the crypt, the maidens of the mausoleum. The Gothic atmosphere just fits so well with the vampire myth, harkening back to the earth from which it sprung in the form of myths and legends.
I say this all in regards to Roger Vadim's BLOOD AND ROSES (1960), which is somewhat ironic given that the film contains small traces of modernity (mainly in that fantastic surgery room dream sequence), but for the most part this story concerns itself with the way in which the ghosts of history can haunt us and, in the case of our dear Carmilla, how we can become those ghosts. It's Joseph Sheridan le Fanu by way of Daphne du Maurier, but it retains a potently supernatural atmosphere that ties beauty and horror closely together (the shot of the impaled Carmilla is both grim and gorgeous in the best fashion of Hammer Studios). If you're pining for a dreamy stroll through some good old fashioned vampirism, this is your ticket.
Oof. THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009). Talk about your missed opportunities. Now I'm certainly not the biggest fan of 80s horror, but I appreciate its homely charms from time to time. And I dug the approach of this film up to a certain point; its hairsprayed, retro sheen was pleasant on the eye, but moreso I admired the fact that Ti West was taking his time with the story, filming his shots in measured beats and lingering on the nervous faces of his characters to gently bump up the unease factor. It's a style of filmmaking sadly lacking in the genre these days and I had a first class seat on West's bandwagon that seemed intent on showing these young whippersnappers that This Is How Things Are Done. But then West steered us right into a pothole. Just as the shadows began to creep up on the lovely Joceline Donahue, we were tossed ass-first into a shrieking, blood-slick orgy that was more HOSTEL (2005) than HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW (1983). We go from the creak of a darkened staircase to the chants of Satan's headbangers.
This might have worked if the events had been drawn out a little more, but we go directly from Donahue following strange sounds in the house to her being tied up and fed blood to heavy grinding music, so the effect is like having your comatose grandmother spring to life and give you a wedgie. And the movie never recovers from that. The plot becomes as disoriented as Donahue's heroine as it meanders from "gun-happy hobo and bald Mary Woronov" to "self-sacrifice and, uh, demon baby, I guess? The end, folks." I've heard this grievance made in regards to West's films before but, for some reason or another, I have yet to lose hope for him. I guess the majority of this movie just had too much promise and craft to be the workings of someone who legitimately didn't know what they were doing.
Monday, April 22, 2013
A gaslit period piece in the grand Hammer tradition that Hammer never made, THE ASPHYX (1972) seems to have grown a reputation as being a novelty horror film whose execution has lived up (ahem) to its rather ingenious concept. Roberts Stephens and Powell are medical men who figure out a means to harness the asphyx, a wispy little sprite whose job it is to snip the golden thread of its chosen 'victim,' after the elder doctor's fiancee and son-to-be perish in a boating accident (just how exactly the doctor's antique camera manages to capture the same close-up of his dying son that we the audience see during this scene remains a mystery though). With the physicians' own personal Grim Reapers incarcerated, eternal life and megalomania are inevitably due to follow.
Still, this is not your average mad scientist chiller. Though Stephens grows steadily unsteady, his performance never slips into complete lunacy, his costar Powell bringing a fresh-faced exuberance to his role as conflicted assistant and son. The motivations that fuel Stephens' impassioned mission--much like that of the great grandfather of all misguided scientists, Victor Frankenstein--find root in a tender, human place, an overriding need to see that love, and more directly the ones we love, never truly die. But just as in that famous tale, this human need is offset by the eerie, otherworldly presence of an abhorrent creature. Frankenstein's monster might have had the ability to speak, but it seems fairly tame compared to the marrow-cutting wail of the Asphyx! It all ends with a sour tart of a final moment that is played just right to be both genuinely tragic and visually haunting.
Before this having only seen the tanned-leather noir NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) and country-fried Odyssey O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000), I undertook the Bros. Coen's first feature film BLOOD SIMPLE (1984) likely in not the proper frame of mind. I had initially heard about it in the 100 SCARIEST MOVIE MOMENTS that Bravo broadcast a few years ago. I did not believe the film was a horror story by any stretch, but I suppose I was a tad surprised at how low-key the whole affair was. Not to say that this was an issue; just a surprise. What I found were sweaty little crimes committed by sweaty little men with a few twists and turns that felt positively Hitchcockian, along with the restrained beauty and grace of Frances McDormand.
It's through no fault of the film itself, but I preferred the ever-present darkness that inhabited NO COUNTRY, the way it closed in on the characters with inevitability, moving slowly and quietly on stockinged feet with a cattle gun loaded with "Get the fuck out of my way." That could honestly be more attributable to Cormac McCarthy than the Coens, but as I have read none of that author's I work I sadly cannot say for sure. BLOOD SIMPLE worked more like violent soap opera where the characters' misfortunes were based on their desire to screw each other over and pure, dumb bad luck. Which is all probably just a protracted way of saying "It didn't have Anton Chigurh." Unfair, perhaps, but I know what I like. M. Emmet Walsh I like. Javier Bardem I love.
When asking my old blogging chum Eric what recommendations he had for someone taking the first dive into the films of Guy Maddin, he suggested BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! (2006) as it was his personal favorite. Having seen glimpses of the shadows that lurked in the director's oeuvre from publicity stills, I was highly intrigued by a modern filmmaker working in the silent medium. Well, dialogue-free in this case. Maddin retains some of the incidental sounds of the film's settings (the crashing of waves, the bubbling of bottled chemicals) to tingling effect.
Despite being absent of color and voice (Isabella Rossellini's silky narration notwithstanding), the film is, in more ways than one, one of the most sensuous I've seen. The juicy, puckering sound a ring makes when embedded into the flesh of a character's neck elicits the same warm, tickling sensations as the way two female characters stare at one another, fools in love, as they don the "Undressing Gloves." It all feels wonderfully intimate and naughty and fevered in the way I was hoping Maddin would deliver. It's a heady mix of memories and phantasms that I am eager to drink deep of again.
I'm not a slasher fan by any stretch, but I always had the lurking suspicion that THE BURNING (1981) was a film that I would really appreciate. The campfire-tale-as-backstory, the messy M. O., the Jason Alexander. The stars seemed to be aligning for me. And then... I liked it. Sure, it still retained some of the elements that made my eyes glaze over just a little when taking in this type of fare, namely the requisite sweaty, meat-headed bully and the nighttime skinny-dipping scene. Yes, skinny-dipping scenes bore me. Take it up with my therapist.
But in a way THE BURNING was more rough around the edges, more fiery at heart, than its contemporaries in a way that I admired. No matter how many times I watched the infamous raft scene in a grainy Realplayer clip years ago, seeing it on the home television didn't ease the blow. It's still a gnarly, unforgiving onslaught that packs enough of a punch to knock the mental wind out of you for a few good seconds. Just the way that Fisher Stevens stares disbelievingly at his own fingerless hand, blood spraying everywhere as his friends scream with their dying breaths... Why have more slashers not done this? That is perfection. The fact that THE BURNING later includes the pictured scene where the disfigured villain chases down the heroes with a flamethrower to a synth score almost makes that perfection more perfect.
In the cold case of L. A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997), there's not much in the way of extensive critique that I feel I can offer up. The cry of a defeatist, perhaps, but as the details of the film unspool in my mind like archival news footage I can only shrug my shoulders and give a round of applause for a job well done. Despite the seedy nature of its narrative, the movie is neat and efficient, a round of perfect, clean-cut Hollywood faces filling its cast and emulating the cinema of another era.
An emulation that includes a hefty amount of sexual scandal and cold-blooded homicide to distinguish it from older film noir, but what you see here is really what you would have seen had Howard Hawks had permission to take us behind the curtains in THE BIG SLEEP (1946). Seeing Crowe and Pearce tote their shotguns around as dark-hatted men lurk in the shadows makes one pine for those older films, and being that this one is an entertaining ride in of itself, I believe that would constitute this dark detective drama as a win.
Stories, weird stories specifically, can be rather tricky at times. One person may justify an inexplicable occurrence or some amount of abject strangeness in a text by saying "It doesn't matter. Nothing is real within the universe of the story." Then the fellow sitting next to him pipes up "No. It's bullshit. This guy is just dicking around." After travelling down David Lynch's LOST HIGHWAY (1997), I find myself at those very crossroads. This is not to say that I didn't like the film. It's hard for me to not have some attraction to Lynch's material. The way he can show the sun shining warmly on a spring afternoon before shoving a psychotic madman into view, grinning, just appeals to me. The first third of the film is gold, quietly and sinisterly chaotic. The dreams Bill Pullman has are chillingly true to the bizarre nature of visions we experience in our sleep. The videos he discovers created by someone watching him and his wife at night a perfect defilement of our sense of privacy. The moment at the party when the Mystery Man tells Pullman to call his house because he's there right now... totally freaking frightening.
But when the film kicks into its "metamorphosis" subplot, I couldn't help but wonder if things had to be this way. Couldn't we have just stayed with Pullman? Was there any purpose in making him a different character? Even when Pullman's tortured "hero" returns, it all seems pointless, the mystique having evaporated into a vague retread of BLUE VELVET (1986) before that. That comparison is made all the more definite due to the fact that Pullman's character transforms into a young man who faces the ravings of a sexually perverse looney, here the disposal-voiced Robert Loggia, Loggia having apparently vied for Dennis Hopper's role in the earlier film and receiving this one as a sort of acquiescence from Lynch who thought that the actor's profanity-fueled rage at not getting the part all those years ago would be perfect for the character of Mr. Eddy. Eddy eventually takes precedence as the menace of the story, Robert Blake's Mystery Man losing most of his mojo by the end of the film as he transitions from agent of unspeakable evil to goading familiar. This vehicle could have been a hot rod, but Lynch just drives his film so far down that infinite highway that it starts to lose speed and swerve.
I have my good movies, my bad movies, my so-bad-they're good movies, and then I have this, a film so tailored to my particular tastes that I had no choice but to fall in love with it. I wish that I could engage films more critically from time to time, classic horror in particular, but as fellow blogger Will Errickson said at one point in regards to the books he grew up with, it's in my DNA. This is not meant to imply either that "engage critically" means to "just find things that are wrong with it" or that I'm incapable of seeing crap even when it's disguised as the most innocuous of gorilla-in-a-haunted-house flicks.
But Roger Corman's ultimate adaptation of Poe's THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) remains a glorious feast for the eyes and for the morbid soul that possesses an inclination towards the Gothic. Vincent Price shines as Prince Prospero, one of his most unrepentant villains, and Corman gives us one of the best tableaus of his career (and yes, perhaps the whole genre) in the form of the Prince's judgment at his masquerade ball. The scarlet mayhem that ensues, all bloody faces and grasping hands, achieves the balance between mad terror and exquisite beauty that were only hinted at in the dream sequences from the previous Poe films. I mean, just look at that frame. It may look like a rainbow, but it's the most goddamn metal rainbow that you'll ever see in your life.
Oh, RADIOLAND MURDERS (1994). We could have been such good friends. Staying up all night, laughing out loud, painting each other's toenails. But it was not to be. I had such high hopes for what could have been the start of a beautiful relationship. You had great promise; you could have been another CLUE (1985), or at the very least a contender. And even though you reunited two actors from that compulsively watchable film, Michael McKean and Christopher Lloyd, you squandered their talents on throwaway roles that only asked them to mug through 90 minutes of an unengaging mystery and a flat-lining comedy. They were humorous mugs--I like McKean's enthusiastic, Spike Jones-esque conductor especially--but I digress.
Instead you gave us the scrappy charms of Brian Benben who, natural at the funny business as he may seem, looks to be a better fit for the stage with his large personality and louder voice. Some of the antics he's made to perform, like the bit with the uncontrollable fire hose, read more embarrassing than whacky. The supporting cast in general seem uncomfortable in their roles, but the script itself isn't funny, so why blame them? Going from the sight of Benben in a Brazilian dancer costume to the villain being hailed down by airplane gunfire like he's King Kong leaves the film a runny mishmash of influences, none of which blend to make something new or remotely interesting. Thankfully we'll always have CLUE and MURDER BY DEATH (1976) to drown out the noise of this forgettable station.
Spanish horror has always satisfied me consistently from the small sampling I've seen of it, from the dreadfully slow approach of the craggy-faced Knights Templar in TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1972) to the wonderful ornateness of Guillermo del Toro's macabre fantasy worlds, and I think that that's enough reason to champion it. The first-person zombie film that was all the rage and found its inevitable American remake in QUARANTINE (2008) is just such an example. I can't vouch for the remake, but I can say that REC (2007) was a tightly-woven little yarn that gradually ropes you into its narrative. Our heroes ascend the sealed-off apartment block, but they're actually only getting deeper and deeper entrenched in the horrible truth of the sickness that is spreading amongst the tenants, each floor another level of Dante's Hell. The blackness that covers nearly every inch of scenery is just as oppressive as the walls that become the characters' prison, their brick and mortar mass grave. Our window into this private world of darkness, the video camera of the newscasters, never becomes obvious or ridiculous in its presence as it might tend to in other films of the "found footage" variety. It serves both as the victims' testimony and our guide, somberly showing us the perspiring, peace-starved faces of our players and shrinking away from putrefying horrors that trudge and spring from the shadows.
The jump scares REC employs are handled effectively enough, especially the first one, but by far the creepiest moment comes when our heroine reporter enters the secreted room of a tenant who had been studying the mystery ailment for some years previous. A tape recording of his findings plays in the background as she looks about, panting and shaking, at yellowed newspaper clippings and photographs that riddle the walls. There was something horribly frightening about that moment, the tenant's grave tones reverberating in the dark, a whole history of terror and blood hanging there in front of her face. The ghoul-thing that sniffs the reporter and her cameraman out afterward is admittedly creepy, but it seems to pale against the horror behind those words and pictures, because something much, much bigger and damning lurk behind them.
Friday, April 19, 2013
The blogging network can be a dandy place. A rewarding place, even, as it proved to be for me this past October, though the treasures of my “discovery,” as it were, would only fully reveal themselves to me ending with just this past week. It was not really my discovery, though, but Bill Ryan’s, the scribe behind The Kind of Face You Hate whose work I imagine you all are reading. If not, please fix that. It’s bothering me.
That discovery was the book under review today. It pains me more than a little to say that up until that day I read Bill’s blog (part of his essential annual month-long marathon in which he reviews all manner of horror fiction) I had never really known all that much about Gahan Wilson. I’d heard the name before; his story “The Sea was as Wet as Wet Could Be” had been mentioned in different lists of Great Horror Tales I had seen in the past, and I’m fairly positive I saw at least one of his drawings before. But I never knew that he was also a prolific author, penning enough short stories during his career to comprise the collection that Bill was talking about that day. After reading what he had to say, I knew at that moment that Wilson was somebody I had to become acquainted with. Like, immediately. It was a beautiful thing, one of those moments where you hear about some artistic work and think “Gee wilikers, that sounds… exactly like me.” A narcissistic approach, perhaps, but art is meant to appeal to one subjectively, right?
So, eventually, I purchased this little tome from Amazon and entered its circus tent of grim horrors with much eagerness. Not all the stories within are strictly horror, but they are most definitely strange. But they are not strange in an alienating, surrealistic manner though, the likes of which you’d see in a David Lynch film or this off-putting stop motion short. They’re weird in the same way Wilson’s illustrations are; bizarre, but with a strong current of the familiar running underneath it all. That is to say, they’re not strange in an obtrusive way, but almost kind of comforting, written in a style and manner that you can immediately tell the author does because he has fun doing it. Wilson isn’t writing from some inner anguish or out of apathy towards human existence. He does it because he delights in it. It tickles his morbid little bones.
This amusement with the subject matter, no matter how grotesque it gets, is infectious to the reader. I had a ball reading each story, relishing in the eccentricity and gruesomeness and wicked humor of it all. As Bill alludes to in his review, it’s fairly clear that Wilson, on the whole, was never writing with a target audience or a real “point” in mind. These stories were written because Wilson wanted to write them, and they’re also stories that Wilson himself would very likely enjoy reading. I’m compelled to write a cliché along the lines of this type of thing being “a breath of fresh air,” but that’s exactly what it was. Perhaps we can go with something more befitting of Wilson, like: “It was as relieving as a beheading,” or, “It was an invigorating acid bath.” You get the idea.
As to the stories themselves, there’s plenty here for the horror fan to enjoy. All the tales have a somewhat classicist feel to them, which I greatly enjoyed, but they’re accessible to anyone who has an appetite for the ghoulish. Reading through the collection, I couldn’t help but pick up on two “strains” of stories that Wilson dabbled in, meaning that there were similar thematic elements that recurred several times throughout the book. I don’t mean to pigeonhole his work, as it’s some of the most unique in both concept and delivery that it’s been my pleasure to witness, just to merely observe the similarities as I saw them.
For starters there are the “Snob Stories,” as I unimaginatively call them, wherein people belonging to society’s tasty upper crust face some sort of horrible thing, said horrible thing generally intruding on the comfortable lifestyle of the Snobs in a manner that they simply will not temper. The language in these stories is particularly fun, as Wilson really digs his heels into the utter douchebaggery of his characters, what with their endless riches and general disdain for anyone whose tongues are disgustingly absent of silver spoons.
The murderer in “Sea Gulls” discovers that the marching the titular birds on the beach perform is the least of his troubles when pieces of his wife’s waterlogged corpse keep inexplicably showing up at his posh hotel room. Naughty siblings “Hansel and Grettel” find out that some parties are best left uncrashed when they go to the strange mountainside castle in their mission to ruin the fun of their stuffy contemporaries. The embezzling protagonist of “The Casino Mirago” almost comes to a bad end when he is brought to the mystery-shrouded club of the title, a place where more than money is put on the line. The tale “Best Friends” probably has one of my favorite lines from the collection, as our ice-cold narrator refers to “that shitty, third world glare” her cab driver had the gall to give her before discussing the details of an associate’s killer cat malady.
But perhaps most delicious of all is the one story in the book that has no title at all, which Bill referred to as “The Spot” in his review. In it a particularly fastidious old coot discovers a blobby spot on his pristine tablecloth, but ordering his butler to cleanse it becomes a problem when the spot keeps moving to a different part of the house. It can vanish within a mere blink of an eye. And it’s growing larger and larger… A really insidious and engrossing read that is both a hark back to horror tropes of the past and a new innovation in of itself, as Wilson actually renders illustrations of the blob within the text itself as the little black spot assumes a more alien and giant shape as the tale progresses. It practically eats the pages near the end. If you didn’t smile or giggle once during that description, then clearly you’re already dead.
Then there are the “Kid Stories” which are about as sweet and stomach-churning as slightly aged Halloween candy. It gives me great pleasure to say that in a lot of these tales Wilson goes into prime “horror mode” and that refreshing quality I mentioned is in full effect when Wilson shows that he isn’t going to wuss out at the climax of these tales. This would have been fully expected had I been acquainted with Wilson’s comic strip “Nuts,” a biting inversion of Charles Schultz’s moral universe where kids see the truly ugly, scary side of the world. Honestly, typing this stuff out just makes my heart grow all big thinking about Gahan Wilson.
Anyway, the “Kid Stories” have a touch of Bradbury about them, a nostalgic remembrance of the past that is marred in wonderful ways by the introduction of the horrendous. This works as a nice flip-side to the “Snob Stories;” those yarns work in an E.C. Comics fashion, knocking hubristic or greedy people down a few pegs with the help of the supernatural and the super weird. Couldn’t you just see Jack Davis drawing the scene from “Traps” where the exterminator sees the old biddy’s stockinged feet being carried around a corner by the fleet of sentient rats? The “Kid Stories,” though, bump up the wide-eyed wonder of childhood against all manner of monsters and ghouls in a delightfully unflinching style.
“Mister Ice Cold” is probably the prime example of this, a real chilly anecdote that evokes a sense of summertime bliss before blowing in a gusty shiver of dread when a particularly nasty parcel is spotted freezing in the ice cream man’s cooler. “A Gift of the Gods” is equally brutal, showing what happens when a curious boy dons a monstrous suit of fur and the gory finale that comes about when someone takes it from him. “The Marble Boy” is perhaps the “bravest” of them all, as it shows our young hero slowly and assuredly being devoured by the corpse that he stole a finger from in the graveyard. I mean, yikes!
But I think I like “Campfire Story” even more. Short and sweet, it has the same inevitable feeling of doom that constricts around the other stories, but its final lines deliver a real slap that I think even rivals that of “Mister Ice Cold.” I won’t spoil it here, but I love how it has really nothing to do with the greater narrative, yet it’s added anyway as essentially a more indirect, sophisticated way of saying “Fuck you. This is the world.”
Not all of the contents fit snugly into these meager classifications I’ve constructed. There’s a tongue in cheek lunacy that flows through each piece at varying hums and roars. Hobos are emptied of innards and relieved of appendages in “Leavings.” A scientist finds his life literally slowing down after an experiment in “The Manuscript of Dr. Arness.” Dwarves, cadavers, and robots all manage to take prominence in the whacky “End Game.” Even his zombie-infested tale “Come One, Come All” manages to entertain as Professor Marvello weaves boisterous, enticing pitches for his sideshow wonders to the shuffling, rotting masses of a dead Earth.
“The Sea was as Wet as Wet Could Be” is perhaps the only story that seemed completely bereft of any sense of merriment. It takes the famous Carroll poem of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” and spins it into something genuinely bloodcurdling. The ridiculousness of the situation almost makes it more nightmarish, the idea of this grinning fat man who looks so uncomfortably like a walrus leading a group of drunk partiers down the beach for… reasons.
If I had the time, I could have completed Wilson’s collection in one sitting, because Lord knows I had the will to. Even with the best writers story collections can wear one out, the number of remaining stories starting to resemble an endurance test rather than a promise of future delights. Not so with The Cleft and Other Odd Tales. The stories and their accompanying illustrations offered here are filled with a dark whimsy that manages to hit the mark every single time. If none of this has given you a sufficient taste, check out this short animated feature Wilson created in 1992 to get a sense of where this wonderful man’s head is at.
Watch the short. Then go out and get that book.