Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review: Uncommon Bodies

The new short story collection from Fighting Monkey Press - publishers of Sin Eater by Pavarti k. Tyler and Jessica West - professes to "explore the lives of the odd, the unbelievable, and the impossible." It manages to do so with aplomb, collecting a stellar menagerie of tales to thrill, horrify and titillate in equal measure.

Standouts for me include "From the Inside," a surreal tale of obsession in a rain drenched Europe by Daniel Arthur Smith,  Christopher Godsoe's cyber-noir/sci-fi procedural story "The Zealot," and "Scars: First Session," a character piece by Jordanne Fuller. (Weirdly, two of the three feature tattoos.) I also enjoyed "We is We" by Michael Harris Cohen, "In Her Image" by Vasil Tuchkov, "Undead Cyborg Girl" by Kim Wells, "Don't Touch Me" by Bey Deckard, "Ruby" by Bob Williams and "Daedelus' Daughter" by P.K. Tyler. I liked the vast majority of the stories, actually, and am just picking out the ones that I'm still thinking about now that I've finished reading them all. You may find any of the other eleven stories and three poems more to your liking.

A small point of concern is that the net is cast perhaps a little too wide. There's cyberpunk, horror, magical realism, even Victoria Era erotica (there are two sexually explicit stories in the collection, so be aware). Going from one genre extreme to another sometimes engendered intellectual whiplash as I adjusted expectations. There are also a couple of stories that - to my mind - just weren't up to the same level as the rest. However, the vast majority of them are well-written and, more importantly, enjoyably so.

So, slip off the prosthetics, moisturize the tentacles and tweak the cybernetic eyes so you're seeing the visible spectrum. Uncommon Bodies is - forgive me - an uncommon collection of stories that will challenge your perceptions and entertain you while doing so. 

Uncommon Bodies will be available in print and digital format starting November 24, 2015. I'll add links once it's available.

(NOTE - I was given a preview copy of this collection to review ahead of publication.)

Sunday, November 1, 2015

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Alien

We had 90 trick-or-treaters last night - a new record for us! It's been five years since we moved out of an apartment and into a house and we still love having kids show up in costume. They came in waves this year and I once looked out the window to see a mass of 25 kids and their parents walking across the lawn while Night of the Living Dead was playing on the TV. I turned to my wife and said "They're coming to get you, Barbara!" She ignored me, which is the only reasonable course of action.

We didn't watch House of Wax this year, which was a first. It's been our tradition for at least a decade or more, but neither of us was into it. Instead we ran a bunch of Universal Monster movies and, as already mentioned, the original Night of the Living Dead. It was well past 8 before the hordes dissipated and we could finally sit down to the final film for 31 Days.

I'd brought up the idea of watching Scream as a sort of bookend to the start of this month (where I watched a Wes Craven film and then a Christopher Lee film), but my wife wasn't really interested. I try and make sure we watch something we can both enjoy, so I brought out a variety to choose from and her choice was:


My history with Alien doesn't actually start with the film itself, but rather with the novelization by Alan Dean Foster. When I was a kid I was in the Boy Scouts and once a year we went on something called a 'Jamboree.' In general these were wretched affairs memorable only for the number of days it rained and how horrific the latrine was. It rained so often when we went that even today if it's a miserable, cold and rainy day I'll say to my wife, "somewhere there are Boy Scouts camping in this."

Actual picture of Boy Scouts camping.

Anyway, this one particular Jamboree was more of a week-long event at a lodge or camping resort somewhere in the wilds of Maine. Miraculously it didn't rain the entire time and even when it did our tents were on elevated platforms instead of the usual water-filled depressions at the bottom of a hill. I learned out to fletch an arrow, I remember, and how to shoot a bow, use a compass and that a grease-covered watermelon is no prize, no matter what the Eagle Scouts say.

At night I read Alien.

I distinctly remember the opening paragraphs about seven dreamers and how they weren't professional dreamers. It was a cool science fiction story opening about cryo-sleep and the personalities of a spaceship crew. I read a lot of science fiction back then and that's what I was hoping for - a good old space opera tale like something by Asimov or Heinlein. And then I got to the final sentence in that opening chapter: "Seven dreamers in search of a nightmare."

Yes, the nightmare is in there.

It's a short book. I think I read it four or five times that week. And I laid awake at night a lot of times after I put it away, wondering what it would be like to be stuck on the Nostromo, trying to get away from the alien creature - running through maze-like corridors in the dark, in the cold, in space - knowing there WAS no escape. It was a haunted house with no way out, because the outside would kill you just as surely as what was inside.

Jason! Jason is outside the spaceship! No?

I loved it, of course.

I wasn't able to see the film itself until many years later. I wasn't disappointed, though the movie was very different than the one I had directed in my head. In the time since the film has stealthily infiltrated my memories and replace those characters and those moments that I imagined with the images that Ridley Scott created. Except that one line. Dreamers in search of a nightmare. That's still the first thing I think of when I think of Alien.

The Medium
I've owned Alien several times over the years. For last night's viewing we watched the recent blu-ray release that contains the Theatrical version and the 2003 Director's Cut. We ended up watching the Director's Cut, mostly on a whim (I kind of wanted to watch the original, but the siren song of additional footage is strong). The blu-ray is gorgeous and my wife exclaimed many times about how it looks - despite some very out-of-date tech - like a film that could have come out this year.

The Movie
There's just not much new I can say about Alien. It's been analyzed, studied, reviewed and re-reviewed by hundreds if not thousands of people with way more qualifications for doing so than I posses. Of course that's never stopped me before... but I won't go over the plot. You've seen it - and if you haven't, go out and find a copy and watch it right now!

The thing that always gets me about Alien right away is the same thing that got me about the novelization. It should be a straight-up sci-fi story - commercial space vehicle Nostromo towing a refinery ship through the back lanes of space - but it's just so damn creepy! The way the entire ship is full of shadows, the way the camera creeps through empty corridors and rooms. It's like the ship is abandoned - or haunted. This even extends to the awakening of the crew, which - despite the suddenly bright lighting - is also a little like vampires rising from their coffins.

They were going to put some nice bright lighting in - but budget cuts, you know.

Vampires in desperate need of coffee.

Whenever you watch a film multiple times it's inevitable that you find yourself focusing on different aspects. This time around Moe and I were both struck by how realistic and natural the characters and their dialogue are. Dan O'bannon's script has something to do with this, of course, but you can't script things like Dallas' reaction to Kane noting that the signal location is within "walking distance." Or Lambert's exasperated response to Ripley's "that's not our system." They all seem like real people, which, of course, helps ground a story that's essentially "find space monster, run from space monster."

Real people... well, mostly.

I was worried - having seen Prometheus - that my reaction to the alien ship would be changed somehow, that it would be substantially less eerie and mysterious. No worries - Prometheus didn't inform my viewing this time around at all. (That may be because I haven't re-watched Prometheus since it came out and the details are blurry.) The ship is still enigmatic and dangerous looking. I always wondered - what kind of mind would create the aesthetics that inform its shape? What kind of reasoning makes those lines and those halls? The answer was always going to be disappointing, so I prefer to still wonder - and worry.

"Remember, if it rolls, run perpendicular."

I still think this version of the eggs and this version of the facehugger are the best, the scariest. Although I love the book and knew what was coming the first time I saw this scene I know I yelled out loud.

"These are the weirdest avocados."

As we were watching the scene in the medical bay after Kane is brought in, just before they attempt to cut it off and the acid eats through the floor, my wife opined that the entire Alien franchise really depends on people ignoring what Ripley says. Every movie she's in could have ended - if not happily, then at least with a lot less loss of life - if everyone simply did exactly what Ripley says, when she says it. I can't argue with that. Now I want a t-shirt with Sigourney Weaver's face on it and the legend "WWRD?"

WWRD? Nuke it from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

The formula of the bulk of the movie - stick a group of people in an enclosed space with a monster and watch what happens as they're whittled down - has been done a billion times, of course, but rarely so well. From the chestburster scene (watch the faces of the actors when Kane's chest pops, those are real reactions, as they hadn't been told what exactly was going to happen), through Dallas in the vents to Ripley's frenzied run to try and stop the self-destruct. That's a master class in how to build tension and deliver on scares.

This is what "what the fuck just happened?" looks like.

Each time I watch this movie some scene ends up standing out - it's usually different each time, though Kane's descent into the egg field shows up often. This time around it was Ripley's confrontation with Ash. Though I never got to see the scene unspoiled, I imagine it must have been quite a freakout for those who did. For my wife that's the most terrifying sequence - the person you thought was one of you, on the same side, turns out to be just as much of a monster as what you're fighting, if not worse. And despite the lack of blood it's also one of the most violent segments of the film. (I noted for the first time that, hilariously, Ash is drinking milk in the scene when Ripley confronts him about letting Kane on board.)

And there's that milk again!

The final sequence still bugs my wife a bit "who the hell would wear those bottoms" she always says. It's true, but that sequence as a whole is just brilliant and even knowing how it ends gets me on the edge of my seat. (And off it when that hand comes out.)

My wife's right about the bottoms, though - who wears those in space?

The Bottom Line
Alien is a classic and a fantastic film, no matter how many times you see it. Consistently in my top five favorite movies of all time. Not much I can add about it - every angle has been written about by others - though now that I write that, how about analyzing Ash as a representative of the Company in the era of Citizen's United? Corporations are people, after all - or androids, as the case may be. At least you don't see the aliens screwing each other over for a percentage.

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: The Devil Rides Out

This year's penultimate film was:

The Devil Rides Out
Every once in a while I start to feel like I've seen all the horror films. Like there's nothing new under the sun. Sure, new stuff gets released every year, but I'm talking the really good stuff - the classics and the new classics. I've seen all the vampires, the slashers, the zombies. I've seen the exploitation flicks, the psychological horror and the ghost stories. Wale, Corman, Craven, Romero, De Palma, Carpenter all sit on my shelf. I'm found-footaged out.

I start to feel - not just jaded, but melancholy, like all the good stuff has already been watched and whatever I'm watching now is the dreck. It's not rational - there's no way I've seen even a tenth of all the horror movies ever made - but the feeling is there.

And then - and THEN I realize that I've still never seen The Old Dark House. Or Basket Case. Or, in this case, The Devil Rides Out. It's like a renewal - what other awesome films haven't I seen? It Follows was fantastic, and I'm glad I saw it - what other flicks will become new classics? The moment passes and I'm once again happy to have horror films to watch.

Which is all to say that I was in a mood, and The Devil Rides Out got me out of it.

The Medium
I saw this on YouTube and I'm not sure I should have. It's not available anywhere else for streaming, however, and I didn't see a copy for sale at my local shops, so...

The Movie
The Devil Rides Out (released as The Devil's Bride in the US) is a Hammer film starring Christopher Lee and that right there generally means it's worth watching. Production quality is of a consistently high level as is the cinematography. The acting ranges from top-notch (Lee and Charles Gray) to serviceable, if a bit wooden. All the characters are from upper-crust British society, however, so perhaps it's that stiff-upper lip that makes them all so rigid.

"Is it the lip that's stiff or the enormous sticks up our..."

The film follows the efforts of Nicholas (Lee) and Rex (Leon Greene) to save their young friend Simon from the clutches of a devil-worshiping cult.

Yes - for once Lee is cast as the good guy in a Hammer picture, and his Duc de Richleau is awesome. A modern (I think this is set in the 30's) van Helsing, Nicholas affects a certain world-weary knowledge of pretty much everything. He consistently knows exactly what's happening and why it's bad before anyone else has a clue. His ever-calm nature and answer for everything makes those few moments when he loses his cool much more effective. Only Lee could make a phrase like "Good God, man!" fraught with danger and import.

He even makes smarmy condescension look awesome.

Simon and a young lady named Tanith are to be baptised into the Satanic cult within two days time. Nicholas and Rex attempt to save both of them - even interrupting a ritual wherein the Devil himself (as the goat headed Baphomet) appears! (FYI - for future knowledge or Call of Cuthulhu games - driving a car into the middle of the ceremony and chucking a cruxifix at the demon/monster seems to be the way to go.)

"Me? I thought YOU invited him."

The leader of the cult - a thinly disguised Aleister Crowley stand-in named Mocata - will do anything in his considerable power to regain control of Simon, and especially Tanith, who is a medium for his demonic powers. Gray is excellent in this role and I completely forgot he was Blofeld for at least five minutes. One scene in particular - where he visits the house in which Simon and Tanith are taking refuge only to mesmerize the lady of the house - is incredibly effective. It felt like he really was bending the woman's mind to his, forcing her to obey him simply through the power of his will. He is an excellent villain and as an actor is able to hold his own with Lee, no mean feat.

"Listen to the sound of my voice - it's just... a jump... to the left..."

Thwarted in his attempt to get Simon and Tanith by the timely entry of a little girl, Mocata lays siege to the house with an endless wave of black magic attacks. Nicolas is able to help the residents and Simon withstand the assault, even when the Angel of Death appears on a black horse. Unfortunately, Tanith loses her life - it seems the Angel cannot leave empty handed.

"Maybe the idea of hiding in the barn instead of the magic circle wasn't the best one."

And then they all realize the little girl, Peggy, is missing.

The rest of the film is a desperate race against time to prevent the girl from losing her life - and possible her soul. And the only person who can help them is the recently deceased Tanith!

"Black curtains, check. Black candles, check. Black robes... dammit!"

The Bottom Line
Well written - the adaptation of the Dennis Wheatley novel is by Richard Matheson - acted and shot, this is a fantastic Hammer-flavored Halloween treat. In general I'm not that big on Satanic films, with very few exceptions (Rosemary's Baby, for one, The Exorcist as well). I just find the idea of Satanic cults to be not that credible as a threat. I did very much enjoy The Devil Rides Out, however, and it's extremely well put together. I even found myself misty-eyed at the ending, even though it's a bit of a cheat!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: The Town That Dreaded Sundown

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

I've been seeing the 2014 sequel/re-imagining of the same name on my Netflix 'recommended for you' list for a while now, but felt like I couldn't see that one until I'd re-watched the original. The only things I could remember from the 1976 Charles B. Pierce version was the trombone scene and Mary Ann (Dawn Wells) getting shot in the face. They were equally traumatic.

Then I saw a documentary by Joshua Zeman (who also did the Cropsey documentary), called Killer Legends. It examined a number of urban legends and their possible connections to real-life crimes. The section entitled "The Hookman" focused on the Texarcana Moonlight Murders - the basis for The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Now I know the movie starts off with the pronouncement that "all you're about to see is true - only the names have been changed," but really - a lot of movies, particularly slasher flicks and 1970's exploitation films - have those disclaimers. Hell, I think The Legend of Boggy Creek - another Charles B. Pierce film - says the same thing. Not to be taken too literally is what I generally thought, so it was something of an eye opener to realize that the trombone scene was based on something that really happened.

Eye opening - and very disturbing.

The Medium
I watched The Town That Dreaded Sundown on Amazon and, in a pleasant change of pace, it was substantially better than I expected. I had seen this originally sometime in the late 80's/early 90's on a VHS tape that must have been dragged through the mud. I wasn't expecting the picture to be quite so sharp or the colors to be quite so bright. It was recently restored for a blu-ray release.

The Movie
The Town That Dreaded Sundown starts with a narrator describing the town of Texarkana, Arkansas in the years just after World War II. We're treated to bucolic scenes of small town life in warm, summer sunshine. Then it swiftly turns to night and a title lets us know that it's Sunday, March 3, 1946. A young man and woman are out parking late at night on a rural lover's lane. They're soon assaulted by a man in work clothes and with a canvas bag tied tight over his head, holes cut for eyes.

"Hold still! My depth perception sucks in this thing."

The scene is fairly well done and disturbing. The acting in the film is generally not so good, but I didn't mind so much as it contributed to the 're-enactment' feel. In fact, as the movie progresses I felt less like I was watching a horror movie and more like I was watching some kind of proto-Dateline NBC true-crime show.

You know, with car chases and terrible comedy sequences starring the director as a hapless policeman.

The Town That Dreaded Your Driving, amiright?

Seriously - I hadn't remembered there being so many scenes of cars barely staying on the road as they careen about the county and the character of AC "Sparkplug" Benson is jarringly inconsistent with most of the tone of the film. It's one half slasher flick and the other half Dukes of Hazzard.

The two young people survive - barely - and the police put a watch on 'lovers lanes.' Twenty one days later Deputy Norman Ramsey hears gunshots while driving some back roads and finds an abandoned car. Charging into the pouring rain he soon comes across the body of a male victim - and then a woman tied to a tree, her back heavily bitten. He barely misses the hooded man, who escapes in a car.

The movie switches between the police and their efforts to catch the killer - including calling in the Texas Rangers - and the killer (known as The Phantom) hunting down his victims. The police segments are not particularly interesting or enjoyable, despite a car chase and plenty of 'comedy.' The murders, on the other hand, have a visceral quality, a rawness that transcends the setting an becomes disturbingly realistic. Almost voyeuristic - thought he bloodletting is kept to a minimum.

The final two murders/attacks are the most brutal, as if the killer was working to a frenzy. In the first, a young couple is waylaid on a wooded lane in the middle of town. The young woman, who plays trombone during a Junior/Senior dance earlier, is killed when the Phantom ties a hunting knife to the instrument and 'plays' it. I'm sort of glad I don't play trombone any more.

How's he even getting a seal on the mouthpiece with that bag over his head?

The last attack sees the Phantom invade a private residence - shooting a man from outside and then shooting a woman named Helen in the head twice. Despite her wounds Helen manages to escape to a nearby cornfield and eventually finds help in a neighboring farm. This leads the whole town to essentially shut down after dark - and to board their windows.

It's still just as distressing to see Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island get shot in the face, by the by.

Shhh, shhhh... go to sleep childhood, go to sleep forever...

The two primary cops - a Ranger named "Lone Wolf" Morales (yeah, that's his name) and Deputy Ramsey - have a confrontation and chase scene with the killer, but it feels tacked on to provide some sort of closure. And there really isn't any. The Phantom is never caught, though his attacks cease. Some people think he was killed. Others that he was arrested for some other crime. The movie suggests he simply stopped - for now - and that he still walks amongst the good people of Texarcana. The final shot is of some shoes - the same ones the killer has been wearing the entire film - as their owner queues up to watch The Town That Dreaded Sundown at the local Texarcana theater.

The Bottom Line
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is surprisingly effective in its murder sequences - less so in other areas. It's still a decent chiller, however, and has moments of real menace. It could use a lot less "Sparkplug," though.

Friday, October 30, 2015

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: The Ring

The Ring
I saw The Ring when it first came out and I remember enjoying it greatly. It was probably the first awareness I had of Japanese horror films and obviously opened the way to a number of US remakes of successful J-horror films (The Grudge, Dark Water, etc.) I actually went out of my way to track down the original film - Ringu - and they've gotten somewhat tangled in my memory. I expected certain things to happen when I re-watched it this time, only to realize that the event or character I was looking for was in the original film.

In the years since I've also read the book the original film was based on (and the first sequel, Spiral). It's significantly different and is more of a science-horror story than a supernatural one. Characters and events from THAT have also seeped into my collective recollection - particularly revelations about the nature of Sadako (Samara in The Ring).

So I was a little confused watching things this time around!

This image from the movie isn't directly related to anything - I just liked the picture.

The Medium
I keep meaning to pick this up, whether on DVD or blu-ray, but just never got around to it. I watched it streaming on Amazon and the quality was average.

The Movie
Two teen girls, Katie and Becca (Amber Tamblyn and Rachael Bella) are having a sleepover where Becca opines that TV is stupid. She then recounts an urban legend about a videotape that if you watch it, seven days later you die. Katie is disturbed, as she has watched the tape. Seven days ago.

"Well, we're bing-watching Ugly Betty, so suck it up."

I always like this bit because they use the standard 'teen in a house with something bad' tropes against you. Amber Tamblyn's character opens the fridge and you just KNOW there's going to be something standing there when she closes it. But there isn't. The person on the phone is her mom, not a killer. The TV stays off when she unplugs it. (A lot of these have been subverted in films since, but I vaguely remember it being of note at the time.)

Katie does die, of course, and whatever her friend sees drives her into a mental health facility. At the funeral for Katie a family friend, Rachel, is asked by Katie's mother to find out anything she can about what happened to her daughter. Rachel is a reporter and she quickly finds out that every kid who went with Katie on a weekend trip has died - and that they all watched the tape.

And they all suck at taking selfies. Hold that phone steady, people.

Katie tracks down the location where the kids stayed and watched the tape because, well, there's no story if she doesn't. (I admit, I'd be curious too.) The tape is a mix of mundane and disturbing images with no coherent story - a woman brushes her hair in a mirror, a fingernail is pulled off by a nail, a ladder falls, stormy waves crash on a headland. Nonsense images. When the tape finishes the phone rings and Rachel answers. A girl's voice says "seven days."

"Seven days until we start charging late fees." Heh. Remember late fees?

Well, that's nicely creepy! In fact, the whole movie is suffused with a sense of dread. (I don't get to use the word 'suffuse' all that often - and it seems to like being paired with 'dread.') The cinematography is very de-saturated, as if all the color has been leached out of the world. It's almost always raining, about to rain, or has just rained. The music, acting and pace are all subdued - the movie spools out in slow motion, like a train wreck you can see happening but can do nothing to stop.

Much of the rest of the movie involves Rachel's efforts to find out where the video tape came from and how to stop the oncoming train of death it represents. This quest takes on some additional urgency when her young son, Aidan, watches the videotape as well. She enlists her ex-husband Noah in her search - after he watches a copy of the tape. They scour images from the tape for clues, leading eventually to an island, an asylum, and a strange little girl who may or may not have been murdered by her parents.

What are YOU looking at?

Though there are twists and turns and creepy moments aplenty, the best part of the movie comes after the supposed ending. I hope I'm not spoiling anything to say that the standard "she just needed to be put to rest" ending is a fake-out. That's not what this ghost, if ghost it is, wants.

Honestly, the ending makes a lot more sense in the books - the tape actually has instructions, though the 'how to avoid being killed' bit at the end is taped over, causing much of the action of the book. It's still damn creepy in the film, however, and Samara coming out of the TV is probably one of the iconic horror moments of the early 2000's.

Luckily I wore my brown pants.

The Bottom Line
In general The Ring is still an eerie and effective horror film. My only issue (beyond my own confusion amongst the sources) is that the director (Gore Verbinski) affects such an emotional distance in how he frames and edits things that I ended up a little disconnected. I wasn't quite as affected as I could have been, if I'd been more emotionally invested in Rachel, Noah and Aidan. I understand why - the emotional estrangement of the characters is an import part of the story - but I think it reduces the horror a bit.

I haven't seen the sequel, actually - is it just a retread of the same stuff? (And shouldn't it have been called Rings, instead of The Ring Two?)

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Kill, Baby... Kill!

Kill, Baby... Kill!

Here's the summary I wrote down as I was watching this Mario Bava classic last night: "Doctor Flinty McChinjaw and his assistant Cheekbones Magee must investigate a spate of murders in Ruraleuropeville, a town full of assholes."

I was in a mood, apparently.

You may want to keep that in mind during this review. In general I enjoy Bava's work, but I need to be in a particular mood to truly enjoy it. I should probably re-watch Twitch of the Death Nerve because I HATED that movie, and everyone I know who's seen it calls it a classic. I didn't much like 5 Dolls for an August Moon, either. On the other hand I really enjoyed Black Sabbath, Black Sunday and Planet of the Vampires.

They fight crime!

The Medium
Amazon Prime again. This was another of a number of 'boxed' movies I've seen on the platform - that is, the entire film has a black frame around all four sides. My awareness of it went away eventually, but it's annoying. The picture quality was also not particularly good and I get the feeling I'd have been much more impressed by the cinematography if I could watch it in high def.

The Movie
My earlier description is flippant, but apt - a Doctor (Paul, I think - I had to look it up, I really do just think of him as Flinty McChinjaw) arrives in a small, isolated European town to conduct an autopsy on a murder victim. Its vaguely late 19th century and he arrives by carriage (the driver refuses to enter the actual town). He's meeting an inspector, but the townsfolk seem none too happy to see him. In fact, a couple of men try to bury the victim before he can 'desecrate' the body.

It's interesting right away, because there's this conflict between the Gothic trappings and the more modern sensibilities of both the doctor and the inspector. Much hay is made of this, with the Doctor repeatedly cursing "superstition" and "ignorance" while the townsfolk try and work around the authorities who simply don't 'get it.'

Because science will be no help here.

"Why do they hate you so, Flinty?"
"No everyone appreciates steely-eyed condescension and moral superiority, Magee."

What's really going on is that the ghost of a seven year old girl is haunting the town, and causing those she blames for her death (pretty much everyone) to take their own lives. The girl's appearances are nicely creepy, with silhouettes, hands on window panes and occasional giggling echos while a ball bounces down an empty alleyway.


The good doctor loses track of the inspector early on and spends much of his time with a recently returned local woman (again, her name is apparently Monica, but I think of her as Cheekbones Magee). Together they investigate the mystery and run a lot - sometimes screaming or looking perplexed. As far as I can tell most of the time they put people into positions where they'll be killed. When McChinjaw removes the protection from the innkeeper's child (citing "science!" and "superstitious nonsense") she ends up being forced by the ghost girl to impale herself. The innkeeper almost shoots McChinjaw, and I kind of wanted him to.

"What are you doing, Notawitch?"
"It doesn't really matter, as McChinjaw will just screw it up."

Some people try to help. The burgomeister, Almost Yulbrynner, and his wife, Crazyhair Notawitch, point him in the direction of the local castle... er, estate, where the old Baroness Graps lives. It's her daughter who's the ghost, you see. And Cheekbones Magee has a connection to the Graps as well.

They all shared a 'my first lobotomy' doll.

The dubbing is mostly terrible, with only a couple of characters managing anything more than a stern monotone. It's been at least a decade and probably more since the girl's death (by horses at a festival) and there's just not that many people in the town. At the rate people die during the film she should have had the whole damn place cleared out in a few months. Maybe Crazyhair Notawitch helped fend her off? The cinematography is grainy and washed out on streaming, but there remains enough of the detail to get a sense that it probably looks tremendous in a good copy.

There are plenty of good things in the film as well - There's some nice framing and set design and parts of the town are like an eerie labyrinth. One sequence where McChinJaw chases a man through a repeating set of rooms only to see himself turn when he finally catches him is wonderfully surreal.

This is where they put a swingset. It's a creepy town, I'm just saying.

The Bottom Line
I wish I'd been more settled down when I watched Kill, Baby, Kill! as I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more. As it is I was able to enjoy some bits of it, while making fun of others. And that name - it really needs to be something else. Even the original title - Operation Fear - doesn't work. Dead Mean Girl, maybe? The Town that Dreaded Science? Ghost Girl Already Hates You?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Land of the Dead

Land of the Dead

I feel like it's not really Halloween season if I don't watch a Romero zombie flick, but I'm rapidly running out of ones that I like. In fact, this is really the last one I'll probably watch for 31 Days. (I didn't much care for Diary of the Dead or Survival of the Dead.) Not to say that I was completely happy with Land of the Dead when it came out - in all honesty I was pretty disappointed.

And yet, I'm now hard pressed to say why. It may have had something to do with the release of the Dawn of the Dead remake the year previous . I enjoyed the hell out of that modernization, even if the film failed to make much use of Romero's deeper themes. I was, perhaps, expecting a little of that edge, that frenzied, more modern pace. Maybe I was expecting a bigger budget - and Land was Romero's only studio-produced Dead film - to create a bigger film than what we got. Maybe... ah, hell, it doesn't really matter. The bottom line is that I was disappointed - but I still liked the movie.

The Medium
I've got the "Unrated Director's Cut" DVD - just never got around to the blu-ray, and I'm not sure it's really necessary. The unrated version adds back in a few choice bits of gore - like a zombie ripping out someone's naval ring - but nothing that adds to the plot or backstory.

The Movie
Set several years after the events of the previous Dead films, the primary action takes place in and around Pittsburgh's "Golden Triangle" - a real feat, since it was shot in and around Toronto, Canada. Protected on two sides by rivers the city provides enough safety from the dead ('stenches' in this film - why does every zombie franchise have to use a different term?) to allow for civilization - of a sort - to reassert itself. The city has stratified into the haves and have-nots with the rich living in a luxury high-rise called Fiddler's Green and everyone else living in abandoned buildings, shacks and tents in your standard post-apocalyptic ghetto.

Top-drawer entertainment, however.

In a lot of ways Land of the Dead feels like an eighties film - a thematic cousin to movies like The Running Man, They Live and Robocop. Romero's always used his films as a way to talk about larger issues - consumer culture, urban alienation, societal nihilism - and with Land he's focused primarily on class struggle and wealth stratification, something those 80's films were also concerned about. It's also pretty simplistic in its concerns - the poor are good, the wealthy are bad, and those who attempt to elevate their station betray both their roots and their own survival. I've got no problem with the message - I just wish there had been a bit more subtlety. Of course when you've got Dennis Hopper as your big bad that may be asking for too much.

"Waterworld 2? Yeah, fuck it, why not."

The biggest addition to Romero's Dead cannon here is actually a logical continuation of Bub, from Day of the Dead. The zombies in this film are starting to remember who they use to be - and they spend much of their time acting out old habits and behaviors. An undead band struggles to carry a tune in the old bandstand, a long-dead couple still holds hands as they stagger around town, and Big Daddy, a former gas station attendant, shambles to the pump as if it was still working. In some ways it's almost an idealistic society - nobody wants, nobody struggles and best of all, nobody dies. Again, that is.

"Hey, Mr. Tambourine man..."

Except the zombie society and the human society end up in conflict. In order to maintain the human community, groups are sent out to raid surrounding towns for resources. Their leader is the clean-cut Riley (Simon Baker) - a man whose do-gooder nature is juuuust this side of saccharin. (I mean, he brings antibiotics for the preachers ill son.) His second in command is the more pragmatic - if not mercenary - Cholo (John Lequizamo), a man for whom death is part of the job description - as long as it's not his. We join the story on the night of Riley's last job. He's bugging out - leaving the rat race (and the rats) for the quieter climes of Canada. All he wants is for things to go smooth on his last job.

And of course it doesn't. Cholo isn't out getting food or medicine for the community - he's getting cigars and liquor for the guy who runs things, Kaufman (Hopper). His inattention leads to the death of a young man, which is bad, but the behavior of the group as a whole - running roughshod through the town, shooting zombies and setting fires - inspires the ire of Big Daddy. And this is one zombie you do not want to mess with.

Lequizamo's Cholo is actually my favorite character, primarily because he's the only one that shows any sort of complexity. I like Baker as an actor, but he's so straight-laced in this I'm surprised he's not wearing a white hat. Hopper is just as bad on the other side of things, but he hams up the sleazy CEO shtick so well I tend to cut him some slack. Cholo, on the other hand, is mercenary and self-centered and ambitious to a fault - but he also tries to help people (Kaufman's neighbor), inspires a twisted sort of devotion in his men, and is genuinely hurt that Kaufman doesn't consider him 'worthy' of the Green. He just wants to live the American dream, man!

*Insert Girl From Ipanema Muzak track here*

With his dreams of "movin' on up" quashed, Cholo steals a military truck called "Dead Reckoning" and threatens to shell Fiddler's Green with missiles unless he gets the money Kaufman owes him. (The whole idea that money still means anything in this wasteland is laughable - but hey.) Riley is drafted to take him out before he can do it - which Riley agrees to only to save his friends.

Meanwhile Big Daddy and his growing army of zombies moves steadily towards the bright lights across the river. And they're learning as they go.

Learning just how cold Lake Ontario is in the winter, primarily.

Things get apocalyptic, of course. It's a Romero zombie film. Though the zombies actually have a bit more agency in how things go down than is usual. (I expected more direct human screw-ups to be the cause of zombies getting in.)

The supporting characters are thin, but well handled by Asia Argento and Robert Joy. Eugene Clark as Big Daddy is also a standout - you don't often see outrage, grief or satisfaction in a zombie, but Clark manages it through an iconic makeup. He's no Bub, but he's still pretty good.

My main complaint about Land of the Dead is in how small everything feels. Even when they're shooting exteriors it all feels... claustrophobic. I don't feel the scope or sense of place - if it wasn't for the occasional establishing shot of the Pittsburgh skyline it could be anywhere. Maybe that's the point, though...

The Bottom Line
Out of the first series of Dead films (Diary serves a sort of re-boot to the series) this is my least favorite. I feels too small for the scope of the story and too broad in its message. There's still plenty to enjoy, however - it's a Romero zombie movie, after all.

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies Double Feature: The Abominable Doctor Phibes/Doctor Phibes Rises Again

Sometimes I want nothing more than to see Vincent Price hamming up a storm in Technicolor. This weekend was one of those times. I didn't have immediate access to the Corman Poe cycle films, so a double feature of Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death was out. I DO have both of the Phibes movies, however, so the theme this weekend became Vincent Price Movies With "Doctor Phibes" In The Title.

The Abominable Doctor Phibes
There is a serious dearth of films with organ playing madmen in them - especially nowadays. I love that The Abominable Doctor Phibes embraces this shtick wholeheartedly from the very first scene. The 'good' Doctor has Art Deco surroundings, a mechanical Jazz band, a lovely assistant who is well trained in interpretive dance, the violin and murder, and a taste for shiny capes and robes. And, of course, a talent for elaborate murders based on the 10 plagues of Egypt. Doctor Phibes is a super villain in a world without super heroes. I imagine he's a little lonely because of that (and, you know, that his beloved wife is dead - or mostly so, if the sequel is to be believed).

"No, I will not do 'Piano Man.' Vulnavia, please kill this man with a spoon."

There are opponents, of course - primarily in the form of Detective Trout and Sgt. Schenley of Scotland Yard. Trout does the best he can to solve the murders and bring Phibes to justice, but he's named Trout - it's just not inspiring. He also has a terrible habit of being juuust a little too late to the party - something his superiors are happy to point out. (The one time he's early to a murder it doesn't matter - the victim is killed by a bronzed unicorn head launched from a catapult. Yes. I said a bronzed unicorn head launched from a catapult. Due to the spirals of the horn they're actually forced to unscrew the poor devil from the wall...)

"On the report he was like this when we got here, right?"

The reason behind all the elaborate deaths - and the most straightforward one is packing a vintage airplane with huge rats - involves the untimely demise of Mrs. Victoria Phibes. It seems she died on the operating table and Phibes intends to visit these plagues on each person who was present in the operating room, culminating with the death of the primary surgeon, Dr. Vesalius. Actually, because the penultimate plague is "The Death of the Firstborn," Phibes actually threatens the life of Vesalius' son.

He also has time to get his dance on.

Phibes is a villain, make no mistake - many of the people who are killed had only the most tangential involvement and cannot seriously be taken as guilty of anything. A nurse's death is particularly gruesome (locusts eat her face, if you want to know) and she probably didn't do anything but swab brows and hand over instruments. Regardless, it IS Phibes we end up rooting for. In a bland and bureaucratic world Phibes is all color and passion, music and motion. He has personality - and most of the rest of the cast does not. Price just lights up the screen - even though he never actually speaks! (Phibes must talk - and eat - through a hole in his neck.)

"This? Oh, just something I picked up at Goodwill. It was 99 cents!"

The final confrontation between Vesalius and Phibes actually presages Saw in some respects - Phibes has locked Vesalius' son on an operating table that is suspended beneath a device that will drip acid on to the boys face in 10 minutes. The only way to unlock the contraption holding they boy is for Vesalius to operate on him to remove a key that Phibes has lodged next to the boys heart. Open heart surgery in 10 minutes for the life of his son.

"I just hope your hands are steadier than when you did my 'facelift' doctor."

In true melodramatic fashion Phibes saves the final curse - darkness - for himself and joins his wife in death. Or does he?

Doctor Phibes Rises Again
The success of the original Phibes movie meant that a second was rushed into production. At one point there seemed to be a concerted effort to make the Phibes films into a genuine franchise - several scripts and titles were bandied about well into the 1980's - but nothing seems to have come of it (until recently - see The Bottom Line).

The sequel takes place three years after the events of the first film, as the planets come into a grand conjunction and Phibes returns to life (this is despite his blood being replaced with embalming fluid at the end of the first film). He apparently has a plan involving an ancient Egyptian tomb, a mountain and a river - the end result of which will be the return of his beloved wife.

Though the same people are involved in the second film it's just not quite as good. Oh, Price is excellent as always - and they allowed for more inflection in his electronic voice this time around. The murders are appropriately garish and gruesome. Some of the sets are really fantastic as well. However, there's just less... heart in it. The reasons for the murders are less compelling and they're pretty damn elaborate for being mostly half-assed at the last minute. Did you know his lovely, mute assistant from the first film is named Vulnavia? You will by the end of this movie, because every time he opens his... tube, he says her name. I liked it better when she was a mysterious presence - unknown and unexplained.

It's nice to see the violin return in the same role, though.

In addition they've inexplicably re-used some actors in different roles - major roles - and it knocks you out of the flow whenever it happens.

Robert Quarry (Count Yorga himself) offers a foil almost worthy of Phibes this time around in the character of Darius Biederbeck. A man with dark secrets of his own. Unfortunately the two actors aren't on screen together until the final scenes.

"Count Yorga? Who is this Yorga you speak of?"
"But it says here on IMDB..."

Though the Egyptian trappings offer an interesting new location for Phibes machination and the jokes are plentiful - if overly broad this time around - the whole of the picture just never rises to the same giddy heights of the first film. The music isn't as good, the cinematography isn't as good and the story - though it has possibilities unexplored - is not quite up to snuff either. It's still a good time, it just suffers in comparison to the original.

"Years from now a show called Lost will reference this moment and no one will get it."

The Bottom Line
Way too much fun, and one of a handful of 1970's Vincent Price films I really enjoy. (These make great companion pieces to Theater of Blood, FYI.) It's obvious everyone had a great time making these - particularly the first one - and I'm a little sad they never got a chance to make any more sequels with Price.

FYI - according to rumor, Malcolm Macdowel is slated to start in a remake, Forever Phibes. While I can't image it being anywhere near as over-the-top glorious as its predecessors, I nonetheless look forward to seeing shiny robes, art deco sets, mysterious but lovely assistants and all the thunderous organ music I can stand.