Thoughts

30 Days of Night

30 Day of Night by Steve Niles is a beautifully illustrated graphic novel that is set up on an interesting premise. Once I started reading it, I wondered why I hadn't read any other vampire stories set in Alaska, where the night can be a month long. Too cold, I'm guessing? But if you're a vampire it seems like a no brainer. Plenty of time to do what they want, and the only thing that would hold them back would be the meager size of the population.

The isolation inherent in any story set in the tundra worked well with the horror aspects of the novel. Also, the illustrations by Ben Templesmith, really brought the town of Barrow alive on the page... (or dead on the page might be the better word?).

The gore in this graphic novel, and yes there is plenty, is colored with muted smears of red that give the impression of violence without showing us every tendon and bone. I appreciated this because it created a distinct visual, somewhat blurry, feel for the novel. Even characters are rarely seen in focus, and a few times I had to backtrack to decipher who I was looking at.

This might not have been a problem if the story were a bit stronger, but alas, there wasn't any emotion on the page. Before I get into this too heavily I want to say that I've read less than a handful of graphic novels so my expectations might be too high for the medium and genre.

When I say that there wasn't any emotion, I'm referring to the lack of characters to care about. A few attempts were made between the husband and wife, but I didn't get to spend enough time with them to really connect with their struggle. The mother and son in New Orleans was another stab at emotions that fell flat. Really, I wished that the pages we spent with them were instead turned toward the people of Barrow so we could care about and understand their need for survival. Everyone wants to survive (for the most part), but it's the specifics that make us human. That's what this story lacked for me, specifics.

I did enjoy the become-the-monster to beat-the-monster aspect, but the way in which the protagonist arrives at his decision seems foolhardy at best. The previous member of the town who was infected turned into an enemy very fast so I didn't know why the husband didn't turn in a likewise manner. What made him special? His love for his wife? Okay, but that gets me wondering about the first guy. Who was he? Nobody loved him?

You see? If the devil is in the details then a few sharp lines of clarity would have gone a long way toward making this a truly terrifying tale. Instead we have a fun story with beautiful artwork, but ultimately it is a story that lacks any real connections. 

Relic

I first encountered Relic in 1997 when I watched the film. I remember being thrilled by the excitement and a little nostalgic for Jurassic Park, a film that had come out four years earlier.  The book sort of follows the same beats, but since it has been 16 years since I saw the film everything felt new and fresh. It's a fun monster tale backed by hard science presented in a complex, yet digestible way. For this reason, along with the subject line and the detailed research I was fondly reminded of Michael Crichton.

This book is the first collaboration from the team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (it is also the first novel to introduce Special Agent Pendergast, a recurring character in later books).  Also, this is the first book I can remember reading that was written by two authors. Because of this I was drawn more towards their process than I would normally be.

From their website (www.prestonchild.com) I learned that they both work on a detailed outline before assigning sections to one another to write. Then, when they revise, they revise the other person's sections. I'm guessing that this gives the manuscript a seamless feel and allows them to catch one another's mistakes. To be honest, it seems like this process would take even more time and patience as apposed to taking the project on solo. My fear would be constantly butting my head against someone else who wants to take the story in a completely different direction.

Once or twice I have tried to collaborate on graphic novels and other mediums, but the results are both time consuming and painful. It's funny though, because on their website Preston and Child site this sort of tension as a strength. They push one another to be better writers which seems to be the ideal form of this process.

If you can't tell by now, I don't have much to say about the book other than it was a fantastic read that makes me want to pick up Reliquary, the sequel to Relic which also features Special Agent Pendergast. Any book that makes me want to keep reading after I've put it up on my shelf is what I would call a success. 

The Blob (1988)

The Blob (1988) is a strange film that has one foot in both the horror and comedy camps. But to be honest I found myself laughing out loud more than I was shaking with terror. Part of the reason for this are all the gags. We have everything from slapstick dirt bike jumps to mistaken identities involving condom purchases, priests, and angry parents. And the comedy works. But the more I laughed the less scared I felt. Then when the killing started, and it starts early, I was in such a good mood that I didn't care if they all died.

Most of the horror, and I'm using that term loosely, is geared toward gore, something I shy away from in large doses. I can only handle so much melting skin before I have to disconnect from the characters in order to maintain my own sanity.

I'm guessing that if I had seen this film in 1988 it may have had more of an impact. Parallels to both the Cold War and the AIDS crisis have been made online so I won't get into those here, but it's easy to imagine the big pick ooze being a stand in for either an epidemic or the overreach of government authority in the guise of public protection.

After doing a bit of digging  (and by digging I mean a Google search which led me to IMDb trivia) I discovered that this film has some interesting parallels to Stephen King's The Stand. And since I'm a self confessed King fanatic I can't stop myself from presenting them here. The male lead in the film is named Brian Flagg which is close to the villain Randal Flagg from The Stand. The blob's first victim is named Can Man (the homeless guy) which is a close resemblance to Trash Can Man who is Randal Flagg's most devoted follower. Also, both stories feature an organism that is the result of biological warfare.

These connections might seem a bit tenuous until you consider that one of the writers of the film, Frank Darabont, has had a hand in developing several of King's projects to both television and film. Projects that include: The Mist, The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, and Nightshift Collection. So it's a safe bet to hazard that Darabont has read and peppered the script with a bit of King. 

So what does all this mean?

I'm not sure other than the fact that Stephen King is so great people cannot help but insert his characters and ideas into other projects just to spice things up a bit. He's like a seasoned salt for story development. Add a dash of King and you're good to go!

But getting back to The Blob...

It was a fun horror comedy that didn't throw any profound experiences my way, but it was an entertaining way to spend the afternoon. And sometimes that's all I need from a movie. 

Godzilla (2014)

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I'll start with a confession. I was fifteen with the previous Godzilla movie came out. That one starred Matthew Broderick, and I had a great time! It was like Ferris Bueller's Day Off meets Jurassic Park! I was glued to the screen and I couldn’t imagine a better weekend movie. Then... I watched it last year and I'm sad to say, it doesn't stand the test of time. It's still fun, but there are too many cringe worthy moments that spoil the overall effect.

Enter the reboot or remake or the latest film in a franchise that stretches back 60 years. The preview had me mesmerized and turned my apathy into actual anticipation. And when I heard that Bryan Cranston was going to be starring, I was foaming at the mouth for this film!

I needed to see it!

Then... I saw it.

Sigh. "It was good," I told myself as I left the theater. "But they killed Bryan Cranston off after 30 minutes." Sigh (again).

The film started with so much potential. The opening scene where the reactor malfunctions and Cranston is forced to watch his wife die while she is only inches away is absolute emotional gold. I cared about Cranston's struggle to find the reasons behind his wife's death, and I even connected with the strained relationship with estranged son. I wanted to see Cranston discover the truth and patch things up with his son with a heartfelt, emotional climax!

Then Cranston dies, and all the reasons I had to care died with him.

This would have been a brave move in line with a George R.R. Martin's story. A pivotal character is killed to make us feel tension through the ones who survive. But in Martin's novels the surviving characters are able to carry the weight of the story. Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn't. I'm not blaming Johnson for his acting because I don't think the script gave him anything to do. He goes from point A to B following a dubious chain of events that somehow put him in a pivotal place for the final battle between monsters.

David Callaham of Doom and The Expendables 1-4 wrote the scrip for Godzilla along with Max Borenstein, a relative unknown with minimal television credits. And even though they are successful individuals who get paid huge sums of money (huge to someone like me), I can’t help but wonder what they were thinking? In my opinion the emotional backbone of the story was completely ripped out, and a character that should have guided us through (Cranston) was killed for shock value alone.

I did appreciate the choice to limit the Godzilla exposure. The 1998 film had a surplus of monster while the reboot only had the monster appear for about 10 minutes. When we're talking monsters of any kind less is always more. It's the people I care about in these films... I just wish Godzilla (2014) gave me someone I could actually care about to go along with the epic mayhem of monster madness. 

Snow

Ronald Malfi's Snow is a thrilling horror novel that uses both isolation and the monster within to great effect. The majority of the novel takes place in Woodson, a small town outside of Chicago, where the local population has been possessed by strange creatures who appear to be a part of winter itself. It starts off with a fantastic prologue featuring my favorite character, Shawna, and then shifts to Todd Curry as we learn about his struggle to see his son on Christmas. It was the pairing of these two narratives that interested me the most.

Before I get in to my nitpicks, I just want to say that I had a fantastic time reading this. I flew through the pages, and the pacing and descriptions are out of this world! But since I was reading this with a critical eye I tried to see how I would approach the same concept.

 If you're sitting down to write a novel like this then Shawna's story seems like the obvious focus. She was born in Woodson, and she was there from the beginning. One day, people started disappearing and before long everyone she knew was trying to kill her. In the prologue she shoots her lover in the head before he can kill her. This is the stuff of raw emotional horror where people are forced to make terrible choices for survival. Because of this I was intensely drawn to Shawna's struggle. This is a real accomplishment considering how little time we actually spend with her.

Todd, the actual protagonist, has a more roundabout setup. In fact, it reminded me of the setup for the Steve Martin and John Candy movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. In that film Martin is trying to get home to Chicago for Thanksgiving but the flight is diverted because of the weather. He is then forced to pair up with Candy as the two make their way across the country. But Snow isn't a comedy even though it has similar beats in the beginning.

The emotional anchor in Todd's story is that he's a deadbeat dad who has made a promise to his son to be there on Christmas morning. This would be fine in a comedy, but for a horror novel it left me wanting something more. Sure, it would be bad if Todd broke his promise but there isn't a sense of life and death behind it. Without greater stakes from the get go the entire push lacks a certain amount of tension. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it so much if Shawna's story wasn't so emotionally charged.

But like I said, this was a fun read. I liked how we pulled back at the end and gained a wider picture of the storm of monsters that blanked the Midwest. Since I've lived through several of these storms, minus the monsters, it was easy to get swept along with this chilling narrative full of fantastic, horror infused imagery. 

The Thing

John Carpenter's The Thing, a film made way back in 1982, has one of the best opening scenes of any horror film. After a spaceship crash lands in the Antarctic, we cut to a beautiful Siberian Husky being shot at by two guys in a helicopter. As the dog keeps running, the tension builds until the audience in on the edge of their seat! It's really a simple setup, but by stressing the same beats over and over the importance is amplified to a breaking point. By the time the dog reaches the American outpost I was hooked.

Of course, I was eight at the time.

This brings me to a somewhat person reflection on the movie. My father, a man who introduced me to such classics as Total Recall and Predator thought it would be a good idea to show this movie to a child. It wasn't a good idea. It was a great idea! Because I was still underdeveloped both emotionally and physically this movie rooted itself in my brain until I couldn’t help but imagine that everyone around me was somehow infected by some unknown alien plague. It may have even inspired my self-diagnosed hypochondria as a young adult. Needless to say, my mother wasn't pleased when I spilled the beans the day after I saw it.

Is the movie perfect? No. And as I get older it's getting harder to give it a pass. There is virtually no character development. Nobody grows or changes, and forget about a backstory to hook us emotionally to any character. But is that really necessary? Some would argue yes. At the time, this movie was competing with both E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Blade Runner for bucks at the box office. The Thing, like other cult classics, was considered a box office failure when it was released. So I think a little more time spent on character might have pushed this to the front of the pack.

Also, there are no women in the film unless you count the woman on the game show who appears for about five seconds or the voice on the computer who Kurt Russell calls a "cheating bitch" right before he drowns her in whiskey. It's sort of an odd choice not to include any women especially when there seem to be plenty of jobs at the research station. According to IMDb, a woman was originally cast to be in the film but she got pregnant and was replaced by a man (someone who stood no chance of such an affliction).   

But even watching the film again all these years later, I still have a soft spot in my heart for this kind of Wilford Brimley versus Kurt Russell blood fueled mayhem! The special effects are special, meaning they're done without computers so they're actually tangible, and I still gag a little when Brimley is up to his elbows in alien gore. This is a true cult classic in every sense of the word, and I'll keep coming back, year after year, to enjoy a little slice of my blood soaked childhood. 

The Wolfman

I wasn’t exactly thrilled to pick up The Wolfman by Jonathan Maberry because it is the novelization of a movie that did poorly at the box office. Rotten Tomatoes did a fine job summing up the film, “Suitably grand and special effects-laden, The Wolfman suffers from a suspense-deficient script and a surprising lack of genuine chills.”

This is a shame since it stars acting legends such as Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, and the great Anthony Hopkins. I remember going into the theater years ago with high expectations that soon led to depression followed by complete amnesia.

So when I cracked open Maberry’s novelization I had absolutely no memory of the film. It was as if a higher part of my brain seized control and wiped all knowledge of characters and events from my memory. Or maybe it’s still there, buried deep and waiting for some bigger trauma to jar it loose? I don’t know.

But thank goodness for my repressed memory.

Because reading this book was an absolute delight!

About a third of the way through I actually suffered an emotional punch in the gut. It caught me completely by surprise and I can only attribute it to Maberry’s superb characterization and how the father and son’s relationship is shaped by grief. Loss and untimeliness is something that has cropped up in my life before, so feeling the characters struggle with the same processes really spoke to me. Compile that with a rich setting and descriptions that drip off the page and you’ve got a fantastic read!

Early on, I was amused at the cozy mystery setup the novel had working (cozy minus the blood and guts). We have an isolated English manor, an old village filled with kooky characters, and an outsider with extreme acting talents who is personally invested in the outcome.

Toward the end of the novel, the blood and guts were so over the top that it shifted into comedy. It was when the third or fourth head bounced off a nearby victim that I laughed. I can only take so much gore before I have to disinvest myself and laugh it off. But Maberry obviously knew this and the scene with the werewolf at the masquerade ball was as horrifying at is was funny, a true accomplishment from a writer who knows what kind of story he’s trying to tell.

All in all, the events in the book unfolded in a logical succession that only built the tension, and I can’t help but wonder where the film went wrong if both it and the book had essentially the same core? If anything, this proves the point that the book, even one based directly from the script, is always far superior to the movie because books put us in the moment. Films happen in another place as we watch events unfold through a distant window. 

Alien

The movie Alien, directed by Ridley Scott and staring Sigourney Weaver, is one of my favorite science fiction horror thrillers. Watching it as a kid, I remember being scared to death while at the same time being glued to the television screen. And even watching it today, knowing what will happen, I still find myself caught up in the story. But what makes this such an effective monster movie after all these years?

Glad you asked!

For starters, the setting plays a pivotal role. The isolation of a spaceship is such a perfect set up because we have both death outside and death inside, the double whammy of horror. There is nowhere to go which forces the characters into confrontation with the monster. Scott also gives us a very gritty type of space journey. Gone are the polished surfaces from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. We are on a working ship with greasy walls, dirty uniforms, and a crew that smokes cigarettes and drinks coffee. It is the little touches like this that really brings the fantastic setting into a sharp focus by making it so instantly recognizable to the viewer.

This film is also a perfect example of story trumping special effects. Part of the reason I never connected with all of the sequels was because they lacked the tension of the original. Instead of extended moments of silence punctuated by dripping water, we get hundreds of xenomorphs, the creature in Alien, with too many bullets and too much of everything else. A blasting gun doesn’t build tension. An extended shot of an unmoving corridor does because in the absence of action we supply the expectation. I think it’s hilarious that a Pac Man style dot and a beep convey more tension then all the sequels combined.

But if I had to criticize the original for anything it would be lack of character development. We know absolutely nothing about any of the characters beyond their general role and desires such as money and survival. Because of this the first quarter of the film doesn’t have a central character. If I were watching it for the first time I’m guessing I would gravitate toward Dallas, the captain, but Ripley (Sigourney Weaver’s character) doesn’t step away from the pack until she refuses to open the airlock and let the wounded Kane inside. It’s then that we start to realize that she’s different. She cares more about survival than the rest of the crew which primes us for the inevitable showdown between her and the xenomorph.

I guess this shows that if you have a tremendous atmosphere and an idea that’s strong enough, you can focus less on characters. Because hey, if you hit the game winning home run who cares if you struck out in the third inning? Nobody except for the critics, that’s who. 

World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks offers a bird’s eye view of a zombie infestation that nearly wiped out humanity. We start in the aftermath and see the events through a series of interviews that highlight various aspects of the zombie presence. The writing is solid and each chapter has its own zombie-climax, but as I started to read, I never felt any deep emotional connection to a specific character.

Part of the reason for this was, I believe, the structure. When you set the pattern of introduction, complication, and then zombie payoff the reader is encouraged to disinvest from the characters because they know that things are about to get bad, really bad, for anyone they might care about. Then, after they get bad, we leave.

After I read a few chapters, I glanced at the cover. The words “oral history” stood out. I don’t see them on books too often. This led me to seek out the audiobook because it seemed to fit better with the interview setup outlined in the beginning of the book.

As soon as I pressed play, that’s when the magic started!

I highly recommend listening to this all-star cast (everyone from F. Murray Abraham to Simon Pegg) because through the voice acting the story comes to life in a way that felt lacking on the page. This is one of the few books that deserves to be listened to, not read, because on a visceral level it really is what the title claims: an oral history.

One of the major selling points of this book is how the post-zombie world, and even the reactions of the pre-zombie world, feel so authentic, even probable. Governments do the wrong thing with the best of intentions, and we really get a feel for the global impact the war had through the setups at the beginning of each chapter (read by Max Brooks). In fact, this is one of the best examples of world building (or world deconstruction) that I can think of in recent best-selling memory.

The monstrous lengths that people go to for survival are both horrifying and unsettled me in a deep way because I felt that I would probably take the same actions in their place. And therein lies the true strength of this book. It isn’t all the zombie mayhem (which is a lot of fun), but it’s the mirror that the character’s choices hold to our own survival instinct.

This book is an entertaining read if you’re into lots of zombies and the reconstruction global politics. It may lack a certain degree of emotional depth (when read), but it is one of those books where you can ask someone, “What was your favorite part?!” and hear a different answer every single time.

My favorite was The Battle of Yonkers as read by Mark Hamill.

What was yours? 

The Yattering and Jack

Clive Barker’s short story The Yattering and Jack offers a unique take on the demon-possessing-a-home genre. Instead of the typical: demon enters, chaos ensues, demon leaves; we turn everything on its head: demon enters, demon is ignored, demon gets captured. And running through these beats are wonderful tidbits of the bureaucracy in Hell complete with demon schools and employment hierarchies. It’s really a fun, short ride!

But what struck me most about this story was the transition of fear.

H.P. Lovecraft said it better than I (or anyone else) ever could, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

The unknown in this story is the key factor.

When we start, it is assumed by the reader that the Yattering, the demon from hell, is acting from a mysterious, otherworldly standpoint that will soon create havoc for Jack, the protagonist. In so many horror novels and movies some action by a character, typically the skeptic, invites an unknown entity into the story. The events of the story then focus on what this mysterious force might be and what it does via escalating situations where fear is a type of food for the demon. Think every Paranormal Activity movie ever made.

In Barker’s story something strange happens, a demon inhabits Jack’s home. When the protagonist should be terrified, he is unconcerned. He passes all of the demon’s tricks off as commonplace. The most egregious example is when the Yattering explodes a cat in Jack’s living room. Jack enters his blood-coated home, blames the dogs (which he doesn’t own), and proceeds to clean up the mess without emotion. 

After several failed attempts to evoke fear in Jack, the demon is at its wit’s end, crying, screaming for attention. It even tries to get help from its supervisors, aka Beelzebub, in a last ditch effort to either get reassigned or simply obliterated. The Bee-bub man is unmoved. At one point, I actually sympathized with the Yattering, something that marks Barker as a master storyteller. Here is this hell spawn fresh out of hell-iversity, and he’s just trying to prove how big and scary he can be. But Jack is too dull to notice.

That’s just...  rude!

After Jack’s children return home for Christmas, it is revealed that Jack is feigning ignorance. He is fully aware of his situation and thus the unknown shifts from Jack to the Yattering. It’s a strange transition, and it is never fully explored how Jack is aware of the situation. I guess it can be assumed that his mother let him in on her deal-with-the-devil, but that part is left up to mystery. 

Through this simple shift of knowledge the Yattering goes from aggressor to victim. Jack becomes its tormentor, and we can really appreciate how a simple shift of perspective can recolor our whole conception of the story. 

Cycle of the Werewolf

Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf is a novel that I first came across in the forth grade. I’m not sure where I got a hold of it, but it was the first King book that I read. As a child, I was drawn to the artwork of Berni Wrightson, something that still stands out as a key attraction. The illustrations, along with the shortness of the chapters make this an ideal horror book for children. It’s a book that’s meant to scare, not to inspire deep emotional reflections.

And that’s perfectly fine. On some level, this is a raw example of horror, meaning that I can pick up this book and get images of death over and over, something that I think a lot of horror readers are looking for. The snippets of horror in the first half of the book remind me of Clive Barker's Rawhead Rex in that we never really get to know anyone long enough to form any kind of emotional investment.

Then, at the halfway point, we meet Marty, a handicapped boy who is the only one that manages to thwart the werewolf’s attack. Instantly, our sympathies are drawn to Marty, and King, being a master storyteller, knows he’s got to hook us to Marty and fast. King does this through the not-so-nurturing home life of Marty and compounds it by taking away Marty’s one desire: to see the fireworks. By the end of the chapter I didn’t blame Marty for going outside at night because, well... he deserved a little happiness!

Another nice touch was the use of the town itself as a character. We get to put our finger on the pulse of the community and see how each month, each chapter, wears everyone down bit by bit. If anything, I wish we could have focused more on this because like Stephen Dobyn’s The Church of the Dead Girls, a town put on the brink by an unknown killer is a tense place with a wealth of story.   

One thing that should have bugged me was the withholding of the killer’s identity when it was clear that it was known. Normally, this would bother me, but because of the nature of both the setting and the omniscient narration it seems unavoidable. And this sort of lent it the charm it needed to keep the playful tone with the audience. I think this is also one of the key reasons that this feels so much like a children’s book. In fairy tales and other tongue and cheek narrations the teller of the story has one job: entertain (and maybe educate through that entertainment). If this style of storytelling had been used in a novel written for adults then I don’t think I would have been so forgiving, but as it stands this is a terrific little bite of horror. 

Rawhead Rex

Clive Barker’s short story, Rawhead Rex, is about a monster that is unearthed near an English countryside village. The monster then proceeds to kill a significant number of people in the town: men, women, and children. That’s about it. And despite the simplicity of the narrative I found myself glued to the page. The language is enchanting and I kept waiting for the next horrific description of death like a child waiting for Thundercats to start... I didn’t know what would happen but I knew it would be amazing!

The story takes an interesting narrative approach with an omniscient viewpoint that only focuses on people long enough to kill them. Really, it’s a classic example of a monster story and focusing the audience’s attention on Rawhead works. But the effect of focusing more on the monster than any single character was twofold: it felt like I was reading about a disaster and I fully expected everyone to die. This added to the tension but kept me at an emotional distance from the characters because I was always a few paragraphs away from their deaths. George R. R. Martin has the same dynamics working in The Song of Ice and Fire series: lots of tension but at the price of emotional connections. It’s almost impossible to create a strong emotional connection with a character we know is doomed because as humans, we try to shield ourselves from such pain.

I’m sort of torn by this approach. On one hand it kept me glued to the page with a macabre sort of fascination, waiting to see how the next victim would be dismembered, but on the other it violates what I’ve been taught about storytelling. I can’t empathize with the characters in this story because I don’t get enough page time with them, and I can’t connect with Rawhead beyond the general it-would-be-terrible-to-be-buried-alive-for-six-centuries. Other than that his emotions and experiences are alien to me. But overall, I think this works fine in the short story format. I don’t think the lack of an empathetic character could hold the reader’s attention for an entire novel.

I also found it Interesting that Rawhead caused so much terror and then in the end was killed by his own fear. If anything, this seemed like a last effort by Barker to impart some sort of humanity (connection?) toward Rawhead. Humans, more than anything else, can relate to fear, and to have this people-eater suddenly afraid of the feminine, the symbol of reproduction, clicked with me. I may not share his terror but by the end I have a glimpse of what drives him. This, more than anything else, really brought Rawhead into focus and does a wonderful job of implying an undeniable truth: we are all defined by our fears.

The Funeral

The Funeral by Richard Matheson is a delightful short story about a mortician who gets hired to stage the funeral of a vampire and his monster friends. It’s a quirky little monster comedy that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it knows what it is and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Because I’m reading this for a class on monsters I had to ask myself who was the monster of the piece? And since I tend to complicate things, seeing Mort Silkline as the human monster profiteering on the death of his fellow humans adds a bit a depth to the story.

The story goes out of its way to position Morton as the monster of his little world. The more people who die the happier he gets. If that isn’t monstrous then I don’t know what it.

We start with his disingenuous attitude towards death and the fact that he has to suppress his joy when his client asks for the very best of everything. He uses a gold pen and even his mannerisms are described in a way to convey unease with terms such as “fluttering” and “flaccid-fingered” and “voice a calculated drip”. He even refers to the grim reaper as “death’s bright angel,” leaving little doubt that he certainly profits from our untimely nature like a gluttonous buzzard.  

Even the names can be morbidly dissected. Morton Silkline (Mort, death and Silkline is a reference to a silk lined coffin). Mr. Mossmound (obvious allusion to death) is the one who preforms the services. And Mr. Asper (Asp, a poisonous European viper) suggests a darker ending than the one we’re presented with. Although, since this is a comedy the ending accomplished what it needed to.

But, you may ask, there are literal monsters in this ranging from vampires to witches! Yes, there are, but I would argue that monsters are victims of their monster-ness, meaning you can’t really blame a vampire for eating people just like you can’t blame a lion for eating a gazelle (I don't blame myself for eating chicken wings; although, the chickens certainly would. I Am Legend anyone?). They’re doing what they need in order to survive. So ascribing our morality to any of the horrors is unfair. The more I think about it, the more this concept intrigues me. The creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein comes to mind. He can certainly be seen as a victim of circumstance no matter what he may have done after he was created. He didn’t ask for creation. It was thrust upon him!

I hope (expect) that I will get to explore this issue more in the coming weeks.

Morton though. He’s one of us and makes a healthy living from our untimely nature. If there is a monster worthy of a blood letting or a werewolf type disembowelment it is certainly good ol’ Mort. I think funeral directors in general are a nice bunch, but stay clear of the ones with flaccid handshakes and golden ink pens.    

I Am Legend

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend paints a wonderful picture of isolated desperation. We know it’s not going to end well for Robert Neville but I found myself glued to the page in morbid fascination. The story must have worked for others too since we’ve seen this basic structure in countless zombie movies and television shows.

I’m hesitant to call this a vampire novel even though it is clearly filled with the garlic fearing undead. When I think of a vampire the iconic Dracula comes to mind. He’s an older, wealthy man who lives in a mansion and preys on the common folk, reflecting our late 1800’s fear of the unfettered industrialist. He is charming and more than once I found myself rooting for him (especially during the film when Dracula is played by Gary Oldman). The vampires in this book however are nothing like their suave predecessor. They are mindless brutes who chuck bricks at houses and lack everything in the mental department except for a basic survival instinct.

I found it odd that instead of the lone vampire setup we are all familiar with, the ones in this novel were basically stuffed into the zombie mold. As I read, I wondered why this was happening? Why not just call them zombies and be done with it?

I’m guessing Matheson wrote this one from the ending backwards. He knew he needed two types of monsters: one mindless all-the-way dead and another almost-dead who he could then mutate into another sub-species of human, a thinking vampire that could repopulate the world. I found it funny that by the end the new vampires had learned to control their bloodlust by taking meds, something that felt very human.  

Because of this brilliant move it begs us to consider the deeper implications of what makes someone or something a monster? We clearly have an “us” and “them” mentality working, reflecting the need we all have to label an outsider as the “other” so we can eliminate them from society. We see both Robert Neville and the new society at the end do this. He labels them as evil to uphold the standards he grew up with, and they label him in return because of the danger he poses. By the end though, I did wonder if Robert Neville was responsible for the creation of the vampire society through fear? It seems likely since he is a driving force behind their organization.

And that got me wondering if fear is what is holding us together now? I’m guessing that on a primitive level it has to be true. We evolved as a tribal species and even though we all have the Internet it seems that some impulses are hard to shake. Most of us know, deep down, that we cannot survive alone and this novel shines a wonderful light on that fear.

Ghostbusters

Who you gonna call?

(If you don’t know the answer to this then I doubt we could ever be friends.)

Or maybe my obsession with this film means I should be seeking less friends and more professional help? I don’t know or care. I absolutely love this move down to the depths of my soul. I’ve seen it hundreds of times and can basically replay the entire thing in my head on a whim. Don’t believe me?

There… I just watched it.

The first time I saw this movie was when my family rented a VCR from a fledgling Blockbuster Video in Connecticut, and it scared me to death. Not kidding. I didn’t know it was a comedy until years later, after I’d watched the cartoon and bought all the toys. As I grew up, I finally started getting all the jokes! Before that, I just thought my parents were demented from laughing so hard at all the terrifying things that were happening to those poor people in the film. The part that gave me the most nightmares was the New York Public Library ghost in the beginning, the lady who unfurls herself into a demonic mummy skeleton. To this day I still think about shutting my eyes at that part… but that hardly ever happens anymore.

My friends and I have talked about this (at length), and the one thing that doesn’t sit well after all these years is the portrayal of Walter Peck. He is essentially the bad guy in the movie, unleashing total destruction upon the city. But when you think about it he was just doing his job. These “ghostbusters” had an enormous, unlicensed, ecto-containment system that was a huge drain on the power grid. It was basically an unregulated machine capable of harnessing huge amounts of electro magnetic energy. All Peck wanted to do was inspect it and make sure that it wasn’t leaking toxic waste into the environment.

Sound reasonable?

Yep.

But because Peck doesn’t have any people skills he’s labeled as the villain. This confirms the old adage, “It isn’t what you say but how you say it.”

In case you can’t tell by now there is no way I can give this an unbiased review of this film. It would be like dismantling one of my childhood toys… pointless and cruel, destroying a blessed memory. I love everything about this movie and everyone in it.

I even loved the sequel, and I cried when Harold Ramis died last February because of how much I grew to love him through this film (and others). Would I have liked to have seen a part three with the original cast? You bet! But some things will never be (even if the studios do drag something out, a sequel or a remake, there is no way it will come close to the original). Some things are sacred and should be left alone… at least in my book.

A Christmas Carol

I’ll start with a confession. I’ve never read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol… but since there have been numerous adaptations via film and television I’m guessing that a lot of people haven’t read it either. But that hasn’t stopped its influence from reaching into our very vocabulary. Even the name Scrooge is now synonymous with miser. That fact alone should reflect the impact this short, yet potent, story has had on our collective consciousness.

My first experience with this story came from Mickey’s Christmas Carol. With Scrooge McDuck playing his namesake and Mickey Mouse playing Bob Cratchit. As a child, I probably watched that cartoon at least a hundred times… not kidding. And the part at the end where Scrooge McDuck is shoved into his grave while it burns with hellfire below as Black Pete laughs like a demon above completely freaked me out as a child. I always shut my eyes (and ears) during that part. Till this day, I don’t want to be buried in the ground for fear that something like this might happen. Irrational? You bet, but there’s no way you can talk me out of it.

But now I’ve read the book.

To say that it was a good book would be doing it an injustice. It is an absolute masterpiece of a story that keeps ingraining itself into generation after generation. I was in awe of the language and swept away with passages such as this one, “He (Scrooge) was not alone, but sat by the side of a fair young girl in a mourning-dress: in whose eyes there were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past.” I doubt I’ll ever be able to write a sentence with such a lovely cadence. And this is just one of many I could point to.

Upon reading, some of the things that really stood out were the descriptions of London and the sense of cold that seeped through the pages and into my fingertips. Dickens did a masterful job of creating a living city while staying in the confines of a fairly short story. His love for the city and the people shine through, and it’s easy to see that he holds them close to his heart.

Saying anything negative about this work would be an injustice, not just to Dickens, but also to our very collective consciousness. If anything I would criticize others and myself for not taking this message to heart. And even if you know the story in your bones, watch Jim Carrey shuffle across the screen in 3-D countless times, hear the Muppets sing along with Michael Caine over and again, you owe it to yourself to read this story from time to time, a reminder to be generous is something we all sorely need.

As Tiny Tim would say, “God Bless Us, Every One!”

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

I first saw this movie in the theater, read that it was based on a true story, and had a fantastic time! 

The end (until yesterday).

Watching it a second time, nine years later, was a huge let down. Granted, after a bit of research I now know the film was loosely based on the story of Anneliese Michel, a German girl who died from a similar chain of horrific events in the mid-1970’s. 

The biggest problem I have with the film is the heavy handedness of how it approached the science versus religion debate. Seriously, the movie beats the viewer (and Emily) over the head with it. This might be fine except for one important thing:

THE MOVIE DOESN’T COME DOWN ON A SIDE!

Because of this the film reeked of the mass-market kind of story that doesn’t pick a side and leaves everything up to interpretation. The worst thing art can be is passive, and this film goes out of its way not to step on anyone’s toes. Everyone is right. Everyone gets a trophy. And nobody gets their feelings hurt.

Jennifer Carpenter, of Dexter fame, plays Anneliese… sorry, Emily Rose. It’s a shame that she isn’t the protagonist of her own movie because she has the acting chops to carry a story like this over the moon and back. Instead, her scenes, while filled with tremendous physical feats of pain and contortion, hit the same emotional note over and over. She’s suffering. I get it. But I’d like to get to know her a bit so I could actually care about her pain. 

Since Emily’s story serves as the repeated shock value which seems necessary for a movie studio to label something horror, the weight of the story is left to the defense attorney, Laura Linney. She does a solid job with the acting, but because she isn’t what the audience wants to see (they came to see a movie called Emily Rose) her scenes come across as filler until we get to the next moment of Emily’s horror. But it was Linney’s speech at the end that really annoyed me. After all she witnessed, all of the testimony she heard, after seeing someone get mowed down with a car, she still hasn’t made up her mind about the science versus religion debate. If the events of the film couldn’t sway her then it is clear that she is numb to any kind of spiritual awakening. Which is fine except for the fact that this comes in direct conflict to goals of Emily’s story.

If Emily’s story was supposed to inspire faith then Linney’s apathy sucked all of the marrow from the experience. This made Emily’s suffering seem pointless which in turn left a sour taste in my mouth. I knew I was watching a horror film, but it wasn’t until the closing statements that I felt like I was watching something worse… something pointless.

Paranormal Activity

Found footage movies have been making the rounds since Cannibal Holocaust (1980) carved out a niche in the horror genre. The marketing was so successful that the film got its director Ruggero Deodato arrested for murder until he could prove that he had not in fact killed his entire cast to make the first mass market snuff film.

Nineteen years later we were blessed with The Blair Witch Project (1999). Because of the unknown cast and relentless marking via the internet claiming that the events were real, this film reached such phenomenal levels of success that it grossed nearly $250 million, a monumental feat considering it was made for less than a million.

So I guess the big question is: does Paranormal Activity (2007) deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as these icons in the horror film genre?

No.

I’ll be honest. Years ago, I went into this film with expectations, on some level I believe that’s unavoidable, but the experience I had watching this film didn’t compare with the other two. When The Blair Witch Project was released I was in high school and yes, I fell victim to the media campaign. This made the film truly terrifying. I didn’t see Cannibal Holocaust until ten years later but it was equally disturbing because of content.

In short, Paranormal Activity fell short for me because I’d already fallen for that trick once, and it didn’t have the same level of horrific violence that makes Cannibal Holocaust impossible to sit through without taking several breaks filled with cartoons and sunshine (at least for me). Without these elements Paranormal Activity comes off as a lukewarm film that doesn’t push boundaries. It feels ham-fisted into a studio ending that was made with multiple sequels in mind.

Once again, it’s interesting to consider the ending in terms of its predecessors. Both Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project have nothing that can be definitively classified as supernatural.

Strange? Yes.  

Ghosts? No.

Why is this?

It is because each of these films understood one thing: people are much scarier than ghosts!

In the original pre-studio script of Paranormal Activity, Katie doesn’t turn into a demon-ghost-girl. At the end, she walks downstairs and screams. Micah follows and is murdered off screen. Katie then walks back to the bedroom covered in blood and holding a knife. She sits on the bed in a catatonic state until the police arrive the next day. She comes out of her trance and is killed by the police. 

To me, this is much more satisfying because it feels like something that might happen. A demon running at the camera instantly drops the credibility ball and lets the audience leave the theater with a smile. At the end it assures us that yes, this is just a simple movie with lots of loud noises and no guts. It is for these reasons that Paranormal Activity will be relegated to late night viewings that involve channel hopping and not occupying any of my shelf space.

 

 

Grave's End: A True Ghost Story

Grave’s End: A True Ghost Story was written by Elaine Mercado, a registered nurse. We learn this from the title. Then in the introduction, Hans Holzer, a parapsychologist, tells us that the events in the book were true and that he helped solve the problem back in the mid 90’s. Both of these things, the ethos established by a scientific profession as well as the fact that we learn that everything works out fine lend credibility to the story. After I was finished with the book, I believed in Mercado’s story, at least I believed that the book is an honest account of the events that she witnessed. 

Then I asked myself, “Why do I believe her?”

The answer is the lack of formula.

To convince someone that an experience is true then you need a certain amount of credibility to gain their trust. Once that is established the events cannot be too over the top. The reactions in the story need to feel authentic, and the ending needs to leave a few things unexplained because that is typically what life gives us, parts of a resolution. In short, the story needs to be less formulaic and truer to life.

A great way to contrast this is to compare the book with the fictionalized version of the story. In the television show Paranormal Witness (season 2 episode 2) we get the Hollywood version of events. A lot of key elements were edited out of the Mercado’s story to squeeze it into the typical formula. The biggest one is the fact that the bride takes center stage in the hauntings. The miners in the basement aren’t mentioned, and the bride even takes the place of her husband as the entity that Christina sees on the staircase. There are no hovering balls of light, no amorphous shadowy shapes skittering about the room, and no aspiring artwork from the cat. The show then implies that the haunting happened as a direct result of Mercado throwing out the wedding dress. That’s when it lost me.

After I calmed down, I wondered why the show did this. Then it hit me. The television show needed to create a simple, closed narrative.

Every time I watch television shows about parapsychologists or ghosts I always have the same nagging sense of doubt. But since this is the first time I’ve had a concrete story to compare it to it comes as no surprise that all of these shows follow the same structure. There has to be a simple chain of cause and effect that the audience can follow without much effort.

One of the things I enjoyed about the book is that Mercado didn’t try to wrap everything up. In fact, she goes out of her way to explain to the reader that a lot of the things are still a mystery to her. This rings true to real life where lots of events, especially traumatic ones, are left open to interpretation.

It makes me wonder if there are any television shows out there that don’t try to wrap history around their narratives. If there are I’d like to see them so I could shed some of my skepticism.   

The Amityville Horror


I consider myself a nice person. I try to avoid bad reviews whenever possible because even if a book is “bad” a lot of people worked their butts off to make it the best that it could be. That being said, Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror didn’t work for me on several levels.

It starts on the syntax level. There are no emotions in the story that aren’t filtered through the omniscient narrator of Anson, and because of this the book has almost no tension. The story is told to the reader, meaning that the reader does not get to experience any events. Anson wrote the novel based on several hours of audiotapes provided by the Lutz family, but the account of events comes across as more of a list. Because of the structure of almost every sentence this story comes across as a newspaper article.

This choice of narrative structure sort of makes since if you consider the context in which the book was marketed. There has been a lot of fuss over this, but at the time of publication this was touted as a true story. It grabbed the public’s attention and has sold an estimated 10 million copies. 

I think it’s a real shame that more attention wasn’t given to the narrative because this book, if written from a limited point of view, could have been a legendary story. Granted, it was a financial success, but it wasn’t written in a way that would ever make a reader pick it up twice.

My favorite parts were the history involving the previous owners, the DeFeo family. Ronald DeFeo Jr. murdered his entire family with a high-powered weapon as they lay face down in their beds. Nobody heard a shot and none of the family woke up. This, along with several other creepy elements, is a horror goldmine! It actually makes me angry that a story with this much potential wasn’t given enough respect.

Another huge disappointment for me was that Ed and Lorraine Warren didn’t appear until the epilogue. In case you’re wondering, they were the paranormal investigators featured in the recent film The Conjuring. They were also the source material for the film Annabelle. While their professional careers in the real world may be somewhat suspect, they do provide a good fictional element whenever they are featured in stories.

But like I said, I’m a nice guy. I’m guessing that Anson did the best he could do and so did the editors who pushed this book through so they could get it out before Halloween in 1977… nice guy, right. At this point the story has been trampled through the living room of people’s imaginations to the point where it has become a cliché. Mud on the linoleum and snow in the carpet mar what was poised to be a legend of horror.

Instead, we got a newspaper report.