ego1So, while I was out of town for the weekend, the San Diego Comic Con happened. And given that these days it could be more accurately called the San Diego Movie Con, that means a lot of movie news and trailers dropped that people have been opining about while I’ve been gone, but because I was someplace with spotty internet, you’ve all had to do without my takes on any of it… until now!

Before I get into trailers, some bits of news that dropped. Probably lots of other stuff did too, and I missed it in all the noise, but these are the ones I saw, mostly thanks to following Birth.Movies.Death on Twitter. First up, the new MST3k is gonna be streaming on Netflix once it launches, which makes me happy because, honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about it, so it’ll be nice to get a taste before I have to make a commitment. Next up, a few reveals about the new Spider-Man movie, mostly that the villain is going to be the Vulture. Finally, some preview footage from Guardians of the Galaxy 2 apparently screened, featuring new stuff like a tiny Groot and various other things, but the big news out of it was that Kurt Russell is going to be playing Ego the Living Planet, who is also apparently (spoilers!) Star-Lord’s dad. Also, Sylvester Stallone is going to be in the movie, which means that he and Russell will be re-teaming, possibly for the first time since Tango & Cash.  Okay, now on to trailers!

Dr. Strange – Anybody who has talked to me knows that Dr. Strange is going to be a make-or-break movie for me when it comes to the Marvel cinematic universe, which has so far made… I’ll not say nary a misstep, but very few of them. Unfortunately, it’s looking more and more like break. I hate to prejudge in this case, and I’ll certainly still be going to see the movie, but this trailer left me just as underwhelmed as the teaser, and while the fractal stuff is certainly used a lot more here, it’s still not the Steve Ditko magic that I demand from my Dr. Strange. The “shamballa” gag at the end is funny, though.

Justice League – DC has finally figured out that if they want to ape Marvel’s success, they need to just ape Marvel. This could have been a Marvel movie trailer every single beat of the way, but it still looks good. Last I heard Zack Snyder was off this movie and George Miller was on board, but IMDb still has Snyder as director and Miller as producer, so who knows? The trailer certainly has plenty of Snyder’s trademark slo-mo and speed-ramping. Really, though, “Icky Thump” playing in the background can make anything seem awesome, so time will tell.

Wonder Woman – Speaking of aping Marvel, DC is going to beat them to the punch by at least one thing, which is having a female hero headlining a movie. And by all accounts Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was the best thing in Batman v Superman. As such, a lot has been made of the trailer for DC’s Captain America Wonder Woman, but I have to admit that it does look pretty great. And hey, the guy who wrote Pan no longer has his name in the screenwriting credits, so that bodes well!

Kong: Skull Island –  Probably the last thing we need is another gritty (let alone modern-ish) reboot of King Kong, but if we’re going to get one anyway, Skull Island might actually be my favorite trailer out of this bunch. Maybe it’ll wash the taste of Peter Jackson’s version out of our collective brains. Plus, John Goodman is a better choice for Carl Denham than Jack Black, even if that’s not who he’s playing.

American Gods – As a big, big fan (to put it mildly) of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, I feel like I ought to be more excited than I am about American Gods. It’s got some great casting, and the trailer looks good. I think the ultimate problem is that I had mixed feelings about the book in the first place, so I’m concerned about the show. That said, I wasn’t excited about Hannibal until I watched an episode of it, so we’ll see.

Blair Witch – What seems like it should be the most controversial of all these reveals, though I haven’t actually seen any controversy, everyone in my feed seems to be embracing it wholeheartedly. It turns out that the next mystery project from Adam Wingard (You’re NextThe Guest) that has been called The Woods up to now is actually a direct sequel to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project (probably ignoring the 2000 sequel Book of Shadows). I don’t really know how to feel about this. As a fan of Wingard’s previous stuff, I still want to be excited, and the trailer has some bravura moments, even if a lot of it looks a little too Evil Dead remake for my tastes, but I’m pretty sure I would rather have had another original project than a seventeen-years-later Blair Witch sequel, no matter how good it turns out to be…

There was probably a bunch of other stuff that I missed, but those are my not-all-that-hot, several-days-late takes on the stuff I saw coming out of SDCC this year. For those of you who were clambering to know my opinion on early commercials for billion-dollar tentpole movies.

 

So, as you may already know, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, my first collection of short horror stories, went out of print around the end of last year. Originally published in 2012, Never Bet the Devil prompted no less a luminary than Laird Barron to call it “a creepy foray into the realm of the weird and the sinister.” It’s been out of print since December of 2015, and copies on Amazon marketplace are currently listed at upwards of $200. (Please don’t pay that.)

OrrinGrey_NeverBetTheDevil_6x9+-+FL_2

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good: Thanks to the fine folks at Strix Publishing, there’s a new deluxe hardcover edition of Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings on the way. One so amazing that I don’t think any of you who bought the original version will mind double-dipping. (At least, I hope you won’t.) Besides a couple of new stories, including the heretofore hard-to-find “A Night for Mothing,” which originally appeared in The Mothman Files back in 2011 and a brand new, never-before-published tall called “Goblins,” this new edition of Never Bet the Devil is the collection as it was always meant to be.

It’ll be illustrated throughout by the amazing Mike Corley, who many of you will remember from our collaboration on Gardinel’s Real Estate and his many fine covers for Valancourt Books. Besides a host of interior illustrations, Mike also produced the amazing (preliminary) cover that you can see above, which will be cloth bound and gold foil stamped. All that, plus a new introduction by Nathan Ballingrud!

The whole shebang is coming to a Kickstarter near you on August 15, and there’ll be a lot more details coming between now and then, plus cool rewards and stretch goals once the Kickstarter actually gets off the ground, including the chance to add more original stories to the whole package. So for those of you who have been asking how to get copies of Never Bet the Devil, this is the news you’ve been waiting for. And for everyone else, I think we’re putting together something exciting enough that it will whet your appetites as well…

ShallowsI wouldn’t normally go see a survival picture about a shark in theatres, but I love Jaume Collet-Serra and I’ve been having a shitty week, so I needed something nice to do for myself.

Collet-Serra has sort of made a habit of making movies that I like but wouldn’t have expected to, starting with 2005’s House of Wax. He also made the surprisingly good Orphan in 2009, before going on to helm a string of mostly undistinguished Taken-alikes (though Non-Stop has the distinction of being maybe the best of that breed). I’ve seen all of his movies at this point, except for the 2007 soccer film Goal IIThe Shallows marks the first time that he’s waded into the waters of the horror genre since Orphan.

The Shallows isn’t Jaws, the movie to which it is most likely to be compared. It’s more like the movie that people who have never seen Jaws assume that Jaws is. (Actually, that’s probably Jaws 2.) A more apt comparison to The Shallows might be 2003’s Open Water, a film I never actually saw for the same reasons that I probably wouldn’t have gone to see The Shallows were it not for Collet-Serra’s name in the credits (and one really good trailer).

With an almost insanely stripped-down premise and a lean running time of only 86 minutes, The Shallows is a trifle where Jaws is an epic. It’s a film of modest scope and modest ambitions that ekes out plenty of tension from its core concept and allows Collet-Serra to indulge his aesthetic touch in gorgeous shots of the secret beach and plenty of nice underwater camerawork.

Don’t get me wrong, The Shallows gets plenty big and ridiculous in its final reel. Whether it gets too ridiculous or not quite ridiculous enough will probably depend on where your tolerance for Collet-Serra’s previous work lies. After all, taking a premise that doesn’t really need to be amazing and pushing it past where most people would (perhaps wisely) stop is sort of his stock in trade (see the ending of, well, most of his films). I love that about his movies, and if you love it, too, then you’ll probably be on board with The Shallows‘ final conflict.

Even if you’re not, though, there are moments throughout this movie that would not have been there had anyone but Collet-Serra been behind the camera. See an early shot with a whale carcass, or an underwater moment featuring jellyfish. For me, The Shallows is a movie that’s better than it needs to be, from a director who has pretty much made a career out of making movies that are better than they need to be, but never quite as good as I want them to be. I feel like Collet-Serra still has a horror masterpiece in the chamber somewhere, if he can find the right project. The Shallows isn’t it, but if you want to see Blake Lively and a wounded seagull fight a shark, and are ready for things to get a little silly before they’re done, then it’s a good way to spend 86 minutes.

 

Neon Demon

So, what did I think of Nicolas Winding Refn’s A Very Giallo (But Not Actually As Giallo As I Was Hoping After That Blood and Black Lace Trailer) Black Swan? Er, I mean, The Neon Demon? (A title that, admittedly, I wish I had come up with before Winding Refn did…)

The short answer is that I felt like it was a lot of good moments, scenes, images, and ideas looking for a movie to inhabit and instead being tossed the bones of a bunch of tired tropes to hang themselves on. And if that sounds harsh, I don’t necessarily mean for it to, but I also don’t think it’s inaccurate.

The Neon Demon is an experience that is going to take some time to digest (rimshot), and I’ll once again paraphrase Guillermo del Toro when he said that watching a movie once is a flirtation, twice is a date. Though in this case I don’t know that I’m intrigued enough to ever go back for that date.

It’s a film that is already polarizing people, but it didn’t really polarize me. I neither loved it nor hated it. It looked good and sounded great, it had moments that really worked but overall it really didn’t. How much it works for you will likely depend upon how you react to this sort of thing. For some, it will be your jam, for others, you will completely hate it. Me, I’m just along for the ride.

Prior to watching this, my only experience with Nicolas Winding Refn’s filmography was Drive, which I liked, but not as much as everybody else did. I’m told that, if you liked his follow-up Only God Forgives, you’ll probably like The Neon Demon. One of these days I’m going to watch Only God Forgives, even though I don’t expect to like it, because its aesthetic looks very appealing. This is also emphatically true of The Neon Demon.

Going any further is going to require me to dip into some spoilers, which I will try to keep pretty mild. I’ve seen this movie described as “confrontational,” which is probably a good description to use, but it felt to me like it was trying way too hard to confront me, rather than actually having anything to confront me with. It doesn’t commit enough to its horror premise to really become a horror film, but also goes too far to be much of anything else, and so it’s left in this awkward in-between state that will work for some people and infuriate others.

I had a lot of problems with this movie, even while there were a lot of things that I liked, but I don’t think most of them were the problems that I was supposed to have. I kept thinking that it was headed in the direction of Black Swan‘s transformative body horror, and it kept stepping back. Which is fine, but what it opts to do instead is stumble pretty badly in its last legs and end up in places that are both absurd and laughable–no one walked out of my screening that I noticed, not even during that scene, but plenty of people did laugh, especially in the film’s closing moments. Whether that’s a feature or a bug will probably depend on you. And if this is the most evasive “review” ever, well, that’s just the kind of movie that The Neon Demon is…

Yesterday was the official release day for my first nonfiction book, but I was still feeling a bit under the weather, and too overwhelmed to post anything about it until today, so here’s the official announcement: Monsters from the Vault collects more than five years worth of the Vault of Secrets column on vintage horror cinema that I wrote for Innsmouth Free Press, including a few columns that haven’t gone up on the website just yet, so you can read ’em here first!

Movies range from the 1932 classic Doctor X (filmed in two-strip Technicolor!) to the 1976 Bert I. Gordon “classic” Food of the Gods, filmed with a bunch of rats on tiny model cars and houses. A few of the columns that are in the book but haven’t yet gone live on the website include pieces on The Monster That Challenged the WorldThe Invisible RayThe Mummy’s Curse, and even the great William Castle masterpiece The Tingler, to name just a few.

Short on cash at the moment but still want a copy of Monsters from the Vault? There’s a Goodreads giveaway of it running for the next few days, but act now, because it ends on June 17! (And speaking of Goodreads giveaways, you can still enter for a chance to win a copy of Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts as part of the Word Horde Summer Solstice Giveaway, ending June 20. Already got Painted Monsters? There are plenty of other amazing Word Horde titles up for grabs, including John Langan’s new novel The Fisherman!)

There’s more promotions and other stuff in the works for Monsters from the Vault, and I’ll be live-tweeting a suitably creaky old horror movie sometime soon, so keep your eyes on this space or on my various social media presences for more info. And if you already ordered your copy, it should be on its way to you directly! As always, reviews (whether positive, negative, or indifferent) are much appreciated, and if anyone knows how you go about getting a book into consideration for a Rondo Award, drop me a line…

Last night, I was lucky enough to score a pair of passes to see an advance screening of The Conjuring 2 at the Alamo. As a fan of The Conjuring and of James Wan’s films in general, I admit to feeling a rare thrill when that title crawled up the wide, wide screen in giant yellow letters.

Whatever you may think of the stories that he’s chosen to tell, James Wan has proven himself time and again to be an expert genre filmmaker. The only real exception, for me, is the original Saw, and even it has the distinction of being more enjoyable than the vast majority of the stuff that it inspired. Whether or not you’ll be with me for the rest of this post probably depends a lot upon how much you agree with that statement.

As for The Conjuring 2, it is to The Conjuring as Insidious Chapter 2 is to Insidious. Which is to say that, once again, James Wan has resisted taking the easy way out of making a movie that is just the first one with a bigger budget, and instead taken the opportunity afforded by a sequel to make something slower and hokier and talkier and driven more by the characters than by the spirits that haunt and oppress them.

What I think are extremely mild spoilers follow…

I love the original Conjuring and think that it is objectively probably James Wan’s best film, but I am intrinsically less interested in it and its sequel than I am in the Insidious franchise. The reason for this is simply that the Conjuring films are handicapped by the reality of the Warrens and their Catholic mythology, as opposed to the more brazen comic book netherworld posited by Insidious and its sequels. However, The Conjuring 2 expands that mythology as much as it can, taking it to some interesting places. And when Lorraine calls someone the “Marquis of Snakes,” I must confess that I heard Peter Stormare’s voice in head purring, “I do miss the old names.”

From a purely mechanical standpoint, The Conjuring may be a better movie than its sequel–to be fair, from a purely mechanical standpoint, The Conjuring is damn near perfect–but whether you enjoy this one as much or less or more will probably depend a little on what you want out of it. For me, I’m not sure how I’ll ultimately feel. I know that I liked The Conjuring 2, but just how much will take repeat viewings to suss out. I think it was Guillermo del Toro who said something to the effect that the first time you watch a movie, it’s a flirtation. The second time is a date. I more or less subscribe to that school of thought, and I feel like The Conjuring 2 is a movie that will demonstrate different strengths–and possibly different weaknesses–upon subsequent viewings.

I was, for example, initially disappointed with how cartoonish the Crooked Man looked–my first thought the first time he showed up was that he looked very like something out of Death Note–but later in the film I remembered that he was supposed to be a spirit masquerading as a cartoon character from a children’s toy, and realized that his cartoonishness was probably an aesthetic choice, rather than simply dodgy effects. Does that mean that I like it now? I’m not sure, but I do think it’ll change my approach to it on a second viewing.

I feel like we are unused to movies like this rewarding us for paying attention. We have a tendency to feel like movies that rely a lot on jump scares are also going to require us to, if not turn off our brains, then at least reduce our critical capacities at the door. I keep seeing reviewers asking why the family doesn’t just move, but the original Conjuring (not to mention Insidious) put that question to rest early on, and while this one doesn’t actively restate the thesis, it does make the futility of moving pretty clear the night the family sleeps over at a neighbor’s house. I also noticed some extremely heavy foreshadowing–though foreshadowing what I didn’t know at the time–during a couple of sequences in the Warrens’ house that I expected the movie to come back and tap me on the shoulder with much harder than it ever actually did.

As with Insidious Chapter 2, what impressed me the most about The Conjuring 2, on first viewing, were the risks that it was willing to take with the sequel formula. While The Conjuring was pretty heavily focused around a specific escalation of events, The Conjuring 2 is more freed up to ramble. And while the films may ultimately have more similarities than differences–the possession/exorcism angle, the family full of children, the cluttered basement, the kinds of scares that have become staples of Wan’s spectral filmmaking oeuvre–it’s the places where they differ that stand out the most.

One of these is Wan’s willingness to let the flow of the movie be driven more by story than by action. In Insidious Chapter 2 it was a murder mystery, in this it is the throughline of Lorraine’s visions and the possible hoax aspects of their work. Another is Wan’s obvious love of trappings that would be too hokey for most modern filmmakers. There may not be any straight-faced falling chandelier bits or sheeted ghosts in The Conjuring 2, like there were in Insidious Chapter 2, but there are an evil nun and an honest-to-god haunted painting.

Another bold move is the choice to use Amityville–without a doubt the most famous case with which the Warrens have ever been involved–as the film’s “cold opening,” an approach that got an audible reaction from the theatre in which I saw the movie. And, without going into any detail, The Conjuring 2 ends on a touching note, rather than an ominous one.

As with its predecessor, The Conjuring 2 makes the wise choice of resting most of its scares upon the backs of its characters, relying on small character moments to ground the film’s more outlandish elements and give them a sense of immediacy. Pretty much everyone turns in strong performances–it was weird to recognize Franka Potente in a small role as a skeptical investigator–especially Madison Wolfe as the young girl at the focal point of the haunting.

Once again, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga (taking the lead here, to a large extent) do a lot to help you forget whatever your feelings may be about the real life Ed and Lorraine Warren. And if you weren’t yet sure that the characters had moved to someplace very distinct from their real world counterparts by this point, there’s the fact that the screenwriters of the first movie (who co-wrote this one along with Wan and David Johnson) get a “based on characters created by” credit in the film’s opening.

There may not be any moment in The Conjuring 2 that is as iconic as the “hide and clap” scene or some of the others in the original film, but it also never feels like it is trying to one-up its predecessor. Instead of focusing as heavily on the mechanics of horror, Wan has taken the goodwill generated by The Conjuring and made a sequel that stretches new muscles. In a field where we’re all very tired of getting the same thing over and over again, especially from our horror franchises, that seems like something worth celebrating.

 

reincarnation-2

During a recent conversation with Dominique Lamssies in which I admitted that I had judged the Grudge films too harshly, she recommended that I check out Reincarnation by the same director, which was released on DVD in the States as part of that whole After Dark Horror Fest thing. So I watched it, and I loved it, and now I’m going to ramble a bit.

Oddly enough, I watched Reincarnation while I was right in the middle of reading Adam Cesare‘s Tribesmen, which has a somewhat similar logline: some people are making a movie in a place where very bad things once happened, when history begins to repeat itself on film.

(This isn’t a review of Tribesemen, but it is wonderful, even if–like me–Italian cannibal films aren’t really your cup of tea, being, as it is, as much Hollywood Boulevard as Cannibal Holocaust.)

The first place where Reincarnation deviated from my expectations is that the filmmakers in the movie aren’t actually filming their movie in the place where the bad things happened. Oh, they certainly take the cast and crew to visit the out-of-the-way hotel where eleven people were murdered 35 years earlier, but while most movies would pull in some excuse to strand them all out there and have the havoc locked into that location, Reincarnation takes a much subtler and more roundabout approach.

It also doesn’t feel much like what we’ve probably all come to expect from the standard J-horror spook show. In fact, the beats of Reincarnation would have felt right at home in an E.F. Benson story, even if the specifics would have been a little different. There are echoes of The Shining going on here, and not just in the hotel setting or the emphasis on one particular room number. Though it came out in 2005, there’s a kind of 1970s look to Reincarnation, maybe in part because that’s when the murders that set the story into motion are supposed to have taken place.

It’s an oddly-paced and quiet movie, one that doesn’t actually get to the stuff on the back of the box until the last thirty minutes. But that doesn’t mean that it’s slow. It drops you into strange happenings immediately, but then takes almost half the movie to actually get to the hotel. Like several of Shimizu’s other films, there are multiple plots happening at once and only sort-of converging. It’s an effect that he puts to good use elsewhere, and maybe even better use here. Reincarnation is never really jump-out-of-your-seat scary, but it is very creepy, and sometimes very beautiful, with lots of great wide-angle shots and a really good genius loci in the form of the old hotel.

In front of the movie, the DVD had a sort of aggregate preview for all of the After Dark Horror Fest films this was released as part of, and while watching that trailer I thought to myself, “I want to figure out which movie that doll is from and watch it!” Luckily for me, it turned out to be from this movie, so mission accomplished! Seriously, though, that wall-eyed doll is pretty creepy, even before part of its face caves in and it starts stop-motion walking down a hallway…

 

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