Archive

cinema

IMG_20170310_145038_633No remake can ever live up to the original King Kong. Luckily for Skull Island, it’s smart enough not to try.

From its largely unnecessary opening sequence (because we’ll get it all exposited to us again later), Skull Island is a lot sillier than I was expecting from the trailers. Not just in a “giant monsters smashing each other” kind of way, either. In a “Tom Hiddleston slow-motion chopping up pterodactyls with a katana” way. Pretty much top to bottom, this takes place in what is fundamentally a comic book universe without superheroes. Which is fine for Kong, and especially fine given that this is basically the first step in creating a shared universe with Gareth Evans’ 2014 Godzilla, to be exploited first in Mike Dougherty’s forthcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters and then later in a planned Godzilla vs Kong.

While Skull Island never even aspires to anything more substantive than what is essentially the pilot for a particularly brutal Saturday morning cartoon, it learned the lessons that Godzilla had to teach, even if it then goes on to make its own mistakes along the way. Where Godzilla didn’t spend enough time on the titular monster, Kong is all over this film, along with piles and piles of other monstrous denizens of the eponymous island. (Including the Best. Stick insect. Ever.) Your mileage on individual critters may vary, but at least there are lots of them, including a few nice visual nods to other giant monster movies that I may or may not have been reading too much into.

And while the human characters here may be just as thinly drawn as those in Godzilla, they replace any attempt at “normal folks” with a collection primarily composed of outsize archetypes, ready made for Saturday morning syndication. While most of the actors aren’t given a lot to do, John C. Reilly and Samuel L. Jackson steal the show, with the latter playing Ahab to Kong’s Moby Dick.

A quick skim across other reviews shows lots of people complaining about the screenplay, and while yeah, we could all have probably wished for something with a little more heft there, nobody really comes to a movie like this because of the screenplay, right? The biggest problem that Skull Island actually has is that the (frequent) monster battles too often feel like exactly what they are: nothing but a bunch of pixels. No matter how good they look, there’s a weightlessness, a lack of physicality, that keeps them from having the punch that you want from seeing Kong wrestling with a giant octopus or some weird, surprisingly gross skull-headed lizard monster.

Before I walked into the theatre, a friend basically texted me to say, “I hope it’s good!” And I replied back that I was pretty sure it would be what I wanted it to be; and it was. On the spectrum of modern giant monster movies, it’s situated firmly below Pacific Rim, which is certainly the contemporary benchmark, at least for me. But it’s also a big step up from my recollections of Godzilla, and a huge improvement on Peter Jackson’s 2005 attempt to remake Kong, if only because it never makes the mistake of trying to replicate the original’s success.

Instead, Skull Island is a fun, cartoonish movie with lots of giant monsters fighting one-another while humans played by good actors mostly narrate things that just happened. Chances are that’s all you’re going in for, which is good, because it’s all you’re gonna get. (There’s your pull quote, in case you need one.)

 

After my recent post about William Malone’s 2002 film Feardotcom, I decided to take a stab at his 2008 follow-up (Masters of Horror episode notwithstanding) Parasomnia. It turns out that I had already watched the first third or so of this movie once before, but something had interrupted me and I hadn’t gotten any farther. Which is probably okay, but also kind of a bummer, since most of the best stuff is in the last reel, but none of it is really worth watching twice.

I’m a little surprised that I haven’t heard more talk about Parasomnia in weird fiction circles–not because there’s actually all that much to talk about, but because of four words in the opening credits: “Conceptual Art – Zdzislaw Beksinski.” Beksinski’s work is so beloved among many in the weird fiction world that I figured his involvement–even if it seems to be more inspirational than actually direct–would be enough to attract some attention to the picture, and certainly, once you know to look for it, it’s hard to miss in the film’s surreal dreamscape images, even if they are also unduly burdened with low-budget CGI and lots and lots of spinning mirrors (plus apparently at least one monster that was scrapped from Malone’s Masters of Horror episode).

parasomnia21

Weirdly, for all that William Malone financed this film himself and gets his name in front of the title like John Carpenter or something, this actually feels substantially less stylized than previous outings, possibly due to the budgetary constraints of shooting an indie rather than a studio feature. While IMDb doesn’t list a budget for Parasomnia, a little online sleuthing suggests that it’s considerably cheaper than either Feardotcom or House on Haunted Hill, and as a result, with the exception of the occasional foray into the aforementioned dreamscapes, the film reserves most of its visual style for the last few minutes, which bring in automata and a mesmerized string duet wearing goggles and corsets.

There are a few good gore effects, including a body that’s walled up in an abandoned bookstore bedecked with posters for old-fashioned stage magicians, but even when the film is throwing everything it has at the wall, it feels positively constrained compared to Malone’s previous films. (Though the shots of the mesmerist serial killer bad guy–a phrase that should be enough to win me over all by itself–using his powers are actually pretty cool.)

Sean Young shows up for all of a minute, Jeffrey Combs essentially revives his role from Feardotcom, Timothy Bottoms plays the exposition doctor who really needs to study up on patient confidentiality and medical ethics, and John Landis makes a cameo as a department store manager who turns out a semi-comatose, blood spattered girl onto the streets without so much as calling the cops.

Compounding any of Parasomnia‘s other problems is the fact that its central premise is pretty gross/creepy, in the way that Sleeping Beauty stories are often kinda gross/creepy, but maybe even moreso here. As our ostensible protagonist falls in love with a girl who has been asleep for most of her life and therefore has the emotional and mental development of a child; as they “bond” in scenes where, during her brief periods of wakefulness, she rubs ice cream all over her face like a toddler, plays with a doggy chew toy, or dresses up like a cheerleader; and as he bathes her sleeping body in scenes that are overtly sexual, or tells his kooky 80s movie best friend that he loves her, I found it impossible to go along with the movie’s notion that this “relationship” was on the up-and-up.

An insinuated connection between the two because they once met when they were very small, in a house that looks a lot like Elise’s house from the later Insidious movies, and a scene returning both characters to childhood in the film’s closing moments attempt to ameliorate the sexual predator vibe, but it’s really too little too late. Fundamentally, our “protagonist” may be less of a serial killer than the sinister Byron Volpe, but he doesn’t really come off looking a whole lot better aside from that.

Without the interference of a studio, Parasomnia should have been Malone’s stylistic triumph–the ultimate affirmation of Roger Ebert’s claim, regarding Feardotcom, that if “the final 20 minutes had been produced by a German impressionist [sic?] in the 1920s, we’d be calling it a masterpiece”–but instead it is so bogged down by its stricter budgetary limitations and its dedication to a problematic script that it feels like a lesser cousin to even the least of Malone’s more studio-oriented work, where, while the scripts were often still bad, the movies at least seemed less interested in them.

[This post previously appeared on my Patreon.]

I liked William Malone’s 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill, and I remember watching his 2002 follow-up Feardotcom back when I was working in a video store. All I remember about it at the time is that it felt immediately dated, and already a little too reminiscent of that year’s American remake of The Ring. (Even though Feardotcom actually beat The Ring into theatres by a couple of months, though of course the Japanese original had already been out for a few years by then.)

feardotcom1

Re-watching Feardotcom today, it still feels immediately dated and sort of derivative of the general atmosphere that was starting to pervade horror cinema as the Asian horror boom began to make its way to American shores, but it also feels weirdly precognizant and definitely very, very of a piece with Malone’s House on Haunted Hill.

Specifically, while still being a stylized ghost movie in the House on Haunted Hill mold, Feardotcom also prefigures the rise of the torture porn genre, and you could extract almost the entire aesthetic of Saw (which wouldn’t hit theatres for two more years) from this film. Meanwhile, the titular website and some of the investigation scenes feature found-footage segments of the sort that would shortly become ubiquitous in horror circles.

While the plot is ostensibly a lift of Ringu, with a “live-cam death site” replacing the cursed video tape as the film’s deadly MacGuffin, following a police detective (Stephen Dorff) and a researcher from the Department of Health (Natasha McElhone) as they try to track down a serial killer who is torturing people to death online, while also trying to figure out why people who went to the website are dying mysteriously within 48 hours, this isn’t a movie that lives and dies by plot. In fact, it feels more like it careens from one moment to another than like it actually has a story, helped along by the unreal and dreamlike atmosphere that Malone conjures up.

Feardotcom is pure stylistic indulgence. From a prominently-featured reference to Mad Love‘s Dr. Gogol in graffiti within the first two minutes to the fact that the film’s cold opening features Udo Kier playing a character named Polidori to a creepy ghost girl with pale hair and a white ball that is probably a nod to the Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill!, we’re deep into a territory of unrealism before the movie gets very far.

In spite of the website premise, the New York City of Feardotcom is a timeless, rainy, noir metropolis that feels more like the fictional and unspecified urban landscapes of weird fiction than any real or modern place. (See also the setting of Alex Proyas’ Dark City from four years before.)

Exteriors are always the brightest points in the film, in spite of the constant rain, while interiors are claustrophobic and dimly lit, with characters trapped in pools of light like insects frozen in amber, even when they occupy otherwise expansive rooms. As in House on Haunted Hill, Malone juxtaposes grandeur and decay, as in a scene where a hallway filled with peeling paint and flickering fluorescent lights culminates in an elevator with marble panels and gilt edges.

By this point, deteriorating industrial backdrops had already become de rigueur in horror cinema, but in Feardotcom these urban hellscapes are incorporated into the proceedings in ways that make them feel as much internal as external. They are a part of the deteriorating effect that the events of the movie are having on the psyches of the characters. (In some ways, Feardotcom probably feels somewhat less dated now than it did at the time, because the fact that the internet never looked or worked like that just seems part and parcel to Malone’s odd, anachronistic setting, rather than bad artistic direction.)

In spite of sharing a lot in common with Malone’s House on Haunted Hill, however, Feardotcom is never as good as its elder sibling, mostly because it is humorless and lacks that film’s strong central premise (borrowed from the William Castle original) and the accompanying performances of Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen. (Also, while the ghosts here are certainly in the same family tree, there are no Jacob’s Ladder-style vibrating heads.)

Still, it’s intriguing to stack the two next to each other, and see how much Malone’s aesthetic vision influences both, for good and for ill. From the same creepy sadomasochistic montages to the same use of plastinated bodies in display cases as a backdrop, there’s even an odd fetish for desk-mounted pencil sharpeners in both films. Feardotcom also relies on a similarly regrettable use of CGI in its closing moments, although it is considerably toned down from the ending of House on Haunted Hill.

Feardotcom boasts a lot of familiar faces in its supporting cast. Besides the aforementioned Udo Kier in its cold opening, Stephen Rea has a role as the mad doctor serial killer, while Jeffrey Combs plays Stephen Dorff’s dissolute partner. (Combs and Malone seem to have had a good working relationship, as the former is in most of the latter’s handful of feature films.)

Make no mistake, Feardotcom is a nearly-plotless and often inept movie that is primarily of interest because it is so deeply mired in William Malone’s particular vision while also being such an odd harbinger of things to come. I found it fascinating in its way, but fascinating should not necessarily be confused with good.

Sadly, even if Feardotcom had benefitted from a tighter script, it seems unlikely that it would have succeeded on many more levels than it does. Fortunately, the weird stylistic decisions of William Malone are more than enough to keep it oddly compelling, at least for me, even while it stumbles around from one “spooky” scene to another. I remember his Masters of Horror episode “The Fair Haired Child” having a somewhat similar aesthetic, and I can’t actually remember if I already checked out his 2008 film Parasomnia, or just watched the trailer, but I guess it’s time to give it a look (possibly again).

[This post previously appeared on my Patreon.]

 

monster_thriller_scifi_headerPanic Fest is something that I look forward to every year; after all, why wouldn’t I? A world-class horror/monster/sci-fi film festival right in my own backyard, put together by my good friends at Rotten Rentals and the Screenland Armour; what’s not to love? But for me, at least, Panic Fest has become something of a fraught weekend.

Two years ago, just as I was leaving the house to go to Panic Fest, I got a phone call about my dad’s declining health. It wasn’t the first phone call on the subject, but it was one of the ones that triggered the fall of dominoes which made up the end of his life, the realization of a lot of trauma and baggage, and various other things that I’ve been dealing with in one capacity or another for the last two years. As such, Panic Fest always feels like an anniversary: the last weekend where I got to feel normal for a while and just have some fun.

Every year since, when Panic Fest has come around it has brought with it a weird combination of emotions–fraught, like I said. This year was the first time I attended as a “private citizen.” In the past I’ve helped out with the fest in some capacity; manning the Rotten Rentals booth or whatever. This year I just bought my ticket like everyone else and showed up to watch movies and bullshit around in the (really nice) vendor loft. I picked up a copy of the really great-looking book Unsung Horrors, which contains a couple of essays by my friend (and former boss, way back when I still worked at a video store) Jeff Owens.

I also watched four movies over the course of the weekend, along with a handful of really good shorts. That is, I believe, fully twice as many movies as the most I ever managed at a previous Panic Fest, so I’ll call it pretty good. To make matters better, I enjoyed all four movies, which is always nice. Here are my brief thoughts on each, presented in ascending order of quality.

The Barn – An 80s-style VHS throwback, The Barn was funded at least partially via IndieGoGo, and it shows. Because of the film’s intentionally low-rent aesthetic, the budgetary limitations are never really a problem for it, and the result is something pretty charming for anybody who has a nostalgic yen for 80s slashers and monsters that are just guys in Halloween masks. What The Barn can’t do is rise much above that. It’s never quite funny enough to function as pure parody, nor strong enough to stand on its own as anything else. So what you get is a pleasant throwback that seems like it ought to be watched on an old tube TV, popped out of one of those clamshell VHS cases; but a surprisingly crowded theatre at a horror film festival is probably the next best thing.

Don’t Knock Twice – A few days before Panic Fest, I watched last year’s Lights Out for the first time. Don’t Knock Twice shares a lot of parallels with that film–minus its specific light-related central conceit–but Lights Out suffers every time by the comparison. Which is not to say that Don’t Knock Twice is any particularly great shakes, but it stands up better than most of the familiar ghostly fare that so often haunts our multiplexes these days.

The Void – Imagine if the Astron-6 guys couldn’t decide whether they wanted to make a fan film of HellraiserThe ThingPrince of Darkness, or The Fly–so they just did all four. That’s pretty much The Void in a nutshell, and as such it manages to seem both inventive and derivative, while also feeling more like watching someone play Resident Evil than the Resident Evil movies ever managed. The visuals are strong, and there are plenty of gloppy monsters all done with practical effects, so I love that, but I also can’t help noticing that all of the effects feel like they would probably have been more confidently deployed in the hands of any of those other directors.

It’s been called Lovecraftian–as anything with cultists, tentacles, or horror on a larger-than-human scale will be (and The Void certainly has all three in spades)–but it owes a much bigger debt to Barker than to Lovecraft. Call it Hellraiser with the aesthetic of Carpenter and Cronenberg and you’re damn close. All this probably sounds a little down on The Void, but it absolutely isn’t meant to be–it’s sitting in my number two spot here, after all–it’s just that, for all its promise and its many great qualities, it never quite rises to what it almost is. (A problem that, honestly, seems to plague many of even the very best of our crop of contemporary horror movies.)

Train to Busan – In a year that has already been full-to-bursting with surreal moments, few were as jarring as walking out of Train to Busan to the news of Trump’s Muslim ban. Train to Busan is, essentially, a Korean zombie movie of the contemporary fast, swarming zombie school, and one that, as you’ve no doubt heard from other people than me, is handled brilliantly well. There’s a lot going on in it, but possibly its biggest and least subtle theme can be summed up as: Turning people away because you are afraid makes you into something worse than the monsters that scare you. As such, it has maybe never felt more topical than in this moment.

All that aside, though, it is also just an extremely solid movie. Like Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist from a few years back–which was also very emphatically a product of its moment with a very heavy social message, but that still plays fine without that context–Train to Busan holds up amidst a sea of similar fare as one of the best of the modern crop of swarming zombie flicks.

Odds are you don’t need me to tell you that 2016 was a rough year. Even leaving aside any political… happenstance, we lost a lot of great people in 2016. Some were losses shared by the world, others hit closer to home. But if I restrict my sights to only those things that were localized entirely within the walls of my house, 2016 was actually a pretty good year. Freelance work picked up considerably from its low point in 2015, Grace got a new job that she is extremely happy with, and I published two books: Monsters from the Vault, a collection of my Vault of Secrets columns from Innsmouth Free Press, and The Cult of Headless Men, a chapbook novelette from Dunhams Manor with an incredible cover by Michael Bukowski.

Since my first collection, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings had fallen out of print at the end of 2015, this past year also saw the launch of a successful Kickstarter to get it back in print in a deluxe, fully-illustrated hardcover edition featuring killer art from my good friend MS Corley. The new edition is due out sometime this year from Strix Publishing, and should be available for order direct from them for those who missed the Kickstarter.

Following on the heels of the Kickstarter, the last few months of 2016 were a little hectic for me. I ended September with a tonsillectomy, which more or less put me out of commission for the month of October, and then spent November and December writing my first novel in only 53 days! For those who missed the previous announcement, that novel will be a Protectorate of Menoth novel set in the world of the Iron Kingdoms from Privateer Press. It’s the first in a proposed series called Fire & Faith, and the book itself is going to be called Godless. It’s due out later this year. I’ll be posting a lot more about it–and the process of writing it–once things have gone a little farther, but for now you can read a brief interview with me over at their blog.

Over the course of the year, I published only 6 new short stories (not counting The Cult of Headless Men), but I’m pretty proud of all of them. They showed up in venues like Autumn CthulhuSwords v. Cthulhu, Children of LovecraftEternal FrankensteinThe Madness of Dr. Caligari, and Gothic Lovecraft. (Lots of “Lovecraft” and “Cthulhu” titles this year.) Thanks to Children of Lovecraft, I finally got to check my lifelong dream of appearing behind a Mignola cover off my list, and my story from Autumn Cthulhu made the Bram Stoker Award reading list, which I think is a first for me. I also made my debut in the pages of Nightmare magazine, albeit in nonfiction form, writing an entry for their H Word column about creating and consuming horror that isn’t meant to be scary.

I didn’t read very many books in 2016 (a little less than 30, most of them graphic novels), but of those, a few were actually published in 2016 and were legitimately great, perhaps most notably Matthew M. Bartlett’s Creeping Waves and Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism. I was also lucky enough to provide blurbs for a couple of books that came out in 2016, including Pete Rawlik’s most recent addition to his rollicking Wold Newton-ish universe Reanimatrix, and Jonathan Raab’s The Lesser Swamp Gods of Little Dixie. (Though really, with a title like that, why do you need a blurb from me to sell it to you?)

I did watch a lot of movies in 2016, however. 333, to be exact. 47 of those were in the month of October, which is what happens when you have a tonsillectomy and can neither sleep nor do much else besides lay on the couch and watch movies. In continuing my efforts to see more movies that I haven’t seen than ones that I have, 197 of those movies were new-to-me, though of those only about 25 actually came out in 2016. Nothing I saw in 2016 ever managed to beat the first movie that I saw in theatres last year, so The Witch is probably still my favorite movie of the year. Other good ones that I saw include Green Room, I Am Not a Serial Killer, Ouija: Origin of Evil (yeah, I’m as surprised as you are), Captain America: Civil WarThe Nice GuysZootopiaThe Shallows, and the first half of The Autopsy of Jane Doe. The last movie that I watched in 2016 was Blood Diner, and the first one that I watched in 2017 was Cellar Dweller, so that seems about right.

In breaking with my annual tradition, there probably won’t be a Year in Creatures this year because, frankly, I just didn’t see enough movies in 2016 that had creatures in them. The big alien in Independence Day: Resurgence was totally wasted, and besides it and a few ghosts there was, what, a shark and that thing from I Am Not a Serial Killer? I guess Black Phillip would about have to be the Monster of the Year in 2016, though if there are good creatures I’m missing in movies that I didn’t see do please let me know, because I want to track them down!

In 2017 I’m hoping to read more books, which may entail watching fewer movies, but we’ll see how the year pans out. I’ve already picked up my full-weekend pass for Panic Fest this year, so that’s a pile of movies I’ll probably be seeing later this month. There’s a lot of cool stuff in the works for 2017, including that aforementioned novel, so you’ll be hearing from me more down the line. For now, let’s finish kicking the detritus of 2016 to the curb, and set our sights on getting through the next few days, months, and then years.

 

If you follow me on social media (or, heck, even if you follow me here) then odds are you won’t notice much difference, but nonetheless, I felt it needed to be said that for the next two-and-a-half months or so, I’m going to be diving hard into a big freelance project that’s clamped down tight under a non-disclosure agreement, so there’s a good chance that I won’t be posting a lot here until sometime early next year.

Given that I already don’t post a whole lot on here, the change may not be very substantial, and as I said, if you follow me on social media, you’re likely to continue to see me around, as I’ll need to come up for air from time to time. That said, if I follow you on social media, then apologies in advance if I miss a lot more of your posts than usual over the next couple of months. Things are going to be a bit hectic around here. (More on it as soon as I have the freedom to share.)

Considering how hectic things have already gotten over the last few days, I had a good birthday and a quiet but otherwise good Halloween, even if I did end up turning in before midnight for maybe the first time in my life. (My pumpkin stayed lit, though, so I’m okay.)

Also, perhaps a bit surprisingly, perhaps not, I watched more movies in the month of October than I ever have in a single month since I started keeping my movie journal. 47, all told, which is probably what happens when you spend most of the month recovering from a tonsillectomy and unable to do much of anything (including sleep) besides stare at a flickering screen.

Of those 47, 26 were new to me, keeping nicely with my “more movies that I haven’t seen before than movies that I have” goal for 2017.

Okay, it’s three days before Halloween, or will be by the time you read this. I’m writing it early, because I’m going to be busy the weekend of Halloween with one thing and another. For starters, the 30th is my birthday, and I’ll be hosting a FREE screening of The Pit and the Pendulum at the Screenland Armour at 2pm that day, if you happen to be local and want to drop by.

Normally, I would post this on Halloween itself, but this year Halloween night is on a Monday, which is just insult to injury, so if anyone is going to be celebrating with late-night horror movie marathons (as is right and proper) they’re probably going to be doing it today or tomorrow.

To help you out, I’ve gone ahead and programmed one for you that’ll run from dusk til, well, pretty late, anyway. Starting in at 6pm, just as the sun starts going down, and running until around 2 in the morning, by which time it’s safe to extinguish your jack-o-lanterns and start drifting off to bed or whatever else you might be doing. (Just a few minutes shy of 8 hours, to give you time to grab snacks, pause to hit the restroom, and rewind to watch particularly great scenes.) The theme of this year’s movie marathon is: horror movies that take place on Halloween!

6pm: Halloween (1978)
Arguably the Halloween movie (I mean, it’s right there in the name), John Carpenter’s classic is a good, restrained lead-in to the night, and may be at its very best when capturing the feel of Halloween afternoon leading up to the night itself, even while Haddonfield looks suspiciously non-autumnal for a town that’s supposed to be in Illinois (but is actually in California).

7:30pm: Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Few things capture the Halloween spirit better than an anthology film, and when that anthology film is about Halloween, well, all the better. Mike Dougherty’s directorial debut may be the most Halloween-centric horror film ever made, and is the perfect movie to watch during the trick-or-treating hours.

9pm: Halloween 3 (1982)
It’s time. Don’t forget to put on your Silver Shamrock masks while you watch the big giveaway at nine, or just the most bonkers Halloween movie ever made, complete with, well, just about everything, from robots to Stonehenge to druid plots and masks that fill kids with crickets and snakes. Plus, the most nihilistic ending of the evening…

11pm: Night of the Demons (1988)
We’re heading into the midnight hour now, and so it’s time to dust off Night of the Demons. If Halloween captures the atmosphere of the night and Trick ‘r Treat conjures its spirit, then Night of the Demons is the closest you’re going to get to hanging out at a crappy Halloween party in a haunted house. Let it carry you through the witching hour, and then…

12:30am: The Guest (2014)
Blow out your jack-o-lanterns and get ready for  your Halloween marathon cool-down with The Guest, a movie every bit as rooted in Halloween as any other film on this list, but also one that’s standing at the edges of the party, making everyone uncomfortable. It’s a blast to watch, and a perfect way to end the night, easing out of Halloween mode without leaving the holiday behind completely.

By now it’s 2am, but if you want to keep the party going, feel free to drop a couple of other movies into the mix. Adding in Creepshow (1982) and The Midnight Hour (1985) ought to be enough to get you an all-night horror-thon that runs from dusk til dawn.