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I  have always written a lot about film, but over the last few years I have inescapably also become, among other things, a “film writer.” I have two books of essays on vintage horror cinema in print, and I regularly write reviews of both new and retrospective films for venues like Signal Horizon and Unwinnable.

To the extent, then, that I am a “film critic,” or a critic of any other kind of art, my interest is not in whether or not the art in question is “good” or “bad.” My interest is in the experience of the art itself; in placing that art within its broader context and learning to understand it better, both for myself and for whoever happens to be reading whatever I write.

This makes the experience of art – and of writing and reading about art – necessarily personal, and somewhat immune to criticism, to the extent that you view criticism as nothing more than a binary of “good” or “bad.” Siskel and Ebert, probably the most well-known movie critics of all time, famously simplified it to “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” – not to knock either Siskel or Ebert, both of whom also wrote lengthy, heartfelt, highly personal takes on film all the time.

One of my favorite quotes about the role of art comes from Joe R. Lansdale writing an introduction to a trade collection of the comic book Baltimore. “Isn’t that the job of all great art,” Lansdale writes, “to kick open doors to light and shadow and let us view something that otherwise we might not see?”

He thinks it is, at least in part, and so do I.

As a critic, then, my job is to help art accomplish that goal. To jimmy the door just that little bit wider, to point into the light and shadow on the other side and describe what I see. To walk through the door – or at least peek through it – when others may not have the time or the energy or the inclination or the adventurousness of spirit to do so.

My job is also to keep an open mind. Not just when I sit in the dark and wait for the movie to begin, but long after I’ve seen the credits roll, after I’ve composed my careful sentences that night or the next day or the next week. This doesn’t mean pretending to like something that I don’t. It means being open to changing my mind.

Some of my favorite movies I was lukewarm on when I walked out of the theater. Some movies that I loved the first few times I saw them grew stale with time. Neither of these reactions are wrong – they’re just descriptive of how I experienced the movies.

As a reader of writing about film, one of my favorite things in the world is to find a thoughtful, engaging appreciation of a movie that I thought I didn’t like. One that helps me to view something in the movie that I might not otherwise have seen. Sometimes I still don’t like the movie when I’m done, but I get the chance to glimpse that otherwise unseen thing, and that’s really what I’m always after.

Art can only do so much to kick those doors open, after all. Sometimes we have to be ready to look.

The Movies (2)

 

I didn’t publish very much fiction this year, but I am proud of what I did publish. “Doctor Pitt’s Menagerie” in Bargains from Pine Float Press, “Stygian Chambers” in Pluto in Furs, and “The Splitfoot Reel” in the memento book at NecronomiCon Providence.

That’s it for new stories, although this year also saw my third appearance in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, this time reprinting my story “No Exit,” which originally appeared in Lost Highways: Dark Fictions from the Road. “When a Beast Looks Up at the Stars,” which was one of the original stories in my third collection, Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales last year, was performed on Pseudopod this year as well.

When it comes to new work, though, this was the year I really became a film writer. I’ve been writing about film – in both my fiction and nonfiction – for a long time, but this was the year that I started adding bylines at Signal Horizon, where I am the official Monster Ambassador, and Unwinnable. Where I started receiving Blu-rays for review, and critic’s passes to preview screenings of new films.

At Signal Horizon, I also took over co-hosting duties of the Horror PodClass, where Tyler Unsell and I talk about movies and academic theories or lesson plans every couple of weeks. Most recently, we chatted about Black Christmas – both the new and the old – and subtext.

I won’t link to all the many reviews I’ve written over the course of the year, but if you want to follow along you can find most of them here, with more to come in the future.

I also had a book come out this year, Revenge of Monsters from the Vault from Innsmouth Free Press. It’s the sequel to Monsters from the Vault, as you might have guessed, but where that book collected all the Vault of Secrets columns I had written for IFP over the years, this one is almost all entirely new material, never published anywhere else.

That book launched at NecronomiCon Providence, which I was finally able to attend this year. I was on a couple of panels, attended some others, walked the nighted streets of Providence – a city at once familiar and strange, as was only appropriate – and got to introduce a secret screening of Matango.

NecronomiCon was one of the only conventions I made it to this year. Of course, I attended Panic Fest here in Kansas City back in January, and I went to Atlanta for the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird in March.

In fact, Tyler and I made the mistake of driving down overnight, which meant that I hit the Symposium having been awake for some 36 hours straight. Either the worst conditions for the event, or the ideal ones, even I’m not sure which.

I took a few out-of-town trips that weren’t directly related to work, such as a vacation to Myrtle Beach, where I got to assume that I was going to meet my Tethered in an abandoned spook house and get murdered. Of course, that didn’t happen – or did it?

This was also the year where I got to shelter-in-place when the Screenland was nearly hit by a tornado while we were watching the heavy metal horror movie Black Roses. Which, on that subject, this was also the year that I started regularly attending Analog Sunday at the Screenland, which has changed my life in all sorts of good ways.

When October rolled around, I hosted a bunch of stuff, and attended a bunch more stuff, as part of the local Shocktober programming here in town. And then, on my birthday, I got sick. And unfortunately, the cough that came with that illness has carried with me all this time.

The doctors say its post-viral bronchitis. I coughed so much that the nerves that trigger coughing got damaged, and now they just keep coughing. Unfortunately, the more I cough, the longer it will take them to heal, so I’m now taking measures to limit my activity in order to limit my coughing. Fingers crossed, and all that.70675603_10156706916314503_8400888024463835136_n (2)

In one of my earliest memories – this would have been sometime before I was in third grade – I’m sitting on the living room floor, eating a hamburger and watching The Fly on network TV. Not the relatively benign 1958 version with Vincent Price and David Hedison, either. The incredibly gross David Cronenberg one with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis.

In the memory, my mom comes in during some particularly gruesome, gloppy sequence and asks me how I can eat while I watch that, to which I just kind of shrug. Here’s the relevance of this memory: It was my first exposure a certain, generally much older, kind of monster movie.

I’ve said many times in various places that I was born too late to be a true Monster Kid. The days when the Shock Theater package were showing on TV were before my time. When I was a kid, though, we got a channel that showed monster movies on Saturday mornings. Not the classics. No Frankenstein or Dracula, but rather stuff like Squirm and The Food of the GodsWillard and the occasional Godzilla flick.

From my school library, I checked out copies of those Crestwood House monster series books, which were my introduction to the old monster movies of the ’30s, ’40s, and even into the ’50s. I pored over those books, imagining the films that would go with those evocative black-and-white photos. It was my only exposure to those old movies for years, until I was in college.

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This is all a long preamble to the following: Like all kinds of movies, the monster movie qua monster movie has undergone transformations over the years.  As Dario Argento once said, “Horror is like a serpent; always shedding its skin, always changing.”

And monsters, specifically, are uniquely immune to solid definitions. A monster, by its nature, by the very etymology, is an aberration, a breach of the rules.

Also, like all kinds of movies, the monster movie has always been been more than one thing. There is its most simple definition: a movie that has a monster or monsters in it. But then there is also the monster movie as a form, which, I would argue, has transitioned through at least two major shapes over the years.

The “classic” monster movie, as popularized by the Universal monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, The MummyThe Wolf Man, on up through Creature from the Black Lagoon, is a film in which the monster is generally both protagonist and antagonist.

The movie follows the monster and those who are in the monster’s life (or “life”) rather than (or in addition to, or as much as) its victims. The monster, whether by its nature or through hubris, is a figure both tragic and sinister. This is as true of King Kong as it is of Frankenstein.

The second major formulation of the monster movie is one popularized by the “atomic panic” movies of the 1950s – the big bug movies like Them! or Tarantula, early kaiju films like Godzilla, and even alien invasion films like It Came from Outer Space or The Blob.

In this formulation, the monster is often a growing and existential threat. Maybe it will literally wipe out life if it continues to expand, such as in The Thing, or maybe it is a threat to free will and identity, such as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or, hey, The Thing.

The thrust of this form of film is an attempt to stop the monster, usually with some kind of ticking clock where if it isn’t stopped before a certain point it will expand beyond our ability to stop it. In The Thing, this is keeping the monster contained in Antarctica, for instance.

The monster in this form is not generally a tragic figure. With the occasional exception of alien invaders, it cannot (or will not) usually communicate with humans. It is a force of nature, or an animal. In The Monolith Monsters, the eponymous monsters were literally inanimate rocks.

The “big bug” movies of the ’50s, as their informal name implies, often featured normal animals (usually but not exclusively bugs) grown to an enormous size. In the wake of the success of Jaws, these huge animals were often replaced by normal animals simply run amok for whatever reason.

Whatever particular shape they take, the creatures in these movies tend away from the anthropomorphic, in nature if not in form.

From the ’50s on, this second formulation became, in most cases, the default for the monster movie qua monster movie. Even Hammer’s Gothic chillers, which remade the Universal classics for a new generation, sometimes (though by no means exclusively) rendered their creatures more mute and implacable than tragic.

To bring this back around to where I started, one of the things that makes David Cronenberg’s Fly so striking is that it’s that original kind of monster movie.

The 1958 version was too, of course, and it’s far from the only movie from the ’80s that is, but it was unusual enough for its time, and, probably more importantly for this discussion, was my first introduction to that style of movie, the monster movie’s first major form.

Sure, I was probably aware of the plots of Frankenstein or King Kong by the time I saw The Fly, but I had never seen them. Had never seen the pathos of the monster displayed onscreen so eloquently.

I’ve watched it many times since. I’ve also watched the original, and all of its sequel. I’ve experienced all of the original Universal classics, and their silent film predecessors. But watching the David Cronenberg version on Blu-ray today made me think about all of this, so I wrote it down here.

For various reasons, the last couple of months have been largely a dry spell for me when it comes to producing new fiction. But that doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to do without.

“When a Beast Looks Up at the Stars,” one of the four original stories in Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales, was just broadcast at Pseudopod, read by the great Jon Padgett. The story, which is one of the most personal I have ever written, closes out that particular collection, and shows that, while you can go home again, maybe you shouldn’t…

That’s it for new fiction at the moment – “new” here only if you haven’t already bought a copy of Guignol which, while I’m on the subject, if you haven’t already bought your copy of Guignol or, for that matter, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, now is a perfect time! Why? Because Word Horde is having a 20% off sale!

If you do already own copies of both of those books, why not pick up one of their other titles? A Spectral Hue by Craig L. Gidney? John Langan’s award-winning weird masterpiece The Fisherman? A collection by Livia Llewellyn or Nadia Bulkin or Jeffrey Thomas?

If you like my mixture of lost films and weird horror, you might dig Brian Hauser’s Memento Mori. If, like me, you enjoy The Thing and epic stories about rock bands snowed in at hotels, then Tony McMillen’s An Augmented Fourth may be perfect for you!

Frankly, anything Word Horde puts out is probably good. Ross is a hell of an editor – and I don’t say that just because he’s been goodly enough to publish me a few times.

I said that was it for new fiction, and it’s mostly true, but if you just can’t get enough, you can also hear me reading an as-yet-unpublished story at The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird earlier this year in the latest installment of the Outer Dark podcast.

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So, that’s fiction taken care of, now on to movies. I’ve had a few reviews go live lately. In fact, over at Unwinnable, last week was all Orrin Grey all the time. I kicked it off with Knives Out, that rare review of a movie that isn’t at least a few decades old – go see it, if you haven’t, and then come back and read the review. It’s good, I promise. Then I followed that up with a review of the latest of many Blu-ray releases of RoboCop.

From there, you can read about Donald Sutherland’s mustache doin’ some powwow magic with the help of the Long Lost Friend in the underseen 1988 hex murder movie Apprentice to Murder, or read about James Cagney doing his best Lon Chaney impression in 1957’s Man of a Thousand Faces.

Before that, I had reviewed both the latest release of An American Werewolf in London and the entire Ringu Collection over at Signal Horizon. So, if you like me writing about variously old movies, I have got you covered in that department, at any rate.

And if even that isn’t enough for you, you can also listen to me and Tyler Unsell talk about The Tingler and phenomenology on the latest episode of the Horror Pod Class. What more could you ask for?

I still haven’t seen Parasite, which I gather touches on similar topics, but several of my favorite movies of the year so far have had one unshakable central theme in common: Rich people are bad, actually.

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It’s not a terribly different theme from many of the movies that I grew up on. Flicks like They Live and RoboCop were certainly not pro-wealth, but they tended to be more broadly focused on the social condition. They were satires, as willing to indict us for our complicity in society as they were those who used that complicity to prey on us.

These films more closely resemble something like Brian Yuzna’s Society, though none of them have quite such a … gooey central thesis.

This year’s crop of movies have seemed more pointed, their focus sharper. These are not films that are broadly critical of capitalism or American society – though they are sometimes that, too – these are films that take specific aim at the wealthy themselves.

Which makes sense. While the ’80s were the “me generation,” the age of Reaganomics and the kinds of broad social policies that have led us to the place where we are now, this is the age of the 1%. The payoff of those decades of greed and corporate malfeasance, which have seen more and more of the world’s wealth concentrated among a smaller and smaller segment of the population.

The anti-capitalist propaganda of the past warned of the dangers of greed and consumerism. This year’s crop of films are all about sharpening the blades on the guillotines.

In Ready or Not and Satanic Panic, perhaps the least nuanced of the bunch, the rich are different from you and me – they’re literally Satanists. While Ready or Not takes aim at inherited wealth in a way that will be echoed in Knives OutSatanic Panic seems more interested in the nouveau riche, couching its Satanic litanies in corporate buzzwords and the language of the self help guru or the Instagram influencer.

Both have a similar punchline, though: the rich are not wealthy because they earned it, they’re wealthy because they made a (literal) deal with the devil, and they’re willing to do anything to anyone else in order to keep their wealth and station.

The many-layered metaphor at the heart of Jordan Peele’s Us takes different aim at the distinctions between haves and have-nots, but there’s no doubt that among the many thematic strata in that film is one about how prosperity is built (literally, once again) on the backs of those who do not have it – and about the naked self-interest necessary to abandon someone to that fate when you could lift them up, instead.

Even Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark contains a wealthy family that is poisoning the town’s water supply for profit – shades of Flint, Michigan, perhaps – and letting their own daughter become the scapegoat. Not to mention broader anti-war themes and the best use of nostalgia to come out of this current wave of “nostalgia porn” that we’re seeing.

The sharpest of these many pointy implements, however, may be Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, a film that is wearing the clothes of a cozy whodunit over the body of a vicious skewering of wealth, privilege, and, as I said in my review, the fragility and hypocrisy of rich, white neoliberal allyship.

In common, when you scrape away the genre trappings from all these films, is one shared message. We say a lot that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. These films seem to argue that there is also no ethical wealth without equality.

 

Every now and then, I watch a movie that makes me lament that I am no longer actively writing Vault of Secrets columns or working on another volume of Monsters from the VaultShanks is definitely one of those movies.

Some time ago, I decided to try to watch some of the other films of William Castle that I hadn’t yet seen, specifically the ones that come after those contained in Indicator’s brilliant twovolume William Castle at Columbia boxed sets.

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I started with Shanks, his final film as director, because I was fascinated by its logline. A showpiece for famed mime Marcel Marceau, Shanks sees Marceau playing dual roles – a deaf and unspeaking puppeteer, the eponymous Malcolm Shanks, and “Old Walker,” an eccentric scientist who invents a kind of galvanic machine to “puppeteer” dead bodies via remote control.

Old Walker hires Shanks as an assistant, only to die shortly after they have begun their experiments. After a nasty run-in with his wicked step-sister (Tsilla Chelton) and her alcoholic husband (Philippe Clay), Shanks decides to reanimate Old Walker using the same galvinic machine.

Because this is a borderline horror movie – the opening titles call it a “grim fairy tale,” and the film is heavily stylized, think Edward Scissorhands nearly two decades before – things go badly from there, and before long Shanks has a couple of other bodies to puppeteer around.

These bodies are, naturally, the centerpiece of the film, and the physical performances of Marceau and the other two actors playing puppeteered corpses is nothing short of mesmerizing. Their movements are played for comedy more often than not, but the sequence in which Shanks first reanimates Old Walker is a showstopper that reminds us of why horror films should – and often do – rely heavily on mimes, dancers, and the like.

In spite of this and a later sequence in which Old Walker comes out of the grave, Shanks is largely absent any of Castle’s “shock” scenes or usual gimmicks – but that isn’t to say that this is any less a Castle film. It just shares more in common with pictures like his version of The Old Dark House13 Frightened Girls, or Zotz! than House on Haunted Hill or The Tingler.

In fact, Castle does some genuinely impressive work here. Though it is a “talkie,” Shanks is built around Marceau’s silent performance as Malcolm Shanks – and the mummery of him and the other performers as animated corpses. As such, it is often filmed like a silent movie, complete with intertitles.

Though there isn’t a lot of dialogue, the use of sound is frequently incredible. The score by Alex North, was nominated for an Academy Award. It was also made up, partly, of his rejected score for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The music works like gangbusters, but it isn’t alone. All of the sound work is excellent. See a sequence in which the laugh track to a sitcom on TV is synced to the events in the film perfectly.

What prompted me to write this post about Shanks was that, when I posted briefly about it on social media, I was met with a litany of variations on “why have I never heard of this before?”

It isn’t exactly a lost gem, necessarily – it’s uneven and awkward and has a number of other problems that I’ll get into in a minute – but it is definitely a film that more people should have at least heard of. And, like most Castle films, in spite of its myriad problems, I loved it.

So, those problems. It’s uneven, like I said. The last reel of the film takes a hard left turn into some kind of PG-rated Last House on the Left territory, including an implied sexual assault on a young girl. Even before that, though, the semi-romantic relationship between fifty-something Marceau and said sixteen-year-old girl is already cringey in the extreme.

The magic of Shanks comes from its heavily stylized approach and from its incredible physical performances – and, yeah, a little bit from that macabre fairy dust that Castle seems able to sprinkle on even the most humdrum of his films.

As for why more people haven’t heard of Castle’s swan song, I couldn’t say. But they should. It’s a genuinely odd entry in an altogether odd canon. I watched it on VOD, but Olive Films apparently released a Blu-ray that I haven’t seen, so I can’t comment on. I would love it if Indicator decided to continue their run of Castle boxed sets with a few of these later films from his oeuvre.

(The quote that I used in the title of this post comes from William Makepeace Thackeray and is used as a coda to the film.)

 

As any attentive reader already knows, I got sick on my birthday, which was twelve days gone now. I’m still sick. Most of the other symptoms have lessened with time, but I am stuck with a persistent cough that is painful, frustrating, and exhausting. Worse still, it won’t let me sleep.

This sleep issue is, at present, my chief concern. I’m also supposed to record for a podcast early next week, which could be … interesting, given how much coughing I’m still doing.

My second greatest concern is that tonight is Analog Sunday. This may seem a small concern compared to not sleeping, and, indeed, it is. But at the same time … this cold already functionally robbed me of one Halloween; Analog was something of a second chance.

About a week ago, I attempted to reason with this illness, offering it whatever it is that colds want in exchange for being gone by today so that I could go watch a movie about killer scarecrows projected off of a VHS tape. I have my priorities, after all.

Sadly, the pestilence has proven obdurate, and so now we are at an impasse. At this point, if I go to Analog, it will be to spite the malady, and not because I actually feel well enough to do so.

Also, I wouldn’t be sleeping anyway, apparently, though I don’t know how much my fellow Analog habitues would appreciate me coughing sporadically throughout the picture.

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