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Tonight, I recorded an episode of the Horror Pod Class with Tyler (my usual co-host) and Adam Roberts, owner of the Screenland, which you’ve no doubt seen me talk about a lot. I’ll edit this to put up a link when the episode goes live later this week. (The current most recent episode talks about Noroi, another of my favorite films.) [ETA: Here’s the link to the Legend of Hell House episode!]

As we always do on the Horror Pod Class, we discussed a horror movie. Because he was the guest, Adam got to pick, and so we talked about The Legend of Hell House*, which is one of my favorite haunted house movies, and the adaptation of literally my top number one favorite haunted house novel, Richard Matheson’s Hell House.

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If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, please stop reading this right now and go do so. Both are really quite good, and if you like my work, or if you and I share relatively similar tastes in horror, you are unlikely to regret heeding my advice on this, even if the tale doesn’t hit you where you live quite like it does for me.

For those of you who have read it or seen it and are familiar with my work, you may be unsurprised to know that Hell House had a huge influence on me, and on a lot of my stories. Like Clive Barker, the sadistic and psychosexual themes of the novel aren’t what hooked me or what were reproduced in my fiction, even though they are certainly what’s laying around on the surface.

You can find echoes of Hell House in the figure in the chair in “The Granfalloon,” in the history of the house in “Nearly Human,” and countless stories featuring hauntings that aren’t what they appear to be.

Matheson had a keen scholarly interest in spiritualist beliefs, and his fictionalized depictions of those beliefs factor into just about every story I’ve ever written that features spiritualism or seances or anything of the sort. His uncompleted novel Come Fygures, Come Shadowes, about a family of mediums, was the keystone to my as-yet-unpublished short story “On Blueberry Hill.”

I’ve read plenty of other Matheson novels and short stories. I Am Legend is, of course, a classic, and I remember being quite fond of his locked-room magician mystery Now You See It…

And, of course, Matheson was responsible for the screenplays of many of my favorite films. Not just adaptations of his own work, but movies like The Pit and the PendulumThe Devil Rides Out, and so on.

But it was Hell House with its matter-of-fact treatment of the supernatural that nevertheless stripped it of none of its gothic grandeur that left the biggest imprint on my own fiction, and continues to do so to this day. Re-watching and talking about Legend of Hell House just reminded me of how much that was true.

* Not to be confused with The Haunting of Hill House or The Haunting or House on Haunted Hill.

Today, I learned that Stuart Gordon has passed into the Beyond at the age of 72. In a recent (and, as yet, unpublished) interview, Marta Oliehoek-Samitowska asked me about Stuart Gordon, his influence on my work, and why “anyone interested in horror” should see his films. I think I said it as well there as I ever could here, so I’m just going to give you a sneak peek at the (extensive and wide-ranging) interview:

Probably the best thing about Stuart Gordon’s films is the energy of them. Anyone who pays attention to me for very long will discover that I love theatricality; I love it when things brush up against—or stumble all the way over into—camp, and I think some of the best horror out there uses camp, uses familiarity and clichés, like we talked about up above, to put you at ease so that it can sneak in something more subversive or strange than it would otherwise be able to get away with.

Plus, Gordon’s films are just so delightfully lurid and weird. So many horror paperbacks, movie posters, and VHS covers promise this gonzo experience, and so few of them can actually deliver it. Gordon’s films usually can.

If you’re intrigued, you can read the whole interview in Marta’s forthcoming book of interviews and pencil portraits, Horror in the Eye of the Beholder, which is coming out soon, albeit possibly only in digital form.

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Gordon was a visionary, for better or (sometimes, maybe) worse. His films informed the early fabric of my understanding of horror cinema, of my tastes, of my aesthetic, easily every bit as much as someone like John Carpenter.

I joked on social media that “he had so many more uncomfortably horny Lovecraftian movies to show us,” but I honestly don’t know how much of the horny-on-main-ness of Gordon’s films was him and how much was his frequent collaborator, Brian Yuzna. I’m sure it was a little of both.

Gordon (and Yuzna) may have been known for the uncomfortable horniness of their flicks, but I think even that aspect served a purpose besides “the writer’s barely-disguised fetish.” They made the films feel like outsider art – lurid and unsanitized and occasionally problematic, as Lovecraft adaptations probably should be, at least a bit.

If you’re looking for something of Gordon’s to watch today, to mark his passing, you may be surprised to learn that my favorite of his films is neither Lovecraftian nor particularly horny. It’s actually his oddball take on the old dark house genre Dolls, which inspired the title story of my third collection, Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales and which is currently streaming for free on Amazon Prime.

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So, I guess I posted yesterday’s update a day too soon. No, none of us are sick, still, but last night the Kansas City metro area enacted a mandate to shut down all restaurants (except for take-out and delivery), bars, and movie theaters.

That last one, naturally, is the one that I’m here to talk about, though I have friends and loved ones who work at restaurants and bars who will be directly and irrevocably affected by this.

Please note that I’m not saying that it’s not the right thing to do. I’m not an epidemiologist, and I’m not sure anyone knows what the right thing to do is right now. But I do know that local businesses – as well as those who are employed by them and non-local businesses alike – are going to have a tough time in the coming weeks. Hell, we all might.

The Screenland is more than a movie theater for me. It’s a home-away-from-home; a place where found family congregates. The relationships that I’ve made at the Screenland are some of the best ones in my life right now, and the Screenland is one of the best things about living in Kansas City.

Last night, they closed their doors, and right now we’re not sure when they’ll be able to open them again. If you’re local, help out one of the best theaters I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing a movie at by buying a gift card that you can use when this thing blows over. If you’re not, consider donating to help them through a hard time.

We’re all in this together, and hopefully we’ll all pull through together. The Screenland and its people mean a lot to me, so please consider helping them out in this difficult moment.

I missed the official 100th anniversary of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by a couple of days – it was apparently February 26 – but it seemed wrong to let the occasion pass by completely without at least marking it in some way.

Caligari was a film that I became obsessed with years before I ever saw it. Two decades ago, when Mezco Toys was still called Aztech, they released a line of figures based on classic silent horror films, including one of Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, looking a bit like Robert Smith of The Cure.

Cesare was the only one of the so-called Silent Screamers toys I ever bought – a decision I regret to this day, when I would love to get my hands on a Graf Orlok or a Golem. But I also still have the Cesare figure by my desk.

The long, sharp shadows of German expressionism and early silent films have long had a major influence on my own aesthetic, even before I had ever actually seen most of them. Caligari, which I first saw in college, not long after buying that toy, remains a movie that I’ve watched only a few times, and yet one that sticks with me in everything I do.

In part, this is because Caligari is a film that can be enjoyed in still frames almost as much as it can be as a movie. I’ve said before that most entire films aren’t as gorgeous or potent as any given frame of Caligari, and I stand by that.

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A few years ago, I was asked to contribute a story to The Madness of Dr. Caligari, a deluxe anthology of stories inspired by the silent classic, edited by Joe Pulver. The story I turned in, “Blackstone: A Hollywood Gothic,” concerns an ill-fated Poverty Row production of a 1946 movie called The Corpse Walks, which features some familiar figures.

But it’s far from the only story I ever wrote that had Caligari‘s long shadow over it. “Night’s Foul Bird” in Painted Monsters may be more concerned with Nosferatu and Faust and London After Midnight, but there’s no denying that Cesare is in there somewhere, or that the plot of Caligari (and its successors) runs like a dark vein through “Stygian Chambers,” the story I wrote for Pluto in Furs which, when I first started writing it, was going to be named for a line from the Robert Bloch-penned 1962 remake Cabinet of Caligari.

Even early stories like “The Mysterious Flame,” which anchors my first collection, are filled with the shadows of German expressionist cinema in general, with Caligari as maybe its most striking exemplar.

Nor am I likely to extricate myself from those painted-on shadows anytime soon. A hundred years gone by, and they’ve still never made another movie quite like Caligari – and it may be that they never will.

That’s one more Panic Fest in the rear view. A few days ago I wrote about what Panic Fest means to me, but at the time I was only about a day in, so I hadn’t seen very many movies. I’ve since rectified that situation.

This year, I saw thirteen films at Panic Fest, which, if I’m counting correctly, marks the most films I’ve ever watched at one of these in the five or so years that I’ve been going. Of those, I liked all but a couple.

Measuring purely in terms of cinematic quality, this year may have been the best year I’ve ever attended. There weren’t any “killer apps” this year; obvious standouts that left their competition in the dust. Things like One Cut of the DeadTigers Are Not AfraidLowlife, and so on from previous Fests. But there were lots of films that I really liked, and hardly any duds.

Of the thirteen films that I saw, my favorites were Richard Stanley’s Color Out of SpaceExtra OrdinaryVHYesSea Fever, and Disappearance at Clifton Hill. That’s a … very broad cross-section of different kinds of movies.

Clifton Hill is a deliciously low-fi Niagara Falls noir with an unreliable protagonist and David Cronenberg as a retired rescue diver who hosts a podcast from the basement of a UFO-shaped diner. Purely naturalistic and perhaps frustratingly ambiguous at times, but possessed of a real ambiance and genius deployment of its compulsive liar of a main character.

Sea Fever is a straight-faced “The Thing on a boat” movie, only not really and also done remarkably well. The underwater photography is so breathtaking that I might not have minded if there hadn’t been a creature. But fortunately there is, and a big, weird, bio luminescent one at that. Plus, a not-so-subtle message about climate change, before all is said and done.

Extra Ordinary is the British What We Do in the Shadows, if you need me to boil it down to an elevator pitch. Part of what makes it so delightful, though, is how genuine the British ghost story elements it draws from feel.

VHYes, well, I wrote that up for Signal Horizon.

And Color Out of Space, as you’ve probably already heard from people who aren’t me, is one of the best “straight” Lovecraft adaptations we’ve ever gotten, even if it would have been better if someone had put their hand on Nic Cage’s shoulder a few times.

As for the rest, ArtikPornoThe Cleansing Hour, and Synchronic all fared well enough. Really, the only one I’m kicking myself for having seen was The Lodge, which it’s tempting to say got saved for the last night of the Fest so that word of mouth couldn’t poison it, but other people in the theater got more out of it than I did. Anyway, I wrote more about it for Signal Horizon, too, and it should go live on Monday.

I also saw Nightmare Radio, which was a mixed bag with a few really good segments, and The Perished, which tried to tackle a tough subject with seriousness and some strong performances and creature work, but ultimately … I’m not sure what the takeaway was supposed to be.

Now that the Fest is over for another year, it’s time to recover and play catch-up for a few days. I’ll see you all on the other side.

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eye_homepageIt’s that very special time of year again – Panic Fest time! Thursday night was opening festivities featuring Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space, while yesterday (Friday) was the first full day of the Fest. Sadly, I’m out of commission today (Saturday), but I’ll be back at it Sunday and into next week.

I’ll be updating social media with one-sentence or so reviews of everything that I see, so if you want up-to-the-minute updates, keep an eye out there or follow along on my Letterboxd. So far, my favorites of the Fest are Extra OrdinaryVHYes, and the aforementioned Color Out of Space, but I’ve got a lot more movies to go.

I had hoped to be over this cough before Panic Fest rolled around, but it seems that isn’t in the cards. In spite of what several people have now tried to assert, this is not my new identity, and I am not going to become a consumptive Victorian dandy with decoratively bloodstained handkerchief. I will shake this cough eventually, but when is anybody’s guess.

I saw the doctor again on Thursday, and the prognosis continues to be that it’s nothing more serious than post-viral bronchitis – essentially minor nerve damage caused by coughing that is, in its turn, causing me to continue to cough.

Those who have been following along for a while now know that Panic Fest is an emotional time for me. It was years ago, at Panic Fest, that I got the call that began a series of tumbling dominoes that ended with my dad’s death – although, of course, that wasn’t the ending, just the beginning of a lot of work and therapy on my part over the intervening years.

But, thanks to that association, Panic Fest became the last weekend for a very long time that I got to feel “normal” for a couple of days. That isn’t the only reason it’s emotional, though. Not anymore, anyway.

Over the last few years, I’ve developed a new family here in the KC area. They’re scattered and scattershot and they aren’t often in the same place at the same time, but if this new family has a living room, it’s the Screenland Armour. And the one holiday that they all gather for is Panic Fest.

Folks like Adam and Tim and Eli and Andrew and Steph and Bryce and Amy and Liz and Blair and Kaleigh and Adrian and Brock and Viv and Tyler and Greg and Jenius and many, many others. These folks have become my Screenland family, and they mean a lot to me, even if I don’t see them as often as I would like, or always know how to say it.

For a long time, Panic Fest represented the last time I was really happy. The last time I didn’t feel like my skin was just draped haphazardly over a jagged jumble of uncomfortable emotions. Now, though, things are better, cough notwithstanding, and I feel more comfortable with myself than I ever did before. And Panic Fest has come to represent something else, too. A new family, and a new place where I feel at home.

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)